Admissions Essays
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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, July 11, 2016
Choosing Words Wisely in Admissions Essays
In my many years of editing admissions essays, I have seen and read a lot. I've helped students from a wide variety of backgrounds, with expansive and sometimes unique sets of experiences. I have also learned how to read between the lines. While each student's history may be distinctive, their admissions essays often aren't. The flood of similarities can get cringe-worthy—mostly because I know that students are generally trying their best.

As a seasoned reader, I can sense when a narrative is becoming rote and-hard as I may try-that's generally when my shoulders begin to slump.

I believe admissions officers feel the same.

Trust me when I say that I'm not unsympathetic to students. It's hard to write well when the stakes feel so high. The crux of the problem is twofold. First, students want badly to sound "interesting" to their reader. This desperation doesn't always lend itself to quality writing. Second, students are so caught up in needing to impress, that they want to write about everything.

Remember-your grades and test scores are listed elsewhere on your application. There should be almost no reason to discuss them in your essay. Period.

Tread lightly on the community service work. For the vast majority of students, this isn't central to their identity. Completing a CPR course or finishing a 5K cancer run doesn't tell your reader a lot about you. Volunteering four summers in a row at the local hospital probably does.

If you're a middle class student who traveled to Kenya to help build a school, spare your reader overly reflective observations about disparity of global wealth. If the trip truly changed you, it will be evident in the life you've lived since.

There are topics that most consultants will tell you to simply avoid: sex, drugs, crime, and politics. Write at your own peril. Be careful discussing death of loved ones; it is difficult not to sound as though you are exploiting grief in order to earn your reader's approval.

Above all, don't feel as though you need to be everything to everyone. Your reader knows you are human. Write like one. Don't overcomplicate things. Write something you’d like to read. You’ll be surprised at how far that will carry you.

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Thursday, July 7, 2016
Community Service With a Pricetag
As an editor and consultant, I have read thousands of admissions essays over the past few decades. I'm appreciative of students' various limitations, and try to always read with a clean pair of eyes. Still, I'm human, and can't avoid getting snagged on threadbare irritants. These are the narrative missteps that well-intentioned students make time and again. It's my job to learn how to critique gently and constructively.

Apart from bad grammar and maudlin hyperbole, one of the most frustrating mistakes I see many students make is to spend too much time writing about their community service. While I realize there are a handful of students whose experience is meticulously shaped by their volunteer-work, they are the exception. Resume-padding can be pretty transparent. It's nowhere more obvious than in the pricey hobby of volunteer tourism.

College admissions is already skewed towards wealthy students. In the bid to sound more exotic to admissions officers, more and more students have taken to volunteering overseas. There are an abundance of programs offering organized trips to "underdeveloped" regions for a price. For parents, there is comfort in knowing your teenager isn't wandering foreign lands on their own. For students, an opportunity to travel, help, and create fodder for an engaging essay.

I hate sounding so cynical. I have no doubt that seeing the slums of Mumbai or Guatemala leaves an eye-opening impression on a young, wealthy, western student. And still, it's difficult to write about these experiences without sounding like a cliché.

Admissions officers waffle about the importance of these trips. While they certainly offer points of reflection for young students, they aren't likely to tip the scales in a student's favor, and they don't always make for a readable essay. Instead, they often serve as markers of a student's wealth, and underscore a lack of introspection that is a very real part of being a young teenager.

Like everything else in the college admissions game, these trips-and the subsequent tale of the journey-can have limited value in terms of "getting in", despite their actual cost.

A successful writer will do well to not hang their hat exclusively on this hook.

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Monday, July 4, 2016
The Real Value of Law School Rankings
Every year, the Law School Admissions Council offers up a tally of the top law schools in the U.S. and the GPAs and LSAT scores it took to get admitted. This chart immediately evolves into a point of worship for certain law school hopefuls. I know students who picked their school exclusively based on the number of junior associateships offered by BIGLAW for each university.

Jobs at top firms all look pretty similar. Big paychecks, prestige, relentless billable requirements, unforgiving social commitments and quick burnout. Which is exactly what some law students are looking for. If you scope the internet, law school begins and ends with the Top 14, despite the fact that fewer than 10% of all law students will land at these behemoths.

In the real world, there is a need for lawyers that is far more expansive than the insular world of big law. For a start, there are over 200 law schools across the United States. For every professional athlete or multinational corporation that hires a Big Firm, there are countless ordinary citizens who need a lawyer to help them file for divorce or write a will. That just doesn't make for interesting internet fodder.

