How Gonzaga applicants can learn something from “The Office”

There's a great episode of The Office where perpetually bumbling manager Michael Scott is interviewing for a job at the corporate headquarters.  And in an effort to impress the boss, Michael says,

"Why don't I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job."

In case you're not an Office fan, Michael didn't get the job.  It wasn't just because this answer was bad; you see, Michael's a big dope.  But an attempt to position your weaknesses as strengths is just a hack thing to do in a job interview…or on a college application like that for Gonzaga University. 

Gonzaga asks the following question on the Common Application supplement.

What has been your most significant failing, and what did you learn from the experience?

A lot of students we've met are inclined to make one of two mistakes with this answer:

1) To try and position the failure as evidence of a strength, like, "I was spending so much time volunteering that it actually affected my academics," or…

2) To make excuses for something rather than own the outcome, like, "I received a low grade in US history because of a personality conflict with the teacher." 

Even the most successful people in the universe have made mistakes (many of them have even suffered catastrophic failures in their lives).  So colleges don't expect that you're going to be perfect.   But they will notice when an applicant acknowledges his or her failure, accepts responsibility and learns from it.

So think of the honest answer to the question.  What was your biggest failure?  How did it happen?  What did you learn from it?  Show that you're a mature, confident student who can discuss those things and apply the available lessons.  

What does that sound like? (And it should go without saying that you should not, repeat not try to mimic these answers–I'm just giving you examples.)

"I'm not proud of some of the decisions I made to ignore my academics during my sophomore year.  Playing sports and trying new activities and, frankly, spending a lot of time goofing off with my friends were absolutely not worth the price my GPA paid."

"I did something stupid when I was a freshman and I got suspended from school.  It's honestly embarrassing to admit today what my 14-year-old mind thought was a good idea that day in April 2006."

"Not being picked to be the lead in the school play is hardly a tragedy.  But it felt like one at the time.  I really thought I was born to play Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I was shocked I didn't get the part.  Looking back, the hard truth was that Steven O'Donnell nailed the audition.  I didn't.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but an important one; rejection is a part of acting, and if I'm going to be a drama major, I can't come apart at the seams every time I'm not the star." 

There you have it.  Own up.  Tell the truth.  Accept responsibility. 

And whatever you do, don't be Michael Scott.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

Tips for SUNY (State University of New York) applicants

Our colleagues in our North White Plains, NY office often take the time to remind us that our home office's home of California isn't the only state with a fine public university system.  And they're right (even if they are a little New York-style brusque about it).  So here are five tips for students applying to the State University of New York (SUNY) system, courtesy of our own Breda Malfesi.

1. Choose the right application.

The State University of New York makes it easy for students to apply.  If you are applying only to SUNY schools, the most efficient way to do this is through the SUNY application.  It is user friendly, accurate and secure.  However, if you are applying to a combination of public and private colleges and want to minimize the number of applications you are completing, the following SUNY campuses accept the Common Application as well:  Albany, Binghamton, Brockport, Buffalo, Buffalo State, Cortland, Environmental Science and Forestry, Fredonia, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, Oswego, Plattsburg, Purchase and Stony Brook.

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So you want to join the Fighting Irish: Tips for Notre Dame applicants

I love the movie Rudy.  Even a die hard Purdue fan must want to attend Notre Dame when Rudy finally runs onto the field with the crowd chanting his name.  But a love of Rudy alone is not a reason for you to apply, or a reason for Notre Dame to admit you.  Strong applicants share the university's values, and these students have already shown evidence that they fit with the Notre Dame's mission.

Here are a few tips before you dive into the Notre Dame application.

1.  Read Notre Dame's mission statement.

Before they even start Notre Dame's application, we tell our Collegewise students to read the school's mission statement here.   Really read it.  Carefully.  Notre Dame is coming right out and telling you what the university sees as its higher purpose (beyond beating USC on the football field).  They’re telling you what kind of students they’re seeking to help them fulfill that purpose.  And it should become clear to you fairly quickly that each of the essay questions posed on the Notre Dame supplement seeks evidence of your fit with one or more of the tenants described in the mission—teaching and research, scholarship and publication, and service/community. 

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Tips for Tufts

Tufts University is a highly selective college that's making real efforts to personalize their application.  They want to know who you are beyond your grades, test scores and accomplishments.  Want proof?  Look at the directions for their required supplemental essays.

Think outside the box when you answer the following questions. Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected. Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.

That’s code for, “Don’t write what you think we want to hear.  Don’t worry about impressing us.  Be yourself.  Have some fun.  Answer honestly without fear of admissions retribution.” 

In fact, that's exactly the essay advice we give to our Collegewise students for just about any college application.

Here are some tips on how to do that. 

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Five tips for UC (University of California) applicants

Today, we begin our "30 Colleges, 30 Guides to Getting In" series where we'll share Collegewise tips for admission to over 30 colleges.  We're starting with the flagship university system of the state where we were founded, California.  So here are five tips for applicants to the UC schools (University of California). 

