Strategy for your University of California Application and Data Update

Who should read this post–anybody applying to the University of California.  Contents–see below for a look at the latest data, as of July 11, 2017, with acceptance rates, a one-campus snapshot of GPA and test averages (for subscribers only) and your takeaway on relative chances of admissions based on your numbers and who you are.  The big story remains the same:  The state budget directly affects your chances of enrollment.

So the big news is that the U.C. has finally released its data, or at least some more of it, after sitting on information that is normally out in April.  The story is mixed, with some hints of sunshine for in-state students, but this is more a break in the clouds than a change in climate–expect the difficulty level of admissions to increase at all campuses, with Merced remaining the go-to backup for the U.C.  I know, I know . . . Merced.  But there are some reasons to like Merced.  More on that later.

Reasons that the difficulty will go up for California residents start with the deal to admit an additional 10,000 students over a three-year period that was agreed between the U.C. and the state government (to be more exact, Governor Brown himself was behind this).

This deal is now over, and I see no real discussion of anything new on that front, so this year several thousand spots will not be set aside for California students.  Please keep that in mind as you read on.  There is still political pressure to admit California students, but nothing concrete that will help you Cali residents, though some campuses have been clear about their intention to help a particular category of Cali applicants–more on that shortly.

Just to keep some perspective on the effect of this program ending, the UC system as a whole, for fall of 2016, admitted 105,671 freshman and 23,279 junior college transfers–so the approximately 8,488 extra California students admitted last year was about 6.5% of the total.  And many of those would be offered a backup campus, like Merced.  Still. That was  pretty good boost for California applicants who were freshman last year, and the march of data continued to go up, overall, in terms of average GPA and test scores increasing for admitted students.

Why the admissions are more difficult is a two-part problem–Part 1, the people of California, as represented by their elected officials, have not been investing in a whole lot of new campuses.  There is a very large building program at Merced, but not much else going on that actually expands the number of seats available at the UC (or Cal State, for that matter); and overall, the universities in California are still underfunded–here’s a quote from an analysis in 2016:

“State support for CSU and UC has not kept up with the significantly increased demand for higher education in California. Since 1980-81, enrollment has increased by more than 50 percent at CSU and by more than 90 percent at UC. Yet during this same period, General Fund support for each institution has declined by nearly 13 percent, after adjusting for inflation.”

For the full report, click here:  CBPC Report

Obviously a 13% budget cut in the face of such increased enrollment demand is in reality a much larger budget cut, as summarized in a different article by our friends at UCLA:

“California invests less per student in its public universities today than it did 30 years ago, according to another PPIC report. In 2013, California spent about half as much as it did in the late 1980s per student in the UC system.”

The upshot will be increasing tuitions in the near future and decreased chances of enrollment for the immediate future.  For the full article, click here: Less State Investment.

Application demand overall was also up, as I explained with detailed numbers in a previous post–click here for that: UC Application Totals.

 

Application Strategy–Buy the U.C. brand, not a specific campus; be willing to go to a community college.

But the story is not all doom and gloom, particularly if you are willing to go to a less in-demand U.C. campus and, if you are really set on the U.C.,  are willing to purse what I would call the two-step dance into a U.C.  campus–by going to a good junior college, and then transferring.

Your basic takeaway is this:  There were clear advantages to being in certain categories for admissions last year.  Those categories were led by California Junior College applicants.

But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the data we do have, the only complete data–

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How to Begin Writing College Application Essays for 2016-2017: The Harvard Supplemental Essay and The University of California Personal Insight Statements

Who should read this post: Anybody applying to Harvard; Anybody applying to Harvard and the University of California system; Anybody applying to a Common Application School; Anybody writing more than one application essay.

 So step one this year is not to just sit down and write an essay.  And why not?

Because most of you will write essays for multi-college portals like the University of California system and a slate of colleges through the Common Application or Coalition application. If you are just getting into the app process and thought you could write your Common App essay and be done, sorry: most Common App and Coalition schools also want their own supplemental essays—and when a super elite like Harvard offers even the chance to write an additional essay, you need to do it lest you appear to be a slacker. All things being equal, you are likely to lose out to another applicant who looks like you in terms of data and other material if they wrote the extra essay and you did not.

What this means is clear: too many essays, too little time.