The biggest elephant in the room for anyone that's graduated from law school and practiced law is the enormous skills gap between the two. Law schools-even (and perhaps especially) the top ones- are notorious for the total absence of practical training within curriculums.

Which doesn't mean that a Yale grad isn't likely to succeed. What it does mean is that many lawyers don't become good at what they do until they’ve practiced for awhile and earned a reputation. At that point, almost no one will care what your LSAT score was.

I'm not discounting the incredible value of prestige. What I do wish was that the discourse surrounding law school admission could free itself from the constraints of percentiles and US News & World Report rankings. These tokens represent a symbolically important aspect of law school admission, but barely scratch the surface of at-large legal practice.

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Monday, June 27, 2016
Taking a Breather from College Admissions Essays
It's the summer before your junior year. You may have already taken the SAT and squeezed in a few perfunctory college visits. The end of high school is near, but still far off enough to stave total panic. Maybe your parents are on your case to get serious about researching colleges. Your guidance counselor may have sent you home with a pile of brochures and a notebook for jotting down essay ideas.

But it's summer. Why borrow worry from tomorrow? Why not be a kid for a little while longer?

Why, indeed-and yet, when it comes to writing, there is no better editor than time. I can promise you that I've written things late at night that sounded brilliant until I read them again in the morning.

Which is why-sadly, perhaps-I think this summer is an ideal time to start thinking about your essay. I realize I can't make you. Yet good writers and experienced college consultants frequently advise college hopefuls to start keeping a diary. You don't need to pour your heart out to the pages every night, but just jot down things that strike you at the time. Time tends to lend perspective to emotional highs and lows, and this measured reflection will surface in your writing.

The benefit here is that note-taking won't swallow your summer. On the contrary, it will help keep it fresh for you. Trust me-you won't remember half of it, and the other half, you'll remember wrong.

Ignoring responsibility just makes small tasks seem huge. Give your essay a little thought this summer, and then walk away from it. When used wisely, time is a powerful architect of change.

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Monday, June 20, 2016
End of the Road for Fisher v University of Texas
It has been nearly a decade since Texas high school senior, Abigail Fisher, was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. Under Texas' "10% Rule", the top ten percent of every high school graduating class is granted automatic admission to Texas’ public universities. Ms. Fisher was not among the top ten percent in her class.

Fisher claimed she was rejected, while African-American students with lower grades and test scores were admitted. Her lawsuit was a challenge to UT's long-standing consideration of race in college admissions. For the past eight years, the case has winded its way up the hierarchy of appellate courts. The case was first heard by the US Supreme Court in 2013, but remanded back to a lower court for further hearing.

This past week, the high court made a final ruling in the matter which affirms the use of race in college admissions decisions. From a practical standpoint, the ruling isn't necessarily going to cause immediate waves. Texas' 10% Rule itself was not exactly on trial. Eight states already have legal bans on affirmative action. Fisher herself graduated from the University of Louisiana in 2012, so any victory would have been symbolic for her.

The ruling on the matter was heavily influenced by the absence of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died earlier this year. Scalia and the Court's three other conservative justices are staunch opponents of affirmative action. Justice Elena Kagan had to recuse herself from the matter. The ruling was 4-3, and with Scalia's involvement, would most certainly have been a 4-4 "draw", which would simply have upheld the ruling of the lower court.
Though unlikely to be the catalyst for immediate changes in college admissions policies, the ruling is an emblematic triumph, bringing the diversity conversation to the forefront of the college admissions discussion once again.

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Monday, June 13, 2016
Are High-Priced Summer Programs Worth the Cost
With college admissions mania reaching almost folkloric status, it's not surprising that the universities themselves are forever in search of new opportunities to woo new students. And let's be honest-they aren't shy about making money in the process.

Elite colleges across the country offer a cornucopia of "pre-college" courses to students during the summers before college. These classes span a wide range of subjects and formats. Some are weeklong day classes, while others are packaged into six-week sessions, during which high school students live and study on campus.

In theory, the opportunity to test the college waters before diving in is great. Do you really want to be a lawyer or a doctor? Take one of these courses and find out. For the colleges, it's a boon. Top institutions charge thousands of dollars for these packages, and anxious college-hopefuls (or their parents) are happy to pay.

Some universities offer scholarships, but the pre-college concept smacks of privilege, and feeds the hysteria surrounding the competitiveness of college admissions. Many college admissions officers are quick to admit that the courses don't necessarily improve a student's chance of getting in.

