Episode 110: The New Common App College Application Essay Prompts

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We are not sure that the topic of today’s episode qualifies as an “issue” in higher education, which is the name of our current series, but it is certainly something that will soak up a lot of the time of high school students who will be applying to college next fall and likely of their parents as well. The topic is The Common Application essay prompts.

Now, I feel as though we just finished discussing college application essays a few weeks ago back in Episode 106, “The Nightmare of the Supplemental College Application Essays.” And today we are back to everyone’s favorite application essay discussion: The Common App prompts for the main essay, or personal statement. I couldn’t have predicted that we would return to this topic so soon, but news is news. The Common App people have recently released the updated prompts for use in 2017-2018, and we wanted to bring this news to your attention as soon as we could.

1. The Process

As it turns out, the Common App people asked for feedback about this year’s essay prompts from member colleges and individual users as they considered any changes for next fall’s/winter’s applications. The Common App website states that feedback was received from 108 member colleges (out of the “nearly 700 colleges” that accept the Common App, according to the website). Personally, I don’t think that is a great response rate, as we say in the evaluation business. Nonetheless, just over 100 colleges did let the Common App people know what they thought of the essay prompts, and my guess is that feedback came from someone in the admissions office that had a lot of experience looking at the essays written in response to those prompts. According to the website, 91 percent of those 108 member colleges agreed or strongly agreed that this year’s prompts were effective.

In addition, feedback was received from over 5,000 individual users?59 percent were students (the largest category of respondents), followed by 23 percent school counselors and 11 percent teachers. According to the website, 90 percent of those individual users of all types agreed or strongly agreed that this year’s prompts were effective.

Well, with that kind of endorsement, it hardly seems that changes needed to be made for next year. Nonetheless, some comments from those colleges and individual users did cause the Common App people to make a few changes–some quite minor, but actually some quite major. Let’s take a look now at how this year’s five essay prompts have become next year’s seven essay prompts.

And, by the way, the word limit for next year’s essays will remain at this year’s 650 words.

2. The Two Unchanged Prompts

Two of this year’s prompts–#1 and #4–will remain exactly the same for next year:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  1. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma–anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This decision makes good sense to me as I think back over the many essays I read and edited with kids last fall. I think that both of these prompts produced relevant and interesting essays and that kids seemed to have a relatively easy time understanding what each of these prompts was asking for and writing to it in a straightforward fashion.

For example, many students who came to the U.S. from another country or whose parents came to the U.S. from another country wrote reflective essays for prompt #1 about their background or their national or ethnic identity. For prompt #4, I read essays ranging from solving personal or family problems to solving widespread religious or political discrimination problems here and abroad, and I found many of these essays to be powerful and persuasive.

So, I guess that, if any of the Common App people had asked me my opinion, I would have concurred that these two prompts had worked well for students.

3. The Three Edited Prompts

The remaining three prompts from this year will be used again for next year–#2, #3, and #5–but in a slightly edited form (the italics show the editing):

  1. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

These edited versions seem perfectly fine and might perhaps help students focus their thoughts better. The editing also broadens each prompt a bit, thus making it easier for students to find something in it to react to. For example, prompt #2 had previously discussed only “failure” and has now been broadened to include obstacles, challenges, and setbacks. I applaud that change because I found that too many kids thought they had “failed” when no adult with any perspective on life would have ever looked at those situations the kids were in and called them “failures.” So, I think that the editing makes this prompt broader and less negative sounding (even though I am sure that the original prompt was not meant to be as negative as many kids took it).

Again, if any of the Common App people had asked me my opinion, I would have agreed that these three prompts could benefit–though probably only slightly–from some broadening.

4. The Two New Prompts

That brings us to the first of the two new prompts for next year’s essays:

  1. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

I think this is a fine prompt, and I can imagine a number of students who essentially wrote to this prompt last year, though in the guise of a different prompt. I think kids will find this one to be engaging and a natural fit. This prompt lends itself to the kid who gets lost in science research, in violin practice, in writing poems, in building LEGO models, and a hundred other things I can think of–and kids can, too.

