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.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Time to Give the Common App Some Competition?
It's been three weeks since 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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Monday, September 30, 2013
Making Your Essay Dramatic
I still remember being seventeen. Well, pretty much. I loved to write, and back then, applying to college wasn't the Everest climb that it is these days. For a start, I only had to write one for most of the schools I applied to. Only the Stanfords were requiring supplementals, which now are standard.

In the intervening years, I've read and edited hundreds, if not thousands of essays. Most high school kids struggle with the same problem; they don't have anything dramatic to write about. I'll go out on a limb here to add that many (most?) kids applying to college are coming from pretty stable homes. So fortunately, their lives have been pretty bereft of extreme highs and lows.

To remedy this, many of these students dig into the well of accomplishments for essay fodder. So we read about winning the swim meet, volunteering in Venezuela, working as a camp counselor. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that most of those experiences will be listed elsewhere on the application.

If you run cross-country, you might not actually want to write about it. Doing so is a missed opportunity to reveal something else about your personality. Something that can't be distilled into one-word on the application packet.

Don't underestimate the power of simple observation. Think small. Write about a smile from a stranger on a crowded bus. Or the stifling heat in the kitchen at last year's Thanksgiving dinner. Why you hate sharing a room with your little sister. Nothing is uninteresting if it's helped you to notice something about yourself or your world.

Done well, an anecdote about a bratty sister will tell your reader a lot more about you than a rehash of your triumph at the spelling bee. It might also take some of the pressure off. You don't need to be the best at anything to get into college.

So trust that who you are and what you observe is enough. There's no need for drama.


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Monday, September 23, 2013
It's Time for Rankings, Again
The first week of September has zoomed past us and with it, a new set of rankings from the hallowed periodical, US News & World Report. It's the kind of news that tends to keep zooming past most of us. Fortunately, my alma mater gives me Facebook updates. And guess what? They're tied for #2 in some illustrious category.

So for a quick second, I feel a surge of pride. It may have been a couple of decades, but, dang, my school is IMPORTANT. It made me feel a little important. I kind of wanted it to be known that I was an alum. I almost even "liked" the picture on Facebook. Then reason brought me to a screeching halt.

The rankings are stacked on a house of cards! They are constructed from subjective data by a single magazine that has somehow picked up steam as the Most.Reliable.Source.Ever. (Too much Facebooking for me?)

Rankings are a cash cow for the universities. It is a marketing tool. It is not a set of objective metrics upon which hopeful students should base a significant life decision. My own alma mater managed to suck me into the vortex using a simple marketing strategy.

Over the past several years, colleges have proven that they will massage almost any data into something that will boost their rankings. They get it. Selecting a college is a tough decision. If you're doing it right, it involves a lot of research, campus visiting and soul-searching. If you're not up for all that, you just lean on the rankings. Colleges know that.

David Hawkins, Director of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, offered this (fantastic) quip: "Using "input" variables, like SAT/ACT scores, to assess a college's quality is like judging a person's character by the wealth of the people they associate with". See his entire op-ed here: US News

I agree, take a breath. Log out of Facebook, close the rankings page, and start looking for the college that's truly your match. That's where the hard work begins.


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Monday, September 16, 2013
Law Schools Accepting Fewer Students
The down turn in the legal job market, and its ripple effect on law school enrollment is not a new story. For the past several years, schools have watched helplessly as the number of LSAT takers and law school applicants have steadily declined.

Not surprisingly, law schools are responding by accepting fewer students. But why? What difference does it make to schools if their graduates can't find jobs? After all, law school is a business venture, and the greater the number of tuition checks, the better the bottom line.

A recent LA Times article quotes Dean Victor Gold of the Loyola School of Law in Southwestern Los Angeles. He refers to the school's "moral obligation" not to knowingly drain tuition money from law students in a bleak job market. But even Gold acknowledges that his school's decision to accept 5% fewer students in the 2013-2014 academic year also had to do with keeping up appearances.

