Interests make you interesting

My friend's husband owns a bar.   Last month, I had a fascinating conversation with him about how he runs it. 

This guy was raised in Ireland and has a vision for how an Irish pub should be run.  He knows exactly what kind of feel the bar should have.  He knows how to adjust the volumes of the orders he places to stock the bar based on the seasons and how much business he can expect to see.  He knows what type of customer they want to serve and how to make those patrons happy.  And most importantly, he knows how he wants the Guinness poured.  

As he explained it to me, any legitimate Irish bartender knows that Guinness needs to be poured a certain way.  The glass needs to be held a particular angle.  The pour should be stopped halfway through and restarted again to help create the perfect head on top of the beer.  When a customer complains that he wants his beer faster, he'll remind the customer that he ordered a Guinness, not a Bud Light.  And nothing drives him crazier than seeing one of his bartenders rush a pour.  As he put it,

"If you're going to pour it, pour it right."

This isn't a guy who takes over a conversation by talking only about himself.  He only kept sharing more because I kept asking him questions about it. I was totally fascinated by it. 

I don't own a bar.  I have no interest in owning a bar.  And I don't even enjoy Guinness.  But the fact that he feels so passionately about what he does makes for great conversation.  It's interesting to learn about something from a person who knows so much more about it than I do.

That's what you want to do in your college applications. 

If you're a basketball player, there's a good chance the person reading your application wasn't.  If you're a guitarist, an artist, a stamp collector, an EMT, a dancer or a Civil War buff, chances are that your reader won't know as much about it as you do.  

So don't hide how much you know or how passionate you are about the things you do.  Show the colleges that you care about your interests like this guy cares about his Guinness.  Your interests make you interesting.  They make the colleges want to meet you so they can know more.  And when a college wants to meet you, that gets you a lot closer to being admitted. 

Don’t play the reach school lottery

Some students think that the best way to improve their chances of getting in to a highly-selective college is to apply to as many of them possible.  They think that by submitting 10 or 12 or 20 applications to those schools (we call them "reaches" for everyone given that up to 90% of the applicants are rejected), their odds of winning an admission improve dramatically. 

But they don’t.

We work with hundreds of students every year.  And whatever your dream schools are—Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, Duke, Georgetown, or any of the others—we’ve had students accepted there.  But in the nearly 11 years we’ve been doing this, not one of our kids who got into those schools got there by playing the lottery and applying to as many as possible. 

Applying to any reach school is always a gamble (you always run the risk of losing in the form of a rejection letter).  But we don’t have a problem with students gambling on a reach school or two.  In fact, we encourage it.  You’ve worked hard and you’ve earned the right to chase your dream schools.  

But if you place all your bets on long shots, you’re going to lose a lot.  And you're going to take too much time away from your applications to other colleges–colleges that are just as good–where your chances of admission are better.  A student who's really worked hard enough to consider the most selective colleges deserves a number of college options when the decisions come back.  You shouldn't be just crossing your fingers hoping that one of fifteen schools says, "Yes." 

The Collegewise students who get into at least one reach school do it by selecting the 1-3 reach schools that are the best matches for them—the ones for which they have a good, ten-minute answer to the question, “Why do you want to attend this school?” 

So find your 1-3 dream schools.  Take your best shot.  But don't don’t apply anywhere “just to see what happens.”  And whatever you do, don't play the reach school lottery.

When trying too hard is a bad thing

Being impressive is a good thing.  But trying too hard to be impressive usually isn't. 

Imagine you were on a first date with someone and he blurted out, "I've done over 200 hours of community service at the hospital.  In fact, I won an award for my hard work and dedication."  Sure, that's impressive.  But you'd also probably feel like he's trying too hard.    

Confident, self-assured people don't try to wedge their accomplishments into casual conversation.  Nobody likes someone who can't wait to tell you how great he is. 

But if your date had just said, "I volunteer at the hospital and get to work with some pretty great kids," you'd want to know more.  You'd ask him to tell you more about the kids, what kind of work he does with them, and even how many hours a week he volunteers.  Then he wouldn't seem too full of himself when he revealed how many hours he's spent there–after all, you asked.  You'd probably be even more impressed because you'd have a better a sense of how much this work really means to him, more so than you would have if he had just shared the impressive statistics.

