Tips on Writing Successful Boston College Application Essays for 2019-2020

Who Should Read This Post: Anybody applying to Boston College or another Jesuit or Catholic college, like Georgetown; anyone who needs to write a supplemental essay about art or a book as inspiration; anyone who needs to write about a social justice or problem essay for College Applications. And if you do need support in writing your essays, Contact Me for world-class essay development and editing.

Overview: Beginning a Successful Boston College Supplemental Essay

Boston College is on the Common Application, so you will write one of the Common App essays (650 word limit) and choose one of the prompts below to write about, for a maximum of 400 words on this B.C. supplemental essay.

Also note that the Common App site does not go live until on or around August 1st, so you should not set up an account there until the site reopens for this year’s application cycle, but you can choose and write both the Common App essay and the Boston College essay now–the prompts are live for 2020. I do link sources of inspiration and information on multiple topics associated with the Boston College prompts below, but remember that you should seek inspiration rather than copying inspiration directly. So to speak. Many colleges do use Turnitin.com or their own, proprietary software to look for plagiarism on application essays.

Let’s start with a look at all of the Boston College prompts, then break them down one at a time:

Boston College 

The writing supplement topics for the 2019-2020 application cycle (400 word limit); prompts first, then a discussion of each prompt to follow that:

1. Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?

2. When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your experiences, or your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?

3. Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?

4. Jesuit education considers the liberal arts a pathway to intellectual growth and character formation. What beliefs and values inform your decisions and actions today, and how will Boston College assist you in becoming a person who thinks and acts for the common good?


Boston College Supplemental Breakdown and Analysis

Now let’s take a closer look at prompt #1, Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?

So first of all, they do not want an essay explaining meaning in the same mode you do for an English class, so close that essay doc that you wrote for Catch-22 or Beloved or whatever other required reading and essay you did for your English class last year. For the moment. The prompt did not ask you to write about the meaning of poem x or novel y per se–though obviously the meaning matters–instead, they want first to understand its impact on you, how you relate to it, and what this shows about you. Of course the meaning will come up in discussing that, but not in the way you would argue for or prove a meaning in an Essay for an American Lit class, though at some point you might reopen that doc from your English class to help–just be wary of directly inserting high school English essay-style content into this college application essay.

A second reason to (maybe) not write about a novel written for a class is the nature of required reading. Novels from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Great Gatsby to Lord of the Flies are required reading or commonly read novels for high school students across the country, and the typical titles are widely known among college admissions readers, both for the public schools and for those elite private schools that still take their students on the voyage through things like Moby Dick (which was a standby at one time but has largely vanished from public high school curricula, though it is still a part of some private school curricula). If a required novel had a big impact on you, okay–your passion should override the fact that you had to read the book for school. And you have the advantage of having read the book with the help of a teacher, and likely have written about it already, after class discussion.

But if you have read a novel not for a class that had a big impact on you, then maybe start there–this automatically shows that you do more than the required reading; you could and probably should also suggest your own widespread and independent reading habits, driven by your natural curiosity, by explaining how you discovered obscure but great Novel X, the subject of your essay. Perhaps you still haunt that most archaic of businesses, the bookstore and found it, or you have a habit of reading book blogs. The disadvantage of writing about this more obscure novel that was read independently is the fact that you are on your own when it comes to interpreting the book, but if it is an important book, you might find help by searching for it and/or its author in the New York Review of Books–which is s serious book and culture site, but that does not mean that they will not tackle serious YA Lit, like Hunger Games or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (Amber Spyglass, et al), or search for the book title on your favorite search engine with the term criticism, and you might find a stand-alone article or an article like this one, that looks at a set of YA Dystopian novels. I have written about how to write an essay on a novel multiple times before, so take a look at that as well–how to write about books.

Of course, there are many other kinds of art you could write about, and the most important thing to start with is art that impacted you, then to decide if it’s worth writing about. Even pop art is legit if you can take the write approach. Take a look at this on Lady Gaga.

And look at the work of critics for inspiration, like the pop music critic for NPR, Ken Tucker, who covers everything from country to hip hop, as seen here: Old Town Road.

And finally, consider a wide range of art to write about–from opera and bluegrass to sculpture and painting. And seek critics in these fields for examples of how to write. But write about a work of art that inspired you.

For an example of how to write about art that inspires, see this critic discuss his favorite paintings in New York: Jerry Salz takes a Grand Tour.

Now let’s turn to the second prompt:

When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your experiences, or your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?

