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 “tethered child” applies to college

It’s not new to wonder and worry about the impact that parents have on a child’s college application process. (A whole blog in itself could be devoted to the topic of parental infringement in this area.) But after reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I reconsidered the various tasks (literal and developmental, if you will) involved with the college process and the ways in which they are influenced by the technological “tethering” between children and parents, to use Dr. Turkle’s phrase.

Dr. Turkle, a professor at MIT, has spent the last several decades studying people’s relationships with technology. In Alone Together, the third book in her series, she looks at the way our use of computers, mobile devices and social networking influences our notions of self, privacy, and community. Turkle’s observations, though not focused on the ways in which use of technology influences teenagers working through the college admissions process, are highly relevant.

Turkle believes that our “networked” culture has incurred a shift in our ideas about psychological autonomy. Commenting on behaviors she sees in her students – such as texting parents multiple times each day for input and advice about even the smallest of issues – she notes that this lack of separation from the parents would have appeared as a pathology twenty years ago, but now isn’t perceived as at all unusual. (p. 178-79)

Dr. Turkle cites many examples of the ways in which technology has transformed the process through which children separate from their parents and develop a sense of independence. In a chapter called “Growing up Tethered,” Turkle offers this illustration of the way in which possession of a cell phone alters that process: “there used to be a point for an urban child, an important moment, when there was a first time to navigate the city alone. It was a rite of passage that communicated to children that they were on their own and responsible. If they were frightened, they had to experience those feelings. The cell phone buffers this moment.” (p. 173)

She continues: “In the traditional variant, the child internalizes the adults in his or her world before crossing the threshold of independence. In the modern, technologically tethered variant, parents can be brought along in an intermediate space, such as that created by the cell phone, where everyone important is on speed dial…adolescents don’t face the same pressure to develop the independence we have associated with moving forward into young adulthood.” (p. 173)

It’s often very easy to see “tethering” in practice as a student searches for and applies to colleges, and to see how it reduces a child’s independence. I bet many college counselors have had experiences similar to this: You have a face-to-face meeting with a student to go over some aspect of the college process and answer a question. Within three minutes after the student leaves your office, your phone rings, or a new email arrives. It’s one of the student’s parents, checking in to confirm, ask for clarification, or to refute what you just told the student. In an instant, the parent materialized from the “intermediate space created by the cell phone,” and now you’re dealing with a “we” applying to college, instead of an “I.”

Similarly, filling out and submitting college applications used to be an exercise in the development of independence and self-agency for students. Now, however, the tethered child experiences it as a joint activity, and finds that (though often with the best intentions) parents and others have intervened in ways that undermine his or her ownership of the process. As Turkle observed in other areas of life, technology has abetted this change as well, and has helped to shift the completion and submission of college applications from a solo to a collaborative effort.

Parental over-involvement in the college process predates the technology that enables parents and their children to be in constant contact, but I think our “networked culture” is making this joint participation in the college process a “new normal.” And, as with many technological transformations, it’s a “normal” that we adopted without much consideration of the pros and cons. (Much in the way I upgraded the operating system on my computer before I realized that there were elements of the presentation and functionality of the old system that I strongly preferred!)

By increments, and aided by technology in ways we didn’t necessarily anticipate, I think we’re losing the developmental opportunities that the admissions process presents for students. I view the admissions process as a rite of passage – one that offers lessons in independence, self-confidence, resilience and time management, among other things. Does the technologically “tethered child” still have the opportunity to experience and learn from it in the way previous generations of teenagers did? What is lost when students are increasingly “buffered” from that experience? And what, if anything, can or should we as college admissions professionals do to promote discussion of and reflection on these changes?

Confronting uncertainty

“The line that separates my mind from the Internet is getting blurry,” wrote psychologist Daniel Wegner in an article for the New York Times.  “This has been happening ever since I realized how often it feels as though I know something just because I can find it with Google.”

Indeed, with Google-enabled “knowing” and computer-enabled advances in “Big Data” collection and analysis, we now possess an unprecedented ability to access knowledge and to predict outcomes in many spheres.

And yet, as H.L. Mencken noted in Minority Report (1956): “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.”

One of the places in which the unknowable resolutely sits is the college admissions process. The whole process is rife with the unknowable, with uncertainty. Who will be admitted where? What’s the right college for me? How many students will choose to enroll in my institution’s incoming class? And this year’s big mystery: will the Common Application ever achieve full, error-free functionality?

Uncertainty is unsettling, to state the obvious.