Law students pick their schools based largely on national rank. A major metric considered by the ranking system is the number of graduates who are actually employed following graduation.

So it becomes a cost-benefit analysis for the law schools. Do you lose the tuition check today by turning away students, or do you lose it in the long run when your school drops in the rankings? At Loyola, the drop in enrollment of 20 students equals a loss of approximately $1 million. But last year, the school also dropped 17 places in the US News & World Report's rankings (from 51 to 68).

The net effect for law students is greater competition. Not only are there fewer available spaces, but there is also a greater incentive for law schools to matriculate students who are more likely to find work after graduation. Good for the overall market, but a tough pill to swallow for hopeful lawyers.


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Monday, September 9, 2013
Deciphering the Admissions Process
Let me deflate the balloon at the outset here-I don't have the answer. If this weren't such a loaded enigma, there would be no college consulting industry.

So for a hot second, I was intrigued to come across this from Yale University's Dean of Admissions, Asha Rangappa. Slate

In an apparent act of helpful humility, she notes that it's up to the admissions officers to "lift the veil" on the process. Super. Please do. But she doesn't, or can't. Yes, I understand that each application is so case-specific and subjective that there is no appropriate catch-all advice. Yes, she thinks college consulting is an overpriced scam. She offers a few tips, but nothing that isn't available from, ahem, a good college consultant.

She's read through more than 25,000 applications, so there's no question she has insight to offer. But she doesn't, or can't, or won't.

I've always wondered how the process really works, from start to finish. I don't mean platitudes like "we evaluate each application objectively and holistically". I mean, really, if a university gets tens of thousands of applicants, who sits down and reads all those essays? Grad students getting paid $10 an hour? Is there a round-table discussion of the good essays? Is there a trash-heap for bad essays? Is there a special trash-heap for bad essays written by students with perfect SAT scores?

Rangappa scoffs at the "rabid" competition, and snipes at the racket of college consulting, but what does she expect? The Ivies have admissions rates of around 6% and no one really knows why anyone actually makes the cut. Of course students are rabidly competitive. You think universities like Yale don't benefit from this desperation?

So the search for transparency continues. In the mean time students, be yourselves, be honest, and do whatever you need to do to feel empowered in this overwhelming process.


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Tuesday, September 3, 2013
A Message for Parents of College Hopefuls
This is the sentence that first hooked me: "At the very moment when teenagers are invited to offer what they've learned and who they've become, their voices are hijacked by well-meaning adults who think kids can't possibly be allowed to risk answering these questions on their own".

This writer is a college consultant, and her entire article can be found here: Wall Street Journal

What a divine point. You've been preparing to go to college for years. You've invested time into school, sports, art, service, travel and living life. You've thought about where you want to go, and why. Now you're sitting down to chisel out a personal statement.

It may be one of the most important essays you ever write. And your parents don't want you to do it alone.

That might be wise. The stakes are much higher these days, and the coveted number of spots is fewer. But there's something to be said for the idea of hijacking a young voice. There's an innocence, a rawness, and an authenticity that a seventeen-year-old possesses, which most forty-year-olds no longer have.

How then, can an adult impose the filter of their own experiences on those of someone half their age? They can't, and letting go involves a certain leap of faith. I'm not sure I'll be able to do it by the time my kids apply.

Yet it's the risk itself that makes applying to (and attending) college such a pivotal experience. Perhaps the essay should reflect that. Which is to say, you can offer to help polish it, but the words-imperfect as they may be-need to come from your teenager's heart. The colleges can take it or leave it.


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Monday, August 26, 2013
Beware of Too Much Sincerity
Oscar Wilde quipped that "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal". No doubt, many of the admissions essays of our time would cause the great 19th century author to turn in his grave. Proof, perhaps, that society changes quickly, but human nature much less so.


