|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.|
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
The Rising Costs of College Admission
Let me start by saying one thing: this post won't be about the rising costs of actual college attendance. That's not because college tuition costs aren't going up (they are). Instead, I'm talking about the long-game. The cost of preparing kids for college.
It starts at preschool.
I'm not being alarmist. I also don't believe kids are actually tracked at age three. What is arguable is that socioeconomic class starts to inform educational trajectory from very early on. With some exceptions, the kids whose parents can afford to send them to preschool will begin kindergarten with many social and some academic advantages.
With some exceptions, kids who attend private elementary, middle and high schools will also have a leg up on their public school counterparts. This is in no way a swipe at public education. It's just that it can't compete with the funding of private institutions, which will offer wealthier children opportunities that poor children will simply never see.
By high school, most kids already have a sense of whether or not college is on the horizon. Private schools-with smaller student to teacher ratios and bigger coffers for paying staff-will undoubtedly be able to support students through the college application process in a more meaningful way. Some public school guidance school counselors are assigned to hundreds of kids at a time.
With a new presidential administration promising to divert federal and state funds away from public schools, the cost of schooling may become even further out of the reach of many American families. This trend is likely to be complicated by slashing the funding of vital early education programs designed to help lower income families. The face of college admissions may be changing, and with it, the demographics of the country's college graduates.
Monday, December 5, 2016
Time for “Tracking” in Post-Secondary Education?
How do politics affect post-secondary education in the United States? Are they truly a meritocracy, or is the system rigged? Will we ever be able to bridge the wealth gap in college education?
These are just some of the questions now on the front burner as we await a Trump Administration. Obama's tenure can be best described as an era focused on college completion. His administration pushed for transparency in the fiscal value of college degrees. He worked with philanthropic organizations to create post-secondary credentials that had meaning and value in the workplace. And in recent years, the Obama administration made great strides for community colleges.
The Trump administration's position on higher education is still not abundantly clear, but it may end up being eclipsed by a focus on creating jobs. Ironically, the creation of jobs and support for four-year education are things that-in American culture-are often mutually exclusive. Trump has promised a $1 trillion infrastructure improvement program; most of the jobs created by such an endeavor would only require a high school diploma.
Which raises the issue of "tracking"-a system common in parts of Europe which typically causes Americans to bristle. Such a system tracks students early on, recognizing that some students will become doctors and some will become plumbers, and that it is equally important to prepare students for both.
This system acknowledges that all students are different, but goes against the grain of the American bootstrap mythology that anyone can reach the mountain top if they just work hard enough. History has proven this to mostly be untrue.
So while a Trump administration will likely (and intentionally) unravel much of the education policy crafted under his predecessor, he may in fact create a professional environment meeting many of the same goals.
It just may be that "success" no longer includes a four-year degree.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
ABA Sanctions More Schools Over Admissions
The American Bar Association, the regulatory body in charge of policing America's law schools, has recently disciplined two more schools over what it characterizes as lax admissions policies.
The public censure was directed at the Valparaiso University School of Law and Charlotte Law School. This brings to three (including Ave Maria School of Law) the number of schools that have been disciplined by the ABA since August of 2016.
Part of the ABA's roll is to make sure that law school admissions is stringent enough to filter out students who are unlikely to excel academically in law school and pass the bar exam after graduation. Quality control, if you will.
But some of the censured schools raise interesting rebuttals. The downturn in the legal profession has caused a severe curtailing in enrollment. The response of law schools to that has taken on many forms, from laying off staff to increasing tuition. Another trend has involved relaxing admission requirements. Though few schools will admit to doing so, experts have cited declining LSAT scores and bar pass rates as evidence that law schools are evolving through this crisis.
There are 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the U.S. Losing accreditation has different effects on students, depending upon the state in which they are located. However, many states will not allow students from unaccredited institutions to sit bar exams or practice law.
The disciplined schools have two years of probation during which they must meet with ABA standards in order to maintain accreditation. Their failure to do so may have long and lasting impacts upon their students.
Monday, November 21, 2016
Universities Issue Joint Statement in Support of DACA
Back in late December of 2010, The Dream Act, which stands for “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors” was defeated in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 55-41. This legislative bill was designed to help people who had been brought into the U.S. illegally when they were 15 years old or younger. The Act would have helped those children to obtain U.S. citizenship, providing that they attended two years of college or served two years in the U.S. military. The law required qualifying candidates to have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and graduated from high school.
