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What Universities Will Look For This Year In College Applications–A Quick Introduction

In Admissions Data for 2013, applying to college, Changes in College Admissions, College Application Data, common application, Getting Into College on June 27, 2013 at 2:59 pm

What universities are looking for starts with what kind of university you are applying to.  In the most basic sense, universities can be divided into two categories when it comes to applications: holistic or objective universities.

In the first case, holistic universities take a “whole person” approach, looking at grades and  (usually) test scores, but also looking at other factors, like essays.  Whether this measures the whole person or not is open to question.

Objective universities use test scores and grades . . . and that’s pretty much it.  With the exception of some specific programs, your academic record is the sole measurement, so no sweating essays and recommendations.  On the other hand, with objective schools, you also have  little or no chance to persuade somebody to give you a chance if your academic record is a little sketchy.  And how well grades and scores reflect your potential is a matter of some debate;  I have written about this and about how college applications are evaluated in earlier posts, and I suggest you read this post from last year before reading what I have to say below:  How College Applications are Evaluated.  I will pause while you click and read . . .

Welcome back.

So let’s turn now to factors that most applicants think are more important  than they really are.  I must caution you before we proceed to keep in mind that, in this post, I am dealing with aggregated numbers, i.e, with averages.  Despite the trends and averages,  there are specific colleges which do emphasize elements that other colleges ignore completely–a college that states diversity as a mission will emphasize this in applications, for example, so being the first in your family to attend, or being a first generation American, may give you some sort of boost.  Other colleges that have small student bodies, a personal approach and active and committed alumni may put an emphasis on a personal interview–in one specific and extreme case, Deep Springs College requires an extended visit to campus, participation in the work and classes there, and a panel interview that can be, well, a bit confrontational, and this panel, which is dominated by students currently in the Deep Springs program, ultimately determines who is admitted after making it to this second round.  But hey, if you do make it into Deep Springs, you are getting a free education at a super elite (and highly iconoclastic) school that sends most of its grads on to the Ivy League or other super-elites for further ausbildung.  And schools which put interviews and personal characteristics at the top of their criteria are rare.

In fact, for most universities, in terms of the activities and qualifications that play a role in the application process,  interviews and class rank are not of significant importance or are not considered.

Surprised?  You have  a lot of company.  I  have some clients who follow their class rank like a gambler staring at the roulette wheel, even after I show them that it won’t really matter, and I have others who really sweat the interview and I have to repeat, over and over, relax, dress decently, smile and all will be well  until I have them hypnotized.

While there are probabilities in admissions, your college applications are not a crapshoot, and unless you suddenly turn into Linda Blair in The Exorcist, (Don’t click this link if you don’t like scary pictures)  or otherwise go out of your way to offend the interviewer, the interview won’t matter  other than as part of your overall expression of demonstrated interest.  And demonstrated interest is important, but an interview is only one of the ways to demonstrate interest to the college.  Talking to any reps the university sends out on the road, to your school or your region, talking with people in the admissions department and in the various programs, visiting the campus, et al, also fit into the category of demonstrated interest.

The reasons for the decline of the interview are multiple, but most importantly come down to money–with the enormous volume of applicants many universities process, it is, for most schools, too difficult to establish and maintain an adequate pool of good interviewers.  Over the years, alumni have become the go-to source for interviewers,  but they are often not really vetted because it is hard enough just to find somebody with the time and desire to do the job.  Interviewers are not paid or get only a nominal remuneration, for the most part.  As applications have soared into the many tens of thousands for elite schools, even after an initial pool of qualified candidates is established, the multiple hundreds to thousands of remaining applicants represent a huge interviewing challenge.  So when it comes to interviewing, my advice is to schedule an interview and follow my mantra, above.  Oh, and be on time.

The decline of class rank as a factor is more complicated.  One reason is the decline in the number of high schools who report class rank.  Put simply, high school administrators grew tired of the bloodletting that occurred over class rank as students vied to be valedictorian and salutatorian, and it’s pretty hard to compute rank in a fair way when comparing students who have, say, the same G.P.A. and same number of A.P. classes but have emphasized different areas.  How would one fairly compare an exceptional arts and humanities student to an exceptional STEM student?  Universities, on the other hand, have de-emphasized class rank for a number of reasons connected to variations in the quality and size of high schools.  The third-ranked student at a small school that is mediocre is not likely to be all that competitive with the third-ranked student at a large and very highly ranked high school.  Or at least it is not possible for the universities to assess a pair or students like these in an objective and accurate way.

Here is a summary of the trends in interviewing:

In 1993, 42 percent of colleges reported that class rank was of considerable importance. By 2011, that had dropped to 19 percent. In 1993, 12 percent of colleges reported that the interview was of considerable importance. In 2011, only 6 percent did.

A more important issue for admission is also a perennial hot button topic:  race (or ethnicity, if you will) which, after this week’s Supreme Court decision, will still be used in admissions–at least in the next couple of years.  The very last legal word has not been said on this matter yet .  . .

But here is the nut of this issue:  ethnicity is not really a major factor in most cases, and for those where it is a factor, this is only true after you qualify and at a particular point in the process with particular schools: before any additional factors are evaluated, the initial pool of candidates is established using GPA and test scores; then essays, activities and other factors, along with race, are used to determine who will be offered admissions, based on a scale that reflects what the university wants and needs.  A truly unqualified candidate is not in this initial pool.  I have written about this in more detail in the post linked above and also in this post:  Seven Rules for College Admissions.

Here is the data that the NACAC study came up with for race and other “personal characteristics” in college applications:

Personal Characteristics and Admissions Decisions, 2011

How Colleges Use Factor First-Generation Status Race or Ethnicity Gender
Considerable Importance 3.5% 4.7% 4.7%
Moderate Importance 22.5% 21.0% 8.2%
Limited Importance 26.0% 21.8% 23.0%
No Importance 48.1% 52.5% 64.1%

For 70-95% or more of the colleges, depending on which factor you look at, it’s not such a big deal, eh?

For the most part, your application  essays are far more important than personal attributes like gender or race, and the essays themselves often tie into or show something of your activities and interests, so you can cover a lot of ground with a good essay. Good essays are particularly important when you are likely to be in the middle of the pack qualifying for the pool and need something to stand out. So after grades, test scores and ongoing activities, you should be looking at developing a good set of essays.  That, I think, is the takeaway here.

To recap and to wrap this post up, the two most important factors in college admissions are, in this order,  grades in college preparatory classes and test scores on the SAT and ACT (AP classes obviously rule the college prep class category, unless you are in an IB program–more about this in a later post).  Following grades and tests in importance are essays, activities, teacher and counselor recommendations (I favor getting both, as long as they are specific and solid), and demonstrated interest also matters to many schools; below these factors in importance, for most schools, are subject test scores, portfolios (though portfolios are a must for some programs and do make a difference if you have something remarkable to offer) and, depending on the school, near the bottom of the priority list in admissions are interviews and personal characteristics, with the exceptions I noted earlier.  Do read the links I posted above if you haven’t already and stay tuned: I’ll be turning my attention to specific application essay topics in the next two weeks as the universities start to post their essay prompts for 2013-2014.

A word of warning, however:  As I start to write about some of the specific posts at elite schools, some of my posts will be available only as excerpted samples on this site; you will need to pay a small subscription fee to gain full access to all posts, via my private site.  It’s only fifteen bucks for the full application year, through April, 2014.  I call that a bargain.  But just to check, feel free to peruse my archives and to click on tags and categories for other posts.

