My Tips for Surviving the College Application Process

By Emily I. from Berlin, Germany
Guest Blogger and College Goals’ student of Jilly Warner

The idea of applying to colleges can seem exciting, daunting, maybe even scary, but most of all, stressful. Although it should actually only be exciting, as we begin this amazing new chapter in our lives, I feel that it is hard to get around the stressful part of applying. The only way to make it easier is to take each step of the process as it comes and just get it done. To get started early is important, in order to have enough time to dissect each step of the process and work on it thoroughly.

To me, the most important part of the application process is having motivation and excitement. You have to be excited to go to college, and to start the wonderful experience of life after high school. If you are not, it may be very hard to find motivation to write essays, look into different kinds of schools, and keep up with your studies at the same time. Motivation and excitement came easy for me, as I have always dreamed of going to college in the US.

It helped to look at the websites of individual schools, and find one thing for each school that I was completely passionate about. This also helped when comparing different choices, as I could weigh the aspects I had found amazing about one school to the highlights of another.

During the process of deciding where to apply, I began writing my Common App essay. Again, the most important things to have are motivation and passion. Choose a prompt that you are interested in and brainstorm about what information you find important to share about yourself. This will help a great deal, as it will not be a burden to write and you may even find the process enjoyable. Going over it repeatedly will get boring, so I tried to always keep in mind why I initially felt inclined to write an essay in response to that specific prompt and why I was excited about it. If you simply can’t get motivated, think about your dream school. Imagine their admissions team reading your essay and what impressions they will gather from it. You want it to stand out, right?

Once I had made my final choice of colleges, I began writing the individual essays for each school. Again, if you get a choice of prompts, choose one that you are passionate about. Many of the essays took a lot of thinking and mulling over in my mind until I was able to decide what I wanted to write about. The University of Richmond, for example, has a prompt that simply says: Spiders. I felt completely clueless about how to respond, as I felt that such a creative prompt deserved a very creative answer. I was really happy that I had started early, because I had enough time to take a week to just think about it. I tried to think about it at least once a day, and if any good ideas popped into my head, I immediately wrote them down on my phone. This is a good thing to do with any prompts that seem tricky. It is a lot easier to have a whole bunch of ideas and then weed out the good ones, instead of staring at a blank computer screen with no ideas to consider.

Once I had finished writing all the individual essays, everything else seemed like a piece of cake. The best advice I can give to anyone about to go through the process of applying to colleges is to get on it early and stay focused, and most importantly, be motivated and get excited. It is the first time for most of us to be independent from our families and to make all of our own decisions. No matter where you end up going to college, you should be excited about the unknown, and use that anticipation for a boost of energy and motivation.

Important Changes to the Financial Aid Process

For many families, one of the most stressful aspects of the college application process is filling out financial aid forms.  Recent changes to both the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and CSS Profile should make the process somewhat easier starting October 2016, but if your student is a current high school senior, college freshman or college sophomore, there are some things to consider before the end of 2015.

Currently, the CSS Profile becomes available on October 1 and the FAFSA goes live on January 1. Parents must complete these online forms using prior year financial data. (So, for students beginning college in the 2016-2017 academic year, this would be 2015 data.)  This has meant that parents of college applicants have had to estimate tax income information in order to meet the financial aid application deadlines.

This autumn, changes were announced for both the FAFSA and CSS Profile.  Beginning in 2016 for aid applications for the 2017-2018 award year, families will use the prior prior year (PPY) income and tax return information, and both forms will be available on October 1, 2016.  This means that parents of students who will be in college in the fall of 2017, for example, will use their 2015 federal tax return to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile.

This will make the financial aid application process easier for the following reasons:

  • PPY will allow students to file their FAFSA and CSS Profile much earlier and align more closely with traditional application process deadlines.
  • PPY will allow most American families to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA, thereby eliminating the need for parents to estimate income and tax information and decreasing the need for additional documentation. Information from the parents’ PPY tax return (already submitted to the IRS) would be downloaded and automatically populate the FAFSA.
  • PPY may enable families to receive notification of financial aid packages earlier, which will provide more time for students and families to assess and compare packages and determine how they will pay their Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

So why is this change important now, when it doesn’t take effect until October 2016?

