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LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, START YOUR ESSAYS: THE 2013-2014 PROMPTS ARE OUT EARLY

In Common Application Essay Prompts, Common Application Essays, University of Chicago Application Essays, Yale Application Essays on July 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Or at least some of them are out early.  

This post will introduce some of the essay prompts for Ivy League and elite universities this year.  We are off to an earlier than usual start for this year’s prompts, probably due to the increased number of early applicants; many of the important schools are not, however, posting yet, but I will introduce some of those that are online now, below, with a quick overview and a few of the new prompts themselves spliced in below that.  Keep in mind that this post is being written on July 1st, and the application scene will change rapidly over the next two to three weeks as many of the colleges get their sites up to date.  Some will not put up prompts until the beginning of August, speaking of which . . . 

The Common App is planning to open for business on August 1st.  If you visit the Common Application site before August, you will find last year’s downloads and pdf’s.  However,  the Common App’s new essay prompts have been released as a “beta.”  Unlike beta software,  these Common App prompts will not be modified and you can start working with them.  This split presentation, with both an out-of-date website and an early release of up-to-date essay prompts can be a bit confusing, but it’s their way of helping applicants start the essays early while not opening up the website itself until they are ready for business.  

I have the Common App essay prompts for 2013-2014 here:  Common Application:  What’s New for 2013-2014.  Then read on below in this post for information on U Chicago, Yale and others, including the complete U Chicago, Yale and UC  essay prompts for this year.  

As a threshold matter, let’s establish our position in the calendar: if you are a rising Senior, you are going to be applying for the 2013-2014 cycle, as a prospective member of the Class of 2018.  I say this because of the volume of page views I am getting in recent weeks on my posts about last year’s  application essays; last year was the 2012-2013 application cycle.  I know, it should seem obvious, but it can get confusing as old posts linger on and many universities have the old prompts listed under “2013.”  It’s also true that some of these old prompts are going to still be in use this year–I have one example below, with the U.C. system–but most will be changed, so be sure that you are working with the right prompts before investing any time and effort.  And no, I do not believe in practicing with old prompts.  This is not the SAT.

So now let’s turn to this year’s prompts: U Chicago got an early jump on some of its Ivy League competitors, having posted its prompts before June even ended, but  Yale has also posted its essay prompts and UPenn has, um, publicized its prompts. Harvard, Columbia, Brown, and  other Ivies are  still stuck in last year as of this post on July 1.  Princeton is with the rest of the Ivies who are not yet up to speed, but I expect to see information on their new essays in the next couple of weeks, given their history.

Let’s start with  UPenn.  The Quakers had this year’s Common App prompts up, but directly below this, Penn still had last year’s supplementary essay . . . The Ben Franklin prompt.  (Yep, that’s their mascot:  a Quaker; and yes, the Ben Franklin prompt is from last year.)  But wait, Penn Admissions Dean Furda put the new prompt up on Penn’s Insider’s blog . . .   Confusing, Penn.   To clear up the confusion, see below in this blogpost for this year’s UPenn admissions essay.

And Penn is not the only school with a blog by the admissions office that is more up to speed than their official admissions portal.  This has to do mostly with the rise of the Common App itself and with the move to electronic submissions.  The Common App effectively sets the date that admissions start for its colleges, and there is a disconnect between this date and when students try to start working on applications–the Common App itself advises starting early on the essays it requires, both in its prompts and in the supplements that the universities post on the Common App site, but August 1st is not really very early, given that more and more students use early applications and some students will be done with apps as of October 1.  In steps the blogs and insider pages for many universities, to fill that gap and help you get going before August–which is what Penn offers, but they should also take down the Ben Franklin prompt.    

Over on the left coast, the University of California is using the same prompts as last year, so you can get started on those now.  I will also copy their prompts into this post, below, and I wrote about these prompts last year.  The Stanford prompts and short writing responses are not yet up–you have to go through the Common Application website to get their supplement,  but I will be perusing their admissions blog and will put up their prompts as soon as I see them.  In the meantime, I’d get working on the Common App prompts and any others I post below that interest you.

As for the Common App itself:   forget about registering and setting up your account on the Common App website before August 1st; they will delete any accounts that were set up before they go live on August 1st.  I would suggest that you  visit the Common App to check out the site format and to search for information on the schools, which will include variables that each school considers when it evaluates applicants.  Go here to search for application information, by school:  https://www.commonapp.org/SearchEngine/SimpleSearch.aspx

( I repeat, do not register.  Yet.)

In my upcoming posts, I will begin addressing and evaluating specific application prompts, with advice on what to do and what not to do, but be warned:  I offer in full only some posts on specific prompts here, on the CollegeAppJungle.  Full access to all of my analysis and posts, including my advice on individual essay prompts, is only available by subscribing to my private blog or by retaining me to edit your work or to help you with a full package, including college application advising.  I offer quite a bit of general advice as a public service, but this is also a business.  Business requires payment, which is a point that has become somewhat obscured in the age of the “free” download.