Because most people can smell insincerity a mile away. And it isn't pretty. It offers a blueprint of a person who is, at worst, manipulative and at best, unimaginative. Neither are qualities very appealing in a student candidate.

You may have volunteered at the homeless shelter in order to pad your resume, but if you weren't really invested in the experience, that insincerity will come through in your writing. It's hard to write about personal growth in your admission essay if you really didn't have any.

Lack of introspection often comes across most painfully in those essays that attempt to wade into weightier emotional waters. I'm talking death of loved ones, siblings with disabilities. If you are going to tackle something serious like this, tread lightly on your words, unless you really mean it. This is sensitive stuff.

Frankly, if you are a writer prone to hyperbole, the admission-essay writing process could offer an important learning curve. There is almost never room for too much sincerity in any formal written work. You just don't need it. It isn't persuasive, it's distracting.

If you're trying too hard to wrench meaning from something insignificant, it will be obvious to your reader. Some of the most emotionally understated works of literature are the most moving. So think carefully about your tone as you set pen to paper.


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Monday, August 19, 2013
How to Really Get to Know a College Campus
This week HuffPost offered a tip-list for students planning to tour college campuses in preparation for application season.

I liked it, but couldn't help wanting to add a few thoughts of my own.

When I was in college, my school offered something called a Little Siblings Weekend. The name is pretty self-explanatory. Students living in the on-campus dorms could invited their younger siblings to stay with them for a weekend in order to get a flavor of college life. My brother, who is 9 years younger than me, took advantage of the occasion, and loved every minute of it.

When you're 11 years old (and perhaps older), the joy of the dorms is pretty simple. Stay up late. Play video games. Get fruit loops and hot chocolate down in the cafeteria. But truly, there's more. I took my brother with me to my classes. He did get a window into dorm life and life with actual college students. I took him to the sporting venues, the coffee shops, the massive library, the local college village.

Incidentally, he ultimately graduated from the same school as me. I don't attribute this to my skills as a tour guide. I do think that this early visit demystified the experience for him in a very palpable way.

HuffPost offers all the sage advice. Take the campus tour. Take notes. Pay attention to financial aid packages. The thing is, when I was 18, this stuff mattered less to me than the "feel" of a place. Research is important, for sure. But once you've narrowed down your choices using external metrics such as academics/affordability, you should really test-drive it.

Understand that a campus tour may not be enough to help you make that decision. You may not have a sibling to shack up with for the weekend, but get creative. See whether or not you'll be happy spending four years there.


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Monday, August 12, 2013
It's in the Details, Silly
If anyone ever asked me what my most frequent critique is, I would say this. Essays that don't actually say anything. That sounds unkind. What I mean to say is that many students get stuck in what I call the vortex of platitudes. They write an awful lot without saying much at all. This universal weakness makes sense to me. Students applying for an undergraduate degree are young. The college admission essay almost sets students up for failure by asking them to delve deep into a reservoir of life perspective and extricate something meaningful and compelling for show-and-tell.

For this reason, students get caught up in one of two categories. The first: cram-everything-I've-ever-done into 500 words. The second: write about my week at survival camp. Neither are complete recipes for disaster, if done well, but that's a tall order. But for those of you leaning towards option #2-remember this. No one wants to hear how survival camp made you a stronger person/stretched the limits of your perseverance/taught you how to appreciate your life opportunities. It isn't that these things aren't valid. It's just that they are too broad.

What you need to do instead is use them as paragraph starters. Survival camp made me a stronger person. As I grabbed onto the tattered orange rope and stepped onto the bridge, all I could think about were the jagged rocks in the water, 50 feet below.

This works for every subject. Maybe you're writing about your favorite cat Morris. Don't talk about how much he meant to you without also talking about the white goose-down masquerading as fur around his tiny claws.

People are drawn to visual imagery. You don't have to make a sweeping statement about the world around you. If you're stuck, focus on what you know, and how well you know it. You'll be surprised at how well the small things flow from your brain to the keyboard.

