Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Three Most Frequently Asked College Admissions Questions Answered!

I recently added a new element to my available college advisory services.  College Conversations or Everything You've Always Wanted to Know about College Admissions* (but were afraid to ask) can bring the college admissions process into the light for those new to the experience. Families with students about to dive into admissions who may not want to incur the expense of a college advisor gather with friends in a home, and I come and speak for about 45 minutes. At $100 per family for up to five families, this is the most cost effective way to get those pressing questions answered. My introduction to the nuts and bolts of the admissions process is followed by an hour of questions from the families.  I have done 7 of these sessions so far in the three months since I began to offer this service and here are the 3 most popular questions and my responses:

  1. Do colleges prefer a high GPA with less challenging classes, or a lower one with more rigor? This may well be the most pressing issue for many families trying to do some academic planning early in high school. Say your student is selected for the most rigorous math track at your high school. Earning top grades in that class may be very tough and the slightly less rigorous class might be one in which he or she could earn a good grade without too much difficulty. There are variables of course, like if both would yield a completed AP or equivalent calculus class before graduation, but the bottom line is colleges like rigor. They want students who are not afraid of pushing themselves intellectually, and work hard to achieve goals. As we know, some of the biggest state flagships may not have the luxury of time for a close examination of transcripts so may not appreciate a 3.6 with a lot of rigor versus a 3.8 with less rigor so that is a consideration.
  2. What extracurricular activities do colleges like to see students engage in? I like to say that the karma of admissions dictates that phoniness is easily detected. If your student doesn't care deeply about Tibetan independence, he shouldn't join the Free Tibet club. If she isn't interested in robotics, joining the Robotics Club because she might want to apply to engineering programs is just silly. Depth and consistency in interest is what is viewed positively. Example: A student who is interested in medicine should volunteer at a local hospital, join the local volunteer ambulance corps if available, or work with a NGO that raises money and collects supplies for a rural clinic or similar. For a student interested in photography, photo editing for a school based publication, displaying work at a local nursing home for the benefit of the residents and interning with a local photography studio are all consistent with having photography classes on a transcript. This depth and passion is what colleges like to see. They want to build a class with diverse interests and passions. That makes campus life better for all. Be sincere and genuine and your student's unique profile will be hard to miss.
  3. How important is the application essay? I often tell students that if he or she is a highly qualified candidate, a boring essay probably won't get him or her denied, and if he or she has stats significantly below the middle 50% of accepted students, a brilliant flawless essay may not get him or her admitted. That doesn't mean a student shouldn't commit to creating a thoughtful well-constructed essay that isn't a regurgitation of the extracurricular list. Tell the admissions officers something they don't know about you! Make sure it makes for compelling reading and watch out for typos especially after you have pasted your essay into the Common App. Commas can move, spacing can disappear and paragraphs magically merge together. Take the time to brainstorm, ask parents or friends to help you be a little introspective and don't pick a prompt first. That comes later!
The conclusion I drew from these first several meetings is that both parents and students hear lots of misinformation about the process, what's involved and why students gain admission to or are denied by their top choices. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

This admissions round was a frenetic one for me, and likely frenetic for admissions officers too, given the increase in numbers of apps at most schools. NACAC reports that more than three-quarters of American colleges and universities, and almost all of the 100 schools with the lowest admit rates, reported a marked increase in applications over the past five years. This can affect who is admitted in more than the obvious ways; deferrals of highly qualified candidates, many admitted but just a little later in the admissions round, are commonplace, more so far this year than in recent years.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, it's time to start thinking about the Class of 2017! The Common App admins recently made their annual pronouncement regarding the essay prompts for the 2016-17 admissions round. I also have some thoughts about the report released a few weeks ago by Harvard's Graduate School of Education regarding how admissions officers should be evaluating applicants in the future. I will address that topic and the related interest in the idea of having students build an application portfolio next week.

The Common App admins have decided to keep all the prompts from last year's round. Almost 50% of those who submitted a Common App selected the first prompt: "Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story." 22% chose the 5th prompt: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family" and less than 5% chose the third: "Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?"

While I am glad the admins have elected to keep the prompts from last season, I think the reason the first prompt is the most frequently chosen is that some students feel compelled to use the essay to provide more information about a specific accomplishment because there is inadequate space elsewhere in the app, especially in the extracurricular section. Forced brevity in the EC list section requires students to leave out what might be compelling details. A student who participated in a science research project and wishes to share details about that work but also unwinds at the end of a stressful day by constructing buildings with Legos will have to choose one to write about. I think bringing back the 250 word essay on the most meaningful extracurricular activity would free up students to write about something a bit more personal in the main essay. The essay is not meant to regurgitate elements found elsewhere on the app. Rather, it is meant to give students a chance to share something that sets them apart from the other thousands of applicants with the same scores, rigor and GPA.

Students need to stop thinking of themselves as "boring", or that they "haven't really done anything interesting." Everyone has a story to tell. It's just a matter of finding it. So, I am happy to have the same familiar prompts with which to work this next round but if I could change the Common App in another way, I think it would help students enormously with showing all their facets. I wish the Common App didn't require students to try and capture 17 years of life in such a limited space. There's always next year...