Common App Update: Big Changes This Year

Washington Post: “The Common Application, used by nearly 700 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad for admissions, just announced its essay prompts for the 2017-2018 college admissions season — and there are some big changes from last year.”

“So here they are …

1. 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. [No change]

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. Describe a topic, idea or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]”

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LinkedIn: An Emerging Tool for College Applicants

The New York Times: “Public schools from San Francisco to New York City are teaching online conduct skills as part of a nationwide digital citizenship push to prepare students for colleges and careers. Teenagers who set up LinkedIn profiles in the hope of enhancing their college prospects represent the vanguard of this trend. But the phenomenon of ambitious high school students on LinkedIn also demonstrates how social networks are playing a role in the escalation of the college admissions arms race.”

“For high school students, LinkedIn is partly a defense mechanism against college admissions officers who snoop on applicants’ public Facebook and Twitter activities — without disclosing how that may affect an applicant’s chance of acceptance. A recent study from Kaplan Test Prep of about 400 college admissions officers reported that 40 percent said they had visited applicants’ social media pages, a fourfold increase since 2008.”

“Some high school students are establishing LinkedIn profiles to give the colleges that do look something they would like them to find … To attract high school students, LinkedIn in 2013 dropped its minimum age requirement for members in the United States to 14 from 18. Since then, the site has had a significant increase in high school users.”

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Admissions Officers Offer Essay Advice

The Washington Post asked dozens of college admissions officers for insights into what they like to see in essays. Here are a few choice quotes:

“I look for beautiful, clear writing that comes to life on the essay page and offers insight into the character and personality of the student.”

“If you’re a serious person, write your essay with a serious voice. If you’re a funny person, be funny. If you’re not a funny person, your college essay might not be the best place to try on that funny writer voice for the first time.”

“We want to enroll students who will contribute to the life of the campus, so we are eager to see how you have contributed to your high-school community or the community in which you live.”

“It is a pet peeve when we see an anomaly in grades and the student never addresses this. Tell us what happened and how you turned it around.”

“You can’t fake it during the admission process. If you do, you’ll end up at a college or university that’s a poor fit.”

“Some of my most memorable offers of admission have gone to students who like to color outside the lines.”

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College Application Process: 5 Lessons Learned

The Washington Post: “Katie Miller recently graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., and is very relieved to be finished with the painful process of applying to colleges.” Here are some of the lessons she learned along the way:

“1. Be prepared for disappointment. Nothing truly readies you for the feeling of defeat that comes with opening a letter of denial.”

“2. Accept that aspects of this arduous process will simply be inexplicable … While some websites claim they can tell students which elements of the application different schools value, maybe it depends on factors as arbitrary as who sits down to read the essay.”

“3. Even when you think you have done everything right, you’ve probably gotten something wrong … Overlooking wrongly labeled classes and failing to double-check them with my counselor put me at a disadvantage … You will never get full disclosure from a university admissions office, but by calling and asking why I was denied, I learned that my mistakes led the office of undergraduate admissions to believe that I had dropped AP and honors-level courses.”

“4. There is a time and place for modesty and the college application process is not it … Especially today, as colleges’ standards continue to raise, it’s vital to take advantage of all accomplishments, because there are probably a thousand other kids with the same ones.”

“5. Give serious consideration to all the schools on your list, because your final choice may surprise you … I have realized that the college experience has less to do with the school name, location and reputation, and more to do with what you accomplish there.”

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When The Applicant is an Introvert

NBC News: “With space to fill out to boast about leadership roles, clubs, and other extracurricular activities, college applications may seem like they favor extroverted students.But experts say you don’t have to be the type of person who thrives in group settings to have a solid application. There are many ways for introverted high school students to stand out.” Laura Sefton of Rhodes College comments: “Introverts really have the opportunity to shine in the admission process, since they often know themselves extremely well.”

“Being introspective can be particularly useful when it comes to the college essay.” Seth Allen of Pomona College comments: “Introverted applicants can showcase their deep or divergent thinking through the essays, helping to three-dimension themselves and pique the interest of their readers.”

“When assessing what kind of impact students could make in their campus classrooms, Allen said, introverts are at no disadvantage … because introverts get their energy from solitary pursuits, they often bring a perspective to the class that expands beyond the syllabus. That can help on a college application, too, when introverts are competing with team captains, debate heads, and student government presidents for an admissions spot.”