And that brings us to the final new prompt for next year’s essays:

  1. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

What? Are you kidding, I said as I read it for the first time. I asked myself why the Common App people thought they had to go here: Essentially, write anything you want or turn in something you’ve already written for some other reason. While freeing, I wondered if it might be just too freeing.

5. Some Final Thoughts

Then, I read a piece online in The Huffington Post by Scott Anderson, Senior Director for Access and Education at The Common Application, entitled “The Common App Essay Prompts Are Changing. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter.” Here are some of Mr. Anderson’s remarks:

The Common App essay prompts have one purpose: to help you introduce yourself to your colleges. (Yes, showcasing your writing ability is part of the equation, but that’s the role of the essay itself, not the prompts.) That’s why the instructions are at least as important as the prompts themselves. Here’s what they say:

“What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”

In a sense, the entire essay exercise boils down to that one leading question: What do you want the readers of your application to know about you? This is not a trick question. The ball is fully in your court and always has been. What you write is entirely up to you. So write about yourself?about what you love, where you come from, what you aspire to, how you spend your time, what bugs you, what inspires you, who is important in your life.

In other words: Write an essay on a topic of your choice. (quoted from the article)

Interesting, I thought. Mr. Anderson goes on to say this:

. . . If the prompts afford so much flexibility, what’s the point in resurrecting Topic of your choice?

Simply put: you’re busy. Applying to college is no small undertaking, and for most of you, the essay–or essays, depending on where you apply–will be the most time consuming task. So use Topic of your choice to reduce your stress, not add to it. If you’ve already written something that you’re especially proud of, then share it. If a specific college uses an essay prompt that sings to you, then use it here. . . . But Topic of your choice doesn’t mean default choice. If the unfocused charge to simply “write anything” seems overwhelming, then let the prompts guide you when you’re ready to start writing.

I guess it would be great for a student to be able to use a short essay he or she had written in an English class or a history class or a biology class–something that reflected his or her values, beliefs, or original ideas; something that spoke to what the student is and said it in an interesting or revealing way. I am not sure how many such essays exist; but, if they do, all the better for the student.

Mr. Anderson concludes his article by suggesting that it is too early for high school juniors to start writing their essays. He believes that what they will likely write about “hasn’t even happened yet.” He thinks that kids should, however, start “thinking?about yourself, about what is important to you, about the interests and experiences and talents and relationships that reveal who you are” and about “what ? you want the readers of your application to know about you, just as the instructions say.

With apologies to Mr. Anderson, my guess is that it is not too early to start writing and that anything so important to a high school student, anything that has so shaped his or her values and beliefs and interests and talents has likely already happened. Sure, something more could happen this spring or this summer, something that a student might rather write about, but my guess is that lots has already happened, especially when it comes to a student’s background or national, ethnic, racial, or gender identity. Families have already struggled or succeeded. Family members have already been lost or added. Talents and passions and values have already been born and nurtured. Academic interests have already been developed and encouraged.

What we know for sure is that high school juniors these days have a lot to think about. And college essays are now one more thing.

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Episode 105: Colleges Still Accepting Applications!

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Well, we thought we would be starting a new series for the new year, but it turns out there are one or two things we would like to say to the seniors who are looking at their college prospects now–albeit a bit late–with newly serious eyes.  I was talking to one of my best friends recently.  He has twin girls, who were just finishing up their applications when we chatted on December 27.  He said that one of the girls was feeling a bit blue as she looked over the list of colleges she had applied to and worried that none of them seemed to be the perfect choice.

I found myself giving him two messages for his daughter.

1.  There’s Not One Perfect College Choice.

The first is the message that any concerned parent would send, and it went something like this:  Don’t worry.  There are many colleges out there that would be a fine choice for you.  There isn’t just one perfect college.  You could be happy at any number of colleges, including the ones on your list, and you likely will be.

Her father added that he thought there was really no way to know how good a fit a college might be until you were actually enrolled and living on the campus and taking classes and making friends and involving yourself in activities, etc.  Her dad is a smart guy and, in this case, exactly right.

