Tag Archives: Advice

The Essay

Perhaps the most elusive part of a college application is the essay. “The essay,” or the Personal Essay as it’s officially titled on the Common Application, is different than most. There is no required reading, no maximum or minimum number of quotes to be used, no textual or numerical analysis necessary. Make no mistake about it, writing this essay takes hard work. I have memories of writing and re-writing drafts of my own college essay. More than anything else, I remember my frustration when my counselor told me to start over (twice) after I handed in two different drafts that, quite frankly, I thought were excellent essays. The draft of mine that she ultimately supported was one that I cared very little for at first; then, as I put more and more of myself into it, that topic, too, became my favorite.

What should I write about? What are the do’s and don’t’s of college essays? These are questions that everyone in our office has heard more than once. It’s only natural to feel challenged by the essay, but the single most important do is to let who you are come through in your writing. The main don’t? Avoid writing an essay that you think an admission officer wants to read. Submitting an essay that says very little about you, while trying to impress us, is a hazardous move. Instead, consider what the intrinsic elements of YOU are. (Hint: your transcript and test scores won’t help us much with this!) Use these few pages of writing to give us an additional window into you as a person. This might come in the form of writing about a success, a failure, a mentor, a hobby, a location, an event…and there are many more topics out there! Be thoughtful with your writing–have a teacher or another individual you’re close to read it over. But let your voice come through in style and vocabulary; this is your writing, and no one else’s.

And know, that ultimately, this is just a piece of the puzzle. We have a holistic view of applications for a reason: you are more than just your writing, or your test scores, or your GPA. It’s the real, live people who make this community what it is.

How to Choose a College

There is barely a week to go until the May 1 deposit deadline and the office staff has really enjoyed working with the hundreds of you who have visited campus or met us at receptions across the country this month. We know many of you are still undecided, so I’ve compiled some words of advice from our staff:

Katie: “Ask yourself these questions.  At which school was I the most at ease?  At which school did I find conversations with students the easiest?  And lastly, if one college were to call you today and offer to fly you to campus for free next week, which would you be the most excited to return to?  You’ve done a very thorough job in this college search process.  Trust your gut.”

Robert: “Trust your heart! Reflect back on your campus visits and chose the place where you connected with the student body, faculty, and staff and where you felt most ‘at home’. Chose a place that is going to push you inside and outside the classroom and will provide you the opportunity to grow into the person you aspire to be. “

Esther: “Look at the course catalog of the institutions you are considering. Which ones make you the most excited?”

Bruce: “Ask yourself these questions: Where could I see spending the next four years? What was it about college x that makes me feel it’s the best fit?
What do I want from my college experience/education? Does x college provide that? Can I/my family handle the financial obligations? Was the student atmosphere engaging?”

Josh: “If a place fit and you loved the classes, people or vibe, let that weigh strongly. Don’t pander to media antics. And no school is worth $30,000+ in student loans for undergrad.”

John: “Enjoy the view from my office:”

Promoting Failure

The inevitable, glorious deluge of applications is upon us! Reading between 6 to 8 hours a day of applications three to four days a week is a brand new experience for me, and intense in a rewarding sort of way even for the most seasoned admission officers. You can correctly assume that it’s hard to find the motivation to read much else–I certainly don’t have any plans to finally start War and Peace anytime soon–but we officers are mustering up enough energy to read, of course, college admission related news articles.

One of my favorites that was sent around the office this week was this article entitled “Want to get in to College? Learn to Fail,” by Angel B. Pérez , the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Pitzer, on the importance of failure as it relates to teenagers’ growth in all areas of life and the college application process. Our entire staff loved it, probably because of its relevance to our own lives right now as we comb through hundreds of Common Application resumes and essays trying to decipher who belongs at Whitman next year. The gist is the importance of failure to development and that admission officers actually often rejoice when they find acknowledged and discussed imperfections in applications. It’s a great, quick read; go check it out, especially all of you who will be writing admission essays and interviewing with your dream colleges in the near future.

So why go to a liberal arts college anyway?

I could go on and on about the diverse skill set of critical analysis, problem-solving, written and oral communication, and collaboration Whitman grads bring to the table every moment of their lives, whether it’s Simeon Osborn ’80, trial lawyer of the year, stepping into the courtroom, or Curt Bowen ’07 developing new sustainable agricultural practices in partnership with Guatemalan farmers. However, given my obvious bias, I’ll refrain and humbly pass along a more independent testimonial.