Early College Admissions Statistics For 2013-2014: What It Means For You

In applying to college, college admissions, College Application Essay, College Application Statistics, Harvard Admissions, Ivy League Admissions, Princeton Admissions, Stanford Admissions, Yale Admissions on May 22, 2013 at 4:58 pm

College admissions results this year show that competition for spots at selective and super selective universities is, once again,  increasing.   With yet again a lower ratio of admits to applications at most of the selective schools,  it’s a good time to broaden your list of college application options.

To be more specific, I have traditionally advised that qualified students apply to 8-10 carefully selected schools, using a list that includes a calculated mix, from “reach” schools to  sure thing schools.  If you are applying in 2013-2014,   I think you are going to need  a longer list, something more like 12-15 schools, including some out-of-state and at least a couple of international schools–particularly if your short list includes the highly selective schools.  Even if looking outside the U.S.  sounds unappealing now, you may change your mind–and if you don’t prepare, you won’t apply (and if you don’t apply, that door won’t be there to open if you do change your mind later).

Before I get to specific results on some of the most competitive schools, here’s the gist:  the top 10-15% of the high school class across the country are applying to the most selective colleges.  Some students below this cohort do apply and get in, but usually because they are in some sense an exception, whether through athletic or other talents.  When we shift to the super selective colleges (top-tier Ivy League, Stanford, et al), the top 10% of students are applying, and of that top 10%, less than 10% are accepted.  In other words, getting a seat at the most competitive schools has become a bloodbath primarily between the top 1% of all students in the country.  Hyperbolic?  Well, no real blood is shed, but even accounting for the gamesmanship among universities as they try to increase the appearance of selectivity, the trends are sobering.  Here’s some specifics:

Columbia’s overall admit rate for 2013 was 7.42%; Princeton came in at a 7.29% overall admit rate; Yale reported 6.72%; Harvard 5.79% and Stanford, 5.69%.  Looking at another good, public option, in the University of California system, Berkeley accepted 20.83% and UCLA 20.10%,  still pretty selective numbers, but compared to the top Ivies and Stanford, almost comforting.  Almost.

Ouch.  But in addition to checking out this year’s results, you also should be looking at the trends.  Here is a three-year sample of results, at a wider selection of the selective schools:

Overall Admissions Rates by Year

Columbia– 2011: 6.93%; 2012: 7.42%; 2013:  6.89%

Harvard– 2011: 6.17%; 2012: 5.92%; 2013: 5.79%

Northwestern– 2011: 18.03%;  2012: 15.27%; 2013: 13.90%

Princeton–2011: 8.39%; 2012:  7.86%; 2013: 7.29%

Stanford–2011:  7.10%; 2012: 6.61%; 2013: 5.69%

University of Chicago–2011: 16.29%; 2012: 13.24%; 2013: 8.81%

U. C. Berkeley–2011:  25.54%; 201221.13%; 2013: 20.83%

U. C. L. A.–2011:  25.28%; 2012: 21.27%; 2013: 21.10

Yale–2011: 7.35%; 2012: 6.81%; 2013: 6.72%

Yep, Stanford is looking like a good bet to drop below the 5% admit rate first, and will do so next year or the year after, given the trend, with Harvard right behind them.  (All those tech start-up wannabes, perhaps.)

What to do in response to these daunting stats?

My preliminary response is:  By all means, apply to your dream school(s),  even if some of them seem improbable; just be sure, as I suggested earlier, that you widen your net and look outside your early list, in particular adding some of those  international options, like the University of British Columbia, McGill,  et al.  There are hundreds of thousands of students around the world having a great experience and getting their money’s worth at non-brand name universities.

Of course you should always compare your own stats to those of the schools you are looking at to get an idea of what’s a reach and what seems a sure bet as you make a balanced list of schools.  But just as important as stats in making a good list of schools is a clear understanding of your own needs and motivations, your goals and what you will need to reach them.  Reassess yourself, particularly why you want to attend any of the more selective schools.  Then reassess the schools themselves, particularly by looking at the programs you are interested in–note that the specific programs or majors should be the main reason you want to attend school x or  school y.

I will, in future posts, be unpacking all of these aspects of the college search in more detail, for they are each becoming more  complex every year.  In just one example of what I mean, I find it harder and harder to offer specific advice about the job market of the future to my clients.   Things are changing fast as everything from outsourcing to automated and robotic systems  impact the traditional white collar professions.  You might want to think about these things as you consider possible majors.

Algorithms aren’t just driving experimental automobiles–they are sorting and analyzing more and more information in areas that once required  highly intelligent–and college-trained–humans.  It won’t just be taxi drivers and truck drivers who will wonder what happened to their professions in ten or twenty years.  From the grunt work of legal searches to patient assessment to you name it, the jobs of middle class and upper middle class professionals are also entering a period of enormous change, and not just from automation.  Plenty of highly skilled, English-speaking people overseas can process and analyze the files and data that are the jobs of many people here today.

These and other trends are clear, and choosing a specific profession these days is starting to seem like picking stocks, with fewer and fewer sure-bet blue chips available.  So I encourage you to think more in terms of developing a knowledge base and some skill sets as you consider programs and schools.

In terms of selecting  specific schools, one thing I can say with certainty is that too many of the college applicants that I have been dealing with in recent years are buying too much into  marketing and imagery.   Many feel that only by  going to school x or y  will  they get the special training and connections they need to succeed.   Sure, Harvard, Yale, Stanford have great programs, and there are networking advantages that arise in some programs in these schools, but for every Zuckerberg, there are 10,000 others struggling to pay down student loans while also holding down a couple of jobs–they would have had a lot less to pay off if they had gone to a cheaper school with less marquee appeal. (I’ll be discussing expenses in a later post.  Other discussions, such as the overblown college is a waste of time for young genius entrepreneurs  meme can wait for much later).

There are, of course, a variety of strategies you can consider once you’ve done that thorough self assessment.

But first, here’s a few other stats to consider–let’s start with the University of British Columbia, generally considered the #2 university in Canada and ranked #30 in the world by the Times World University Rankings.  UBC has an average GPA of about 3.6 on recent admits and about half of domestic applicants were admitted;  McGill, the top university in Canada, had an average GPA in the same range– I hasten to add that these Canadian schools do use a sliding scale based on the specific programs you apply to; some programs will be more difficult to get into than others, and they look for different kinds of preparation.  For an example of what I mean, go to this link for McGill, where a table will lay out basic application requirements:  McGill Admissions.   You’ll pay about as much at these universities as you would in state at some of our public schools, and they match or are cheaper than out of state tuition for most American schools.  I’ll offer more analysis on costs in future posts.

If you are open to an international setting, also consider  Great Britain–universities like St. Andrews and the University of Edinburgh have been accepting increasing numbers of Americans.  Edinburgh, as an example, looks for a GPA over 3.0 and solid SAT scores–at 1800 or above. Compare this to, oh, Princeton, with an average GPA of 3.9 and a lower range SAT score around 2100–your chances of getting in with 2011 and a 3.9 are very iffy–or look at Stanford, where 50% of the students have a 4.0 or better, with the SAT  scores similar to Princeton.    Not to mention the price tag for tuition.

A 3.7 with a 2000 SAT, on the other hand,  is a shoo-in at many excellent international schools. In fact, I had several 3.5 range clients very happily accept admissions to Canadian and English universities this year.   And these are bargain in many other ways as well.  More on all of this soon . . . And on getting your essays started.

Check back in with me periodically over the coming months; I will be adding posts,  once a week, on average, well into the summer.   In addition, you may e-mail me with specific questions–I do develop blog topics as a result of client and public requests.  Do keep in mind, however, that as I begin to offer more specific advice, particularly on essay development for some of the more challenging, university-specific prompts (Chicago, anyone?), that some posts will be fully available only for a (small) fee, on my private blog, though you will be able to read an excerpt here.  You can also contact me to subscribe to my private blog, with full access to all posts for this year and in the archives.  Cheers.