In 2012, the Obama Administration issued an executive order creating the program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This act was a diluted version of the Dream Act, offering deferment from deportation to undocumented immigrants who had entered the U.S. prior to their 16th birthdays. So long as program applicants had graduated high school or been honorably discharged from the military, they would receive temporary work permits. Unlike the Dream Act, DACA did not offer these young people an alternative path to citizenship.
DACA is now one of many policies created under the Obama Administration that President-Elect Trump is promising to dismantle. Estimates place at around 750,000 the number of people who are currently participants in DACA; over half of those students are from California and Texas. Surprisingly, a movement to defer deportment of those people has received bipartisan support in Congress, although it remains to be seen whether legislation preserving portions of DACA would pass in the Senate.
For their part, a group of 472 university and college presidents across the country have expressed written and vocal support for the safeguarding of DACA and its students. The number of signatures is growing daily. The joint statement calls it a "moral imperative" and "national necessity" to protect the rights conferred on these DACA students, many of whom may eventually face deportment under the current administration.
Saturday, November 19, 2016
How Early is Too Early for College Admission Preparation?
About three years ago, the prominent professional site LinkedIn changed its membership rules to allow students as young as 14 to create a profile. The idea behind the move was to encourage high school students to begin building a clean social media profile for prospective colleges and even employers.
LinkedIn has long been the squeaky-shoed cousin of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Reserved primarily for professional connections, it can be a great resource for networking. For young students, LinkedIn is an ideal opportunity to begin prepping for the adult world of polished presentation. And for those getting ready for college, it is a good spot for a dry run.
But how early is too early? By 14, most students have decided whether or not college is on the menu, but it is still four full years away. High school isn't a chapter meant to be skimmed, but by junior year, the college hand wringing will have already started. And realistically, most teenage LinkedIn profiles would be understandably thin.
Still, we are now in the digital age-and this is an arena where youth typically shines. Creating a professional profile (digitally or practically speaking) is a valuable exercise-and one to which parents and mentors could contribute meaningfully. And if colleges continue to be as interested in applicants' social media pages as they are now, an impeccable LinkedIn profile could be a very important portal indeed.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Being Poor at an Elite University
It's been nearly three years to the day since I first read (former) Duke University student Kelly Noel Waldorf's article about being a poor student at an elite institution. And on the heels of a U.S. election that has pushed issues of economics and class division to the surface, her story is more relevant than ever.
Her letter, which appeared in Duke's own newspaper on November 11, 2013 went viral at the time. In it, she talks about the practical realities of being poor. She can't afford to go out to eat with her friends. She has to check her textbooks out of the library. Her mom calls her crying because she can't afford the gas money to come pick her up for Thanksgiving break.
But the more troubling aspect of the article involves her anecdote about putting her McDonald's job on her résumé: a Duke classmate asks her if she thinks that's wise. And there it is-the embarrassing culture clash. That painful juncture where one person's reality becomes the object of elite pity. Waldorf got it, and she had the courage to write about it.
Today, things are no better. The majority of students at elite universities come from families with six-figure incomes. Legacy admissions and the exorbitant price tag on private universities means that poorer students either can't or don't even try to attend. The efforts by many institutions to offer services to low-income students may be worthy, but it's a mere ripple in the ocean.
The class divide in our country has never been greater or more apparent. College has long been considered the gateway to success, but it is not always an easy threshold for students to cross. Getting in and getting it financed is the practical battle; moving into a new social class is an entirely different exercise.
To read Ms. Waldorf's 2013 article, click here: Duke Chronicle
Monday, November 7, 2016
Using Analytics to Find the Perfect College Student
Most people plugged into the college admissions game understand the stakes. We all know that students are evaluated on their grades, test scores, and so-called soft factors-like extracurricular activities and volunteer experience. What people might not know is that some colleges also rely on something else when measuring their candidates: analytics.
These are essentially data points recorded on students, based upon things like geography, race, family income, ethnicity, gender, and high school attended. The process of statistical analysis is beyond the scope of this blog, but using analytics to study people and their habits is nothing new. It is also potentially very valuable for colleges and universities.
Let's be honest-the idea that institutions are reducing human beings to data points isn't likely to sit well with people. At least at first glance. Predictive analysis is riddled inherent biases-take, for instance, the correlation between college graduation amongst students of color or students from low-income families. Colleges have a vested interest in making money and staying high in the rankings, so they are going to pick students likely to perform well.
Still, this doesn't mean that analytics can't be used in a positive way.
