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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.
Monday, May 30, 2016
Avoiding the Optional Essay on the New SAT
People never like change. The Internet and higher education circles have been buzzing for months over the sweeping revisions made to the current SAT examination by its administrative body, the College Board.

Fortunately, most students taking it for the 2016-2017 admissions cycle won't know any different. One of the most notable changed was the addition of an optional essay. For students struggling with language or literature, it felt like a win, but critics have argued that it strips the test results of an important dimension. The College Board, for its part, claims that there are more writing requirements throughout the body of the exam, and that the overall test should not be diminished in value.

Does it make sense to skip the essay? Optional may sound like a huge relief for student, but what is the real cost of leaving those pages blank?

For a start, colleges may have differing requirements with respect to the optional essay. More competitive schools may want students to complete this component, regardless of whether or not it is mandatory.

Subject SAT exams, AP exams and even the ACT are not mandatory at many universities. Yet, given the fierce level of competition in college admissions, it's hard to see a scenario where a good student who skips all the non-mandatory testing metrics will measure evenly against the student who doesn't.

The new SAT was first administered earlier this year. Test-prep companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan have already begun offering instruction on the new format.

With all of the unknown in college admissions, it doesn't make sense to do less than what is expected. Unfortunately, this is the new admissions climate, and short-cutting rarely pays off.

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Friday, May 20, 2016
University of California to Offer Eight Essay Prompts
Commencing with the 2016-2017 application year, the University of California will be retiring its two current admission essay prompts. Historically, students have been allotted 1,000 words to answer the following two questions:

"Describe the world you come from - for example, your family, community or school - and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations".

"Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?"

Citing repeated feedback from applicants, the UC will instead be mandating responses to four of eight possible prompts of 350 words each, for a total of 1,400 words. University of California

As a writer and editor, I prefer the new prompts. The UC's old essay questions were broad and stale, leaving students too wide a berth in their responses. I saw students struggle to write 250-500 words about a talent. Others struggled with the generality of the first prompt. The results were often long, rambling personal accounts that lacked solid centers.

I appreciate how difficult it is to draft a complete narrative in under 350 words. The limits will necessarily change the format of these responses, which will no longer have space for expansive introductory paragraphs and meandering conclusions.

Short word counts force students to get to the heart of the question quickly. Concise morsels will be easier for readers to quickly digest. The limitations may step on the toes of the more gifted prose writers, but from an efficiency standpoint, should be game-changers for the admissions committees. UCLA, for example, receives nearly 100,000 applications per admissions cycle.

Students may struggle to come up with four instead of two topics, but ultimately, the format forces student-writers to better hone in on a single idea before even starting their compositions.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Criminal Records and College Admissions
In a recent press release, the U.S. Department of Education introduced new recommendations designed to encourage U.S. universities to remove questions about criminal history from college applications. The guide, "Beyond the Box", is aimed at removing barriers to entry for prospective students with criminal backgrounds.

As a point of reference, the guide notes that more than 70 million Americans have criminal histories. The road to a second chance is often paved with obstacles for people with criminal backgrounds. Already, many licensing bodies will not issue accreditation to people with criminal convictions. For people trying to rehabilitate by returning to school, application questions about arrests and criminal history could prove prohibitive.

Naturally, the Department of Education wants to ensure that institutions of higher learning remain safe spaces. Yet, the report notes that by creating arbitrary roadblocks, universities are further stigmatizing applicants with criminal backgrounds and preventing them from taking affirmative measures to build better futures.

"Beyond the Box" is one of several sweeping moves by the Obama administration to ease universal access to higher education. The Department of Education has already taken steps to help make the application process more transparent for students through its college scorecard website: College Score Card. Students can research the rates of return on educations from universities all over the country.

For the full report, click here: Ed Gov Beyond the Box

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Monday, May 9, 2016
College Applications to Offer More Gender-Inclusive Options
Anyone arguing that labels don't matter has clearly never had trouble finding one that fits them. Gender non-conformism is nothing new, but is a topic getting more press attention lately.

North Carolina's controversial bill requiring people to use bathrooms that correspond with their sex at birth has been pummeled with backlash. Musical artists and corporations alike have already pulled business from the state. The US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that the new law is unconstitutional. North Carolina shot back, claiming the federal government is engaging in unconstitutional overreach.

Most people don't think twice about which public restroom they use. It's a privilege so fundamental to the cisgendered population that we can't imagine being without it. Which is why the recent move by the Universal College Application (UCA) and the Common Application to add spaces for non-gender conforming students to self-identify is such a big deal.

Again, for most of us, checking the male or female box is an easy choice. What if there wasn't a box for you? It's hard for those of us in positions of gender privilege to even understand.

The UCA is a catch-all application program used by over 60 universities nationwide. The Common App is the behemoth of centralized applications, used by over 600 schools. The gesture is both symbolic and practically important. It sends a message to gender non-conforming young people that third-level education is a place of tolerance and progressive ideology.

At an intuitive level, it should offer some relief to students whose identity requires more discussion than a ticked-box. Both applications will allow students to differentiate between "sex at birth" and "legal sex", with free-from space offered to discuss.

The changes will be initiated this summer, in advance of the 2016-2017 academic year.

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Monday, May 2, 2016
When Perfect Is Not Good Enough
Imagine scoring perfect 800s on all three components of the SAT exam. Maybe you've even nailed 800s on the SAT subject exams. You've hit the magic thirties on the ACTs. Unlikely as this is, it still might not guarantee you admission into your dream school.

Harvard's recent manifesto about the damaging tunnel-vision of college admissions has received both praise and criticism. It's easy to get behind its message of encouraging colleges to look at the whole student, rather than a series of scores. But critics malign its message that extracurriculars should matter more than grades, claiming that the premise is simply shifting the stress from one metric to another.

From an outsider's perspective, either approach is discouraging. In real life, it's impossible to be good at all things, all the time. In fact, in the professional world, we aren't expected to be masters of all trades. Real life is about compartmentalizing and specializing. Yet in the game of college admissions, students are expected to have stellar grades and scores while also being perfectly well-rounded.

Why is the application process so out-of-step with reality? Maybe it's because a student with perfect SAT scores might also struggle with the English language. Maybe the dancer who did volunteer work in Haiti didn't always have enough time to study in school. These are real, flawed, and probably talented people. Yet, with a limited number of spaces at some schools, these talented, fallible people don't stand a chance.

Of course, there are plenty of outstanding schools with room for bright, committed students. Still, even for the students who aren't applying to the most competitive universities, high school students are being sent a potentially damaging message about the real definition of success.

Which is why parents and students alike have an important role to play in reframing the process. It's an important moment in life, but not a determinative one, and we must start treating it as such.

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