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By Peter Van Buskirk

In recent weeks, thousands of anxious Early Decision and Early Action applicants have been learning the outcome of their applications. While the news brings excitement and relief to many, even more students find themselves holding letters of deferral or denial—and wondering what went wrong.

The angst has been brought home to me in various conversations with bewildered students and parents over the last six weeks. In all cases, the conversations involved excellent students—young people with strong records and well-developed talents coming from challenging academic programs. By all accounts, they deserved better. Now, however, they are left scrambling to reorient themselves to different options.

In assessing each situation, it is usually easy to spot the reason behind the non-admission—and it often revolves around a lack of purpose or intentionality regarding the submitted application. In other words, the students expected their credentials to stand on their own merit. Instead, the reader of the application would have easily surmised that the candidate expected the sheer weight of good grades, superb extracurricular activities and worthy goals to carry the day.

At selective institutions, however, those characteristics (good grades, etc.) do little more than put the student on the “competitive playing field” with hundreds or, in many cases, thousands of other equally qualified applicants. Their credentials are strong enough to start the conversation, but often fall short of “clinching the deal.”

Consider, for example, the highly involved student whose application failed to convey the generosity that shaped his character or the student who neglected to mention that the absence of a foreign language on her senior year schedule was due to a conflict with a course she is taking at a local college. Imagine the difference a personal interview would have made for the student whose life circumstances had affected her performance in the classroom, or the impact a thoughtfully developed personal statement could have had in place of the hastily completed essay that was deemed “good enough” by its author.

In each case, the lack of intentionality—the failure to “connect the dots” of one’s life experiences—brought the candidate up “short” in the end. Perhaps,  most often overlooked is the opportunity the students have to demonstrate the synergy that exists between themselves and the institutions to which they are applying. In response to the typical “Why do you want to attend our school?” essay, a rather gratuitous response citing the school’s ranking and the prestige of its faculty reveals nothing about the student’s sense of purpose.

On the other hand, had the student reached beyond the obvious to reveal the synergy—in real and personal terms—between the student’s aptitude, goals and learning style and the institution’s ability to complement them, he would have positioned himself much more effectively, especially in the competition for admission at colleges that must make fine distinctions between great candidates.

Quite often, then, the difference between acceptance and non-acceptance boils down to the student’s ability—and willingness—to be thoughtful and intentional in the presentation of her application. The winners in this competition are typically those who recognized—and seized upon—the opportunity to “connect the dots” of their applications to present themselves in a thematically cohesive manner. More than qualified, they made themselves into compelling candidates by giving admission officers greater insight into the unique perspectives and defining influences in their lives.

While there is not much current seniors can do to change the presentations of their submitted applications, the lessons learned in the process are worth passing forward to those who can benefit from them as they prepare their college applications. Start now to make note of how you want to approach the presentation of your credentials when the time comes. You will have that opportunity before you know it!

By Peter Van Buskirk 

At this time of year, I am often asked to react to dozens of college essays. Happily, the students in question see the opportunity to make an impact with the written word and are eager to put forth their best efforts. Unfortunately, many essays that are presumably in “final form” when they reach me are really not ready for “prime time.” The concepts are generally well conceived, but the presentation—from a technical perspective—reveals that much work can still be done to make a good essay great.

With that thought in mind, I would like to share the following editorial suggestions as they relate to the essay drafting process.

