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.
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:”
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.
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!
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!
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)
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.