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The New Common Application Essay Prompts for 2017-2018 and other Changes to the Common Application

In common application, Common Application 2017-2018, Common Application Essay Prompts, personal statement, Uncategorized on May 8, 2017 at 9:37 am


Who should read this post:  Anybody applying to a college in the Common Application portal next year.  Here is a searchable list of members:  Common App 2017-2018.    I note with interest that the new members this year include some good international options, some regional big names and some universities that should be better known–like the alma mater of James Joyce, University College, Dublin. It seems the Common App is rebounding from their disastrous rollout of Common App 2.0, back in 2015-2016 as they add members and extend their reach.  But they do have competition–more on that in a later post.

Quick Plug for My Services Before We Get to the Prompts:

If you need guidance on the application process, target schools, or other application questions, contact me to make an appointment, either locally in the Bay Area or via Skype.  One meeting of two hours will allow us to cover the fundamentals and to look at the latest data, and to outline a target school list, with a preview of admissions requirements and essays.  If you need assistance only with admissions essays, a single meeting of two hours introduces the major consortium essays (e.g. Common Application and University of California essays) and gives us time to look at multiple target school prompts, as well as to discuss ideas and to outline an initial draft.  A sample edit with general review comments and specific line editing on a portion of the essay is included as a follow-up. Some students are ready to continue writing initial drafts independently after an initial meeting, with editing feedback via e-mail. others prefer to continue meeting as they develop major essays, supported by editing on each draft–you choose the level of service that works for you.  Either way, having a set of essays in hand before school begins again will be a major stress reliever.  Please contact me for further details and availability.  

Yes, there is some news, but nothing too radical–the Common App is tinkering with a few of the questions used last year, and . . . fireworks and applause . . . reintroducing the open essay question that disappeared some years back.  Apparently old application prompts don’t fade away, they just go on hiatus.

However, this is not true of Common Application accounts.  You will want to wait until the Common App reboots for this year before you actually set up an account and start filling in your personal information, which usually occurs in the last day or so of July or beginning of August.   At that time all accounts currently existing on the portal are deleted.  So feel free to peruse the site, but don’t bother setting up an account just yet.  What you can do, though, is start writing your Common Application essay, or better yet, start thinking about it–and getting some ideas written down.

And I have a very old-fashioned recommendation for how to go about that:  Carry a small notebook, and in that keep a copy of the prompts.  Read the prompts every once in a while and just start scribbling ideas down as they come.  If you do this for a month or two, sitting down at least a few times a week, you will have a large deposit of ideas to mine. Too many students use a process that involves sitting down, picking a prompt and writing about the first thing that seems like  a good idea.  I have found that it is much better to start doing a little bit, every day, if possible, then sitting down after a month or two of idea-generation to start your essay.

Most of you will be writing at least three essays anyhow, and the more raw material and ideas you start with, the easier the process will be.  I like the small version of the Picadilly notebook, btw–and no, they do not advertise on my site (nobody does–I do not accept ads as I want to avoid conflicts of interest), nor do I own stock in the company.  I just like the notebooks, and they are cheaper than the better-known Moleskin books.  I  suppose you could also type material into your phone, but I always find my thinking is more open-ended when I am using pen and paper, and that is what you want as you start–open-ended and creative thinking.

So start the process early, even if you will write the essays later.

With that as a prelude, here are the Common Application essay prompts for 2017-2018.

2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

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. [No change]

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]***

 

***But also old . . . this open prompt was a feature of Common App 1.0.  I am happy to see it back, but its very openendedness can be a challenge.  More on that in a future post.

How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples

In common application, Princeton Application Essays, Stanford Application Essays on September 20, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Oh, and what not to do.  For starters, don’t try to imitate too closely (and definitely do not copy) your older sibling/friend/acquaintance/college essay guidebook’s foolproof example essay.  Have a look at them, sure, but for true inspiration, we’ll go to the pros.  More on that in a moment.

Because, before I get to essay examples, I want to share a “must hear” link to help you out.  Read on for more.

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To begin with,  I’d like to say that the title of this post is a nod to one of the Great American Things, a little radio show called This American Life.  Created by and featuring Mr. Ira Glass and company, one of TAL’s recent shows was entitled, How I Got Into Collegeand, at the least, you should listen to the prologue and Act One (linked below).   In it,  an admissions officer talk about dumb things people do as they try to get into college, including dumb things that are done with essays (like using the same essay for multiple schools, but not getting the school names right on each essay . . . ).