The Secret of College Admissions: How College Applications Are Evaluated

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, common application, Common Application Essays on March 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Who should read this post:  Anyone who will use the Common Application; anyone who wants to apply to an Ivy League school or to any other elite school;  anyone who wants to understand how college applications are evaluated; anyone who needs to write a college application essay; in fact, anyone applying to any college in the United States should read this post.

Objective Evaluations

This post will be focused on undergraduate evaluations.  For graduate evaluations, look at specific posts, such as my Brief on the Law School Application.

First things first:  there are two basic ways to evaluate college applications, holistically or objectively.  Without digressing into discussions of the relative fairness of standardized tests or the objectivity of grades, the objective method focuses on grades and test scores “only.”  This seems like a simple and fair way to evaluate, but it’s not actually as simple as it seems.

An example of a system that uses this method is the California State Universities, including  specific schools, such as the two Cal Poly campuses, Long Beach State, et al.  These schools do not require any supplemental material, such as essays, with the exception of some specific programs and specific categories of students, such as transfer students for  the Architecture major at Cal Poly, or Graphic Arts and Fine Arts majors at most schools–Cal State Long Beach is an example–for which portfolios and other supplemental materials are required. (CSLB is ranked #58 in the country for fine arts, and it’s “in” Los Angeles, which also puts you in one of our big art markets.  There are only a few Ivy League schools in the rankings above CSLB and a couple of U.C. schools, if that gives you some perspective.  I have more to say about having some perspective and widening your search below as well as in my last post, where I discussed evaluating schools based on majors and cost.  See the U.S. News rankings here for more details on the rankings in Art).

Special Admissions Categories in Objective Schools

Objective schools, like the holistic schools,  do set aside places for various categories each year, from athletics to out-of-state students, among other categories; individual departments may ask for spots to be set aside for particular kinds of students as well, and these numbers change from year to year.  This is not widely understood–many people assume that objective schools only look at tests and grades, but  even this so-called “objective” evaluation is more complicated than it seems, and not just because other factors than your grades and test scores may matter.

Even your grades are open to interpretation, based on factors like your class rank and the profile of your school, both of which can also factor into an “objective” assessment.  If you are a top ten-percent student  at a good high school and you score well on standardized measurements, that means something different than the same ranking at a low-scoring high school.  So a grade is not just a grade and a class rank is not just a class rank.  On the other hand, a computer can do almost all of this processing as the school tweaks the software to meet the needs that year, and they have profiles on most high schools based on applications and data on students who enrolled in the past.  Not a lot of direct human intervention is needed, aside from specific categories of students the school will seek that year, and even then, the initial analysis is mostly automated.

Holistic Evaluations and Common Application Schools

Evaluations at holistic schools are even more complex.  So-called “subjective” elements, such as essays, play an important role.

An easy way to quickly distinguish between objective and holistic schools and systems is this:  if they require essays for all applicants, they are holistic.  The most well-known holistic application is the Common Application, so I will simply quote it here to define the holistic approach:

Membership is limited to colleges and universities that evaluate students using a holistic selection process. A holistic process includes subjective as well as objective criteria, including at least one recommendation form, at least one untimed essay, and broader campus diversity considerations. The vast majority of colleges and universities in the US use only objective criteria – grades and test scores – and therefore are not eligible to join. If a college or university is not listed on this website, they are not members of the consortium. Sending the Common Application to non-members is prohibited.

So any Common App school is de facto a holistic school.  But does that mean that all the holistic schools are the same?

No.

For example, some holistic schools use committees which discuss many applicants, particularly in Early Decision.  Some use a small number of readers–two or three, most commonly–and a kind of referee.

Let’s look at the last kind first, which I will call the triumvirate model.  In this evaluation,  your file,  including various test and grade information, letters of recommendation and essays,  most often gets two readers who give it an evaluation; if both give it a clear thumbs-up, determined by some high baseline number that is a composite of the different parts of the file, then you are in. Assume for this example that the school uses a 1-9 scale and that the cutoff for definite admissions is a rating of 8 out of 9.  If one reader gives it clear approval–giving it a 9 out of 9 overall rating, for example–but the other reader gives it, say, a 7 out of 9, then the file would get a third reading from the “referee,” who could even be the dean in charge of Admissions, though in a large institution, might be an assistant of some kind.  They won’t generally just do an average of the two readers. An 8 and a 9 would be in, but the 7 in the example above would probably trigger a third reading by a final arbiter.

And less tangible factors play a role in each reading.  This is one of the reasons why I have spent so much time in earlier posts discussing the ancient idea of the rhetorical triangle and have focused on how to approach your audience in your essays.  Grabbing a reader with your essays will help if other parts of your information are a bit weak.

Grades and test scores are still the first consideration in the holistic evaluation, but they will evaluate other factors for all applicants, not just those fitting a category they want to emphasize in admissions.  Like the objective evaluations, the first thing that holistic schools will look at is the SAT/ACT and GPA/class rank numbers.  But essays, letters of recommendation, a transcript trajectory  showing that the student has taken five “solid” subjects every semester, taking on challenges and steadily increased the difficulty of classes, all of these things matter.  And the personal, “gut’ response of the reader matters.

It is here that the application essays, recommendations, the summary of an interview, if there was one, and other personal information can play a role.  In particular, strong essays that click with other elements of the admissions information you give can turn your reader into an advocate in a committee discussion and in the notes they append to your file.

Institutional Priorities and Special Categories

As I mentioned earlier, needs within the institution also establish priorities.  For example, a university may decide that certain factors should be weighted more heavily to bring in students who will add something to the institution.  Maybe the college has started a cycling team and wants to recruit good cyclists and has applicants who did well in the Junior racing series of U.S. Cycling.   An applicant like this may have SAT scores a hundred points below the average, as well as having a few B’s and maybe a C, and he or she may not have a wide selection of outside activities, but because he -or she–fits this category established as a priority, he will be approved right away.  More obvious are the big team sports, which seek athletes who can compete at whatever level the university fits, but the school might also want actors or singers or brilliant mathematicians who are otherwise relatively mediocre academically.  Up to 40% of spots at some holistic schools may be held for special categories.

Not fair, you say?  Too subjective? Maybe, but employers do this all the time, looking for basic skills but also for less tangible elements, like “leadership ability” and being a “team player.”   Most universities using holistic evaluations do have a category for “leadership” or for the contribution the applicant is likely to make to the campus community, and these traits can be measured in ways that may not seem obvious to a layman.  Interviews do matter in making these determinations, for those schools that use interviews.

Even more aggravating to the layperson may be the idea that a “legacy” student, one whose relatives, brothers, sister, cousins, parents or significant donor uncles get priority for admissions.  Not fair, again?  Maybe.  But in an era when tax dollars for education are much diminished and when many private school endowments are depleted, the institution has a right to please donors or simply to create a grateful alumni pool from which it can draw support.  Money not only talks, it can  determine who walks in the door.

All of the factors I outline above and many others may come into play in a holistic evaluation. Which are most important is  determined on an annual basis by the indivdual institutions, and as the class traits change during the process of admission, the weighting given to various factors can also change.  So what is the secret to admissions I promised?  Read on:  I’ll get to that (cue the suspenseful music).