So assuming you have ten to sixteen essays to write, too much schoolwork and not enough time: what should you do? The answer is also pretty simple, but does take a bit more time up front: find a double or triple use for essays when you can. Sure, you thought of that, but have you done it yet? If not, read on. Actually, read on either way, as I will do some prompt analysis for Harvard and the University of California, along with a shout-out to Stanford, with a bonus of some helpful links.

How to Start Your College Application Essay

Back to step one, which is now to print out the prompts for your top target schools and set them side-by-side, along with a few safety schools, and engage in a comparison/contrast exercise. The more times you can reuse an essay as is, or do a bit of editing and reuse it, the better. Of course, you do have to avoid stretching too much when you try to make one essay work for another prompt, and you should definitely do a close read to make sure you did not leave in the name of  college x in your essay to college y  (Seriously: people really do miss details and end up sending an essay addressed to one school to another. For an amusing example of this and some other major boo-boos, listen to the introduction to this episode of This American Life: How I Got Into College.  It only takes a couple of minutes and is good for a laugh, at least.

Getting back to getting started,  if you are entirely new to this game, please dive in and start selecting your schools of interest in the Common App or Coalition portal (or Naviance, if you are using it). You will find that most Common App schools also want some kind of supplemental essay, or essays, or at least some quick responses about yourself. To learn more, get registered, select schools and  then click on the supplementals and essays.  Copy all prompts of interest into a document.  Then come back here  for a lesson on doubling up on essays and so not going crazy (completely) or burning out (utterly) by Thanksgiving.

 

The Harvard Optional Essay and the University of California Personal Insight Prompts:  A comparison

Many students will apply to some University of California campuses as an alternate or backup for one or more Ivy League applications, so let’s look at a comparison of the U.C. essay prompts and Harvard.

Here’s the University of California Prompts, bare-bones version (on the U.C. site, they append quite a bit of commentary to the basic prompts):

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  
    2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
    3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
    4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
    5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
    6.  Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
    7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
    8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

 You choose four of these eight prompts and write them (Caveat to junior college and other transfers—you have a required essay and choose three of these four prompts; here’s a link to the required transfer essay: U.C. Transfer essay).

And now we turn to the Harvard prompts, comparing each to the University of California personal insight prompts, with Stanford’s roommate letter thrown in for fun:

Harvard College Application Essay Prompts for 2016-2017

Essay optional (Hint, hint:  Optional only for those with a scholarship in hand.)

You may wish to include an additional essay (You should)  if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life—Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could pair with the University of California’s prompt 8 (UC 8: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates if that thing is some unusual circumstance in your life.
  • Travel or living experiences in other countries— Analysis and comparison: This prompt overlaps with the UC prompt 8 as well, if your unusual circumstance is living abroad. Of course just attending an international school does not make you all that unusual—thousands of American students in international schools, as well as thousands of foreign students apply to Harvard and the U.C.’s. But if you start by visualizing how your life is abroad is different from a suburban American teen (your major competition overall) and then think about how you have some unique view of experience within your living abroad experience, then that is your angle.
    • Oh, and a caveat: In all cases, whether writing for U.C. or for Harvard, please avoid the clichéd essay on a trip. Have a look at this link for some advice on how to write (or not write) the trip essay for either U.C. or Harvard (or anywhere else): Evading the Cliché Step 2.
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you. Analysis and comparison: Well this does not actually line up perfectly with any U.C. prompts—but it does overlap nicely with the Stanford letter to a roommate and hey—if you are applying to Harvard (with its 5.39% admit rate), why not apply to Stanford (with its 4.96% admit rate) as well—so let’s digress here to Stanford, which is still using its “letter to your roommate” prompt. You wouldn’t want your Harvard essay to look too much like a Stanford letter, but the usually more cheeky or informal tone of a letter might work for Harvard as well. Here’s a link to the Stanford prompts: Stanford Short Essays.

