What with one thing and another…

…somehow it got to be November, and I’m just posting my first blog entry of this admissions cycle.  Yikes.

On the bright side, one of the projects that had me otherwise occupied this fall has come to fruition.  I am pleased to announce that my e-book, “College Application Essays Without the Crazy” is now available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, and other e-book retailers.

“College Application Essays Without the Crazy” helps students cut to the chase and focus on exactly what they need to know in order to write a terrific college application essay.  It is one in a planned series of books — the centerpiece of the series, “College Admissions Without the Crazy,” will be available in print and electronically in the spring of 2015.



It seems we’ve stood and talked like this, before…

One of the interesting and frustrating things about working in college admissions is the way the cycle repeats each year. The broad outlines remain the same (a new group of students enters the process, searches for, applies to, hears from and decides which colleges to attend) but the particulars vary with regard to a range of factors specific to each college, or each high school class. I’ve written about the “Groundhog Day” aspects of the admissions process before, (see post from September 21, 2012) but at that time, I wasn’t thinking about media coverage of the admissions cycle, and how it repeats, as well.

Two articles about college admissions that appeared this spring in the New York Times had me thinking “déjà vu all over again,” as the authors discussed issues that were apparently new to them – but are old hat (ancient hat, really) to anyone who has worked in college admissions for more than a few years.

The first article, by David Leonhardt, focused on the shocking revelations (!!OMG!!) that many colleges are actively recruiting international students, and that “top colleges are admitting fewer American students than they did a generation ago. Colleges have globalized over that time, deliberately increasing the share of their student bodies that come from overseas and leaving fewer slots for applicants from the United States.”

I am sure I was not alone in receiving a flurry of phone calls from parents of rising seniors after that article appeared. Any article talking about the hyper-competitive nature of the admissions process at selective colleges always gets a lot of play ( I note that this one had almost 500 comments from NYT readers) and ramps up the admissions anxiety quotient.

In all fairness, Leonhardt’s article has more to it than the insight that the competition to get into college is quite stiff – he’s a thoughtful writer, and his points about the benefits of diversity are all good. However, those comments come later in the article, and I worry that many readers didn’t and won’t get past the early message that yes, it really IS harder – much harder! – to get into a selective college these days.

In the second article, Frank Bruni, who seems to have adopted college admissions as a topic of special interest, focused on the shocking revelation (!!OMG again!!) that some students choose inappropriate and/or overly revealing topics for their application essays.

Pondering the reasons why students might submit essays that offer TMI, Bruni notes that the application “essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet…” and he regrets that many students feel they have to go to great lengths to get the attention of admissions officers.

Fair points, but not unique to the current admissions scene.

I started out in the admissions field in the early 1980’s, and I can recall many essays over the years about topics that were inappropriate at best, and just plain disgusting, at worst.  I won’t elaborate, but trust me – my years of reading applications have left me with plenty of examples of essays that did not advance the author’s candidacy, to put it mildly.

To Bruni’s point about students doing “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out” in an applicant pool, I have come to think that the standardized format of the online college application also pushes students toward riskier essay topics. If you can’t make your application stand out by writing your essay in crayon, for example, I suppose it makes sense (kind of!) to try to grab a reader’s attention with your topic.

I was never a fan of “stunt applications,” in which students submitted stuff ranging from balloons to baked goods to hand-tied fishing flies, among other things, to try to appeal to admissions officers.   However, I have to admit, I do remember with a smile a few essays that were “creatively” formatted, back in the days when paper applications were the norm.   I received one essay that was written backwards – but the author (thoughtfully) enclosed a mirror, so that I didn’t have to run and find one before reading it.  I also remember one essay that was written on paper cut into the shape of a foot. (To further illustrate the point that a journey of a hundred miles begins with a single step, of course!)

I don’t bemoan the demise of paper applications – there were a zillion problems connected with processing and reading those, too! – but we said goodbye to a particular and quirky dimension of the application process when things moved online.