If you want access to my private blog, or you want to inquire about editing services and college advising,  e-mail  me with either “college advising/editing” or “subscription” as a heading and send it to this e-mail address; I will send you an invoice and grant access to my private blog after you give me a payment:

wordguild@gmail.com

And now, here is a look at some of the prompts that are already up for this year, including U Chicago, Yale and the University of California (Expect to see me start writing about how to approach the U Chicago later prompts this week):

U Penn Essay Prompts for 2013-2014Penn Supplement Essay Prompt for entry Fall 2014:

“The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences; School of Nursing; The Wharton School; Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests, and goals.” 400-650 words

Clearly, Dear Reader, UPenn expects you to know something about their programs; get started on your research . . . before writing. 

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see by the attributions, some of the questions below were inspired by submissions by your peers.

2013-14 essay questions:

ESSAY OPTION 1.

Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.

Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016

ESSAY OPTION 2.

In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: “Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012).

You are you and your..?

Inspired by Maria Viteri, Class of 2016

ESSAY OPTION 3.

“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.

What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?

Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010

ESSAY OPTION 4.

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu

What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?

Inspired by Tess Moran, Class of 2016

ESSAY OPTION 5.

How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Inspired by Florence Chan, Class of 2015

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

Yale University Application Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

Yale Writing Supplement – Essay Topic

Please note that the Yale freshman application will be available on the Common Application website sometime in August. The Yale-specific questions will include one additional required essay for all applicants, and one optional essay for prospective engineering majors. The essay prompts for the 2013-2014 Yale Writing Supplement are as follows:

Yale Writing Supplement required for all freshman applicants:

  • In this second essay, please reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application, or on something about which you would like to say more. You may write about anything—from personal experiences or interests to intellectual pursuits.We ask that you limit your essay to fewer than 500 words. Before you begin, we encourage you to go to http://admissions.yale.edu/essay, where you will find helpful advice.

Optional essay for prospective engineering majors:

  • If you selected one of the engineering majors, please write a brief third essay telling us what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in engineering, and what it is about Yale’s engineering program that appeals to you.

University of California Application Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

As you respond to the essay prompts, think about the admissions and scholarship officers who will read your statement and what you want them to understand about you. While your personal statement is only one of many factors we consider when making our admission decision, it helps provide context for the rest of your application.

Directions

All applicants must respond to two essay prompts — the general prompt and either the freshman or transfer prompt, depending on your status.

  • Responses to your two prompts must be a maximum of 1,000 words total.
  • Allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250 words.

The essay prompts

Freshman applicant prompt

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

Transfer applicant prompt

What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Prompt for all applicants

Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

That’s it, for now.  Get a notebook and start scribbling ideas.  I recommend doing some writing every day, as ideas occur to you and also just to record where you are at or just what you are doing.  This will give you a large repository of information to fall back on as you begin to write your essays.  You would be–or may be–amazed to discover how easy it is to forget a good idea if you do not write it down promptly.

Comparative Ivy League (And Other) Admissions Statistics For This Year And Beyond

In Brown University Admissions, college admissions, College Application Essays, college essay, common application, Common Application Essays, Ivy League Admission Statistics, Ivy League Admissions, Stanford Admissions on May 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm

In my last post, I took a look at trends in admissions–finding, most notably, that admission rates at the most competitive schools are continuing to trend downward in the single digits.  This post will give three year results for all of the Ivy League universities, below, as well as results on other universities that were popular with my clients this year.  (This data changes from early in the year until late spring; I update as I get new numbers but not necessarily immediately.)  Some schools are holding steady, others are seeing decreasing rates of admissions, while  a few saw a slight increase in admits.

I also made some suggestions in the last post about looking outside the usual suspects, i.e, the 12 or so big names that always come up when constructing a college list, something I have been discussing for years.  I will repost and link the relevant posts  in the coming days and weeks.

In addition to broadening your college search and making a longer target list, the supplementary work that you do in applying to college this year will  be even more important for the selective schools.  Essays are always the center of this effort, which is why I spend so much time addressing them in by blog posts, and essay development and editing is central to my business and my work with applicants.  My first recommendation on essays is to get started now.

It’s true that most new prompts will not be up until July or later, but this is a good time to find a small notebook and carry it around so you can jot down ideas when they come to you–I am serious about this; you will need a bit of focus for your thoughts, so have a look at my post on this year’s Common Application Prompts, then get that notebook, carry it with you, and take the time to scribble an idea down when it comes to you.  You will find that good ideas can fade and be lost as quickly as you forget your dreams–if you don’t write them down.  A notebook is best for this because it is really good only for making notes, and so tends to work better for this task than does that most distracting platform called a smart phone.

Check the admissions trends below;   but for a comparison, before you do check our trends in the U. S., here is the most recent data from the University of Edinburgh:

University of Edinburgh

2012-2013 Total Number of Applications: 47,076; 18,155 offers; 5,457 accepted; Offer rate 38.6%.  The offer rate does vary by “programme”.

