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

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."

When admissions offices educate

I love it when an admissions office takes steps to educate families, not about the school or the reasons why a student should attend, but about how to manage the process, reduce stress, and maybe even enjoy yourself a little. 

Admissions officers at MIT, University of Chicago, and the University of Richmond have blogs that don't just serve their own interests; they give away solid advice for free. 

No student applying to college should write a college essay without reading University of Virgina's Parke Muth's "Writing the Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert."

And today's post from The Choice Blog shares a great piece from Middlebury College's website entitled "Top Ten Things for Parents to Remember."

Two words that can help you get into college

Two of my favorite words are "oomph" and "pithy."  Successful college applicants have oomph, and they know how to be pithy. 

"Oomph" means energy, vitality, or enthusiasm.

Students with oomph aren't just plodding through their classes and activities hoping to get into a good college.  They're high impact players.  Things are better when you've got people with oomph around.  They make classes, clubs, teams and even just lunches better for everyone. They make our college counseling program better for our counselors, too.  We're always on the lookout for students with appropriate levels of oomph. 

"Pithy" means  brief,

Great college essays have pithy beginnings, like this one from one of our former Collegewise students:

Quotation I think Holden Caulfield is a jerk.  There.  I said it.  I've been dying to say it ever since we read 'Catcher in the Rye' in my sophomore English class.

No messing around there.  That kid came right out and said something meaningful.

You don't have unlimited space on college applications.  You don't have unlimited time during college interviews.  Being pithy helps you make the most of your allotted space and time.

So bring some oomph into your life.  Don't just sit in your English class; put your hand up and try answering a question.  Be happy to be at basketball practice.  Thank your boss for giving you an opportunity.  Instead of waiting for your friends to plan something fun, start planning and wait for them to follow.

And when it's time to tell your stories to colleges, don't hide behind long explanations that don't really say anything.   Don't be shy.  Come right out and make your point.  Get pithy.

What’s your role?

What's role on the baseball team, on the student government, or in the school play? 

You might say you're the pitcher, the treasurer, or Danny Zucko (if you're performing Grease).  Those titles are important, but they're not your roles.   Titles are easy to describe.  Your role is a little more complex.  Your role is different than a position, an office, or a part.

For example, in addition to being a pitcher, you might also be the one who gave all the guys nicknames.  Or you might be the one who kept people laughing on the bus even when you were in the middle of a 5 game losing streak.  Or you might be the one who called the catcher the day after his error cost the team the championship, just to see how he was doing.

In addition to being the treasurer, you might also be the one who mediated the dispute between two other officers, or who studied parliamentary procedure and encouraged everyone to use it at your meetings, or who knew how to stand up and give an impassioned speech when you could tell the group needed to be inspired.

In addition to being the lead in the school play, you might also be the one who made sure the understudies got invited out for the post rehearsal pizza, or who made it your mission to promote and sell out opening night, or you could be the one on whom the teacher relied to run rehearsals on days when she had to teach an after school program.

When we brainstorm college essays with our Collegewise students, one of the things we listen for is evidence of them playing their roles.  The roles are often more interesting than the job titles. 

So think about the roles you play, how you play them, and how they help you make an even bigger impact.  And don't be afraid to share them when you discuss your activities with colleges.

“Insert name of college here”

College applicants could learn a lot from successful (and unsuccessful) job applicants. 

A friend of mine is applying for a job she really wants. Today, she asked me to read over her cover letter and give her some feedback.  This woman is wonderful.  She's smart, talented, likable, totally committed to her work, and I think the company (or any company) would be crazy not to hire her. 

But I had to be honest and tell her that her letter had an "Insert name of company here" feeling that wouldn't help her stand out.

In today's economy, job applicants feel pressured to play the numbers, to apply to as many employers as possible in the hopes that one will invite them for an interview.  And they have to do so under the pressure of deadlines and the reality that if nobody says "Yes," they're unemployed.

So a lot of applicants resort to a general cover letter, one that describes past employment experiences and cites the applicants' strengths, like, "I am very dependable and deadline-oriented," or "I show great initiative and am comfortable taking a leadership role," or "I believe my skills and talents are a good match with this job."  Then they recycle the letter at as many companies as possible changing only the name of the employer (though I admit that I've received cover letters from people who even forgot to do that–and I didn't hire them).