But I digress!

My point is that whether we like it or not, in the admissions world, everything old is new each year. It will remain so as subsequent generations of journalists (or content-providers, if we want to be all-inclusive) encounter admissions topics for the first time. While the best of these journalists do acknowledge that the current admissions “frenzy” isn’t sane or healthy, their articles unfortunately add to the frenzy they try to explain.

And therein lies the rub.  Alas.

But…right now, it’s summer! Time to relax and recoup strength for the next admissions cycle.

And for me, time to finish work on two book projects. I will have a short e-book about writing college application essays out this fall, as well as a longer book for students and parents looking for a saner and less stressful way to approach the college search and application process. Please stay tuned to this site for further details! (Regular posts will resume in the fall.)

Meantime, thanks for reading this cycle’s posts at admissions cafe. I appreciate your email, comments, and recommendations.

Have a great summer!


Sunrise June




On reading application essays

One way or another, this time of year always finds me reading application essays. For the first part of my career, I read finished essays submitted with student applications, but over the last dozen years or so, I’ve read essays as works in progress, as students prepare them for submission. No matter which side of the desk I’ve been on, I have enjoyed reading essays – it’s always interesting to see what is on students’ minds, and to see how they interpret and respond to the prompts they are given. The quality of the writing varies, of course. Many application essays fall in the broad middle section of a normal distribution. They are just fine – the essays are sincere and serviceable responses to the given prompt.

The essays at either tail of the distribution are more interesting, though – for good or for ill. The few outstanding essays that come along are a pleasant surprise. I have saved some of these original and beautifully crafted gems over the years, and I sometimes wonder what has become of their authors.

The essays at the “uh-oh” tail of the distribution are a challenge to read and understand. These essays have no discernible relationship to a prompt, they lack cohesion, and at worst can seem like written equivalents of a Jackson Pollock painting. “Word salad,” a colleague of mine once called these essays. Thankfully, these are few and far between.

When disaster strikes, though, I wish I could throw the hapless writer a copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

I am a huge fan of “The Elements of Style,” which Strunk wrote in the early part of the twentieth century, for use in classes he taught at Cornell. E.B. White was one of Strunk’s students, and in the 1950’s, White revised and adapted the book. It has been reissued many times since then. (The 2005 edition, with illustrations by Maira Kalman, is especially wonderful. A photo of page 104 from the 2005 edition is below.)

Kalman illustration, "An Approach to Style," point six


I particularly commend two of Strunk’s “Elementary Principles of Composition” to student writers wondering how they can improve their essays.

Rule 14: Use the active voice
Rule 17: Omit needless words

Re: Rule 14 — The passive voice: why it is objected to by me.
* It’s tiring to read.
* It dulls the connection between writer and subject, and makes the essay less vivid.

Re: Rule 17 —  Why, as in the common parlance, “less is more,” and why it often, though perhaps not always, but more than sometimes, makes sense to deploy the tactic of lexical brevity when one is writing, even though one may not be remotely close to exhausting the word limit provided to one by the directions contained in the applications of the colleges to which one is applying, or exhausted one’s personal tolerance for comma usage.

Strunk makes a stronger and more objective case for adopting these principles, however, and though I humbly offer my own perspective, I encourage those unfamiliar with it to read “The Elements of Style.” White’s preface and introductory essay for the book are worth a look, even if you find it hard to imagine that reading about “the principal requirements of plain English style” could be interesting, let alone fun.

What I love most about “The Elements of Style” is the way it fervently encourages its audience toward the production of clear and precise prose. This is a very worthy goal, and one close to Strunk’s heart. White explained it thus in his introduction: “Will [Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least to throw a rope.”   (2005 edition, p. xvi and xvii)

Amen to that!

As “fast away the old year passes,” I offer best wishes to readers and writers, and in the spirit of the season I say,

May your days be merry and bright; may all essayists refer to Strunk and White.   