Uncertainty is also the engine that drives much of the industry around college rankings, ratings and surveys of the undergraduate experience. The choice of a college (or to go to college at all) is significant, and laden with consequences both personal and financial. The quest for more information about colleges and about the admissions process (in general, and at specific schools) is at heart a quest for greater prediction and control of options and outcomes. Students (and their parents) want to make the right choices. When making an investment in a college education, they want some assurance about the return. As Jeffrey Selingo put it in his book College Unbound (2013):

 “Students need to know what they will get in terms of skills, knowledge, and employment prospects if they pick College A over College B.” (p. 141)

Unfortunately, all the information in the world won’t resolve the uncertainty involved when a student chooses College A over College B. No matter how much research you do beforehand, you won’t be able to predict, much less guarantee, the exact outcome.

I was reminded of this recently when talking to a parent with two children attending the same college. When Child #2 made the decision to enroll there, the family had as much information about the college as one could hope for – all the rankings, ratings, and surveys of undergraduate experience they had reviewed before Child #1 enrolled, (and updated during Child #2’s search) plus the insider’s view” of the academic and social life they garnered through the first child’s very positive experience. Child #2 had visited the campus many times, stayed overnight, and attended classes with Child #1. And yet, Child #2’s experience of the college has turned out to be nothing like Child #1’s. Child #2 is hoping to transfer.

Students and parents involved in the college admissions process today have access to more (and more complete) information about individual colleges than ever before. Numerous websites offer volumes of subjective information about student experiences at individual colleges. Toward the more objective end of the college information spectrum, there is no shortage of resources, either. Selingo’s book takes a balanced look at a variety of college assessment tools, from the US News rankings to the Collegiate Learning Assessment and National Survey of Student Engagement as well as recent studies of graduates’ earnings by college and by major. An article in the New York Times this summer also surveys online tools that have been created to help students “make informed decisions about whether it’s worth paying a premium for a certain college or degree.” And of course, the federal government’s “College Scorecard”  and the “College Navigator” website run by the National Center for Education Statistics provide a wealth of data, too. The determined student (or parent) can spend hours combing through this information in an attempt to discover “what they will get” if they pick a certain college.

I am not arguing against careful research and data collection as one explores colleges. And I don’t dispute that this information can assuage some of the uncertainty involved in the process of applying to and choosing a college to attend. But too many students focus on data collection at the expense of data contextualization. Collecting the data – assembling the picture of a college – is the easy part. Contextualizing that information – locating yourself within that picture – is the hard part.

Much of the discussion around the topic of assessing colleges and outcomes upon graduation tends to take the individual out of the picture. In some accounts, it seems that the key to success lies simply in gaining admission to a top-ranked college that posts top results on surveys of student learning. Once enrolled, you choose a major that posts the best starting salaries for graduates (or best lifetime return on investment, if you prefer) and you’re set for life. The path to success is already well-marked. All a student has to do is follow it.

It strikes me that attempts to predict the college experience and its outcomes through surveys, rankings, and ratings of colleges may undermine an individual student’s sense of responsibility and agency in the admissions process. Some students I’ve talked to seem to feel that decisions about which colleges are “best” have already been made, independent of their input, and that their task is simply to apply to the schools topping the various rankings and surveys. They feel as though their options are limited, and that choices contravening the status quo aren’t well received by parents and peers.

I also wonder if, by so actively trying to diminish uncertainty in the college admissions process, we are unintentionally encouraging students to “cease to believe in the unknowable,” and in its partners, chance and serendipity? That would be a great shame.

So many un-quantifiable and often serendipitous events influence a student’s experience on a campus: Do you get along with your roommate? Did you discover a topic or project that really fascinates you? Did a staff or faculty member become a mentor to you? Being open to the “known unknowns,” and being willing to take the “road less traveled” can make all the difference to a student while enrolled, and in the years after graduation.

I’m all for due diligence, and all in favor of using available data to guide the college selection process. It’s important, though to acknowledge the limits of the data one collects, to carve out space for oneself in the picture, and to allow for the “unknowable.” The college admissions process provides a unique opportunity to teach students how to use the information they collect, and to help them learn if, when, and how that data applies – or does not apply – to their specific situations. It offers a great opportunity to learn that data can mask the uncertainty inherent in this process, and that ultimately, (with apologies to Shakespeare) the outcome, dear Brutus, lies not in the data, but in ourselves.

Here we go again. . .

…launched once more into another school year and a new college admissions cycle.

For me, each new academic year and new college admissions cycle feels like being a solo contender at the top of a luge run.

Why the luge?

In this event, it’s you and your sled (on a luge, it’s you in the open: you don’t have even the minimal protection that a bobsled provides) hurtling down the track. Lots of twists and turns lie ahead, and no matter how many times you’ve been down the course before, each run brings a new set of variables and unpredictable circumstances that can change the outcome. The big question: when you reach the finish line, will you still be in one piece, and on top of the sled, or will the sled be on top of you?

