Hearing about early decision

November 24, 2006

For what it’s worth, colleges do not have a uniform, standard date of mailing early decision and early action letters. If your friends hear from schools before you do, it doesn’t mean anything. Each college is scrambling to try to get through all the early applications, make and mail decisions as efficiently as possible.

A school that saw an increase in applications this fall and did have a corresponding increase in staffing, that school may take longer. If a school saw a decrease, or just happens to have fast readers that school may mail out sooner.  Chances are you’ll hear something via email first, and a letter will follow.

If you haven’t heard from a school by mid December, call them or check their website for any updates. Otherwise sit tight, your letters will arrive shortly.

For many students, the weakest element of their application is the SAT or ACT score. While many colleges place great emphasis on this score, the good news is that a (growing?) number of colleges and universities do not require you to submit them. In fact, if you do, they might not even consider them. The schools on this list are:

Middlebury College*

Hamilton College* 

Connecticut College*

Union College*

Bard College 

Bowdoin College

Bates College

Bennington College

College of the Holy Cross

Dickinson College

Franklin and Marshall College

Mount Holyoke College

Drew University

Providence College

Pitzer College

Lawrence University

Wheaton College

Hampshire College

Juniata College

Hobart and William Smith College

Ursinus College

Muhlenberg College

Gustavus College

Knox College

Lewis and Clark College

Susquehanna University

* indicates a college that does not require the SAT/ACT as long as the student will submit the SAT II

I was recently reading a post on the website of a high school student at Philips Exeter (samjackson.org/college) who was speculating on the use and utility of the Academic Index (AI). If you’re never heard of the AI it’s probably because a) you haven’t worked in Ivy League admissions and b) you haven’t read Michele Hernandez’s book. Since, in all likelihood, you’re not going to become an admissions officer and I strongly urge you not to read her book, I’ll break down what the deal is with the AI.

Basically the academic index is a formula that combines grades and standardized test scores into a number that gives a broad indication of… your grades and test scores. It’s not fancy and it’s not terribly informative. What it does do is help Ivy League schools comply with admissions standards for NCAA athletes mandating a certain level of academic achievement gauged in relation to the academic achievements of the previous entering first year class of students. The AI allows all students’ academic achievements to be simplified to a number on a broad scale so that athletic recruits can be sure to fall within certain standard deviations of the mean. Yes, all students have an AI because it is necessary to have an overall mean. No, your AI is not your destiny.

Unless the school is rolling* then no. If you send your application in before the deadline it will not be read sooner, you will not receive your decision sooner, and you will not be more likely to get in.

When applications reach the admissions office, it takes a small army of people to open all that mail (or print out all the electronic submissions), sort it, file it, respond to all those little postcards people put in to confirm their applications were received, enter the data into the computer database, make folders containing the application with color coded stickers with your name/region/home state identifiers, then organize the folders according to admissions reader (usually based on geography) and present this final product in a uniform, readable manner so that the admissions officer can start reading applications. Rarely are admissions officers enlisted in this particular army.

Applications are not necessarily read in the exact order they were received by mail nor are they read as soon as they are formatted and in ready mode. The admissions officers spend the fall months traveling around the world visiting schools and structure their time around the November 1 arrival of applications. Reading usually begins in early November.

 So if you sent your early decision/admission application in on October 5, it will have spent a good month or so on a shelf awaiting its turn. Furthermore, the application is not read until it is complete – so even if you send your parts in before the deadline it will only be read once all the parts trickle in. And don’t worry, a recommendation letter that arrives after the other materials will not adversely affect your chances. With thousands of applications waiting to be read, the backlog serves as an equalizer making most all applications sit around waiting to be read.  This, unlike much of what you probably do in high school, is not a race.

*”rolling” refers to rolling admission where you can send in your application at any point within some guidelines and it will be read and decided in roughly that order.

Your email address

November 14, 2006

Correspondence via email is important to the admissions office because it expedites the process and transmission of information. In all likelihood, you will receive your acceptance or rejection in an email, followed by a paper letter days later. 

If you have an email address that you think is cute, flirtatious or controversial, you might want to keep that to yourself. Get yourself a simple address that the admissions office can use to correspond with you.

Examples of what NOT to have:





Use the unlimited number of more conservative email addresses still available out there to set up an account just for college correspondance. Silly email addresses have a way of undermining an otherwise strong application. It probably won’t change your decision, but think twice before sharing a saucy email address. Admissions officers tend not to be interested in your sauce.

Writing the college essay

November 13, 2006


Writing a personal statement, for many students, can be the most challenging part of the entire college admissions process. With good reason – it is the one part of the application where the student can directly speak to the admissions officer and share important insight, perspective and ideas that would not otherwise appear in the application. And this, I believe is one of the keys to writing a good college essay. Your task is to communicate information that you believe the admissions officer truly needs to know in order to understand who you are, what makes you tick, and what your passions are. This is exactly why writing a good college essay truly is challenging and the importance of it must be emphasized.

