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For potential Cavaliers–advice for University of Virginia applicants

UVA (University of Virginia) is one of those selective public schools that often behaves like a private college.  Their application is a good example of this.  You've got several essays to write that range from describing your academic interests to just being playful and helping them get to know you better.  It’s a good opportunity for the serious applicant to demonstrate just how interested you are in UVA by sitting down and writing some thoughtful, revealing responses.  Here are a few tips to get you started. 

1. Read their Tips on The Application Process.  In particular, pay attention to this advice about writing essays. 

“Write good essays. Write in your style and voice about what you know, not about what you think colleges want to hear. Distinguish your experiences. Pick a small topic. Proofread.

That’s good advice.  Write essays that sound like you.  Don't write what you think they want to hear.  Avoid writing essays that lots of other students could write (like "Volleyball taught me the importance of teamwork"). 

2. Speaking of essays, read this, too. 

Parke Muth, one of UVA's very own admissions officers, wrote what we think is the definitive piece on college essays, especially his advice on avoiding trite, overused stories he calls "McEssays."  It's so good that we've featured it on our blog before. 

OK, you've read the advice from the admissions office and you're ready to start your essays.  UVA requires two supplemental essays as part of their application.  Some colleges' essay topics are seeking thoughtful responses, while others are inviting you to be playful.  UVA serves up examples of both. 

Here's prompt #1

We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists.  Answer the question that corresponds to the school you selected above. Limit your answer to a half page or roughly 250 words.

*College of Arts and Sciences: What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

*Engineering: Discuss experiences that led you to choose an engineering education at U.Va. and the role that scientific curiosity plays in your life.

*Architecture: What led you to apply to the School of Architecture?

*Nursing: Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.

The key words to notice in this prompt are "passionate students."  Yes, UVA wants you to be excited about dorm life, rooting for the Cavaliers, making new friends, staying up late eating pizza with the aforementioned new friends, etc.  But first and foremost, they want passionate students.  College academics aren't like high school academics; in college, you have choices.  You get to pick what interests you and pursue it as far as you are willing to go.  UVA is looking for students who are excited about this opportunity, and who have shown glimpses of that intellectual passion and academic initiative already.

All four of those prompts appear to be different, but they're really all just looking for you to give them specific examples of experiences where you were excited to learn, or to apply what you'd already learned.  So in crafting your responses, use some emotion. 

Don't tell them…

"Working as an EMT taught me that I have the aptitude for nursing." 

Instead, tell them…

"Ten minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was doing chest compressions on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do." 

There it is.  

Future engineers, don't tell them that you love math because there's always a right answer, or that you've always excelled in math and science (they know that–they have your transcripts).  Have you ever seen how engineering majors spend their time on college campuses?  They're designing machinery, engaging in cutting-edge research, solving complex equations, and reveling in the science that is engineering.  If you want to be one of those mathematical revelers, let UVA hear your passion for this subject matter. 

Tell them how the best night you’ve had in high school was the night you and the physics Olympics team stayed up all night perfecting your object projector, or how you learned the basics of mechanical engineering fixing your family's mini-van, or how you taught yourself how to repair computers over the summer and are now the go-to tech support source for all your parents' friends. 

Don't hide behind an emotionless answer.  The more you love the subject matter, the more evidence you should have that you are already one of those passionate students who’s just chomping at the bit to bring that passion to UVA and get started.  

Now, prompt #2…

Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words:

What is your favorite word and why?

Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are.

Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

These are the kinds of prompts for which there are no right answers–they are simply designed to give you the opportunity to share more about yourself and help the admissions committee get to know the student behind the grades and test scores.  So you should feel free to be serious, funny, reflective, etc.  Just tell the truth and be yourself.  And whatever you do, make sure the essay sounds like you and don't try to guess what's going to sound good. 

Here are a few more prompt-specific tips.  

"What is your favorite word and why?" 

Really, the best advice I can give is that if you don't have a favorite word, don't answer this one.  Don't try to "find" your favorite word.  People who love to write, tell stories, speak in public, etc. tend to have favorite words.  For example, mine is "kitschy."  I just like that word.  We have history together.  I love that when I need a word to describe something tawdry and designed to appeal to undiscriminating taste, kitschy has always been there for me.  

If you have a favorite word, serve it up here and explain why it's your favorite.  If you don't, move on to the next question.

"Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are." 

Remember their "Tips on the Application Process" and their recommendation that you "Distinguish your experiences" and "Pick a small topic"?  Now it's time to put that advice to use.  If something or someone in your upbringing, family, personal life, community or school has made an impact on you, something that has "shaped the person who you are," describe that someone or something here, and zero in on specific details that are unique to you.  Immigrating to this country, going through your parents’ divorce, growing up in an economically depressed area—all of those stories are worth telling, but they've also all got the potential to sound just like every other student who shared that experience unless you distinguish your story by putting in as much detail as possible. 

"Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

Again, honesty wins here.  You can be serious, like,

"I pretend to like my boss because I help support my family and I can't afford to lose this job.  But pretending to like him is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because he makes derogatory comments about homosexuals that I find terribly offensive." 

Or it could be playful.

"OK, I'm just going to say it.  Right here, right now.  I like the Jonas Brothers.  There.  It's out there in the open.  Sure, my friends hate them, but that’s not why I hide my enjoyment of their music.  The internal conflict at work here is that I'm actually a musician.  A good one, in fact.  And the Jonas Brothers are just terrible musicians.  So why can't I stop listening?  Why does their music affect me so?  Why do they make me want to dance?  Please oh please keep this just between us." 

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

How eager are you to jump into this debate?  If you read this prompt and immediately had a reaction, either to support or contradict it, go with that.  The chemistry buff who spent the summer doing complex research with a professor might immediately have something to say about this, or the student who knows everything there is to know about astronomy, or the kid who read one of Richard Feynman's  books just for fun.  If you have a reaction to this, you might have a good answer. But I recommend that you only take it on if you really feel that you have something to say.  And be comfortable geeking out with your answer–this question is pretty much begging to do so.

It takes some time to think through these prompts and to write thoughtful answers.  But UVA will read them carefully, much like a private school would do.  That’s a huge opportunity for you if you’re willing to take the time.

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.

Silence = space for learning

One of Michael Bungay Stanier’s recommended strategies described in his book “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is so simple that anyone can do it. And it can lead to more enlightening conversations with those in your charge, whether you’re a parent, a counselor, or a manager.

Get comfortable with silence.

Stanier’s book recommends seven essential questions for those you are coaching or leading. But in order for the responses to lead to better coaching for you and better learning for them, you need to give them time to formulate their answers. If a question is followed by even 3-4 seconds of silence, many people—and I’m one of them—feel compelled to fill that void by rephrasing, clarifying, or outright starting over with a new question. Instead, just do this (Stanier describes this in the first person, as if you’re reminding yourself how to handle these scenarios):

“When I’ve asked a question and she doesn’t have an answer ready in the first two seconds, instead of filling up the space with another question or the same question just asked a new way or a suggestion or just pointless words, I will take a breath, stay open and keep quiet for another three seconds.”

Stanier argues that it’s during these silences, when people are considering their answers, that they are forming new neural pathways and increasing both their potential and capacity.

Sometimes the best way to create space for learning is to stop giving advice and start listening.

What’s your big fear?

If you’re experiencing an unusually high degree of stress around something that doesn’t seem to deserve quite this much anxiety, the first step towards relief might be asking yourself, “What’s my big fear?”

Not the rational concern. Not the worries as you’d express them to a friend. But the big (and potentially irrational) fear that you don’t say out loud or maybe even acknowledge.

It’s the difference between:

I’m not sure NYU is the right school for me because I haven’t fully decided if business is the right major for me.


My big fear is that I’ll get to NYU and end up homesick, lonely, and depressed. All of this will happen in a new city that seemed exciting but it turns out just scares the hell out of me now that I’m there. And I’ll have to transfer, which will make me feel like a college loser because everyone else from high school will be raving about how college is the best thing ever and documenting on social media how great their lives are.

Once you actually acknowledge the big fear, you’ve isolated the emotion that’s driving it. Then you’ll be in a better position to focus on the real issue, whether it’s emotional, rational, or a little bit of both.

For waitlisted students

Imagine asking someone to the prom and getting this reply:

“Hmmm…maybe. I want to go with you, but I also want to see who else might ask me. So I’ll get back to you. Full disclosure, I can’t promise when I’ll give you an answer, or if it will even be before the prom takes place.”