“What’s important, Allen said, is that introverts not try to make themselves seem like everyone else applying and instead ‘play to the strengths, interests, or talents that their introverted tendencies have gifted them’.”

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Navigating The ‘Admissions Funnel’

The Wall Street Journal: “Enrollment managers call it the admissions funnel. At the top is a huge pool of prospects. At the bottom is the handful of students who enroll. And in between are inquiries, applications and admissions. The funnel isn’t new, but several developments in recent years have made it more difficult to hit the enrollment target … To help compensate for the uncertainty, schools assemble large pools of prospects by buying the names of high-school students from the organizations that administer the SAT and ACT college-admissions exams, as well as other vendors who solicit contact information from prospective college students.”

“If students don’t respond to unsolicited contacts—often in the form of mailings that may include a prepaid postcard to request additional information—they will be dropped from a college’s list of prospects … Students who respond, or initiate contact with a school on their own, filter down to the next level of the admissions funnel, the pool of inquiries, which include students who have demonstrated an interest in the school—a more desirable group than the cold leads … Meanwhile, thanks to common applications and ‘snap apps,’ colleges and universities receive more submissions than ever. Common applications allow students to submit the same application to multiple schools. Snap apps go several steps further.”

“Having lots of applicants allows schools to appear more selective when they admit students, which may help improve their rankings on best-college lists, but for enrollment managers, it’s all about conversion rates: The number of prospects that convert to applications, the number of applications that convert to admissions, and the number of admissions that convert to enrollment.”

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Clichés To Avoid In Your College Essay

Quartz: “Of the thousands of gushing essays from eager students that wash across their desks each year, a great number are virtually the same. Per the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS) … far too many teenagers’ personal statements begin with ‘hackneyed phrases.’ UCAS looked at submissions from 700,000 students who applied to British schools in the past year and found several opening lines being used again and again, which suggests that the subject matter is often drearily similar, too.”

Among the most frequently repeated phrases:

“From a young age, I have been interested in/fascinated by…”
“I am applying for this course because…”
“Reflecting on my educational experiences…”
“Academically, I have always been…”

“Nelson Mandela can take credit for the eleventh most repeated opening line: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ The quote was used by 148 of the applicants in the study.”

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Hard Work Pays Off For Diligent Applicants

Quartz: “As challenging as elite college admissions are these days, kids don’t actually have to be world-class athletes or high-ranking chess champions to make the grade. Often, they just have to be extraordinarily hard workers.”

“Vincent Viego a senior at Skaneateles High School in New York who was accepted this year to all eight Ivies as well as 14 other universities … said he spent roughly 10 hours a week filling out and revising his applications, with most of that time devoted to his personal essays, which described his identity as a Cuban-American and his enthusiasm for bioengineering.”

“Dedication alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee success; high test scores, stellar leadership roles, and other achievements also show up in most of these students’ track records. But the common pattern suggests that regardless of how brilliant you are, it pays to put in the extra time.”

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Costco & The Art of the College Essay

Business Insider: Brittany Stinson, a Delaware high-school senior who was accepted at five Ivy League universities as well as Stanford, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, NYU and BU, says she’s “a shy person.” Yes, she has a 4.9 GPA (weighted), speaks fluent Portuguese, and has presented research at MIT. She also wrote a great essay, with a surprising focus: Costco. It’s well worth reading, and proof positive that ostensibly ordinary life experiences can be turned into extraordinary college admissions essays:

Prompt 1: 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.

Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two­ year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning. My mother’s eyes widened in horror as I jettisoned my churro; the cinnamon­sugar rocket gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree. I sprinted through the aisles, looking up in awe at the massive bulk products that towered over me. Overcome with wonder, I wanted to touch and taste, to stick my head into industrial­sized freezers, to explore every crevice. I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples. Before inevitably being whisked away into a shopping cart, I scaled a mountain of plush toys and surveyed the expanse that lay before me: the kingdom of Costco.