Consider, first, how your application looks to the reader. It is comprised of grades, test scores, lists of activities, teacher recommendations, counselor recommendations, possibly an interview write up and the essays. Most schools will read an application in the order it appears – as in, they will read the first page first, and work their way back. This means that your academic information and essays will be read before your teacher or counselor recommendations and before an interview write up. In other words, your essay will be one of the first pieces of information the admissions officer will read and consequently, it will be read before any judgment on you will have been made. At that point you’re a blank slate. From experience, the essay is the most fun part of the application to read. Make it good. It will set the tone for the rest of the application.

Lets say that you write an essay about how much you love math. You’re passionate about math, you dream about math, you go to math camp during the summers, joined the school math team, in college you want to major in math, get a PhD in math and the shower curtain in your bathroom has equations all over it, not to mention the internal battle you’ve had coming to terms with this passion because both of your parents are artists. It is logical that you would write about this love. Consider, however, the good that this essay will do if both of your teacher recommendations are from math teachers who are able to tell the same story. You will seem one dimensional which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. The “well rounded student” is a funny term of art that means little when it comes to selecting a class. That said, if your whole application is about math and yet your math grades aren’t spectacular, your math scores on the SAT I and II aren’t top notch, your proverbial eggs will all be in one basket and that basket isn’t going to be particularly appealing to a selective college. Further, if there’s anything else you’d want the admissions office to know, it’s your job to tell that story.

Yes, this is an extreme example but it easily translates into more common situations. Take it down a few notches and it applies to many applicants.

I was recently working with a high school student who was thinking about writing her essay about the role she plays among her group of friends – in short, she’s the studious one resisting pressure to skip class and receiving ridicule for getting good grades. This, I told her, would be a compelling essay if done well and could communicate important information. But it could just as easily (and perhaps more effectively) be communicated by a teacher, thus freeing her up to tell another story. And, after brainstorming and talking with her, she had a far more interesting story to tell – one that would never come out elsewhere in the application.

Your essay(s) will fit into a larger set of materials that is your application. Most often, students think of the essay in isolation. They try to think of some exceptional, life changing, triumph over setback/evil, disease fighting, world saving experience that they have had in their lives. These students often freeze in the peril of the idealized, perfect essay. Instead, consider what you want the admissions officers to know about you. What will be said by your teachers? What will likely be said by your guidance counselor? What will your activities say about you? Your grades? Your scores? Once you have a sense of what picture of you is being presented by all of these outside references and records, what’s left unsaid? What frame has been drawn and how do you want to fill it in?

The filling is your essay. The rest of the application can not possibly tell all that there is to tell about you. The common application can not possibly capture the essence of who you are and why you should be admitted (unless they’ve changed it dramatically since last year).  Use the essay to present the side of you that no one else can fully capture. The essay, arguably, is the one place where you can set yourself apart. It won’t completely make or break your final decision but it, like all the other pieces, will steer it.

By the time you’re working on your application, most of the work has been done. You’ve got three years of grades. You’ve taken the SAT or ACT. Your teachers are on their way towards writing their recommendations. You have an opportunity in the essay to really speak, find your voice and use it. That voice is your primary opportunity to, at this late stage of high school, show these colleges why you should be admitted. You must believe it. You must express it. And at the end of the day, you will know you’re ready to submit your application when you are pleased with your essay and know that you are the one and only person who could have said what you said, how you said it. Then relax, assured that you have presented exactly who you are.

Not all students have the option of participating in school sponsored extracurricular activities. Similarly, not all students attend schools that have extracurricular activities. So, for those students who find themselves feeling like they don’t fit the traditional model as laid out in the common application, fear not, you’re not alone and you’re not going to be penalized or disadvantaged so long as you communicate to the admissions officer how exactly you do spend your time outside of school.

Family responsibilities often require that some students go straight home after school to care for younger siblings or elderly relatives. For these students, working on the yearbook, playing football, participating in clubs is a luxury – and one they don’t have. Other students may have to, or choose to, work outside of school rather than join social organizations. However that time outside of school is spent, it must be explained in the application.

If the extracurricular box on the application does not fit you exactly, make it. The common application doesn’t promise to ask all the right questions, so it is your responsibility to still give all the right answers. Family responsibilities, church involvement, part time work – all of these are respected uses of time and valued in the admissions process, but the admissions officer will only know it if you tell him or her. Whatever written information you put in your application will be read and considered. Make sure it gives the full picture of who you are – no matter how far you think it differs from the rest of the applicant pool. Often being different is better.