While this doesn't mean you should ignore the mechanics of structure and persuasive prose, it should help keep you on track for writing something that your reader will savor and remember.


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Monday, August 5, 2013
Is Getting into College the Hardest Part
A friend of mine is the mother of a 17-year-old high school senior. He's a talented musician. He's already taking college courses at the local community college. What's more, he's polite, driven, and focused on his future. So is she.

She is a single parent of an only child, which carries with it its own dynamic. She's managed to raise a strong, smart, ambitious child without much help from his father. Finances are tight, which is part of the reason she sees academic success as a road out for him. Right now, she's spending a fortune on a college consultant; she insists it's worth every penny.

According to her consultant--getting into college is harder than college itself.

Do some light reading on the college consulting industry and you'll find a million different perspectives. The most vociferous critics call it things like the New Snake Oil Industry. The middle ground says, if it gives you peace of mind, it's worth the money. Others, like my friend, say that advisers are the lifeblood of the process. Without them, you're just not getting in. I always like to think the truth is somewhere in the middle. You can do almost anything in life without a broker, so long as you do the research yourself. That doesn't mean that buying a house isn't easier if you use a real estate agent.

Is getting in the hardest part for the student or the parent? Is it intellectually challenging, or just a cruel battering of your nerves? Is it a non-issue if you can't afford it? I'm not sure there's a single answer for anyone. If it works for you, great. The fact is, admissions has become more challenging. There are people with varying degrees of knowledge of the process. If you chose your help wisely, the "getting in" part shouldn't be nearly as hard as being a college student.


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Monday, July 29, 2013
Unveiling of the Essay Topics
Forget the Royal Baby Watch. If you're a high school senior, summer is ready to come to a screeching halt in just a few short days.

Ok, not exactly. But it may be time to get your head back in the game. Kate and William will release the little prince's name, and your life will go on as normal. Then reality kicks in. School starts again in a month or so, but this year-your senior year-you have a few extra things on your plate.

Like your college applications.

They aren't due, of course, until Fall, which may feel light-years away. But the Common Application and many universities have their eyes squarely on the deadline. On August 1st, the Common App releases its essay questions for the 2014-2015 admissions cycle. Essay prompts from high profile colleges have begun to trickle out.

Bear in mind that even if your schools of choice use the Common App, they may also require the submission of supplemental essays. So even if you have no intention of hitting the keyboard until October, you should pay careful attention to what is required of you.

While some schools have attracted recent press for scaling back the essay requirements (Harvard eliminated it, Georgetown's MBA program is inviting a tweet alternative), the vast majority of them still want a good old-fashioned admission essay. Not many schools will ask you to spill 500 words about your favorite kind of mustard.

You're more likely to get a standard like this one from the UC: "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."

It doesn't exactly get the creative juices flowing. And yet, in a few months' time, you need a good response. Starting early may not sound good, but it's a whole lot better than finishing late.

Just because it's summer, doesn't mean you shouldn't keep your eye on the ball.


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Monday, July 22, 2013
Your Admissions Essay-an Exercise in Teaching?
They say the best way to learn is to teach. Most educators will tell you that they often learn as much from their students as their students do from them. Put simply, it's virtually impossible to really understand a concept if you can't explain it to someone else. Ever been asked to "define irony"? Explain why the sun sets every day?

Sure. I know what you mean. I just can't. Quite. Explain it.

No one wants to read an essay like that. And I've read many. Multitudes of essays written by students who are obviously trying really hard trying to write something catchy, anecdotal, even allegorical. Quite often, it's just boring.

Any college English professor will tell you that if you don't have a solid thesis, your writing will meander. To me, meandering is the single biggest offense I see in admissions essay writing. It's what makes essays uninteresting or hard to follow. You must have a point, and you must defend that point persuasively.

And let's face it, defending a point persuasively is precisely what a good educator does. If your math teacher can't find a way to convince you that 2+2 is 4, then he's not doing his job.