Because of the timing of the change, parents with current high school seniors, college freshmen, and college sophomores will complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile using 2015 financial data TWO YEARS IN A ROW.  This means now is the time to look at your 2015 data carefully and see what steps you can take to lower your expected family contribution by reducing parental income and/or assets or deferring decisions that would inflate your income and/or assets.  Consider the timing of a bonus, distributions from your retirement plans, realization of capital gains from selling assets, and purchase of large item for which you have been accumulating funds.

Here are some articles to read for further information:

Get Ready for FAFSA

The new FAFSA process and college costs

 

Your Common App School Report and Counselor Recommendation

Within your first two weeks back at school, be sure to set up a meeting with your high school college counselor or school administrator to discuss the School’s Report and the Counselor’s Recommendation that are part of the Common Application. Your Counselor is the person who creates your School Report, which is required by the Common Application and by most other colleges that do not use the CA. The School Report accompanies your School Transcript (your grades for the past 3 years) and, hopefully, a School Profile (brief description of your school).

Ideally, your Counselor will also write a separate, personal Counselor’s Recommendation, if s/he has time. In the best of all possible worlds, s/he will meet with your teachers and/or read your former teachers’ comments so as to gather information about you and to represent your strengths. Hopefully also, your Counselor has gotten to know you throughout your past three years at school (or two, or one!). If, however, your school counselor handles all the paperwork for more than 50 seniors (and yes, at some public schools, even good ones, the counselor load can be over 400 students, across all years!), you may be out of luck in being able to provide an actual Counselor’s Recommendation as well as the basic School Report.

This is the first year that the Counselor’s Recommendation has been separated from the School Report, and is not requested or expected by over 200 colleges and universities. Please see this excellent article by Nancy Griesemer (“Important changes to the Common App school counselor recommendation system“) so you can better understand the changes in this year’s Common Application’s School Report and Counselor’s Recommendation.

Schedule a meeting with your counselor in the first week or two of school, and do not go empty-handed! Bring along the following:

1) A resume, or a list of your extra curricular and personal activities during the past three years. School counselors, like admission officers, value humility and appreciate honesty, but they need to know what you have done and achieved outside of their classrooms, beyond their experience of you.

  • Include ways you have contributed to the school in general, or to your larger community, and significant summer activities.
  • You can mention particular skills or personal strengths, and let the recommenders know what areas of study interest you.
  • Any career goals?

2) A list of colleges to which you are considering applying (you can change it later!).

3) Note any special reasons and programs for applying to specific schools.

Ask your counselor for his or her email address. You will then enter that contact information into your Common Application in the first college on your list. Click the ‘assign’ button, and the Common App will email your counselor with the required School Report form.

International students, you need to talk with the head of school, dean, or whatever administrator will prepare the School Report for you (check out the form for this recommendation in the Common Application). If that person knows you personally or is willing to talk with teachers about your contribution to the school, then do request a Counselor’s Recommendation, also.  This ‘counselor’/ administrator is a vital team member who needs to be brought up to date with your college planning ideas, testing plan and scores. It’s important to have a very good relationship with your counselor so that person can represent you to best advantage. The School Report is very significant, and a Counselor’s Recommendation can be the most important Recommendation you’ll receive!

Written by Joyce Reed

(c) College Goals LLC 2015

Things to do NOW to Prepare for the Upcoming College Financial Aid Process

what you can do now to prepare for the financial aid application processAs you are excitedly exploring college websites and imagining yourselves as incoming freshmen next year on the campuses of your choice, many of you (and your parents!) are probably also concerned about the rising cost of college attendance.

There are two options that can help families in facing the cost of college – merit scholarship aid and need-based financial aid. Students/families should consider applying for both. Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on their talents and not on financial need. These talents may include athletics, academics, musical skills or commitment to service. Merit-based money is a measure of how much a college would like a student to attend and is unaffected by the wealth or the need of the student’s family. Many of the most selective private colleges, however, do not award any merit-based aid. Need-based aid is based on a calculation of a family’s demonstrated need. In other words, the cost of attending a college minus the estimated contribution a family can make to cover that cost (EFC) = demonstrated need.

If you think you will need financial assistance in order to attend the college of your choice, there are things you and your parents should do now to prepare for the process of applying for financial aid.

