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BCF Readers’ Forum I


Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Dear Peter,
My daughter and I are struggling with questions about letters of recommendation from teachers such as how many letters are needed and when should she ask for them.
Jean

Dear Jean,
The number of letters required from teachers will vary across institutions. Start by checking the application requirements of the colleges to which your student would like to apply. In all likelihood, she’ll need letters from two teachers. If so, one should be from a teacher who can comment on the student’s communication skills; the other might come from a teacher who can speak to the student’s aptitude and skills related to the academic area(s) she would like to pursue in college.

The best time to ask for these letters is now.  And, by the way, the “ask” should include a conversation in which the student provides context regarding her plans for college—what she wants to study, how she wants to engage in an academic environment and why she has chosen the college(s) in question. It would also be helpful to re-live with the teacher the moments of excitement she felt in that classroom. In doing so, she helps to shape the narrative of the teacher’s letter in a manner that is consistent with the story she is trying to tell in her application.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Do you have any suggestions for dealing with writer’s block? My son has been a very good and involved student, yet he is having trouble finding something that will set him apart in the competition.
Carol

Dear Carol,
Your son is not alone! A lot of rising seniors are struggling to find a place to start with their essays. The short answer is that your son needs to look within for the answers. Rather than focusing on the “what” and “when” of his life experience, he should reflect on the “how” and “why.” The facts of his application (resume, academic record, scores) will be well known. It will be the perspectives derived from life experiences, however, that have shaped his character.

That said, great essays don’t just happen—good writing is a process. Your son needs to be prepared for a thoughtful process of drafting and editing that could take weeks or months.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter didn’t do well this year in an advanced pre-calc math class. The teacher is known to be very tough and picky. She got a D this second semester and she scored in the 97th percentile on the math portion of the ACT (her overall ACT was 31). She’s considering taking another class like this over the internet or through summer school—not for credit replacement, but to show on her transcript that she acknowledges she didn’t do well despite knowing the information. What are your thoughts on this?
Charles

Dear Charles,
Retaking the class this summer is a great idea! It shows the reader of her application that she is neither content with nor accepting of the earlier outcome. It also shows that she is not making excuses—that she is making herself accountable for her own development—and that’s pretty cool! If admission officers are looking to see what she does with her time when she doesn’t have to do anything, choosing this path—while not guaranteeing admission—will speak volumes to who she is!
Peter

Dear Peter,
What are your thoughts on choosing a college major? Recently, the person I volunteer with told me that her biggest regret from college was that she didn’t get a “technical degree” like “nursing or teaching.” She advised me to focus on obtaining a degree that will be useful in getting a job immediately after college. What do you feel should be the main considerations?
Danielle

Dear Danielle,
One of the most vexing issues for young people as they contemplate college is that involving the choice of a major and/or career. While some seem to know what they want to do, most are still trying to figure it out. In fact, most college students (roughly two-thirds) will change their majors at least once! As you try to sort things out, then, you have a lot of company!

At its core, your undergraduate (college) experience can offer at least three important opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to become educated—to broaden your perspective and develop skills of critical thinking and analysis.
  2. The opportunity for experiential learning—to test what you think you know through research, independent study, internships and work opportunities.
  3. And, possibly, the opportunity to become trained in a vocational or career track.

Notice that acquiring certain training is only one element of the college experience. In fact, many employers will look for candidates who are well educated and who have developed the capacity to learn how to learn (the experiential piece).