Colleges themselves can use analytics to track student performances. Some universities are becoming more invested in retaining their students rather than separating the wheat from the chaff. So when they see a freshman struggling with grades, they can approach and intervene, rather than tossing the student onto academic probation.
As tools of professional management, analytics can be enormously helpful in empowering colleges to better serve their student populations, by having a better understanding of demographics, financial need, and academic interests.
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
What the Presidential Election Could Mean for College Students
Let me start with two caveats. First, I can't possibly sum up the political platforms of both US presidential candidates in 250 words. Second, this is a non-partisan post.
Put simply, the candidates disagree most strongly on "school choice", which is a general term that would essentially eliminate the current model of neighborhood public schools. Put another way, parents would have greater choice in terms of where to send their kids to school, and would not be restricted by geographical district.
What isn't as clear is republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's platform for third-level education. He has promised to reveal it in the furture, but his campaign website offers no details. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, on the other had, promises to build up federally subsidized programs such as TRIO and GEAR UP: programs that both aim to strengthen the pipeline between colleges and underserved communities.
The cost of college is a big election issue. Generally speaking, Trump wants to divest the federal government of its large role in providing financial education for college students, migrating that role over to private banks. Clinton, on the other hand, wants to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in an effort to encourage more students to apply to college. Trump wants colleges to begin shouldering more of the costs of attendance; he also wants colleges to consider the future earning capacity of students in determining how much to loan them. Clinton's New College Impact, would make four-year public university tuition free for families making less than $85,000 a year and would make community college free.
Noxious as this election cycle has been, the two candidates arguably moor to traditional party lines with their positions on college education and how to fund it. And, as always, there will be sizeable gaps between campaign promises and deliveries.
Nevertheless, this election is an important one for all college hopefuls to watch.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Are the Ivies our New Celebrity Culture?
I'll be the first to admit it: I find it hard to rise above the temptation of click-bait. Just yesterday, I skimmed through a toothless piece about Brad and Angelina's ex-bodyguard. If you don't know who I'm talking about, consider yourself lucky.
About six months ago, I read a Washington Post article about America's "dangerous" obsession with elite universities. It struck a chord with me. If you read about college admissions with any vigor, you'll find it impossible to ignore the mania over Stanford, Harvard and Yale. There's no one disputing their excellence.
The problem is their relevance to the average person.
The vast-and I mean vast-majority of Americans stand no chance of admission to any of them. Put another way in the WP article, just 4% of American students attend universities with an acceptance rate of 25% or less.
Let that sink in. Harvard, by the way, accepts 5.2% of its applicants.
So why, oh why, do we keep fixating on universities that will have little to no impact upon American college graduates? What is so addictive about the unattainable?
Perhaps it is because the ordinary just isn't interesting enough for our byte-sized attention spans. The idea that thousands of hard-working Americans will graduate from solid, regional public universities each year-it's just not a story.
The problem is that it should be. Because our high school students are paying attention. They need to know that success isn't hog-tied to low acceptance rates.
This isn't about settling for less. It's about focusing on what students can and should be doing with their educations. It is about shifting the conversation. In the words of Ben Casselman, it's time to "Shut Up About Harvard".
The Washington Post
Monday, October 17, 2016
Changes to FAFSA to Help Students with College-Selection
Each year, the U.S. Department of Education gives out over $150 billion in financial aid for college students. The aid is need-based, and any student can determine eligibility by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
For most high school students, the income being evaluated is that of their parents. It is often advised that all students fill out the FAFSA, even if their parents' income is too high to qualify for aid. Because many universities and organizations use the financial information on the FAFSA to make determinations about merit and need-based scholarship awards, it is recommended that all students fill out a FAFSA. The FAFSA also entitles applicants to up to $5,300 in low-interest federal loans.
Integral as the FAFSA is to many college students, it has long posed a problem. With an application deadline of January 1st, most students were applying for aid after they'd applied to colleges. For many students, cost is a major component of college selection. Some students were placed in the difficult position of accepting college offers before they knew whether or not they could afford to pay tuition.
This year, FAFSA has changed its deadline to October 1st. This means students will receive aid decisions well in advance of the college acceptance deadlines. Students will be better able to make informed (read: financially sound) decisions.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Business Schools Turning to Technology in Admissions Process
It's been about five years since the University of Iowa's Tippie School of Management became the first notable business school to give applicants the option to tweet their way in. The move was a popular one with applicants, who were allowed to chose between a traditional admission essay or a 140-character sound byte; the vast majority chose the tweet.
