How to prioritize activities on a college application

If you had the chance to have a ten-minute conversation with an admissions officer to explain everything you do that is important to you, what would you talk about?  How would you sum up the way you’ve spent your life in high school when you weren’t in class?

You probably wouldn’t start with, “One time, I went to a meeting of the Spanish Club.” 

It wouldn’t make sense to talk first about an activity that you didn’t care about or spend much time doing.  Instead, you’d probably begin by discussing your most important activities—the ones in which you spent significant time and energy.

But, you’d be surprised how many students list their activities in no particular order when filling out college applications. 

Listing an activity that meant little to you is like telling an admissions officer that the one week you attended a meeting of the “Ping Pong Club” was just as important to you as everything else you did in high school.

Share things that meant something to you, where you really dedicated time and energy.  List them in order of importance to you.  If something wasn't all that important to you, consider leaving it off.  An admissions officer is a human being–he or she can only retain a certain amount of information that you present.

And remember that the key is to share things that are important to you, even if they may not seem overly impressive to someone else.  I'm not saying you should be open about watching 6-hours of television a day.  But if you write a blog that shares critiques of your favorite reality television shows and you've got several hundred loyal readers, that's something important to you that you should probably share. 

College Essays should be about life’s smaller slices

It's good to see that the press still taps the well of admissions wisdom from the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, Ted O'Neil.

From US News and World Report's The Right Way to Pitch Yourself to Schools


In truth, he says, what you write about "doesn't have to be a week in Africa. It can be you were a clerk at Safeway for the summer and that changed the way you view race relations or the environment." Adds Ted O'Neill, the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago: "Turning points in their lives are kind of premature for kids of this age…We're looking for a thoughtful, earnest presentation that shows complicated interests and thinking…This can be achieved in stories reflecting on life's smaller slices—why you like helping your dad fix up old cars on the weekend, being the only boy in a family of seven girls, why you like to write birthday limericks."

Why perfect GPAs don’t always make perfect applicants

Which of these students is more appealing to colleges?

1. The straight-A student who’s spent his high school years obsessed with his GPA.  He does extra work only if it comes with extra credit.  He had his parents argue with his Spanish teacher to get his lone “B,” raised to an “A.”  He always asks during the first week of classes if participation is counted towards the final grade (if it's not, he doesn't participate).  He's tired and burned out and can’t tell you what his favorite subject is.

2.  The mostly-A student who always gets “B’s” in math but still tries her best.  She loves literature and took some college level creative writing courses during the summer just because she was so interested in them.  She loves participating in her English classes and talking to her teacher after school about books.  She's happy, she looks forward to going to school every day and she can’t wait to join a book club in college so she talk Shakespeare with other lit-geeks. 

Both students have proven that they can do college level work.  Both have great work ethics and both have achieved impressively in high school.  But there’s more to the second kid.  She enjoys school and likes learning new things. She’s curious.  Her love of learning paints her as someone who will keep being that same happy and engaged kid once she gets to college. 

And a lot of colleges will take her before they take the student with the perfect GPA. 

Beer, pizza and college admissions

Tomorrow, I'm heading to the nation's largest annual college admissions conference where I'll get to spend some time with admissions officers I've had the pleasure of getting to know in the last several years.  And based on past experiences, here are some things that various members of the group might do. 

Some will go out for a beer or two when the sessions conclude.  Some will skip a workshop if their beloved Dallas Cowboys or Chicago White Sox or New Orleans Saints are being televised.  Some will go out of their way to find what's reported to be the best pizza in town.  Some will talk about looking for love on, or why Lost is the best television show ever created, or how they've wasted $60 a month for the last two years on a gym membership they've never used.  They'll talk about what they love–and what drives them crazy–about their jobs.  And they'll do some gossiping about who's dating whom from their offices.

I mention all of this because some students have an impression of an admissions officer that couldn't be further from the truth–cold, emotionless professionals who are moved only by high grades and test scores. 

These are real people.  They're just like everyone else.  It's important for students to understand that when you apply to college, one of these real people reads your application, a person who might like Glee just as much as you do, who may have many of the same songs on their Ipods that you do, who may love baseball or musicals or reading People magazine just as much as you do.  And just about all of them are good people who work hard and want to do right by kids.  Even those who work at schools that have to reject most of the applicants would much rather admit a kid than deny him. 

So when you apply to college, don't try too hard to sell yourself.  Don't be too self-conscious to admit what you aren't good at.  Just be confident enough to tell the truth and be yourself.  They don't expect you to be perfect.  They just expect you to be a 17 year-old who's happy, confident and excited about college.     

Should you waive your rights to see your letters of rec?

Most colleges that require a letter of recommendation also ask you to fill out a form that the writer sends to the college along with the letter.  One of the questions on that form asks you if you agree to waive your right to access the letter in the future.  If you waive your right, it means once the writer sends the letter to the school, you have no right to view it.  You will never know what the writer said about you or whether it helped or hurt your chances of admission.  I know–that sounds risky.

Still, you should always waive your rights to access. 

Here's what happens when you don't waive the right.