My suggestion: follow your instincts. Choose to do something that makes you happy—and pursue it with passion. If you are naturally drawn to academic programs and career tracks that involve technical degrees (nursing, teaching, engineering, etc.) then go for it. I wouldn’t, however, arbitrarily assume that such a career will work out for you just because you have chosen it. Instead, become well educated. Even if a career track is not immediately apparent to you, seize every opportunity to test assumptions and apply what you have learned. It is in doing the latter that you set yourself up for future employment opportunities.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I am a single parent who adopted my daughter from China when she was an infant. Now, she is a good student looking at colleges where she will need financial aid. Do you think colleges will be interested in her because of her unusual background? She is not keen about focusing on this in her essay. I think she should at least mention it and discuss it to some extent. We’re both interested to hear your thoughts.
Margaret

Dear Margaret,
To the extent that your daughter’s cultural heritage is important to her—and gives definition to her character and life experience—it should be considered among the “dots” to be connected in telling her story as a college applicant. That said, she will be able to reveal her background—and relationship with you—on her applications without making it the focus of an essay. If greater insight might be shared through broader treatment of the topic—and she is reluctant to make any statements herself—then she might ask her college advisor to reference her background and upbringing in his/her letter of recommendation. Making this the focal point of an essay, though, is something she should only attempt if she is comfortable doing so. Presumably, she is thinking of other topics/approaches that will give the readers of her application insight into her life experience beyond that which is apparent on her application.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Is there a benefit or disadvantage to waiving the right to have the ability (at a later date) to review teacher recommendations? My son has spoken with two teachers who agreed to write his recommendations, but he did not complete the forms to them because of the question about waiving rights.
Arthur

Dear Arthur,
I recommend that students waive access to the teacher recommendations. IF we can assume that a teacher is eager to help your son find success in the process—usually a safe assumption as most teachers do care about the successes of their students—and IF your son takes initiative to meet with his teachers in advance to share his educational goals and reflect on his experiences in their classrooms, there should be no concerns about what is written. In doing the latter, he helps the teacher help him by contributing to the narrative that emerges in the letter of recommendation. Waiving access, then, allows the teacher to write a more balanced, if not candid, recommendation that will be given greater credibility by admission committees.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter is leaning to taking two AP Math classes and no science in her senior year since scheduling permits very few options. The alternative would be to take one AP Math class with a “filler” science, just to get a 4th year of science, but she is not interested in the class and it is not an AP class. How will taking two AP Math classes be looked upon from a university admissions perspective?
Becca

Dear Becca,
Generally speaking, when students drop a course (science, in this case) it is important that the replacement course be of equal or greater rigor. That seems to be the case with your daughter’s proposal so she should be fine. As a failsafe, though, I would urge her to ask the question of the regional recruiters from some of the colleges that interest her. It’s a valid question—let them be the experts. In the process, she also gets on their “radar screens,” a factor that should not be underestimated in the selective admission process.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Our son will be a senior in the fall and we are concerned about how we will pay for college. We have been receiving invitations to attend “free” presentations by financial planners. Some of the pitches sound too good to be true (help with completing forms, guaranteed financial aid, better scholarships, etc.). Should we be checking out these opportunities?
Mark

Dear Mark,
Cost and affordability are indeed serious matters as you consider your son’s educational options. The good news is that you can have most of your questions answered by financial aid professionals on college campuses. If you want help completing the financial aid forms or need advice with regard to asset management, talk with your accountant. Be wary of guarantees, though, especially from people you don’t know. Quite often you are being set up (during the “free” session) to write a check for consulting services that you really don’t need.
Peter

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!

“Good Enough is Never Enough”


Saturday, November 25th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

As the days grow shorter, high school seniors are faced with a time of reckoning as they prepare college applications. The academic year is in full swing with new academic challenges and a sense of nostalgia that is sweeping over students as they wistfully embrace events and relationships for the “last time” in their high school experience. And, for many, the college application process looms as another layer of intense activity on top of an already busy schedule.

The excitement and allure of going to college has begun to wane as the process of applying becomes an onerous imposition. With pending deadlines and mounting requirements, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get it all done! As a result, there is a tendency to choose the course of least resistance—to do what is “good enough.”

I would like to offer a word to the wise if you find yourself in this situation. Stay focused. Now is the time to do your best work even though doing so might mean making compromises in your social life. You can’t “will” great grades. Essays don’t become excellent overnight. College applications don’t materialize out of thin air.