Notorious for its oversized portions and dollar­fifty hot dog combo, Costco is the apex of consumerism. From the days spent being toted around in a shopping cart to when I was finally tall enough to reach lofty sample trays, Costco has endured a steady presence throughout my life. As a veteran Costco shopper, I navigate the aisles of foodstuffs, thrusting the majority of my weight upon a generously filled shopping cart whose enormity juxtaposes my small frame. Over time, I’ve developed a habit of observing fellow patrons tote their carts piled with frozen burritos, cheese puffs, tubs of ice cream, and weight­loss supplements. Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder. Who needs three pounds of sour cream? Was cultured yogurt any more well­mannered than its uncultured counterpart? Costco gave birth to my unfettered curiosity.

While enjoying an obligatory hot dog, I did not find myself thinking about the ‘all beef’ goodness that Costco boasted. I instead considered finitudes and infinitudes, unimagined uses for tubs of sour cream, the projectile motion of said tub when launched from an eighty foot shelf or maybe when pushed from a speedy cart by a scrawny seventeen year old. I contemplated the philosophical: If there exists a thirty­three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will? I experienced a harsh physics lesson while observing a shopper who had no evident familiarity of inertia’s workings. With a cart filled to overflowing, she made her way towards the sloped exit, continuing to push and push while steadily losing control until the cart escaped her and went crashing into a concrete column, 52” plasma screen TV and all. Purchasing the yuletide hickory smoked ham inevitably led to a conversation between my father and me about Andrew Jackson’s controversiality. There was no questioning Old Hickory’s dedication; he was steadfast in his beliefs and pursuits – qualities I am compelled to admire, yet his morals were crooked. We both found the ham to be more likeable–and tender.

I adopted my exploratory skills, fine tuned by Costco, towards my intellectual endeavors. Just as I sampled buffalo­chicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart–one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, cross­country running, scientific research, all of which are now household favorites. With cart in hand, I do what scares me; I absorb the warehouse that is the world. Whether it be through attempting aerial yoga, learning how to chart blackbody radiation using astronomical software, or dancing in front of hundreds of people, I am compelled to try any activity that interests me in the slightest.

My intense desire to know, to explore beyond the bounds of rational thought; this is what defines me. Costco fuels my insatiability and cultivates curiosity within me at a cellular level. Encoded to immerse myself in the unknown, I find it difficult to complacently accept the “what”; I want to hunt for the “whys” and dissect the “hows”. In essence, I subsist on discovery.

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The ‘Just Right’ College List

This season, colleges reported a record number of applicants, making it even harder to get in. What does this mean to current high-school students? It means you need to put together the right list of colleges for you. Juniors should be working on their “college list” now. Putting together a smart list is the key to having lots of options and success. What makes a good list?

Academic Fit. First and foremost is academic match. What types of students were accepted recently? What level of grades and scores did they have? How much rigor (how many AP and honors courses) is expected? What is your academic vision and which schools will help you get there?

Selectivity. Colleges publish their acceptance rates. Some are as low as 6%, while others can be as high as 80%. You must consider these statistics while building your list. The highly selective schools require more than top academic performance. Leadership, extracurricular activities that show initiative, and well-written applications and essays will help you compete. However, just because a school is selective does not make it the right fit for you.

What To Study? Review the offered majors and minors for all the schools on your list. You do not have to know what your major will be, however each school on your list should have at least two or three areas of study that you find enticing. Also, review the curriculum. Some students will thrive in a structured curriculum while others want more freedom to explore and perhaps build their own major.

What About Size? The experience at a large university versus a small college could not be more different. You must consider what type of learner you are. If you learn through class participation and discussion, you may prefer the small classes and mentoring that is common in schools with under 5,000 undergraduates. If you are open to attending large lectures and are comfortable with some “self-teaching,” you may enjoy the prodigious opportunities in a large university.

Social Fit. You will be leaving home and living on-campus. You want to find a place where you are comfortable and that will meet your expectations for broadening your horizons. The best way to evaluate social fit is to visit schools and see how it feels. Go with your gut.

Go Broad. You are growing in every way. You may have deep or developing interests — science, music production, forensics or film. Colleges report that 40% of students change their majors; my experience has been that students sometimes change their interests during the college application process itself. So, it is important not to choose too narrow a focus. Think about options. What if I try economics and don’t like it? What if I change my mind? Will the schools on my list still work? Cast a wide net.

Follow Your Dreams. College is all about exploring and trying new things. Do you want to study abroad, conduct original research, attend D1 sporting events or simply meet friends and play Frisbee? Your path is your own – do your own investigation and put together a list that will help you make it all happen.

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