  1. Start gathering and organizing your financial documents and tax information now. Based on my experience applying for aid, I would suggest that parents print out the Federal Form 1040 or 1040EZ (whichever they will ultimately complete) and begin filling it in now, making estimates for the year based on finances to dat and/or your previous year’s taxes. This will help you use the Net Price Calculators described below and complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile in a timely manner.
  1. All colleges and universities are required to put a Net Price Calculator on their websites to help families calculate their estimated family contribution (EFC), given the specific costs of that institution. You can also find a general net price calculator on the College Board’s website at http://netpricecalculator.collegeboard.org/.
  1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the online application you will use to apply for the federal student aid programs offered by the U.S. Department of Education. It is used by colleges and universities to distribute need-based financial aid. It is also used by many institutions to award scholarships and merit-based aid. It is important to complete the FAFSA even if you don’t think you will qualify for financial aid! 

    Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1, even if you have not yet submitted your tax return. This should be relatively straightforward if you have completed an estimated Form 1040. You can download instructions, worksheets and other information about completing the FAFSA at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/resources#complete.

  1. Check to see if the institutions on your list require the CSS Profile, in addition to the FAFSA. There are about 200 colleges (mostly highly-selective private colleges) that use this form, which is longer and more complex than the FAFSA. We recommend printing out the CSS Profile worksheet (accessible once you establish a CSS Profile account) and filling it in by hand, before transferring the data to the online application. The CSS Profile is available starting October 1. Again, if you have prepared an estimated Form 1040 early, it will make completing this online application much easier. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED) to one of the institutions requiring the CSS Profile, you will need to prepare the CSS Profile shortly after the ED application has been submitted.
  1. If you think you will need assistance with FAFSA or CSS Profile preparation, contact a financial aid expert EARLY, preferably in the Fall and definitely not last minute! We highly recommend Paula Bishop, a CPA and college financial aid advisor – www.paulabishop.com.
  1. Start exploring scholarship opportunities, both locally and nationally. These are sources of funding that are not administered by colleges but rather by other private organizations, each with its own application process and eligibility criteria. Families should not pay for any of these, nor pay anyone to search them out! Check out this website: http://www.college-scholarships.com/free-scholarship-searches/. Before you spend lots of time applying for scholarships, check with the colleges on your list. Many schools will deduct your scholarships from your awarded financial aid package.

This process can feel overwhelming….. I know, because I have completed the process for both my children! But by starting the process now, getting organized, and having a frank discussion with your family about expectations and financial realities, you will be ready to complete all the relevant forms when the time comes. And, when you have completed the paperwork, reward yourself for your accomplishment!

Written by Carolyn Stewart

(c) College Goals LLC 2015

Making the Most of a College Fair

Making the Most of a College Fair

Attending a college fair is a great way to connect with schools you are interested in and make a positive first impression on their representatives. However, there are some important things to keep in mind in order to make the most effective use of your time.

Be prepared! Register for the event ahead of time and make a list of the participating colleges you want to speak with. Make sure they have the major you are interested in! Show up promptly when the fair begins, to allow yourself enough time to visit all the booths of interest.

Ask good questions. Have a few (3 to 5) questions ready to ask each school. Make sure you are not asking generic questions that could easily be answered by looking at the school’s website. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about how colleges support their students and what the general culture of the school is. Ask about your chosen major, and if you are undecided, ask how they advise and help undecided students.

Describe yourself. Have a brief (one minute maximum) ‘speech’ prepared that includes a summary of your interests, goals, qualifications, and what you can bring to a particular school. This is a great way to introduce yourself to the representative and demonstrate your interest.

An informational sticker label or postcard can be very helpful. Consider creating large stickers or cards with your name, mailing address, date of birth, phone number, current school, expected graduation date, e-mail address, area of academic interest, and expected college start date. These can be handed to the representative or attached to their information sheet, saving you the time and energy it would take to hand write everything at each separate booth.

Form a route. When you arrive, get a map of the fair and mark all the schools you are interested in. Start at the ones with the shorter lines. Do not attempt to go to every booth, row by row!

Don’t forget your supplies. Bring a sturdy backpack to carry brochures and informational materials, pens, and a blank notebook. A snack and a bottle of water might be nice to have, too.

Take notes. If anything important or memorable stands out, write it down immediately after your visit, before you head to the next booth. There may be some details you could use in your college essays!

Be open to other options. If there are long lines for the schools you planned on checking out, why not stop by one you weren’t considering? You may be pleasantly surprised!