Keep in mind the competition for admission. Popular forecasts to the contrary, the competition at selective institutions continues unabated as a higher proportion of the college age population applies to college. As a result, colleges will continue to be inundated by applications from more qualified candidates than they can admit. And the more selective institutions will be forced to make even finer distinctions between deserving students.

In particular, they will watch to see how you handle the pressure. Will you wilt under the weight of the added expectations? Will you find the easiest path to the “finish line”? Or will you step up to the challenge?

Colleges that can be picky are indeed watching. They want to see what you do when you don’t think you have to do anything. They want to see how you approach your classroom assignments. When a “B” seems good enough, will you continue to push for the “A”?

And admission officers at these colleges will be able to gauge your investment in your application immediately. Have you been thoughtful about conveying key messages? How have you told your story? What does your essay say about you? I can tell you from experience that applications and, in particular, essays that are pulled together at the last minute will have that “good enough” look about them.

You must ask yourself, then, “Do I want ‘good enough’ to represent me in the college application process—or in life, for that matter?” I wouldn’t if I were you, especially given what is at stake. By doing so, you are suggesting that you are willing to settle for something less than your best. And when your admission credentials have the look of “good enough,” you give the person reading them a reason to be dismissive of your application in favor of those that are more compelling—game over!

As a high school senior and an applicant to college, you are still in a position to control the manner in which your application is presented. Resist the temptation, then, to put things off or go into “cruise control.” Now is the time to accelerate! You must make that commitment, though. As one young woman observed after hearing this message at a recent program, “If nothing else, I have learned that good enough is never enough if I want to reach my goals.”

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

As deadlines for college applications approach, it is important to be both organized and purposeful in your preparations. The following ten tips will help you avoid common mistakes as you put the finishing touches on your applications.

1. Focus on a short list of no more than eight colleges. The greater the number of applications you submit, the more likely it is you appear (to the colleges) to be applying whimsically—and the greater the likelihood that “application fatigue” will begin to effect your ability to do a good job with each application. Stay focused on the core group of schools that represent good fits for you. In most cases, eight is more than enough.

2. “Connect the dots”—tell your story! Be purposeful in your presentation—eliminate the randomness of your submissions. Establish a theme and use every part of the application to connect the dots (various data points) of your life experience to create a clear picture of who you are and what the college gets by admitting you.

3. Answer the “why” question thoughtfully. Colleges that ask you to write about “why you want to attend” are really trying to discern the synergy that exists between your goals, needs and learning style and their respective learning environments. Don’t tell them things they already know about themselves. Admission officers don’t want to hear about their highly ranked programs, great faculty or beautiful facilities—at least, not in this essay! Instead, reveal to them how, where and why you have found meaningful connections. Prove to the reader that you “get it”—that you understand how the learning environment in question makes the most sense for you.

4. Take pride in your presentation. Your application is like a personal statement that needs to state the case for your admission. Proofread it carefully. Read it out loud. Resist the temptation to repurpose information from one application to another—to do what is “good enough.” Make sure each application you submit is a positive reflection of who you are and what you have to offer.

5. Know your high school’s rules/procedures for supporting the college application process. Give the appropriate personnel time to prepare and complete your supporting documentation. Quite often, schools want information at least a week in advance of the actual application deadlines. Don’t put your college advisor in a bind by waiting until the last minute.

6. Make sure your recommenders are “on the same page” with regard to key messages you need to convey on your application. Your college advisor and the teachers who are supporting you are important partners in the presentation of your credentials.

7. Be organized. The application process involves the management of many moving parts (score reports, letters of recommendations, essays, supplemental forms, etc.). Make sure your part of the application is submitted with the application fee by the posted deadline. At that point, the colleges to which you have applied will create unique data files for you into which any other outstanding credentials will be added as they arrive.