In the months ahead, I plan to look at some of the variables and circumstances that will affect this year’s luge run. On the radar currently:

Money:   As I mentioned in my June 21 post, the cost of college now has more traction across a variety of media than it has in the past. In the past few weeks, I have followed several reports comparing salaries of college graduates – by major, and by institution. I will take a look at the ongoing discussion of “is college worth it?”

Metrics:   I spent some time this summer reading about measurement and statistics (really, it was more fun than it sounds), and I looked at a variety of college rankings, reviews, and ratings. I’m fascinated by the many ways in which we attempt to quantify and rank aspects of higher education, and by the ways in which we attempt to offer general and supposedly objective information about what is essentially an individual and subjective experience.

Technology:   Also on the reading list this summer was “Alone Together,” by Dr. Sherry Turkle. This is the third book in a research trilogy examining the ways in which technology influences our conceptions of self, community, and privacy. “Alone Together” provides lots of food for thought about the ways in which technology and our “networked” culture is changing the ways in which high school students approach the college admissions process.

Grades and Grit:   And other factors that may predict individual success…or not.

These are a few of the topics that I will write about during the 2013-2014 academic year. My plan is to offer one post per month, covering fewer topics this year, but in more depth. As always, your suggestions for other topics are appreciated and welcomed.

Onward to the luge run, and here’s hoping that we’re all still on top of our sleds when we cross the finish line in June, 2014.

Deconstructing “college”

As I have followed stories about higher education over the past few months, I have noticed that certain topics are gaining traction across a broad range of media outlets. These topics are: MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the impact they have on traditional models of college education; the escalation of college costs and correspondingly high levels of education-related debt incurred by students; whether the benefits of a college education justify the costs; advocacy for skipping college altogether.

These articles jogged my thinking about the ways in which our society regards a college education, and the literal and symbolic value college carries.

More recently, I picked up Madeline Levine’s 2012 book, “Teach Your Children Well.”

Teach Your Children Well

Her call to “embrace a healthier and radically different way of thinking about success” really resonated with me, and I’m very interested in the fact that Levine cites admission to a top-tier or prestigious college as one of the inadequate and misleading “metrics” our society uses to define success. She offers numerous and compelling examples of how this “metric” has been harmful and disruptive to the students and families she sees in her clinical practice – if anyone out there needs persuasive cautionary tales to relate to parents with whom you are working, this book offers plenty.

Here is an excerpt from the book that encapsulates the argument Levine pursues throughout the book:

“We need to harness our fears about our children’s futures and understand that the extraordinary focus on metrics that has come to define success today – high grades, trophies, and selective school acceptances from preschools to graduate schools – is a partial and frequently deceptive definition. At its best, it encourages academic success for a small group of students but gives short shrift to the known factors that are necessary for success later in life. It makes the false assumption that high academic success early in life is a harbinger of competence is many spheres, including interpersonal relations and sense of self. Sometimes this is the case; often it is not. Perhaps of even greater concern, because it involves far more kids, is the fact that our limited definition of success fails to acknowledge those students whose potential contributions are not easily measurable.” (page xv)

Maybe this is synchronicity in action, but not long after I began Levine’s book, the topic of the metrics we use to evaluate people came up again, in a different context. As part of a series of articles about leadership and management, the New York Times carried an interesting interview with Lazlo Bock, a human resources professional (specifically, a “senior vice president of people operations”) at Google. These comments especially caught my eye:

“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation…What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

As I pulled the strands together, these various readings made me wonder if we are on the verge of a tipping point when it comes to our thinking about college, what a college degree means, and the way prestige factors into the equation of college preference.

Up till now, it has seemed to me that prestige was a variable that outweighed most others when many students and parents assessed the literal and figurative costs and benefits of college choice. Over the years, I have worked with many parents who promised their children: “If you get into an Ivy League school, we’ll find a way to pay for it.” On the flip side, I’ve also worked with parents who told their children that they will only “shell out for a private college if you get into a school with a big name – otherwise, you can go to our state university.”

I consider myself lucky, however, that I never had a conversation like one Levine recounts in her book, in which a father, upon hearing his son mention Harvard as a school he might want to apply to, said: “Now there’s a school I would give my left testicle to get my son into.” (p.4)

Whether they state it that graphically or not, we know that many parents have heretofore been willing to sacrifice a great deal in order for their children to attend a prestigious, “top tier” college.