  1. Don’t try to pack everything you’ve done into your essay. Be careful to avoid the redundancy of reciting activities and/or accomplishments that will be found in other parts of your application. Quite frankly, resume narratives are dull and useless. Similarly, if your essay reads like a vacation travelogue, you have most likely “missed the boat.” Rather, take an expansive approach to a particular aspect of the topic at hand. If you can, focus on a revelation that changed your perspective. In doing so, you give the reader insight into a part of your life experience that won’t appear anywhere else on the application.
  2. In response to the “Why do you want to come here?” essay prompt, don’t restate the obvious about the college or university in question. You don’t win points by telling them you want to study with their “world famous professors” in their “top ranked programs.” Instead, reflect on your research and/or campus visit experience to project yourself into the culture of the place. Reveal an awareness of instructional style and independent learning opportunities. Demonstrate the synergy between yourself and the institution.
  3. Be measured and concise in your presentation. While complex sentences are sometimes necessary, it is best to err on the side of simplicity. This can be especially true in a story-telling narrative. A series of short, “punchy” sentences can have a powerful effect in delivering emotionally laden messages.
  4. Allow paragraphs to be your friends! An essay that is presented in a few long paragraphs is not only hard to read—the resulting word “blocks” can be overwhelming to tired eyes—it effectively obscures the author’s key messages. Change paragraphs with each new thought. And remember—a one line, one sentence paragraph can be just as impactful as a 3-4 sentence paragraph.
  5. Don’t use the word “I” to start sentences any more than is necessary. It is assumed that you are the author. You don’t need to remind the reader at the start of each sentence. Find creative solutions to conveying ownership of your thoughts.
  6. Speaking of unnecessary words, check to see if the word “that” is needed wherever it appears in your draft. If not, delete it.
  7. Avoid dangling prepositions (e.g., to, for, from, with, about).  Such words will undoubtedly play important roles in the articulation of your thoughts, but they don’t belong at the end of sentences!
  8. Punctuate creatively to emphasize key points. The strategic use of dashes (double hyphen) and exclamation marks as well as italics and bold type characteristics can add emphasis. Use quotation marks to indicate you are giving special meaning to a word or phrase. Be careful about using semi-colons, though, as they often set apart independent thoughts that should be punctuated as sentences.
  9. Don’t restate the essay prompt. Doing so is unnecessarily redundant and can limit your ability to take a more expansive approach with your essay.
  10. Eliminate qualifying phrases such as “I think” and “I believe.” They convey a lack of conviction. Generally speaking, you should try to project a more confident, assertive voice in your presentation.
  11. Make sure there is agreement between nouns and pronouns as well as verb tenses. Failure to do so is an indication of poor grammar skills, carelessness—or both.
  12. Whenever possible, write in the active voice.
  13. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs. There is a tendency to want to impress with flowery language—and adverbs often comprise the “bouquet.” Don’t overdo them.
  14. Speaking of flowery language, use the thesaurus judiciously! The words you use need to sound like they are coming from you. If not, they can be rather jarring to the reader!
  15. Don’t worry about the word count until you have developed a complete draft. Word and character counts can be paralyzing if you allow them to dictate your approach to an essay topic. Instead, commit yourself to an idea. Write it down from start to finish. Then, take a step back in order to gain perspective. As you begin to edit and refine the idea, challenge your word choices. Are they essential to conveying the key messages? If not, eliminate them.
  16. Finally, don’t assume that because a teacher or college advisor has “signed off” on an essay that it is finished. In all likelihood, that person is simply acknowledging that you are on the right track—that the essay is a good representation of the messages you want to convey. Taking it to the next level—making a good essay “great”—is your job!

By Peter Van Buskirk

Having talked with a fair number of rising high school seniors over the last six weeks, I am coming to the conclusion that these days can be the “dog days” of the college application process. This is especially true for those who have identified target schools and are struggling to get their arms around their essay assignments!

If this sounds like you, the good news is you recognize the need to be thinking and acting upon your college applications in a timely manner. That recognition, however, doesn’t lessen the anxious avoidance you experience—or the nights of fitful sleep—or the extended periods of time you spend staring at an unresponsive keyboard. The words and the critical messages your essays convey will not materialize out of thin air. You can’t will a good essay to completion!

I’d like to offer a few suggestions, then, that can help you work through the creative blues to points of clarity, if not inspiration, as you get started in the essay writing process.