That’s the high school date-to-the-dance version of being placed on a college waitlist. Instead of receiving an acceptance or a rejection from a college, you’re offered a spot on the waitlist and told that you might be admitted later if more space becomes available. But most schools can’t tell students who accept that waitlist option where they stand, or when they’re likely to know if they’ve been taken off the list and offered a spot. So the student is stuck in the college admissions version of purgatory–that means accepting a spot at a school that said yes while holding out hope that a maybe from another school turns to a yes.

If you’ve been placed on a waitlist and would like some straight answers about why they exist and what students can do to potentially increase their chances of being accepted , check out “Wait Listed: Questions, Ethics, and Strategies” from counselor and former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia, Parke Muth.

And while you’re at it, here’s some other advice. If someone were to give you a “maybe” answer to your prom proposal, you’d be well within your social rights—and maybe better off—to simply decline and say:

“No hard feelings, but I don’t really want to sit around waiting for you. I’m sure we’ll both end up with the right matches we’re excited about. Best of luck.”

You can say pretty much the same thing to a college that waitlisted you.

What is your contribution worth?

I’ve written often here that high school students don’t have to be the valedictorian, MVP, first chair, etc. to stand out, that your impact isn’t limited to your accolades, and that even role players can make vital contributions. But I can imagine some students’ and parents’ skepticism, wondering how riding the basketball bench or scooping popcorn at the movie theater could possibly be valuable enough to impact others and to impress colleges. If you want some proof that bringing a little more energy, enthusiasm, or creativity can make a remarkable impact in an otherwise unremarkable role, look no further than Southwest Airlines.

If you’ve flown Southwest, you may have experienced a flight safety announcement unlike any you’ve heard before. Where every other airline seems to phone it in and read the same mundane announcement you’ve heard before about seat belts and oxygen and life rafts, Southwest encourages their flight attendants to be creative with zingers like:

If you wish to smoke, the smoking section on this airplane is on the wing. If you can light ’em, you can smoke ’em.

Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on your child. If you’re traveling with more than one child, start with the one who has more potential or who is less likely to put you in the home.

If you should get to use the life vest in a real-life situation, the vest is yours to keep.

Southwest is the only airline I know of that has fliers who answer the question “How was your flight?” by reciting their favorite portion of the in-flight announcements.

But what is all that laughter and fun worth to the bottom line for Southwest Airlines?

In their new book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, authors Chip and Dan Heath spoke with the Southwest Airlines analytics team to find the answer to that question. The team learned that when travelers who flew more than once a year on Southwest heard one of these creative announcements, they would fly an average of an extra half flight over the next year. That might not sound like much, but the team calculated that if they could double the number of flights where the announcement was creative (not all of Southwest’s flight attendants elect to put their own spin on the presentation), the impact would be worth an additional $140 million in revenue. That’s the cost of two planes for Southwest. All from just letting flight attendants bring some personality and vigor to something otherwise ordinary.

Your energy, verve, or other impact may not be worth millions of dollars to the bottom line for the Latin Club, hockey team, or non-profit where you volunteer. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth something—to you, to the organization, and to colleges.

Feelings fade, but the internet doesn’t

Yesterday, a student who had been denied from a highly selective college responded by tweeting at the school’s dean of admissions, hurling rage and insults at him that depending on your interpretation were at best offensive and at worst racist (the icing on the Twitter cake was that the post was also rife with spelling errors).

It didn’t take long for a screenshot of that tweet to make the social media rounds in the counseling and admissions community. Here’s what will very likely happen next.

1. There’s a good chance his post could make its way to the admissions offices of colleges that admitted him.

2. Because screenshots last forever (even after a tweet is deleted), and because this student chose a Twitter handle that uses his full name, he won’t be able to deny that he wrote that post.

3. If #1 happens, there’s an equally good chance those schools will rescind his admission.

Yes, he’s a teenager, and teens make mistakes. If he’d tweeted “You guys missed out” or even “You suck,” most admissions professionals would chalk it up to youthful emotion and laugh it off. But a post that is offensive and angry forces colleges to ask serious questions.

What will he do if he disagrees with a grade a professor gives him?

How will he handle himself if he loses an election for a dorm leadership post, or doesn’t get invited to join his first choice fraternity, or isn’t selected for an opportunity on campus that he was excited about?

Will other students feel safe learning and living in close quarters with this student?