The Tyranny of Passion

We’re in the midst of this year’s college admissions cycle and students are busily working on their application essays. Often what trips them up is the instruction from college admissions officers to use the essays to “tell us what you’re passionate about.” As an admissions dean, I delivered this instruction, too – and at that time in my career, before I had experience on the college counseling side of the admissions desk, I had no idea about the pressure this remark could create for students.

My perspective on the dictum “tell us what you’re passionate about” has changed after a dozen years in the trenches with earnest high schoolers laboring industriously to find and define their passions – and with the more utilitarian among them trying to identify passions that they think will appeal to college admissions officers. I now think this dictum creates a “tyranny of passion” which has a significant impact on high school students’ lives.

To understand why this request to “tell us what you’re passionate about” is difficult for teenagers, it’s important to distinguish between liking something and being passionate about something. Likes and dislikes can be casual and fleeting; you might like Brussels sprouts one month but prefer Swiss chard the next – no big deal. But saying you’re passionate about something implies a degree of certainty, commitment, and permanence that is difficult for teenagers to attain. Labeling something as a passion implies that you are mated to it for life – those individuals who are serial monogamists with their passions (or, God help them, actual pluralists) don’t inspire as much positive regard as those who plight their eternal troth to one single passion. Think about those people you know who absolutely LOVELOVELOVE something today, but when you ask about that same something a few weeks later, they’ve completely forgotten it and now LOVELOVELOVE something else. When one passion is continually replaced with another, we begin to think “hyperbole” and doubt the depth and strength of each and any attachment designated as passionate.

The ability to define a passion also requires enough life experience to have developed a basis of comparison. It’s life experience and accrued perspective that enable one make distinctions: to say, for example, that you like soccer but are passionate about cycling. Most teenagers aren’t at a life stage where the instruction to “tell us about your passion” can yield a definitive response. (OK, exceptions can be found – there are genuine prodigies out there who have a singular talent and powerful focus in a particular area, but these students are few and far between.) And since so many students perceive the task of the college application as providing a definitive representation of who you are and where you’re going, they feel caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s fair to say that many teenagers feel the application, and the instruction to “tell us about your passion,” requires of them a level of experience and accomplishment they haven’t lived long enough to attain.

The prevailing idea that one can find one’s passion while still in high school indicates a shift in the cultural zeitgeist. Students applying to college now are expected to be “complete” in ways that they weren’t in earlier years. The narrowing of the time span allotted to being a “work in progress” has shortened, and by the time a student applies to college, s/he is expected to have found a passion, to have defined oneself, and to have racked up a worthy roster of achievements. It seems that the intellectual exploration and personal development previously regarded as central features of the college years are now expected to be finished by the time a student begins the senior year in high school.

Slowly but surely, the time our culture allots to the varied and not-always-goal-oriented pursuits of childhood has been compressed – and we have increasing evidence that compressing or forgoing these pursuits in the teen years has a negative impact on students. The film “Race to Nowhere” and the work of writers like Paul Tough, Madeleine Levine and Alexandra Robbins illustrate this. They have called attention to the ways in which our culture’s current model of success and achievement for teenagers, (an important marker of which is admission to a “good” college) can place overwhelming pressure on students who, in pursuit of that success, burn themselves out while trying to become perfect college applicants.

Is it possible that this focus on success and achievement in high school has contributed to a shift in the traditional developmental timetable of adolescence? I think it is likely that the strain of increased expectations placed on high school students contributes to the phenomenon of “delayed adulthood” discussed in articles by writers like Robin Marantz Henig and Derek Thompson. We seem to be in an interesting “push-me-pull-you” situation: on the one hand, the (real or perceived) demands of the college admission process push students quickly toward adulthood while in high school. On the other hand, we find many 20-something college graduates who then seem to regress, and who delay the traditional milestones of independence and self-definition. It seems plausible that the premature demand for maturity in high school students creates a developmental backlash that manifests as a lag in the progress toward adulthood, popularly known as the “quarter-life crisis.” If so, then the “tyranny of passion” has an unanticipated impact beyond the time frame of the college application process.