  1. Resist the temptation to buy the “best college essays” book. It will only contribute to the “paralysis by analysis” you are experiencing. The essays you will find in those books are not only well-written, but they also fit the context of someone else’s life story. The genius for your essay rests within you, not an essay someone else has written. Focus on your own storyline.
  2. Identify key themes and/or messages you want to convey. Are there two or three things you want to make sure the readers of your application know about you? In answering this question, go beyond the obvious. Don’t restate information that can be found elsewhere in your application. This is your opportunity to provide insight and interpretation. Coming to grips with the objective of your message will help you find the most effective form for presenting it.
  3. Reflect on your most memorable life experiences. How have they shaped you? A group of students just returned from a two-week tour of Europe with great pictures and wonderful stories. Two years from now when they begin writing their college applications, they should reflect less on where they went and what they saw—and more on how some aspect of the experience changed them.
  4. Find the story within the story. Quite often, metaphors are effective in framing key messages in college application essays. If you have identified themes or messages to be conveyed in your application, think about vignettes or moments of revelation or clarity that speak to the bigger picture of your developing perspective. What were you feeling at the time? How did you react? What has been the impact of that experience on how you see yourself in the world?
  5. Reveal—don’t tell. It is best not to recite the facts of your life. Instead, take the reader between the lines to understand you, as a thinking person, better. Not long ago, a parent member of an audience who also happens to be a college professor asked me to remind college applicants that colleges value diversity of thought in their classrooms. The essay is your opportunity to reveal that element of diversity that can be found uniquely within you.
  6. Keep a pen/pencil and paper beside your bed. You might wrack your brain all day trying to come up with clever ideas, but invariably the best stuff emerges in those hazy, subconscious moments just before you drift off to sleep! If you can, push back the sleep long enough to jot down your new inspirations.
  7. Read—a lot! Quite often, essay writers are consumed with a myopia that limits their ability to understand their place in the world in which they live. Break out of that shell by reading news stories and editorials. Better yet, read books that make you think. It’s not too late and biographies are great sources! I have found increasing inspiration from the life stories of people who have risen from relative obscurity to make significant contributions as thinkers and doers.
  8. Take advantage of the time you give yourself by starting early. Resist the temptation to write a college essay in a single draft. Good writing—and editing—is a process. Manage it well to your advantage!


BCF Readers’ Forum XX

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Dear Peter,
When a student uses the Common Application for multiple universities, does each institution see the other schools you are applying to or how many? At one of your workshops, you also mentioned that applying to more than eight schools might indicate to a college that the student isn’t that committed to them. How would a school know how many schools he applied to?

Dear Marilyn,
The only way a college can know for sure the names of the other colleges to which a student has applied is if he reveals that information either conversationally or in writing somewhere. That said, admission officers understand that students are applying to multiple colleges and will make strong inferences about the importance of their own college to that student by the manner in which he presents himself.

It is really important, then, that the student 1) get on the radar screens, i.e., visit the campus, answer correspondence, etc. of the colleges he really likes and, 2) treat each application as though it is a personal statement being made directly to the college in question. Admission officers are very adept at discerning a student’s interest. Again, it is critical that students are very intentional about the messaging they present to each institution. With each additional application that is submitted, it is harder for a student to make a compelling argument to each college that he is sincerely interested; hence, my strong recommendation to keep the college list to eight.

Dear Peter,
Is it better to apply Early Action to a school where the student might have a chance rather then a reach school? I figured nothing to lose so why not try EA for reach school? Is that the wrong strategy?

Dear Kate,
Unless the EA option being considered is of a restrictive, “single-choice” nature, I agree that it can’t hurt for a student to apply EA to any or even all of the schools on her list including the reach school. EA does not require or even imply a commitment from the student so the only reason not to try it is if there is a chance that the student’s credentials (scores, grades) might be measurably improved through the first half of the academic year. Keep in mind, though, that the only real benefit to such a strategy is peace of mind. Whereas the odds of admission improve with Early Decision at most schools, EA candidates really don’t have find any statistical advantage in the admission process.