Note that a single applicant can make multiple applications to the university, to different programs, so the acceptance rate is a bit exaggerated–but still . . . compare this to the Ivy League three-year returns, below:

Three Year Admissions Results, Ivy League (these numbers represent the total percent of applicants who were offered admission)

Brown–2011: 8.70%; 2012: 9.60%; 2013: 9.16%

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

Cornell–2011: 17.95; 2012: 16.2%; 2013: 15.15%

Dartmouth–2011: 10.14%; 2012: 9.79; 2013: 10.05

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

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

U Penn–2011:  12.26%; 2012: 12.32; 2013:10.05

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

Three Year Results, Other Universities

Cal Tech–2011: 12.99; 2012: 11.76; 2013: 10.55%

M. I. T. —2011: 10.07%; 2012: 8.9%; 2013: 10.2% (pending final number)

Georgetown–2011:  16.8%; 2012: 16.5%; 2013: 16.6%

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

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

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

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

University of Chicago–2011: 16.29%; 201213.24%; 2013: 8.81%

As I said in the last post, apply to the university of your dreams, even if your stats make an admit unlikely, but then look around for more fallback and sure thing choices.  And start thinking of yourself as an internationalist as well.  There are many fine anglophone schools, abroad, and not just in Canada.  The University of Edinburgh, for example . . .

Starting Your College Application Essays For 2012-2013: The Four Types

In Common Application Essays, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay on July 2, 2012 at 8:36 am

Yes, folks, it’s time to get your essays started.  If you think that this is premature because most universities haven’t yet released their applications for next year, I simply point to the Common Application prompts, which are unchanged–and most of you will be applying to at least a few Common App universities.  Use this link and scroll down to find the essay prompts for this year:  Common App 2012-2013.

I also encourage you to consider the fact that  the Common App questions tend to overlap not only with other Common App questions, but also with the questions used by universities not in the Common App system.  There will be some unusual prompts this year which do not fit into the categories I define below, but even some of these can be addressed using materials which you may have used first for other prompts, especially the intellectual experience prompts, from which a couple of my  clients derived examples to deal with the University of Chicago prompts from last year, which are worth looking at as a thought experiment.

To see an example of more typical application essay prompts, see my earlier post here.  Scroll down the post to find the list.

Once you’ve read through my earlier posts, you will see certain patterns emerging, which I will address below.

Essay Prompts:  Four Basic Kinds

One way to simplify things is to look at how to put the various essay prompts into broader categories.  You can then write essays ahead of time which fall into these categories, or you can simply start on your Common Application essays.  Either way, if you start early, you will have material and essays that can be reworked  to fit new prompts, and you will have more time and repetitions before you settle on the final drafts.  This is a good thing.  Even if early essays do not end up in your final package, they help you work through the process and refine your ideas–as they say, it’s a journey, though we do have a destination in mind:  the college of your dreams, or at least the college that best suits both your budget and your dreams.

Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:

1. Autobiographical prompts asking for “additional” information not apparent in your grades, test scores, activities and recommendations. These want you to reveal yourself in some way.

2. Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  These really want you to show what kind of person you are and how you became that person.  This overlaps with the category below.

3. Intellectual experience prompts.  This is an autobiographical essay category, of course, but with a focus outward in the sense that you need to be able to convey a solid understanding of the book or music or experiment or play or whatever else you reacted to and are describing.

4. Problem solving or puzzle prompts.  This is a broad category, ranging from  topics like the Common App discussion of a problem of international importance to the University of Chicago’s (in)famous prompt consisting entirely of:  “Find x.”  The more general problem-solution topics can be prepared for, but the true puzzle prompts require a very specific and creative response that you can’t really prepare for ahead of time.

You should consider these four categories and try to identify not only those which seem most applicable to you, but more importantly, those which are most interesting to you.  If you think something is applicable but not very interesting, you will probably write an applicable but not very interesting essay.  The game here is to do something you don’t necessarily want to be doing (writing a series of required  essays,  filling out forms and getting materials organized for  your college applications) while finding a way to enjoy it.

If, for example, you can think of some experiences with a coach or a relative that might be easy to write about  in response to an essay prompt about a person who has influenced you, but you are actually more interested in writing about books or about some theory which fascinates you, then you should write about books, or the theory, even if it means you might need to do some reading or research this summer.  Keep in mind your audience (college admissions officers and readers) and what they are looking for (interesting and interested people who show intelligence and curiosity).  Also keep in mind your own nature–are you comfortable talking about yourself, or would you rather analyze something, whether it be a book or a pressing social problem?

For those of you who want to focus on intellectual experiences, I will be suggesting some reading programs, including specific authors and titles,  in a post that is coming soon, .

In a moment, I will address each of the four categories of prompts I outlined above and give you links that deal with specific examples from the recent past.  I am going to start, however, with links to a couple of posts about what NOT to do in your college essays and how to think about your audience; for mistakes to avoid in your college essays, see this post: College Essay No-No’s.  For some thoughts on your audience and how to persuade them, start here:    So You Want To Write A College Essay. 

Prompt Type 1:  Autobiographical prompts asking for additional information/Tell us something you want us to know about yourself.  Many universities use this kind of prompt.  The Stanford letter to your roommate from last year is an example, as last year’s Yale supplement (specifically, Yale asked applicants to tell us something that you would like us to know about you that we might not get from the rest of your application – or something that you would like a chance to say more about).  Consider carefully what you want to show your audience.

The three biggest risks to this prompt are, in order of frequency, boring your reader, annoying or offending your reader, and contradicting other aspects of your application. The Stanford Supplement Essays are a good example of the advantages and risks of this kind of prompt because, in encouraging a more personal and informal tone, Stanford both opens up an opportunity to be more relaxed and creative and gives you an opportunity to hang yourself  (metaphorically, of course) by, like, sounding like a total slacker/slob/self absorbed lightweight, dude.

