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The ‘Perfect’ College Essay

You’ve probably heard or read about Delaware high school senior Brittany Stinson’s much-lauded Costco-themed college admissions essay. Stinson was admitted to Yale, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Stanford, among other schools. That impressive list of acceptances and her unique and clever essay have combined to form some tantalizing headlines:

This Essay Got a High School Senior into 5 Ivy League Schools and Stanford

Essay about Love for Costco Wins Student Admission to Five Ivies

An Essay about Costco Hot Dogs Got This Girl into 5 Ivy League Schools

Poetic Costco College Admissions Essay Gets Student into Stanford, Yale, Columbia and Cornell

With little mention of Stinson’s other qualifications, at first glance it seems the essay was her golden ticket. The magical essay that gets you into any school you choose? It’s a tempting vision. It’s also unrealistic.

In a Business Insider article titled “Ex-Ivy League admissions officers dissect an essay that got a girl into 5 Ivies and Stanford,” the author notes that the ex-admissions officers in question “prefaced their remarks by clarifying that an admissions essay on its own cannot achieve an acceptance into an elite school, and that stellar academics and other extracurriculars must accompany an essay.” [emphasis added] That clarification, however, doesn’t stand out next to the plethora of headlines claiming the essay’s singular power in winning acceptances.

The mythic power of the Ideal Essay is compelling and terrifying at once. It entices applicants with possibilities and frightens them with the dark specter of the fate of students whose less-than-Nobel-winning essays ruined everything, forever.

William K. Poirot writes about this phenomenon in his introduction to 100 Successful College Application Essays:

“I know of college studies in which 3 percent of the essays helped the applicant, 2 percent hurt the applicant, and the other 95%, while perfectly respectable, had no effect whatever on the admissions decision. Yet I have seen even good writers crippled by the pressure they put on themselves to write a great essay, one that will get them admitted…. Don’t set out to write the perfect essay, the one with a huge impact, the one that will blow the doors to the college open to you. It just doesn’t happen very often. It is largely a fantasy….”

Writing can be powerful, and the shimmering vision of the Ideal Essay is understandably appealing. An essay on its own won’t get you admitted to your top choice school. The purpose of an essay is to provide some personality to illustrate otherwise lifeless lists of accomplishments – grades, scores, awards, service hours. Stinson did a lot of things right in her essay. She used strong verbs and clear descriptions. She began with a compelling first sentence. She links her story about Costco to the story she’s telling about herself and the kind of person she is. These are all important elements.

But even her essay isn’t perfect. No one’s is. (One of those ex-admissions officers said of Stinson’s essay, “I don’t think this is one of the best essays I’ve seen… [T]here was an opportunity missed here to tell us much more about herself…I can only assume that the rest of her application is truly stellar….”) The evaluation of the essay is subjective, so what seems outstanding to one admissions officer may seem less stellar to another. That’s all the more reason to tailor the essay to the person it should reflect – you.

Stinson shared one piece of advice that is a good takeaway for anyone thinking about college essays. “Before I even started writing an essay, I read a quote from an admissions officer that said if your essay is on the ground and there is no name on it and one of your friends picks it up, they should know that you wrote it.” Does that mean you’ll get into Stanford? No, but it does help ensure that your essay will do its job, which is to give the admissions reps a peek at the person behind the application.

Interested in developing your ‘perfect’ College Essay? Find out more about the GSP College Essay Writing Course HERE and learn how you can more effectively tell your story!

Tufts University – College Profile

Tufts University

Quick Facts:

Institution type: private university
Founded: 1852
Location: Medford, MA
Undergraduate students: 5131
Mascot: Jumbo (elephant)
Acceptance rate: 16%
Testing requirements: ACT or SAT (if SAT, two subject tests also required)
Middle 50% ACT score range: 30-33
Middle 50% SAT score range: CR 680-750, M 690-770
Superscore: Yes
Website: www.tufts.edu

One student’s perspective:

Name: Sally Williams

Grad year: 2019

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were in the process of applying and selecting your college or university? What surprised you?

I wish I had listened to people when they told me to look at schools without bias. I went into the college application process with an idea of the outcome I wanted and the schools I thought were a perfect fit. In the end, Tufts turned out to be the best school for me and I would never have even applied without my mother’s advice to do so. It’s the schools you least expect that end up being the perfect place.

What’s your favorite thing about your school?