Committee Evaluations

In addition to using a limited number of readers and a “referee,” as in the “triumvirate” system,  some holistic schools use committees in which a larger number of readers convene to discuss applicants–say nine people.  This is the committee system.  Typically a university cannot do this for every applicant–a committee is too slow and cumbersome for the thousands and thousands of apps that most universities receive today– so what you end up with is a hybrid system.  The “referee” or judge used in the reader model is replaced largely by the committee, who meet to discuss students who are in a gray area, not quite in but not out either.  In the early stages of the application process, as when the Early Decision applications have come in, the committee will discuss specific cases who applied for Early Decision and who have merits but also have shortcomings, and in doing so help establish parameters for the current year’s evaluations as applications continue to come in.  The Dean in charge of admissions would generally chair this committee, and in this case would serve as the final judge and arbiter in the event of a close call.   In  Early Decision, many of the students who are judged by the committee will have a chance to be considered again as the Regular Decision applications come in, or in the next round with a school that uses Rolling Admissions.

In addition to discussing individual students, this committee, at its early meetings and as the year progresses, will be looking at statistics, such as the average SAT and GPA of its applicants, and this discussion will occur with one eye on the ratings the institution itself is getting from, most importantly, the U.S. News and World Report’s annual report on and ranking of universities, but also other ratings and evaluations.  They do care about P.R.  They will want to be either holding their own or moving up in rankings such as these and that will influence their choices as the year moves forward and as their own stats evolve.

This is why your chances of enrollment can actually change during the application season, and this makes for a difficult calculus for all but the best and most unusual students.

Know this also:   many universities use outside or external readers to assess applications.  U. C. Berkeley, for example, has been doing this for some time. They simply can’t afford to keep enough full-time people on staff year-round to account for the massive workload of the applications season.   And this will be increasingly true due to the rising number of applications at selective schools and the increasing budget pressures they face.  The material in your applications must speak to multiple readers, many of whom will never meet or talk to each other about you and none of whom you are ever likely to meet.

So now for the secret to admission–you can’t know what they want.  Give up on secrets.  If you feel like I suckered you into reading the post, at least you know something of value.

Keep in mind, for holistic evaluations and supplementary materials, that everything you write must be designed with your audience in mind.  At the same time,  you can’t change yourself to pander to a reader.  This sounds like a paradox, but you are making choices about what to share and how to present yourself all the time, and you alter your “personality” in significant ways when you talk to your peers informally and when you talk to, say, a teacher–but you still show aspects of your authentic self.  So you already know something about appealing to your audience.

If you want some certainty about your chances of admission, you need to  be one of the top ten or fifteen students at a very good school, get good SAT scores and write very good essays.  See the various sources I mentioned in my previous post to look up what a competitive SAT is at various schools.    If your school is not so good, be in the top five or three students.

If you are like most people and do not fit into these categories,  the problem then has to do with strategy but also with your own desire.  You will suffer in direct relation to how strongly you want something you may not get.  I suggest that a strong dose of perspective will help you.  Yes, an elite school is a nice thing on a resume, but it doesn’t guarantee much of anything after your first job.  It may help you get your foot in the door at a place that might otherwise not have looked at you, and the various Old Boys and Old Girls networks of elite schools may help you as your career moves forward, but the successful people I know were not successful because they went to a particular school.

If skills are what you want, you can get a great education at hundreds of schools outside of the Ivy League, Stanford, U.S.C. and the University of California system (the most popular examples in my area).  You need to expand your college search if you are only looking at the elite schools.  If you have a 3.9 and think going to Amherst instead of Princeton amounts to a failure, you are probably going to inflict unnecessary pain on yourself.

Be sure to consider individual majors and programs as you research schools.  As an example, I would recommend looking at the schools listed above Cal State Long Beach  in the Fine Arts major I linked above.  Count the Ivies that are above C.S.U.L.B.  This is an instructive exercise which can be repeated in many majors and may help you relax.  I talk about this at length in multiple posts, including my last post, in which I discuss options for students in the Western U.S.  Don’t give up on your most desired schools,  by any means, but do add some schools that you know you have a good profile for.

As for increasing your chances, look at your “objective” measurements and, if  you want to improve your SAT scores, for example, you should first focus on classwork and practicing the actual test by getting the College Board’s SAT book, which as of the last edition, has ten practice tests.  Take them all in the year before your first (or next) SAT test.  Research shows that taking actual tests under test conditions  is the best way to improve test scores (Don’t give yourself all day to take the practice tests–use the official time requirements and do it all at once).  Test boot camps do have bang for the buck, but spending about thirty bucks on a book will also yield good results, for a factor of magnitude less money than a boot camp.

And that is good advice for everybody.

One final thing about the elephant in the room which I have so far ignored:  ethnicity, otherwise known as race.  It is a factor in establishing special categories and it is the most important at many schools, but it is only one category.  When I hear somebody complaining that “race” eliminated them, I have to point out that their athletic ability or inability to sing or to calculate probabilities in their heads also eliminated them. As did their grades and supplementals.   I will write about ethnicity soon, as much is likely to change soon, now that the Supreme Court has decided to hear a Texas case challenging the use of race in admissions.

Researching and Selecting Colleges: Go West, Young Person

In applying to college, college admission, Researching Colleges, university application information on February 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Update on this post for 2018–A lot has changed, but my basic stance remains the same–you can save a lot of money by looking to public, western universities.  I will write soon about foreign options-and not just in Canada–but if you are out West, take a look below.  And if you are not, look nearby.  UMass Amherst, great school, much easier admit than any Ivy, well-known regionally and more and more well-known internationally. 

As for changes out west in 2018, among other things, the WUE tuition reduction program for students out West has been dialed way back at many schools, but Arizona State is still a big exception in every way and has some really solid programs in tech as well as the usual suspects in business and the humanities.  They are going with scale but in creating separate campuses and building up the Honors college, they have it going on. 

Okay, Jumping back in time now–

Who should read this post:  anybody who wants to reduce tuition costs; high school Juniors and Sophomores anywhere; community college students; anybody who wants to figure out which majors at which college in the West are most in demand (most impacted) and so are the hardest to get into;  students in any western state; cowboys and girls trapped on the East Coast; Beat poets who need an excuse to go on the road.

Researching Colleges:  Some Sources and Activities

I will start with the basics in this post and then quickly get into strategies for finding cheap tuition and good programs in many majors across the West, from Alaska to California and from Hawaii to New Mexico.

Here are three things you should be doing if you are a high school Junior or Sophomore or a Junior/Community College student in the early stages of planning for college admissions:

1. Do some research on majors.  I will address this separately for those of you who have not yet examined yourself and the available fields of study.

2. Start exploring colleges by going to sites like the Princeton Review and getting books like Princeton Review’s The Complete Book of Colleges; Princeton Review’s Best 376 Colleges is also a good place to get going as it is more selective than The Complete Book of Colleges, which can be overwhelming.  The Best 376, like most other college guide books, has a website which is easy to search and gives some information for free;  see the website here at The Best 376 Colleges.  I also like the Fiske products; though they are not as comprehensive, their opinions are useful–even when I don’t agree with what they say, they give me things to think about. (Note that many titles have changed, mostly by adding to the number of schools covered in the last few years.)

You should use a variety of factors to  match yourself to colleges, but start by looking at their GPA and SAT/ACT scores for entering students. Come up with a short list of your most preferred colleges–At this point, you might find dozens of colleges, but by the time you start to fill out applications, I recommend 10-12 total, and about 8 “most preferred;” you should include 2-3 schools which seem to be a reach in terms of entrance requirements.  Be sure to consider affordability when you compile this list and, in addition to the “reach” schools, include three schools which are both affordable and easily in the range of  your GPA and test scores.  You will need to do some guesswork here if you have not taken the SAT and ACT.  I know that is a lot to consider, but right now you are in the early stages, so don’t put on the blinders, and stay relaxed.  This stage can be a lot of fun if you treat it as an opportunity to do some armchair traveling.

