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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.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Time to Give the Common App Some Competition?
It's been three weeks since healthcare.gov was rolled out, and things still aren't looking good. Glitches usually resolve quickly. Three weeks spells systemic problems, which calls for wide-scale solutions. And as John Dickerson of Slate noted yesterday, "It's hard to untangle Christmas lights by committee".

The Common Application should take note. With the Early Decision deadline of November 1st looming, the website is a mess. As if college applicants needed something else to worry about. Over the past two weeks, the website has been plagued with problems. Students are being double-charged for application fees. Applications are failing to submit, confirmations aren't coming, and web support is failing.

On its Facebook page, the Common Application has been posting daily updates on the system disruptions. They are being flooded with comments and complaints. People are not happy. Students and parents alike are not impressed with the Common App's slow and perhaps inept reactions to solving the problems. Lots of promises to fix, but no fixing.

In response, universities using the Common App have extended filing deadlines. Some have threatened to jump ship. In an application environment where the Common App is pretty much the only game in town, universities are starting to get a roaming eye.

Certainly, the government and private enterprises alike ran into broad operational problems. Part of their job is to learn how to allay the concerns of the public and how to remedy messes before the wake of destruction gets too unmanageable. But the consumer expectations in our internet society make all of us more impatient with imperfection. We're particularly peeved when we have to wait. This site took 7 1/2 second to load? Seriously? I don't have all day.

There's a lot of puffery without follow-through from agitated consumers. On my last international flight, for instance, I spent hours (literally), plotting my angry complaint letter to the airline for a litany of customer service offenses. By the time I got home, life got in the way, and I never sat down to write it.

Whether or not students or universities will be dissuaded from using the Common App long term-that's something that remains to be seen. But in an era when working websites are pretty darn important, it may be just the shake-up that's needed.

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Monday, October 14, 2013
Getting to the Specifics
Over the past decade or so, I've read a lot of admissions essays. Since they're required to conform to certain guidelines, they tend to have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. The critique I find myself leveling more than any other? It sort of has to do with specifics. Each time I give this sort of feedback, I struggle with a better way to articulate it. The problem? "Be more specific" isn't terribly specific advice.

The thing is, many young high school writers get mired in generalizations. "Being a camp counselor taught me about life". "Becoming an Eagle Scout taught me about perseverance". "Art allows me to be myself". These statements aren't wrong-they just aren't interesting. More importantly, they aren't illustrative.

If these are the peaks in the topography of an admissions essay, they're doomed to a quick skim. Sometimes I can practically feel the reader slipping it into the "maybe/next time" pile.

Usually, I give examples to guide students. Instead of "My grandmother taught me everything about my Irish ancestry", try, "I can still smell my grandmother's fresh-baked soda bread. She'd never let us take a bite without a steaming mug of hot tea".

Recently, however, I stumbled across an expression I really like. "Transforming experiences into moments". (Credit to Carol Balash of the "Story to College" blog). Moments resonate with a reader. It gives your reader something visually tangible. They won't get that from, "Water polo taught me about teamwork", but they might remember the first time a student "wrung the water from my swimsuit after my first win". Water polo is the experience. The first win is the moment.

A good essay should be about an experience, but it should be comprised of a series of moments. That's what makes it personal. That's what makes it interesting. Is that specific enough?

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Looking Forward to a Few Good Essays
I don't recall whether it was high school or college or law school, but I do remember how I felt. My legs were heavy in my chair and my heart was racing. I tried to look stoic. Relaxed, even. The teacher was handing back graded essays.

I tried to gauge the faces of my classmates. Were they relieved? Unsurprised? Humiliated? Our professor was slapping the essays face down on each of our desks with a little too much force. Or maybe that was just my imagination.

I turned the corner of the essay over, in search of the scarlet letter. The memory again recedes.

Sometimes it was good news. Sometimes it was disappointing. But the teacher/professor's response was always the same. "I wanted these to be good. I really, really wanted you all to do well". Sure you did, I'd grumble inwardly. Sadist.

Now that I've been editing essays for over a decade, I get it. Every time I read a new one-especially by a young-high school student-I really want to like it. Really. I genuinely feel disappointed when I don't. It irritates me to have to critique them. I don't need it to be Pulitzer-Prize winning stuff. It just needs to be age-appropriately competent.

I'm assuming this is what admissions officers feel. Jaded, from reading too much mediocrity, for sure. But seriously craving some mind-blowing prose. Something hilarious, insightful, moving, clever, or genuinely unique.

I recently heard an admissions officer on an NPR show remark that about 1 out of every 20 essays he read was good. That's pretty pitiful. For all of us that hate standardized testing as a gauge of intellect and potential, it may be a good reminder of why colleges still rely so heavily on it as a measurement tool.

Just food for thought as you sit down at your keyboard.

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Monday, October 7, 2013
Are Colleges Asking for Too Much
French novelist Anatole France wrote: "An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't." What don't you know?

This was Brown University's Supplemental Essay prompt from a few years back. (All Brown applicants are also required to submit an essay through the Common Application). As a writer and an editor, I love this question. It is miles better than the describe-the-world-you-come-from blather offered by so many other schools.

Then again, I'm not really the target audience. For me, college was twenty-odd years ago. There's no way I can climb back inside my 17-year-old psyche and remember what it was that galvanized me in those days. I probably would've started to shut down as soon as my eyes grazed the "French novelist" portion of the prompt.

A recent Twittosphere blog took the position that colleges are asking for too much with prompts like these. And perhaps they are. College is supposed to be hard, but it is also supposed to be fun.

Maybe it says something about the company I keep, but most of my friends and I look back on those four (ish) years with nostalgia for the lifestyle. It is a coming-of-age epoch like no other. My memories aren't tied to senior year seminars but to the treasure chest of life experiences which seemed somehow richer and brighter then.

But like most challenges in life, it's easy to look back on them with a shrug. Getting into college these days is daunting. Maybe terrifying. So is it fair for colleges to expect adult-like essays from teenagers?

I say, why not? There is no right answer. If you're seventeen and you're applying to college, you need to at least know how to muse. Perhaps understanding what you don't know is the first step to a successful college career.

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