However much you think you know about a college from reading the website and visiting the campus and attending a few sample classes and talking to kids who go there will be nothing compared to that first month as a student there.  And really that first semester as a student there, because that first month can be atypically difficult, especially if the college is far from home.  So, yes, applicants should do their homework about a college before applying (our new book is designed to help high school students do exactly that), but applicants also have to accept that fact that they can’t know everything in advance.

Parents, if you attended college and had a choice of colleges yourself, after the acceptances came in, do you ever think about how your life might have been different if you had chosen a different college?  I really don’t, but did so on the occasion of preparing this episode.

This will surprise you, Marie (well-known Barnard alumna), but I very nearly chose to go to Smith College or Pembroke College (now fully merged into Brown University).  Yes, two women’s colleges!  I liked the idea of women’s colleges as a high school senior more than I do now.  So, was I right then?  Perhaps I was.

I also thought hard about going to two great Southern universities–Vanderbilt and Southern Methodist (my mother’s alma mater).  Although I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I spent all my summers in Texas at my grandmother’s.  I loved the idea of going to college in the South and believe, to this day, that I would have thoroughly enjoyed either of those universities.

But, as our listeners know, I chose Cornell.  In fairness, my father, an Ivy Leaguer himself, chose Cornell for me.  I could tell that he wanted me to go to Cornell, though he never said it, so I did.  I don’t regret my choice for a minute.  Was it a perfect choice?  Well, a near-perfect choice, except for the weather.  But I have to believe that any other choice would have made me quite happy, too.  They might have been just as perfect.

Maybe the key here is to get great colleges onto your list of college options so that you apply only to places that you would really like to attend.  It is comforting to go into the waiting period of the next few months knowing that you could be happy at any of the colleges on your list.  That’s one reason we spend a lot of time talking to you about options, taking you on our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53), going through the deal breakers in your decision making (see our first book), and doing the research you need on each college option (see our upcoming book).

2.  Lots of Colleges Are Still Accepting Applications.

So, that brings me to my second message to my friend’s daughter:  If you are really concerned (and not just fretting over nothing, as kids sometimes do), there are still a lot of great colleges accepting applications.  I have to admit that when I Googled “colleges still accepting applications,” I couldn’t believe the number that came up.  Sure, some have deadlines of January 10 or 15 or 31, but some have deadlines in February, March, April, May, and beyond.  Yes, for the fall of 2017.  And you still have some time to submit applications even to those with January deadlines.  One note of caution:  I double checked the deadlines of all the colleges that were supplied by my Google search and found many of them to be wrong.  So please check out the actual website of any college that you might be interested in!

There is no way to generalize about the colleges with later deadlines, but I have noticed that quite a few of them are the branch campuses of large public universities, though some great flagships also have relatively late application deadlines.  Other than that, you can find small liberal arts colleges, larger liberal arts universities, faith-based colleges, HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), single-sex colleges–really, just about anything.  They are large and small.  They are urban, suburban, small town, and rural.  They include some highly selective colleges, some selective colleges, and some not-so-selective colleges.  They include colleges in the North, South, East, and West (including as west as it gets).

Let me read you a sample of colleges with late application deadlines to prove our point.  Here are just some of the colleges–including truly great colleges–you can apply to by January 15 (and really 10 days should be plenty of time to pull some of these off):

  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Bucknell University
  • Carleton College
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Centre College
  • Colgate University
  • College of the Holy Cross
  • Colorado College
  • Denison University
  • Drexel University
  • Florida State University (January 18)
  • Franklin and Marshall College
  • George Mason University
  • Grinnell College
  • Haverford College
  • Kenyon College
  • Lafayette College
  • Loyola Marymount University
  • Macalester College
  • Mills College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Oberlin College
  • Occidental College
  • Providence College
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Skidmore College
  • Smith College
  • Soka University of America
  • Southern Methodist University
  • Stony Brook University
  • Tulane University
  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • University of Connecticut
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Denver
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Oregon
  • University of Puget Sound
  • University of Southern California
  • University of Vermont
  • Villanova University
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Washington University in St Louis
  • Wellesley College

Need more time?  Well, here are colleges with February deadlines (albeit many are on February 1, but some are on February 15):

