Archive for the ‘college admission’ Category

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

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.

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.

Philosophers Debate College Admissions

In college admission, college admissions, college application, common application, university application information on September 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm

To be technically correct, two philosophers engaged in an interesting and informative dialogue about the admissions rat race with a professor of education. I am speaking of a recent episode of Philosophy Talk, featuring Stanford Professor Emeritus John Perry and Stanford Philosophy professor Ken Taylor. This is a brilliant radio program and is always worth a listen, but for those who are currently running the admissions steeplechase, this episode is a must.

The Ed Prof in question, Mitchell Stephens, is the author of Creating a Class, a study of the university applications process. The message Stephens conveys is that the competition is ferocious for a particular subset of elite schools, and he believes that this is for a very good reason: successful, middle class parents have absorbed the lesson that it is not only harder to attain a middle class life today, it is also harder to sustain a middle class life through adulthood. He argues further that being in the right university–at the right lunch table, as he memorably phrases it–can make a difference, because of the associations that come with the elite names, like Yale or Stanford–or the associations that don’t come with the names of little-known schools. University names create assumptions about their graduates. Coming from a more elite school as an undergraduate will help you in the next step, whether that be employment or in applying to grad school.

I have to admit that he is right, to a large extent, but this is the result of a sort of feedback loop between such universities and those who want to attend them.

I also believe that one of the philosophers in particular, John Perry, makes a convincing case that we still do have a great university system in California, as well as a great community college system (and that most of the other states have good to excellent systems). Perry points out that it is still possible for students to move from a community college to a (relatively) prestigious university before going on to an excellent graduate program or job. He argues further that a student can find, say, a German instructor at a community college who will give instruction just as good as a German professor at Stanford. And students can improve the “brand value” (my term here) at each step of the process–from community college to a good university to a top-ranked grad school. I guess Perry should know, since he’s been there and followed a path like that himself.

The take away of Perry’s argument is this: those students–and parents–who think that they will live or die by their Stanford or Yale or University of Chicago application need to get a paper bag and start breathing into it (do people still deal with hyperventilation in that way, or have plastic bags become ubiquitous?) In the event that plan A fails, they also need to have a well-though-out plan B, and C and even D, and I think that at least plan C should include a good, out-of-state university, preferably one with relatively low tuition.

If you already know what you what your first choice is, it makes sense to spend time looking at other options instead of finding out everything possible about your first choice. You will hopefully arrive there anyway and will be able to see if all for yourself. There are some exceptions to this when choosing a major, of course. Oversubscribed majors turn away many more students in relationship to less popular majors at the same schools. But there are certainly places where you could be happy and well educated that you do not even know exist. And you won’t know they exist if you don’t look. Also keep in mind the cost factor. Other costs tend to mirror tuition costs, and it will almost certainly require more money to live and eat near Harvard than it will around the University of Oregon.

In previous posts I have discussed some of the other options to consider, particularly for students from California, where I am based. In addition, I have written about the college admissions game, in which many institutions actively recruit qualified students in order to be able to turn down a larger percentage of applicants and therefore become a more “selective” and more prestigious university. Those are the rules of the game, but you have a wide latitude to decide if you are going to play with the “elite” or find an excellent alternate choice–or both.

Writing The Essay On An Influence: The Demons Are In The Details

In college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm

My last post introduced the essay on a personal influence, which was the focus of Prompt Three and Prompt Four of the Common Application in recent years, and I suggested some exercises to get you started. This post assumes that you have some material ready to work with. If you don’t, have a look at my last post. If you do, carry on!

In the post that follows, I will examine an essay about an influential father and his flower stand, which is one of a dozen essays I have seen already this year that use a parent as an influential figure. The fact that many people use this subject does not make this a bad topic choice–in fact, this shows what a great topic this is, if it is handled well.

The two most common truisms of writing are these: Write what you know and Show, don’t tell. This post will focus on the second of these as I examine the use of detail in narrative essays. Let’s start with the example of a father as an influence, which was the topic of a Prompt Three essay which I recently edited. The author agreed to let me use his essay, though I limit the amount of detail I provide to curtail copycat efforts.

The author of this essay told the reader his father had a floral business at which he worked very long hours, that a national chain had opened up a similar business several blocks away, and that his father had responded by working even harder and so had succeeded. The honesty, hard work and skill of the father had trumped the brand recognition and franchised power of the other store. As a result of watching this unfold, the author of the essay, who was struggling to balance football and a heavy school load (demanding sports and academic schedules are de rigueur these days), had learned to be more organized and to get things done in a timely manner. Problem solved

But a big problem for this essay remains:

This post continues with a  discussion of this specific essay and an explanation of how to improve this kind of essay in general, including what kind of detail to include and where to include it.

To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing, put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 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.

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.

