wordguild

Posts Tagged ‘Application Essays’

Example Post from 2015-2016 Essay Analysis–Yale Application Essay Topics for 2015-2016: A.K.A. Tell Us Something About Yourself That is Not on Your Application

In Applying to Yale, Yale Application Essays, Yale Supplemental Essay on July 15, 2015 at 1:44 pm

Keep in Mind that this post was written for the class of 2020 application–if you are graduating high school in 2017, you will be applying for the class of 2021.  While some or even most of the information below may be true when you apply, I won’t know for sure until July or August, 2016, at which time my Yale post will update.

The Yale essay is ready for you.  Are you ready for the Yale essay?

For most of you the answer will be, I am not ready.  The reason is simple:  most of you will need to have a pretty good grip on the rest of your application–and will need to have written a more-or-less decent draft of your Common Application main essay–before you will know what to write for this Yale essay.  For this year’s Common Application Essay Prompts, see   Application Prompts for 2015-2016.

For the Yale topic and more on writing for the Yale prompt this year, including a roughed-out example essay, continue below:

Yale Essay Topic
Please note that the Yale freshman application will be available on the Common Application website sometime in August. (Note from WordGuild:  The Common App goes offline July 23rd and erases all accounts on the site at that time; when it goes live again on or just before August 1st, you can open an account and upload essays.  My advice:  start essays early and upload late, to give yourself plenty of time.)

The Yale-specific questions will include one additional required essay for all applicants, and one optional essay for prospective computer science and engineering majors. The essay prompts for the 2015-2016 Yale Essay Questions are as follows:

Yale’s essay question is required for all freshman applicants:

Please reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application, or on something about which you would like to say more. You may write about anything—from personal experiences or goals to interests or intellectual pursuits. (Please answer in 500 words or fewer).

Yale Essay Prompt Analysis and Advice:

As you can see, it’s tough to say what they might not learn from the rest of your application before you have at least roughed out the rest of your application–remember that you are creating a kind of holograph of yourself composed of basic data (G.P.A., SAT/ACT scores), a list of activities and some short descriptions, accompanied by odds and ends like letters of recommendation–and your essays, which can make or break your application.  I talk about this at more length in this post–how college applications are evaluated.

To add a metaphor, you should look at each part of your application as being a chapter or entry in a book about you.  So write your Common App essay, complete your activities list/descriptions, then write this essay with an eye on filling in the blanks and/or pulling things together.  You want to humanize yourself and, if possible, reveal a passion or strong interest that may help your application.  And when you do write this essay, do NOT simply repeat your activities–but also do not assume that you cannot slide them in somewhere.  Think of this essay as  either  . . .

A Network or a Walkabout

There are two basic ways to approach this question–one is The Walkabout, in which you present a stand-alone activity that you think is interesting enough or humanizing enough to merit a solo, one-off focus.  More about that in a few moments.

The other way is to write a Network Essay–use an interesting or important activity to connect disparate parts of your resume, or to remind the reader of some aspects of you that you think are important (or persuasive as admissions factors). Let’s say you are into math and physics in school, with some connected activities including a robotics team, while outside of school, you like to go fishing and camping  (which you likely cannot do too often as you are an oversubscribed high school student trying to get into college, but let’s say for the purposes of an example essay that you go fishing one or two times a year and are into math and physics and the robotics team).

These do not seem to be connected, but this is a matter of focus–that is the key to and the purpose of a Network Essay.  For example:  Fishing involves physics in a number of ways, starting with putting a lure or a fly where you want it, and getting its parameters right (depth of bait, etc).  This is applied physics and the use of empirical knowledge (How to cast to get the lure to point x, how deep the fish are . . .).  So you might start the essay with a focus on fishing and camping, then use it as a network to connect this unknown part of you to the other parts of you that are clear in the application.  The person described above might do the following, for example, to get this Yale essay started:

Network Essay Example–The Fishing Physics Fan

Whenever I can, I like to pack up the car and disappear for a few days.  I like to cut the electronic tether, escape the ping of texts and pong of e-mail, and go to any one of several locations I cannot disclose. 

I cannot disclose these locations specifically because they are the best places to catch fish in the (pick a region).  And fisherman may tell a lot of tall tales about the one that got away, but no real fisherman ever gives away his Secret Spot to Catch Fish.  And I am a true fisherman.

This might seem an odd thing for a person who spends most of his other free time sitting at a computer coding so that an x can do y (examples not included in this example essay intro) or fiddling with a robot’s arm so it manages to do a instead of b (examples not included in this example essay intro)  but in a way it all fits together–fishing is all about physics and trial and error.  Trying to get a lure to that spot by the sunken log across the mouth of the stream is a matter of telemetry, a problem with many factors–the wind, the current, how deep the water there is . . . (You would expand somewhat here, using concrete detail.)