  • Baylor University
  • Clemson University
  • Colorado State University Fort Collins
  • DePauw University
  • Dickinson College
  • Fisk University
  • Hunter College (CUNY)
  • Ithaca College
  • Juniata College
  • Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
  • Ohio State University (main campus)
  • Quinnipiac University
  • Rhode Island School of Design
  • Saint Michael’s College
  • Simmons College
  • Spelman College
  • St. Lawrence University
  • Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Transylvania University
  • University of Maryland (Baltimore County)
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
  • University of New Hampshire (main campus)
  • University of North Carolina Wilmington
  • University of Rhode Island
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Earlham College
  • Morehouse College
  • Rollins College
  • Texas Christian University
  • The College of Wooster
  • University of Kentucky
  • Yeshiva University

I was going to stop there, but there are some that I would like to mention with deadlines in March (yes, March!).  You really have no excuse not to apply to one of these if you are interested:

  • Georgia State University
  • Hampden?Sydney College
  • Hampton University
  • Randolph?Macon College
  • SUNY at Albany
  • University of Dallas
  • University of Hawai’i at M?noa
  • East Carolina University

Okay, you get the point.  But, believe us that we could name colleges with deadlines in April, May, and even June, including some that we have recommended in our virtual nationwide college tour–colleges like SUNY New Paltz, Old Dominion University, the University of Iowa, Louisiana State University, and the University of Central Florida.

So, parents of high school seniors, don’t despair.  If your teenager is truly questioning his or her choices now, it’s not too late.  Again, the options that we have just read are a sample of colleges still accepting applications (and there are many options that we have not read).  Lots of these options would be great for any student.  So, if you and your teenager are so inclined, take an hour or two now and have a last look.  It might not change any final decision your teenager will eventually make about where to go to college, but it might let you all sleep better for the next few months.

As always, call us, if you could use some free advice!

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Episode 92: Don’t Use These Two Filters for Your Teenager’s College List!

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Well, it is time to start narrowing your teenager’s long summer list of college options–that is, if he or she made such a list by using our 10 assignments this summer. Of course, if your teenager did not make such a list, there is still time to do so, but get moving. I would recommend taking his or her top 20 college choices and running through the 10 assignments at breakneck speed, because the time to narrow down that list is fast approaching.

1. The Numbers Game

We have promised you some ways to filter your teenager’s long summer list of college options, and I guess we will have to pay off on that promise. But, I have to say, that I don’t want to make the final list too short. We have said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available at amazon.com) that we would expect to see about 8 to 12 colleges on your teenager’s final list–that is, the list of colleges that he or she will actually apply to. However, if our summer challenge led you to put more colleges on your teenager’s list of options than you had expected and if you now hate to see them go, I could be happy with a somewhat longer list than 8 to 12. Maybe not 20 applications, but surely as many as 15.

We know that applying to too many colleges has become an unpopular notion, partly because people believe that applicants themselves have caused colleges’ increased selectivity by applying to a slew of colleges and, thus, giving too many colleges too many applicants to choose from. Regardless of that, we still believe that kids should have the best selection of colleges possible–both when applying and hopefully when choosing, after admissions decisions have been sent out.

And we know that it is not free to apply to most colleges, unless you have received a waiver based on your income or based on your teenager’s excellent high school record, and we know that money does not grow on trees. But I think it is hard to argue that paying $50 or $75 to add a college to the list is a bad investment–if that college might indeed accept your teenager.

If our 10 assignments this summer worked correctly, you and your teenager should have found yourselves putting colleges you had never before considered on your list. We wanted you both to branch out, look outside your geographic comfort zone, and consider types of colleges you had not thought about before. We challenged you to pick one college in every state, for goodness’ sake. We were serious about persuading you to look beyond what you already knew about colleges.

We have found that the biggest problem many of you have is that you don’t know anything at all about most colleges. That’s not your fault, of course. Worse yet, there is really no one to tell you about most colleges. That’s why we started this free podcast.