1. Show academic initiative.

Curious learners who pursue educational opportunities are appealing to (and ultimately do very well on) UC campuses.  The history buff who takes a Civil War history class over the summer has academic initiative.  The future scientist who does independent physics research with a teacher, the flutist who takes extra music classes outside of school, or the budding journalist who enrolls in a summer school journalism program at a local university—they’re demonstrating just how motivated they are to learn more about subjects that fascinate them.  So think about times where you've sought out opportunities to learn more, and make sure you mention them somewhere in the application. 

[Read more…]

30 Colleges, 30 Guides to Getting In

A lot of high school seniors will be feeling not-so-thankful to be in the throes of the college application process this month.  So in the Thanksgiving spirit of helping our friends survive the brutal winter, we're bringing you "30 Colleges, 30 Collegewise Guides to Getting In."

Each day in November, we’re going to publish admissions tips for one school right here on our blog.  One school per day, for thirty days.  And while we're not promising magic formulas for admission to selective colleges, we do promise to show you how you can better communicate your match with schools and help colleges get to know you better.     

Here are the colleges we’ll be covering, with the dates the posts will be published.

November 1    UC (University of California)   
November 2    Tufts University
November 3    University of Notre Dame           
November 4    SUNY (State University of New York)   
November 5    Gonzaga University
November 6    Pomona College           
November 7    Oregon State University
November 8    Caltech (California Institute of Technology)
November 9    USC (University of Southern California)   
November 10    Loyola Marymount University
November 11    University of Puget Sound
November 12    Bryn Mawr College
November 13    University of Virginia
November 14    NYU (New York University)
November 15    University of Washington
November 16    Texas Christian University
November 17    Bucknell University
November 18    Virginia Tech
November 19    University of Michigan 
November 20    Saint Mary’s College of California
November 21    Cornell University
November 22    Washington State University
November 23    Villanova University
November 24    University of Chicago
November 25    Boston University
November 26    Gettysburg College   
November 27    Skidmore College
November 28    University of Wisconsin-Madison
November 29    University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
November 30    Stanford University

We're kicking things off today with tips for UC (University of California) applicants.  We hope you enjoy your reading.

Advice for Ivy League Hopefuls

Olympic medalists.  Concert pianists.  Teenage mathematicians who enjoy pointing out the inherent limitations of calculus.   Ivy League applicant pools are chock full of these students.  But there’s one trait those students who are ultimately admitted all have in common; something that when coupled with their perfect GPAs, top test scores and multiple Nobel Prizes makes them that much more appealing to Ivy League admissions officers.

Most of them never said the words, “I want to go to an Ivy League school.” 

The “Ivy League” (there are eight schools in the Ivy League—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale) is not a label that was bestowed upon colleges that were somehow recognized as the best; the term actually refers to an athletic conference.  In the 1940s, eight schools agreed to standardize their athletic eligibility requirements and financial aid practices for athletes.   That’s about all that the Ivy League schools have in common (well, that and the fact that Ohio State would beat the snot out of any of them in a football game). 

A student who says, “I want to go to an Ivy League school” is really just revealing that he cares more about how famous a college is than he does about what the unique learning environment will be like.   He’s showing symptoms of a bad case of name-brand envy.  That’s not a student that’s going to get an Ivy acceptance.      

Highly selective colleges like those in the Ivy League don’t want name-brand seekers.  They want ambitious, passionate, intellectually curious students who want to make valuable contributions in and out of the classrooms.  And more importantly, they want students who are confident enough to select each particular school based on fit, regardless of the school’s inclusion in the Ivy League athletic conference.

The fact that Brown University (a school that puts the liberal in “liberal arts”) is in the Ivy League isn’t what draws students who are ultimately accepted there.  They apply because they want to embrace the academic freedom Brown offers to explore a wide range of intellectual interests.  Accepted students talk about how they want to create their own major that combines music and physics (you can do it at Brown), how frustrating it was that their high school didn’t offer German as a foreign language option, and how they’d love to try a few anthropology courses using Brown’s “Pass/No Pass” option.  They appreciate the uniqueness that is Brown.

We’re not suggesting that you should pick an Ivy League school and then attempt to reverse engineer yourself to fit that school’s mission.  You are a not a widget—don’t act like one.  You need to find the colleges that fit you, not fit yourself to the colleges. 

If you really want to attend a highly-selective college like an Ivy League school, show them that you’re mature and confident enough to care more about what you’ll experience in college than you do about how famous a college’s name is.  Find the schools that fit you best.  And when you’re asked, “Why do you want to attend this college?” have a better answer than, “It’s a great school” (they hate that answer, by the way).

If some of the Ivy League schools end up on your list, great.  But if they don’t, that’s OK.  There are plenty of other leagues out there for you.