Is it worth the college’s risk to put a student prone to this kind of anger into a campus community, especially with likely so many other qualified applicants to choose from?

I don’t predict he’s going to like the answers.

I will admit that part of me feels bad for this kid. Teens today have the capability of publishing their thoughts publicly to a potentially huge audience, an ability that is often unforgiving of teenage indiscretions.

But I’d also never let him on my campus if I were putting a class together and I saw that tweet. Tens of thousands of other kids were just as disappointed if not more so with news they’ve received. And they made a different choice.

High school students (and their parents), I know college admissions decisions can feel bitterly personal. But whatever disappointment, frustration, or outright anger that you’re feeling, please do not channel it publicly in a way that you cannot possibly take back. It’s not worth it. It’s not right. And you’ll probably regret it.

Feelings fade, but the internet lives on.

What will you have to show?

I received an unsolicited email from a graphic designer today. It had a bullet-pointed list of services he offers, from logo designs, to business cards, to brochures, websites and social media pages. It closed with an invitation to email him back if I’d like to get started.

An email like that is easy to delete, which is exactly what I did.

Why would a graphic designer rely on text alone to sell his services? He’s just telling me what he can do. Why not show me?

Even better than asking me to click over to your portfolio, which I have no emotional connection to, why not send me three mock-ups of what you would do if we worked together?

Here’s what I’d make your homepage look like.

Here’s the business card I’d create.

And here’s what I’d do with your logo to make it more appealing and memorable.

Had he done that, I could have seen the change he’d make. And if I liked what I saw, he’d have given me a problem. I now have to decide to either satisfy that interest by responding, or ignoring what’s enticing and choosing to stay with the status quo. Creating a problem like that for a potential customer—one where they can see the benefit and have to decide whether to engage or ignore it, is a good sales strategy.

The “show, don’t tell” method is an effective one for college applicants, too. Instead of  using the application to tell the reader about the important lessons you’ve learned and the appealing qualities you’ve displayed in high school, show them how those lessons and qualities have impacted, improved, or otherwise changed the people, projects, and organizations you’ve chosen to spend time with. You don’t need extra, unsolicited materials to do it. Just tell stories and be specific. That’s how you move from telling to showing within a college application.

If you’re an underclassman whose college applications are (thankfully) still in front of you, don’t worry about how you’ll pitch, package, or otherwise market yourself to schools. You are not a widget in need of a promotional strategy. You are a complex human being whose contributions can be compelling enough if you just have something to show.

“Will this look good to colleges?” is the wrong question to ask. Instead, start asking yourself, “What will I have to show for this?”

The more you have to show for it, the stronger applicant you’ll be.

Celebrate who they are today

When a student shows a passion for the arts—acting, photography, painting, etc.—it’s natural for some parents to worry about that interest’s future practicality. Should you encourage their pottery or painting or songwriting? Or should you push them towards interests where the path to gainful employment is both more certain and more direct?

It’s not an unreasonable concern (as my dad says, “There’s a difference between having a hobby and having a job”), or one with an obvious answer.

I liked Madeline Levine’s advice shared in this 90-second video about how to parent artistic kids. She uses the analogy of a river and a rock. A kid who is truly creative is like a river. You can be a rock who tries to halt that flow if you want to be, but they can’t shut off who they are—they’ll just go around you. So the only thing you stand to accomplish by trying to stop that flow is damaging your own relationship with your child.

But there’s an important distinction, one that I’m guessing Levine herself would have made had the video been longer. Just because a high school student shows a creative passion doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll one day commit to making a career out of it. Very few kids—creative or not—seek careers at 26 in the exact areas that made them tick when they were 16. That creativity may be there to stay, but creativity can be expressed in as many avenues as it can mediums.

Maybe your student will grow up and use those acting chops to deliver polished sales presentations? Maybe they’ll use those photography skills to capture the best shots of your family holidays together? Maybe the art class they teach one day will be the most popular course on campus?

So parents, if your student expresses a creative passion, celebrate it. Be happy for them that they’ve found something they enjoy, something safe and productive that lights them up. Don’t rush ten steps (and ten years) ahead and evaluate their creative career potential.

Yes, you might have to have some of those conversations if that creative interest starts to drive their college selection. But even those choices don’t necessarily bind them to a future career choice.

Wait and see who they become tomorrow, and just celebrate who they are today.