So I am really intrigued by the increasingly persistent call, from a variety of sources, for us to re-evaluate our definitions of success and to think again about the traditional model of a four-year college education, its costs, and the value added (if any) by attending a prestigious institution. As I play around with these ideas, it seems to me that the slow pace of economic recovery in the US, combined with the steady increase in college costs, is accelerating this re-evaluation process, and decreasing the importance of prestige as a factor in the college selection process, even for those who can afford the tuition without making significant financial sacrifices. I work with a small group of students, so I don’t have the data to support a generalization at this point. However, I would love to hear from colleagues in the college admissions world who are seeing a change in the role that prestige plays as students make final college choices. Please leave comments on the site, or email me at: admissionscafe@gmail.com

Other, and very significant, changes in the terrain of higher education are already upon us. The idea that a college degree is not a necessary component of success got a big boost from Peter Thiel’s fellowship program.  Started in 2010, the program offers successful applicants $100,000 apiece to skip college and pursue “their work, their research, and their self-education.”  Check out the “UnCollege” website  for another approach to skipping college and “hacking your education,” as founder Dale Stephens puts it. And to dip into the world of MOOC’s, have a look at the edX and Coursera  websites.

It’s hard to say what the world(s) of higher education will look like in the next five years or so, and I can only guess at how the nature and substance of college counseling will evolve as options for higher education multiply. It will be fascinating to see how institutions and individuals react to these changes.

Brave new world’s a-comin’, that’s for sure.

Previewing “CA4,” the new Common Application

Well, May just flashed by, and a number of projects and events took me away from blogging for several weeks. Apologies for the extended silence in AdmissionsCafe, and thank you for your patience!

Now that things have mostly quieted down for the class of 2013 and current seniors have made their college choices for fall, juniors (and their parents) are revving up for coming marathon of the 2013-2014 admissions cycle. With “CA4,” (the latest version of the Common Application) on the horizon, the months ahead are sure to be interesting.

Members of the Class of 2014 won’t have to worry about the changes in the Common App, of course – CA4 will simply be what they know as the Common App. College counselors and college admissions personnel who have been through earlier iterations of the Common App will be the ones making comparisons, and beginning sentences with phrases like: “well, last year it worked like this…” From what I’ve seen so far, (kudos, by the way, to the Common App board and to all those who worked on the many aspects of the new version!) CA4 looks like a very effective and user-friendly revision. I’m especially enthusiastic about the changes to the writing section, and am eager to see how students respond to the new essay prompts.  

When changes to the writing section were announced last fall, I commented on the hue and cry over the disappearance of the “topic of your choice” prompt. (See post of 12 October 2012) I’m happy to see that it hasn’t returned, and I think the new prompts encourage essays that offer self-reflection. This is a big improvement – I felt that the previous prompts were written in such a way as to discourage reflection. The previous prompts led with the invitation to describe a person, event, or issue of importance. The request for reflection, to “tell us why this is important to you,” tacked onto the end of the prompt, led many students to think that this was of less importance to readers.

In addition, the new prompts, by giving students well-defined and specific topics to which they can react, provide structure for the responses that I think they will find helpful. We’ll have to see how things go as students begin to craft their responses, but my hunch is these prompts will do a better job of eliciting useful information about applicants for admissions officers.

I have mixed feelings about the 650 word limit on the essay, and I will be interested to see how students respond to it. In combination with the new prompts, the word limit should certainly cut down on the number of recycled class assignment essays that applicants submit, which will be a boon for admissions officers. And the 650 word limit for the essay is not out of line with length restrictions that versions of the University of California application, for example, have contained. I am eager to see how the word limit will be perceived by students, though. Will there be any characteristics common to the respondents who feel that 650 words is too few? Will there be characteristics shared by those who feel that 650 words is way too many? Will there be a pattern of differences emerging between the two camps? I do like the fact that a variety of opinion on this matter has been anticipated in the Common App instructions: I smiled when I read that “650 words is your limit, not your goal.”

Looking at another area of CA4, the ability to create “alternate versions” of the Common Application still seems like an existential oxymoron to me. (Also, each time a student wants to create an alternate version of the Common App, I’m reminded of Calvin’s “duplicator” machine in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Click here and here to see two of those cartoons.) However, I understand the genuine motivations for, as well as the superstitions and anxieties that provoke students to create alternate versions of the application. I’d love to know the reasoning behind the decision to allow “unlimited” edits to all parts of the application except the essay, though, and to know why the number of essay revisions was capped at three. I understand the rationale about balancing the need for students to make corrections and updates to sections of the application with the philosophy of a “common” application, as one of the Common App explanatory notes says. But why three essay versions? Why not two or four? Is there a dry, technical reason for this, or did the discussions about this limit veer into the realm of philosophy? (In the latter case, I wonder if we can look forward to earnest, if esoteric, conference presentations about the nature of the essential self, as seen through the lens of the Common Application…)

In any event, one of the great things about working in college admissions is that the scene is always changing. No two years are ever exactly alike, despite overall similarities in the cycle as a whole. Clearly, the changes embodied in CA4 and the ways in which students respond to the new version will keep things lively this fall. So all hail CA4! Here’s hoping the August 1 launch goes smoothly.