To make sure everything gets to where it needs to be in a timely fashion, create a spreadsheet on which you can list and track all the information you need to submit to each college. If you can, submit your part of the application two weeks in advance of the college’s deadline in order to beat the rush.

8. Don’t assume—anything! At a time when deadlines and requirements are critical, it would be a mistake to assume that someone else has taken care of something for you! It is your job to make sure your application is complete and that it carries the key messages that help to define your life experience—and distinguish your candidacy.

Give yourself extra time to work with the formatting of your essays (no need for panicked melt-downs the night before deadlines!) and get in touch with the regional representatives from the colleges in question for guidance if you run into difficulty interpreting the requirements for their respective institutions.

9. Save copies. It might seem like a hassle, but take the time to make and save copies (hard copy or electronic) of the application materials you submit. You never know when you might need to refer to them.

Make arrangements to have test scores submitted directly to the colleges. It you have not already authorized the submission of test results (SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests) to the colleges that require them, now is the time to do so.

10. Stay on their radar screens! One of the biggest mistakes students make at this point in the process is they fail to stay engaged with the schools to which they are applying! The assumption seems to be: “They have my application, so they know I’m interested.” Guess again! One of the biggest reasons bright and talented students do not get into target schools has to do with questions about the sincerity of the candidate’s interest. Answer emails that might come your way from those schools. Visit the campus. Direct important questions to the staff person at the university who recruits in your area. Don’t allow the decision-makers to regard you as a “ghost applicant.”

 

By Peter Van Buskirk

“On your mark! Get set … Go!” With the opening of the school year, the starter’s call has sounded on the marathon that is the next college application season. Ready or not, high school seniors with college aspirations need to step up if they want to compete.

The coming months will establish the pace for each candidate. Good planning, positive energy and careful execution will move students to the head of the pack. By contrast, inertia can be a killer! Slow starts resulting from a lack of focus and poor organization can be overcome, but rarely without undue amounts of angst that stress a process that is already emotionally charged.

The following, then, are tips for students as they approach the “starting line.” While there can be no guarantees with regard to outcomes, knowing what lies ahead—and planning accordingly—can be advantageous as you map out your “race.” These suggestions are intended to put you in a more competitive position while relieving a little stress along the way!

1.    Prepare yourself for a busy year. “Okay, so what’s new!?” you say. Well, being able to anticipate the rush of Senior Year activity is one thing. Managing it is quite another. The key: take control. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things “beyond your control.” Rather, know what you want to accomplish and be prepared to do what it takes to make things happen. Be responsible—no excuses. Take charge of your life and give meaning to the things you do. Success won’t just happen. You will need to make it happen.

2.    Invest in yourself. The college application process will seem like another high-level course or two on top of everything else on your schedule. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing the things you enjoy. Instead, give them everything you’ve got. Expand your involvement. Look for leadership opportunities. Try new roles. Doing so may prove quite challenging and require a difficult balancing act on your part. When you consider the potential short and long-term benefits, though, aren’t you worth the effort?!

3.    Stay on top of your grades! Selective colleges want to see what you will do in the classroom when you think the pressure is off—when no one is looking. Your hard work has gotten you this far academically—now is the time to sprint to the finish!

4.    Finalize your college list. Ideally, your list is already taking shape. By the end of September, it should be set. While there are all kinds of reasons why students feel the need to apply to lots of colleges, a good number is eight (8). If you have managed expectations around a good college fit (see my summer blogs), this list should be dominated by “target” schools—places at which you have a reasonable chance (40%-60% probability) of gaining admission.

5.    Research the applications of the colleges to which you will apply. If you haven’t done so already, there is no time like the present. Create an account with the Common Application. Become familiar with the supplementary information required by the colleges to which you are applying on the Common App’s “member pages” as well as the institutional applications for schools that do not use the Common Application. Do the same with the Universal Application and/or the new Coalition Application if you are so inclined. Create a spreadsheet on which you can note deadlines and requirements.