Appearances matter. Dress appropriately, approach college representatives with confidence and a smile, and be sure to make eye contact when speaking. Greet them with a firm handshake. Be mindful of the amount of time you spend conversing, especially when there is a line of students behind you. This is your chance to make a positive and memorable, although brief, impression.

Follow up. Get a business card from each representative, and send him or her an e-mail or thank you card after the fair if you are still interested in applying to his or her school.

After the fair, discuss it with your family. The most important thing you can do after attending a college fair is to debrief. Talk about what sounded good, or bad, about the schools you chose to visit with. Use this information to refine your college search criteria.

Arrive prepared, ask the right questions, make a good impression on the college representatives, and review the results afterwards. If you can accomplish all of these things, you will certainly be making the most of any college fair you choose to attend!

By Jilly Warner

See our lists of Fall 2015 College Fairs and Group Tours
International College Fairs and Group Tours
US College Fairs and Group Tours

© College Goals LLC 2015

A Message for Parents of College-Bound Students

Message to Parents

Dear Parents whose sons and daughters are about to matriculate into college –

Are you having butterflies in your stomach, and maybe second thoughts?? ” S/he isn’t really mature enough for this . . . how will he handle the self-responsibility?  Will she be safe?? Will he get up and get to class, and turn in his work on time??  What about doing the laundry??”  

Seeing your child go off to college is a challenging time for parents, when you can let your heart (even your eyes) overflow with abundance as you wish for your college-bound child to be safe, but not stuck . . . to move forward on a path, but not one that leads to the same old gateways . . . to be willing to take risks, and be able to learn from them and not repeat the process.

You can’t expect them to understand or sympathize . . . or even acknowledge . . . the transition their departure creates for you.  They will never know the level of love and hopes they have inspired in you until they have their own children.  Meanwhile, be patient with them . . . don’t hasten their passages.  Remember the birthing process – there is a time what the right thing to do is just to breathe.

Remember when your baby was new, and you slept with one eye open, listening for her breathing and her every cry?  Remember 16 or so years later sleeping with one eye open listening for a car to come home and the door to open, and light to go on in the bathroom?  After you’ve dropped your dear child off at his dorm room (his new home), or left her at the airport, to fly off to college alone, and you have walked out, as straight and stiff as you can, with that awkward grin pasted on your face . . . then what?

Well let me tell you some of the wonderful things you have to look forward to!  After kids go to college (it may take a few months, or a year), they begin to realize/be aware that parents not only know a few valuable things, but that you actually seem to continue to learn.  Kids also bring home fresh new ideas for you to chew on – some may take some careful or repeated swallowing, but they are bound to refresh your vision and challenge you to re-evaluate your positions . . . always a good but never a comfortable thing.  If they email you about their readings, by all means, you can locate and read some of their new materials too . . . but DON’T write them about your opinions, please!  And definitely, for the first year, keep their room (and most of the house) exactly the way they left it, please – no redecorating, or putting away trophies, mementos, stuffed animals.

But look in the mirror often and begin to see your selfnot your son’s or daughter’s mother or father.  Take time to read and think about why you are here on the planet . . . that’s what you want your child to be thinking about . . . why, and what are you going to do about it?   From now on, the best ways that you will influence your child will come from role modeling . . . pay attention to your SELF – enjoy, appreciate, and yes, grow.

Here are a few suggestions for books we feel confident you will find helpful:

Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years, by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger – it is in its FIFTH edition, which should tell you that many parents have found it very useful!

You’re On Your Own, (But I’m Here if you Need Me): Mentoring Your Child during the College Years, by Marjorie Savage

Doors Open From Both Sides, by Steffany Bane and Margo Bane Woodacre, a mother-daughter duo.  This is a very useful book for both the student and the parents.

Off to College, A Guide for Parents, by Roger H. Martin. This book, by a former college president, was just released and it is thoughtful and very comprehensive. He knows the college experience from the inside, and the parent experience, also.

Written by Joyce Reed

(c) College Goals LLC 2015

Your Recommendations

talk to your teachers about your college recommendations now

talk to your teachers about your college recommendations now

You’re back in school, heading into your final year. Your courses are challenging, your extracurricular leadership roles are demanding, AND you will need to move forward every week on your college applications! Where to start, your first days back in school?

