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

In Berkeley Application, Changes in College Admissions, College Application Essay, Personal Insight Questions, U.C. Berkeley Application, U.C.L.A. Application, UC Santa Cruz Application, University of California Admissions Data, University of California Application, University of California Application for 2016-2017 on September 7, 2016 at 2:49 pm

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

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

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

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

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

So much for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How We Got Here (And Where We Are)

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

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

 

Some Current Admissions Data for the University of California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Finally, Back To Those Pesky Application Essays

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

See you soon.

 

 

 

 

What’s News for U.C. Berkeley and The University of California System

In Ivy League Admission Statistics, Researching Colleges, Santa Cruz, Stanford Admissions, U.C. Berkeley Application, UC Santa Cruz Application, University of California, University of California Admissions Data, What They Aren't Telling Us on May 4, 2016 at 2:39 pm

What’s in this column:  Some news on this year’s Berkeley admissions results; a short history of U.C. admissions (why is it getting so crazy–the answer is partly here); some information on budgets and politics at the U.C.  If you do not wish to read more than 140 or so characters at a time, scan for bold print and font color changes to see important data and subtopics.

If no news is good news . . . let’s just say there’s news for the U.C. system and in particular for Berkeley.

My goal here is to put this news–some of which you have likely heard, particularly if you live in California–into perspective.  And I’d like to start by making a simple statement:  the University of California was and still is the greatest university system in the world (sorry, University of London and your 18 campuses–more on them in my coming entry on international options).  And I can say that U.C. will (still) be great you are applying next year, though the bathrooms may not be as clean nor the landscaping as tidy as in earlier days, nor the computer lab repaired and updated quite as often, particularly at Berkeley where–here it is, your first data point for the year–500 employees are being laid off right now.

But before we get to budgetary problems and that massive construction project called U.C. Merced, let’s take a quick look at admissions results for the U.C. Berkeley, which sets the bar for the system as a whole.    I add one caveat:  waitlist admits and transfers are still in process, so the averages I give you here are going to move around  a bit.

Here is the scoop on the numbers for U.C. Berkeley for the 2015-2016 admissions period (a.k.a. the Class of 2020. a.k.a. students applying for the fall of 2016):

U.C. Berkeley Class of 2020 admissions

Average GPA:  3.91  (4.41 Weighted)

SAT:  (25th-75th%) 2075-2237–note that this is the SAT II, including language and math

All together Now:  Holy Bleep!  And for U.C. Berkeley:  Welcome to the newest member of the Ivy League.  No, seriously, in terms of admissions data, they have arrived.  Oh sure, Berkeley is not like Yale, Princeton or Stanford (which dropped below a 5% admissions rate this year).  But they are pretty close to Cornell, which has an admissions rate of 13.96% for the class of 2020.  Again, these numbers will move a bit as waitlist admits occur, but not much, and it tells you what you are facing when you apply next year–to Berkeley or Cornell, which had a 1400-range SAT II average last year.  You have my full sympathy.

Seriously, you do.  I grew up in California, my father worked for the Cal State system, and I have been directly involved with higher education in California in one way or another since the 1980’s.  And frankly, I don’t need a bigger college advising business opportunity than I already have, driven by a supply/demand problem that has been developing since about 1980.  The problem you face is part of a bigger problem involving what used to be called the Commons, particularly troubling when higher education is, in my opinion, the leading industry of the United States, not tech or, um, manufacturing.

Seriously. Silicon Valley exists because of the proximity of a half-dozen universities and cheap, clean water  as much as it does to genius entrepreneurs like Msrs. Hewlett and Packard, Grove and Noyce or to Wunderkind like Wozniak and Jobs (Yes, water-check out early chip production and the archaeology of the Valley here:  Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History) .  The immediate cause for everything from HP on is as much in the universities as it is in the up-by-the-bootstraps mythology.  Hewlett and Packard were both Stanford alums and Woz was a Golden Bear, as are many inhabitants of the Silicon flatlands now. Yeh, Jobs was a dropout, from Reed College, but Reed also shaped him before he left. It’s still a great college, if you can handle the tuition.

So to see the applications difficulty reach this level makes me somewhat cray-cray.  Particularly when I work with California-resident students who visit the campus, see the Cal students, take a walk up Strawberry Canyon to look out over Memorial Stadium, with Mount Tamalpais and the Golden Gate in the distance and . . .  then, having fallen in love withe place, confront an admit rate like that of Cornell.

I will be delivering more detailed advice in upcoming columns on how to deal with this as you develop application strategy, which starts with looking at the full suite of U.C. campuses, as well as at U.C. proxies from British Columbia to destinations yet to be disclosed.  For the moment, let’s turn our attention to another “controversy” that probably adds resentment to those of you who are Californians.

Here it is:  the California State Auditor recently released a “highly critical report” on the U.C. and revealed (gasp) that U.C. is admitting more out-of-state studentsHere is the gist:

“Nonresident enrollment in the UC system increased by 82 percent, or 18,000 students, from 2010-11 to 2014-15, while in-state numbers fell by 1 percent, or 2,200 students”

For some historical perspective, the U.C. system originally admitted the top 12.5% of students in California–then they dropped that to top 10%, and now it’s closer to the top 8%, but this is no longer a solid number that is part of the mission statement for serving Cali students. But none of this is really  news.  The numbers have been out there.  The regents at each stage announced the retreat from California admissions and were clear about budgets and their need for increased funding via out-of-state tuition.  This was not proclaimed on billboards or in radio ads, but they did put it out there for anybody who wanted to pay attention.  And the auditor’s report as well as the  outrage  is highly political, an intentional pot-stirring by an assemblyman working on his career, with Governor Brown lurking somewhere in the background. Not to mention those jumping on the bandwagon, like San Ramon assemblywoman Catherine Baker, who wants to cut taxes, not increase U.C. funding and cap out-of-state enrollment . . . . to fix things . . . .which amounts to promising more with less.  Works pretty well in Zen koans, not so well in running an institution of higher education.  For more on that,  I quote and link the Contra Cost Bee:  “Baker’s approach sounds a lot like the words and actions of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.”