You should also keep an eye out for visits by college representatives to your campus and, for colleges you already are interested in, you should check their websites–some schools visit  particular regions intensively while others are more like rock stars (or hip hop stars or whatever), visiting only a few venues to which you must travel.  If you do go to a presentation, try to introduce yourself and follow up with an e-mail to the presenter.  The more competitive the school, the more important it is that you have shown interest during the application process.

 When you have a list of schools that you like and that seem like  a good fit, you should add schools which are out of your comfort zone in the sense that are out of state or in a state you have not yet considered.  The rest of this post and the tools I suggest will focus specifically on western states, but the states involved include everything from Hilo  to Fargo, so there should be something for all but the most East Coast Preppy among you.

3. So step 3 is to look for schools which are a good match for you but which are out of state.  This is especially true for residents of California and our brethren on the East Coast,  places which have, for the most part, higher tuition and higher living expenses than do other, western states.  I will focus on tools for researching and evaluating western colleges for the remainder of this post.

What About Out-of-State Tuition?

But wait, you protest; isn’t the tuition for nonresidents much higher?  If I go to Oregon or Washington or Arizona (etc, et al) won’t I pay even more than I would in my home state?   The answer is maybe.  Yes, out-of-state tuition can be prohibitive in any state, but there are exceptions and more importantly, there are local and regional programs which alleviate or eliminate the extra cost.

As an example some of the smaller Oregon colleges–and a few of these are very good schools–have been particularly aggressive in recruiting students from California, offering in-state Oregon tuition to out-of-state students.  More generally, the  Western Undergraduate Exchange program can also drastically reduce costs at many colleges in many majors.  So next you should:

Reduced Tuition for Students Living in the West; Evaluating Impacted Majors

3.  Go to the Western Undergraduate Exchange website.  You can click on the link I provide here.   This lists schools participating and allows you to examine schools which participate.  You can check them by major, as the availability of WUE tuition support depends partly on the major.

The WUE is highly informative in another way–you can look at most colleges in the West and figure out which programs are looking to recruit students; put another way, you can see which programs are most impacted, meaning are hardest to get into, for the majors which interest you. Most of the WUE support will not be for majors which have too much demand or for which the college, for whatever reason, wants to help out-of-state students get into.

There may be  a few majors in which the universities have specific reasons for promoting out-of-state students even if the major is in high demand, but this is not the rule. As an example, History majors are still relatively common and many of the popular  WUE campuses do not offer a discount for History majors because, well, they have enough already from inside the state and have no reason to encourage others to apply.  For a more hip example, if you look up some of the Digital Arts and Computer majors, you can deduce how in demand they are, at which schools, which tells you not just if the WUE will help you but will also suggest  how demanding the admissions requirements are for these majors at these schools.  It might be much harder, for example, to get into the Digital Arts program at the University of Oregon than it would be to major in Music there.  Some colleges do not yet offer a Digital Arts Major, so check with the college website as well–they may not offer it yet, so it won’t show up on the WUE list.

I will go into using the major selection as a strategic move when applying  in later posts, though I have addressed it in briefly in earlier posts on this site.

4. Identify at least 4-6 colleges which are out-of-state a which are a good match for you in terms of GPA and test scores.  Hopefully you used the search by major tool on the WUE site and fiddled with different configurations to look at whether various majors and colleges participated in the WUE program.

I recommend not applying to more than ten colleges from your final list, with twelve being the highest number you should apply to (more about that in another post), so in the coming months, you should continue to research colleges.


Other Factors to Consider:  Would You Want To Live There Under Other Circumstances?

5. Consider factors you have not yet considered:  weather is important, as are other kinds of “climates” like the social climate and the political climate, as well as the potential for regional connections.  Is this a party school or an academic school or a place with both good academics and a good social life?  Is there an arts community? Are there opportunities to see music and theater?   What kinds of companies show up at job fairs and recruitment visits?  You should look up the city or town on wikipedia and other sites, and you should go to student review sites such as unigo–keep in mind the limitations of these sites, however–most of these students are evaluating without much direct experience with other schools, which makes many of their comparative evaluations suspect.  Also, research on user reviews shows a bias toward negative reviews.  And you should, if possible, visit the the school and explore its setting.  I mean the physical school, not just the website.  I would not want to enroll in the University of Washington, for example, without checking out Seattle, at least for a couple of days.  Especially if you are from a sunnier climate.

More Thoughts On The Problem Essay

In applying to college, common application, Common Application Prompt Two, Issue of Concern Essay on July 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Who should read this post:  anyone who needs to write about a social, environmental or just big problem. This post was originally written when the Common App asked that applicants write an essay about a problem they would like to solve–a question that is no longer on the Common App, but the advice here is still relevant, and so are some of the topics.  Read on for more, and for a link to the “beauty queen” trap that this essay contains.

The last couple of posts have dealt with strategy for Common App Prompt Two and have analyzed several topics in depth. I recommend that you have a look at them. I think of Prompt Two as the Big Problem prompt–though if you are involved in a local issue and well-versed in it, a “small” problem can be a brilliant choice.  I will address the local problem as a topic in my next post.

In this post, I will more briefly consider a number of additional topics which I have seen used recently to address Prompt Two.

Some global considerations for this prompt: first, remember that you are developing a form of argument which certainly includes an analysis of cause and effect and which should have a solution to the problem discussed. If you prefer narratives or don’t have an existing interest in and basic knowledge of a topic of local, national or international importance, move on to the other prompts. See my previous posts about other risks of this prompt, such as the “beauty queen” trap.

Remember that the prompt is one thing, the topic you choose another. The number of topics possible for an argument addressing Prompt Two is as large as the number of problems in the world. This is as good a thing for an essayist as it is a bad thing for the world at large. Therefore, try to be sensitive–you are writing about something that may be a very real source of suffering for others.

Below is  a list of essay topics addressing this prompt which I have seen in the last year, along with questions and considerations for these topics; keep in mind that Prompt Two more than any other Common App prompt demands knowledge, the marshaling of empirical facts and, most likely, some time spent researching:

1. The problem of food shortages and famine

Hunger, like poverty, has always been with humanity. Keep that in mind. Any solution you come up with can improve things but don’t try to end world hunger forever in a 500 word essay. There are always complicating factors to consider. In recent years the U.S, one of countries which is an important grain exporter, has devoted more and more corn to fuel production. The policies and economics of this are complicating food production around the world.

In addition, many food experts say that we are leaving an era of surplus for one of shortages. Political and economic disruptions and, more importantly, weather–or changes in climate–in the last few  years have caused regional crop failures. Russia, another country which exports grain, last year suffered a record-setting heat wave and fires which caused it to curtail exports.This year the grain belt of the United States is suffering under its own record-setting heat wave, and as I write this, corn is set to pollinate in several states but the heat lingering this weekend will severely hinder this process and possibly decimate this year’s corn crop. Some agricultural areas of the U.S. are facing a drought as bad and long as that of the Dust Bowl Era.

In short, we face a period in which agriculture will have to adjust rapidly. Don’t naively assert that simply making distribution more “fair” or tweaking a few genes will make everything better.  Starvation-driven migration and political instability is likely to become more common in the near future and hunger itself could complicate the problem of feeding the hungry as it disrupts social structures and distribution networks.    Sorry to be a bummer, folks, but it’s just so–so you don’t want to oversimplify.

2. Renewable Energy

It isn’t easy being green. All human energy production has negative consequences–weighing alternatives is a matter of assessing costs and benefits. Wind turbines, for example, consume no fuel as they produce electricity, but they do kill thousands of birds a year in the large installation at the Altamont Pass area of California, which, as it turns out, was built on a major migration for raptors. Oops. That’s the point: think critically and research possible problems–unintended consequences are those we don’t foresee or take seriously enough.