Since then, the liberal use of technology in admissions has been exploited most deftly by graduate business schools. Back in 2011, Tippie turned to the tweet in an effort to break a cycle of stale admission essays. Business schools are famous for requiring several essays of varying lengths. But there is almost always a primary essay with a limit of 500-1000 words. A tweet would be shorter than the first two sentences of this paragraph (which is 178 characters). Students lapped it up.
In 2016, it's difficult to find a business school that doesn't either encourage or require technology as an admission component. Georgetown now requires a one-minute introductory video from each candidate. Kellogg has dispensed with some of the writing components and now requires three video essays. Tippie, for its part, now offers an option that is potentially limitless; there is no length or file size limitation and the "admission question" may be addressed via video, social media, Power Point presentation, blog post, or other. As Tippie puts it "all options are on the table".
Full disclosure: I'm not a Millennial or even Generation Y. And while I'm pretty tech-savvy, video essays would make me sweat-something that speaks volumes about the demographic that b-schools are courting. At the very least, videos are a shortcut around in-person interviews. They give charismatic students an opportunity to shine. Students with weaker "written records" may be able to use visual media to knock an application out of the park.
In any event, the times, they are a-changin', and business schools are paving the way.
Monday, October 3, 2016
The Narrowing Down of the Admission Essay
Let me be honest with you from the get-go: there is no single most important aspect of any admission essay. There is no simple recipe for the perfect one. But colleges are trying to help students to be more effective at getting to the heart of a good narrative, and here's how.
The Common Application has significantly narrowed the field of focus in admission essays. With a 650 word limit and four specific prompts to chose from, students have considerable help in shaping the contents of their work. They can then send this same essay to dozens of different schools. So while it functions as a one-size-fits-all personal statement, the Common App gives its student-writers decent guidance.
The trend in college admissions essays is changing. Though most schools still utilize the essay as a vehicle for getting to know a candidate, their questions have become increasingly more detailed. This year for the first time, the University of California is shifting from their two-prompt, one-thousand word model to something very different: a total of eight prompts, from which students must chose four. No essay is to be longer than 350 words.
Students may find it cumbersome to write "more" essays, but the schools who require several are not doing it to increase the volume of information they get from students, but rather the quality of what they are writing. Many universities require a primary essay of around 500 words and often several more within the 250-300 word range.
Shorter essays are often more difficult to write-you don't have the advantage of a long runway for your ascent or landing. But with the tight word limits, they force students to strip away all of the excess and get right to the point. Which is what the essay was supposed to be about in the first place.
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Are There Any Downsides to the Common Application?
If college is anywhere on your horizon, you've probably heard of the Common Application. It is an undergraduate admission application that allows students to apply to multiple colleges using a single application. Here are some things you may not know.
The Common Application has actually been around since 1975. It became available online for the first time in 1998. At its inception, it was used by about 15 colleges. Today, more than 700 colleges and universities worldwide subscribe to it; just over 500 of those are located in the United States. The application is free to use for students but universities pay for the privilege of membership.
From an application standpoint, there are few drawbacks. The Common App has streamlined the college application process like no other. It enables students to submit a single admission essay to an unlimited number of colleges. Grades and test scores can also be uploaded, saving students the time consuming effort of applying multiple times to numerous institutions.
The downsides are bigger picture. The ease of applying means that application numbers have gone up, meaning that more students are necessarily rejected. This makes colleges appear more competitive, which works for them in terms of rankings.
The ease of application may also cause students to apply to schools in which they aren't particularly interested. It creates more administrative work for colleges, and may seem unfair that of two students competing for a university spot, only one really wants to be there.
Whether the Common App can be tweaked in order to reverse some of these problematic trends is another question all together. For now, the ubiquity and convenience of the Common App mean that it is likely to be around for years to come.
Monday, September 26, 2016
What to Make of Yale’s New Admission Essay Questions
In a rather scathing presidential election campaign year and against the backdrop of some of the most severe-or at least visible-racial tensions the U.S. has experienced in years, words matter. In a world where media both defines and reshapes the things we talk about, imagery is important.
There's scarcely a surface in this country that hasn't been scuffed by the dysfunctional race relationships driving discourse in America today. If you think college admissions is spared from the fray, you'd be sorely mistaken.
In the U.S. Supreme Court this year, affirmative action was challenged again. A coalition of Asian students brought a class action suit against dozens of U.S. universities claiming reverse discrimination. Last year at Harvard University School of Law, photographs of black professors were defaced with black tape. University of Missouri and Yale University struggled publicly against massive protests regarding systemic racial policies.