When students protest

To speak out against legislative inaction on gun violence, students around the country are mobilizing themselves and their communities to participate in a school walkout on April 19. In the wake of those announcements, two opposing responses have gotten some press attention:

1. Some high schools are threatening to discipline or even suspend students who participate.

2. Many colleges have announced that they will not hold any such disciplinary action against applicants. You can find a list of those colleges here.

It’s not appropriate in this setting for me to advise students whether they should or should not participate. But if you’re considering joining and have concerns over potential admissions ramifications, especially if you don’t see your school listed above or if you’re just too young to know where you’ll be applying to college yet, here are a few considerations that I hope will help you make an informed decision.

1. Remember that you might need to explain yourself later.
The advice that I’m sharing here is rooted in the fact that most colleges’ applications ask if you’ve been disciplined or suspended. If you answer yes, you’ll need to explain yourself. Any college, including those who’ve been outspoken in their support, will still pay close attention to that explanation. They’ll want to know what you did, what the punishment was, how you take responsibility, what you learned, etc. The content of that explanation will make the distinction between a socially conscious teenager trying to create change and one who just made uninformed decisions. Before you decide what you’ll do, think about how you might explain it later.

2. Consider your motivations.
The organizers aren’t doing this because they want an excuse to get out of school. They’re doing this because they’re engaged, scared, and looking to make a difference. No matter where you stand politically or ideologically, this is a significant time in our nation’s history, not just because of an epidemic of gun violence, but also because kids are leading a charge for change. If you decide to participate, make sure you know what you’re standing up for. What are the issues on the table? What are you hoping will happen as a result of the protest? What’s driving you to join and how would you describe that to help someone else better understand that motivation? Progress comes when people understand the change they’re fighting for. And part of making adult decisions means considering the reasons and potential outcomes before you act.

3. Talk to your counselor and teachers.
Whether or not your school supports your right to protest isn’t necessarily reflective of your counselors’ and teachers’ stance. So if you decide to participate, talk to them ahead of time. Explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Show that this is an informed, thoughtful decision. Even if they don’t agree, they can’t argue with the maturity and respect you’re showing. And you just may earn yourself some support they can show through advice, a willingness to help you make up any work you miss, or even a strong letter of recommendation when you apply to college.

4. Focus on the “peaceful” part of peaceful protest.
Every college that has voiced their support has done so for “peaceful protests.” Don’t expect that support to stand if your action goes outside that definition. The organized protests getting all the attention aren’t calling for anything that could get you in legal trouble. But if that changes while you’re participating, remember that most colleges will not consider “Everyone else was doing it” a legitimate excuse. Make good decisions before and during any action you take.

5. Remember that change won’t come overnight.
If you’re suspended for participating in such a demonstration, and if you explain it by claiming that you are passionate about this issue, but you never participate in any further efforts to create that change, your expressed commitment falls a little short. A problem this big never gets solved overnight, and there are lots of ways you could continue to be involved long after April 19. You can fundraise. You can assist with voter registration. You can volunteer for like-minded organizations. If it’s important enough to you to leave school and protest in the streets, is it also important enough to commit ongoing time and energy? It’s not for me to answer that question. But it’s worth considering before you go down this road.

A few reminders if bad news arrives

I hope that seniors and their families who read this blog are receiving plenty of good admissions news these days. But if bad news arrives, here are a few past posts that might help you bounce back just a little faster.

How to handle college rejections  

Treat rejections like break-ups

Should you appeal a college rejection?

And here’s another reminder: Some students, but more often parents, will react badly enough to the news that they call the admissions office to yell at somebody. Please don’t do that. The person who fields your call will almost certainly be a receptionist who had nothing to do with your admissions decision (most people who call to yell direct it at whoever answers the phone). But more importantly, yelling at someone isn’t going to change the outcome. It’s not going to make you feel better. You’ll almost certainly regret it later. And most importantly for parents, it sets a terrible example for your kids.

I know that it hurts when a school you (or your student) really wanted to attend says no. It can feel bitterly personal, callous, and unfair. But it’s also an opportunity–an opportunity to seize another college option, to model the kind of productive and resilient behavior that successful people exhibit when things don’t go their way, and most importantly, to become one of those families who doesn’t allow an admissions decision from one college to validate their student’s worth or potential. You can do that for yourself, whatever answer arrives.