Okay, Back to the U.C. . . . . and Harvard:

  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you. Analysis and comparison: This lines up best with the U.C. prompt 6 ( . . . favorite academic subject and its influence on you) as long as you frame it with a specific focus on a book, project, research topic, etc. It might also work for the U.C. prompt 4 (Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity).
  • How you hope to use your college education. Analysis and comparison: This does not line up well with any U.C. prompts. A number of Ivies have this kind of question (Cornell, et al) but the problem with doubling up this prompt is your need to show some knowledge of the school. So you could write about your ambitions and show why you have them, then do some reading and clicking on specific programs, professors and research, etc., at Harvard, and then write this one. Then cut off the specifics about Harvard as you use it for other schools, swapping in research on their programs, etc.
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months. Analysis and comparison: This is, again, a question with no overlap for the University of California prompts; it is also not really an essay prompt. On the other hand, I would not just list books here. No, I would present an annotated list, with a brief reaction to each book—a few sentences at most.
  • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty. Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could be a leadership issue if you took some kind of initiative in relationship to integrity or honesty—which is, of course, prompt 1 for the University of California. But handle this one with caution. If you waded into the morass of plagiarism or cheating, you have to figure out if you can get into that without hurting yourself by talking about it. You don’t want to present as a cheater, nor do you want to present as a snitch. If it was a big deal, possibly you have to, however, since if it was a big problem, it likely has a presence on social media. The last time I looked at a study, over 40% of application officers look at social media, and any serious stuff about you online will require some damage control.
  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission? Analysis and comparison: If you wrote an essay for the University of California’s prompt 7 (What have you done to make your school or your community a better place), that could work as the basis for this essay. Notice that they want to know what you will do at Harvard, which means what you will do in the future, but what you will do in the future won’t be very convincing if you have not done something in the past. So as I said, you might be able to use your UC 7 essay and add to it here to show how you will continue your commitment to world peace or whatever. But do some research on what is already in place at Harvard (and your fav U.C. campuses).  Why?  Because saying you want to start a World Peace Club at Harvard won’t be very convincing if they already have one. It would just show that you did not do much research, which suggests a lack of interest. Oops.

Some tips on Editing

Keeping in mind that to cut a 650 word essay down to 500 words, or a 500 word essay down to 350 words is actually to create a different essay, try to match up prompts, and when possible, match up prompts in a similar wordcount range.

To see what I mean, use my link below, and then read down into the post and you will see a very simple but very useful editing exercise I do on a brilliant essay by Titi Nguyen that will show you how you can cut a much longer essay and have a very good (if very different and much shorter) essay: How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples. After clicking the link, save time by searching the post for this:  My Wonder Years.

If you can use a technique like this to cut a Common App essay down to a U.C. 350-word essay, you can save some time. In addition to the editing trick, which would require only some work with transitions to make a great, new essay out of Nguyen’s long essay, notice the topic: television shows, and from what I would call a lost decade in terms of culture.  Nguyen’s use of what should be not just a mundane but a mindless topic allows her to get at the meaning of her life and to show her unique experience.

Hey, how has media shaped your life? Or how does it offer a lens into your life? Follow her lead and something good may happen (just don’t copy her. Inspiration is okay, plagiarism not so much.  You should go with things that are important to you.  Maybe it’s food, or shoes or something else nobody else would think of as a serious topic).

So that’s it; that’s how I would go about doing a comparison of U.C. to Harvard prompts and thus look to save time and verbiage (Yep, that’s both a thesis and a summary).

My next post will do a similar comparison for the University of Oregon, a good, large state university that has become a fallback school for many California applicants—with an app data profile similar to U.C. Riverside. Call it a safety comparison if you will, or just call it a look at a solid university to double up with the U.C. (or some other fine institution).   See you soon. (Oh, and yes, I will be doing more Ivy League analysis, as well as having a look at U Chicago and other elites, later in the month of September on into early October, as time allows.  Editing on client essays has to come first, but Stay tuned for more).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How We Got Here (And Where We Are)

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

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

 

Some Current Admissions Data for the University of California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Finally, Back To Those Pesky Application Essays

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

See you soon.

 

 

 

 

What’s New in College Applications in 2015-2016: New Wrinkles for the University of California and How to Get a Letter of Recommendation

Who should this post–anybody applying to a University of California campus; anybody particularly interested in U.C. Berkeley; anybody who needs to get a letter of recommendation; and anybody interested in enrollment categories for sexual identity–an evolving field, as you will see.

Changes for the University of California, Berkeley application.

New Wrinkle #1:  More Recommendations Allowed–and How To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation.

U.C. Berkeley is piloting an admissions policy allowing two letters of recommendation.  If this seems like a small thing, multiply it by 75,000, which is my lowball estimate for the number of applicants to Berkeley this coming year.