Topics addressed include parental support/intervention/obnoxious interference in e-mails and elsewhere, demonstrated interest,  and,  most important for our purposes, the admissions officer talks specifically about why most admissions essays he reads are boring.  The admissions director talks about  the same problems I talk about (e.g., the same basic essay, over and over, as in the My Mission to South America, essay).  This admissions officer also admits that he and his colleagues are part of the problem; he does not, however, specifically discuss the repetitive and self-focused essay questions that are required, again and again (Common App, I’m lookin’ at you )  or why this has come to pass, something I explain here:  Common App.

So I recommend that you go to my link to TAL’s  College App show, and listen before you read on.  After listening, you can continue reading to find links to examples of good essays, below.  More on that later; for now, here it is:  This American Life:  How I Got Into College.

Before moving on, I would suggest listening to the whole thing by continuing with Act Two–for a number of reasons.  First among these, it may put the troubles in your own life into perspective.  Second, as you embark on a journey to write about your own life, it is a fascinating study of the malleability of memory . . . as the  protagonist of the rest of this TAL episode, Emir Kamenica, who escaped the Bosnian genocide and is now a rising star at the Booth School of Business, at the University of Chicago, tells his story . . . then hears a different version of things.

As a follow-up to this show, a listener wrote a hilarious Worst College Essay Ever (my title for it). Read it here:  Prank Admissions Essay

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Welcome back, and now we move on to some essay examples.

By now you all know about the Common Application essay prompts, which are all 1st person, Let Me Tell You About Myself essays.  The Common App has dumped the open question and eliminated the possibility of writing directly about a book or intellectual experience.

So my first advice for the Common App is this:  Find the Unexpected ; do the Unexpected.  (I capitalize Unexpected by way of emphasis, not to imitate German capitalization conventions.)  This does not really require anything radical or crazy.  It’s all about how you look at things, even the mundane.

The next point I’d like to make is this:  none of my essay examples below will be student examples.  The reasons are multiple, but two will do as an explanation:  if you want to learn something, from chess to tennis to football to whatever, you don’t usually go study, well, your peers.  You pick out somebody you think is outstanding, if not the best in their field.  Somebody with proven chops.   It’s in that spirit that I offer the examples below, where  I will offer essays by people I admire or essays which I think are really good.  Note that, as examples, most are also too long for our purposes, but you should not be reading to copy exactly–you should read to find ideas, phrases and structures.  My caveat:  you can imitate, borrow, riff off of . . . but do not copy anything more than a quote.  Thanks.  Now on with the show.

Essay Examples

After the first example you will find an annotated list with links; this post is planned as one of those that expands over the course of the app season, so check back–I will add material and links as I find them.  I also have plenty of examples with earlier posts, incorporated into discussions of specific topics and topic types, so browse the archive for material that looks like a fit for your topics.

Okay, here we go:  to show you what I mean about finding the unexpected, as well as how to look for examples, I will start with a link to an essay and then will give you a little editing exercise that will cut this essay down from being about three times the length of a Common App essay to being about 40 words too long, which is a minor overrun, in my world.  I am very serious about the editing exercise–it is short but will teach you a lot about how to look for examples, and how to take apart a longer piece of writing and put it back together–a very educational  exercise in how to read as well as how to edit.

So go to this  long essay about a young immigrant who found a home, of sorts, in the uber-suburban show The Wonder Years.  Read the whole essay first, then come back for this exercise, below.  The exercise doesn’t take much time and will show you something important about the art of the cut in editing, as well as how to read and how to look for material and ideas that might be useful to you in writing an application or any other essay; here is your link:  My Wonder Years.

And here is your brief and painless editing exercise:  copy the essay, splice it into a document, then number the paragraphs.  After you number the paragraphs, delete all paragraphs except these paragraphs: 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12 and 18.  Yep, all the rest of the essay is deleted.  Then delete the first word in paragraph 12 and capitalize the next word.   Then read this “compact edition” as an essay in itself, which it is.

You have a very different essay, of course–this shorter version leaves out an important focus in Ms. Nguyen’s  original essay, but notice how it does show her own sense of being an outsider in the United States, as well as her “place” of comfort and connection, a virtual world reached through a television screen.  Yes indeed,  a  nice example of a place you feel comfortable topic.  And this is, in its full form or in my shortened edit, another good example of the Unexpected.