I wrote about the specific problems raised by this last year, in my Stanford Supplement post.  You may also be tempted to create an essay emphasizing the more saintly aspects of your personality–this can lead to boredom or cliches, as I discuss here and in even more detail here.

Prompt Type 2: Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  Several of the Common Application Prompts fit into this category, which can involve a range of autobiographical episodes  from an important learning experience with a coach or mentor to. . . any experience which fits the description.  The prompt asks you to reflect on your own experience and to make sense of it.  This can lead to a number of problems, which I discuss in detail under specific prompts, such as the prompt asking you to write on an important influence or the Common App prompt on a significant experience.  These links will help you get started and will help you avoid some common errors.

Prompt Type 3: Intellectual Experience Prompts. Obviously, an intellectual experience that is important to you also counts as a significant personal experience, but I create a separate category here because there are a number of  universities that  make a distinction by asking, in one prompt about personal experiences with others or in a situational setting and asking, in a separate prompt, that you write about a piece of music or books that influenced  you.  For more info on the ins-and-outs of this prompt type, try this link:  my entry on the Harvard prompt about books. You will find other prompts about books by clicking the navigation arrows for posts before and after this Harvard prompt post.

Some universities will use prompts that throw a quote at you or that ask you to use a quote you like as a focus for an essay.  The prompt about a quote usually evokes either an intellectual experience or an expression of personal values.  While it’s possible to humorously go in an unexpected direction with a quote, any serious response will involve  connecting your experience and knowledge to whatever larger principles or events the quote evokes.  Have a look at my prompt on the Princeton supplement last year for further suggestions and information on the quote prompt.

Prompt Type 4:  Problem and Puzzle prompts.  As I noted above, it is not possible to prepare for puzzle prompts that offer challenges like  “Find X.”   U of Chicago is infamous for this kind of prompt–other U of C examples from last year were these: “Don’t write about reverse psychology” and  a prompt that asked you to use Wikipedia to explain “What Does Play-Doh have to do with Plato.”  You just have to make it up as you go along, though research can be involved. (Do I need to mention that it’s best to double check on anything Wikipedia offers?  Start with the discussion tab for each Wikipedia entry to assess the information.)

If you specifically want insight in the Weltanschaung of U of C, you should have a look at the most recent New Yorker, which has an article on the U of C scavenger hunt.  This article is only fully available  to New Yorker subscribers, but this article is, like most New Yorker material, interesting and extremely well-written–and I strongly recommend a New Yorker subscription to any intellectually adventurous and curious anglophone. Think of it as an intellectual experience builder.

Many problem prompts can be researched.  In one example, the Common Application’s prompt on an issue of national or international concern is  something you can prepare for.  Just remember that you need to start with a personal interest.  Don’t invent a sudden interest in something you formerly did  not care about simply to respond to an application essay prompt.  See my post on the Common Application Prompt Two  as well as  this post for more ideas about this kind of problem prompt.

I will be writing a post on a specific problem that you might want to consider writing about soon, and I am also working on posts with more intellectual and book essay ideas and sources of information–be sure to check in during early July.

College Counselors, College Application Services and Test Prep Companies: An Overview and Evaluation

In Brown University Application Essay, college essay, Common Application Essays, Harvard Application Essay, Princeton Application Essay on June 20, 2012 at 9:16 am

There are four main categories of individuals and businesses currently offering college advising and application essay  services.  I will take them in order to describe what they offer and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The first category is individuals and companies offering themselves as “College Counselors” or “College Application Advisers.”  Many of the individuals running these businesses have degrees in Psychology and credentials in counseling.  In general, their focus is on the application process as a whole and essay development is generally left largely to the applicant, beyond some brainstorming and a generalized response to the final essays.  In some cases this is because the counselor feels that the essay should show the student’s own skill level and thinking without significant editing help; more often, in my opinion, the student is largely on his or her  own because most college counselors don’t have the writing chops to be of serious use.  This doesn’t mean that the overall package offered by your typical college counselor lacks value, but I have worked with many students who already pay a college counselor but who still need more help with their essays.

I include my own services in this first category because I offer college advising and selection services, but I also focus on developing persuasive and superior supplemental materials, particularly in working with supplemental activities and in developing superior essays.  This is partly because of my background, which  is academic and editorial and which gives me a highly pragmatic approach,  and partly because most of the people I work with are Juniors or have completed their Junior year, and  by that point, your GPA has taken shape and so has the trajectory of your coursework. You can’t make a big improvement in your grades other than finishing strong as a Junior and maintaining your GPA as a Senior, but you can still make a big impact through supplemental materials, particularly your essays and any activities associated with the essays.

A second category of service providers is the large test prep companies, such as Kaplan, which focuses on standardized test prep but which has, over the years, developed a college advising package.  The overall quality of the services they offer is decent to very good, but again the essay and supplemental materials side of the application is more an add-on to the services they traditionally offer and you will be in a setting more like a distance learning  or on-site class for most of their services, rather than in a truly individualized setting–unless you want to pay a lot of money, that is.  The quality of instruction varies quite a bit and there is a fairly high rate of turnover as they often hire folks who are recent graduates or may be picking up money while completing an advanced degree.

