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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Finding Yourself: What Would Confucius Say?

The Wall Street Journal: “Imagine a student who has decided he wants to become a diplomat … He knows that majoring in international relations and taking his junior year abroad in Spain will give him the experiences that will propel him toward that career in diplomacy. So he goes off to Spain, but after a month falls ill with a severe respiratory virus that lands him in the hospital. It is his first experience of hospitalization, and it plants a seed: He becomes curious about how and why doctors and hospitals do what they do.”

“Things can now go one of two ways. He can remain wedded to his long-term plan and let that interest in health care die out. The hospital experience will make for a few good stories for his friends, but it won’t interfere with his plan to take the diplomatic world by storm. Or he can keep diving into his new obsession, reading everything he can, maybe making friends with some of the young residents on his medical team, and eventually return to the U.S. and devote himself to a health-care field instead.”

“Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become … think of life not in terms of decisions but as a series of ruptures that lead us from one thing to another … Live with a constant awareness of the ever-changing world and your ever-shifting self. Train your mind to stay open and constantly take into account all the complex stuff that is you.”

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Grade Inflation? GPA vs. Standardized Tests

James Piereson and Naomi Schaeffer Riley, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece: “It might seem unfair that admissions officers place almost as much weight on a one-morning test as they do on grades from four years of high school … But there’s a simple reason for this emphasis on testing: Policy makers and educators have effectively eliminated all the other ways of quantifying student performance.”

“Classroom grades have become meaningless … Figures from the Education Department show that between 1990 and 2009, high-school graduates’ mean GPA rose 0.33 points for women and 0.31 points for men—even while their ACT and SAT scores remained the same … Since high schools are often rewarded for increasing their graduation rates, teachers are fairly reluctant to give out D’s and F’s.”

“‘Grades are increasingly a lousy signal,’ a sociologist explained, ‘especially at those elite places that just hand out the A’s.’ Standardized tests, for all their faults, are the only thing left to judge students by.”

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The Ins and Outs of ‘Early Decision’

The Washington Post: “The binding-commitment path known as ‘early decision’ fills roughly half of the freshman seats at highly ranked Vanderbilt, Emory, Northwestern and Tufts universities, as well as Davidson, Bowdoin, Swarthmore and Claremont McKenna colleges, among others, a Washington Post analysis found … The Post found 37 schools where the early-decision share of enrolled freshmen in 2015 was at least 40 percent. At Duke University, the share was 47 percent, and at the University of Pennsylvania, it was 54 percent.”

“Early-decision applicants also enjoy a crucial edge over the regulars: Their admission rates tend to be much higher … At Penn, the admission rate for early applicants was 24 percent for the class that entered in 2015. The total admission rate, early and regular, was 10 percent … Within the Ivy League, Penn appears to be the most aggressive user of the early process. The early-decision share of freshmen at Dartmouth College was about 43 percent. At Brown and Cornell universities, it was about 38 percent.”

“Eric Furda, Penn’s dean of admissions, said the academic credentials of students who win early admission tend to be stronger than those admitted later in the cycle. Furda also said more early-decision students than ever are qualifying for need-based financial aid. These days, nearly as many early-decision freshmen receive need-based grants from Penn as their peers admitted in the regular cycle, he said … While most early-decision admits enroll, a few do not. The most common reason: If a financial aid offer is deemed insufficient, an admitted student may be released from their pledge.”

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Need-Based Scholarships Offer Ivy-League Discounts

Business Insider: “In 2015, the average need-based scholarship at Yale was a generous $43,989, knocking off a substantial amount of that school’s sticker price. At Harvard, 65% of students receive scholarships, and the average need-based scholarship is $46,000. These schools, along with the other Ivies, can offer such generous financial aid packages because they have extremely large endowments. Harvard’s endowment alone is worth $37.6 billion.”

“But while the net price of attending an Ivy might be really low for low-income students, those students are still not enrolling at any college in very high numbers … One reason low-income students may not enroll in large numbers is that many schools don’t do a good job of publicizing the difference between the sticker price and the net price.”

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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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Quote of the Day: Bill Gates

“I think the value of getting a great education – that is going to college – is easy to underestimate. The most interesting jobs require a college education. The STEM related jobs are probably the most interesting although they are not for everyone. The value of staying curious – reading a lot and learning new things even after college is also underestimated.” – Bill Gates, college dropout.

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Stanford Acceptance Rate Drops to Zero

Frank Bruni of The New York Times writes: “Cementing its standing as the most selective institution of higher education in the country, Stanford University announced this week that it had once again received a record-setting number of applications and that its acceptance rate — which had dropped to a previously uncharted low of 5 percent last year — plummeted all the way to its inevitable conclusion of 0 percent. With no one admitted to the class of 2020, Stanford is assured that no other school can match its desirability in the near future.”

“’We had exceptional applicants, yes, but not a single student we couldn’t live without,’ said a Stanford administrator who requested anonymity … News of Stanford’s unprecedented selectiveness sent shock waves through the Ivy League, along with Amherst, Northwestern and at least a dozen other elite schools where, as a consequence, there could be substantial turnover among underperforming deans of admission.”

“At first blush, Stanford’s decision would seem to jeopardize its fund-raising … But over recent years, Stanford administrators noticed that as the school rejected more and more comers, it received bigger and bigger donations, its endowment rising in tandem with its exclusivity, its luster a magnet for Silicon Valley lucre.”

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Study Abroad: The Four-Year Program

BloombergBusiness: “Many students are choosing to go further than a one-semester break and attend all four years of college in a foreign city. The number of students enrolled in college outside their countries rose 463 percent from 1975 to 2012, said a report last month by Moody’s Investors Service. International students in the U.S. have grown by 70 percent since 2005, according to the report.”

“College in Europe can be astonishingly cheap for Americans. Forty public and private colleges in continental Europe offer free bachelor’s degrees, taught in English, to Americans … An additional 98 colleges ask tuition of under $4,000 per year … European colleges want American applicants because they can charge higher tuition for non-EU residents. Americans in Europe will still pay considerably less than they would at home … The main thing that holds some Americans back from studying across the Atlantic is a fear that they’ll sacrifice quality—and North American career opportunities.”

Jennifer Viemont, “co-founder of Beyond The States, a database of 350 colleges in 30 countries that offer bachelor’s degrees taught in English,” comments: “The biggest worry people seem to have is that a name from Europe won’t carry the same weight as one from the U.S., but there’s a serious upshot of graduating a year early and with a fraction of the debt. Plus, you’ve seen the world.”

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