Still, the demand is there, and it isn't hard to convince students that adding a whiff of pedigree to their resume will give them an edge. Like carrying a designer handbag, being able to say you attended a summer program at Yale just smacks of importance.

So whether or not bloggers like me, or more influential folks like admissions deans-sing the praises of these pre-college campus romps, it's clear there's a market for them. Whether the cost-benefit analysis weighs in a student's favor is entirely another matter.

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Monday, June 13, 2016
Summer Before College
Back in my day, summer was meant to be a vacation. I took a few summer school classes to get ahead, but I didn't pay much attention to SATs, and never toured any colleges. By early Spring of my senior year, I’d been accepted to my top choice school. After that, I checked out.

I'm not sure students can get away with that anymore, but I'd sure dare them to try. I left for a European backpacking adventure with my best friend just days after high school graduation. It meant that I missed my late summer college orientation. I didn't meet with my college counselor for help in selecting classes and took a few I'd already tested out of. I still graduated.

Of course, it's all in my rearview mirror, and times have changed. Still, I think the summer before college is unlike any other you'll have again. For better or worse, you've probably committed to a school. You probably have no real idea what your next four years will look like. People will tell you they'll be the best of your life. Trust them.

They say that liminal space is fertile ground for personal growth. Embrace the anxiety of the unknown. It's okay not to be in control. You've done the work you needed to do in order to get where you're going.

Leap.

The net will appear. And before you know it, college will be in your rearview mirror too.

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Monday, June 6, 2016
Undocumented Valedictorians Stoke Immigration Conversation
The early weeks of June mark high school graduation ceremonies across the United States. Part of the ritual involves speeches from the most academically auspicious amongst each class-the valedictorians. It is the highest honor reserved for graduating students. This week, in Texas, two valedictorians made headlines-and not for their stunning achievements.

Mayte Lara Ibarra, a valedictorian from Austin, and Larissa Martinez, from McKinney, both shared that they were undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Ms. Martinez addressed her status in her speech; Ms. Lara in a tweet. And outrage ensued.

In an election climate where the presumptive GOP nominee is promising to build walls and indiscriminately deport undocumented immigrants, these announcements struck a nerve. There is no shortcut to becoming valedictorian, but this did not stop arm chair critics from arguing that the two women were gaming the system. Others claimed the women were taking places reserved for American citizens.

As it stands, many US universities make no query into the immigration status of incoming students. A greater deterrent to undocumented students in higher education is cost-federal and state financial aid programs often do enquire into immigration status, making undocumented students far less likely to tackle the forms ancillary to college applications.

At a deeper level, the ire reserved for two young, successful and talented students holds a mirror towards problematic issues of race politics that plagues college admissions and society at large. A Fox reporter was fired this week after commenting on this story and stating, "I didn't know Mexicans were that smart".

Ms. Ibarra will be attending the University of Texas at Austin. Ms. Martinez has been accepted to Yale, and intends to study medicine.

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Friday, June 3, 2016
Texas Top 10% College Admissions Rule to Change
If you don't live in Texas and aren't a constitutional law scholar, this revelation may not affect you. But for anyone in either of those categories, the recent proposal by Texas governor Greg Abbott to scrap the "Top 10%" law is a big deal.

Let me explain.

Since 1997, Texas has had a law in place providing automatic college admissions to the top ten percent of each high school graduating class. Texas' high schools are deeply racially segregated, so the theory behind the law was the promotion of racial diversity in Texas' public university system.

As usual, laws that promote preferential treatment of one group over another tend to generate controversy. The landmark court case Fisher v. University of Texas has been appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. That suit was filed by Abigail Fisher, a white student denied admission by the University of Texas, who blames the "reverse-racism" of Texas' system.

Fisher is not alone. The blowback against the 10% rule comes largely from a contingent that feels it discriminates against white, higher-achieving students. The university system dislikes the program because of the ways in which it restricts the universities from building and selecting their own student pools.

Whether Abbot is pandering to voting demographics or hoping to implement meaningful structural change remains to be seen. The issue is forever complicated by the difficulty in tracking the success of affirmative-action type programs, particularly against a backdrop of opposition to "preferential" admissions.

Across the country, states have different approaches to affirmative action. In states where it has been banned, many universities have circumvented the prohibition through alternative programs which offer preferential treatment to certain student populations. The dismantling of the "Top 10%" may have the most direct effects on Texans, but its abolition could send a powerful message to universities nationwide.

