Helping Students Prioritize

The college application process: helping students prioritize

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    Right now, we here in admissions are literally buried in applications – piles and piles of hopeful essays and glowing recommendations, test scores and resumes.

    So let me take a little breather and tell you about a game I like to play as I travel the country, speaking to students about college admissions. Years ago, motivated by the knowledge that listeners retain very little from traditional lectures, I created a more interactive presentation. It’s informative, lively and usually provides a few laughs around how to deal with the dreaded Common App.

    I find nine students to hold big cards labeled: Essay, Transcript, Guidance Counselor Recommendation, Test Scores, Teacher Recommendation, Interview and Extracurricular Activities. I also have cards for Special Talents and Spelling and Grammatical Errors.

    I then ask them to arrange themselves in order of importance. They generally run around like 5-year-olds playing rec soccer as I sing the Jeopardy! theme song. The result is different each time. As someone who assesses stacks of college applications every year, it’s always interesting to see what applicants think we care most about.

    Then I interview my volunteers and move them around, sharing my rationale and tips for nailing the various pieces. My own order can change – some days, I might be particularly anti-test scores. But generally, my priorities go something like this:

    Transcript. We talk about the importance of grades and courses and how many advanced honors courses a kid should take. Is it better to show improvement from grades 9 to 12? How can juniors demonstrate progress?

    Test Scores. I ask, “Are test scores a reflection of character?” Students always say “No,” and I say, “Say it louder!” We talk about test prep techniques, fear and retesting. We discuss how colleges use test scores to improve their rankings in U.S. News and World Report. We talk about the pros and cons of even applying to schools that require testing. (Fairtest.org lists schools that don’t.) Sometimes I let test scores stay at the number two spot, and sometimes I banish them to the end. And I share my 20-year-old daughter’s favorite study tip:  read Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books thin plots, but good vocabulary.

    Guidance Counselor Recommendation. I urge students to meet with counselors. Counselors who don’t know a student can’t write an effective letter. Advisors should be familiar with the student’s talents and goals. And I suggest a small thank-you gift. I also remind students to share success with recommenders, but not blame.

    Teacher Recommendations. I ask, “Which teachers and subjects do you like?  Union requires one teacher recommendation, so how many should you send?”  My answer:  two. Ask teachers from two different disciplines, but not three. That’s too many. Be sure to email a thank-you and updates. It also helps to give the teacher a letter reminding them what the student did well in class and what they liked. I admit, I like to place more importance on counselor and teacher recommendations than people might expect, because I think students tend to undervalue them.

    Extracurricular activities. What’s the right number? Some say “Five!” which is funny. There is no magic number. I ask students to list their favorites, and to not be too general; they should talk about what they really did. Don’t write “community service”; be specific. “Visited a nursing home weekly for a year,” for example.  If they played in the orchestra, name the instrument. Details help colleges see the applicant.

    I am often asked if colleges require community service. No, but some schools weigh it more heavily. Emphasize depth and breadth of involvement, which is always impressive. For instance, “I was in Boy or Girl Scouts from childhood through high school.” What colleges really want to know is: has this person made good use of his or her time? And while I’m a strong advocate of hanging out with friends and listening to music, I don’t recommend listing these as activities on a college application!

    Essay. I advise students to pick a unique topic, one that reflects and sounds like them. I specifically remember one essay called “Leap of Faith,” in which a student recalled overcoming her fear of public speaking by jumping off her teacher’s desk. Do three or four drafts. Include concrete details to engage the audience, and find a non-stressful proofreader – a teacher, counselor or parent.

    I like to share a funny story about my daughter’s successful college essay for her Barnard application, in which she used the word “commode” for cupboard. To many, that means “toilet.” I told her so, and she consulted her English teachers.  But then I stepped back and didn’t ask until years later which way she went. Funny thing:  she couldn’t remember!  It wasn’t important, ultimately.

    Interview. So, what should one wear to an admissions interview? UGGs? Neckties? Flip- flops? I always recommend professional dress. Students should prepare for questions about studies, family and activities. They should think about representing their high school as an ambassador. Be prepared for silly questions, and for what I call the “Miss America” questions: “What is one of your better qualities? Proudest moment?  Do you like to read?” (On that one, I recommend following my godfather’s advice:  “Never get into a conversation about any book you have not actually read.”)

    Next, I kick the Spelling and Grammatical Errors board out of the lineup entirely. Students often place it next to Essay, but in reality, there’s no place at all for mistakes. I remind them that the Common App has no spell check, so they must find all the mistakes in Word before they copy and paste. And don’t forget to watch out for Word’s infamously embarrassing “corrections.” I’ll never forget reading one student’s essay on “peasant hunting.”

    And what about Special Talents? The best answer I ever got on that question: “Shouldn’t that student just go to Julliard?” These should go next to Extracurricular Activities. Sports should be higher if the student is highly recruited. An alumni connection is also a factor, but while family will get you a good look, it won’t get you in. (Of course, if your grandma just gave the school $1 billion, go to the front of the line!)

    I love this entire exercise, which can be really fun depending on the audience. I think it helps students prioritize application tasks, whether they’re working with a lot of guidance or very little. It also feels good to shed light and laughter on what can be a stressful process for students, parents, counselors and – yes – even the college admissions officer, digging her way through a mountain of deserving students, all striving to stand out.