College Application Tips Part 1

In college admission, college admissions, college application, Uncategorized, university rankings on June 16, 2011 at 6:29 pm

While it’s a truth widely acknowledged that many institutions game the U.S. News and World Report rankings by inflating their app rates (among other things) A quick look at the admissions statistics tells the tale.

For 2010, U.C. Berkeley had 50,312 applicants and admitted 12,914—a 26% rate of admission; U.C.L.A. upped that by admitting only 13,088 of 57,608 applicants, for a 23% admit rate; on the other hand, the most popular of the Cal State campuses, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, had a 33% admission rate, and CP SLO has consistently been one of the highest rated universities on the West Coast.

Over on the right coast, Columbia admitted 9% of its applicants, Harvard admitted 7%–excuse me, with that rate, it’s Haaaaaahvad–while Princeton admitted 8%. In the midland, U of Chicago admitted 19% while Northwestern admitted 23%.

These are ugly numbers and even more fearful in our bad economic times. But what do they really mean?

In the big picture, they mean that we have a resource problem. The elite schools have always been selective—and have, for many years, gamed the ratings to appear as selective as possible—but the shortage of educational opportunities in California is particularly acute. Demand far outstrips supply and tax revenue has declined at a time when public institutions are viewed by many in our country as part of the problem if not as an actual enemy within. If you want to deal with the big picture, you’ll have to get involved politically. This is a workable approach for parents of 6th graders and a civic duty for everyone else, but not very useful if you have a college-bound student in high school.

If you have a high school junior, you will have to focus on an immediate, pragmatic strategy. Presumably you are already been making all the basic stops on the Via Dolorosa of the college admissions process, but some things to consider might not be immediately obvious.

Start with researching your preferred campuses. At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, for example, admission rates for each school varies. The Business School at Cal Poly is ferociously competitive. The history department, not so much. A history major with a business minor would be a far easier admit ticket to get punched than the reverse would be. And turning out more students with such a background might be an improvement overall given the recent history of our banking sector.

Be aware, however, that CPSLO is discouraging double majors due to budget cuts and has always been hard on those who wish to change a major. Not only that, the admin at SLO is ramping up pressure on students to finish a degree in less than five years, all of this as a response to the budget problems as well as to prevent those who game the system by selecting a low subscription major and then switching to a more impacted major after being admitted. And yes, at the same time that fewer sections of many classes are being offered. Of course, that will be true on many campuses.

Next, consider colleges which have higher admissions rates. Sonoma State has many of the advantages of Cal Poly, including a fairly bucolic setting (though Rohnert Park is nobody’s idea of a happening little town, unlike SLO) and the admit rate is in the 80% range.

A final consideration I would look at is the location—is this a great place to spend four or five years? Out of state is looking better all the time. Eastern Oregon University offers in-state tuition for all students—okay, so the location is isolated, but Portland State, as another alternative, is in what might be the nicest place to live in the Northwest, and they offer a scholarship to out-of-state students with a high GPA. Visit their website for details.

Finally, do spend extra time on the college essay for the applications that require it. By the time the junior year is over, you don’t have many opportunities to stand out from the crowd, and the essay is the only place to really show your creativity and brilliance in a first-person way.

Early College Admissions Data for 2011 and What This Means for You

In college admission, college admissions, college application, Uncategorized, university application information, university rankings on June 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Some early data is rolling in on this year’s college admissions, and all the news is up for those institutions known as “selective” universities–up meaning turned down for even more applicants this year. To wit: Stanford saw the number of applicants rise from 32,022 for 2010 to 34,000 in 2011, an increase of over 6%; across the Bay, U. C. Berkeley went from 50,312 to 52,920, an increase just north of 5%; and across the continent, Harvard saw an increase from 30,489 applicants last year to 35,000 this year

The wide net cast by many–if not most–of the schools who have risen to the top of U.S. News and World Report’s heap of illusions is well known by now. This includes promos and invitations sent with more frequency than credit card offers to the homes of high school students, many of whom have a snowball’s chance in a pizza oven of being admitted.

Also widely reported is the effect that these tens of thousands of what I call “prejects” have on the bottom line of these same selective universities. Thirty thousand admissions fees paid by kids (okay, parents of kids) who will under no circumstances ever tread the halls is a tidy sum reaped by a university for a very inexpensive data collections system. An admissions officer can screen dozens of applications a day, most electronic, and let’s face it, the first step is an algorithmic gate–at or below GPA x, no admit. At GPA y, maybe. If I were cynical, I would argue that the universities have found a way of making rejects pay for the system that screens their students.

It is still true that the sweat and tears of applicants does matter, but only for those already near the top. So be realistic. If you don’t have a 4.0, or a 3.75 with a tremendous story to tell, don’t waste your time with the “selective” schools. If you do, go for it–and put plenty of time into your essay if you are going to be a Senior in September.