In addition, these are generally for-profit companies, and their college prep packages, even those offered in a class setting, can run into the thousands of dollars.  While they are cheaper than the more pricey college counselors in the most expensive places, like New York, these companies are still an  expensive option and can be unsatisfactory due to varied instructional quality and  those looking for a program which is individually tailored.

In addition to these, you can find plenty of cheesy sites promising an essay “review,” which will amount to about a paragraph offering an overall evaluation and a few suggestions for improvement,  supported by what amounts to some margin notes.  They are not personalized services but are businesses which farm your essays out to low-paid and usually inexperienced editors. If getting a cheap review is your only concern, go ahead, but you will get what you pay for here.   Some of these same sites also offer ghost writing “services,” which is the final category I will discuss.

Ghost writers do have a place in the world, such as when a ghost writer helps an inarticulate celebrity put out a biography, but ghost writing has no place in the writing of college application essays.  The business model of ghost writing sites involves offering essays, often very cheaply, (as little as twenty dollars, in some cases) written by someone else who pretends to be you.  This is, of course, unethical.  While nobody will put you in jail for  this kind of fraud,  you would be kicked out of school if this were ever revealed and your life could be badly damaged if not ruined.  But the main reason you should avoid these people is that it’s just bad for you to fake your way through life, and it’s bad for those around you, too.

Turning back to the legitimate businesses and individuals, my main criticism  is that they give the most help in easiest areas of the college application process and the least help in the most difficult.  Sure, a traditional college counselor  can save time and family strife in walking parents and students through college selection, but they generally treat the application essays as a kind of adjunct project, largely up to the individual inspiration of their clients.  It is my view that your college application essays are too important to be left for the last stage of the application.  You should be developing them no later than the summer prior to your Senior year, and you should seek help in shaping and reshaping them.  They can sway a reader if you are in the gray area created by the rubrics which admissions officers use to judge you–for a detailed explanation, see this link–and as admissions become increasingly competitive,  essays have increasingly become  the deciding factor in whether many are admitted or not.  And if you are put into a classroom setting, be it online or at a physical location, you are another face in the crowd–it’s not a waste of time, but it’s also not optimal.

Don’t forget, the holistic universities (those who require essays)  are intentionally emphasizing subjective factors and human judgement–the gut reaction of your admissions reader does matter.  So don’t settle for a merely decent effort in your essays or for someone who sees their duty as complete after making a few margin notes or giving you a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on your essays.

I will close this post by presenting a simple comparison.  Below I will show you both an example of my editing and compare my package of services to one of my current competitors–Brown University, which has decided to make money off its own college applications process by putting the college application essay into an online class for which it charges a lot of money.  (Is this cynical of Brown?  I don’t know, but it does suggest that they have accepted the reality that most students who apply to Brown use professional editing help, and are using that fact to promote their own general essay writing class to high school Juniors.)

My clients’ essays are always kept confidential, but I offer here an example of how I can edit as I take a long and somewhat convoluted essay by a well-know contemporary author, paring it down and focusing it so it is a 500-word essay suitable for a college application.  Have a look at what is on both links to see how I can reshape a piece of writing into something that fits into the five-hundred word limit imposed for most undergraduate applications.

The editing I will do on your essay will be even more detailed–you will  find considerable commentary along with suggested additions, corrections and deletions.

In order to make a more detailed comparison of what’s on offer and what it will cost you, let’s have a look at Brown university’s online class in preparing for college writing, where they include the college application essay; go here for the tuition and then use the tabs to look at the course description.

This is Brown, so this is a good class, but  they want well over 1,000 dollars for this course  and only one college application essay is included in the curriculum, which is primarily meant to prep you for Freshman English and writing research papers at Brown.   Read the course description closely, using the tab at the top, to see this for yourself.  Keep in mind another important difference from the personalized services I offer:    the instructor will be dealing with the equivalent of a huge lecture hall, so your essays will generally be graded either by a graduate assistant or an adjunct, and the detail and quality of their responses can vary widely.  I edit all of your work personally and communicate with you directly.

And most of you will want to write three to five essays for your college applications, not one, yet you will finish this 1,395 dollar class with only one college essay ready to go.  This is not a terribly efficient or cost-effective way to approach your college essays this summer.

In contrast, if you use my services, you will end up with multiple essays, each of which I have edited line-by-line, with detailed commentary, and each essay edited through three total drafts, ending with a polished final product that is ready to submit; in addition, everything we do is specifically tailored to you.  In fact,  for a little over half what Brown charges you in their online course, I will help you write five application essays to Brown’s single application essay, and I will take you  from your first draft through a third, polished draft.  If you want to write fewer essays and spend less money, I can work with you on a single essay at a time.   I assist you step-by-step, and you can be proud of an excellent final product that really represents you.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am available for personal consultations and assistance, or we can use Skype if you live further afield from me but want a more conversational approach.  Othwerwise, we will use e-mail and phone communication as we develop and exchange drafts until you are satisfied.

Send me a draft of a college or other essay for a free sample edit.  My calendar will fill rapidly from July on, so don’t wait too long.