6.    Develop a plan for telling your story. What are the key messages you want colleges to know about you? How can you use the different elements of the application to convey those messages—to “connect the dots” in revealing a clearer picture of who you are?

7.    Start working on your essays! While you don’t need finished drafts right off the bat, you need to start sometime. Remember, good writing is a process, not an event. It doesn’t happen overnight. Try to have solid drafts of at least three 500-word essays finished by the end of September. Otherwise, the “adrenalin rush” that has served you well in the past might prove to be more elusive than you anticipate later in the Fall.

8.    Make sure your supporters are ready and able to help you! By the end of September, you should have met with the individuals who will write letters of recommendation for you and notified your counselor of the colleges to which you may be applying. In addition, familiarize yourself with your high school’s procedures and deadlines for processing application materials including transcripts, mid-year grades and counselor recommendations.

9.   If you are thinking about Early Decision, plan an overnight visit at your first-choice college AND at another of your favorite colleges. Compare your impressions of each before completing any ED forms. If you are not 100%, unconditionally committed to a school, then ED should not be considered. If you are applying Early Action to schools that offer that option, be respectful of the rules each has regarding the use of EA as some offer it as a restrictive, single choice opportunity.

10.    Take the SAT or ACT at least once between September and December. Plan to take the SAT Subject Tests necessary to satisfy the requirements of the colleges where you are applying.

11.    Give your parents a list of application deadlines. Presumably, one of them will be paying your application fees. They need to know when and how much.

12.    Become familiar with the financial aid forms and process. In determining your eligibility for need-based financial aid, all schools require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and many private schools also require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Know the submission deadlines. (Note: you can submit the FAFSA as early as October 1 using your IRS tax return for the second year prior to your student’s entry into college. Consult financial aid professionals at schools where you might be applying if you have questions. If you are considering Early Decision and cost is a factor, many schools will meet with you to provide an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution (EFC). Do not regard information taken from institutional Net Price Calculators as the absolute gospel with regard to your EFC.

 

By Peter Van Buskirk

Sometimes, the simplest prompts can prove to be the most challenging when it comes to writing college essays. Who would think, for example, that some version of “Why do you want to attend this school?” could induce sleepless paranoia? Or that “Explain your choice of a college major” would leave students second-guessing themselves?

After all, one’s interest in a school should be self-evident—shouldn’t it? The place looks good, feels good and has everything you need. What more can you say? How can you hope to capture the “gut feeling” that has inexplicably taken hold of you?

And, about that major—it’s easy to talk about a life-long desire to become a teacher or a doctor or an engineer. But, what if that career direction isn’t so clear? How can you make a convincing argument about something that is seemingly so speculative?

Despite the inevitable brain-freeze, you still need to come up with words that will not only fill the spaces, but come together to create a compelling statement about you, the applicant. Consider, then, the context behind the questions for insight into how you might attempt to answer them.

Many of the schools that ask long and short answer questions of a personal nature are highly selective. They must make fine distinctions between hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of talented, high-achieving students. As an applicant, your data—courses, grades, scores—puts you on the “competitive playing fields” at such schools.

Once in the competition, though, the attention often shifts from, “Can you do the work?” to questions such as, “If we admit this student, what do we get?” and “Where is the evidence that this student would be a good fit for us?” In other words, what sets you apart from others with similar credentials? Moreover, selective colleges want to know if your interest is sparked by an awareness of the synergy that exists between you and the culture of the educational experience on that campus—or is it a more superficial attraction?

Think about it. Do you justify your interest in a place because it is highly ranked, has a beautiful campus and is in an urban area—things the school already knows about itself? Or can you make the case that you are intrigued by the manner in which the curriculum is organized, instruction is offered and students are engaged? There are not-so-subtle differences in the answers. Colleges often ask the questions about your interest in them as well as your intended program of study, not to see how well you can recite their outstanding attributes, but to learn more about you and how you are thinking about your education.