Just (can’t) do it: thoughts on completing the college application

As the 2012-2013 college admissions cycle rolls on and as application deadlines draw ever nearer, I’ve been thinking a lot about “DRB,” which is my shorthand for “deadline-related behavior.” It will come as no surprise to anyone that the most common DRB is procrastination. This DRB provokes a lot of stress between high school seniors and their parents, and between students and their college counselors.

Over the years I’ve employed a variety of strategies to help student procrastinators finish their applications and hit “submit” before the deadlines fall. I have a new perspective on procrastination, though, as a result of reading John Perry‘s book “The Art of Procrastination.” Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford and host of the radio program “Philosophy Talk,” has written a book that is humorous and full of insight. I find particularly useful a distinction he draws between two types of procrastination.

The first type is “structured procrastination.” In Perry’s words: “All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things…The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, however, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.” (p. 2-3)

A second type of procrastination can look very much like “structured procrastination,” but it springs from a different source. Perry urges readers not to confuse structured procrastination with procrastination intended to prove to someone that he or she does not control you. (p. 76) Anyone with teenagers in his or her life will be familiar with this type of procrastination, I’m sure. I have labeled this second type “stubborn procrastination.”

If you work with students who have trouble completing their applications, or are the parents of such students and you are wondering how to help them, a bit of triage is in order. Is your student a structured, or stubborn, procrastinator? Once you know which camp they’re in, you can work with them more effectively.

Perry’s book offers a number of tips to help structured procrastinators accomplish their goals, and these translate easily into the realm of college applications. In fact, many college counselors will be familiar with these strategies. Perry notes that structured procrastinators respond well to having the overall task broken down into smaller pieces, and I can certainly vouch for the fact that it helps students to think of the application as a series of distinct and manageable bits, rather than as one overwhelming project. Completing the name, address, and family information section is pretty easy for most students, as is the senior year course selection. As these sections are completed, they can be checked off the list, and this helps build momentum for the more time-consuming sections – the activity roster, essays, and supplements – which in turn can be broken down into their own distinct, smaller tasks.

Perry also advocates the strategic organization of one’s to-do list. At the top, he says, “motivating you to do seemingly less important things will be something that seems of paramount importance but, really, for one reason or another, isn’t that crucial after all.” (p.19) He refers to this as “constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself.” (p.7) Whatever you want to call it, this, too, can be helpful for students who hit roadblocks on the way to completing applications. If there are a few undesirable but important-seeming tasks at the top of the list (cleaning one’s room? bathing the dog? taking a younger sibling to a party at Chuck E. Cheese?) the prospect of completing an application will seem much less onerous (or possibly even desirable) in comparison.

Another of Perry’s tips for the structured procrastinator is to “collaborate with the enemy,” that is, partner up with someone who isn’t a procrastinator, and who can keep you motivated. I know students who have done this successfully when working on classroom assignments, but it’s a more risky strategy when it comes to college applications. The competitive aspects inherent in the admissions process can flare up and negatively color this kind of working partnership, especially if the students have decided to apply to any of the same colleges. This strategy should be used sparingly and with caution when it comes to college applications.

The group I call stubborn procrastinators are challenging for their college counselors – and for their parents! Not to be too psycho-analytical about things, but for these students, procrastination is the visible manifestation of an underlying conflict. Refusing to work on the application is a stand-in for refusing to comply with the (accurately or inaccurately) perceived wishes of someone or something.