Example 2: Cooking is Freedom–About a middle school rebellion against sexism and its reverse, by a boy who wasn’t quite fitting the stereotypes of his time and place.  The problem our essayist faces is very much a problem of the early ’70’s, but he writes in a clear and charming way and he absolutely challenges an idea–and he writes  with humor, which is an awfully good thing to have  in an essay that might be number one hundred and ten, on a Wednesday afternoon, for a tired and cranky app reader.

Example 3: Why Department Stores Are Vital  This essay would also be a great fit for the prompt on a place that you feel comfortable–Here   the author take a place which has most often been used to show what is wrong with America and argues for it not only as a place where she feels comfortable but which she thinks is necessary for our culture–another  great example of the Unexpected, in point of view  and attitude.  The topic is an old one, but the picture we get from the author surprises and charms.

Example 4: An Essay by M. Allen Cunningham, on the theme of how the Oregon landscape has influenced his work–this is a superb, rambling essay and another essay on place, which also examines the influence of technology in an interesting way and excerpts from the author’s own novels as it develops.  The first two sections could stand as essays by themselves, with a tweak or two, so keep in mind my little editing exercise from Titi Nguyen’s essay, above.  Or just  skip to section #2, for an essay within an essay on place, perception and much more.  Good stuff.

Example 5 (Multiple Examples): This I BelieveThis link will actually take you to a page with multiple essays.  The writing quality is not always exceptional–I would rate them from excellent to decent in their prose quality–but all have something interesting to say about beliefs and acting based on beliefs, or about how their beliefs developed–and they fit any of three of the current Common App topics.  The beliefs here are from the full spectrum–for a taster, this selection includes an opening essay by Penn Gillette, the magican/performer, on why he is an atheist, and if you look further down the page, has an essay under the title My Brother’s Keeper, which starts as the author leaves Sunday school with his kids.  The latter essay is both humanistic and religious, and both the atheist and the believer are sincere and trenchant in discussing their own beliefs.

I do have one warning for this collection:  this specific  essay topic became really popular in the last decade, primarily because of the This I Believe  project, which was frequently featured on National Public Radio.  So if you write an essay on belief, please don’t start with the clauses I believe in x, or  This I believe: x.  An app reader or officer may start rolling his or her eyes, (Not this again). But even with that caveat, this page, and at least a few of these essays, are definitely worth a visit and may inspire great ideas, even if you do not use any of them now.  Oh, and be sure to be good to the pizza guy.

As noted above, I plan to expand on this list over the coming months, so you might want to check back on this post in  few weeks, scroll down, and see what is new down here.  Thanks for dropping by.

And remember:  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying somebody else and claiming that the work is yours is  . . . theft.  Just say no, or this may happen to you, a la Dante:  Wages of Sin.  Hey, man, don’t mess with the Dante.

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a summary of the trends in interviewing:

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

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

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

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

Personal Characteristics and Admissions Decisions, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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 . . .

The Common Application: What’s New For 2013-2014

In Changes for the Common Application, common application, Common Application 2013-2014, Common Application Essay Prompts, personal statement, The Common Application Essay on March 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

The Common App folks are set to release Version 4.0 for the 2013-2014 application year.  They have promised to make things more user friendly, and they have changed the essay prompts.  Most important, from my point of view, is the increase in essay length–you have up to 650 words; you need to write at least 250. This is up from the 500 word limit of recent years, which is a great thing.

They have also dropped the prompts that I grouped together as the “intellectual development ” prompts–such as the prompt that asked you to talk about an intellectual experience or influence.  On the other hand, there are still ways to use the new prompts to discuss books and intellectual experiences. If you are bookish or  a fanatic when it comes to a particular author or genre of fiction or film, or have found an intellectual home somewhere in the world of books, you already have a large cache of material to draw on and there are ways to use these as topics for the new prompts.

Writing about an enthusiasm is particularly helpful in shaping your personal essay so that it looks out the window more than it looks into the mirror.  An essay about an intellectual or other passion is a good way to  write about something outside of yourself as a way to write about yourself.   Coming up with content may be much easier than for some other topics,  and you get the bonus of not  seeming self-absorbed (a real problem in a first-person essay about yourself).

I will offer more strategy on that soon and begin my discussion of potential topics for some of the new Common App prompts in upcoming posts.

I’ll close for now by giving you the new prompts:

The Common Application Essay for 2013-2014 Instructions.

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. 