All I can add is this:  if affects your kids–or you–now,  or will affect your kids, you can have an influence.  Read up on my links.  Talk to people about it.  Vote early and vote often.  And then plan around it for admissions.

The enrollment facts are partly due to enrollment policy changes in 1986 and to   a wider effect of disinvestment in public goods (which is a  subject way too large for this column, or any column, for that matter–a book would be needed).  What is annoying to me is the supposed surprise of so many, and the attitude of politicians, who seem to think that funding can freeze and so can tuition.  In particular, I’m looking at  Governor Brown when I say this, and I have voted for Jerry every time he has run for  office.  So message to the Gov:  Sure, for a year or two you can freeze things while you work out your problems, then you have to pay the bills.  And just cutting janitors and tech support is not going to fix the budget for the U.C.

Please note:  I do not think tuition should increase.  But I know more money is needed, and this squeeze will soon begin to affect the U.C. system and Berkeley in particular, in ways students will feel . . . actually it already is happening,  not just in the jobs lost, but also in the support for students that those 500 employees represent.  Need that computer lab to be repaired?  Sorry, maybe next month.  For more, I quote and link this:

“Class sizes are ridiculous and desks are broken,” said Rebecca Ora, a doctoral candidate in film and digital media.

As for the Ivy-League admissions numbers, the enrollment policy change I mention occurred in 1986.  Prior to that year, students could only apply to one U.C. campus; if they were not admitted, they would then be redirected to another campus.  Pretty simple, if limited in terms of choice, and to control the outcome, students chose one campus they preferred and that they felt they had a good chance to be enrolled in. Most were okay if they were shunted from Berkeley to, say, Davis or San Diego.    So keep in mind that some of the crazy numbers for Berkeley–and U.C.L.A.–are driven by the multiple admissions policy as well as by the high, international profile of those campuses.  Pretty much everybody applying to the U.C. system at large applies to Berkeley and Los Angeles, even if they really think Riverside is their real target–Why not, when there is no real downside?

For a quick history of U.C. admission, have a look here:  Frontline on U.C. Admissions

But back to that budget:  here’s the news at U.C. Berkeley–

150 million dollar Budget Deficit

500 Job Cuts

Again, if you do not need to follow the news on state government and education in general, you might find this anywhere from confusing to outrageous–after all, did we not pass proposition 30, thus increasing taxes and so securing funding?  Well, yes we did.  But even then, in 2012, this still left a 1 billion dollar deficit, yep billion with a B, due to funding shortfalls going all the way back to the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 and to not funding obligations back to the turn of the century. Berkeley Chancellor Dirks announced in February of this year that he forecasts a 150 million deficit.

Expect other campuses to have problems as well.  One of the causes is pensions costs, but of course for years the U.C.  stopped contributing to pensions and now the U.C. system as a whole–as part of their budget from the state– must make contributions to catch up.  Lest I sound too much like Catharine Baker, I add that U.C. and therefore the State of California had contracts with pay and benefits that they signed and should stand behind, and that the big decisions were made in the legislature and in the Governor’s office–going back through Schwarzenegger’s time, btw.  In my view, throwing employees overboard after making an agreement in exchange for labor and services is immoral and I know that this would  lead to an exodus of employees that serve students–like that engineering professor who is or will in the near future be teaching your kid–as well as making it harder for U.C. to recruit good profs and support people.

It is true that U.C. has bloat in administration, but technology has led to increasing need for technology administration, as have new requirements for programs and services.  You want somebody to police discrimination or to oversee additional support to ensure graduation rates, you gotta pay for their salaries.

The upside for you, Oh Applicant or Parent of Applicant is that part of the deficit comes from an agreement fought over, excuse me, negotiated between U.C. President Napolitano and Governor Brown, an agreement that freezes tuition while increasing the number of California students by 10,000 over a three-year period.  For the coming application season, this means that an additional 2,500 students from California will be admitted.  So this is good:  the current 13,400 tuition and fees will rise only at about 3% per year and you have a better chance of getting in, Oh California Resident, and a pretty much equal chance to last year, if you are not a state resident.

While the idea that your first-year tuition, if you apply in the fall of 2016 will go up by 3% sounds bad, it’s not, relative to what might have happened.   This 3% per year rise means that in 2020 you will pay about 15,500–but in projections back in 2012-2014, tuition was going to be in the 20,000 dollar range by 2020.  You will save around 12,000 dollars because of this agreement, over four years, if you start school in the fall of 2017.   So more California students will get in, with little impact on out-of-state applicants, and you will pay less than the U.C. planned back on 2014.

My final note is this:  I know that 2,500 admits for California students seems a pittance when there were 206,000 applicants for the U.C. system this year. And it is a paltry number, at 1.2% of that total of over 200,000–but also note that fall 2015 admissions saw 92,324 students admitted out of a total of 158,338 applications.  And it is much better than a decline in California resident enrollment.  So cheer up and apply to Santa Cruz and Riverside and have a good overall list of application targets.  U.C. Merced . .  . better for a transfer after two years in a community college, in my opinion.  More on that in another post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.