Know about your topics and subtopics. Solar power takes different forms–primarily, it can be dispersed (on rooftops, for example) or centralized (like the large solar installation near Barstow, CA). Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, though both will require that our power grid be restructured. In addition, some sort of production must occur independent of sun and wind for times when they don’t produce energy.

Don’t forget that all technology requires resources–batteries, for example, are a way to store electricity for windless times and nighttime, but lithium batteries require . . . lithium, among other relatively rare or difficult to produce elements. Check up on its availability. How big is the supply of materials needed for alternative energy technology? Think big but look at the details. I recommend the book Out of Gas for its brilliant discussion of our current energy conundrum, including the physics of various alternatives and of our environment. It is concise and brilliant.

3. Nuclear Energy Solves Our Problems

Tsunami in Japan. That’s what comes to mind, right? Up until a couple of years ago, nuclear was making a comeback as a Big Solution to Big Problems, but the toxic nature of nuclear fuel and the necessity to store waste for periods of time longer than human civilization has so far existed make nukes look a lot less attractive these days, especially  given the surprises that the universe has recently reminded us it can throw at us. Take Diablo Canyon, on the California coast, for example. It will be relicensed soon, having run through most of its originally planned life span, despite the fact that it lies within a few minutes drive–or sail–of multiple potentially dangerous earthquake faults, none of which you have ever heard of but any of which could damage this plant and the infrastucture around it. What, Mr. B, are you a no-nuker? Yes and no. What I am saying is that this is a difficult topic, at least for this year, unless you happen to be interested in nuclear physics or in engineering in the nuke field. This means that this could be an interesting challenge for you.   Maybe you even have some ideas for big changes or an idea that might crack the problem of cold nuclear fission. Great! Go for it. Do not be dismissive of those who disagree or fear this technology, though–they have a lot of evidence to justify their fears, at the moment.

4. Sovereign Debt, aka National Debt or Just Debt in General (Hello, Detroit)

A hot topic among the politically minded. In later posts, I will discuss the uses of analogies at more length, but I will point out some problems with tendency some have of comparing our national budget to a family budgetThe analogy makes the assumption that all families do balance their budgets every year.  Without even looking at whether the United States Government can be compared to a family, we can see that this analogy has problematic assumptions.  Many families in this country have had economic troubles lately, and many have used credit cards or borrowed money to get through the rough times as opposed to, say, automatically foreclosing on their house  because a breadwinner lost a job.

Looking at the other side of the analogy, what would a country with cap do if, or example, it were experiencing income problems like the family above and at the same time it were attacked by another country?  Should the country surrender instead of borrowing some money?     Unless you are very serious-minded, have studied this at length with someone who has  expertise (an excellent Gov or History teacher as well as a good Econ class would be advisable), and are committed to deep and nuanced thinking, stay away.

Find John Lanchester’s IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay–reviewed in this link–if you want to read up on this.  Then again, maybe that would turn this into an intellectual experience essay. . .

5. Immigration

This is a favorite of the louder voices on both sides of the opinion pages and in both camps of the land of talking heads, which should already be a warning to you. Who is your college reader going to be, anyway? Do you know what the political outlook of this person is? Unless you are well-versed and can present a very balanced discussion which looks at not both but the many sides of this issue, Stay Away.

6. Terrorism and Extremism

Terrorist acts are a result of extremism and, as the news this week from Norway shows,  both of these phenomenon are universals–that is, they appear across cultures and historical periods.  Anarchists in the 19th and early 20th Century  committed terrorist acts and assassinations in the United States, across Europe and in Russia.  The September 11th attacks had precursors in the decades leading up to this century, including an attack by nominally Christian American, in Oklahoma City.  The use of violence and the threat of violence to spread fear is as ancient as agriculture and the causes of this in the modern world are many.  Read up and think long if you want to tackle this topic.  The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman, discusses the Anarchist movement of the 19th and early 20th Centuries (among many other things); The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright gives an excellent overview of so-called Islamic terrorism.  The content of these two books provide and interesting contrast between anarchy, an essentially areligious, even anti-religious movement which spawned terrorist acts and the ostensibly religious terrorism of Al Quaeda and groups like it.  Balance and a historical perspective are requirements for an attempt at an essay on this.

8. Social Justice Topics

Some of the topics above could fit under the umbrella of social justice, as could topics which I have discussed at length in earlier posts.  Social Justice is a recently coined phrase–justice is clear, but the idea in social justice is  to create a more just society.  This requires action by organizations and governments.  Social Justice curriculums are becoming common in high schools and have been established for years in many universities.

You can write an essay on a “social justice” topic without using the term social justice.  In fact, I recommend doing this for a number of reasons, one of which is tha common topics many social justice classes share and the common answers these classes tend to propose to these problems.  You want to show original thought and writing; you do not want to regurgitate a packaged answer to a problem you studied in class.

I have also found that these essays too often read like homilies and  don’t show enough critical thought.  They often take the form of “if only would be recognized, discussed, changed, then y would be resolved/solved and justice would reign.”

While it is more likely than not that a college essay reader would be sympathetic to a social justice argument, you need to do good research and show an understanding of complexityand the difficulty of change in a social justice essay.  Too often essays on social justice problems offer simplistic solutions to complex issues, most often as a result of assuming that individuals and groups can easily change their thinking through education (becoming more enlightened, confronting history, etc) or through some sort of legislation.  Change is difficult and slow, particularly in cultural shifts and remedying poverty and inequality.  See the history of African Americans for more . . .

9. Pollution and Environmental Degradation

Many kinds, many reasons, and we are all part of the problem.  Think of this as like an original sin of which we are all guilty and you will avoid the Soapbox of Self-Righteousness.  I think of an essay I read long ago by Alice Walker in which she described communing with trees.  The essay represented humanity, and specifically industry and technology  destructive of nature.  In the essay,  Alice recounted an attempt to commune with the trees, to show them that she was not part of all that. She loved trees, she felt with them, she became one with them.

I had a strong negative reaction to this essay which was written by a person who has been responsible for the murder of more trees than any anti-environmentalist politician.  She is a writer, after all, with most of her career in an age when books were printed.  Not only that, I suspect she was a passenger in or drove a car to visit this grove of trees she describes in the essay.  I tossed the book across the room and didn’t read more for a long time.

While Alice is one of our major 20th Century writers and a great battler for the environment–and for redwood trees specifically–her essay struck me as naive and self-righteous.  It’s nice to be aware of the dignity and value of trees as a class and of individual trees you know, but we all use paper made from trees.  We all use transportation which was built using and which propels itself with  fossil fuels, even if we plug in our cars.   So beware of your own sense of righteous indignation if you choose this topic, and be aware that solutions to environmental problems are usually complex.  Climage Change seems to have finally fueled (pun intended) a movement and, as of this summer, you could even show some commitment to this by going to a rally or event.  Check out 350.org if you have an interest . . .

10.  This is not a new topic, just a final thought:  you should care about the topic you choose.  Don’t suddenly decide you have an interest in justice,  hunger, environmental degradation, climate change, extremism, or any other of that devil’s alphabet of problems troubling our times.  If you read and keep up with such things and like analysis, this is a good prompt for you.  If not, move on to the others.  Good luck and Godspeed!

The Issue Of Concern Essay; Also Known As The Problem Solution Essay

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm

2013-2014 update: A common approach on application essays is the Problem question, which asks you to discuss some issue of importance.  Because it sets up a discussion of a problem it also begs for a solution.  Here is how it was worded in recent years in the Common Application, Prompt Two: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.  The Common App has now dropped this prompt, but it lives on in the Stanford Supplemental essays–one problem there will be the length: Stanford has a 250 word suggested length, but in recent years has cut you off  a bit under 300 words, so you need to write very efficiently to hit your marks on this.  Read on for my general suggestions for writing about a problem.

