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Admissions Essays Blog
Through our very own editors and guest writers, this blog will discuss the INSIDE scoop on the admissions process of various schools and programs. If you wish to ask a specific question, please write to us, and we will make every attempt to address your questions in our future blog discussions.
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Essay Food for Thought
If there are a million different ways to write an admission essay, there must be at least as many ways to give advice about how to write one. This time of year, counselors, blogs, websites and college fairs are ripe with ideas.

As a writer, I often find that relentless focus is often anathema to the creative writing process. Everyone's heard of writer's block. I'm convinced it gets worse, the harder we try to, well, write. It is usually the simplest thing that triggers an idea. Something I saw on tv. Something someone posted on Facebook. Something totally unrelated to the thing I was trying to write about in the first place.

Almost any student sitting down in front of a blank screen knows what it feels like to be totally stumped. Especially when writing an admissions essay.

This is why I really appreciate the universities that come up with whacky essay prompts. The University of Pennsylvania, authors of the tantalizing "write page 217 of your 300-page autobiography" essay prompt, are introducing a new one this year. Based on a quote from Benjamin Franklin, the admissions committee asks the following:

"All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move. Which are you?"

Hmm. Even if it makes you scratch your head, it isn't a conversation-stopper. Consider this, from the Common Application:

"Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you".

Every time I see a creative prompt like Penn's, I see an opportunity for students to move outside the standard essay fair. If nothing else, sharing these prompts is a good way to provoke discussion. And like I said, the strangest flecks of inspiration can be found in even the most mundane of conversations.


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Monday, September 24, 2012
Social Media and College Admissions
It's that time of year again. Application season is gearing up, and the hand-wringing has begun for high school juniors and seniors all over the country. What better time to check in on the general state of affairs in social media?

As Facebook and Twitter's influence on the social landscape begins to take deeper root, the college admissions machine continues to take note. After all, the client base in higher education is youth. Young people are comfortable with technology. It isn't simply about knowing how to re-boot and text-it's about relying on technology as a new medium of communication. The flip-phone has already gone the way of the rotary phone and made way for the smart phone--a computer that keeps us a flick-of-a-switch away from just about everyone and everything we know. For colleges and potential students alike, reaching out through the World Wide Web is no longer cutting edge. It's just the way it is. In 2010, 80% of college admissions received Facebook friend requests from potential students. Recent surveys indicate that 85% of colleges use Facebook as a recruitment tool; a full 66% use Youtube.

Whether or not social media has adept match-making skills for students and colleges, it is clearly a communication channel that cannot be ignored. So the usual admonitions apply. If you've got a dream school in mind, take down the drunken pictures, and maybe the radical political posts. Utilize the discussion forums on colleges Facebook and Twitter pages. Get your name out there; make your own "page" appealing. Check out your competition.

While you're at it, check out the latest stat-graphics on the subject. Youtube is clearly no longer just a safe space for Jackass wannabes and giggling babies.


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Sunday, September 16, 2012
The Psychology of Writing the Admission Essay
In a recent New York times blog, the Dean of Admissions at a small, liberal arts college in California declared that the admission essay is "the one component of your application where you have full control over the outcome". Hmm. Seems to me that really, intelligence and hard work can also earn us a perfect SAT score or at least a 4.0 GPA, but his point is well taken. By the time you've reached the admission essay portion of the application process, it is too late to change your grades and scores. Whatever leverage you have left lies with the admission essay. For most students, that prospect is overwhelming. From this Dean's perspective, however, the admission essay is a student's most powerful ammunition.

Electing to look at the admission essay as an effective tool rather than a crushing burden may not be easy, but could be a highly effective psychological shift. As a general rule, stress is caused by our very human fear of losing control over life situations. Inherent in the college admissions process is an almost total lack of control (and a lot of waiting). We can prepare for years, but for most of us, there is always that one failing grade-- that one botched test-- that we cannot erase from our record. We thus arrive at the door of university admission forced to hand over a slightly less perfect version of ourselves than we'd hoped.

And then there's this shot at an admission essay. Here we are, in the eleventh hour, offered a small but potent little chance to realign our fates. Maybe. Why not take control here? We cannot guarantee that our reader will love what we write about, love what we do, or care about our passions. What we can do is write something memorable, and do it well. I think this is true whether the author is 17 or 34. It isn't about having scaled Mount Everest, it's about exploring the way we feel about something-anything. And if we approach it feeling like we have control over its outcome, we might have just that.


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Monday, September 10, 2012
Technology and the College Application
I'll admit, it's been a long time since I applied to college. Back in those days, we still did everything on paper. We even wrote things by hand. I had to send a check in with each application in order to cover the required fee. The biggest panic-besides the deadline-was making sure the inkjet printer didn't need a new cartridge. I did type my admission essay.

Today, technology and the Common Application have completely transformed the college application process. Students can apply to a greater number of colleges with considerable ease. The Common Application has even dispensed with the old-fashioned idea of tailoring essays and applications to each individual college. The one-size-fits-all approach means that students are improving their odds by casting a wider net.

Like any progress, this comes with obvious pitfalls. Just like the olden days, it is the simplest foreseeable mistakes that usually catch us in their webs. (For example, the printer running out of ink in the hour before the application was due in the mailbox). Computers can be finicky, and so can on-line applications. If your computer is on the blink, make sure there is a back-up machine where you can save your work. Oh, and save your work. You don't have to fill out the application all at once, but you also don't want to have to start from scratch when you go back to it. Expect the worst and hope for the best. Don't rule out power outages, internet problems or wireless failures.

When it comes to college applications, the march of time doesn't change the rule of thumb: don't leave everything until the last minute. Technology is faster until it isn't. Stay one step ahead of it.


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Monday, September 3, 2012
The Art of Bragging
If you're a student currently embroiled in the admission-essay writing process, then you'll appreciate this missive from Paula Marantz Cohen-an English professor at Drexel University: "Why I Hate the College Application Essay: Should Bragging be a Prerequisite for College?". Students feeling disgruntled will find some vindication in her theory that the college admission essay is a complete waste of time.

And yet--for college hopefuls-avoiding the admission essay or protesting is not an option. Yes, like filing income taxes and waiting in line at the DMV, students must roll up their sleeves and attack the essay like the chore it is.

Cohen is right on about the tediousness of the standard essay. When colleges ask students to describe themselves, they can hardly expect a writer to lay bare their fallibilities. Honesty may be what colleges are asking for, but it isn't what they are going to get. Who's ever fully sincere at a job interview?

Most seventeen-year-olds haven't experienced much. It's just the nature of life. So they are forced to exaggerate mundane experiences or milk the life out of unfortunate ones. Every editor has read an essay that is either too arrogant or too maudlin. At seventeen, these things are hard to calibrate. But what do the admissions committees expect? As a general rule, most middle class American kids don't have a lot of compelling stories. So the two-week volunteer post in Nicaragua is central to their college resume.

Colleges could turn the tide in one sweeping gesture by changing the question. The more bizarre the better (If you could be any kind of tree, what kind would you be and why?). Force students to circumvent what has become an incredibly formulaic genre. Avoid making self-puffery an art form and allow them, as Cohen suggests, to evaluate the world around them.

After all, it is when we look outside of ourselves that we gain real perspective on the world. This is precisely what colleges are truly looking for.


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