So as an exercise, pretend that your essay is an instruction guide of sorts. You are teaching your reader about you or something important to you. Don't confuse this with what you think your reader might want to hear. No teacher would be successful at her job if she were simply pandering to her students.

If you're going to define irony, do it well.


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Wednesday, July 17, 2013
What Does #YOLO Mean to You?
Tufts University in Massachusetts wants to know. The internet is positively alight with the headline. Who knew? Who cares? What does YOLO even mean?

Let's backtrack. Let's assume hash tags and millennial acronyms aren't your thing. "You only live once" is not a new turn of phrase (isn't it an old Bond movie?), but it was recently repackaged (YOLO) by the rapper Drake in his 2011 hit "The Motto".

Condensing the carpe-diem-esque concept into a four character soundbyte helped it take flight in the social media realm. You've not really arrived until you've been hash-tagged, after all. Even if you're a dog-eared platitude.

Undeterred, Tufts-a small, private, liberal arts institution in an area of the country brimming with such places-is trying to set themselves apart by being faux-cool. Like many universities have in recent years, Tufts is making a show of breaking the stuffy aesthetic of admission essay prompts.

To be precise-the question itself doesn't really break any new ground; it's the way they're asking it: "Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?"

The web is abuzz with discussion, which seems slightly misplaced since Tufts has a history of offering unusual prompts ("Discuss your nerdy side"). They've touched a nerve with some who feel the nod to an African-American rapper is an exploitative attempt at relevance by a historically white institution.

Which is precisely all that any university can hope for. With a 2012 acceptance rate of under 19%, Tufts is not starving for applicants. But in a competitive environment in which all universities must meet their financial bottom lines, relevance is key. #goodmarketing


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Monday, July 15, 2013
Your Admission Essay-A Summer Blockbuster?
You know the saying, there's more than one way to skin a cat. I've always found it a rather grotesque reference. If English isn't your first language, it may just sound gross and nonsensical. Still, the phrase sticks with you. There's more than one way to peel a banana or tie your shoe, but those phrases don't exactly stop you in your tracks. You might be wondering where this plot is going...

If you're a student and you're finding it hard to strike literary gold with your personal statement, you're not alone. For every hundred of you, there is a college coach/guidance counselor/tutor or other concerned adult trying to bottle some sage advice to guide you. Write from the heart. Show, don't tell. Keep it simple. (I've offered all these nuggets myself). I recently came across an article promoting the idea that the best essay should read like-you guessed it-a Hollywood blockbuster. Or, maybe you didn't see that one coming. The college coach pushing this idea is a former screenwriter, and while my gut said "tacky", he has a point. Above all, your admission essay has to be interesting. If it's not, your reader will tune out by paragraph two.

There is, of course, more than one way to approach an essay. Educators are likely to guide you more gently towards compelling prose, but there is more than one way to get there. Writing a gripping essay isn't easy. Even young students who aren't writing a screenplay tend to overshoot the dramatic mark.

However, in the same way that a good trial lawyer has to put on a show in order to woo her jury, a student-writer cannot expect to persuade her audience without crafting something creative and engaging. Hollywood certainly has that formula down.

This recipe may not be for everyone. But if it helps you get your essay off the ground...why not?


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Monday, July 8, 2013
Supreme Court Rules on Affirmative Action
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the college affirmative action case, side-stepping an all-out ban on the use of race consideration in college admissions. What the court did do was to make the use of race in college admissions considerably more difficult.

Universities will now be subjected to the highest level of legal scrutiny when making admissions decisions based solely on the race of a candidate. This decision did not come as a huge surprise. Proponents of affirmative action say that the ruling will make it effectively impossible to allow race as a factor. Opponents of the policy claim that the ruling did not go far enough.

