Brennan Barnard shares advice from admissions directors from around the country about what what makes an application stand out.
The point of the college essay isn’t just to generate 650 words that tell a story—the point is to thoughtfully craft an essay that surprises the reader by the originality of the insights shared, the cleverness of the message conveyed, and the power of the ultimate observation that the writer makes. If the story is going to begin like many others, the ending should surprise.
So often students have every earnest intention to complete their Common Application over the summer and, all too often, they fall short of their goals. Our advice to rising seniors is to set weekly goals for yourself about what parts of your college application process you will tackle each week. Visiting campuses, contacting regional representatives, creating a résumé, or putting together an arts portfolio can all be done over the summer. Finally, start filling out the Common Application. This way, the fall won’t feel as stressful.
In an ideal world, college preparatory education would encourage students who crave knowledge, seek community engagement, desire connection and live their values. We say we want our children to feel secure, be inspired and take risks with their curiosity. The reality of “Hunger Games” comes closer to the truth, where students battle to survive in application pools seeming to demand perfection.
She stands in the doorway, college banners serving as a backdrop in this agonizing drama. The look on her face suggests that someone just ran over her dog or perhaps she just learned that Taylor Swift had her vocal cords removed. Growing concerned about her emotional state, I inquire about the fear in her eyes. “I have nothing to write about,” she confesses sullenly, as though the end is near. She goes on to lament about the lack of tragedy or fanfare in her seventeen years on this earth. “Nothing bad has happened to me, my grandparents are all still alive, and I have not lead a sports team to a state championship.” Finding it hard to be remorseful, I reply, “write what you know, not what you think the admission office wants to hear.”
What goes on behind the closed doors of the admissions office is a mystery to most and decisions can seem to reflect more “artistry” than science. In fact, the process varies from school to school and depends on the size and type of institution, its selectivity, and the school’s own culture. However, every college and university assesses the strength of each application relative to the applicant pool as well as the school’s enrollment objectives.
Writing the Personal Statement can be a torturous exercise for many seniors. Fears of sounding like a braggart - or, worse - having nothing worthwhile to say, leave even strong writers paralyzed. While the temptation might be to adopt a distant, academic tone, and tackle a safe topic, it’s important to distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool by making your Personal Statement personal.
With applications sent off, the college application moves from the student’s desk to the college admissions office where, for the next two months hundreds of thousands of applications will be reviewed while students across the country anxiously await a decision. What goes on behind the closed doors of the admissions office is a mystery to most and decisions can seem to reflect more “artistry” than science. In fact, the process varies from school to school and depends on the size and type of institution, its selectivity, and the school’s own “flavor. However, every college and university assesses the strength of each application relative to the applicant pool as well as the school’s enrollment objectives. While each student is considered on his or her own merits, schools work to “socially engineer” a class that reflects the demographics of society as a whole and each student is valued for how they contribute to that mix.
While larger universities typically use a formula based on standardized test scores, GPA, and other pertinent information to calculate a student’s admissibility, most schools review each and every application personally and thoroughly. Students can be assured that their application will be reviewed by a committee comprised of admissions counselors, faculty members, current students, part-time hired staff, or any combination of the above. By being viewed by several different people representing a variety of perspectives and interests the goal is to make the process as fair as possible.
After reviewing the file, students are assigned a ranking, either numeric or alphabetical, and those given the highest scores are typically admitted and those with the lowest ranking are usually denied. It is the applications that fall in the middle that receive the greatest attention. At this point the colleges are looking to fine-tune the composition of the incoming class and each applicant is evaluated for the ways in which they might uniquely contribute to the school based on their particular strengths and talents.
Admissions offices are always interested in increasing their “yield”, or the number of admitted students who actually matriculate at their school. A student’s “demonstrated interest” can be a good indicator of their likelihood of yielding, so admissions committees note if the applicant visited their campus, met with them at a college fair, interviewed, or joined the group when the college visited the student’s high school. Typically, the more often the student demonstrated their interest in a school, the better.
Admissions officers are also interested in letters of recommendation and look specifically to see if what others have to say about the applicant supports the information the student has provided in his application. Is the student the passionate scholar he claims to be? Is she really a leader in a meaningful way or are her positions merely titular?
Finally, some students may be “on the bubble” because of their academic standing. If their grades are close, but not quite, what the admissions office would like to see, they may wait until the third quarter grades are released to make their decision. As at this point no applicant really knows where they stand in the admission pool, it is important to continue to strive to get the best grades possible. It is not too late to make a good impression!
So, the waiting game continues. Know that admissions counselors are doing their best to weigh every piece of an application to make the best and fairest decision possible. In the meantime, keep working hard, and keep your fingers crossed.
Writing the Personal Statement can be a torturous exercise for many seniors. Fears of sounding like a braggart or worse, having nothing worthwhile to say, leave even strong writers paralyzed. While the temptation might be to adopt a distant, academic tone, by making your Personal Statement personal you help the admissions office gain a richer understanding of your unique character and qualities.
I have yet to meet the student who finds writing their Personal Statement for the Common Application to be the most exciting part of their college process. They whine, they procrastinate, they beg me to write it for them – and I am sympathetic. It’s hard to capture the “essence of who you are” in 500 words. But just as each essay should be as unique as the person writing it, there are some qualities that successful personal statements share: 1. They give a unique insight into the applicant. Begin by writing one sentence about what you want to convey about yourself to the reader. After the first draft, ask yourself if your essay conveys what you wanted it to. If it doesn’t, refocus.
2. They are well edited. Don’t let your mom or dad be your only editor. Chances are they love you too much to bring any kind of objectivity to their assignment. Beyond identifying grammatical errors, ask your editor what impressions of you your essay sent. Does that message match the one you intended to send?