The first thing I want to point out is that this prompt is nearly identical to the Common Application Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

So of course, if you have already written about prompt one for the Common Application, that nixes using Boston’s prompt two as a supplemental essay. But if your family/personal experience is unique, and you have not delved into it in depth on your Common App essay, this prompt is for you. And of course, in particular, this prompt tends to be selected by those who have some sort of personal of financial struggles in their background. This prompt is obviously a slow pitch through the strike zone for those who have emigrated to the United States under duress, or whose family has unique cultural inheritance and practices or who has just had an unusual upbringing.

However, beware of the Woe is Me essay. Long ago, students started writing essays on their suffering because they heard that their target school was trying to select students with compelling personal stories, particularly if those stories suggested some kind of poverty/minority application/personal struggle to overcome incredible obstacles angle. If this is true of you, your suffering may now provide you with something to talk about. But be wary.

If you are writing about a family member’s illness, for example, keep in mind that you are presenting this experience as a reason to admit you to college. And if the suffering or struggles are your own, beware of trying to get into a contest of suffering by suggesting that your tribulations are unique and make you a person they should admit above others (subtext: because you alone have suffered so much). If this background has involved you stepping up to work to help support your family, or to care for siblings or family members, that is always an aspect I ask to see emphasized–to show more about doing, about taking action, rather than focusing on affliction and misery as conditions. How did you respond? That is key.

You don’t need to write up a tidy story which reaches “closure” but there needs to be more than trials and woe. If you have suffered deeply, so be it, but be sure that it in some way shows who you are or explains your academic record or has shaped your view of the world.

Some examples, to make my point: I have been doing this for a long time and have edited essays for applicants who have dealt with a cancer diagnosis and multi-year treatment during high school, while staying enrolled and pulling down good grades; or an applicant who fled Vietnam on leaky boats and watched some of her family members die on that boat before moving from internment camp to interment camp, then to three different American states, in high school working two jobs at a time while pulling a nearly perfect GPA (a tale from a Valedictorian in the mid 1990’s–like I said, been doing this for a long time); or, more recently, the kid whose introduction to America was to hang on a border fence near Tijuana for several hours in the middle of the night after his sweatshirt snagged at the top and his party went on without him . . only to be rescued hours later by somebody else coming through . . . then moved from house to house with relatives while putting together an education, to finish as salutatorian of his high school class . .

If you have faced significant obstacles that have shaped who you are, by all means write about them. Just be sure to have some perspective. Writing an essay about how unfair a coach, or coaches have been, and how you overcame that to become an all-league athlete or to make some uber-competitive travel squad . . . Okay, but don’t overdo the suffering there, and let’s face it, the coaches had a perspective on things too. As a rule, avoid dissing adults, particularly teachers and coaches. You are applying to a kind of school, after all, when you write a college essay. There is always someone who has suffered more. Be sure that you did something that is remarkable rather than just suffering passively, or watched someone else suffer. ‘Nuff said.

For Boston College Prompt 3, Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?

I would go either philosophical or World/Society Problem. Or . . . slightly tongue-in-cheek. Notice, however, how the prompt focuses on liberal arts (suggesting an emphasis on the humanities) and critical issues (suggesting social justice, environmental issues, etc) against a background of personal formation (suggesting that old-fashioned idea that you should go to college to find out who you are and develop yourself as a human being) and it ends by looking at an “enduring question” or “problem.”

So I would look at social justice, environment, energy and the ideas bandied in ancient Greek philosophical dialogues or in Christian ethics. For example, how about this class title: “The Other and Us: Ethics and Other People, which would look at everything from migrants to those among us who have less to ethical business practices. Or: “Trash: The Ethics of Consumption” which could look at a range of issues, from consumerism and materialism to all that plastic out in the ocean.

Or maybe slightly tongue-in-cheek: Survival in the Age of Facebook ant TikTok . . . how to live in a world of constant sharing and personal revelation without sharing away your soul.

Notice how I combined the ethical and philosophical with the practical problems we face in our environment today in these “classes.” A perfect combination of the intellectual and the pragmatic, which in particular suits a Jesuit school.

Speaking of which, our last prompt for Boston College:

Prompt 4–Jesuit education considers the liberal arts a pathway to intellectual growth and character formation. What beliefs and values inform your decisions and actions today, and how will Boston College assist you in becoming a person who thinks and acts for the common good?

You should be noticing the overlap betwen this prompt and the more specific question on a class that preceded it. Boston College is among the great Jesuit colleges in the world, teaching in a humanistic, Catholic tradition, with a concern both for the whole person and for the person as part of a larger community. Unbridled capitalism and personal success at all costs are not part of their ethos. I think the easiest way to introduce this communal and ethically-driven way of thinking is to hook you up with a famous modern practitioner of this way of thinking and acting: Charles Taylor. Read that entire linked page and see the video and you will have considerable insight into Jesuit humanism.

