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Trick Question: What activities look good for college?

Getting to the core of the matter – and the curriculum

Welcome 2022! In this new year, we counselors have our own improvement-driven tasks. We think about what we can do better to serve our client families and what services we’ll offer to future applicants, always applying the lessons learned from the current and previous admissions cycles. On the academic calendar, meanwhile, January also marks the midyear point. There’s data to look at and time for sophomores and juniors to make changes. Seniors, for the most part, are in a waiting game, having finished up their applications. (Unless they’re thinking about a few possibilities with later dates – see below.) Let’s see what some of their institutions have to say about apps, tests and curriculum. Early Applicants Wait it Out When will I get my decision? Anxious Early Action candidates want to know. A few institutions, including Tulane and Babson, released in December. Regarding those colleges popular with my students, here are some anticipated dates:

  1. Richmond: January 25

  2. Villanova: January 29

  3. UT Austin: February 1

  4. U Miami: February 7

  5. U Virginia: February 15

And as they wait, there’s still time to sneak in a few more applications having later due dates, including:

  1. Bucknell: January 15

  2. USC: January 15

  3. Maryland: January 20

  4. Michigan: February 1

  5. Wisconsin: February 1

Pad the Resume? No Way! When I meet with parents of underclassmen, the subject of activities (“for college”) almost always comes up. You know how I feel: A student should do things – not too many – that they really care about. If students can be original in how they share those activities (e.g., writing a blog or teaching kids about their favorite sport), all the better. Admissions professionals have reinforced these beliefs again and again. Let me share a few perspectives from Brennan Barnard’s recent Forbes article:

“Our authentic selves (at age 17 or 50) have limits, uncertainties, and gaps. I find these emerge best in essays, not as a deliberate ploy to demonstrate authenticity, but when students accept the least amount of help from well-meaning adults itching to edit their work.”

-Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment, Cornell University

“Students should spend their high school years participating in organizations and activities that bring them joy. It always saddens me when a student or parent asks which clubs or organizations they should join to increase their chances of admission to college. Living one’s life simply to please others is never a good strategy for happiness and personal fulfillment. By exploring genuine, authentic interests as you move through high school, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and will be best able to showcase your talents to colleges when the time comes.” – Grant Gosselin, Director of Undergraduate Admission, Boston College

(Notice the bolding.)

Authenticity in Videos, Too! As seniors monitor the portals of those colleges to which they’ve applied ED II or Regular Decision, they may notice a place for a video upload. At WashU, for example, there’s a 90-minute video option with a January 17 deadline. The best videos, just like the best essays, are authentic – no scripting, no professional editing. (For more on videos, check out my ebook, Supplementing the College Supplement, available on Apple Books or as a pdf on my website.) When a student has the chance to create an original video, they should not duplicate what admissions officers already know from their applications. Aside from WashU, some of the colleges liking videos include Brown, which used the “option” to replace its alumni interview, Bowdoin, UChicago, Babson and Claremont McKenna. You’d be surprised how little this supplement is talked about in college circles, and I never get why. It can be such an asset to the application.

WashU’s video option: 90 seconds for students to shine.

College Curriculum: What’s at the Core? Hardly a parent meeting goes by that we don’t talk about the college investment. Is it justified? Is a student better off in a career-focused major, or are liberal arts skills the ticket to long-term payback? Recently, Steven Mintz, University of Texas at Austin history professor and prolific author, asked, “Can the Humanities Truly Transform Undergraduates’ Lives?” Mintz presents interesting insight into the teaching of Great Books curriculum along with that of colleges who believe in different curricula, stating, “I would like to see institutions think more systematically and intentionally about the qualities that they hope to instill in their graduates and about how best to accomplish this.” Now we know how students are attracted to name brands and prestige. When they line their college lists with institutions like Columbia, known for its rigid core along with Brown, which introduced Open Curriculum, it doesn’t always make sense. Those students need to understand how they’ll be investing their time and their parents’ money if they seriously intend to go to these institutions.

Ever wonder about Columbia’s Core? Mintz explains: “One reason why Columbia embraced a great books curriculum in the wake of World War II was to address a campus problem: how to instill a sense of belonging and social connection on a campus that lacked Harvard’s undergraduate houses or Yale’s undergraduate colleges. Whatever else it accomplished, Columbia’s core gave every undergraduate a common academic experience and shared frame of reference.

Testing in 2022: Same Issues, Different Marketing? While writing this post, I received an email from ACT: “Competition is high for scholarship money and admissions slots. Make sure your students get the very best price on one of the very best ways they can distinguish themselves from a crowded field.” We get it, ACT. Your deadline for the February 12, 2022, test has come. With test-optional admissions, I’m not sure how much the ACT score matters in distinguishing applicants in a crowded field; we’ll see as results roll in over the next few months. By the way, the next SAT is March 12 (February 11 registration).

Midyear is my favorite time for meetings. Don’t hesitate to book a live or Zoom meeting so that we can plan for your student’s future in college and career.


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