1.  You're essentially telling the writer that you don't trust him or her to do a good job.  And you're making that implication while asking this person to do you a favor.  A teacher or counselor can't help but be a little offended by that.  And offending the person you want to recommend you is never a good strategy.

2.  A writer who's worried that you'll see the letter one day is often less likely to be honest, and more likely to say things that are technically positive but widely recognized by admissions officers as generic statements that mean nothing.  That's bad for you.  It's the difference between…

"William is never going to be a chemist.  That much is clear.  But while he's struggled at times in my class,  he's cheerful, he keeps trying his best, and he's never given up on chemistry.  I like that in a student."


"William has shown consistent effort and is both diligent and determined."

That second example means absolutely nothing to an admissions officer.  You are far better served by an honest and revealing recommendation, even one that acknowledges a weakness, than you are by generic faint praise.

3.  The college will wonder why you didn't feel comfortable enough to waive the right, and what you were worried the writer might say about you.

If you're feeling uneasy about waiving your rights, consider asking someone else to write the letter, someone who's more unwaveringly positive about you.  And if you're still uneasy, try to relax.  Teachers and counselors are out to help, not hurt, students.  Just about all of them will do their best to say something positive about a nice kid. 

A new film about the pressures on kids to perform

The pressure to achieve does a lot more to kids than just ruin the college admissions process.  According to a new film"A Race to Nowhere," it's producing a generation of kids with anxiety, stress-induced illness, and feelings of burnout before they even start college. 

From the film's website:

Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

You can find a list of screenings here.  And here's the film's trailer:

I’m going to college–not you

I just bought I'm Going to College—Not You!: Surviving the College Search with Your Child and there are a few things I like about it already.  

1.  The author is both the dean of admissions at Keynon College and the mother of a college student, so she's certainly got plenty of experience to guide parents in this area.

2. The book includes short essays from prominent writers about their own experiences with their children during the college application process.  I think parents appreciate empathetic reminders that other parents have been through all of this before and survived. 

3.  She doesn't excuse the colleges for contributing to the stress of the process, as she revealed in this interview:


We are culpable. We have upped the ante with this whole arc of
marketing. We’ve had 20 years of this amped-up competition, and it’s
kind of like a gyroscope—it’s got its own momentum. We have an
obligation to serve the institution at the same time we’re serving the
student, and sometimes it’s impossible to do both. So we have to
acknowledge our responsibility in this. We have to take a chill pill
ourselves while telling parents to do the same thing.

For parents: a reminder to enjoy this time

Here's a video from Boston University showing one of the proudest, but also one of the most difficult days in a parent's life—dropping your student off at college and saying goodbye.  Warning:  If you're a crier, it might get to you.

Parents, the fact that there are over 2,000 colleges in the country means even if your kids aren't admitted to their first choice schools, both of you are going to experience this day.  Whether or not you enjoy the time leading up to it is entirely up to you. 

Don't let the stress of college admissions ruin the process for you.  Resolve that when the day comes for you to experience what these parents in the video are experiencing, you'll look back on the process that lead to it as one that you enjoyed together as a family.  It will help you keep your perspective when the SAT scores don't come back as high as you'd hoped, or when other parents turn the process into a status competition.

Don’t fall for the sham

This whole belief that there are about 40 colleges in the universe that are "better" than all the others?  It's a big sham.  And it's one that far too many students and parents fall for. 

I know that all 2500+ colleges in the country don't offer the same quality of education. A kid who has the intellect and drive to be accepted at Yale wouldn't have the same experience if he attended a college where he was surrounded by students who got all "C's" in high school.  I get that. 

But anyone who suggests that Yale is an empirically "better" school than Michigan, University of Chicago, College of Wooster, UVA, Mt. Holyoke, Haverford, Rice, or Oberlin is flat out wrong.  That's not just some crazy opinion of mine; there are studies that back it up. 

Non-believers should read The Chosen, a UC Berkeley sociologist's exhaustive study of college admissions.  His findings showed there was no measurable difference between the outcomes of students who attended the most selective schools and those who attended any of over a hundred schools that accepted more of their applicants. The graduates of famous colleges don't get better paying jobs, they aren't happier, they aren't more successful, their lives aren't any better, etc.

Yes, there are vast differences between the colleges that accept almost nobody and those that accept almost everybody.  But you've got to go pretty deep–deeper than 30 or 80 or even 100–down the list of 2500 schools before those differences become noticeable. 

It's time for us to ask ourselves, is our obsession with gaining admission to prestigious universities, and all the lost sleep and anxiety that accompanies it really worth it?  Is the third round of test preparation for one last try at the SAT worth it?  Are the multiple tutors to move kids from B's to A's, the clamoring to get into AP classes, the gaming of GPAs, and the measuring of kids' accomplishments based on the potential appeal to colleges really worth it?

Hard work is good.  Emotional investment in your education and your future is good.  Feeding your mind and preparing yourself for admission to a college that accepts other hard-working, intellectually curious students is absolutely worth it.  Do those things, and your life will be different because of it.

But if you're doing it all because you think that only Harvard will do and that a Kenyon education just won't get the job done, you're falling for the sham.