This optional letter of recommendation adds to an already very large paper load that will have Berkeley hiring at least 100 outside application readers to support the  staff on campus.   Reinforcing my point that you need to give the application webpage of each university a close read, so far U.C.B. is the only campus in the U.C. system to announce this two-recommendation policy–and this change suggests that they are continuing to tinker with their holistic evaluations and feel the need for more information.

What should you do?  Get the second letter, of course.  But please do not try to send more than two letters. Or candy, or personal notes or any other extras not explicitly identified by the school.

Here is how to go about getting letters of recommendation:  If you haven’t been cultivating your counselor and a few teachers, you had better put some time in your calendar to visit a few teachers and your counselor in the opening weeks of school.  Choose teachers you had a good relationship with in subjects that you like.

Counselors are almost always a must for letters of recommendation, and they are uniquely situated to give a recommendation that is relevant to your specific school and situation, but I advise leaving counselors off the casual visit list for the first week or two  of school–if you need to make a class change or have some other business in the first week or two, then yes, use that appointment to  tell them you will be needing two rec letters and you’d like their help on this. Be warm and polite.   If you are stuck with a bad counselor, however, it’s better to opt for two teacher recs or to choose some other adult with a position that would get some respect (your neighbor Joe may like you, but unless he’s your neighbor Joe, VP for Google or Supreme Court Justice of the State of Wherever You Live, I would stick to school teachers and officials for this.  There are interesting stories of celebrity letters of recommendation that did not work out or that backfired, by the way.)

Do keep  in mind that it is crazy hectic for counselors in weeks one and two as they handle early year change of schedule requests, et al.  Be patiently and politely persistent, as needed.

For your teachers, however,  the first week of school is usually a good time to say hello.  They have a lot to do, but usually do not yet have a large paper load sitting on the desk, so visit two or three favorite teachers from your junior year, then follow up again once or twice before you make the ask for a letter or recommendation.   And make the ask by the end of the first month of school if you have any early apps–I like my clients to allow a two-week window for letters of recommendation.   Never ask for a letter the day before it is due unless you come bearing gifts and genuflecting.  The stronger and more genuine your connection to any person writing a letter of recommendation, the better chance that you will get a good letter.  M.I.T. has emphasized recommendations for years, and what they say about their letters applies to all letters of recommendation:

“. . .letters of recommendation hold substantial weight in our admissions decisions. A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can highlight impressive characteristics beyond his/her own self-advocacy. We are looking for people who have and will make an impact – the difference between a letter that supports and a letter that raves about a special student.

Both guidance counselor and teacher evaluations are most helpful when they are specific and storied. They should provide us with the information and impressions we cannot glean from the rest of the application. Try to give a complete sketch of the student and the context of his/her accomplishments. Support your conclusions with facts and anecdotes whenever possible. A story or incident that conveys the character or merit of the individual is more telling than a mere statement like ‘Mary is mature.’ ”

There you have it–try to set up the information you provide to letter-writers for any university so it feeds into the M.I.T. description above.

Finally, you should be shaping the letters by providing information that you think will help you to the people who will write your recommendation.   Writing up an outline, having a focused summary, these are good ideas.  Providing a huge resume, maybe not so much.  Pick the things you need to show from the information below, and write up one page to offer to the people you ask to write you a letter.  For more, look below at what the U.C. asks for:

U.C. Berkeley’s Guidelines for Letters of Recommendation

Guidelines for the letters:  At least one letter must be from an instructor, the second from somebody you select who knows you well (could also be a teacher),   the letters are recommended to be one page long . . . and here is what the letters should address:

• Academic performance and potential (both overall and in the context of the class)
• Love of learning
• Leadership (in school, family, or community)
• Persistence in the face of challenges
• Cross-cultural engagement
• Originality/Creativity
• Demonstrated concern for others

New Wrinkle #2: The University of California system and the Politics of Sex

Or maybe just the demographics of the student body.  That is what the U.C. says in explaining their new option to identify your sexual preference–this is system wide, not just for Berkeley–and is in addition to the existing identity choices you will make.   I think the visibility argument made by those in the LGBT community who argued for outing people in the closet in recent decades has proven to be true, given the rapid change in social attitudes toward gay marriage, et al, as LGBT people have indeed become more visible (sometimes unwillingly).   I think the U.C. is also correct in arguing that the information helps them to allocate resources for health, counseling, and other services.