E-mail to:  wordguild@gmail.com

How To Write A 500 Word College Application Essay–An Exercise In Editing

In Common Application Essays, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Princeton Application Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay, Yale Supplemental Essay on May 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

One of the greatest challenges in writing an application essay is the length demanded by the Common App and most universities:  500 words  (or less).  For many applicants, this is akin to writing a perfect Italian sonnet about their lives–or boiling their lives down to a haiku.  But if your initial essay has “good bones,” meaning a good central narrative or description and good structure, you should be able to  pare down your language to come up with an excellent final draft.

The 500 word limit is not like a deadly force field, of course–your essay won’t be obliterated or cast aside if you are a few words over –but the fundamental rule is clear: the more words over the limit, the more you risk irritating the reader and the more they will expect from the essay.  As one app officer has said, it really “raises the bar” if the essay is too long, and the longer it is, the higher the leap, so to speak.

So don’t get hung up on every word as if there were only one possible version of your essay in the entire universe.  If you start your essays early, you will have plenty of time to play with them.  Once you have a good draft, good editing is paramount.  You want to create clean sentences, use the most precise vocabulary possible and cut out repetition.  One well-chose word can replace a phrase or even a sentence.

To show you what I mean, I will edit and vastly cut down the much longer essay we discussed in my last post.  It will be helpful to see the last post and read the essay before continuing.

To continue,  I will take that (very) long and brilliant essay linked and discussed in the last post and distill from it a small excerpt; this excerpt will be a mini-version of the original, but will still be hundreds of words too long (874 words, to be precise) so I will edit it again, showing my editing marks, and then end with a third version of 500 words.  This final essay could be used equally as well for an intellectual experience essay or a personal influence essay.

Tearing down and rebuilding a long and brilliant essay by a real pro may seem like a kind of party trick, but in reality this is what good editors do all the time for journalists,  essayists and novelists.

Version 1, below, is an excerpt from the original, longer essay; version 2 is the edited example of that excerpt; and version 3 is the result, in which the excerpt has been editing down to become a 500 word application essay.

Version 1

An excerpt from a much longer essay on the comic book superhero

This is a cut-down version of the original,  with no other editing changes.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by the telling of lies. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our moral failings for granted and, perhaps as a result, favored lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics. All nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us—at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic book was fantasy, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies, the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house.

These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, what struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof. For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comic books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, the tights, the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart.

I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty Thor. I had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.

It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation.

Version 2

An Edited Version–You can see the version above under the editing marks, and you can see the 500-word version emerging.  

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by of the telling of lies lying. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our took our moral failings for grantedand, perhaps as a result, favored favoring lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethicsfor all nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, he tied  with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been   —at least one verifiable such a boy,boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic books was were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies., the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, and your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, What struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof:  . For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, Of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, or the tights  the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave allowed Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage, like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty ThorI had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation through imagination.

Version 3:  A 500-Word Intellectual Experience or Personal Influence essay.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we read a kind of modern parable and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm of lying. Mr. Spector took our moral failings for granted, favoring lively argument over condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. None of that seemed to have anything to do with the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics, for all nine-year-olds are sophists.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was such a boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that comic books were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies.  Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you  and your dreams. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality——but if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). What struck me was a profound recognition of the implicit premise of  the boy on the roof:   that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics which after all were only paper, staples, and ink. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

Of course, it was not the red cape any more than the boots or the tights  that allowed Superman to fly. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, and felt magically alone. I had imagined the streak of my passage, a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector: it was about personal transformation through imagination.

Writing About An Intellectual Experience Or Personal Influence: Post #1 on College Application Essays For 2012-2013

In Common Application Essays, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay, Yale Supplemental Essay on May 11, 2012 at 11:53 am

This is the inaugural post on the topic of books and intellectual development for the 2012-2013 application year.  I have previously written about this topic in a number of posts; for writing about books specifically, you should start at The Harvard Supplement; Or, How To Write About Books Part 1 , a post from last year.  I will add, however, that the essay we will examine in this post could equally be used for an essay on an influential person or experience.  Read on to see what I mean.

One of the problems common for my clients last year was making an essay about a book or intellectual experience a vehicle of personal expression.  If you are passionate about the topic, your passion will make your essay come alive, but some of those who worked with me on their essays were so enthused about the minutiae of the intellectual experience or books that they forgot about themselves.  Remember that your audience is an admissions officer and that you are really writing about yourself when you write about an intellectual experience or a book that is important to you.  I have discussed audience and purpose in this post from last year, and if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend reading it now: So You Want To Write A College Essay.

The remainder of this post will be aimed at an analysis of  a specific essay  one of our prominent contemporary authors, a man of wide-ranging curiosity who  has promoted the artistic and cultural value of such “nonliterary” forms as the comic book–make that the graphic novel.  He has written about the influence of comics and other pop art forms on his life.  While it may seem unorthodox or event totally inappropriate for me to start me series on intellectual experiences with an analysis of an essay on comic books, I think that you will find this post both informative and invaluable in opening up possibilities for the intellectual experience essay.