When I am out in nature fishing, I am really living in the moment in a way that I do not in my daily life at home, but nature  is also really a collection of things we call physics.  Take the lightning storm that was approaching Twin Lakes (sorry, can’t tell you which Twin Lakes) the last time I was there . . . . (Again, you would expand here, but notice how I am tying fishing to  your other interests, to physics . . .)

And then you might end the essay by literally and figuratively coming home (refreshed and refocused) to your more formal experiments in applied physics).

Notice how I am introducing other activities or interests beyond fishing, but they are put into this essay as context for the fishing focus, while simultaneously reminding the reader of specifics in terms of interests and knowledge from your activities sheet and from your academic life.  So the essay emphasizes one thing but shows others by connecting them.  This is what I mean by the network essay–it focuses on something new, on an activity that is either not in or only mentioned in the rest of your application but in the essay on this activity, you touch on other things that it does not hurt to remind the reader about.  All your many features are somehow included.

Here’s why this network approach can be useful:  It does not hurt to remind the reader about some other aspects of your resume or activities because, on average, the app reader will spend about 3 minutes reading each of your app essays–sometimes less–and this rapid reading will come after the app reader has scanned your activities, and is meanwhile thinking about your GPA, etc, and figuring out how to boil it all down to a single number, appended by some comments.

And the app reader is doing this at some point in a day in which he or she has read dozens of other applications and multiple dozens of essays if your application comes up late in the day.  So things will tend to get blurry as the app reader takes notes and assesses you, and the artful reminder of things you want them to remember can help your evaluator–and so help you.  Thus, the network essay which uses an interesting aspect of yourself to connect other, known aspects of your application in an interesting way can be an ideal add to your application.

Oh, and if you think something like fishing (or whatever it is that you do) is not an interesting topic, it depends on what you say about it.  And how you say it.  Contact me if you have something you like to do but think it will look boring in your essay, and I will help you develop your words and do so in a way that works with the rest of your app.

The Walkabout Essay

A walkabout was a rite of passage for a young Australian native, a time spent wandering the bush alone and surviving independently–the word has taken on other meanings, but the walkabout was originally a personal journey for the experience to be had on the journey.  It was also seen as something necessary and transformative, shaping the person who experienced it and propelling him into adulthood.

If you have an activity that is like this, a stand-alone that is also an important part of who you are, something that you do for its own sake,  then you can write a Walkabout Essay exploring this activity.

As an example, are you into math, programming and classical Indian Dance?  The closest you could come to a network essay with these would be to say they are all possible areas of creative expression.

But classical dance is embodied, is a way of knowing that is shown by doing in a way that is not true of math and programming, for your physical self is fully engaged, and it might best be explored as such, as a unique activity that humanizes and adds an interesting dimension to you–and that really offers little connection to your other, more purely mental activities.  Though you may still mention some other activities with the excuse of showing how different this activity is (and so reminding the app reader, however briefly, of those other aspects of yourself.)

The Key to the Walkabout Essay:  Become a Knowledgeable and Interesting Guide

So some level of networking/connection is always a good idea, but the Walkabout essay will really focus on the glories of the activity in the essay.  Classical Indian dance, as an example, embodies much of traditional Indian culture: its gestures are symbolic, and it is influenced by or on a continuum with other specifically Indian activities, like what we now call Hatha Yoga, as well as traditional Indian martial arts–if you become a guide, showing things like this in some detail to the app reader, and so showing your passion, you will have a good  essay–you want your app reader to have that look of surprise and interest that comes when someone learns something interesting, as you reveal the philosophy and history of the dance through some well-chosen examples, while inserting close description about the people and dances you have done and perhaps an amusing anecdote or two.    Inform without lecturing, show by examples and close description instead of simply telling.

And finally–if you are “Saying something more” about an activity or concern that is already on your application/activities, my advice here still applies.

That’s it for now. Get started on your Common App essay while thinking about this essay.  And contact me if you would like some professional editing.  N.B:  Sooner is better than later as things really pick up from August 1st on.

The Secret of College Admissions: How College Applications Are Evaluated

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

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

Objective Evaluations

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

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

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

Special Admissions Categories in Objective Schools

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

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

Holistic Evaluations and Common Application Schools

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

Institutional Priorities and Special Categories

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

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

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

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

Committee Evaluations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is good advice for everybody.

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