As early round decisions arrive…

Notifications from the early round of this year’s admissions cycle will be coming out soon…to be followed by the swirling emotional tide of elation, anger, joy, disbelief, disappointment and purgatorial malaise that these admits, denies, and defers incur.

Having been the one who made these decisions, as well as the one who has commiserated, celebrated, or cursed along with the students receiving them, I have long grappled with their essential paradox. Admissions decisions seem like intensely personal judgments, but they aren’t.

An offer of admission isn’t a pronouncement on someone’s character, values, or worth as a person. It isn’t a report card on the parenting that child received. It doesn’t predict an individual’s path through life. All an offer of admission says is that a particular student, within a specific pool of applicants, had qualities that a small group of application readers found compelling. Sure, it’s always nicer to receive a “yes” than a “no,” but the point is, neither response consigns the recipient to a predetermined fate, for good or ill, no matter how much it may seem so at the time.

The following poem by Billy Collins seems especially appropriate as admissions decisions arrive.  “You’re fine just being yourself, you’re loved just for being you, ” is a message that can’t be repeated too often to students who feel as though they are about to receive a very public reckoning of their life’s worth.  So here is the text, followed by a video of Collins reading the poem himself.  (Video excerpted from a longer TED talk which can be found by clicking here.)

To My Favorite 17 Year Old High School Girl

Do you realize that if you had started building the Parthenon
on the day you were born,
you would be all done in only one more year?
Of course, you couldn’t have done that all alone.
So never mind;
you’re fine just being yourself.
You’re loved for just being you.

But did you know that at your age
Judy Garland was pulling down 150,000 dollars a picture,
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room –
no wait, I mean he had invented the calculator?

Of course, there will be time for all that
later in your life, after you come out of your room
and begin to blossom,
or at least pick up all your socks.

For some reason I keep remembering
that Lady Jane Grey was queen of England
when she was only 15.
But then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.

A few centuries later,
when he was your age,
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,
but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies, four operas
and two complete masses as a youngster.

But of course, that was in Austria
at the height of Romantic lyricism,
not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you’re special just being you –
playing with your food and staring into space.

By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.

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