Advice for submitting application videos to colleges

Many colleges now invite students to submit optional short videos as part of their applications as a way to inject a little more of their personal voice into the process. Here’s University of Chicago’s invitation:

If you would like to add your voice to your application, you have the option to submit a two-minute video introduction in lieu of the traditional college interview, which is not part of our application process. Your recording does not need to be extensively rehearsed or polished, and the video does not need to be edited. You may record your video introduction using the platform of your choice, and then upload either a file of or link to the introduction into your UChicago Account. If there is any important information relevant to your candidacy you were unable to address elsewhere in the application, please share that information here.

It’s hard to give universally applicable advice about videos like this (other than obvious ones, like follow the directions and don’t record anything that would embarrass you if your parents or teachers saw it). Don’t be funny? Don’t overproduce your video? Don’t make anything so out-there that it’s inaccessible to viewers? The truth is that some applicants can pull those videos off, and others can’t.

But at the risk of being a one-trick advising pony, I think our Collegewise advice around college essays applies perfectly here.

1. Don’t try to impress—just tell the truth.
You don’t want the viewer to feel like they’re watching a sales pitch, and much as with college essays, that happens in videos when applicants just try too hard to guess what admissions officers want. So if you’re a musically expressive person who loves writing catchy jingles and you want to sing a personal song while playing the ukulele, that sounds like a pretty honest portrayal of who you are. But if you’re forcing yourself to do it because you are trying to stand out and you think showing off your uke chops will get the job done, that’s trying too hard to be something you’re not. Your goal should be to capture something, no matter how simple or complex, that makes the people who know you best say, “That is so you!”

2. Own your stories/footage.
If it would be possible for 1000 other applicants to shoot the same video, there’s a good chance there will be plenty of others just like yours in the figurative stack when you apply. The way to counter that is to use details. Example: If you’re a basketball player, you could include highlights of hitting jump shots, but there are plenty of other varsity basketball players who could and probably will provide the same footage. Instead, you could begin a video on the neighborhood court where you first began playing basketball when you were 8, explain how you tagged along with your older brothers and how you’ll never forget the day they finally invited you to join, tell the viewers how you spent your entire summer before 10th grade working out here by yourself because you knew that the ability to drive to the hoop with your left hand as well as your right would be a key to your game, and film the spot under the hoop where you tore ligaments in your ankle and had to sit out for your junior season. Another basketball player might have their own similar experiences. But these particular memories on that particular course are yours alone. Details make all the difference.

3. Don’t repeat information from the rest of your application.
If the viewer finishes the video and thinks, “That was nice, but I already knew this information,” you’ve just missed a big opportunity. Playing your favorite violin piece is nice, but if you’ve been in the orchestra for three years, that skill is not exactly new information. So either share something that hasn’t been mentioned at all on the application, or use the video to shed visual light on a new aspect of something already mentioned. Example: if you worked at a deli in high school, you don’t need to provide video evidence in the form of, “Here’s the deli where I work.” But if the job gave you a real appreciation for the art of making a proper pastrami on rye—and you haven’t explained that in any of your essays—that is brand new information to the viewer.

4. Sound like you.
If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re quirky, be quirky. If you’re a nerd, let the nerdiness fly. This video is meant to capture you, not to make a commercial featuring a performer playing a part. So don’t say or do anything that feels like acting. Your video should not require a script or intensive rehearsal. Sure, don’t ramble with no end in sight—you should know what you want to talk about when the camera rolls. But the more rehearsed, polished, or otherwise unnatural you appear, the less effective your video will be. And if you’re really not comfortable with the idea of being on a video at all, don’t make one! Colleges mean it when they say that something is optional, and there is no hidden penalty for opting out, especially if you’re uncomfortable with the medium altogether.

5. A bonus tip: Relax.
As long as your video isn’t blatantly offensive or cause for concern over your safety (or the safety of your future college peers), it’s not likely the video alone will torpedo your admissions chances. It’s also equally unlikely that a video alone will shift the admissions tide if the readers were already leaning towards a denial. So let yourself off the hook. Don’t let the video be yet another source of stress where you feel like you’re under the application microscope. If you like the idea of recording something, go record the video that makes you happy and proud to share. Colleges are in the business of evaluating, understanding, and getting to know 17-year-olds. A video that works for you is one that will probably work for them, too.

When applying early means less competition

The sooner someone applies for a job opening at Collegewise, the better their chances of being hired. Obviously, the longer someone waits, the more likely that job will be filled by the time they apply. But there’s a second, more subtle reason for the early advantage, one that can also benefit applicants at some colleges.