I love that it’s an Ivy League education without the title. There’s no cut-throat competition here, unlike Harvard (that’s only a T-stop away and throws some great parties ;)). People are genuine and diverse. You can create the experience you want, be it with Greek life, mathletes, or a cappella groups. Everyone here is a genius, but they don’t have an ego.

What else would you like people to know about Tufts?

It is a melting pot. There are people from all around who are all talented and intelligent in their own right, but are also incredibly different. Tufts allows everyone to find their niche. I have yet to meet a person here who isn’t genuinely happy with their decision to enroll here. You’re never bored. Tufts is surrounded by (and happens to be on par with) some of the top schools in the world. You can always meet new people.

Also, the city of Boston is only 20 minutes away and such an incredible escape sometimes. Here, at Tufts, you can truly become your own person, without judgment by others. It is an inclusive and incredible atmosphere filled with thriving, ambitious people.

Tips for Second Semester of Junior Year

Second semester of junior year is a stressful time for most students. In fact, it might be the most stressful semester of high school. I don’t want to add too many things to your likely-unending to-do list, but here are a few important things to consider including in the whirlwind that is this semester, and (bonus!) a couple of things that can wait until after finals.

This semester, you may want to:

Consider an internship. Not while school is in session. On top of everything else you’re attempting to juggle – test prep, school work, extra-curricular activities, actually sleeping at some point – one more commitment in your schedule is probably not advisable. Now is the time, however, to spend some time researching summer opportunities. Consider your interests, investigate your connections, and make a plan for summer now.

Keep working on that college list. All of the planning and scheming that lurks between now and your admissions deadlines next year will hinge upon your college list. If I had a catchphrase, it would probably be “it depends on the school.” Is your ACT score high enough? Do you have to schedule interviews? Can you take a gap year? The answers to all of these questions depend, at least in part, on specific schools you’re considering. If your list has 30 colleges on it, narrow. If you’ve only got one, more research is in order. Research, go to events, and plan more visits!

Prepare for AP or SAT Subject tests. Depending on your college list, you may be required to take SAT Subject tests. Even if the tests aren’t mandatory for you, some schools recommend that you submit them, and others will consider them if you choose to submit them. If you’re in AP courses now, and plan to take AP exams, consider whether taking the SAT Subject test will benefit you as well. The best way to figure it out is (you guessed it!) to look at the colleges on your list.

Connect with teachers and advisors. Second semester is the time to begin asking for recommendation letters. The best teacher to ask is one who knows you well and who can write about your specific strengths, and the best time to ask them is this semester. The sooner you ask, the more likely it is that you’ll get good letters.  You can generally expect that you’ll need two letters, but depending on your college list, you may need more, or there may be additional requirements placed on which teachers can write them.

Overwhelmed yet? Here’s the good news. You can wait until this summer to:

Write your college essays. College essays can be overwhelming. Working on them too soon, before you even have access to the applications, can be downright maddening. The Common App goes live on August 1st each year. There is not much to be gained by obsessing over drafts before you have a solid college list and the essay prompts for those colleges. Focus on your grades, your test prep, and your college list, and save the essays for this summer.

Plan the entire rest of your life. Actually, this one can probably wait even longer. However, if you’ve got seemingly pressing, urgent questions about your future (my junior year, it was do I want to be an architect?), you don’t have to answer them right now. The key is to avoid limiting yourself too much if you’re unsure. If you think you might want to go into an engineering program, the answer to do I want to take that extra science class? is probably “yes.” Prepare for multiple possibilities. Embrace the creative uncertainty. Explore your options, but don’t feel like you have to be certain right this moment.

For what it’s worth, I had registered for classes in ASU’s architecture program before I changed my mind and enrolled in a tiny liberal arts school on the other side of the country. I don’t really recommend that course of action, but you have time. It’s OK if your college list still looks like a 16- or 17-year-old student who isn’t exactly sure what they want to do for the next fifty years wrote it. I promise.

Dealing with Deferrals

If you submitted any Early Decision or Early Action applications this fall, you have probably received the college’s response: yes, no, or “maybe.” Deferrals are very common, and at many schools they outweigh both the “yes” and “no” groups. (That is, when a school even has a “no” pile for EA-applying students. Georgetown, for example, defers everyone not accepted EA.)

This post is for the “maybes” – those whose early applications were deferred by their first choice schools. What are your next steps?