Over the years, I have seen many students who refuse to work on their applications just to thwart the wishes of their parents. This often happens when a student and his or her parents disagree about which colleges s/he should apply to. (When parents respond by tightening the screws and prohibiting the student from participating in other activities until the applications are finished, things spiral into disaster pretty quickly.) Other students resist working on their applications because they want to make a stand against “the system,” or because they are afraid they won’t have outcomes as good as those of siblings or friends. I’ve also seen students refuse to work on applications because they don’t feel ready or don’t want to go to college, and they can’t find any other way to get off the conveyor belt that is carrying them in a direction they feel is wrong.

There are, alas, no quick tips for helping the stubborn procrastinator. It takes time, skill, and patience to discover the source of the stubborn procrastinator’s behavior. In these situations, a college counselor often feels more like a family therapist than an educational advisor. And in some cases, meeting with a family therapist is a good step for students and parents who are truly at loggerheads.

(That’s clearly a topic for another post!)

In the meantime, with deadlines looming, I heartily recommend John Perry’s book for its entertaining and informative approach to a topic with which many of us are very familiar.

** Note to college counselors and admissions officers who find it difficult to settle in for a bout of recommendation writing or application reading on the weekends – Perry’s book provides an excellent and educational break from these activities. Call it “professional development.”

Oh, the App, it is a-changin’

(with apologies to Bob Dylan.)

In a post to “The Choice” blog on October 10, Hannah Steinhardt of the New York Times reported on one of the announced changes to the Common Application for 2013 – specifically, that the essay prompts will be revised and the “topic of your choice” prompt will appear no more. The post generated a number of comments, mostly from people who were dismayed to see that prompt vanish.

I had the opposite response. I think the prompts are in need of revision, and I’ll be happy to see “topic of your choice” take a hike.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think that students find the more focused prompts easier to respond to – structure helps. Furthermore, in my experience as a reader of many, many application essays, the “topic of your choice” prompt doesn’t add much of value to the roster of questions available to students using the Common Application. The essays that students write on a “topic of their choice” often focus on a significant event in their lives — an option already offered by the first prompt in the Common App set of questions.  It also seems to me that the “topic of your choice” prompt yields the least interesting responses. In my previous post, I pointed out that students tend to focus on the task (writing an essay) rather than the goal (writing an essay that introduces you effectively and engagingly to an admissions committee).  In the absence of a specific question to serve as a focus for their essays, many students recycle something written for another purpose – a class assignment, for example. Those essays, even when well written, often don’t provide the type of personal insight useful to admissions officers.

So I say onward and upward, Common Application! Revise away!

For those who feel that the new essay prompts show that “the line it is drawn, the curse it is cast,” one can but hope they’ll get over it, because, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’…for the times they are a-changin’.”

Application essays: the voyage begins

Now that October has arrived, Early Action and Early Decision application deadlines are creeping into view and students are focusing their attention on application essays and supplements.

Over almost thirty years in admissions and college counseling, I estimate that I have read upward of 80,000 individual application essays. As an admissions dean, I worked closely with my staffs at different colleges to create essay prompts that would be interesting to students and useful to us in the evaluation process, and then eagerly awaited the responses. As a college counselor, I helped students decipher those “interesting” prompts, saw them wrestle with ideas for their essays, and encouraged them as they worked through various drafts.

My experience on both sides of the admissions desk confirmed my long-held belief that high school students and college admissions personnel exist in parallel universes.

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day

Though everyone works on the same process with the same application materials, the perspective of each world is, to some extent, self-limiting. This creates a significant communications gap between the two universes. The “what was asked or said” vs. “what was heard” discrepancy between “Admissions Officer World” and “High School Student World” can be seen pretty clearly through the lens of the application essay.

Broadly speaking, I’ve observed that:

In “Admissions Officer World,” the application is seen as a uniform structure or framework that prompts students to represent themselves clearly, authentically, and in some detail…while in “High School Student World,” students tend to view the application as a constraint, into which truncated information about their lives must be squashed.

Inhabitants of “AO World” think of the application essay as a vehicle for self-introduction (“tell us about yourself”)…while inhabitants of “HSS World” often look at the essays and ask “what do the colleges want to hear?”