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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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Saturday, April 30, 2016
Curbing Competition in College Admissions
Writers on the topic of college admissions-present company included-give a lot of column space to discussion of how competitive it has become. The conversation typically follows a threadbare path. More applications=more rejections. Then, lots of speculation. Is college more expensive than it used to be? (Yes) Are more people applying to college? (Maybe) Are college degrees more valuable today than they were fifty years ago? (Debatable).

There are a couple of things that are somewhat certain. I'm no economist, but it's pretty easy to rustle up access to endowments for universities all over the country. You might not be shocked to know that big universities are big business. UCLA, a public school in California, has an endowment of nearly $2 billion. Billion. But it's got nothing on Harvard, which, in 2014, had an endowment of $36 billion. That's just staggering.

I'm no financial expert either, and I have no doubt that these universities have massive overhead costs. Harvard's own website discusses a $1.6 billion distribution for the fiscal year ending June 2015, acknowledging that that number represents approximately a third of Harvard's operating costs. I'm no math expert, but that leaves them a tidy sum in their financial portfolios.

I'm no politician, but I can't help but wonder why private institutions like Harvard dooesn't do a more effective job of spreading the wealth. Most public universities were created with the aim of educating the citizens of the states in which they reside. But their budgets are strained, and even public universities remain out of reach for many people.

Private institutions have the money to create scalable options for spreading the educational wealth. Why not offer more MOOCs? Extension programs? Public access to their rich resources? Stanford boasts a 5% acceptance rate, but apparently does nothing to make that rate go up. Why not create more seats for applicants?

I'm just musing here, but in the current admissions climate, a discussion of higher-education profit is one that can't and shouldn't be avoided.

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Friday, April 15, 2016
Adding Meaning to Your Law School Personal Statement
One of the first things they teach you in law school is how to outline. You may think you already know how, but law school is full of blind corners, and this is one of them. It turns out, in order to survive law school, you have to read and absorb an obscene volume of material. Without processing it into bite-sized morsels, it will be too much to remember, and regurgitate on an exam.

Some professors will encourage you to spend at least 50% of your exam time simply outlining your answer. With limited time on the clock, this can be excruciating. The temptation to fill the empty blank page is sometimes overwhelming. And yet-stereotypes of bloviating attorneys notwithstanding-professors don't value quantity over quality.

This concept bears consideration for students preparing their law school personal statements. It can't simply be a resume in prose or a bullet-list of achievements in narrative form. It needs a good, strong backbone.

So while I generally view an English degree as a liability in law school, the admissions essay may be the one area in which it would serve you well. Start with a thesis. Can't think of one? Brainstorm. Then brainstorm again. Then-outline.

Your essay needs a heart. It needs a center, to which everything is tied. Reading about your Toastmasters or Debate Club experience just isn't that interesting, unless it's woven into your greater story.

Think of the personal statement as the first in a series of tests of plotting an essay before putting the proverbial pen to paper. By holding back, you'll actually make the overall process of writing more efficient. Moreover, you'll be able to demonstrate your capacity to make an argument and follow it with paragraphs of supporting evidence.

Which, you'll find, is a crucial skill in law school, and beyond.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016
Caring Less About Pedigrees in College Admissions
Getting into college may be big business these days, but if you're not a high school student-or a parent of one-you probably don't pay much attention to it. That is, unless, you happen to spend any of your idle hours on the internet. Whether you meant to or not, you might have noticed the occasional headline about the student who got accepted to all the Ivies. I recently blogged about a student who got admitted to a bevy of top schools after writing her admission essay about Costco.

The truth is, these kinds of headlines are click-bait. The vast majority of Americans will never be admitted to an Ivy League university-never mind all of them. And while pedigree is certainly a marker of success, it isn't a guarantee of it.

Which is why it is refreshing to see well-known, powerful employers like Google offering some push-back on the idea of pure-bred scholarship. In a recent interview, Google's Senior Vice President of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, noted that there was little relationship between pedigree and professional performance. Just because someone graduated from Yale doesn't mean they are going to be successful.

This is a powerful statement, particularly in a professional climate that favors prestige. There is a sense that if Stanford only offers spaces to 5% of applicants, there must be something pretty magical waiting behind its doors. A lot of that magic, however, is in the name-recognition, and the networking possibilities. This isn't to say that top academic institutions haven't earned their credibility. It's just that they are not the only manufacturers of professional success.

What of the student who had to work during high school and didn't have the grades to get into a top school? What of the part-time law student who was also raising a family? What of the successful entrepreneurs without a college degree? There are stories to be told, and the media silence about these narratives changes the way in which we-as a society-value success.