First, and absolutely the most important, is to finish the rest of your applications. If you were procrastinating in the hopes of not having to complete them, you may not have much time to wrap up essays, get your scores sent, etc. You may even need to consider rounding up a school or two with rolling admissions if you haven’t already been accepted to one, depending on how much time you have left and how much work you have to do.

The second thing is to not panic. (Normally I’d put that first, but those deadlines are looming!) Being deferred is obviously maddening. It’s hard to formulate a plan with so much lingering uncertainty. However, you still have options, and remembering that can help dull the panic. Consider how much you still want to attend the school that deferred you. Consider, also, what your plan of action would be if the answer had been “no” instead of “maybe.”

If you’re still certain you’d like to attend the school, write a “deferral letter.” Explain that you’re still interested in the school, and include any new, relevant information that might bolster your case for admission. In addition to the letter, if possible, you may want to consider another visit. This helps demonstrate your continued interest, and might also provide new information to you about whether or not your number one school is still, in fact, your number one.

Test again. If you have test scores you haven’t sent, send them. If you have time to retake the SAT or ACT, do so. Depending on the school in question, you may consider taking/retaking SAT Subject tests in January.

Finally, keep your grades up. One of the main things admissions officers look for in deferred applicants are mid-year grades. A challenging senior year course load with stellar grades can only help your case!

Being deferred can feel like a disaster, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. You still have steps you can take, you still have options, and you can still end up at an amazing school. Good luck!

Changes to the SAT

College Board has released four practice versions of the new, redesigned SAT. The revised test will be rolled out beginning with the 2015 PSAT this fall; the new SAT will begin in March of 2016. More information will continue to become available as we move closer to those dates (for example, the SAT score concordances won’t be released until May of 2016), but here are some of the changes to the SAT we know so far:

1) Scoring is changing.

The SAT will return to a 1600 point scale, with a 200-800 range for Math and a 200-800 range for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The Essay will be reported separately.

The PSAT will be on a new scale, too, with scores ranging from 320–1520. These will be divided between two sections, like the SAT, with each score between 160 and 760.

The College Board website indicates that scoring is still “subject to research,” which may mean changes are possible. See item #2.

2) Expect some delays in interpreting scores for the first test date(s).

College Board has been upfront about this. The first administration of the redesigned SAT will be in March of 2016, and College Board plans to release concordance tables in May of 2016. Concordance tables are important. They help establish what the new scores mean by comparing them to the previous scores. Students who take the test in March will not have much useful information to help them decide whether or not to retake at the next test date in May.

3) That looks familiar!

Many of the content and formatting changes to the redesigned SAT look a lot like things we’ve been working with on the ACT for years:

  • The essay is now optional, and reported as a separate score.
  • There will be fewer, longer sections. One major difference between the ACT and the SAT has been that the ACT had 4 sections, which lasted, on average, about 45 minutes each, while the SAT had 10 sections which lasted 20-25 minutes. The new SAT has 4 sections, which last an average of 45 minutes, while the new PSAT is down to 3 sections, which average 55 minutes each. With the longer sections, pacing may be more challenging.
  • The ACT has long included a handful of trigonometry questions, while the SAT has avoided them. The redesigned SAT includes trig questions.
  • While there is no Science section on the new SAT, there are plenty of opportunities to read charts and graphs. Both the Math and the Reading sections will include graph questions.
  • Students taking the current SAT have often been enervated by the onerous, even noxious, practice of learning a plethora of vocabulary words for the Sentence Completion questions. The dearth of such questions on the redesigned SAT might strike you as serendipitous.  Like the ACT, the redesigned SAT Reading test will focus on passages, and any vocabulary questions will involve a student’s ability to understand a word’s meaning in the context of the passage.
  • The redesigned SAT, like the ACT, will now include several different subscores.
  • Like the ACT, the new SAT will no longer deduct points for incorrect answers. (In other words, no more “guessing penalty.”)
 

4) There’s a new type of math section.

There are two Math sections on the redesigned SAT. One does not allow calculators. It’s the shorter of the two Math sections, and it includes 20 questions to be completed in 25 minutes. Some of those questions are “grid-in” or student-produced response questions.

5) The essay is a longer, and has new requirements.

The new, optional Essay section will be 50 minutes, and will involve analyzing source material in order to answer the prompt. This is a departure from the broad, open-ended type of question that appears on the current SAT.

We’re here to help! Navigating the new SAT will be an adventure for everyone – students, educators, and college admissions teams alike. There’s still a lot of uncertainty around the new tests, and we will be researching and providing the best information to help guide you through the process.