Here is A.G. Lafley, longtime Chairman of Proctor & Gamble, explaining why he believes the liberal arts are so valuable: “A Liberal Education: Preparation for Career Success

If you’re still not convinced, or would just like to take advantage of this great opportunity to learn more about Whitman, check out the Ask a Parent and Ask an Alum pages. Parents of prospective students are encouraged to use this great resource as well!

Opportunity for Application Advice & Admission Update

As high schools and colleges across the country release students for winter break, it truly becomes crunch time for finishing college applications (remember, the postmark deadline is January 1 for Early Decision II and January 15 for Regular).  Next week, in an effort to help seniors complete the strongest application possible while minimizing stress, The Choice, the New York Times blog on admission and financial aid in higher education, is hosting a live Facebook chat with three expert college counselors from across the country. A different counselor will take questions and offer advice Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings.  Find out the details here.

Early Decision letters will be mailed next Monday morning, and students may view their status online at midnight Monday night. Thanks again for being such fantastic applicants! We are excited to welcome the first members of what promises to be another absolutely spectacular class of Whitties!

Mark Twain & the Essay

For admission officers fall is travel season and winter is reading season. At Whitman two officers read each application, scrolling through 30-pages on laptops and writing comments on the electronic “vote sheet”. We review apps “holistically”, meaning that we take into account a student’s transcript (curriculum and grades), writings, passions and activities, letters of recommendation and—lastly—test scores.

My favorite part of the application is the Common Application Personal Essay, which gives a student multiple subject options.  An excellent essay makes my day and distinguishes the student from other applicants. I have a file of “essay keepers”, writings that knocked my socks off and that I keep to re-read when times slow down.

Memorable essays are always well-written and can be on any topic. The best ones tell me who the student is, what makes them tick, what they’re passionate about, how they interact with peers, parents and pariahs. Some are humorous (but it takes a talented writer to nail humor), some take a surprising turn, some are heart-felt, some make me shed a tear (but don’t try to make me cry!). Don’t try to impress, just be honest. Don’t tell me what you do unless it explains who you are. Don’t use big words when little words better convey what you have to say. Conciseness trumps verbosity. When in doubt follow Mark Twain’s advice:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English….don’t let fluff and flowers creep in. [Adjectives] weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective, a diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” (Letter to D.W. Bowser, March 20, 1880)

Visit! But Why? When?

As you and your family try and determine when and if to visit your favorite colleges, of which Whitman is obviously one (for here you are), I’ve compiled a few thoughts to assist you in the process. Know that I am unabashedly of the opinion that you ought to visit the colleges and universities you are most strongly considering, because I’m a firm believer that “fit,” often defined by intangible and difficult-to-articulate qualities in prospective students’ own perceptions of a campus, is one of the singular most important facets to your college search. Feel and fit are best gleaned from experiencing a place and a people for yourself.

The first major determination to be made is to decide if you and your family will make visits before application deadlines (sometime prior to the November, December, or January cut offs for receiving applications at respective institutions), or after you receive your admission decisions (April). Some colleges may fall into the former camp, others into the latter. Consider that for certain of your reach-schools, it might carry financial incentive to wait until you hear back from the college before spending the money traveling thereto. On the other hand, you might not want to cram all your college visits into the few weeks or weekends open to you in April. Visiting in the late Spring also carries with it the intangible disadvantage of postponing the decision – some students (and some parents) may want to have a good sense for their short list of favorites much earlier than two weeks before deposits are due. On the whole, these are decisions for you to make as a family.

Another major question is what type of visit experience you want. You can schedule an individualized visit almost any time during the academic calendar, you may opt for a scheduled campus program such as one of our Fall Visitors Days, or you can visit when the College may not be in session. The logical drawback to visiting during a College break (which deters many families) is that you might miss the opportunity to visit classes, see the students “in their natural habitat,” interact with professors, etc. The major divide more often lies between visiting on a Visit Day or some other time. In fact, it’s such a substantial question, I’m devoting an entire post just to this quandary.

Early Decision FAQ

1.  What is Early Decision exactly?

Early Decision is an early application option available to students who have discovered their first choice College or University. Typically the application deadlines for Early Decision are in early November and December. Applying to a school Early Decision is also a binding application. An additional form called the Early Decision Agreement must also be submitted by the applicant in order to apply. This agreement states that “students make a commitment to a first-choice institution where, if admitted, they definitely will enroll.” (2010-2011 Early Decision Agreement) students will be notified of their admission decision in December or January. This could mean that, if admitted to their first choice school, students could be finished with the college admission process by mid-February.