3. The personal statement doesn’t rehash information that can be gleaned from other pieces of the application. If you’re a B+ student taking Honors classes at a competitive high school, there’s no need to tell the admissions office about how challenging your classes are - they already know. DO talk about an assignment or a moment in class when you felt particularly challenged or successful.
4. 3,000 words were written to get to the final 500. One page doesn’t leave any room for digressions or unimportant details. Make every word count, because it does.
5. They focus on describing moments, feeling and insights, not scenery. If your essay tells little more than what the reader could see on the front of a postcard, send the postcard instead.
6. They view the moment through a microscope, not a telescope. You can’t tell the reader everything you want to, so focus in tightly on the most significant details.
7. They are not cliché. Did you score the winning goal for an important game? Did you travel to far-off lands to do community service? Do you have an uncle who has overcome a serious physical handicap to accomplish incredible things? That’s wonderful. But, unfortunately, not original. If you are going to write on a theme that has been worn to death, there is a special onus on you to show how these moments have specifically shaped YOU.
8. Great personal statements are not about anyone else but the writer. If you are telling the story about a person who had an influence on you, be sure to keep the spotlight on you.
9. It’s not just about the story you tell, it’s also about how you tell that story. The deft use of alliteration, allusion, metaphor and other literary devises separates the good essays from the great.
10. They are more personal then they are statements. Great essays give the admissions officer information about what make you uniquely you.
Resolutions Worth KeepingHelping your own child with their college process can be a rewarding, bonding experience - but boundaries have to be drawn. Here's where I have resolved to draw the lines and I embark upon this process with my own daughter.
The Dos and Don'ts of Graduate School Essays Marybeth Gasman, who works in the admissions office at Penn's Graduate School of Education, offers some pointed advice about how to write a compelling essay. While her words of wisdom are directed at graduation students, most of the advice she offers could be well heeded by anyone applying to college. Among my favorite tips: Don't use the word "love" - ever, and don't make excuses.
Early Action Could Aid in Admission, Report Finds With November 1 just a few days away, we're very busy helping our clients meet Early Application deadlines. However, despite evidence that it might be easier to be admitted in this round of decisions, the choice to apply early isn't that simple. First, it can be argued that those students who submit early apps are some of the strongests candidates because they dont' need grades from fall and winter terms to demonstate their full academic potential. Second, while the decision to apply ED must be made with thought and care because it is binding, the decision to apply EA, while non-binding should not be made lightly. To "just get the process over with" is not sufficient justification. We find that students lose momentum after they submit their early applications, which can lead to disasterous results if they are not accepted. And, for many reasons, students may be able to present a stronger application if they wait for the Regular Decision deadlins.
So, while in many cases submitting college applications can be the best choice, don't go into the decision without giving it careful thought.
Building a Better College List Ideas for our monthly columns come from many different places, but after the umpteenth conversation with my colleague, Tim, about people's misguided notions that we can "just make a college list", I decided to write about the considerations that we put in to each of the college lists we create for our clients. In truth, we never get "the list" right on the first try and, in fact, we don't try do. Figuring out which colleges are the best matches is an iterative process, but the more the client understands their options, the more they learn about what is important to them, and the better the ultimate list will be.
Does being "President of the Lady Gaga Fan Club" belong on your college resume? High school students are encouraged to join clubs, take on leadership roles, be involved in community service - not just because these are wonderful opportunities for growth, but because they "look good" on the college resume. But where to draw to draw the line between a real experience and a whimsical hobby? If it is something the student is genuinely committed to, has been involved with over a period of time, has helped them to gain worthwhile skills, and reveals something appealing about the person, it should probably go on the resume. In this way, a resume can be used to help the college applicant stand out from the crowd.
10 Steps to Writing Your Best Personal Statement The Personal Statement demands a lot of the college applicant - to present themselves fairly but favorably, to articulate to those things that inspire them, to capture their character and personality, and to do it all in 500 carefully chosen words. No wonder so many find this to be a painful exercise. But with enough time, introspection, and careful editing, students sometimes learn as much about themselves as the reader does.
Pulling an all-nighter for the college application Our goal for many of our college clients is for them to have most of their common application completed by the end of the summer. In July and August rising seniors have more time and fewer distractions so they can fully focus on completing the common app, and completing it well. The Fall is can be a very busy time and students should be focusing their energies on their classwork as this is the last opportunity for early applicants to show their academic metal. Final visits to colleges, interviews either off or on campus, and filling out the supplemental materials required by some colleges takes a tremendous amount of effort and emotional energy, leaving little for the common application.
That said, pulling all-nighters over the summer just to "be done" or to be the first applicant at a school seems imprudent. With only one chance to make a good impression on admissions officers, it's important to devote time and care to the application so that you will be viewed in your best possible light. So, work to get that application done well, but don't sacrifice quality for speed.
Drexel U. Brings On a New Wave of Applicants Over the next few months, select high school seniors will be recieving "V.I.P. Applications" from colleges encouraging them, through a simplified process, to apply to their institutions. Colleges send out V.I.P applications to those students whose SAT scores fall within a certain range as a way of increasing their applicant pool as well as intentionally raising the average SAT scores of their applicants. Both these moves make colleges appear more selective. The other advantage to the college is that it increases their chances of yielding students from this targeted pool.
However, V.I.P. applications have advantages for the student as well. Typically not requiring a long essay and waiving the application fee, the V.I.P. applications don't take as much time to fill out. As an acceptance is not a binding commitment, for some students having an acceptance in their back pocket early in the application cycle can be a real confidence booster that also takes away the concerns of finding those "safety schools."
Of course, students should not be lured into completing V.I.P. applications to schools in which they have absolutely no interest. But, if the invitation comes from a school that piques their interest, students should take advantage of this opportunity.