• The College Admissions (Essay) Story

    The college admissions essay. Just the mention of it is enough to create a pit in the stomach of any rising senior. And by senior year, while most teens have gained plenty of experience writing essays on assigned topics, this may be the first time you find yourself writing a personal story. And it can be uncomfortable.

    I use the word ‘story,’ rather than ‘essay,’ for a reason. The best college application essay reads much more like a short, compelling first-person narrative then a dry recounting of adolescent accomplishments.

    What are the experiences you love to laugh about with friends? What are the stories your family members relish telling about you? What are the first three words that comes to mind when people describe you? What are you ‘into’? Are there examples from your life that demonstrate each of these?

    These are the topics that result in a college admissions essay that demonstrates your ability to write, tells the admissions reader more about who you are and what makes you tick, and conveys it in a way that is genuine to you (btw, that is pretty much all the essay needs to accomplish.)

    Unfortunately, most teens (and their well-meaning parents) place far too much emphasis on the college admissions essay. This can be utterly paralyzing. Instead, keep it simple. The essay is a 650-word story that tells a tale about you, not the memoir of your life up until age 17.

    Do not feel the need to recount your high school honors and accomplishments, since those will be listed elsewhere in the application. Do be true to who you are, or as one student put it, “Don’t overthink it. No words will be the perfect words. As long as the writing is yours, your personality will shine through, especially if you choose to write about something that you’re passionate about.”

    Ready to dip a toe in the water, or still need a little push? Scan the common app or coalition app essay prompts. Both include a prompt that gives you the freedom to write about a topic of your choice.

    Still seeking inspiration? Ask a few friends or family members to describe three qualities about you, including anecdotes of when they think you demonstrated those attributes. Or instead, write about an object from your life, and its special meaning to you.

    Alternatively, give yourself a ten-day, ten-topics assignment. The rules: nothing is out of bounds, the topics must be different, and you must resist self-editing. Take a look after ten days and see if something speaks to you.

    Or pretend for a moment that you are a seminar day speaker, leading a teen TED Talk, or are a stand-up comedian, doing your bit on stage. What story would you tell, and how would you tell it?

    Write as you would speak, and be descriptive. Be in the moment: show or demonstrate, rather than describing as an observer. Consider the reader, and how they are “hearing” your story.  Free write without editing in your first draft.

    Only then consider the conclusion. Summarize your story and the personal qualities you want to highlight. Land on how you’ve changed, the insight you gained, how this experience has shaped you as a person, or even how this experience has inspired you to contribute to your future alma mater.

  • College Admissions in an Age of Contagion: JUNIORS

    Juniors are facing evolving changes in the college application process as a result of COVID-19. Students and parents who were planning to visit universities this spring will find that most universities have canceled on-campus information sessions and tours and replaced these with virtual events. If the pandemic passes in the weeks to come, universities may offer fall information sessions and tours, so explore the option of visiting a college of interest on a Monday holiday in the fall. In the meantime, you can virtually tour more than 600 universities at YouVisit.

    To gain a better feel for personal fit with the students who could become your future classmates, reach out to friends and recent high school grads who attend or know someone who attends a school of interest. They may share an informal first-person take which may be less polished than what you would hear on a formal college tour.And aspiring college students should be comforted that many of the nation’s most applied-to private and state universities do not document school visits or weigh applicant interest heavily in the admissions process. This is likely to be more so than usual this coming application year, given the circumstances. But don’t be afraid to contact the admissions representative for a specific school and ask directly about whether demonstrated interest is a factor, and how you might make your interest known.

    There are many ways to show interest beyond attending a virtual information session. Open emails that have been sent to you from a target college, since most schools track these interactions. As stated before, contacting your region’s admissions representative directly with a pithy question that demonstrates you’ve familiarized yourself with the college counts, too. If you have a strong sense of what you might want to study, reach out to a professor in that subject area, again with a well-informed question.

    As mentioned in my last post, universities are going to view applicant transcripts with a more sympathetic eye during the coming application season. Admissions officers are well aware that high schools across the country and around the world are modifying their curriculum to teach remotely and will take this into careful consideration when considering an applicant.

    SATs & ACTs: changes

    Standardized aptitude tests figure prominently in late junior year/early senior year college preparation. In light of the pandemic, the College Board has announced changes, including cancellation of the May 2 and June 6 SAT test dates. Makeup exams for the March 14 administration (scheduled for March 28) were previously canceled. Registered students will receive refunds for any cancelled test dates.

    Assuming the pandemic has subsided and it is safe to do so, the College Board will offer weekend SAT test dates every month, beginning in August. This includes the previously scheduled tests on August 29, October 3, November 7, December 5, and a new September test date, yet to be announced. The CollegeBoard is working with testing locations to expand capacity for these test dates.

    If you already registered for the cancelled June test or are a member of the class of 2021 and have not yet taken the SAT, you will have early access to registration. Learn more at the College Board.

    Similarly, the April 4 national test date of the ACT was postponed to June 13, and all students who registered for the April 4 test date should have received an email to reschedule to either June 13 or a later test date. The next ACT national test dates are June 13 and July 18, at this writing.

    Beginning with the September 12 ACT test, students can choose between the traditional paper test or an online test (administered at a testing location.) The advantage of the online test is that test results may be available in as little as two days, expediting reporting for college admissions purposes. In addition, beginning with the September test, students who have previously taken a full ACT can opt to retake one or more sections, rather than the full test.

    The ACT is now joining the CollegeBoard in offering students a “superscore” reporting option, where an average of a student’s highest scores across each section is reported to universities. But be advised: the ACT will supply at least one full composite score with each superscore, plus all the scores from the test events that are part of the superscore composite. 

    In response to the coronavirus epidemic and SAT/ACT test date cancellations, several colleges have announced they will be test-optional for the coming application year. For example, Northeastern University and Boston University will both be test-optional for Fall 2021 applicants, and Tufts University announced that it will be test-optional for the next three years.

    A holistic college application, whether filed via the common or coalition application system, includes a description for your high school achievements, extracurriculars, and summer activities per year. Be assured that college admissions officials will understand if your spring athletic season, arts performances, or other extracurriculars were truncated or canceled.  Both application systems include a section where applicants can note special circumstances.

    Realize, too, that nearly every other college applicant, across the country and around the world, is also coping with life changes as a result of COVID-19. You are not alone.