2.  How do I know if I should apply Early Decision?

If a student is certain that a school is their first choice and they want to attend that institution more than any other they should apply Early Decision. This is typically the result of extensive research and in most cases a visit to the campus. It is very difficult to determine if a school is your first choice and you want to apply Early Decision without visiting the campus and experiencing it for yourself. If a school is your number one choice but you cannot commit to it above all other schools then you should consider not applying Early Decision.

3.  Can I apply to other schools?

Students applying Early Decision can only have one Early Decision application pending at one time. Students are encouraged to prepare applications and submit them to additional schools for Regular Decision or Early Action as a precaution in case they are not offered admission to the school at which they applied Early Decision. You can think about it this way, if you were to apply to two schools Early Decision and were accepted to both, how could you be in two places at once come next fall?

4.  What is the benefit of applying Early Decision?

The true benefit of applying Early Decision is you have the potential of being finished with the college application process by mid-February and you will be accepted by your first-choice school. While some acceptance rates are higher in Early Decision then Regular Decision, that is not the primary reason to apply Early Decision.

5.  Will my financial aid be better if I apply Early Decision?

At Whitman College, a student’s need based financial aid package is in no way influenced by the application deadline they use for admission. All admitted students can expect to see an identical financial aid package when applying for Early Decision or Regular Decision. No preference is given to Early Decision applicants in regards to financial aid.

We’re on the Road!

It’s travel season for us in the admission office, which means that we might be visiting your high school! For some of you, this will be your first interaction with our staff and your first opportunity to ask questions.  We hope you will make the most of this time and have prepared some tips to help facilitate a meaningful discussion.

Step One: Are you visiting my town?

Check our website to see if we travel to your town.  This travel schedule is updated throughout the fall, so if your hometown is not listed now, that may change in the future. Check back throughout the fall for changes.

Step Two: Are you visiting my school?

• If you have been in contact with our office prior to our visit, we will mail you a visit schedule for your state. If you have not been in contact with us, please be sure to check with your college or career center to see when Whitman might be visiting. Your counselor should have a list of colleges that will be making trips to your school and the times and days representatives will be on campus.

Step Three: How do I prepare for your visit?

• Do some research on our website so that you know what follow up questions you have about the application process, majors, campus life, or Whitman, in general.
• Many schools require students to officially sign up to attend college representative presentation visits. If your school does operate under that policy, make sure that you sign up ahead of time so that we know to expect you.
• Some of you will be missing class in order to attend our presentations. If you need to be excused, be sure to attain permission from your teacher beforehand.

Step Four: What should I expect from your visit?

• Visit presentations vary by college, but Whitman’s presentation includes general information about the college, as well as a question and answer session at the end. During a visit, you will also be able to sign up to receive further information from Whitman College relating to specific areas of interest.

Step Five: What do I do after you visit?

• If you are a senior, think about interviewing. Whitman offers a number of interviews on the road if you cannot make it to campus
• If you liked what you heard in the presentation and want to learn more, a great next step is to visit campus . Many students find that seeing the place in person helps them to better picture themselves as Whitman students.

While this step-by-step list is by no means exhaustive, I hope that this outline of what to expect from college visits is helpful to you as you begin to learn more about Whitman College.

Thinking About Letters of Recommendation

So, it’s the summer before your senior year, college applications loom in your future, and everyone is telling you to spend the summer working on college essays. While it’s not a bad idea to devote some time to this project, an often overlooked portion of the college application is the letter of recommendation. At Whitman, we only require one letter of recommendation, but many schools do require more. It would behoove you to think about which teachers would make the best letter writers for your Whitman application. Begin by asking yourself these questions:

  1. Which teacher have I gotten to know the best in the last three years?
  2. Who could best speak to my ability as both a student and a person?
  3. How well could this teacher speak to my academic drive?

Hopefully, the same teacher’s name will answer all three of these questions. If you are submitting more than one letter of recommendation, it would benefit your application to have the teachers who could address these questions write letters for you.

You will also want to consider the academic subjects your letters writers represent. Whitman’s teacher recommendation requires you to submit your one letter of recommendation from a core academic teacher – meaning someone who taught you math, science, social studies, English, or a foreign language. If you submit more than one letter, be sure that these letters are not from two English or two math teachers. Most likely, teachers of the same subject will say very similar things about you, so submitting one English teacher recommendation and one math teacher recommendation would provide a more well-rounded picture of who you are as a student. Be sure to pick people with varied perspectives. When I applied to Whitman, I had my physics and my English teachers write letters. At the end of the day, you want to find the one (or two) who will best represent you.