That's the approach my friend took.

A cover letter like that isn't going to make you stand out from all the other qualified applicants.  Job seekers need to show employers that they have thoughtfully considered each potential position, that they've identified why they believe they're a good match, and most importantly, they need to do so in a way that doesn't sound like anyone else.  It's not enough to tell them that you're "Dependable, honest and trustworthy."  You've got to help them see those traits with relevant, specific, compelling examples.  It's not easy, but it's what you have to do.

Students often approach the college application process the same way, applying to as many colleges as possible, using and re-using your application essays, and (hopefully) substituting the right name of each college. 

It doesn't work in job applications.  And it doesn't work in college applications, either. 

The good news for students is that college admissions doesn't have to be a numbers game.  There are over 2,000 colleges in the country. Only about 100 of them actually reject more than a small percentage of their applicants.  And over two dozen except literally every student who applies.

So don't try to play the college admissions numbers.  Don't apply to 5 Ivy League schools, Stanford, Duke, Georgetown and Northwestern and then hope for the best.  Those schools all reject the vast majority of their applicants.  Applying to as many of them as possible with recycled applications doesn't improve your chances; in fact, since your applications will have an "insert name of college here" feeling, you've actually hurt your chances taking that approach.  You've turned college admissions into a numbers game that you can't win.

Instead, don't be so concerned with whether or not a college is famous.  Find the colleges that are right for you.  Spend your application space showing them how you arrived at your decision to apply and why you would be excited to be a freshman there.  Be thoughtful and deliberate.   

And whatever you do, don't be an "insert name of college here" applicant.

What’s your tag line?

It’s hard to be memorable in an application pool when you’ve been reduced to a few
pieces of paper sitting in a stack with thousands of other
applicants.  So one of the best things
you can do for yourself is to develop a tag line.

I don't mean that you need a slogan (it's never a good idea to write something like "Got Kevin?" anywhere on your application).  I mean that when an admissions officer wants to read your file again and is trying to locate it amongst all the other paper, will she be
able to say something like,

“Where’s that tuba-playing surfer from California?”

“Where’s that journalist who works at her parents’ dry

“Where’s that female ice skater who also plays on the boys’
hockey team?”

“Where’s the dancer who teaches a limbo class for senior

“Where’s that black belt in karate who can break concrete
with her forehead?”

See what I mean?

The way you make yourself memorable, the way you
separate yourself from the pack, is to distinguish yourself not necessarily as a better or smarter applicant, but as
an interesting one.  You are more than your grades and test scores.  You
are not the same as the rest of the applicants.  You are unique.  

But your unique qualities will be more evident if you’re
passionate about what you do, if you love to learn, if you have initiative, and if you're comfortable just being yourself.  Don't try to mold yourself into what you think the colleges want you to be.  Just be who you already are.

Try it.  You’ll probably end up with both a tag line and an admission to college.

Ten ways seniors can still ruin your college applications

We're getting close to the end of college application season.  And unfortunately, the mad rush to finish can lead some seniors to making some big mistakes.  So here are some things to avoid.

And just to clarify, these are things you should not do.

1. If you send an email to an admissions office, completely ignore the standard rules of English grammar, capitalization and punctuation.

When you email each other, you and your friends might not care about anything other than just getting the basic point across. But colleges do. Emails devoid of things like punctuation and correct grammar make admissions officers wonder if you were too lazy to use them, or if you just didn't know how.  Both are equally bad.  

2. Do something goofy with your application.

What's goofy?  Sending a box of cookies to the admissions office with a note that says, "There's more where these came from if you admit me!"  That's goofy.  Seriously.  Don't do that (or anything like that).

3. Don't thank people who helped you, like your high school counselor or your teachers who wrote your letters of recommendation.

It's not unusual for a college to contact your counselor or one of your recommendation writers if they have a question about something that was unclear on your application.  If that were to happen, what final impression have you left on those people?  You wouldn't want your teacher to be thinking, "He's the kid who asked me to write his letter ten days before the deadline, gave me no supporting materials, and never bothered to say thank-you."  Be nice.  Say "Thank you."  Maybe even buy them a little gift.

4. Don't call the colleges to make sure they received all your application materials.  Just assume it all got there.

Testing agencies, teachers, counselors–a lot of people besides yourself are responsible for sending parts of your applications to colleges.  And colleges are absolutely inundated with materials at this time of year.  It's easy for something to get lost in the shuffle.  So follow up and make sure they've received everything for your applications. 

