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College Applicants Gain Momentum for Early Deadlines, But Can They Use Contractions?

“My neighbor tells me that you can’t use contractions in the Personal Essay.”

That’s what I heard the other day while Zooming with a student. Of course, I told him that he shouldn’t avoid contractions; every year my students who receive acceptances at highly selective universities use contractions in their essays. It’s all part of authentic voice.

Yes, there are so many mysteries surrounding the college process – how colleges admit classes, what goes on in admissions committees, how colleges look at testing, which institutional priorities change from year to year and, yes, what colleges want to read in essays. But there are some things an applicant does have control over, contractions included. (See the text alongside the Tufts photo below.)

Essay Mania in October Thanks to Bari Norman of Expert Admissions, I was able to listen in on “Real Talk About College Essays: In Conversation with Yale and Tufts Admissions.” During the webinar, JT Duck, Dean of Admissions at Tufts, and Corinne Smith, Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, shared their insights. The Personal Essay Regarding the Personal Essay, Duck seeks to answer four questions as he reads through submissions:

  1. What motivates the student?

  2. What does the student think about?

  3. How does the student solve problems?

  4. How does the student work with other people?

“Creativity is welcome on supplements  You can use contractions. You can use quotes . . . We’re human beings that are used to reading 17-year-olds.” -Tufts Admissions

In my work with students, I often suggest opening with a very current anecdote and limiting information from the past. Smith from Yale agrees: “Not getting to the present quickly enough – that’s the opposite of what we want to see. We want to see where you are now. I look halfway in for where the essay should have started.”

“The thing that stands out for me is a student’s authentic voice and personality.”  -Yale Admissions

The Supplemental Essay Many of my students struggle with shorter essays, unsure of what to include and exclude. Yale’s Smith tells students, “Get to the point with your personality and voice coming through.” Duck agrees. “We don’t want throat clearing. The idea is to get to the point.” (Students are limited to 150 to answer “Why Tufts?”) He explains that they look for “Tuftsy qualities: kind, collaborative, globally minded, civically engaged” but also “different people who bring different talents and different strengths.” For more on supplements, check out my ebook, Supplementing the College Supplement, available in pdf or through Apple Books.

Interviews: Different Takes for Different Universities In the webinar, Smith and Duck presented two very different approaches to interviews. For Yale, an invitation-only interview just means that Yale is looking for more information about an applicant. At Tufts, interviews are evaluative, so they count in the process, yet they are optional. (Go figure.) Applicants to Tufts set up the interviews through their portal after their materials have been submitted. Confused by all this interview talk? Check out my ebook, Mastering the College Interview, which I just revised. It’s available through my website as a pdf or through Apple Books. PSAT National Test: Does it Really Matter? Next Wednesday, October 13, thousands of high school students will take the PSAT in their high schools. Some will be understandably nervous; maybe it’s been a while since they’ve had the standardized test experience. Remember that only you, your student and your school’s counselor see the result. And there’s value in the score report, which may identify gaps between the quantitative and qualitative skills, indicating that additional work is needed. The PSAT test result is a strong indicator of how a student will do on the actual SAT. But we’re still in a test-optional environment in which students are reviewed holistically. Here’s what Corinne Smith of Yale shared: “A good score [on the SAT or ACT] is not going to be the thing that gets a student into our institution.” It’s Academic Every student should understand that academic performance is the most important component of the application. Recently, TODAY took a look at the importance of grades in college admissions. They cited author Jeff Selingo, who shared, “The courses you take in high school and the grades you get in them matter more than anything else in the application. Admissions officers are looking for grades that are either consistently good throughout high school or on a steady rise from the start. What concerns them is a downward trend or where grades are all over the place.” But all too often, we need to explain that colleges need to normalize how they view that performance across high schools with different GPA calculations. TODAY knew to source the reliable Jeannine Lalonde of UVA for clarity. Dean J noted, “GPAs are not standardized . . . Two students with identical GPAs could have very different coursework and grades on their transcripts. This is why we talk about the transcript being the most important factor in understanding your academic preparation.” Online Learning: Good Enough for the Elite? The pandemic forced many of us to learn the ins and outs of Zoom. But well before 2020, higher ed institutions were creating the curriculum of the future, which for many included online programming. This week in EdSurge, columnist Robert Ubell takes a look at the Ivy League, which we all know is just a sports conference, and whether its members do as much online as other colleges. As it turns out, most of the Group of Eight’s initiatives are for master’s degrees, with only Penn offering an online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (“particularly well-suited for adult learners”). Incidentally, Harvard has just one online degree, a master’s launched this year, and Princeton has none. Writes Udell, “Worldwide, the Ivies are praised for being at the forefront of scholarship, but have lagged behind in other important ways.”

Princeton: Winning (3-0) in football, losing online

Colleges as Marketers: Nonprofits Gone Wild Think colleges aren’t businesses with massive marketing budgets? According to the Hechinger Report, colleges spent some $2.2 billion on advertising in 2019. While elite institutions have the luxury of turning down most applicants,

they still let the marketing dollars flow: “Johns Hopkins reported spending $29.6 million in one year; New York University, $28.5 million; the University of Pennsylvania, $25.7 million; Northwestern, $25.6 million; the University of Miami, $23.2 million; Columbia, $13.2 million; Boston University, $12.7 million; Georgetown, $11.6 million; and Stanford, $10.3 million.”

It’s been quite the application season so far. Be sure to get in touch with questions or to set up a meeting.


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