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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New Study: Your Social-Media Footprint Matters

Business Wire: A survey of “nearly 400 college admissions officers across the United States finds that the percentage of admissions officers who visit applicants’ social media pages to learn more about them has hit a record high of 40% — quadruple the percentage who did so in 2008 … For context, out of those who do so, 89% say they do so “rarely” while only 11% say they do so “often”. And the percentage of admissions officers who say they have Googled an applicant to learn more about them has remained relatively stable over the past two years, at 29%.”

In some cases, the admissions officers visit because the applicants suggested it as a way to learn more about their interests and talents. The officers might also be looking to verify awards, or investigate a candidate’s criminal or disciplinary history. Students seeking scholarships may come under special scrutiny, as well. Sometimes, the visit is triggered by an anonymous tip, perhaps submitted by a rival applicant.

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