BCF Readers’ Forum XI

Dear Peter,
My daughter is working on her college essays for both the Coalition and the Common applications. Each allows an essay on the “topic of your choice.” Could she just pick any prompt from either app and submit it for both? Or, would submitting something that was obviously written for a different app be considered tacky?

Dear Janet,
Most essay prompts present creative challenges in response to which students are able to reveal aspects of their life experiences that aren’t found anywhere else in their applications. In short, they have an opportunity to tell stories that are uniquely theirs.

Students need to be intentional when identifying essay prompts that provide the best opportunities for conveying essential messages in a thematically cohesive manner. Both the Coalition and Common Applications provide a series of essay prompt options as well as an option to write an essay on “a topic of your choice.” The latter leaves open the possibility that the student can use an essay that has been created for other purposes.

Given this flexibility regarding topic choices, intentionality is critical—students need to be thoughtful about the messages they want to convey to each college. A “one size fits all” approach to choosing an essay prompt might seem efficient, but it can be risky. Admission officers are quite discerning about the student’s recognition of the synergy between herself and the institution. In other words, “is this a conversation you are having with us or is it a conversation you are having with all who will listen?” This is likely to be even more relevant as students respond to the supplemental essay prompts associated with specific colleges receiving your daughter’s applications.

Dear Peter,
My daughter wants to visit some colleges that are far away. I would love to take her, but I am a single parent and have very limited vacation days that I can take off due to a recent surgery. I know it is important for her to see the campuses, but I won’t be able to go with her to all of the colleges. What should we do?

Dear Jillian,
Your daughter should make every effort to visit colleges that are very important to her—it will be hard for her to make a compelling application to a college that is “site unseen.” If you are not able to travel with her, perhaps a friend or family member might accompany her.

If visiting is simply not feasible, your daughter should check the websites of the colleges in question to see if virtual tours are available. She should also identify the admission staff persons at the colleges and reach out to them with any thoughtful questions she might have. Finally, she should be alert to any webinar information sessions that are offered by the colleges.

Dear Peter,
Prior to 9th Grade, my daughter was diagnosed with ADD. With medication—and literally overnight—she went from receiving grades in the 70’s to grades in the mid-90’s in virtually all of her classes. She had struggled immensely until this point and her confidence was decimated.

Due to the timing of the diagnosis, she had not taken algebra or earth science in 8th grade and was not tracked into any honors classes. She has, however, maintained a rigorous schedule that will see her taking physics, calculus, Spanish 5, History and English in her senior year. She has maintained an overall 94 average and has made the High Honor Roll each quarter of her high school career.

My daughter has also been quite successful at soccer. She is being recruited by two outstanding Division III private colleges and we are at the point of sending transcripts.
It is our impression these colleges want to see honors as well as AP courses.

How much “pull” do coaches have? Should we be very forthcoming right out of the box about my daughter’s late diagnosis of ADD and miraculous results with the medication? She has worked hard to accomplish well over the past three years of high school and we’d like to see her get into the best academic college possible.

Dear Hannah,
I would urge you to be fully disclosing with regard to your daughter’s academic history. IF the coach is going to have any “pull” with the admission office, she will need to be in full command of your daughter’s situation. I have written before about the need for students to explain irregularities (performance doesn’t match expectations) in their academic program/performance. This is a perfect example of the need for such an explanation.

Absent such information, admission officers will be easily dismissive of her credentials. She at least gives herself a chance by telling the complete story and eliminating the guesswork that would otherwise be required of admission officers.

Dear Peter,
Our son received a National Society of High School Scholars “Membership Confirmation” today and I wonder whether this is something that might help him get admitted or secure scholarships. Would you be able to weigh in on whether this is worth the $75.00 they seek?

Dear Don,
I have found no evidence that NSHSS membership is actually regarded as a meaningful credential in the admission or scholarship selection process. If anything, it’s ego food. Honors are earned—they can’t be bought.

Dear Peter,
My question has to do with how a student might incorporate traveling abroad during the summer into a college application. This will be my son’s second trip and he will get community service hours. I have been told in the past that you do not want to mention any type of service where you had to pay to be involved. Although, my son has a strong passion for travel and helping others, would it be wrong to label these outings as “mission trips” or would you just avoid mentioning them all together? This summer, he is actually staying with a host family and intends to start some type of fundraiser for them when he gets back.

Dear Matt,
Travel abroad and “mission” trips can be incredibly enlightening activities and certainly deserve reference in college applications. Such experiences are fairly common, though, and typically fall to students who can afford them—hence, the cynicism expressed by many admission officers when students talk about the trips in their essays. That said, it is appropriate to include reference to the travel somewhere on the extracurricular profile/resume. And, to the extent that the experiences have shaped your son’s perspective, they might be the subject of an essay.

Dear Peter,
I have been pondering whether or not I should take an AP Biology course for my senior year or an AP Government and Politics class. Science is not the field I wish to pursue as I am interested in history education. I am concerned about dropping science, though, if it will decrease my chances of being admitted into a school. I am looking for some guidance through this difficult decision.

Dear Sharon,
On the surface, swapping out one high level course (AP Bio) for another (AP Government/Politics) would seem to make sense, especially if you are leaning strongly toward academic/career interests related to the latter. On the other hand, some colleges will regard AP Bio as a stronger choice. That said, I’d strongly urge you to raise the same question with the regional recruiters from some of the colleges likely to be on your “short list.” They are in a better position to provide insight into the nuances of the selection processes of which they are a part.

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