This is a sample of a much longer post with links to an excellent essay and detailed analysis of it.  To access this post in full, you may either pay the minimal subscription fee, receiving full reading rights to all of my college app and essay posts, or you may retain me for college application advising and editing.  This blog is a mixture of  free information, particularly for general analysis and advice, and protected posts which offer very specific advice and analysis.  See “Welcome To The Jungle” in the first column of this blog and the table of contents included in it  for more information, as well as the “About” window.


College Application Success: The Seven Rules

In college admissions, college application, common application, Common Application Essays, Harvard Application Essay, Researching Colleges, Stanford Application, UC Santa Cruz Application, University of California Application, university rankings on March 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

College App Jungle’s  Rules of College Admissions:

1. There are no secrets to admissions though each university does have priorities which shape admissions. Beyond looking at the information colleges provide about how they evaluate applications, spending time trying to figure out if there is a “secret handshake” which will give you admittance is a waste of time.

This doesn’t mean that all things are equal and no strategy is necessary.  I strongly recommend that you carefully research universities and craft your application to match the schools which you want to attend–more about this below.  But those who spend hour after hour on the chat threads on College Confidential, hoping to find something guaranteeing them an acceptance letter from their favorite school,  should instead spend the time working on their essays.

Maybe you know a guy who knows a guy who knows that U.C. Berkeley is looking for engineering students who are the first in their families to go to college, but . . . so what?   Even if this is true (and it was recently) this kind of “fact” changes each year. Every university has dozens of priorities for admissions, priorities which are revised both before and during the admissions process each year; as students are admitted and categories fill, numbers  like the SAT average and ethnicity  for applications and admits also change.  Early on, the college may be looking for students who fit a particular profile, but once that fills or starts to fill, they can shift the priority to a different category .

Why?  The universities have one eye on you and another eye on things like their ranking in the U.S. News and World Report.  The take away is that you can’t spend time worrying about things which will change even as apps arrive at the college.

As an example of an admissions priority which is changing, San Jose State is currently embroiled in a controversy over giving preference to students coming from Santa Clara County, where the university is located.  For this year, they have backed off from eliminating this preference, but facing 60 million dollars in budget cuts right now, they are likely, within another year or so, to eliminate it.  Why? You could say that,  to be fair to all applicants in a statewide university system,  they can’t act like a local school, but more realistically  this move seems designed to allow more space for students who will pay more–foreign and out-of-state students, for example.  This will also increase their selectivity and so tend to improve their national ranking.

And this is only one of many preferences facing evaluation and possible revision this year for San Jose State alone, which like the rest of the Cal State schools  uses the supposedly simple objective admissions process; add to this the priorities assigned to various schools and majors within the university,  and you have some idea of how complex the calculus is for every school.  Do the same for a holistic admissions university and it’s even more complex.

See my last post for more information on how universities assess applications and what a holistic versus objective evaluation entails, and look below for my link to the U.C. Santa Cruz evaluation to see a detailed list of factors considered–keep in mind that these vary to some degree from school to school, even within the U.C. system.

2. Grades and test scores are the most important factors in evaluations of college applicants.

You can count on grades and scores to be the first but not only consideration as your application is evaluated.   If you are a top student in a good school, if you have excellent SAT/ACT scores, a broad set of activities and a clear area of specific excellence  and passion, you will be admitted to most schools you apply to.  If you do not fit this description, you may have fewer options, but fear not:  there is a college with a spot for every student in the country with decent grades and test scores.  You may have to go further afield, of course, but you are not forever doomed by a few C’s and B’s.  As for GPA, it’s your unweighted average that is directly compared and which is used in the averages the universities publish with their profiles of admitted students; your weighted average does matter as it establishes your class rank, and can be used as an additional factor in direct comparisons, but the unweighted GPA is the first thing assessed, along with SAT/ACT test scores.

3. Some things do trump grades and test scores, but these tend to be very specific and very obvious exceptions.

Your favorite university is, in fact, looking for you if  you show a clear ability or potential to excel at something of value to the institution– if you are a recognized musical talent with decent grades or a mathematical prodigy or a 6’4″ All-CIF high school linebacker running a 4.5 second 40 yard dash and bench pressing 350 lbs, for example.  But even with exceptional skills in some area, such as tackling other large, fast people, you must still show that you have the academic chops to survive as a student at the specific school, though some entities, like athletic departments, may supply assistance in the form of tutoring.

If you want this quantified further, a 2008 study showed that players on top 25 football and basketball teams had SAT scores 220 points below the average for the rest of the student body at these schools.  Obviously elite athletic programs get priority at many schools.

Unfair, you say?  Not from the institution’s point of view.  It has its own priorities, with money and reputation near or at the top of the list, and sports are important both to boosters and to most students.   So are many other talents.  If you doubt my claims, see my entry about admissions stats for early 2012 and scroll down to my discussion of Stanford for further details on the importance of athletics.  It seems that the football team is important even at an intellectual paragon like Stanford.

The next rule is for the vast majority who  do not fit the exceptional niches that most universities set aside and who do not have a perfect academic record.