Dear Peter,
When is it best to submit an Early Decision application? Is it better to apply Oct. 1 versus waiting for the Nov. 1 deadline?

Dear Anne,
The best time for your student to submit her ED application is when she is ready. There is no real strategic advantage to applying well ahead of the deadline. I do suggest trying to submit a week in advance of the deadline in order to avoid having her credentials get caught in the avalanche of materials that is bound to arrive in admission offices on November 1.

Dear Peter,
How crucial is it that you take 4 years of foreign language? Does it look bad to drop it your senior year because it does not fit your schedule?

Dear Jo,
The more selective the college to which your student wants to apply, the more important it is to have a fourth year (senior year) of a language. If, for any reason, that is not possible, your student needs to make sure to explain the situation in the application (interview, optional essay, letters of recommendation).

Dear Peter,
Our daughter attended a two-week Introduction to Engineering session at Notre Dame during the summer. Should she mention this in her applications to other schools including the name of the University? She is a very good student with a 4.33 weighted GPA, Girl Scout Gold Award, achieved level 9 out 10 in piano performance and theory, etc.

Dear Gerard,
Your daughter should definitely include the engineering session at Notre Dame on her application. As an academic enrichment activity, it helps to validate/reinforce the sincerity of her interest in engineering and it is just as relevant as her Gold Award and music achievements.

Dear Peter,
My daughter wrote a good application essay where she reveals an early passion she developed exploring and recreating cultural nuances of different time periods in history. It reads well and shows some of her passions, creativity and independence.

However, she more recently developed a new academic interest in psychology. She took an AP Psych class her sophomore year and has taken classes at colleges to pursue that interest each of the last two summers. She wanted badly to set up a research project, but after contacting multiple college professors, could not do this.

She will be using the supplemental information essay on the Common App to tell another story that relates to a big healthy eating project and grant she has been working on at her school district.

Now the question: Is it okay to have an application with these two essays that reveal of some of her personality and interests but does not include the newer Psychology passion which is what she wants to pursue in college?

Will admission officers perceive a bit of a missing link? On some applications, she can explain the Psych interest in response to the individual questions, but not all colleges give her the option.

Dear Sylvia,
It sounds like your daughter’s primary essays are revealing important elements of her character and perspective. She should not worry about trying to validate her psychology interest in the application any more than is already implicit in her current essays and explicit on the listing of her activities. Colleges that want more evidence of the thoughtfulness and intentionality behind her academic choice(s) will ask for it.

Dear Peter,
My HS senior plans to major in applied math and is taking differential equations and Calc III this year. The teacher who was going to teach that course, and who had already agreed to write a recommendation letter (the teacher had previously taught my son in another math course), has left the school unexpectedly.

Does it make sense for that teacher to write a letter? Prior to teaching at the HS he was a very accomplished university professor and leader in secondary education. We felt that his recommendation letter would be helpful.

Coincidentally, another teacher (Comp Science AP and Physics), with 40 years of tenure who my son believes would have gladly written a strong letter, retired at the end of last year. These are likely my son’s two biggest proponents.

All of this leads to a more general question: how important are recommendation letters and do letters from certain types of teachers “carry more weight than others”? If so, what matters other than that the teacher knows the student and thinks highly of him?

Dear Glenn,
Letters of recommendation can provide valuable context regarding the rigor and expectations of a given classroom as well as insight into the student’s approach to learning. Both factors are important in the selective admission process as readers of the application try to discern the student’s ability and preparation to function in advanced college-level courses. Such assessments are even more relevant when considering students for admission into academic programs that require a high level of proficiency at the outset.

Ideally, a letter should come from 1) a teacher who is familiar with the student’s communication and critical thinking skills and, 2) a teacher who can provide perspective on the student’s performance and preparedness in curricula related to his intended major. When possible, the letters should come from teachers who taught the student in the Junior and/or Senior years.