And then you should start doing some research on the things you can study at BC while thinking about how your career could be about improving society or the environment rather than just being about making money. Start by looking at the BC Humanities Core, but be sure to check out specific classes that might tie in to your curiosity or sense of mission, and mention them, as word count and context permitsHumanities Core. Keep clicking and reading until you have more information than you need. Then start writing.

Big Changes for the University of California Application: What, Why and What to Do (Part 1)

Who should read this post: anybody who is now or will be in the near future applying to any University of California campus; any parent of anybody applying to the U.C. anytime soon; anybody interested in what is going on in higher education.

 Our major topics: The U.C. Application Essays for 2016-2017; Some Current Data on U.C. Applications, From Admit Rates to G.P.A.’s; A Brief History of U.C. Admissions

 Our friends at the University of California have finally made their break from the Common Application.

But wait, you say—they never were in the Common App system. And you’d be right.

But the old, two-essay format for the U.C. pretty much guaranteed that a majority of applicants reused their Common App essay; with one thousand words total, you’d upload your very polished Common App essay, then write (or reuse from somewhere else) a shorter essay of about 350 words, after which you could click on as many U.C. campuses as you liked and call it a day. For the last few years, the U.C. has been like a satellite orbiting the Death Star known as The Common Application.

So much for that.

What exactly they want now is four essays, each of 350 words (maximum) and you are to choose from eight prompts to do so. If you are a junior college/transfer applicant, you are required to write about your major, then to choose three of seven remaining prompts. I link the new U.C. prompts for everybody here.

This is the biggest change in years at the U.C. and the biggest change I have seen yet this year in any of the major applications—so why are they doing this, now? And why should you care? Isn’t it enough that you have to write the bloody things?

Well, yes it is, but knowing why can help you understand what they want. And the why has three reasons.

Reason number one: The U.C. is having trouble figuring out who the best applicants are. More on that below.

Reason number two: The U.C. has too many people applying. To a large extent this is due to the fact that it’s easy to apply to all the U.C.’s once you’ve done the app for one: you write the essays, fill in the rest of the application, and then just start clicking to send it to as many U.C.’s as you want. Sure, you pay for each campus you target, but the fee is relatively small against the upside benefit of a seat at a U.C. campus. But you already knew that.

Reason number three: Essay recycling. Clearly this is tied in to the large number or apps, partly because the U.C. was a default backup to a range of super-selective Common App colleges (the Ivies, etc); most U.C. applicants were (and still are) applying to a selection of Common App schools as well—and being able to reuse the Common App essay made it all the more easy to add a set of U.C.’s to your average HYPSM application.

I know I already mentioned that, but it’s an important point because, well, they don’t want to feel like your fallback date for the big dance if your true love turns you down, and you can see how the new application is a direct response to essay recycling when you look at the length and at the number of essays now required for the U.C.: very few universities have a 350-word limit for their essays, and very few require this many essays written specifically for them. Of course, the number and range of questions also require you to do a lot more writing about yourself, and they hope that this will help them do a better job figuring out who to admit.

Think about it: if you are at a typical suburban high school, you probably need two hands and both feet to count the number of people at your school who have a 3.8 or above GPA and a 2100 SAT (or 32 ACT). But would you want to share a dorm with all of them? Are some of them not indistinguishable from robots?  U.C. truly believes in building a “learning community” and, like all schools, want people who themselves really want to attend, and who have more experiences in their lives than were defined by ten years at Kumon and four years of college counseling.  Therefore, the essays, which make it harder to fake it as you show who you are.  Though not impossible.

The takeaway is that it’s become much more difficult to reuse another essay directly on the U.C. application—or to use their essays directly on somebody else’s. Stanford, for example: they want 250-word supplemental essays, and while some clever editing might allow some crossover, a 350 word essay cut down to 250 words is a whole new essay.

On the other hand, a school like Harvard has some overlap through their “optional” extra essay (which is not really optional for most students) because it is so open-ended. And there is a degree of overlap between select UC prompts and prompts for a number of U.C. analogs as well as for some excellent, lesser-known choices across the country. So I will address the opportunities for multi-use essays directly in my next post.

For now let’s leave the essay prompts behind and turn to the details on how this came to pass, and on some current data for the U.C. admissions (3.91 average GPA at the two most popular U.C. campuses, for example) read on.