A friend of mine who is the dean admission at a school that asks questions of this nature has often said, “I don’t want applicants to tell me they deserve to be admitted because they have great credentials. I want them to demonstrate that they ‘get it’—that they understand why my institution would be a good fit for them.” His institution, and others like it, want to measure both the sincerity of your interest and the intentionality with which you approach your application.

This takes us back to the “what do we get” question. In response to the essay prompts, do you come across as someone who is thoughtfully engaged and analytically involved—who is fully self-aware and has carefully researched distinctions between programs in search of the best fit? Or is your application merely the product of an expectation that your credentials should be justly rewarded by admission to that institution?

The key to writing essays in response to these prompts, then, is to remember that the essay needs to be about you. It needs to reveal a deeper understanding of who you are, what you think, and how you think within the context of the question. And, it needs to demonstrate an implicit understanding of the nuances of the school to which you aspire.

In responding to a prompt about an intended major, be sure to validate, if not prove, your interest in that discipline. In other words, demonstrate that your understanding of the subject matter is more than superficial. Better yet, provide evidence—if you can—of your current engagement with the subject matter by virtue of extending reading and/or experiential learning. Again, prove your passion. Make it relevant to your interest in the school.

Don’t panic, though, if you don’t have a clear academic interest. Most students don’t. Moreover, the odds are your interests will change throughout your college experience. Reflect instead on the subject areas you do enjoy. See yourself as the sum of many parts. In doing so, convince the reader that you value opportunities to think critically and explore broadly. After all, the college experience should do more than train you for a career. It should make you a more educated person.

In the final analysis, you need to see in each essay prompt the opportunity to give the reader some insight into you that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. This is true whether you are writing about meaningful life experiences or the reason you have chosen to apply. Be thoughtful. Be reflective. Be intentional. As long as you remember that the essay is about you, you’ll be on the right track.

BCF Readers’ Forum X


Saturday, August 19th, 2017

Dear Peter,
My son intends to answer the demographic question of “Are you Latino or Hispanic?” with a “Yes” response because “My grandmother is Puerto Rican so, I am 25% Hispanic.”

Would “yes” be the correct response? While on the Common App he further identifies himself as a “White, Caucasian” in the next demographic question, some other school applications do not offer this follow-up question about self-identity. Any advice you could give would be MUCH appreciated.
Ellen

Dear Ellen,
A student’s response to the demographic prompt is a matter of personal perspective and interpretation. Checking “Hispanic” is not likely to help your son unless there is evidence in his application that his Hispanic heritage is a defining element of his character and life experience. Absent such evidence, the check in the box could come across as curious, if not disingenuous.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Due to a scheduling conflict, our son is having difficulty fitting a science class into his senior schedule. He is considering an online science class. We have been advised that an online class is not viewed very highly by selective institutions. Do you find this to be true?
Matt

Dear Matt,
I understand the dilemma regarding an online course. Admission officers will assess academic effort/choices contextually when they can. In general, they want to see what students will do when they don’t think they have to do anything—or, like your son, when they would seem to be cut off from a preferred curricular option. While taking a science course online might not be your son’s preferred option, it is better than having none at all this year. Given the circumstances, I don’t see any harm in taking science online.
Peter

Dear Peter,
What colleges would you recommend for the young person “whose sense of self and direction is still emerging”?
Mary

Dear Mary,
Much depends on the academic background and strength of the student. Liberal arts colleges are good landing places for academically accomplished students who are still finding direction as those colleges are very intentional about exposing students to a range of content and opportunity.

Some argue that two-year colleges, or less expensive four-year colleges, are good places for students to explore before completing an undergraduate degree at a four-year college. This approach can be effective, and is certainly less expensive. The potential downside is that the student loses the continuity and context of the four-year progression on a single campus.