Filling out your college applications (and writing the essays) works the same way.

When a college asks you to list your awards or to tally up how many hours you spent doing an activity, that's the equivalent of a date asking you, "Have you ever won any awards?"  Don't be bashful.  Answer the question, and be proud–you deserve it.

But when you wedge hours and awards and accomplishments into the other parts of the application, it sounds like you're trying too hard. 

When a college asks which of your activities has had the most meaning for you and you list all your awards, you're trying too hard.

When you write an essay that's all about how your time in the Model United Nations taught you many important life lessons about hard work and commitment, you're trying too hard.   

And if you complete community service hours, secure leadership positions, and live your high school life based on what you think will look good on your resume, you're trying too hard.  

The most impressive students are the quietly confident ones.  These are the students who want to learn, who commit themselves to activities they really care about, and who know that their hard work will pay off no matter where they go to college.  

How to get into Stanford with Bs on your transcript

I can't believe I'd never found Cal Newport's blog until yesterday. 

He's a Phi Beta Kappa grad from Dartmouth who also got a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT in 2009.  And he's the author of a new book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out

But the real reason I was so happy to find his work is that he's all about showing students:

  • How to live a low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. 
  • How you can get into great colleges and have a successful life by simply doing fewer things, doing them better, and knowing why you're doing them
  • Why it's more important in college admissions that you be interesting than it is for you to be impressive.

And even if you're one of those students who has your heart set on a
highly selective college, Cal's techniques can work for you, too. For starters, check out his post, How to Get Into Stanford with Bs on your transcript.

“Be yourself” is the only marketing advice that can work

I've written often on this blog that you have to be careful who you listen to when taking college admissions advice.  Steve Singer, Director of College Counseling at Horace Mann School in The Bronx, is one of the people kids, parents and other counselors should listen to.  I've heard him speak on panels at conferences, and every time I do, I learn something.

Singer is retiring this year, and recently shared some great advice in this piece from The New York Times.   Here's a snippet from the part about college essays (but the whole thing is well worth the read).


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Everyone is trying to come across as Edmund Wilson, Erwin Schrödinger or
Edna St. Vincent Millay. What do they want? Actually, essays that make
them feel like they’re in their room with a 17-year-old kid, albeit
thoughtful and accomplished. Feel free. Be yourself. It’s the only
marketing device that can work.

College applications can be too good

We don’t necessarily want our Collegewise kids to submit perfect applications.

Sure, if your application is sloppy, that’s not good.  If you fail to follow directions, that’s not good.  And if you mistakenly write, “I first became interested in Duke when I was back in the womb”…in an essay for your Georgetown application, that’s really not good.

But the problem with a perfect application is that it’s much more than just error-free.  A perfect application has an essay that reads like Hemingway wrote it (even if the student has never been recognized for his writing).  The list of activities is infused with puffery like, “Responsible for compiling, interpreting and distributing game-related data,” instead of just saying, “Varsity basketball statistician.”  A perfect application reads like a polished sales pitch.  It doesn’t feel real.  And that almost always means one thing–this kid didn’t do it all himself.

A college application, from the list of activities to the essays, should always sound like the 17 year-old who wrote it.  That’s why we don’t fill out applications for our kids, why we won’t tell them what to write in their essays or what to say in their interviews.  Sure, we guide them.  We give them good advice.  But we won’t do it for them.  We don’t swoop in at the end and polish their application by fixing every minute detail.  That just removes the kid’s voice from the work.  Making it too perfect kills the authenticity.

I learned a new tidbit in this article about kids getting too much help–“DDI” is admissions lingo for “Daddy did it.”

Here are a couple insights from the article

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“We definitely encounter essays that seem too good to be true,” said Eric J. Kaplan, interim dean of admissions of the University of Pennsylvania. “Highly sophisticated cadence and tone, perfectly polished prose, revelations that are almost profound, even for the most brilliant 17-year-old.”