On the other hand, and maybe I am just showing my age, I am not a big fan of passing over personal information in most circumstances, and the more personal, the more reluctant I am to offer it.  But leaving aside my personal feelings and the fact that a decent number of high school seniors still have a lot of questions about their sexual identity, let’s look at what’s in it for you:

Should You State Your Sexual Preference/Identity?

Whether the U.C. will, going forward, try  to balance enrollment categories like percentage of LGBT students, or cohorts within this category is an interesting question–certainly the U.C. and other holistic schools try to include a representative sample of students in other categories, so why wouldn’t they try to create a “balance” in sexual identities, on campus as well?  Over time of course.  This is their first year with this option, so there will not likely be any formal percentage of balance they look for in their results.

As for a possible edge in applications this year, U.C. readers are instructed to look for “stressors” that may promote a student–like being a low-income student from a rough neighborhood, which can help promote an applicant in the holistic review (click here if you do not know what a holistic evaluation is and entails:  the secret to college admissions.)  So if you are LGBT, I would recommend identifying here this year, particularly if you are going to be bringing this up in an essay and/or it has been a stressor for you.

It is still not easy even in ‘liberal’ environments to be openly LGBT, and any obvious obstacles you have overcome now become an argument that you are a good candidate for admission–a person with good grades and extracurriculars who has had to tough out a bad situation while getting those grades and accomplishments gets an edge over good grades and accomplishments by a student on  Easy Street.

And while you want to be very cautious about pandering to your perception of an average U.C.  app reader’s feelings–which are impossible to know, though likely fairly liberal in sexual politics–and equally cautions about claiming victimhood or otherwise using an obvious emotional appeal, the facts of your life are the facts.  Just choose wisely which ones need sharing in applications.

The Brave New World Of College Applications

Back in the old days, say in the year 2005, the only worry you really had when applying to college in California was whether or not you would get in.  Now, not only is it harder to get into college, you also have to worry about  how politics (and the economy) are impacting the universities to which you want to apply.  Most of the problems you will face, from finding a school to paying the ever-increasing tuition to getting into the more and more crowded classes have a common cause: funding.  And funding is a function of political priorities as much as it is a result of economic swings.

Bear with me while I explain,  and then I will offer a simple strategic proposal after I  outline the current situation.

We could start with the fact that Cal State students launched a hunger strike earlier this month in response to tuition increases and cuts in courses and enrollment.  Their solution is focused on administrative pay, which is a satisfying target, but won’t solve the problem.  The problem is much bigger.

In March, the Cal State system announced that it is planning to cut up to 3,000 staff members for the 2012-2013 academic year, as well as slashing enrollment–this seems assured if the tax initiatives on the ballot for November, 2012, do not pass.  Even if the initiatives do  pass, Cal State schools will not be accepting transfers next Spring, meaning the twenty-five or so thousand community college students who are ready to move on to a CSU will have to wait half a year.  This means that the current best-case scenario amounts to a freeze in enrollment while services are cut.

If this outrages you, put it into perspective:  the system has experienced increasingly severe cuts for the last decade, and at this point it has the same amount of money as it did in 1997, but it has 90,000 more students to serve. Decades of cuts have accelerated in the last four years, and something has to give, so plan not only on paying more tuition per term at a CSU, plan also on spending more time in school because you can’t get the classes you need to graduate.

More time in school means spending more money, so factor an extra term or two in as an additional cost when you set up your application list.

Moving on to the University of California system,  the regents are proposing a 6% tuition increase for this fall–this is on top of the increases already planned and implemented–and this increase is almost certain since the U.C. regents say it is based on whether or not funding will be increased for 2012-2013 (hint:  it almost certainly won’t be.)  This will put the total tuition for 2012-2013 at 12,923, plus other fees.   As a result, students attending a U.C. this fall can expect to pay about twice what a student paid in 2007.  Worse yet, if the tax measure on the ballot for November fails to pass, U.C. regents will meet to “consider” an additional  double-digit increase effective for the next term.    Yes, at least 10% will be added on to the planned 6% in the same academic year.  The sky is indeed cracked and it will start falling in 2012 if more revenue is not generated.

The focus of rage at this point is misguided but understandable–the hunger strikers I referenced above are upset about administrative salaries, and I agree that it is unfair for admins to get raises while students are hit in the wallet, but saving even tens of millions dollars by freezing or cutting admin pay is the proverbial drop in the bucket relative to cuts of at least 750 million dollars  for U.C. and Cal State for this year alone.  It might help a little to cut admin pay, and I don’t think any administrator anywhere should be getting a raise when profs and students are taking a beating, but it’s a symbolic act to cut admin pay, not a solution.