In addition to grades, personal statements, and activities, colleges also want to know what other people have to say about you. Most will require a ‘School Report’, created by your school counselor or administrator, and one or two Letters of Recommendation from teachers. Recommendations matter . . . a lot! Here are some tasks you need to set in motion as soon as possible.

Ask one or two teachers to write the Teacher Recommendations to be sent to your colleges.

Carefully consider which teachers to ask and consult your college counselor and parents for their input. They must be teachers of major subjects (math, science, history, English, languages), and have taught you in your Junior (11th grade/Premiere/Lower 6th) year, or be currently teaching you, as a Senior. (But last year’s teachers will know you best.) Moreover, they need not only to know you as a student in their classes, but they must also have the interest and willingness to support you by writing a great recommendation that will ‘market’ you well to colleges and universities.

Approach those teachers right away! You want thoughtful, substantive letters, and those cannot be done overnight. Moreover, popular teachers may limit the number of students whose recommendations they can write each year.

Schedule a meeting with these teachers in the first week or two of school, and do not go empty-handed! Bring along the following:

1) A resume, or a list of your extra curricular and personal activities during the past three years. Teachers, like admission officers, value humility and appreciate honesty, but they need to know what you have done and achieved outside of their classrooms, beyond their experience of you.

  • Include ways you have contributed to the school, in general, or to your larger community, and significant summer activities.
  • You can mention particular skills or personal strengths, and let the recommenders know what areas of study interest you.
  • Any career goals?

2) A copy of your transcript for the past three years, as well as your standardized test scores.

3) Copies of papers in which the teacher made interesting or positive comments on your work — take these along to help jog his/her memory. Admission officers find specific examples of impressive insights, writings or research, useful.

4) A list of colleges to which you are considering applying (you can change it later!).

5) Note any special reasons and programs for applying to specific schools.

Once a teacher has agreed to support you by writing a Recommendation, you need to get his or her email address. You will then enter that contact information into your Common Application in the first college on your list. Click the ‘assign’ button, and the Common App will email your teacher with the required Recommendation form. Note: each teacher’s recommendation can be used for all your Common App colleges, so each teacher needs to write only one Recommendation.

Discuss with your Counselor how to submit Recommendations to colleges and universities that don’t take the Common Application, and how to assign recommendations from different teachers for different colleges.

The college admission process allows you to gain in self-knowledge and new insight into how people view you. But don’t leave people’s perceptions of who you are and what you are capable of achieving to chance! Instead, help shape that impression with your thoughtfulness, organization, and courtesy.  DO IT NOW!

Tips on Visiting Colleges

I am currently accompanying my daughter Maia, a rising senior, on a tour of colleges and universities on the East Coast. We are finding that these college visits are essential to helping her get a sense of what she likes, and doesn’t like, in a college environment, and to knowing more clearly about the programs that interest her! Here are some tips about college visits that Maia (in italics) and I would like to share, based on our experience.

✜ Be sure to reserve a spot for the information session and campus tour at each institution you visit. These can fill up! Also, if you register in advance, the college will often mail or email you a parking pass, map, and other pertinent instructions.

Sometimes the times or days won’t line up exactly as you planned. You might have to reschedule some info sessions, move a college to a difference day, etc. Try to be as flexible as you can.

✜ If the college or university conducts interviews of rising seniors, take advantage of this opportunity and schedule an interview, and be sure to prepare for it. By this I mean write down questions you (the student) have for the interviewer about the college. You cannot know what the interviewer will ask you (but relax, they are always friendly!), but you can show interest and knowledge about the college/university by being ready to ask questions of the interviewer. Be sure to do your research: ask questions about specific programs/ features of that particular college (this shows you have done research) and avoid asking questions that could easily be answered by a visit to the school’s website (this shows that you have NOT done research).

Generally the conversation flows pretty freely and it’s easy to make questions from what you and your interviewer are talking about. That being said, I agree that it’s good to have a couple of questions prepared for the inevitable “so, do you have any questions for me?” I tended to check out the Wikipedia page for the college because it listed the special programs and unique qualities of the school in a more obvious fashion than the website did. Also, check out the specific academic programs that you’re interested in and see what special requirements they have or what resources they have. I found that the majority of my interviews were conducted by seniors at the college, rather than by admissions officers. This definitely put my mind at ease because I found that these interviews were less nerve-wracking from the get-go. The few that were with admissions officers were also fine, especially once I had gotten my sea legs with interviewing (in fact, my favorite interview was with an admissions officer). Interviews aren’t as scary as they seem, I promise. Be prepared to get questions that you weren’t expecting that make you think on the spot. Relax; they know that you can’t whip the answer out right away, so it’s okay to take time to think about it. Just be yourself, smile, and be alert!