 

…When an essay raises eyebrows, the first step is to judge it against the rest of the application, administrators say. A shimmering essay from a so-so English student, for example, clashes like “red stilettos and sweats,” said Sarah M. McGinty, a Boston admissions consultant and author of “The College Application Essay.”

…”There’s a little bit of a disconnect sometimes,” said Gil J. Villanueva, dean of admissions at Brandeis University. “We expect people to write like 17- and 18-year-olds, and sometimes it comes across like it could be in a book.”

…Heavily edited essays often come across as scripted, sanitized. Essays with some rough edges are not only authentic, they are better reads.

…”Almost the worst thing is for students to write to what they think we are looking for,” said Stu Schmill, interim admissions director at MIT. “The best thing they can do is write from the heart.”

You’re not perfect (nobody is).  So don’t aim for perfection in your college applications.  Follow the directions and treat the applications with the care they deserve, but be yourself.   Write what you want to write and make sure the application sounds like you.  Real is better than perfect.

Do college admissions officers look at your Facebook profile?

At a seminar last week, a parent asked me if college admissions officers will look at the Facebook pages of their applicants.

My answer–"Of course they do."

No, not all admissions officers.  And no college has an institutional policy for admissions officers to check Facebook profiles of all their applicants.  

But most college admissions officers are in their early to mid twenties.  They've got Facebook pages of their own.  And if they're particularly intrigued by an applicant, or if their curiosity is piqued for any reason and they'd like to know more, why wouldn't they Google that kid?  If a Facebook page popped up, why wouldn't they click into it?  Wouldn't you?  I would.

When someone applies for a job here at Collegewise and we're thinking about interviewing him or her, the first thing I do is Google the name.  And if they've got a Facebook page, you can bet I'm clicking into it.  It's not policy; it's just me satisfying my curiosity. 

You can debate whether or not it's fair or professional for admissions officers to do it, but the reality is that what you put up online is public information for anyone who navigates to that site.  If you don't want the public to have it, don't put up the information. 

So if you've got a Facebook page, keep everything private.  While you're at it, I'd be vigilant about what pictures you let your friends post of you on any website, Facebook or otherwise.  Once someone snaps this and posts it to the internet, it's never, ever going away. 

On colleges accepting YouTube videos with applications

Some colleges have begun inviting students to create optional videos they can post to YouTube so admissions officers can view them as part of the application.  Two of the most viral video creations from fall 2010 applicants were a flying elephant from a Tufts hopeful and a ukulele-playing student applying to George Mason.  

I got an email from a reporter doing a story about this who wanted to know:

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What do you make of this trend?  Fun? Not a good idea? Good way to showcase personality? Is this the college application of the future?  And does this concern you at all, either from a serious privacy level, or just the idea that these kids have their dorkiest moments that go viral, moments that they'll never really be able to escape later?

Here's the response I sent:

NewQuotation

I like the video option because it coaxes kids to relax and maybe even have a little fun.  Kids feel so much pressure when applying to college today that a lot of them are scared to death to just be themselves in their applications and essays.  Colleges are in the business of evaluating seventeen year-olds, so it’s OK to just be a real kid behind all the grades and test scores.  If a student sees the video option and gets excited to make and share something about himself, that’s probably a good sign.  Even the directions on the Tufts application section for the videos say, “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.”  They’re inviting kids to stop worrying about being impressive and to just share what they want to share.

We’re not necessarily looking at the future of college applications here because I don’t think videos are ever going to be something that’s required or even encouraged by a majority of colleges.  It’s time consuming for admissions officers to view these, and the applicant pools are just too large at many colleges to make this an option.  There’s also a question of inequity–too many kids don’t have access to video equipment.  Does a get a student who’s got thousands of dollars worth of equipment to shoot, edit and produce a masterpiece deserve an admissions advantage over a kid without those resources?  That’s why colleges will never be able to place too much weight on videos.  They’ll be a fun option that some kids use, but never a significant factor in the admissions process.     

And something you brought up in your original email is what concerns me about the videos–their longevity.  How many people do you know who would feel comfortable with the college application essay they wrote back in high school being posted online for the world to see today?  Most people wouldn’t want that.  YouTube videos live on forever.  When you’re a seventeen year-old college applicant and you make a video showing how much you like to air guitar in your room, that might make for an endearing college application video.  But how is that kid going to feel after college when potential employers do a Google search and see a video of him rocking out to Journey’s Greatest Hits?  Not good.