So for those of you still searching for the right college, it may be time to take a leaf out of Google's handbook. Pay less attention to the name, and more attention to the story.

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Monday, April 11, 2016
When Writing About Costco Gets You Into Five Ivies
In an era where many of us get almost all of our information in digital form, marketers understand the importance of sticky click-bait. I won't spend a lot of time lamenting the shrinking of our collective attention-span, because you might not stick around for it.

This week, several news outlets posted articles about an undergraduate applicant, Brittany Stinson, who was accepted to Stanford and five Ivy League colleges. It turns out, her personal statement used her trips to Costco as a child as a metaphor for many of her life lessons. It's a charming, clever essay. But it probably isn't the reason she was accepted to at least half a dozen of the top schools in the country.

We don't know what her grades or test scores were, and statistically-those metrics were probably far more persuasive. The picture of Stinson in front of a Costco warehouse with her pedigreed acceptance packages is eye-catching, and perhaps an untapped marketing opportunity for Costco.

But it is the advice from an admissions officer, which Stinson is quoted as sharing, that really gets to the heart of things. "[I]f your essay is on the ground and there is no name on it and one of your friends picks it up, they should know that you wrote it...". I like this. I won't pretend that this is the magic code for the ideal essay, but it is helpful advice.

It's a good reminder to students that your essay need not be regal. It doesn't even need to be that formal. When getting creative, you don't want to get "too cute". Stinson's success doesn't mean everyone should start writing quippy dispatches about Costco's pretzel samples. At the same time, Stinson wrote about what she knew-not what she thought the admissions committee wanted to see.

If there is any take-away from this fleeting story, it should be that.

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Friday, April 8, 2016
Evaluating the Gender Gap in College Admissions
In a country where women continue to make 77 cents on a man's dollar, it probably surprises no one that inequity exists in our university systems. Would you even shrug if I told you that some colleges admit more male students than female ones? Would your brow furrow if I told you that some colleges admit more female students than male students? Are you really just thinking-so what?

A recent Washington Post article analyzed federal admissions data for 200 colleges and universities that appear on US News & World Report's top 100 list. Like any data, it's important to understand its limitations, and not connect too many dots between correlation and causation.

Still, the report generated a detailed list of the percentage points separating the two genders in admissions at a number of American colleges. Pretty dull stuff, unless you're applying to college and (over)analyzing every possible metric that could work in your favor.

Take Vassar, for instance, which was founded as an women's college in 1861, but been co-educational since 1969. It's still widely (mis)understood to be an all-women's college. In 2014, Vassar had a full 15-point differential in their admissions-favoring men. If you're a male student looking for a top-notch liberal arts education, perhaps you should take notice.

The general explanation for the gap can be explained by the universities' preference for creating a fully homogeneous student body. Like affirmative action, colleges must weigh the balance between gender equity and overall merit.

Gender has been a big issue for several well-known colleges across the country in recent years because of a growing acceptance of gender fluidity. At some point, the gender gap may become too amorphous to define. Until then, it's a reality in college admissions; for better or worse, it may be one worth considering as students evaluate their college options.

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Monday, April 4, 2016
The Ridiculousness of College Admissions
They say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit (I disagree). Satire is sarcasm's intellectual counterpart-the constructive use of derision to illustrate a point, if you will.

You know things are bad when you have to turn to satire. This year's presidential campaign comes to mind, although satire has been used for centuries to skewer politicians.

This week, the New York Times' contributor Frank Bruni-a regular critic of the cut-throat college admissions system-turned to satire to remind us just how sad the current state of affairs is.

Colleges have long clamored for the top spot in the rankings. They understand the capriciousness of branding. People will want the things they cannot have. It's a bit like preschool squabbles. The red train only gains value once the other kid starts playing with it.

This absurd quirk of human nature has turned college rankings into a clown show. The inverse relationship between rankings and acceptance rates has to hit a mathematical roadblock at some point. And Bruni pokes fun at this notion. What if Stanford's acceptance rate really hit zero? Would it have finally reached the apex of prestige? Would people keep applying?

What will it take to get students to set realistic goals for college admissions? And at what point do we come to the collective realization that the ranking system is the emperor with no clothes?

I'm not going to suggest that pedigree isn't capital in the professional world. Yet, like Bruni, I believe the system is corrupted by bloated notions of prestige in a climate where there simply isn't enough room at the fabled apex. There are many different roads to success; Stanford's 5% aren't the only ones on that journey. NY Times

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