Finally, the gap year (or two) can be an effective option for students who are in need of focus and intentionality. Students who have stepped away from the classroom for a period of time quite often return with renewed determination and direction that fuels their success in college.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I was debating whether or not I should take any SAT Subject tests. None of the schools I am applying to require them. In your opinion, would submitting SAT subject scores give any sort of benefit?
Sam

Dear Sam,
If SAT Subject Tests are not required at the colleges to which you are applying, there is no need to take them. Focus instead on investing in those other aspects of your application (extracurricular involvement, essay development, relationship building with college reps, etc.) that are more likely to determine your competitiveness.
Peter

Dear Peter,
In your opinion, is writing about one’s mental health in the application too risky? Would admitting to overcoming mental health challenges put my daughter in a negative light in terms of admissions or would some admissions officers consider it a brave topic to write about?
Gillian

Dear Gillian,
I typically advise students that strength can be found in making themselves vulnerable. If your daughter has a compelling story to tell regarding her struggles and is comfortable telling it, she has the potential to convey confidence, focus and strength of character. Or, she might enlist her guidance counselor for support in this regard. The question to the latter might be, “How can you help me tell my story?” Quite often, the third-party testimonial to such situations can be quite powerful in the application.

There is no guarantee that admission officers will respond in the affirmative. Colleges that recognize both the strength of her character and the power of her journey, however, will want to celebrate her talents and invest in helping her achieve her goals.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter is applying to a highly selective university that gives her the choice of reporting her weighted or unweighted GPA. Her unweighted GPA is 4.0 and weighted is 4.698, showing that she takes very challenging IB classes. Which is more impressive and aren’t they going to look at her transcript and find out that info themselves? Why are they making her choose?
Art

Dear Art,
In my opinion, there is no question that the weighted rank should be reported. Not only does it indicate that your daughter has chosen a very rigorous program, it speaks well to her impressive performance in that curriculum. Frankly, I’m not sure why a college wouldn’t want to see the weighted GPA. My guess is the institution in question is larger and more formula driven in its assessment of candidates in which case human eyes might not get to the detail of the transcript as well as the accompanying interpretive high school profile.
Peter

Dear Peter,
What is your opinion about going Early Action versus Regular Admission?
Suzanne

Dear Suzanne,
The question of Early Action versus Regular Decision really depends on the colleges in question. If your student applies EA to colleges where his credentials project him to be among the better candidates and the probability of admission for him is 50% or better, EA might help in the long run (at worst, he is deferred and given an opportunity to compete again as a Regular Decision candidate). At colleges where the probabilities for him are less than 50%, the chances are greater that he will simply be denied as an EA candidate.

Whereas the submission of an Early Decision application can measurably improve one’s chances of admission at most colleges, the EA application usually doesn’t carry the same advantage.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son has played football for the past 5 years. He has worked hard, gone to most every practice and loved every minute…until last year. He is going to be a senior and just told us that he doesn’t want to play this season. We want to be supportive parents but we also want to make sure he has thought this through. Does it look awful on college applications if he chooses not to play his senior year?
LeeAnn

Dear LeeAnn,
The question of continuing sport involvement is a good one. As a former 3-sport athlete, I well understand the rigors of training and competing—and I was a marginal athlete! When your efforts are rewarded with playing time, the commitment can seem worthwhile. On the other hand, I can understand the sense of futility that might set in if playing time isn’t a likelihood. I don’t know your son’s status on the football team, but if he doesn’t factor into the game-plan, finding other outlets for his energy might be a good idea.

That said, I have encountered accomplished athletes who 1) have simply lost the passion for their sport, 2) because of their slight stature, don’t want to risk injury, or 3) need to make tough choices about how to commit their time in the senior year. All reasons are valid. Should he choose not to play football, the key for your son is to make sure his situation is explained. It would also behoove him to make sure he is filling his new-found time with constructive activity. Dropping football shouldn’t be a problem in the admission process if the decision is well-considered and your son has a well-articulated plan for moving on.
Peter