Finding The Right University: Some Resources

In college admissions, college application, common application, University of California Application on May 22, 2012 at 11:28 am

College Search and Evaluation Software and Websites

Most of the people I help with college applications can be categorized in two ways:  those who are fixated on a list of big-name universities which are the ONLY places they can possibly consider applying to, and those who are overwhelmed by the information available and so feel paralyzed and unable to choose.  I usually start with the college names they know in both cases and then move on to things they may not have considered, such as this question: Would you want to live there if the university was not located there–a good thing to ask about a place where you are likely to spend at least four years of your life.

In addition to asking questions beyond the status of the university, which in itself is no guarantee of a good experience, it helps to use some of the excellent sources of information that are available today.  I have elsewhere discussed some of the books that can help with the college search, but increasingly the best information is available online.

I encourage my clients to use the information sources below to help narrow the search–I offer suggestions and give them information that falls into the gaps, so to speak, but your average searcher for a good university could do much of the work a college counselor might be paid to do (which is one of the reasons I prefer the title “College Advisor” and put most of my time into intellectual and essay development).  By sending my clients to the sites below and helping put the information in perspective, I can almost always help my clients with a good, varied list of colleges to pursue.  I suggest starting with somewhere around twenty names, then reducing this list to ten or twelve colleges–I used to recommend ten, but in these times, a few more apps is a good idea. So the first step is to empower yourselves, folks.   Take charge of your search, starting with the following sources:

Software And Sites You Should Definitely Use (if you can)

The College Board

www.collegeboard.org

If I may compare the college application game to the rackets, the College Board is the Godfather.  They have a finger in every pie and control much of the important data.  Go to their site, pick a college name and search—this will take you to their Big Future college search engine, which has all kinds of useful data and information—for example, cost estimates are broken down not just by in and out of state but also by on and off campus.

The Common Application

https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/default.aspx

Continuing with my rackets analogy, if the College Board is the Godfather, these guys are the consigliere.  Much of the information on the Collegeboard site can be found here, but focused specifically on the hundreds of universities using the Common App.  Not quite as detailed as the collegeboard, but you are most likely going to set up an account here and you might as well check out what they offer.

College Navigator

http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/

If the College Board is the Godfather, this is the Oracle of Delphi.  This is a federal website and it is built right on the source of education statistics for the U.S.  The site is a function of the Institute of Education Sciences, which is essentially the data clearing house for education facts nationally, among other things.  Graphics windows that open up when you search are not flashy, but the layout is very easy to use and clear, and  you can see very detailed breakdowns of costs from tuition to room and board to an estimate of extra expenses, as well as test scores and pretty much any other statistic you might want, though some of the numbers may be a year behind.   Go now if you haven’t already.   They are the data set, really, that everybody else uses.

Naviance

www.naviance.com

If your school or district has not purchased this service, then you are only going to be frustrated in reading this; if so, convert your frustration to political action and advocate that the board or school purchase Naviance.  Naviance is an institutional software package and service, meaning that it can be purchased by school districts but not by individuals.  There are legitimate institutional reasons for this limitation.  If your district does use Naviance, it will perform most of the functions of a traditional college counselor by providing a highly accurate picture of your chances of gaining admission to a particular university—this feedback is specific to your profile and to your school’s profile.  This includes scattergram reports updated annually for your school.  See Cappex, below, for more on that.   Of course, Naviance can’t read your essays and evaluate them, nor is it very good at figuring out if you are going to get an athletic or music scholarship, to name a couple of very important admissions factors.  But  if your school does have Naviance, Congratulations!  Go see your counselor posthaste.  If you do not have access to Naviance, the two sources above and those I list below can help you approximate Naviance.  In any case, any prediction made by Naviance or any other service is a based on data, in other words is based on the past, and the past is becoming less and less reliable as a predictor of the future except for the general truth that every year it is becoming harder to gain admissions to most selective universities.

Apps and Sites That Are Worth A Look

Cappex

www.cappex.com

Cappex is trying to be a free version of Naviance, with a dose of attitude.  They even have  scattergrams  for the schools they discuss.  Scattergrams are xy graphical representations of results on student applications, with GPA and ACT/SAT score as the two factors represented.  This means that, like all of these predictive tools, we can’t factor in essays, talents, et al, and we don’t know exactly how large the sample is for the Cappex data either, but they do claim to show the results of all of their members who applied, and this number is definitely growing.  There are many other nice features here—their profiles of universities, which include the scattergram,  are reasonably informative and can quickly give you an idea of where you fall among applicants–the most selective unis are shifted way up toward the top right in the scattergrams . . .