When we first post a job, we haven’t received any applications yet. No interviews scheduled. No irons in the employment fire. The field is wide open. For someone who doesn’t leap off the page as a strong candidate but who also shows potential, we’ll probably interview them just to make sure. We’ve got plenty of time and not a lot of candidates yet. Why risk letting someone potentially great get away from us?

But each week after that, the field gets more competitive. Dozens (and for many positions, eventually hundreds) of applications come through. Interviews are scheduled. Eventually, we’ve got 10 or 15 or 30 applicants we’re getting to know and that our Talent Department is evaluating. We can’t hire them all, so we’ll have some tough—but great—decisions ahead of us. At that point, we need to whittle the pool down, not fill it back up.

Bottom line: the longer you wait, the more competition you’ll face.

Does that mean we might ultimately pass on someone who would have been just as successful if not more so at Collegewise? Yes. But hiring employees—like admitting college applicants—is an imperfect practice. Eventually, decisions need to be made. And those who show up earlier increase the chances of those decisions going in their favor.

Applicants applying to colleges that use a practice called “rolling admissions” can use this to their advantage.

While many colleges wait to review applications until the deadline passes (the date you submit yours won’t impact your chances provided it’s before the deadline), rolling schools evaluate applications as they are received, then send admissions decisions back throughout the cycle (sometimes as soon as four to six weeks later). The earlier you apply, the less competition you’ll face—and the sooner you’ll get your answer!

Applying early in the cycle won’t change the outcome for an applicant who just isn’t qualified. But for everyone else, why wait for more competition to show—and more spaces to fill—up? Apply early when the field is still wide open, and potentially get yourself a few offers of admission before the competition. I’ve seen many students who began their senior year having already received one acceptance (or more) from rolling admissions schools. That’s a nice feeling of confidence to carry with you as you complete the rest of your applications.

That’s why our Collegewise counselors usually advise that students complete their rolling applications first, even if those schools are far from their first choices. Your chances of admission will be stronger because there are a lot more spots available at the beginning of the admissions cycle than there are at the end of it (and you never know when the class will fill up).

Like any admissions requirement for any college, the only failsafe way to verify any college’s admissions information is to visit the websites of the schools themselves. But here are a few examples of colleges that have traditionally admitted applicants on a rolling basis:

Arizona State University
Indiana University
Michigan State
Penn State
University of Arizona
University of Alabama
University of Minnesota

Rolling admissions is not a secret—colleges will come out and tell you when they use it. And unlike other admissions programs like “early decision” or “early action,” rolling admissions is generally not an option you must select.

So as you review your colleges’ application requirements, pay attention if they tell you that applications are evaluated on a “rolling basis.” At those schools, remember that as the deadline nears, the competition intensifies.

Bad conversation starters

“Talk to me for a long time about something you don’t really care about.”

“Tell me what you think I want to hear—it doesn’t’ have to be the truth.”

“Your accomplishments encapsulate you, so let’s hear about them. Nothing else.”

“Sell yourself to me. I want to hear your pitch.”

“If you’ve made mistakes, please explain why other people are at fault.”

Nobody who’s actually interested would invite a conversation like this. And yet students often treat their presentation to colleges via applications, essays, and interviews as if this is exactly the conversation that’s been initiated.

The application and its associated elements are the space to have a conversation. So have one. Be clear and proud about your success—this is no time for false modesty. But be the real person, too, not just a perfect pitch.

Finishing your Common Application?

Seniors, if you’re finishing your Common Application to submit for January deadlines, our free Guide to the 2017/18 Common Application can add some expert tips to that final review. From the essay prompts, to the activity listing, to the additional information section, you can use it for everything from an assist with that one section you’re struggling with to a line-by-line review of the application. Get your free copy here.

Four weeks from now

When The Beatles released Rubber Soul in 1965, it ushered in a new sound to Beatlemania. They traded their cheerful pop songs that made people clap and dance for more experimental, emotional songs that made people listen and think. No band had ever produced music like Rubber Soul’s before, and the album marked the beginning of a new era of modern music.

It was also written, recorded, and produced in just four weeks.

As related in Rolling Stone’s50 Years of ‘Rubber Soul’: How the Beatles Invented the Future of Pop”:

“The Beatles didn’t go into the studio with a mystic crystal vision to express — they went in with a deadline. They had to supply product for the 1965 Christmas season, which meant crunching it out in four frenzied weeks, from October 12th to November 12th. So they holed up in Abbey Road around the clock, pouring out music as fast as they could, holding nothing back. They were willing to try any idea, whether it turned out brilliantly (the sitar, the harmonium) or not (the six-minute R&B instrumental jam, which they wisely axed). They wrote seven of the songs in one week.”