How We Got Here (And Where We Are)

To get a broader picture of where we are,  let’s start with a quick look at the ancient past: By the middle of the 20th Century, the U.C.’s stated mission was to provide higher education to all California students who qualified. For some perspective on what that meant, prior to 1960, the top 15% of all California students were admitted to the U.C. system, and until 1964 the system admitted all students who met its requirements.  And this without needing an SAT test.   Then, in 1968, a paradigm shift began as Ronald Reagan, governor of California, defined higher education as a privilege that should be defined by the practical and limited to the “deserving” (have a look here for a quick summary of Ronald Reagan’s role in changing the postwar educational paradigm: The Day the Purpose of College Changed).

Flash forward to the early 1980’s and Berkeley was denying admissions to roughly 50% of applicants; by 1990, that number had grown to around 2/3.

 

Some Current Admissions Data for the University of California

That seemed like tough news in 1990, but it seems fantastic compared to last year’s Berkeley admissions: for the incoming class of 2020: 14.8% of all freshman applicants were admitted to U.C. Berkeley, this coming out of 82,558 freshman applicants. And, oh yes, that average Berkeley SAT of 2093 and ACT of 31 for this year’s incoming freshmen, in addition to that 3.91 average GPA (Which was 3.94 for out-of-state and international students—though there are seats set aside for them which might still result in you getting bumped by an out-of-state student, Oh 3.9 GPA Californian).

Of course, you already knew that U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. were both a bear to get into (No, I could not pass up the chance for a bad pun).

But now, even the so-called second tier campuses appear increasingly difficult for admissions, partly because the ease of spamming applications to all campuses, noted above, but also for the very good reason that the education is superb, and the chances of getting into other big-name university brands is even more brutal—just under 5% last year for Stanford, for example, and 6% admit rate for the tougher Ivies—and, well, Mr. Reagan, who attached the idea that education was special and argued that education should take cuts like everybody else when the budget needed to be balanced, and since the early 1970’s, it’s been about balancing budgets more than addign seats—I add only that this is a short summary but fully factual. You can add whatever politics you like to the facts.

But it could be worse–and there is plenty of room for the top 10% of students in California, at the least, if you are flexible in your U.C. target list. So before you panic, consider a wider field, starting with my favorite dark horse, Santa Cruz, which had an average admit GPA of 3.85 and an overall admit rate of 56.9% last year (with a California admit rate close to 80%). This from a university that the Times International survey has ranked in the top two in the world for research influence over the last couple of years (measured by how often U.C. Santa Cruz researchers were cited by others). Yep, U.C. Santa Cruz, at the top of world rankings for research citations.

As for prestige, in ten years, having a degree from U.C. Merced will be gold to a U.C. Berkeley or U.C.L.A. platinum.

It’s true that the pressure is not going to go away, but the new four-essay admissions strategy is likely to have a dampening effect on the total number of applications, and the additional 5,000 or so California students that the U.C. has agreed to add over the next two years will also have an effect on the chances that a California student will be admitted, as well as on the average GPA and test scores. And let’s look past my Dark Horse to a couple of other options.

In fact, let’s look in the San Jouquin Valley, where Merced’s middle-range GPA’s for students arriving this fall ranged from 3.37 (25th percentile admitted) to 3.88 (75th percentile). Which means that Merced looks like Berkeley did when Reagan was governor, in terms of getting in (Historical fact:  1967 was the first year that the SAT was required for U.C. admissions)—though I hasten to add that Merced will also be a large construction site for the next 4-5 years as they build it out into a truly world-class campus.

If construction dust (and valley fever) sound like bad news, have a look further south at U.C. Riverside, which for students enrolling this fall, had a mid-range GPA of 3.52-4.0, a mid-range ACT composite of 27-29 and a mid-range SAT composite of 1490-1915.

And Finally, Back To Those Pesky Application Essays

 So what should you do as you begin your U.C. application? Let’s start with Reason 1 for the change in the application: at the most selective U.C.’s, they are having a tough time figuring out who is a robot as they sort through reams of applications containing the life accomplishments of kids who have had fully programmed lives, going to Kumon since age four and starting college activities in 8th grade.  So view the essay as a chance to show them why you are unique and would be a real addition to whatever campus(es) you are applying to. But before you do that, compare the U.C. prompts to those used by the other schools you are applying to. Or better yet, wait until next week, when I do some of that for you, as well as analyzing prompts.

See you soon.

 

 

 

 

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2015-2016: Crazy and Crazier

Or not.  I like U Chi’s  approach to essays and appreciate the challenge they throw down, and even if their prompts are sometimes pretentiously self aware of cleverness more than they are truly clever, they do open a window of fresh air into the stale halls of the college application essay.  If you need some help with getting into the spirit of things, just chant, “U Chi is to the application essay as Stanford is to the marching band.