Which is just part of the reason why Yale's revised admission essay prompts are so pregnant with meaning. Among them "What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left."
These words don't matter because lots of people will be applying to Yale-roughly 2,000 of 30,000 applicants were admitted last year. They matter because, for better or worse, people pay attention to Ivy League universities and their policies.
Is a wave of change likely to flow from ivory towers down to the shores of the rest of the nation? Probably not. But the contours of college admissions continue to reveal themselves as a metaphor for society at large. At the very least, it's worth paying attention.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
The Key in College Admissions? Grades, grades, grades
Every autumn, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) releases its State of College Admission report. And every year, it reaches a similar conclusion: the single most influential aspect of a student's college admission application is their grades.
This should come as a relief for most students. It also makes logical sense. Grades demonstrate a student's interests and strengths over a broad period of time. According to NACAC, colleges place greater weight on college preparatory courses, but also emphasizes the importance of grades in all courses. Strength of curriculum is also important; a reminder to students considering whether to tackle AP classes or not.
Test scores were a close second, according to NACAC. This is noteworthy, given the considerable criticism about the reliability of test scores as an evaluation method. On the one hand, tests are the great equalizer in a country with an enormous spectrum of curriculum quality. On the other hand, test scores consistently correlate with wealth, making them an unreliable metric for many students who may otherwise be very academically capable.
The report should also ease some of the pressure surrounding the admission essay. While a powerful essay may help students "on the bubble", it is unlikely to buoy a candidate with weaker grades and test scores.
NACAC's report should be most useful as a tool for students to honestly evaluate their admissions options. Quality college education and successful futures are not tied inextricably to college ranking. The best college for a particular student is the one that is most appropriately tailored to their strengths and weaknesses.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Capturing a Moment in Your Admission Essay
Know the quickest way to drive an admission essay into the ground? Nope, it's not grammar (although there's no quicker way to demonstrate laziness). It's trying to squeeze too much into too tight a space.
Let me explain.
I see a lot of college admissions essays about leadership. They might start with a tacit, general observation on the subject. Then students dig in. They talk about being team captain. ASB president. Math-club founder. None of this is inherently bad. It just doesn't make for an interesting read. More than that, it's just too much information to distill into 500-650 words.
If you just list the leadership positions you've held, you haven't really crafted an essay-you've made a bullet list, without the bullets. If you write one great example of leadership within each role, you run the risk of two missteps: 1) making the essay too long, or 2) making it too boring.
A better essay would zoom in on any one of those experiences and build a leadership essay around it. It sounds rote, but the essay is the admission's committee's window into your soul. Gracing a litany of subjects with a cursory sentence about each isn't going to give them any insight into who you are; it will merely tell them what you do.
The admissions committee has access to your grades, clubs, test scores and other activities. Don't waste essay space on them! Just don't. If you have a perfect SAT math score, write an essay about anything but math. Don't feel the need to compress four years of high school into two pages. Capture a moment, and move on.
Monday, September 5, 2016
The Interesting Case of a Texas Law School
The University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law first opened its doors in 2014, with an unusual stated mission. The school sought to afford reasonable tuition and encouraged applications from "non-traditional" law school applicants. In law school parlance, this meant students with a variety of life, work, and service experiences who did not necessarily possess the academic credentials required at the more "competitive" law schools.
Two years after its inception, it was delivered a crushing blow. The national accrediting body for all U.S. law schools-the American Bar Association (ABA) has recommended against accreditation for the school. In Texas, only law students from ABA-accredited schools can sit the Texas bar exam.
The ABA is stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place. If it isn't strict enough in its accreditation, law schools may churn out students unprepared for the rigors of the bar exam. On the other hand, if it is too strict, qualified candidates that might not otherwise make the cut in law school will never get the chance to become attorneys.
Certainly, accreditation is vital to a profession that depends on the skills and competence of its practitioners. And there are links between high LSAT scores and bar passage. But relying on the current elite model means that law practice will always be populated by the privileged.
UNT offered an alternative. It encouraged ex-military, mature students, and other students who hadn't taken the direct route to apply. It recognized that there are many low-income populations requiring service of legal practitioners and that students graduating with six-figure debt aren't likely to take low paying legal-aid jobs.
The ABA's announcement threatens UNT and affordable schools like it across the country. For now, the nation's law school system continues to be riddled with struggles and lacks clear, positive solutions.