For students staring down impending college application deadlines, it’s easy to feel demoralized and overwhelmed by the volume, stakes, and timeline of your remaining work. But as nice as it would have been to work at a leisurely pace months ago, the ever-shortening window means that it’s now time to use those deadlines as fuel.

Can’t get motivated? Writer’s block preventing you from penning a particular short-answer essay question? The enormity or pressure of the task actually making you hesitant to forge ahead? If you want to successfully apply to college, you’ll need to overcome those excuses and get to work. And deadlines can be like fuel to ignite that progress.

The Beatles went into the studio with nothing and came out four weeks later with Rubber Soul. It’s time to show what you can emerge with four weeks from now.

Time, budget, and scope

When you’re working on a project and it becomes clear you’re going to miss your deadline, you can change the time, the budget, or the scope.

Changing the time means adding more of it by extending the deadline.

Changing the budget means spending more—money, energy, resources, etc.

But changing the scope actually means doing less. Cut the project in half. Remove a feature or a requirement. Take away something that’s just not necessary, get everything else right, and ship it. Changing the scope can actually be like a purification system. Get rid of everything that just doesn’t matter and spend your remaining time and budget on things that do.

Many seniors are worrying about completing their college applications on time. So what are your options?

You can’t change the time—college deadlines are fixed.

You can change the budget by spending more of your attention and energy than you currently are. It’s entirely possible that you’ve been under-spending in those areas and it’s time to reallocate those resources.

But don’t forget to take a hard look at the scope.

Do you need to apply to 15 or 17 or 22 colleges? (You don’t.)

Do you need to apply to those three schools that you don’t know much about but everyone else seems to like?

Do you need to apply to that fifth reach school just because you think that adding more to your list will increase your odds?

I wouldn’t recommend chopping down a list that your counselor has already approved without discussing it with them first. But if you’re feeling pressed by deadlines and just don’t have any room left to spend more, consider changing the scope of your college application project.

“Your application is incomplete”

Some parts of the college admissions cycle are so 1) recurring and 2) fear-inducing that they merit a repost here every now and then. Here’s one.

“Our records indicate that your application is incomplete.”

Those are not the words you want to hear or read when you so methodically ensured that all of the required pieces were in fact sent by the deadline.

So, college applicants and their worried parents, I hope you’ll read or at least keep handy this past post about what to do if those words arrive. And even more importantly, make sure you click on the link within that post taking you to Patrick O’Connor’s excellent article, “Before you Scream at your High School Counselor.”

The dreaded “Your application is incomplete” often induces a lot more panic and unfair assigning of blame than it merits. I’m hoping those two reads referenced above will help you forge ahead calmly and productively if the dreaded message arrives in your inbox.

Guaranteed celebration

If you’re a senior who just submitted your early applications for November 1 deadlines, congratulations. There is increasing concern among counselors and even colleges about just how many schools are offering these programs right now, how many students are taking advantage of them, and how much added pressure that places on applicants, many of whom feel that they’ll be at a disadvantage if they don’t avail themselves of the early option. So if you successfully completed your application(s) and wrote the essays and pressed the submit button before the early deadline, you deserve a break. But here’s my recommendation.

Take a break, but get back on the application horse soon.

There’s an understandable inclination for early applicants to put off completing their remaining applications until they receive their early application decisions. After all, if those schools are your top choices and you’re admitted to one or more of them, the time spent completing your remaining applications will all have been for nothing.

Still, my recommendation for you is the same that we make to just about all our Collegewise students. Take the weekend off from applications. You deserve that. But please don’t put off all the remaining work until you receive a decision from the school(s) where you’ve applied early.

An admission in early December will make for one of the best holiday breaks you could imagine. But if you don’t get the news you were hoping for and you’ve left all your remaining applications to complete, there won’t be any time to lick your admissions wounds. Instead, you’ll need to muster the energy to jump right back into this process. That disappointment will be a lot easier to manage—and you’ll have a far more enjoyable holiday break—if that work has already been completed.

You don’t necessarily have to submit all those remaining applications beforehand if you’d rather not bear the financial strain of paying the accompanying fees. Just get the work itself done beforehand and you’ll have something to celebrate no matter what early news you receive.

Our guide to the University of California application is here!

Hot off the presses, today Collegewise is releasing our official guide to help students apply to UC (University of California) schools. Inside the UC App: Collegewise Tips and Tricks for a Stellar Application guides applicants step by step through the entire app, with advice on everything from deciding which standardized tests to report, to utilizing the “Additional Comments” section, to avoiding common mistakes. Best of all, it’s free to students, parents, counselors, and anyone else applying—or helping someone else apply—to UC schools. You can get your copy here.