4. It’s okay to be human.  A few B’s and a  C will not kill your chances of admission to any but the most competitive universities, especially if you show a desire to push your limits by taking challenging classes in which you are not always perfect.  As you create your application portfolio, your  essays and extracurriculars can  reveal important and valuable aspects of you that can offset relative weaknesses in your grades or test scores.  Good recommendations are also important.  For an example of a the kinds of additional factors, see the U.C. Santa Cruz website, where they list fourteen factors used in making evaluations–they are, for example, giving  California residents preference (at least as of this year’s applicants), something that other U.C.’s  are moving away from (as I pointed out above, they get more money from a nonresident. . . )

My advice:  Try to keep things in perspective as you prepare for college.  I have known a few Valedictorians who were really living miserable lives in order to “win” academic honors.  I think it’s better to be less than perfect and to enjoy your life rather than to live in torment over every grade point.  There are many schools you have not heard of where you could be perfectly happy and be well educated.  If you are a resident of a western state, see my post here for more information on finding a good university in the West and potentially saving a lot of money as an extra boon.

5. The college application process starts early.  In fact, it should begin no later than the Sophomore year in high school.  Even the Freshman year in high school is increasingly important, if not as part of your GPA, then as part of your overall academic trajectory (they want to see increasing difficulty and challenge in your class selection from year to year). I think this is unfair and unwise–many people struggle to adjust in the first year or two of high school, and there are myriad examples of successful people who did not excel early–but this is the way things are going as competition for admission to selective universities increases.

On the other hand . . . a student who stumbled early should not give up.  The holistic schools will look at other aspects of your application that may explain or offset some academic    shortcomings.

You should make a serious effort to establish relationships with counselors and cultivate relationships with teachers, for you will need recommendations.  Try to develop these relationships early and in a sincere way, which requires something from you as well as from them.  When dealing with teachers, show interest and be helpful when possible–and show an interest in the academic subject of the teacher,  not just in yourself and your opinions.

By your Junior year, you want your counselor to know your face, your name and your important interests.  If you are a Junior and haven’t talked to your counselor, there is no time like the present.

Be straightforward about your desire to work with your counselor as part of your application process.  Ask them for their advice–they are usually knowledgeable  if not expert, and people like to share what they know, so let your counselor talk.  If your counselor seems less than eager, on the other hand, it might have to do with budget cuts that have loaded them with 500–or more–students.  Be polite and persistent.

6. Essays are Important and can separate you from your competitors.  And in the essays, as in your activities, authenticity matters.  Your application self and your real self need to have a clear relationship.  If your verbal score on the SAT was 550 but your essays read like Zadie Smith wrote them,  your app will not do well, even if your SAT math score was perfect.  Most experienced admissions readers can predict your SAT verbal from reading your essays, and if you farmed your essays out to one of the ghost writers offering their services on the internet, you are most likely doomed,  not just for a lack of academic skill, but more importantly because you lack integrity.  Getting editing help and reader input on your essay is fine; faking it is not.

This can be a gray area when you seek editing–as an example, I do detailed, line-by-line editing and suggest better phrasing as well as offering more holistic evaluations of essays, but ultimately my client’s essays are theirs.  My job as an editor is to give them ways to reshape the clay that they provide, but the essays are and must be student material.  Any editing help provided must be both sensible and sensitive as well as honest.

For a holistic school, like all of the Common Application schools, authenticity means more than your test scores and class rank.  In general, the admissions readers genuinely try to construct a full picture of you from your materials, from grades through essays.  Many students try to create a false self in their essays, just as these same students may be dabbling in many activities just to get them on the “resume.” Find a way to say something authentic in your essays–this can take time and will involve reading for some of the recent prompts for supplemental essays.

7. Activities are important, especially those that show a long-term interest and commitment, but for authentic intellectual development, reading widely is the best approach.     Reading is one of the best ways to add authentically to your general knowledge and to deepen your understanding of the world, and many college applications recognize this in their essay prompts, which either ask for or allow books as topics.  This does not mean that you should start reading the most serious possible literature immediately.  In fact,  I link you here to an excellent essay by Michael Chabon, one of our best contemporary writers,  on his love for comic books, with a vigorous defense of their value. Yes, reading comic books is –oh, excuse me, I mean reading graphic novels– is intellectually respectable, or at least it can be.    So go ahead and start with the supposedly lightweight, but be sure to move onward and outward from there.  You might try going from comics to Chabon’s The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, for example, or from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels to his, well, novels, like American Gods.

In addition to being generally useful, a good reading program will pay off in the application essays.  Your life will most likely have a few important episodes that might work in an autobiographical essay, but the number of experiences available to you through books is relatively limitless.  With the Common App and most holistic universities using essay prompts which directly address books or for which books are a good topic, reading is a good place to put in some time.

I have previously discussed writing about books, and will be addressing this again in future posts, but you can’t do a good job writing about books if you do not start reading early.

If you are already a Junior, and don’t read  beyond what is assigned in school, it’s a bit late but not too late.  I will have some suggestions for reading programs over the summer for all types of students in a later post.

Those are my rules, or guidelines, if you will.  Look for more posts in the near future on writing about books and other application matters.

The Secret of College Admissions: How College Applications Are Evaluated

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

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

Objective Evaluations

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

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

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

Special Admissions Categories in Objective Schools

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

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

Holistic Evaluations and Common Application Schools

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

Institutional Priorities and Special Categories

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

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

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

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

Committee Evaluations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is good advice for everybody.

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