✜ Collect the business card of the person who conducted your interview. In a couple of days, send that person a thank you postcard and be sure to email them any additional questions you think of after leaving the school.

I sent postcards from Hawaii (where I live) and would try to include a tidbit from our interview in hopes that they would remember who I was. For example, in one of my interviews we talked about going to Mars, so I included a little something about that at the end of my postcard. Make them personal so they remember you!

✜ Be sure to ask who in the Admissions Office will be reviewing applications from your geographic region. Ask to see that person, if possible, and introduce yourself briefly and get his/her business card. Follow up later with a brief thank you email, noting how interested you are in the school. Then, as questions arise when you are writing your application, email that person directly.

They aren’t scary either! I ended up emailing one admissions officer a recipe for a great pasta dish. Also, don’t feel bad about not wanting to email the admissions officer from a school you weren’t fond of. The point of the tour is to narrow down your list and pick out your favorites, not give yourself unnecessary emails to write.

✜ By the end of your college tour, you will have quite a collection of business cards that represent valuable personal connections that you will want to maintain. Be sure you jot notes on each card to help you remember who each person is (i.e., interviewer, Admissions dean, person reviewing your region’s applications, etc.).

My mom thought I was crazy at first, but in the future you will thank yourself for doing it.

✜ Plan to arrive early for your info session/interview. You never know what unexpected circumstances – traffic, getting lost, finding parking – could delay your arrival. Also, don’t forget quarters for parking meters and an umbrella! We have visited several colleges in the pouring rain, and not all colleges provide umbrellas.

Wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet, too. My poor shoes were wet for days after visiting William and Mary in the pouring rain.

✜ As soon as possible after each visit (and preferably on the same day as the visit!), write down your pros and cons for that institution, noting interesting programs/features. I recommend you write these notes in Word, then cut and paste them into CollegePlannerPro to share them with your College Goals’ counselor. (For information on how to use CPP, see “Instructions for Using CPP,” a document provided to you by your counselor.)

If you’re visiting two colleges in one day, try to write this down between each college. Especially if the two colleges that you’re visiting are similar, they’ll tend to blend together and the programs get all switched up.

✜ I heartily encourage all of you to plan a tour of colleges on your list – whether this summer, during a school holiday, or when colleges are in session – but preferably before the colleges make their admission decisions. It really does make a difference to see the colleges/ universities “in person”, and it will definitely help any student to create a more specifically appealing application!

Do it! It really helps you get a feel of the colleges that are right for you and figure out exactly what you’re looking for in a college. We visited a college that had been one of my favorites on paper and I ended up not liking it. Before we started seeing colleges, I was worried that I wouldn’t know which one felt the best. If you’re like me, don’t worry about it. You really will know when it happens.

CollegeBoard’s New SAT

As many of you have heard, CollegeBoard announced in March that it is in the process of redesigning the SAT.

Sophomores and Juniors – the good news for you is that the new changes will not go into effect until Spring 2016, so you are NOT affected by this news!

For younger students, you will be preparing for a different SAT than is currently offered!  Here are links to some articles about the anticipated changes to the SAT.  CollegeBoard will make an announcement on April 16 that will give everyone a much clearer look at the new format.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-05/college-board-redesigns-sat-exam-making-essay-portion-optional.html

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/03/this-is-what-the-new-sat-will-be-like/284245/

https://www.collegeboard.org/delivering-opportunity/sat/redesign

Visit the following site to check out a side-by-side comparison of the current and redesigned SATs and to sign up for updates about the redesigned SAT: https://www.collegeboard.org/delivering-opportunity/sat

And, as the new format becomes more clear, the test preparation industry will be working to respond by quickly developing new test prep materials.  In addition, the CollegeBoard will be working with the non-profit Khan Academy to expand its range of free SAT study materials.