However, the net effect of the ruling is essentially the same. Because it will now be so much more difficult for universities to consider race in their admissions policies, schools will have to get creative in finding new ways to maintain a racially diverse student body. This would have been the case if the court had, in fact, decided to abolish affirmative action in its entirety.

As expected, schools in Texas (and elsewhere), will likely turn their focus to "class" in order to add dimension to their graduating classes. For better or worse, race and socioeconomics track together in the US, with people of color falling disproportionately occupying the lower income brackets. By targeting socioeconomics, schools may be able to achieve the same end.

The idea of artificially creating diversity in third-level education may be a partisan issue, but it also has many practical proponents. In friends-of-the-court briefs, several large corporations supported the idea, citing the importance of a diverse workforce in today's global economy. The Obama administration proffered a similar argument, noting the need for racial diversity in the nation's military officer corps.

Achieving this diversity may have just become a little bit more challenging. But not impossible.


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Monday, July 1, 2013
Is the Admission Essay Going Out of Style?
I'll admit, it's hard to keep up. One of my cars has an audio cassette player. The newer one has an iPod doc. My young kids don't know what CDs are used for. They've been to a library, but they'd rather have me download books for them. Now. As an adult, it's always hard to see the relics of your past become obsolete. It's a referendum on your own mortality, maybe. But life goes on. And the world of college admissions is no different.

Already, most colleges accept applications on line. There is noise about taking standardized testing off Scantron sheets and onto iPads. Nearly every college now has an interactive social media "presence", and most of us know what that means.

The Tippie School of Management at the University of Iowa turned heads a few years back when it replaced one of its traditional personal statement options with a Tweet. (In fact, they offered a full ride scholarship to the candidate with the best 140-character quip). They quickly pulled that option, but not before other business schools-Georgetown among them-began to offer the Tweet as an essay alternative.

This year, Tippie applicants have the option of replacing two admissions essays with a SlideShare presentation. The schools are grasping for a more relevant window into the applicant's experience using a new blueprint for communication. So many of the words we read no longer appear on paper. We now expect them to hang against the backdrop of hyperlinks, pictures, videos, and portals into other options.

Changing the application medium hopefully means that admissions officers get a visual, conceptual offering from applicants that is both more interesting and more illustrative than an essay on paper. For applicants, it opens up creative possibilities.

It's a safe bet that the majority of applicants and universities don't yet have the technology skills or assets to pull the plug on the traditional application essay. What these business schools are showing, however, is that the college application process is not immune to progress.

Watch this space. And keep an open mind.


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Monday, June 24, 2013
What Will Race-Blind Admissions Really Look Like?
If it seems like I've blogged a lot about affirmative action over the past year or so, it's because I see it as a topic that is central to college admissions, both literally and symbolically. It also happens to be "on trial", so to speak, in the US Supreme Court. A significant decision is due from the court any day now.

While systematic racism plays a role in the furor over affirmative action, I believe it's the sheer anxiety of "getting in", that makes it such a hot button issue. As a general rule, people don't really care about stuff unless 1) it's relevant to them and 2) it's their stuff and someone is trying to take it away.

Which is why its particularly interesting that both opponents and proponents of affirmative action are, in some circles, finding common ground in the area of socioeconomics.

It is commonly reported that poor or disadvantaged students comprise infinitesimally small proportions of the student bodies at selective universities. These students are more likely to go to community colleges or less selective universities, where graduation rates are significantly smaller. This is true even amongst the top academic performers.

There are eight states in the U.S. with affirmative action bans currently in place. In the wake of these bans, several of the states, including California, have implemented programs aimed at courting lower-income applicants.

Many have argued that, if diversity in education is the goal, race-based affirmative action isn't the only answer. Luring disadvantaged students into the privileged world of selective universities isn't a one-stage process, and it may kick into a higher gear if affirmative action is effectively outlawed.

For anyone with an eye on the college admissions process, these unfolding stories may turn out to be game changers.

For a breadth of opinions on the subject: NY Times


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