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  • Beth & Tim Manners

The first thing to understand about the college application essay is that it is unlike any other piece of writing a high school student has done before or likely will ever again. This is because it serves a highly specific purpose and has a unique audience.

That purpose is to provide an open window into the true personality and character of the writer. The audience is college admissions officers, who know exactly what a high school student sounds like. These parameters represent uncharted territory for the vast majority of high school students, not to mention their parents. More on that later.

Such unusual circumstances call for unprecedented strategies. Precisely because it is new and different, writing about oneself can be a little uncomfortable at first. That’s okay. Going off to college is nothing if not about stepping outside one’s comfort zone, and the essay is as good a place as any to start that journey.

This is not as hard as it may sound, and can be as much fun as one makes it. Indeed, the more a student enjoys writing the essay, the more the colleges will enjoy reading it. This can only build the chances of landing in the admitted pool.

Finding the topic can seem daunting at first. It may feel like there’s great pressure to share some amazing, earth-shaking story, however most 16- or 17-year-olds haven’t yet had that kind of experience.

Colleges understand this. They are not anticipating anything more than some unadulterated insight into personal qualities or values, or a way in which the student’s view of the world has been challenged, changed or grown since entering high school. They are not expecting a great work of literature; they just want to get a sense of what is meaningful to the student and why.

The essay topic itself matters far less than what the student brings to it. Truth is, the colleges have seen every topic under the sun many times over, and then some: sports, mission trips, art, music, camp, community service. What they haven’t necessarily seen is how a given student thinks and writes about a given topic.

Colleges want to hear a story about a journey, from point A to point Z, as only the student could tell it, in his or her “voice.” That means writing as closely to the spoken word as possible. Yes, the essay must be well-organized and grammatically polished, but it should also convey in high fidelity what the student wants to say, the way s/he would say it.

If the student is eloquent, it should be eloquent. If naturally funny, that should come through. Slang is okay, within reason. Nothing should ever feel forced. Sincerity is the word.

If any of the above sounds disconcerting, that’s because it often is, and doubly so for most parents. Just as it can be uncomfortable for teenagers to write a mini-autobiography, it is typically difficult for well-intentioned middle-agers to give them the latitude they need to tell the colleges whatever it is they want to express. What the colleges want to hear is whatever the student -- and the student alone -- wants to tell them.

Students who get it right inevitably learn something about themselves along the way. The essay is about a journey and is itself a journey. Our students often comment that they are both surprised and delighted by what they wrote. It’s hard to imagine a better result than that.

For parents, sending children off to college is a long and emotional process of letting go. Allowing your students to take the lead and call the shots with their college essay, in their own voice, is a relatively easy way to start that process. Best of all, giving them agency will make their college application that much stronger.

  • Beth & Tim Manners

University of Rochester: "Selecting only the courses that would be most impressive to a selective admissions committee would be fairly straightforward—choose the most rigorous ones offered at your school. But very few students are capable of excelling across the board in the most difficult courses in every subject. In addition, some very talented students applying to college may be coming from high schools that offer few advanced classes ... Experts at your school should have a much better perspective on the menu of options available and each student’s aptitude. From the admissions office perspective, we wouldn’t want a student to get in over their heads, become overwhelmed by a full slate of difficult courses, and end up with straight C’s."

"Most selective colleges and universities are looking for students who have prepared themselves broadly across academic subject areas. We want to see demonstrated aptitude over all four years of high school in these core academic areas: English, math, sciences, social studies, foreign language, and the arts ... Students who have a strong interest in specialized college majors like engineering, architecture, or an accelerated premedical program should pay special attention to excelling in rigorous math classes. If a student has an emerging interest in a specific career, shadowing a professional who works in that field is likely to provide more perspective than most high school courses labelled “architecture,” “engineering,” or “medicine.”

"Often students may choose courses related to a planned major because they believe that major will enhance their career prospects. But a student’s college major is often less important to their future job prospects than many people believe ... An astounding 93 percent of employers agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major ... Four out of five employers agree that all students should acquire broad knowledge across subjects in the humanities, arts, and sciences ... the top factor associated with a six-figure salary was not one’s college major but having taken a large share of classes outside one’s major."

  • Beth & Tim Manners

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

We've been asked many times over the past several months: How do you think the pandemic will affect my college admissions chances? It was reasonable to anticipate that overall odds might improve because fewer students would apply, perhaps because a virtual college experience is arguably no experience at all, or that travel restrictions would eliminate competition from overseas applicants.

As it turned out, everybody understood that fully analog campuses would reconvene in the fairly near future. International applications surged dramatically following the November elections and anticipated changes in immigration policies. Some theorize that the inability to visit campuses in person prompted wary juniors to hedge their bets by applying to a longer list of schools. Or, maybe students simply had more time on their hands and nothing better to do than apply to more schools!

The real game-changer, apparently -- albeit almost exclusively among the most selective schools -- was the decision to go test-optional.

Harvard, for example, reports that it received 42% more applications than last year. So great was the crush that the school says it will delay its decision date from March 26 to April 6. Harvard also deferred about 80% of its early applicants to the regular pool, and accepted just 7.4%, a record low. In addition to going test-optional, Harvard attributes increased applications to its strong financial-aid program and online recruiting efforts.

Colgate University, not an Ivy but certainly highly selective, admits it was "shocked" to see its applicant pool increase by 102%! This means its admit rate should drop from around 30% to maybe 17%. Colgate also went test-optional, and similarly credits its unprecedented popularity to removing student debt from its aid packages and strong online recruiting.

While admissions data are limited at this point, Harvard and Colgate are likely leading indicators of the admissions situation at other highly selective schools. Yale's early action applications increased by 38% and it accepted 10%. Duke's early applications were up by 16% while its admit rate dipped from about 21% to 17%. Tulane's early admissions pool increased by 35% and its overall admit rate is expected to drop to 12%.

Preliminary information further suggests that the top schools are filling about half of their classes through early admissions.

Several top schools have announced they will continue test-optional policies at least through next year (Columbia, Williams and Amherst among them). However, it is important to understand that not all test-optional policies are created equal. Georgetown, for instance, accepted about 11% of its early-decision applicants, but only about 7% of those did not submit test scores. Cornell has indicated it expects scores unless the applicant provides a good explanation for not submitting them.

The situation is different at Tufts, where 57% of applicants did not submit scores and 56% of those were admitted, and Williams, where 46% didn't submit, and 43% of them got in. So, if you plan to go test optional, look for schools like Tufts and Williams that sign a so-called Test-Optional Pledge, meaning that they really, truly, do not discriminate against test-optional applicants.

They may, however, exert greater scrutiny over the rest of the application, especially your extra-curricular activities, essays and teacher recommendations. It is more important than ever to take care that your outside activities support your academic interests and help tell a cohesive story about who you are and what you hope to achieve.

Colleges are not necessarily expecting you to pick a major, much less a career, but they do want some idea of where you think you might be headed. Your main essay likely will also receive more weight, along with your supplemental essays, especially why you are applying to their school.

Teacher recommendations can be tricky in a virtual learning environment, where it may be harder to establish personal connections. Clearly, making that effort is more important than ever.

While submitting test scores may be an option, embracing these emerging realities of college admissions is not. To an unprecedented degree, it is critically important to strike a balance in your college search, to build your story and with it your strategy, and to find your perfect match with a considered set of colleges that is every bit as realistic as it is aspirational.

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