 

On Writing an Ivy League Admissions Essay

These days, students applying to Ivy schools find themselves having to wade through a dense morass of conflicting advice about admission. With Harvard, Princeton and Yale denying far more valedictorians than they accept, many students are coming to the disquieting realization that overwhelming academic achievement and stratospheric scores may be not enough. Hence, the hope that a perfect essay might be where real distinction lies.

All the Ivies, however, use the Common Application with its single essay requirement. Students are given a choice of five prompts that ask them to tell a story that reflects their own identity, to recount a moment of failure, reflect on a time when they challenged a belief, describe a place of contentment, or discuss an event that marked their transition to adulthood. But the student who is applying to both Princeton and Pomona has to craft a personal statement that speaks to readers at both schools equally well.  As Jon Reider, a well-known high school counselor in San Francisco, says, “It has never occurred to me that one Ivy (or anywhere else) would want a certain kind of essay.  The whole point is that the main essay tell that kid’s own truth.  Colleges take what they get.”

Ivy admission officers would agree that in telling their truth, the topics that students choose more often reflect the reality of their own lives than they do the ethos of specific colleges. This year, for example, admission officers saw many more natural disaster essays (Sandy, Colorado flooding, Oklahoma tornadoes).  The subtle trends are even more interesting. Some admission readers have noted a shift in the overused “helping others in exotic locales” topic, from the old staple in which a student discover peasants that are happy in spite of their poverty, to one in which witnessing the deprivations of poverty spur students to express gratitude for their American prosperity. Others have the impression that students are often more comfortable celebrating a rather anodyne version of diversity, marked more by servings of both sushi and stuffing, masala and mashed potatoes, turkey and tamales, at the dinner table, than by political engagement.

Students’ desire to write an Ivy-inspired essay is also complicated by the nature of the Ivy League itself.  While the League shares a long tradition of academic excellence, exclusivity, and a set of admissions protocols that relate mostly to athletics (such as an Academic index that all Ivy athletes have to meet), the eight Ivies remain very distinctive institutions. It is hard to imagine how to write a Common Application essay that simultaneously speaks to Columbia’s focus on the intellectual value of a core curriculum, Brown’s notion that such value derives from the absence of a core, Cornell’s proud tradition as a land grant school, and Harvard’s exclusivity.

Of course, there is an element of self-selectivity that may set the essays of some Ivy applicants apart from others. Thoughtful applicants focus on how particular schools fit with their social and intellectual aspirations, and good essays mirror such self-awareness.  Elisha Anderson, an Associate Director of Admission at Brown, notes that when he used to work in the admission office of a smaller, nonconformist liberal arts college in Massachusetts, he saw so many essays on protests, filmmaking and the Food not Bombs movement, that, “It wasn’t until I started working at Brown – where I almost never read essays on any of these topics – that I realized how different the self-selection of the two applicant pools must have been.”

For the school-specific supplements to the Common Application students do, however, have to write more targeted essays.  Here a student needs to craft an essay that speaks to his or her fit with that particular institution, and some will ask the question very directly. “Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia,” for example, or “Why Brown?” Dartmouth avoids additional long essays and Harvard’s is optional. The Ivies with engineering schools ask for additional essays from prospective engineers, but Cornell, not surprising given its seven colleges, ask every applicant for such an academic interest statement. Princeton and Yale are presumably looking for exactly the same qualities in their top applicants—academic aptitude, intellectual depth, awareness of others, leadership qualities, and knowledge of the institution. And to help them identify those elements, Princeton asks students to reflect on their own lives by writing, for example, in response to quotations on culture, service to the nation, and the practice of inequality. Yale, in contrast, asks simply that a student, “Reflect on something you want us to know about you.” Associate Director Rebekah Westphal of Yale explains that the question is, “open enough that students write about whatever they feel like at the time, to present themselves to us without trying to fit into a certain topic or question.”

It has been said that there are only two stories we tell each other: a familiar person leaves on a voyage, and a stranger comes to town.  This is no less true of college essays.  In a good essay the student embarks on a voyage to learn more about an idea, a place, or about herself, and she returns able to examine and understand what has been familiar with new eyes and a deeper perspective. In that narrative, Ivy admission officers are looking for qualities that are no different from those that readers at Stanford, Rice or Chicago are searching for, and for the greatest part, they are all likely to discern them in similar essays.

(A version of this essay was published by Quarts magazine, February 10, 2014)