On word limits

December 13, 2006

Should you adhere to the specified word limits for personal statements?


Will admissions officers be counting those words? It’s unlikely, but you can bet that after reading hundreds upon hundreds of essays, admissions officers have a pretty good idea how long a 500 word essay is. If you go over a little bit, don’t worry, but be mindful that for as much as you may exceed the limit you need to have a good justification for doing so. If an essay can be editing down, it should be.


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.

By now, you surely know that having leadership positions is advantageous in the college admissions process. That said, self created, senior year, uh-oh better get something to put in the “positions held, honors won or letters earned” column, short lived leadership positions are not always helpful.

If your school lacked a yearbook and you managed to secure funding, select faculty guidance and recruit staff in order to create one, that’s big. If your school is a new charter school and you were the first student government president, that can be big too. If, on the other hand, you created a card playing club because you felt your school lacked the necessary social outlets that card lovers needed, and by doing so, you have weekly meetings where you play card games and discuss your enjoyment of different games, this, as an example of leadership, is not necessarily going to help you get into college.

I do not mean to discourage you from starting card playing clubs, knitting clubs, movie clubs etc, but do so because you think it’d be fun. Start organizations that harness your passions and allow you to meet new people, teach others, and above all else relax (a word probably not often uttered during senior year). If you do so, call these efforts what they are. It will be much more believable if you start a social club and celebrate it as a social club, rather than try to spin it into an experience in leadership, governance, and management.

Possible major/career plans

October 26, 2006

If you are unsure about your intended major or possible career plans, rest assured, you’re not alone and college admissions officers do not expect you to have this figured out (nor will they hold you to it… these answers are not binding).

The Common Application asks two questions right away. One is about your possible area of academic concentration/major. The other is about your possible career or professional plans. Here are some thoughts on why these questions are in the Common App and what different colleges/admissions officers do with the information.

First, not all schools are liberal arts colleges and do not offer all academic subject areas. Consider the Fashion Institute of Technology (and I don’t even know if they accept the Common App… just work with me). If you send an application to FIT and say you want to major in biomedical engineering with a career in pharmaceutical research, that may factor into their decision of whether to accept you. Likewise, if you tell the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that your intended academic concentration/major is fashion design and marketing, they may use this in making their decision. (This is, of course, a different sort of question than the career/profession question.  Feel free to list any possible career, but if you want to major in an area far from their offerings, know that you’re taking a risk).

Second, some schools may use this information loosely. If I were reading an application and the student said she’s interested in majoring in comparative literature and with a career as a book editor, I’d keep this in the back of my mind while reading the application. If she had spent a summer taking writing classes and wrote an essay about her favorite book, the possible academic concentration and career questions will fit nicely together with her past experience. This does NOT mean that it has to be symmetric. If it is, it is, and it will be noted because it helps create a fuller picture of her.

Third, it may be completely ignored. The Common Application is designed to ask questions that some/many/any schools may want to know. For some schools, they would not necessarily include such questions on their applications but in using the Common App, they accept the fact that there will be irrelevant questions asked.

I would venture to guess that about half the applications I’ve read had “undecided” listed as answers for both questions.  This is fine. You’re 17 years old. It’s enough that you’ve figured out which colleges to apply to much less to map out the rest of your academic and professional lives.

What admissions officers will not be doing with the information is tallying it up to determine how many possible English majors versus Biology majors to admit. This would be an impossible task because they do not know the yeild of the class they admit. Furthermore, it would be way too much information to try to track.

So, if you have answers to those questions that you think will be informative for the admissions officer, go ahead and share. If you think your answers are either uncertain or you just don’t have one don’t worry. Admissions officers, especially at liberal arts schools, respect the inquisitive mind that wishes to explore new subject areas in college. Be confident if that describes you.

Your NYU application is sitting on your desktop almost finished.  Just a few final touches and you’ll be able to send it off.

Dad comes home and mentions that he was talking with so-and-so at work and realized that so-and-so went to NYU as an undergrad. This seems exciting and may hold great potential, you both think. Dad sets up a meeting for you to have lunch with so-and-so in hopes that this encounter will increase your chances for getting in to NYU because, surely if so-and-so likes you, he could write a letter for you. And everyone knows how helpful alums can be in the ever competitive admissions process. Come to think of it, Dad’s partner attended Bates which is on your list, so might as well get on that one too. Things are looking up.

Quite to the contrary, these sorts of letters do absolutely no good.

First, they sound generically insincere. Without a history of a relationship, such a letter will communicate exactly what it is: a thinly veiled attempt to win favor through an outdated means of preferential treatment. Gone are the days, if they ever were with us, when alumni ruled the admissions world and weilded some form of power.

Second, by sounding insincere, they rub the admissions officer the wrong way. Thus, these letters can have a net negative effect and you’d probably be better off without them.

Third, they are a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a waste of the alum’s time to write it and it’s a waste of the admissions officer’s time to have to read an additional letter. If the alum wants to advocate on your behalf it should be because that alum already knows you and has positive, unique things to say.

New relationships forged during the fall of your senior year are a bit too convenient.  Get lunch, use that alum as a sounding board and a resource for your questions.  Allow excitement to build through that alum. Just don’t expect advocacy as a result. The application process is already designed to enable students to advocate on their own behalf and to allow select teachers to do the same. There’s value in respecting this design.

Think about it from the admissions side: colleges and universities have tens upon hundreds of thousands of alums. Each of those alums has some connection be to someone who is of high school age. And trust me, 99.9% of these alums are not prioritized nor do the admissions officers know them. The fact that so-and-so alum graduated cum laude or was football captain in 1980 doesn’t mean much when it comes down to it.

So, spare your neighbor, your father or mother’s coworker, the guy whose lawn you mow, your tuba instructor from 3rd grade and generally anyone else you just thought of because he or she attended one of the colleges you’re applying to.  If someone says he or she wants to write for you, fine. Just don’t go soliciting recommendations from any ol’ person who has a certain school on his or her resume.


How important is it to waive your right to view your teacher recommendations?

To me, when I worked in admissions? Not at all.

To others? It’s tough to say.

For those of you unsure of what I mean, on the teacher recommendation forms you are asked whether you wish to waive your right to read the recommendation the teacher will write. If you waive the right, you are not entitled to see the recommendation. If you do not waive the right, you are entitled to see the recommendation that the teacher writes.

Some teachers are more comfortable if the student waives the right to read it. Don’t worry, this is not because they plan to write bad stuff. Sometimes it’s an issue of privacy. Other times teachers do not want to reveal preferences especially if that student is still in the class. Often they don’t have the time to show you a draft before sending it off. As a general rule, waiving the right is best.

I’ve heard it said (mostly from nervous applicants and parents) that admissions officers look down upon recommendations where the right was not waived. I’m not sure I understand exactly why, nor do I believe this to be the case, but in my experience 99% of students waived their right to read the recommendations. That is the norm. Chances are, most admissions officers will not weight your decision to waive or not. They don’t care. But in the interest of minimizing the little details that an admissions officer ponders, might as well waive it.

Being damned by faint praise truly is a curse in the admissions process. The best way to avoid this is to meet with your recommendation writers, assert some points you wish them to make and trust that they will take it from there. It will not necessarily help you to proofread that recommendation and attempt to engage in a give and take with your teacher.