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College Application Essay No-No’s

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm

This post is a Golden Oldy, but based on some essays I have looked at recently, I am putting it back up front.

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.”

Let me qualify Mr. Bauld’s dire metaphor by pointing out that the college essay is not likely to be a deathlike–or even a near death–experience. It will, however, be the first piece of writing that actually affects the lives of most students. So attention must be paid, and we should begin with what should not be done.

Harry has some essay types which he thinks will be duds at best or laughable failures at worst. First among Bauld’s targets is the kind of autobiographical essay which is basically a list of achievements meant to show how unique and appealing the writer is. I will add my view that the immediate problem with an autobiographical essay of this kind has to do with the competition. All high school students share certain experiences, and if they are candidates for college, they also share particular traits and have, for the most part, pursued similar activities designed to plump out the resume which they need these days to be competitive applicants. In other words, you are unique, just like all the other kids writing the same essay, but the result of the typical application process is that you engage in very similar activities and have very similar grades to your competitors. The process itself pushes most students toward the center, and, as Bauld notes, if you are part of the drab middle, you won’t stand out to the poor essay reader who is flipping through essay after essay after essay . . . .

This  is the challenge: how to stand out without offending.

Bauld goes on to list five more types of essays which should be avoided at all costs.

The first he calls the “My Favorite Things” essay. In this type of essay, the writer presents a series of things she is passionate about–or in favor of–and often juxtaposes this with a list of things she does not favor. The structure says it all: it’s much like the top or bottom ten lists offered by certain comedians and media personalities. This has become a pretty tired trope and tends to provoke vague generalizations and inarguable claims (e. g, I am opposed to nuclear proliferation, pollution is bad for the planet, etc).

Bauld next identifies an essay he calls “The trip essay.” You go on a trip, tell the reader about it, and manufacture some important “life lesson” to attach to your sojourn in order to show how broadly experienced and thoughtful you are. Unfortunately, “manufacture” and “Life Lesson” say it all. Any time you impose a moral on an autobiographical tale, you are in dangerous territory. At the least, you are probably taking yourself too seriously, and you are also more than likely imposing some interpretation on your story after the fact and might even be making some things up to make it convincing. Either tactic is inauthentic, at best.

The third type is “the three D essay.” Bauld describes this as the kind of essay in which the applicant argues for his own Determination, Drive and Discipline. Bauld finds this kind of essay dull. I agree, not because determination, drive and discipline are bad things, nor because your reader can say that you don’t possess these qualities (unless your GPA and other information give you the lie, in which case it wouldn’t matter anyway). The problem is that this is a kind of bland, formulaic writing which offers no complexity and which requires no insight into the self. A comic-book hero from the 1950’s might write an essay like this.   Hi, my name is Clark Kent, aka Superman, and I am a clean-cut and disciplined fellow who always does the right thing . . .

The fourth type of essay Bauld calls “The Miss America Essay.” He refers here to the moment in the Miss America contest when the would-be’s step up to a mic and offer their insights into world affairs and the important challenges facing the world. While still looking great in a swim suit. Need I say more?

Finally, Bauld offers what he calls the “Jock Essay.” In this, a high school athlete offers an account of lessons learned from sports, or how sports taught him to have the discipline, et al, necessary for success. This sounds suspiciously like the third kind of essay, in my opinion, but Bauld, as a longtime reader of college app essays, may feel that this needs to be a separate category because so many people create this kind of essay.

Bauld goes on at great length and offers good examples in his book, which is still one of the best on offer. Have a look at your local bookseller, or if you must, on Amazon. Buy it if you wish, but my suggestion is to start writing immediately. I will add to this that I don’t think that you necessarily have to avoid writing about a trip which was an authentically powerful experience for you, nor should you eschew the topic of athletics if you are an athlete, and if you are passionate about some world problem or political topic, by all means, write about it.

Just be sure to write from an authentic place and don’t create some sort of stereotypical narrative with a predictable outcome. Life isn’t terribly predictable, even if your life so far seems to be.

In an upcoming post, I will address Bauld’s categories at more length and show you how you might approach one or more of these essay types which Bauld so heartily condemns. As he says himself, the most important thing is that you “come alive on the page.”

Consider This: The Problem Essay (Common Application Prompt 2)

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

This post was originally written in the summer of 2011, but developments over the last year simply reinforce  my message about thinking critically and avoiding simplistic, bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems in this kind of essay.  

In this post, I will briefly discuss a couple of potential topics which address prompt two of the Common Application. Let’s start by restating the prompt: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

In my previous post, I discussed this topic in depth and distinguished between the prompt and choosing a good topic which addresses the prompt. I used an environmental problem/solution as my main focus in that blog post, with the electric car being the specific topic.

Our focus in this post will be on a pair of national and international topics and some things you should consider with each topic. For a broader discussion of the hazards and advantages of Prompt Two, please see my previous post. This prompt creates a particular problem that you will sound like a “beauty queen” if you don’t do your homework and think critically.

The topics I discuss below for Prompt Two will include: Sudan and specifically Darfur as an example of a topic on international conflict; and the problem of fresh water, both in a specific region of the United States and as an international concern. Despite the fact that my discussion will focus on these fairly narrow topics, the larger issue we are exploring is creating a good college essay; the questions I ask of and the approach I take to each topic are similar to those I would use with many topics. I hope to illustrate a way of thinking which will help you write better. If you share that goal, please read on.

This post goes on to describe in detail two topics for this essay, including background and reference links.  The next post will continue this discussion.  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.  

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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

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.