Your son might inquire of the colleges to which he applies about the protocol for submitting letters from either or both of these individuals in addition to those required from current classroom teachers as they are likely to provide relevant insight into his application.

“Why Do you Want to Come Here?”

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

By Peter Van Buskirk

“Why do you want to come here?”

As students rush to meet application deadlines, it is some version of this seemingly benign essay prompt that frequently induces a creative “paralysis by analysis” that brings progress to a screeching halt.

The “Why do you want to come here?” question is a common short-answer essay prompt (supplemental to users of the Common Application) at selective colleges that is often—and easily—overlooked until the application preparation is winding down. Then, it looms larger than life for the student who is eager to wrap up the process.

On the surface, the question doesn’t seem that difficult. Surely, the college in question is highly reputable, is no doubt situated on a bucolic campus and, by all measures, boasts a first-rate faculty. What’s not to like about the place?! Superlatives can’t do justice to the “amazing” institution.

Students who respond in like manner, however, miss the point as well as an opportunity to make a meaningful impression. As they gush about the beautiful campus, or the school’s proximity to the city, or its top ranked academic program, applicants are effectively stating the obvious. They reveal little of substance about themselves and, perhaps more troubling to the readers of their applications, they fail to reveal a deeper understanding of the college. Their responses might as well have been lifted from the college’s promotional literature.

Conversely, discerning readers of the prompt recognize that there might be more to the question than meets the eye; hence, the paralysis. Their instincts about the question are correct, but the answers are not always obvious.

The fundamental purpose of the “Why…” question is to determine the synergy that exists between the student and the institution. Despite its rather simplistic nature, the question is really trying to get at the student’s potential for self-actualization within the context of the academic environment of the college in question. In other words, what do you know about yourself—your academic interests, goals and learning style—and the capacity of the college in question to support and encourage you?

In the abstract, the question requires a measure of self-awareness that is uncommon for most 17-year-olds. It gains complexity when framed in the context of a nuanced academic environment, thereby forcing the applicant to think critically about herself in the process.

Admission officers at highly selective institutions will learn a great deal from responses to the “Why…” question about a student’s maturity and depth of understanding relative the educational process. They will also be able to draw strong inferences about the student’s level of investment in learning about the school and its institutional culture.  Students who have not engaged in meaningful reflection, or who only have superficial exposure to a given institution, will be especially challenged when it comes to addressing this question.

To break the grip of “paralysis by analysis,” think synergy. How can you reveal the connection between yourself and the institution? Frankly, this question is as much about you as it is the institution. What do you want to accomplish during your four years as an undergraduate? Beyond acquiring a degree, what questions burn inside you in search of answers? What unknowns do you want to explore? What talents, interests or perspectives would you like to develop further? This is where you can convince the reader of your application that you possess a seriousness of purpose. You’ll need to come up with at least one or two possibilities in order to get started.

Next, make the connection between your goals and objectives—and the institution’s capacity to support you in meeting them. Is this an academic culture that is consistent with your learning style? What do you know about the curriculum? Have you found specific courses that intrigue you? Draw upon exposure you have had to the institution or its members in order to support your presentation. Reflect on earlier visits to academic departments as well as conversations you might have had with professors or students. How have they persuaded you that the synergy does indeed exist?

As you can see, creating a compelling response to the “Why…?” essay prompt requires more than an awareness of a college’s reputation. Citing the superlatives is easy. If that is all you are able to muster in response to the question, you have effectively told the admission officers that yours is a superficial and, perhaps, whimsical interest that cannot to be taken seriously. And, if that is the case—if you continue to struggle to find a substantive response to the prompt—to might be wise to rethink your application to that college.

If, however, you are able to recognize the synergy—and can prove the synergy—you will make your application much more compelling to the institution in question.

Note to high school Juniors: One thing that should be clear from a reading of this commentary is that proving the synergy between yourself and an institution is made easier when you have taken advantage of opportunities to visit the colleges to which you will apply. You can start that process anytime.