One of the important risks of this otherwise excellent prompt is its tendency to elicit what essay guru Harry Bauld calls “The Miss America” essay. While Miss America competitors are most often fine people and many have superb academic credentials, you do not want your essay to sound like something written by a person in a beauty contest who is pontificating while modeling a revealing gown. This is particularly true if you choose to write about issues of national or international concern, which is what this blog post will address.

If you aren’t sure whether to give an essay on a national or international problem a go, consider the phrase at the end: “its importance to you.” Now is not the time to discover a previously nonexistent passion for international affairs and world problems. If you are not a follower of world events and have never looked into international conflict or social and environmental problems, choose another topic. You should already have a level of awareness and an interest in the topic you choose for your personal statement.

Perhaps you feel like you pay attention to world events and care, but you aren’t sure where you rank on the scale of awareness and commitment. These things are hard to judge. Do you need to donate all your money to causes and work weekends and evenings for social justice to be able to write an authentic essay addressing topic two? Nah.

On the other hand, if your level of commitment extends only to something your history or science teacher said, or to a unit you enjoyed in a class, that may not be enough.

Consider this: the topics available to this kind of Big Problem essay should be based on fact. In a general sense, you might be starting with the facts that resources are under pressure–as everything from fuel and food prices to rare earth minerals attest–and the ecology which sustains us is under assault in areas from overfishing to pollution from agricultural and industrial production to decreasing supplies of clean fresh water at a time when demand is rising. We can all agree that these are large problems, even if there still seems to be a debate in this country about related topics, such as climate change. This is, therefore, a potentially rich subject area.

If we assume again that you have an ongoing interest in one or more of these matters and that you have, therefore, a working acquaintance with the basics of a topic such as overfishing or water pollution, we might also assume that you have done formal research in one or more of your classes and have produced a research paper, or that you have had a unit on and discussed one of these areas at length. This would all be a great place to start a college application essay on this subject area. Just don’t stop with your last research paper or your class unit.

Why is that? Because most of the competent essays which I receive in this area are still overly simplistic and many read like a somewhat to very dry analysis. An essay your wrote for a class last year is really a first attempt to grapple seriously with a big problem. The results, even in a competent effort, will be somewhat limited.

I strongly encourage my students and clients to use concrete detail and examples–to show more than tell–so let’s move on to an example. I will focus the rest of this post pretty narrowly, but even if you have no intention of writing on the topics I discuss below, you may get some ideas about creating a more comprehensive and persuasive essay in general by reading on.

I begin with pollution as a general topic and air pollution as a more specific topic. As I’m sure you know, air pollution takes many forms, from the “acid rain” resulting from sulfates produced by burning coal, in particular, to the carbon dioxide emitted by all fossil fuel consumption (I add here that acid rain, while still a major problem, is no longer as popular as an essay topic as carbon dioxide and global warming are these days).

Let’s say you take an approach which is pretty common here: you identify a problem, explain the cause of the problem and suggest, at least in a general way, a solution. For example, you might observe that transportation, specifically cars and trucks, is a major source of air pollution. You might then discuss this lucidly and provide empirical support for your analysis; then you might propose a solution: the electric car.

I have seen at least a dozen of these essays in the last year. They all fit prompt two well–do we all not breathe from the same atmosphere and does it not provide all of use with our rain and the temperate regions in which we grow our food? A few of the essays were superb. Some were too simplistic, most often in the solution they proposed, which usually ran to having everyone use an electric car: batteries produce no carbon emissions, so problem solved.

Except it isn’t that simple. Batteries don’t produce carbon emissions themselves, but all batteries require a charge, that charge requires electricity, the vast majority of electricity produced in the United States today comes from fossil fuels and the single largest source of fossil fuel energy is coal.

If you only propose plugging our cars in instead of filling them up, you are not really addressing the larger problem of pollution. Coal is a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel–sorry “clean coal” folks, but no coal is clean and the technology to “clean” coal emissions by capturing and reinjecting them into the ground is currently speculative and, even if it works, may not be effective in the geology under many plants. Like all big problems–and solutions–this one is complicated.

In simply advocating the electric car as a solution to our carbon emissions or other air pollution problems, you may be saying many true and fine things, but in not dealing with the bigger picture you are not really dealing with the problem in a realistic way. The resulting essay will seem simplistic or glib. Given the current buzz around technologies such as the electric vehicle, you can count on your essay readers seeing complex and thorough essays on this very topic this year.

To compete with the best essays on this topic, you will have to consider a number of questions. Can you foresee other sources of electricity for the electric car? Could a solar charging system be sold with each electric car? Could the government give a tax credit for this as it has for other solar installations? If your essay incorporated proposals like these, you would be thinking more thoroughly and innovatively, which is something universities like to see.

There are, of course, many other considerations to be dealt with in a good electric car essay–the batteries, for example, rely on lithium, which is a finite resource concentrated currently in a few countries who have serious supplies or who potentially could develop significant sources. How would infrastructure have to change to enable electric vehicles to be more practical? You can’t charge up everywhere in the same way you can fill up a car with gas or diesel nearly everywhere.

You don’t need to exhaustively study all the details, but if you show awareness of the complexity of your topic by at least accounting for related factors, you show good critical thinking skills and have a good essay strategy which are, again, things universities are looking for.

My message here is this: the more personal interest and awareness you bring to your subject initially and the more you learn as you write, the better your essay will be if you are working with prompt two. And if you can write a good, reasoned argument, this kind of essay–even this specific essay topic–will be a good one for you.  Keep in mind that the real point of the essay is your mind and voice–the reader wants to see you engaged in the problem and you might want to start the essay by explaining how you came to be involved or interested in it.  Hopefully this shows a real interest, not just a passing fancy or sudden fascination provoked by the need to write a college essay.

Note well:  if you are a better storyteller than analyst or if you have no strong interests in broad problems like pollution or social justice, you might want to move on to another essay prompt.

The Common Application for 2012

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, common application on July 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm

The big news for the Common Application of 2012 is:  no news.  The application itself is essentially the same application used last year.  The essay prompts are identical.

For those of you eager to get started, the Common Application site will be closed from July 15, 2011 to August 1st, 2011, for maintenance.  Currently a preview version of the app itself is posted on the Common Application site.   Sorry, nothing to fill in yet.

The most important development for the Common App is its continued growth.  The number of institutions accepting the common app has risen significantly again this year, adding 49 new members, for a new total of 463 members.  I will append a list of the new members to the end of this post.

The essay prompts are these:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4.Describe a character in fiction,  a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of your choice.

My recommendation:    Write to two of the prompts.  I suggest not starting with topic six.  More about that on a later post.

Here are the additions to the Common Application pool for 2012:

  1. Caldwell College (NJ)
  2. Carroll University (WI)
  3. Castleton State College*
  4. Centenary College
  5. Christian Brothers University
  6. Christopher Newport University*
  7. Cogswell Polytechnical College
  8. DeSales University
  9. Drury University
  10. Eastern Connecticut State University*
  11. Flagler College
  12. Franklin College Switzerland
  13. Goshen College
  14. Howard University
  15. John Cabot University
  16. John F. Kennedy University
  17. Lipscomb University
  18. Long Island University Brooklyn Campus
  19. Lyndon State College*
  20. Ramapo College of New Jersey*
  21. Rhode Island College*
  22. Rockhurst University
  23. Saint Leo University
  24. Saint Martin’s University
  25. Salisbury University*
  26. Samford University
  27. Seton Hill University
  28. Sierra Nevada College
  29. St. Joseph’s College – Brooklyn Campus
  30. St. Joseph’s College – Long Island Campus
  31. St. Mary’s College of Maryland*
  32. SUNY College at Old Westbury*
  33. SUNY Institute of Technology*
  34. The American University of Paris
  35. The College of Saint Rose
  36. Towson University*
  37. University of Evansville
  38. University of Hartford
  39. University of Kentucky*
  40. University of Michigan – Flint*
  41. University of New Orleans*
  42. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill*
  43. University of North Carolina at Wilmington*
  44. University of Southern California
  45. University of St Andrews*
  46. University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
  47. Wartburg College
  48. Wheeling Jesuit University
  49. Whitworth University

Evading the Cliche Step Two

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, personal statement on June 29, 2011 at 5:17 pm

In recent posts I discussed college essay cliches, focusing on  a set of common essay types defined by former admissions officer and current admissions and college app essay guru Harry Bauld.

