Friday, April 24, 2015

College Night Follow Up

Thank you to everyone who attended (and participated in) College Night last week. It was a great event and I'm always pleased to see so many students and parents gaining knowledge about the college process. The intent of the night is that 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students and families can come to learn information so that by the time college applications roll around in the fall of 12th grade they are prepared and know the basics.

Because we are always tight on time, I have to limit the panel discussion at the start of the night to only about twenty minutes. This year, I asked for people to submit questions ahead of time using a google survey. I wanted to use this space here to address some of the questions that we didn't have time to answer.

Is it appropriate to include pictures or links in the application essay or anywhere else in the application?

With the exception of a very few rare cases, I would strongly discourage including links in the application essay. Reason being: if the student is applying to a portfolio program or a visual art major that is looking to see images as part of the application, there will be a separate method for uploading images and using a centralized platform to show student work. If you include a link in an essay one of three things might happen. 1) The reader is reading on paper and a link is useless 2) The reader is reading on a computer, and while the link might work, it will pull them out of their reading portal and require extra time/steps on their part 3) The reader will forward on the link to their colleagues, usually for reasons of being memorable in the wrong kind of way. That isn't to say that this is an automatic application killer, only that the best way to stand out in the application is by being a remarkable person. You can do that without images.

One thing to consider though is that there are some colleges that specifically request creative or multimedia portions of the supplemental application. These could include things like sharing a YouTube link or making a piece or art to connect with the rest of your application. Here you are being given space and instructed to give the reader something that is expected to be visual. Link away.

How do you reconcile a student's need to explore various fields in order to find their passions with the college's desire for students to demonstrate interest/focus in or two areas?

I think the heart of this question is asking: do you want me to be well rounded or do you want me to be sharply pointed? Do you want teens who have dabbled in lots of things to 'find themselves' or should I curate my life and resume to show my commitment to my future career path?  I think the answer is to throw out those considerations entirely and understand that you can't be all things to all colleges. Instead, just be yourself. It is way easier and way more satisfying.

I don't say this to be glib. I say it to be honest with you about the fact that yes, colleges each have their own individual enrollment goals. This sometimes means being super impressed with the prodigy who has dedicated every waking moment to the violin and rewarding that person with admission based on this clear talent. But, that same school isn't looking to enroll an entire army of violinists. For every musical genius, they also need to admit an athlete, and a student body president, and an environmentalist, and a person who is an undecided liberal arts major who just has great grades all around and lots of diverse interests. Instead of trying to work backward from admission to extracurriculars, let your interests be your guide. When I was in high school, I was involved in lots of different things. Some of these things are still connected to what I do now as an adult. Other things are no longer a huge part of my life, but they added value at the time. Your goal doesn't need to be breaking the admission code at every single college. Your goal is to pursue your passions and identify colleges where your interests will be recognized, embraced, and rewarded.

High school IS the time to explore lots of fields. You aren't expected to start every single thing in 9th grade and continue it for four years. But you are expected to tell a story through your application. There should be some kind of theme or narrative that helps the reader get a glimpse of your life and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Lead a full life and the crux of this question will become irrelevant. Colleges admit both well rounded students and pointy students. Stop spending time debating which one you should be and be the one you are.

Can a great personal statement make up for a low test score or weaker grades?

To be frank, the honest answer to this question is: probably not. At least not at a highly selective school in regular decision. A great personal statement is certainly not a bad thing to have. But the reality of an essay taking an application from deny to admit is just very very rare. With that said, a great essay can help bring you into the committee room at a highly selective school. It can help you stay on the WL instead of being denied. It can help you be identified for merit scholarships at schools that offer them. But the transcript is the single most important part of an application. For schools that look at testing, testing is usually the second most important part of the application. So for an essay to trump both of those things is unusual.

The better way to look at it is to say that if you are already in range with testing and grades, a great essay CAN help you over the finish line at a highly selective school. The reverse is also true, where at a highly selective school, a student who is in range with scores/grades/extracurriculars a very weak essay can hurt the applicant.

If you have low test scores or weaker grades, don't lose hope. This answer refers mainly to highly selective schools (in my experience, those are usually the schools people are asking about). There are schools out there that admit students from ALL parts of the grade spectrum. There are also hundreds of testing optional schools (