Admissions personnel hope the essay will elicit self-reflection on the applicant’s part…while students often see the essay as a means of reporting or describing events, and worry that discussing the personal significance of those events will seem trite, formulaic, or, worst of all, uninteresting.

Admissions personnel at colleges that use institution-specific applications or that request supplements to the Common Application work hard to create interesting essay prompts…which are often viewed by students as contrived (at best) or downright baffling (at worst).

So essay questions are frequently as open-ended questions as possible…which can be frustrating for students who tend to wish for more direction and specificity.

Overall, I think much of the confusion about application essays stems from the fact that students tend to focus on the task itself (“I just need to write the essay”) while college admissions personnel tend to focus on the goal (how does the essay enhance the picture of yourself that is created through the application.) The gulf between what college admissions officers say about application essays and what students hear is widened and muddied by the amount and variety of (frequently contradictory) information available to students from multiple sources, not all of which are reliable. We may not be able to do much to turn down that noise in the system, but those on both sides of the admissions desk can help students as they craft their essays.

In an effort to avoid a further “War of the Worlds,” I offer these suggestions to facilitate reconciliation of the parallel universes:

For college admissions officers:

Offer more information about the context and purpose of the application essays, to let students know how the essays fit into the application as a whole. Over the last decade or so, I’ve listened to a number of admissions reps describe the application process to prospective students, and very few offer “big picture” information to their audiences. It’s obvious to admissions officers that the essay supplements and enhances the information about the applicant that is elsewhere in the application, but students aren’t always able to think about the essays in that broader context. It’s task vs. goal orientation again, and admissions officers could provide more information about the overall goal of the application. I know that not every college or high school can offer “case study” sessions, in which students have the opportunity to review complete sample applications, but these are so useful. Seeing a whole application that is not your own helps one understand how the individual pieces work together.

If you want essays that are less narrative and more reflective, rephrase the prompts. As written, most essay prompts lead with the invitation for students to describe an event, a person, or an issue – and then conclude with a short phrase asking for some reflection. As a result, students often feel they should focus their essays on the event, person, or issue, and include just a sentence or two about what the event means to them. If you’d rather learn more about how the student processes his or her experience rather than how he or she reports it, use the question to direct the response. Flip the standard phrasing and try something like: Please reflect on an event or person important in your life. We don’t need to know a lot about the event or the person you choose – but we’d like to know why either was significant for you, and/or how you have changed as a result of that experience or from knowing that person.

For students:

Before you begin the application, think about the personal qualities you want to present to the admissions officers who will read your application. Take a step back and think carefully about the information each piece of the application will provide about you: the transcript and test scores say something, teacher and counselor recommendations say something – what do you want admissions officers to know that won’t be covered elsewhere? Once you’ve decided what you want to present, then look at the essay prompts and see which one gives you the best opportunity to illustrate the points you want to make about yourself.  When you are submitting multiple essays or supplements with an application, make sure each response complements the others, and adds new information about you to the application.

Detail will win the day. Many essays fall flat because the writers don’t offer sufficient examples to illustrate the points they want to make. Details make individual essays vivid and are unique to each writer. So don’t just say that you learned a lot from working for the Parks Department last summer – let the reader know, specifically, what you learned or how the experience changed you. Don’t leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions – if you don’t illustrate your points, the conclusions drawn by readers may not be the ones you intend.

Quality of output is proportionate to quality of input. I know that some students feel they do their best work under pressure, with a deadline only hours away. I also know that the best essays I’ve read are NOT first drafts. Trust me on this. Your essays will improve if you allow yourself the time to brainstorm, try out a few different ideas, and revise. And revise again. An ancillary bonus to getting an early start on your essays is that it will make your parents happy, and let them know they don’t have to hound you about deadlines.

Good luck to all as we boldly go into this next phase of the admissions cycle!

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day