Keep in mind that increased tuition accompanied by fewer class offerings are not the only effects of budget cuts.  Instructors are increasingly hired as adjuncts and lecturers, which means you increasingly have part-time teachers who are paid less and don’t get the benefits of full-time professors and who teach larger and larger classes. Everything from research to maintaining quality of instruction is compromised as the system cuts costs.

Meanwhile, understanding what is going on is more difficult due to the economic troubles of an entirely different industry–journalism.  Local reporting is mixed in its quality, with ABC 7 in L.A., for example, putting out reports like this one, in which the reporter writes about how the U.C. system still has “pricey” constructions projects going “gangbusters.”  The reporter finally explains that these projects were funded through bonds, often seven or more years ago, but the headline and focus of articles like this one–which doesn’t really explain anything until the article is halfway through–creates confusion about what the real problems are.  Construction which is currently underway has nothing to do with the  budget crisis we have right now, but it’s hard to tell that if you are scanning articles like this one.

And the problem is clear, if you step back a bit:  the collapse of the housing bubble and deep recession of the last four years have not so much caused  university funding to collapse as they have revealed the deep structural problems in education funding in California, problems which go back to the year 1978 and Proposition 13.  And speaking of going back to future, Jerry Brown was governor when Prop 13 passed, and while he opposed it strenuously and publicly, he also bowed to the will of the people and implemented it to the letter after it passed.

Governor Brown is nothing if not forthright, and just as he did in 1978, he is presenting the citizens of the state with a clear alternative:  vote in November to raise taxes or the budget will be cut even more severely. If you understand state budgets, you know this means big cuts for next Spring, but even bigger cuts for the fall of 2013.  And I mean the kinds of cuts that are causing me to tell my college advising clients who live in California  to apply to multiple universities outside of California.

And I am going further than that:  I am telling my clients who are planning to go to college in the fall of 2013  that, if the ballot initiatives fail in November 2012, they should plan on going to college out-of-state and even outside of the United States.  Going out of state or out of the country can be close to the cost of going to school in California now,   and in many places outside of the (formerly) Golden State, students will be more easily able to get the classes they need and so to graduate on schedule, which also saves money.

With current U.C. increases planned to push tuition above 18,000 dollars over the next four years, and with the potential for that to increase  to over 20,ooo dollars a year by 2017 if the tax initatives fail, going out of state is looking like a good bet to be on par in tuition and expenses or an even cheaper alternative, if you search widely and well.

As an example, out of state tuition at the University of Oregon  is currently in the 25,000 range for out-of-state students, but cost of living is lower than at many U.C. schools, and if the November tax initiative fails, tuition in California will race to catch up or pass out-of-state tuition in many states, including Oregon.  Oregon has its own severe budget problems, but they do not currently have the catastrophic potential of  those in California, and with U of O looking at an endowment  and other strategies to boost funding, along with tuition breaks at smaller schools like Southern and Western Oregon, I expect costs in Oregon to be significantly more stable and potentially cheaper than in-state California tuition by 2018, and if you go to a WUE school, it could be cheaper within a year or two. Add to that the fact that U of O is seeking more out-of-state students, and you also have a comparative advantage in being admitted in the first place.

Before moving on, I want to reinforce that Oregon and Washington have serious budget problems and face continuing increases in tuition, which is why you should be looking internationally as well, but relative to California, Oregon and Washington schools are becoming more attractive.  See this report for a breakdown of what is happening in the sunny west.

So that’s the takeaway:  if you live in California, apply to universities in at least two or three states, and you should also be looking at universities beyond U.S. borders.  In fact, nobody should be applying only to California or even solely to West Coast universities.  But don’t assume that leaving California means everything will be hunky-dory.    Do your homework in assessing the budgets for all universities in all states in which you plan to apply.  Most places are suffering.  It’s just far worse in California than anywhere else.

In the near future, I will be writing in more detail about the situation outside of California and outside of the United States, with analysis on specific schools in Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Canada and Great Britain as well as Ireland, but this content will only be available in full to my  subscribers and clients.

Good luck and Godspeed in researching colleges, and be sure to look up budget matters–or hire me to help you with that.

Finding The Right University: Some Resources

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

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.