That last point doesn’t concern me enough to say that colleges shouldn’t invite kids to do this.  Kids are putting stuff up online with or without the colleges’ invitation to make videos  But it is something that I think people will be talking about five years from now when those applicants come out of college. 

Make college applications all about you

Talking only about yourself is a lousy way to have a conversation (and a surefire way to make sure a first date never leads to a second date).  But it's a great way to fill out a college application.

Unless a college specially asks you to talk about someone or something other than yourself, every essay and short answer question should focus on you.  You're the subject.  Bring the focus back to you as often as you can.

Even a question about why you want to attend the college should focus on you, not the college.

This applicant is making the college the focus:

"I visited Reed last summer and the students seemed very friendly and open.  They made me feel comfortable and knew I could see myself going to school there.” 

We don't learn much about that applicant.  But this one inserts himself into the response.

“When I visited Reed with my mom last summer, I knew it was the right place for me when I overheard one student say to his friends, “Speaking of bacteria…” and they all just started laughing hilariously.  I don’t even know what they were talking about or why it was so funny.  But it was probably something dorky, and that’s exactly who I am.  I’ve never known where the cool party was in high school and I’ve never cared.  I want to hang out with kids who aren’t ashamed that they’re terrible at sports but great at reading, like me.  I want to be with kids who think bacteria jokes are funny.”   

More details about you and your experience almost always make your story more compelling.  This applicant's description of a challenge he overcame doesn't help him stand out:

“I went to my teacher for extra help every day after school for three weeks.  Because of my hard work, I eventually started to understand chemistry better.”

But in this revision, the additional detail about his experience makes us feel like we were there with him. 

"For those three weeks, Mr. Chapman knew I was going to show up at his classroom at 3:05 p.m. every day.  I’d sit at a desk right in the front row while Mr. Chapman explained chemistry problems on the board.  And at some point during our second week of working together, I realized that I was starting to get it.  I was doing the problems on my own and Mr. Chapman was just smiling at me proudly."

Colleges spend countless hours crafting applications that will help them get to know their applicants better.  If you want your applications to help you stand out, give colleges what they want.  Focus on you.  Make yourself the subject of your stories.  Put enough detail in that nobody else applying could write the same essay.

College applications are a rare opportunity when you can talk about yourself at length without seeming self-obsessed.  So enjoy it. 

Putting a little soul into your college applications

One of the definitions of "soul" is "the animating principle; the essential element or part of something." 

Successful college applicants don't just complete their college applications; they use those applications to reveal essential elements of their personality and help admissions officers get to know them better.  They inject a little soul into their applications.  There really is an art to it.  And tomorrow, we're unveiling a new seminar for our Collegewise families to teach the art.  

Tomorrow, I'll deliver the first session of our new seminar, "The Art of College Applications."  We already do seminars about the college essay, interview, and how to to secure strong letters of recommendation, so this new seminar will teach how to use the remaining short essays and "quick take" sections to inject a little soul into your college application. 

Specifically, I'll be teaching how to approach some of the most common short-essay prompts like these:

1.    “Tell us why you think our school is a good fit for you.”

2.    “How will you contribute to our campus community?” 

3.    “Describe your academic interests (and how do you plan to pursue them).” 

4.    “Describe a time when faced a challenge or adversity.” 

5.    “Describe a time where you made a difference in your school or community.”

6.    “Where have you experienced diversity/How will you contribute to our diversity?” 

7.    “Describe a time when you failed or made a mistake.” 

8.     "Is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding your
background or interests that you didn’t have the opportunity to share
elsewhere?"

9.    “Quick take” questions, like…

    • It would surprise my friends to know that I… 

    • If I could travel anywhere in time or space, either real or imagined, I’d go…

    • The last book I read outside of class was… 

10.   Optional essays.

You can find samples of some of the advice in the series I wrote last November, "30 Colleges, 30 Collegewise Guides to Getting In."