5. Stop studying and let your grades drop (Just hope that colleges won't notice).

A lot of colleges will ask to see your first semester grades before they admit you.  And I've yet to find a college who won't ask for your second semester grades before they let an admitted student become a freshman on their campus.  So don't let your senior celebration start too early.

6. Recycle an essay from another application but forget to switch out the college's name.

This is like phoning a girl to ask her to go out with you and calling her the wrong name.  It's not going to go over well.  And it happens a lot (the application mistake, I mean). 

7. Post some questionable pictures of yourself on your Facebook page.  And make it public for all the world to see.

Admissions officers have Facebook pages, too.  And they know how to use them.  So, no party pics.  No photos of you making obscene or lewd gestures at the camera.  No blog entries detailing things that you wouldn't want colleges to know about.  The internet is public (it is the world wide web, after all).  So keep  your content clean, and keep everything private so that only your friends can find your profile. 

8. Let your parents get way too involved.

Over-involved "helicopter parents" who fill out applications, help write essays, and call the admissions office repeatedly inadvertently paint a picture of a college applicant who can't/won't do things for himself.  I'm not suggesting that parents have to stay out of everything college-related.  Be a supporter.  Answer questions.  Maybe even help impose some organization.  But this should still be your kid's process. 

9.  Bend the truth as much as possible.

When you sign a college application, you are signing a document in which you are claiming that everything, to the best of your knowledge, is true and accurate.  You should never, ever sign a document that says that unless you feel comfortable that it's accurate.  So if you've bent the truth anywhere on your application, bend it back and be straight.  No college admissions officer in America will fight to admit you if you lie on your application, even a little bit.

10.  Don't bother checking your email regularly.

It's not unusual for colleges to communicate via email.  So check your email once a day, at least.  If you created a separate email address for your college applications (a good idea if your email address is sexypartyguy@email.com), don't forget that once you list it, you also need to check it.

College applications with personality, and a side of bacon

After a recent seminar I did for Collegewise families, one parent who filled out an evaluation answered the question, "Are there any other comments you'd like to share with us?" like this…

"I like bacon."

I don't know who wrote it (the evaluations are anonymous), but I like that parent already.  This was probably a fun person, someone who knows how to enjoy him or herself, someone with a spirited personality.  I have no way of knowing if my assumptions are accurate, but you can tell a lot from an answer like that. 

College applications are the same way. 

A lot of kids are so wrapped up in trying to sound impressive that they won't be playful even when the college is begging you to play.  A question about why you want to attend this college requires a thoughtful answer.  A question about your favorite food or what book you would bring to a desert island or what one person, living or dead, you would like to have dinner with is begging you to be yourself and have fun.  Your answer doesn't necessarily have to be funny, but it should be true and revealing.  There are no right or wrong answers–just use the opportunity to help the college get to know you a little better.  So admit that you eat more Oreos than could possibly be healthy.  Tell them there's no way you'd go the rest of your life on an island without Harry Potter. Come right out and admit that you'd want to have dinner with the lead singer from Coldplay so you could ask him to please stop writing songs.  

A college will never come out and ask you to describe your personality.  But they'll be looking for it in your answers.  So make it easy for them to find it. 

Nice Kids Finish First

Be_nice Good things happen to nice kids. 

During application season, the Collegewise counselors are a little bit like the legend of Santa Claus.  We know which kids have been naughty and which have been nice.  We notice the seniors who were on time for all of their appointments, who always returned our phone calls, and who said, “Thank you so much” after our meetings.  And while we don’t treat them any better or work any harder for them than we do for our few naughty kids, we do notice them.  We’re human, after all.   

College admissions officers are the same way.

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5 Things Seniors Can Still Do to Help Them Get Into College

Timer Seniors, whether you’ve already submitted your applications, or if you’re planning one final application assault over the holiday break, here are five ways you can still improve your chances of admission to college. 

1.  Keep working hard in school

We know that might sound like the same old advice, but the truth is that a lot of colleges ask to see your first semester senior grades before they make admissions decisions, and those grades can absolutely impact your chances of admission.  Of all the things you can do to improve your chances (or not do that will hurt your chances), this one is the most important.   

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