College Ray

http://collegeray.com

A good statistical site with a lot of data, presented in a straightforward fashion.  It is searchable and has statistical info like that offered by the College Board, et al.  It’s not clear where they intend to go with this site—it was developed by Harvard undergraduates for the HackHarvard web app incubator–but it offers good info in an easy-to-use format.

Admissions Splash

www.admissionssplash.com

This is a Facebook app that works with around 1,500 schools, matching your profile with the schools and giving you a prediction of your chances to be admitted.  This is a numbers only site—GPA, SAT/ACT—so essays, talents and other factors are not weighed.  This is true of all the software or apps which predict admissions chances, though Naviance, above, has more specific information  and theoretically should be  a bit more accurate.  Still, Splash is worth a look as you search.  It will give you a score range from 1-100 and chances are calculated from “fair” to “great.’  They claim to have a 90-97% predictions.  Keep in mind that you are providing private information—while they have no plans at the moment for using your data, they have not “determined” the long-term use of the data.  In addition to the calculator for predicting admissions, they have a question and answer function and a blog on topics related to college and college admissions.  As with college confidential, almost none of the information offered by individuals can be validated and you are probably wasting your time reading a bunch of responses which purport to offer “insider’ info.

Unigo

www.unigo.com

This is a participant driven site—think of it as the Yelp of universities.  Or you might think of it as an attempt to create a college student Borg.  Good for some idea of aspects of your potential colleges that are not readily clear in statistics—social life, for example—but I always wonder what the basis for comparison is—how do you really know how to rate the social life at your school against that of another?  Without, say, attending both?  An epistemological mystery, but anecdotally this site is useful for things like reviews of dorm life to what the stereotypes of students at the school are, or is.  They also (claim to) rate schools against each other.

Can Give Interesting Information But Probably Not Worth The Time

College Confidential

I like most of the “official’ info, by which I mean the commentary the adults in charge offer, but the various chat threads and discussions of how to finesse an app to a particular school are pretty much sliced lunchmeat.  The discussion threads do have occasional tidbits of good information, but it’s like looking for a pearl in the tanks of a sewage plant.   Buy a rabbit’s foot instead of spending time reading the chat(ter).  The people who work at universities in or with insight into admissions have frequently lambasted the information offered here, with good reason.

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.

How To Write About Books III

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, personal statement, Princeton Supplemental Essay, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books, Yale Supplemental Essay on November 1, 2011 at 7:39 pm

This post builds on the last two posts and offers a  list of themes by which you can classify and discuss books.  This includes a detailed discussion of books and particularly of some  quality trilogies and  series that have been popular in recent years.  The post includes suggestions for mixing it up by developing a thematic comparison of  fiction and nonfiction.  Links to outside reading and examples are included.

I will assume that you have read my last two posts.  If not, start here:  How to Write About Books Part I.  In this post I will summarize the process I outlined in the previous two posts and offer a bit more commentary.  While some university supplements do not ask specifically about books, this discussion, and the two posts preceding this, may be useful in giving you a focus for a discussion of your intellectual development, or you might find useful information here if you wish to write an essay in which you discuss some aspect of life outside of books and relate it to what you have found in books. When you have one or more essays ready for feedback, send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com as Word attachments for a free editing sample and job quote–in return for seeing what I can do for you risk-free, I ask for only serious inquiries. Thank you.

If you are like most readers of Non Required Books, you have picked up either a variety of books with no clear plan involved in your reading or  you have read with a very narrow focus.  The result is probably a pile of unrelated tomes or something like a stack of George R. R. Martin novels.  One heap will seem aimless, the other obsessive, neither of which are impressions you really want to make in your college application essays.  The challenge for the obsessive is to add something to the mix; for the aimless, to find common ground in the material.

Here’s the system I outlined in the last two posts, simplified:

1. Find the similarities in the books.

This post continues by explaining and elaborating on this system for writing about books.  This is an approach, not a formula, and yields individualized essays, not essays based on an outline.  The post goes on to discuss different thematic approaches, with high-quality and popular examples from both fiction and nonfiction, including links.

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The Harvard Supplement: Or, How to Write About Books Part 1

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Influential Experience Essay on October 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

This post specifically addresses a Harvard application essay about a book, but this discussion is on writing about books in general.   The advice here is also good for the 2015-2016 Princeton prompt on books and for other colleges asking you to write about a book in some way. I continue this thread for several subsequent posts, and cover everything from writing about a quote to step-by-step suggestions for how to write about multiple books in a single essay.  If you intend to write about books that have influenced you, these and a set of new posts coming out later in 2015 will be very helpful to you.  