Monday, August 29, 2016
Georgetown to Offer Priority Admission to Descendants of Slaves
Established in 1789, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of learning in the United States. A private research university, it is consistently ranked as one of the top colleges in the country and boasts distinguished alumni like former President Bill Clinton and deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
In 1838, the Jesuits in charge of running the university that would eventually become Georgetown, sold 272 African-American men, women and children to plantation owners in order to finance the school's continuing operation. This fact is not disputed.
For several months, the issue has been under discussion as university officials grappled with a way to effectively issue reparations. This week, it was announced that the school would offer preferential admission to all descendants of those 272 enslaved people-a number estimated to be between 12,000-15,000.
Following recent protests, the school removed plaques with the names of two of the Catholic priests responsible for the sales. The university has also announced plans to build a memorial for the 272 people, create an educational institute on slavery, and name several buildings on campus after African-Americans.
Because the Jesuits formally recorded the names of the 272 people, their descendants have been very traceable. The non-profit Georgetown Memory Project seeks to trace the lineage of the enslaved people in order to honor their "sacrifice and legacy". The project also strives to embed this story into ongoing education about slavery across U.S. history.
According to the New York Times, Georgetown is not the only university in the country to have benefitted financially from the labor and sale of enslaved people, but the well-documented sale of 272 people is unprecedented and undisputed.
Despite annual tuition of close to $50,000, the university has not announced whether financial aid will be part of the deal.
Monday, August 22, 2016
In Your Admission Essay, Be Willing to Color Outside the Lines
In today's hyper-connected world, there is no shortage of information available to students applying to college. Few aspects of the admission process fill students with more dread than the admission essay. Unlike all of the sharp metrics like grades and scores, the essay is shrouded in mystery.
For better or worse, most students start the essay process by asking a single question: What can I write that will impress these readers? What this immediately does is to shift the focus from a creative-writing venture into an interview on paper. And what is more nerve-wracking than an interview?
Writing advice is hard to give. I might tell a student to "write from the heart", but what does that mean, really? Especially to a student with writer's block?
This recent Washington Post article offers essay advice from a handful of admissions officers. The Washington Post
The main take-aways for me are "beautiful, clear writing" and a willingness to color outside the lines. It takes maturity and experience in writing to trust that simple words are more effective than complicated phrasing. Big words won't make a mediocre essay sound better; it will simply sound clunkier, and harder to follow.
Coloring outside the lines takes courage. It may mean choosing not to write about your Model United Nations experience but about your dog having cancer. It may mean not mentioning a single grade or test score or sport or community service event but instead writing about the creek at your grandparents' cabin in rural Idaho.
Don't ever buy into the idea that 650 words will encapsulate everything about you. It can't. But it is an opportunity to place a magnifying glass over a tiny part of you; that could be the place where your writing finds its magic.
Take a leap. What have you got to lose?
Monday, August 22, 2016
The Art of Storytelling in the Admission Essay
Ushering students through the sludgy process of writing is difficult at the best of times. Enjoyable narratives aren't always objectively good. Like art, some writing speaks to us, and some does not. When used well, tight grammar and punctuation can pull a narrative into a tidy bundle. But technical accuracy doesn't give writing a soul, and this is particularly relevant to autobiographies.
When it comes to writing, most high school students have limited tools. This isn't to say there aren't many gifted 17-year-old writers out there, but, as with any art, precision and imagination ripen with time. Which is why giving college admissions essay advice can be so difficult.
Young students are often constrained stylistically by their high school training. Standard English classes conform to rote rules of composition, which may leave students feeling uncomfortable being creative when writing personal statements.
I once had a professor who encouraged us to read our work aloud. Her theory was that putting your words out in the air subjected them to a different type of scrutiny. Cadences, pauses, and loose ends that may not have been apparent in written form tend to show themselves when spoken.
In reviewing college admissions essays, I see many of the same pitfalls. Long lists of activities. Written excuses for weaknesses in their academic records. Sob stories. And, sadly, essays that are simply uninteresting. All of these fragilities would become readily apparent if read out loud.
The essay should be a good story. It should not be a grab-bag of student accomplishments. There is room for that list elsewhere on the application. Write something you'd like to read.
Like every good author, students should work diligently to unburden themselves of the need to impress their reader. Counterintuitive in the application process? Sure. But try to remember the role of the admission essay: it is meant to soften out the hard edges of scores and grades. It is meant to be a window with a different view.
What better way to make it so than by telling a story well?
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