Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rolling Admissions

I've come across many students in the last few years who are so worried about being accepted into college that they report, "I'll go anywhere they'll take me." This is not coming from students who are barely able to skate through graduation with minimal grades; these are well-rounded A and B students who see the admissions statistics for the most selective schools and presume that their chances of getting into a "good" college are slim. That presumption, in turn, creates more and more stress on the application process.

Several counselors I know recommend to their students that, all else being equal in terms of fit for a student, they include at least one "rolling admissions" school in their list. Rolling admissions schools don't wait until a single-date deadline has passed and then evaluate the whole batch of applications against one another. Rolling admissions means, basically, that as applications roll in to the admissions office, they are evaluated and given a thumbs up or thumbs down quickly, usually within two to six weeks of arrival at the admissions office.

This means two things for applicants. First, you don't have to wait until spring to hear whether or not you've been accepted, and if there is an offer of admission, you have at least one college in your pocket, and can therefore stop stressing quite so much about your other applications. Second, it means that if you are a qualified applicant and apply early in the cycle (August, September, October), you have a greater chance of admission than the superstar student who drags his feet. Why? Because once a rolling admission school reaches its capacity for acceptances, they're done. A great student who comes along late may just miss the boat.

The more popular the college (think University of Michigan), the more quickly the class fills up. On the flip side, less well-known colleges that use rolling admissions will keep their admissions open until they've reached capacity, and that could be much later than some of the application deadlines for regular decision colleges (usually January 1 through January 15). If a student self-describes as the next Einstein, and applies (unwisely) only to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, that student may end up with three "We're sorry to inform you..." letters in April and then be saved by a rolling admissions college that is still accepting applications in late April or May.

The bottom line is this. If you have any rolling admissions colleges on your list, get to those applications right away. If you are feeling panicked that you aren't going to get in anywhere, perhaps it's time to find a rolling admissions school for which you are well qualified and would enjoy attending, and get that application in so you can buy yourself some peace of mind.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The College Application Essay

It is one of the ironies of college admissions that students who claim to be ready for the academic rigors of college--which includes the ability to manage one's time and pace oneself through long research projects--nearly universally procrastinate on writing their college application essays. But like all big projects that seem daunting at first, the college essay is best tackled in several small steps over a long period of time.

The first step, and the one that causes the most consternation in students, is to figure out what topic to write about. The Common Application, widely used by private colleges throughout the U.S., offers students six topic choices for the long essay, including "#6) Topic of your choice," which is both helpful and not at all helpful at the same time.

The trick is to take the time to reflect on yourself. Many students find this rather uncomfortable, to sit quietly and think back on their own lives and try to tease out where and how, exactly, they came to be the people that they are. But that is exactly what the colleges want to know--who you are outside of the grades and test scores, how you think and what you value.

So try this. Create a timeline of your life, and try to pinpoint any small moment--a conversation, an experience--that, looking back on it, may not have seemed so significant at the time but on reflection somehow changed or more clearly defined who you are and where you are going in life. Remember, it's never too late to have an epiphany, and epiphanies can often be good fodder for application essay topics.

Once you have a few small moments written down, try jam writing about the topic--write as if no one were looking or editing or caring about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Just tell the story of that small moment. If you find one where the memories and thoughts flow rather quickly, you may be on to something in terms of a topic.

The second step is to use the good bits from the jam writing session to launch the actual writing of the essay. Your choice of approach, language, organization, and suspense (or lack thereof) are all fair game for the admissions officer's critical (or complimentary) eye.

A small story always works best when writing an application essay. It makes the topic more interesting for the reader, certainly more interesting than composing an essay that is just a listing of your high school accomplishments. You should plan to write at least two drafts of each essay before you get to a final version. Allow yourself the gift of time to write a decent draft then set it aside for a week. You'll be amazed when you come back to it how quickly you'll see what needs to be strengthened and what needs to be pruned. Work through your second draft, and get input from others you respect, but be mindful that even good advice is no good in this case if it changes the tone of your essay into something that is not "you." Let it sit on a shelf for another week or two, and you'll be ready to read it one last time with fresh eyes and create a final version. Then, and only then, should you do a final proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, each of which must be absolutely, flawlessly perfect in the final essay you submit to the colleges.

As inspiration, I'd like to point you to an article from a recent issue of Stanford Magazine, in which they published the opening sentences of several application essays that helped earn the writers an offer of admission at that uber-selective school:

Good luck!