One thing you can count on with Chicago is some latitude–the off-the-wall essay is more welcome here than anywhere else–but keep in mind that the usual warnings about being a whiner or offensive still apply. You are still writing to a human audience, and you still need to consider their response to you. And hey, even the Stanford marching band, where “anything goes,”  has discovered that not everything does go.  Same goes for the U Chicago essay.  You still need to use some judgment about how you look on paper.  And conduct some due diligence investigations before you write, otherwise known as research.  More about that below.

Directly below I splice in the U Chicago essay prompts, to save you opening multiple windows–under the prompts, I will begin discussing how to address some of them, including that wonderful new option of choosing an essay prompt from past years to write about.  Here are the prompts, followed by Part I of my analysis:

2015-16 UChicago Supplement:

Question 1 (Required):

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Question 2 (Optional):

Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

Orange is the new black, fifty’s the new thirty, comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, ____ is the new ____. What’s in, what’s out, and why is it being replaced?
—Inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015

Essay Option 2.

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” –Maxine Hong Kingston. What paradoxes do you live with?
—Inspired by Danna Shen, Class of 2019

Essay Option 3.

Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, Class of 2016

Essay Option 4.

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” –Paul Gauguin. What is your “art”? Is it plagiarism or revolution?
—Inspired by Kaitlyn Shen, Class of 2018.

Essay Option 5.

Rerhceseras say it’s siltl plisbsoe to raed txet wtih olny the frist and lsat ltteres in palce. This is beaucse the hamun mnid can fnid oderr in dorsdier. Give us your best example of finding order in disorder. (For your reader’s sake, please use full sentences with conventional spelling).
—Also inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015. Payton is extra-inspirational this year!

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

Essay Option 7.

In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.

College App Jungle Advice and Analysis on the U Chicago Prompts for 2015-2016 Part I

Things not to do in the U Chicago essay:

No true confessions of your darkest thoughts/fears/desires

No whining

No begging

No plagiarism

No (obvious) bragging

Remember:  they do not really know you. There will not be any body language for them to see, no nudge-nudge, wink, wink to convey that you are kidding; they won’t see you outside of the data and activities reported and the essays that you send–as with all college applications, you are a kind of holograph arising from a few screens of words and numbers.  So “honesty” and “being yourself” are hedged terms, even here, and even here you are crafting a self to present to an application reader.  Just ask this:  which of your selves would you let into college?   And then show that self, with maybe a shot of extra zany thrown in.

Things to consider doing:

Research.   You may not end up actually including any new information learned from research in your essay, and in fact your essay should not read like some plodding and serious piece of research, but doing some research helps frame things and may give you some ideas on how to be creatively weird (instead of factually correct and/or boring).  Doing research is always advice I give for the Chicago prompts, which inevitably have some kind of scientific or intellectual background, even when they intentionally warp it, and this is  especially true this year, because Chicago is taking us into the Wayback machine with their last essay option, above, which I repeat here:

Option 7: In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.

When you click on the past essay questions, you will see that the first option they offer from their past questions is option 2 from last year, what I call the Sapir-Whorf question.  I wrote extensively about this prompt last year, so if you like it, give my commentary a  read before you dive in:  Writing About Option 2 from 2014: Sapir-Whorf.

See what I mean about framing things through research?  This was such a meaty question that I wrote a second post on it, in which I gave more specific suggestions for responding:  Sapir-Whorf Part II.

This example shows why I like the UChi prompts—-yes, you could simply due a non sequitur riff on the question without knowing anything at all, but knowing something helps a lot.

I would also point out that even the non sequitur in comedy depends on knowing what the sequitur is–in other words, if you do not know what is right or customary, you do not know when the comedian is intentionally getting it wrong.  In most cases, comedy appeals to what is broadly known or accepted, as when Steve Martin does a riff on Side Effects.   (Am I dating myself by name dropping this master of nuvo-Dada?  Probably)

So keep in mind, wiseguys and humorists:  Knowing up from down is important if you want to make down into up.

I have written about a number of other interesting prompts from U Chicago in the past, so in keeping with this post’s emphasis on research, you might look at those while you are waiting for my next post on this year’s U Chicago essay prompts:

The Heisenberg Prompt

The Mantis Shrimp Prompt

I think that is enough due diligence for now.  Stay tuned for my next post on U Chicago, and let me know if you need editing–three rounds of editing on single U Chicago essay starts at $160, ready to submit if you follow my editing.  Serious inquiries only, lest your e-mail be converted to processed, canned pork product.  Until next time,

Cheers.

WordGuild

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

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.