Books are a perennial favorite for college app prompts and even when the prompt does not directly ask you to address books, prompts directed at intellectual experiences or influences or ideas that shaped you can be addressed through an essay on books.

For the 2011 application season Harvard took an approach similar to that of Stanford.  They suggested that, while they have more than enough information to evaluate you already based on other parts of the application, you might just want to consider adding a wee bit more to your application file by submitting some groundbreaking art or your Great American Novel or, what the heck, writing just one more essay.  Here are the topics suggested for their supplemental essay that year:

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• Books that have most affected you

• An academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

Like you, I noticed that the book thing comes up twice in a fairly short list, so let’s start there.  It appears that Harvard is hopeful that its applicants have vibrant intellectual lives and read avidly.  It’s also  likely that you only have time to do assigned reading, what with all those A.P. classes you need to take in order to be considered for an Ivy League school, but even if your reading has only been for classes, you must have read a couple of  intellectually stimulating and interesting books in the past twelve months, and you certainly should be able to bring some books to mind that have affected you–if you can’t think of any, what Harvard  may be saying to you is that you aren’t the kind of gal or guy they are looking for. They want masters of the universe who are well read if not downright bookish.

If that bums you out, no time like the present to start reading–a journey of a thousand books starts with the first.

But let’s assume that you  have read some books which have had an impact on you.  The first thing to notice is that either of the suggested book essays will require you to write about multiple books–and, therefore, Harvard is challenging you to do something which you probably have not done before or which you have not done often, for few contemporary English classes in American high schools asks students to evaluate or compare works of literature which they have read.  Most of the time high school students write about their personal response to a book or they do an analysis of some particular kind of theme–the river as a representation of nature,  in opposition to the corruption of civilization which is represented by the towns and people on the river banks in Huckleberry Finn, for example.  This kind of cycloptic essay is not what you want.   Yes, I did just coin that word to capture the narrow focus of these essays.  Single eyed, if you will, as opposed to the broad view you need for this Harvard essay.

In a way, this supplemental essay  will make an unstated argument of a narrow sort, which I may sum up thus:  What an interesting mind I have and what a well-read person I am!  You should admit me to Harvard!  Yet in order to succeed in this unstated argument, you must convey the capaciousness of your thought and the variety of your interests by writing an essay which makes some sort of sophisticated primary argument about a selection of books.

So let’s look for some aid.  To start with, you need to read some examples.  You need to find a publication which frequently features articles on not one, not two, but three or more novels or nonfiction works–yes, they said only books, not just novels.   You need . . . the New York Review of Books.  Like many publications, the NYRB is increasingly protecting their content–meaning that they put up a firewall and you have to pay to get at it–but in the issue online as I write this post, the NYRB has articles on energy and Alexander the Great which both reference, discuss and analyze multiple  works on their respective topics.  It’s a fine lesson in How To Do It.

If you follow my link to the NYRB and it seems a bit too high-falutin and stuffy for you, may I suggest that you check out their recent article on Stieg Larsson?  With the caveat that his would be a daring choice of books to write about, but one could do worse, as this article shows.  Just don’t plagiarize this or any other article, first on ethical grounds and second as there is an above-average chance that your Harvard Admissions officer also reads the NYRB.  It’s de rigueur for all us folks with intellectual pretensions or accomplishments, and for good reason.

Another place to look for examples is the New York Times Book Review (whole different crowd, confusingly similar titles).  Go to the nytimes site using my link and you can find some of this week’s articles there–scroll down.  You might want to see if you can access a review of a bushel of mysteries–this would provide a valuable contrast to the kind of extended comparison and analysis you find in the NYRB–these thumbnail reviews are fun and useful, but are probably not what you want your Harvard Supplement book essay to be.  They wittily summarize and evaluate a pack of recent mystery or crime novels, but are not very worried about linking the discussion into a coherent argument.  These are user’s guides for mystery and crime fans. Have a look at this recent example.

While you do get a strong sense of the author’s voice in the roundup of recent mysteries I link above, the purpose of this article is different than the purpose of your Supplement essay. You want to use a selection of books to make some sort of argument, as the NYRB articles do.  This could mean that you use fiction–a set of novels, for example–or nonfiction to develop an argument or to explain the effect the books have had on you. I leave it up to you to do some homework now to prepare for this topic, to which I will return soon.