I concluded that series of posts with a suggestion for an exercise with one of the so-called cliche essays, The Trip Essay.  I asked that my college app readers complete an exercise focused on close description of specific people and places that they encountered on a trip–not on writing an essay or a narrative at this point but simply on extended paragraph descriptions of locations and individuals.  Please read my last two posts, at least, before working with the material in this post.

To continue, you now have multiple paragraphs of description.  You have not tried to impose some sort of narrative on it, have not drawn some sort of lesson from experience.   This is good.  Here’s why:  didactic writing is often bad writing.  If you don’t know what I am referring to, one way to divide writing into categories is to split it into writing which is intended to instruct (didactic) and writing which is intended to describe–or mirror–the world (mimetic).

Most trip essays have two aspects:  a description of places, people and events, and an explanation which might be subtitled lessons learned.  All kinds of things can go wrong in the trip essay, particularly when the writer moves from a perfectly competent–even evocative and fascinating– description of people and places to a kind of lecture showing the reader why all of this was significant.  At this point, The Trip Essay often takes a wrong turn.

I blame the current thrust of education for the problems which arise in The Trip Essay and in essays in general.  The fundamental problem is that teaching today is focused on measurable results and so everything taught must have a clear and quantifiable value.  In literature, this requires establishing some sort of moral or other lesson which can be tidily summed up in a thesis sentence.

This is not just limited to essays written by students in classrooms.  I see this also in the kind of first-person testimonials which have become popular in newspapers, blogs and commentaries.   The effect of this can be deadly, as in deadly dull  to literature in general and to  your college app essay in particular, especially  if you are one of those students who needs the essay to distinguish yourself from the mob.

Picture your college app eader groaning as she reaches the end of your essay and finds a moral.  Aesop did this pretty well, but after the original, the cliche is born.  Cliches are evidence of a lack of awareness and a lack of thought.  This is not what you want your college app essay to show about you.

Think about your own experience in dealing with literature.  How many good stories have been ruined for you when your teacher insisted that you needed to extract some sort of “life lesson” from your reading.  This term, by the way, is of fairly recent origin.  I was in college in the 80’s, and I don’t remember hearing this used with any frequency until the late 90’s.  The first time I did hear it, I remember thinking, life lessons?  What other kind is there?  Death lessons?

I filed this phrase along with  a boatload of other silly coinings, like preplanning (planning to plan?), and moved on, but since then life lessons has spread throughout the teaching of English like an oil slick, greasing up and drowning perfectly wonderful stories and turning everybody’s reading experience into a finger-wagging lecture.  And that’s just the problem.  You don’t want to be wagging your finger at your college app essay reader, nor do you want to be boring them (oh, I’m near the end of the essay, here’s the “life lesson” this kid gained by living among poor people in a foreign place).

In addition to the trap of moralizing or lecturing, these essays can also inspire a certain patronizing tone–those poor wretches, eating only beans and flatbread every morning.   The locals in your story become mere extras in your personal drama.   The worst of these essays actively criticize or mock local culture.

A particularly memorable example of this was written by a student who had gone on a church-sponsored mission to a South American country.  This student devoted considerable detail to the local diet, particular the habit the people had of poaching eggs in oil and serving these with beans.  Altogether he found this a greasy and disgusting nightmare which would not be consumed by any right-thinking person.  He concluded the essay by stating how much he had learned to appreciate his lifestyle in America.  Let me give you my lesson here straight:  you do not want to write an essay in which wretched, ignorant, poor people teach you to appreciate your logical and superior culture.  Which is what this gentleman in the example above did.

Let’s go back to those descriptive paragraphs you wrote.  Can you now combine or tie them together into some sort of descriptive piece, an essay which is not focused on you?    Can you become like a documentary camera, moving through the world you have sketched, without overt judgment, without talking about yourself beyond the basics,   along the lines of I went here because x and found . . ?  A full paragraph of  evocative description should follow.

The key to success here is to select details which are telling.   Describe selectively so that you show us what you learned or what the experience was like without making any overt judgments.  You will find this difficult, but this is the first step to writing a Trip Essay which is not the kind of essay that will cause the cliche warning light to start blinking.  Even better, you will not come across as The Ugly American Abroad.

How to Evade the Cliche in Your College Essay

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm

In my previous post, I discussed one of the gurus of college admissions and the college essay, Harry Bauld.  Mr. Bauld described a set of essay types which he believes are “a noose” with which a college applicant can “hang” herself.  Scary.

What Bauld is after is a set of essay types which are commonly submitted.  Each takes the form of an extended cliche.  Among those essays condemned by Mr. Bauld is something he called “The Trip Essay.”  In this you describe a trip you went on and what you learned from it.  This is, in my experience, a very common type of essay used on college admissions, as is the “Jock Essay,” which is about what one learned in athletics, and the “Three D” essay, in which one describes or shows one’s  Drive, Determination and Discipline or some related set of positive attributes.

It doesn’t help that many college apps tend to push you toward some of these essays–”tell us something about yourself which isn’t immediately apparent,” or “describe an important situation or person from which you learned,” are examples of recent prompts of this nature.  And what if  you do want to write about a trip you took because it has been the most important experience of your life?  Can you not do this because Those Who Know say it is a bad idea, a sure dud?

Of course you can. Your challenge, however, is to avoid writing a cliche.   It’s not really the essay topic Mr. Bauld condemns so grimly as it is the way the essay is written and what it reveals about you.

Specifically, the problem lies in the kind of self-awareness you show and your audience’s reaction to your material.  Aristotle identified these two aspects of the rhetorical situation as ethos and pathos.  I discussed Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle at some length in an earlier post–see the archive for this, as a basic knowledge of these ideas is a strategic necessity for you.

So how can you write an essay about what you learned from a trip without writing a cliche or boring your audience?   The key is creating a lively narration and using detailed description.  You should show more than you tell.

Easy to say, but what do I mean?  Let’s start with a simple exercise.

This post continues with a series of exercises to develop application essay content, including experiments with point of view and use of detail.  It is related to previous posts on getting the college essay started.  

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College Essay No-No’s: What Not To Do in Your Personal Statement

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Before I get to the gist, a short preface:  I hope that you followed my advice in the last prompt and did a considerable amount of writing before you arrived at this post.  I say this because I think that it is important to write without having that inner, critical voice whispering negative asides to you.  You should start the process by simply getting entire herds of words on the page without worrying too much about their quality.  Start with quantity.  This you will use as raw material, for we are far from done with this process.  ‘Nuff said.  On to the post.

Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.

Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates,  he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.

So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”  This post goes on to discuss in detail the kinds of essays that should be avoided and why, with examples.  

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 You will receive in response an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  After payment, you will get full access to all articles and college essay analysis appearing on this Site.    The subscription fee is 15 dollars.  This includes all future entries through January of 2013.  I will be writing 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.