Let us say again that you should not rely on your teenager’s guidance counselor or college counselor in school. I was reviewing the college options of the daughter of close friends of mine last month. Let’s call her Kate. Kate and her parents had met with the counselor at Kate’s private school to have the college discussion. Kate’s father came away impressed by what the counselor knew and by the counselor’s advice to them. I could not have been less impressed. Not only did the counselor suggest colleges that made little sense to me, given what I know about Kate, but she also took colleges off of Kate’s list that made far more sense for Kate than the ones she put on. This is not an isolated example. Parents, you have to do your own homework. Most counselors know only what they know–and what they know tends to be about colleges that many previous graduates of the school have attended and colleges that are located in their home state. That’s not good enough.

And so, it’s a numbers game. Keep enough colleges on the list to ensure that your teenager ends up with some choice. If the colleges are chosen well to begin with, that number should be 8 or 12 or maybe 15. But don’t adopt an arbitrarily low number now and use it to filter out too many colleges on your teenager’s list before he or she can even apply.

2. The Visiting Game

Here is another filter we are concerned about: the college visit. Recently, I spent some time talking with parents who were in the process of taking their daughter on several college trips in August. Let’s call her Maia. I listened to Maia’s reaction to a college that I had thought would suit her fairly well. Maia didn’t like the college. I asked her mother why. This is what her mother said: “She liked the campus. But everyone she met was snotty, and the tour people had no idea what they were talking about. She hated the feel of the school.”

Let’s think about that for a minute. My feeling is that, if you visit a college in the summer, about all you can legitimately react to is the campus. I don’t think there is an obvious “feel of the school” when the regular students and professors are not there. I am not sure whom she could have met–perhaps other kids on the tour, perhaps kids there in some kind of summer program, who might not attend the college during the year. Finally, I never took a college tour where I thought the guide didn’t know a heck of a lot. I do know that colleges try very hard to choose personable guides and train them quite seriously. Look back at Episode 57, which focuses on college tour guides, if you don’t believe me. So, I am not sure what Maia was reacting to.

What I do know is this: It is very difficult to tell what a college is like when you visit it in the summer. I would urge you not to use a summer visit as a filter for ruling out colleges that you thought were otherwise appropriate for your teenager, unless it turned out that you or your teenager truly hated the actual campus or the surrounding area or the campus housing or felt that it was somehow unsafe. Those things don’t change from summer to winter.

As we have said before, visiting colleges is a time-consuming, hard-to-schedule, often expensive undertaking. There is actually plenty of time to visit colleges after your child has been accepted, when you can see the college in full swing in the winter or spring. If you have used reasonable criteria for putting colleges on your teenager’s list, that is a good enough first step. Once acceptances come in, you and your teenager can decide which ones are still worth visiting. It might be that you can narrow the choices down to just two or three among the acceptances, thus saving a lot of time and money and effort.

What is probably necessary is for your teenager to have seen a couple of college campuses, just to get the idea of what a college campus is. Showing your teenager a variety, even if they are all relatively close to home, would be most instructive–for example, a sprawling rural campus with many buildings and natural areas and its own transportation system; a walkable, enclosed suburban campus with ivy-covered buildings and manicured grassy quadrangles; an urban campus without any boundaries that tell where the campus stops and the city starts; and a commuter campus without housing. Giving your teenager an idea of what a campus could be might be enough for right now.

3. Next Week

As we mentioned last week, the first deadlines for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1–are fast approaching. If your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already started to use your own filters to narrow down your teenager’s list. However, you will still need a few colleges on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful. The rest of you will certainly need to start thinking about which colleges will stay on your list and which should come off now.

So, next week’s episode will focus on filters we think you should be using to get that list down to 8 or 12 or 15.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 91: Think Harder About Community Service

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Hopefully, you have finished your 10 summer assignments designed to expand and then investigate seriously the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. So, let’s review what those 10 assignments were:

You will recall that our original challenge when the summer started was to do these assignments for 50 colleges–one from each state. But even if you did it for just half that many colleges, congratulations. And, as we said right before the Labor Day break, we hope you did it for at least 20.

Now the time has come to start narrowing down that list–finally! As the first deadlines approach for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1?you and your teenager will want to skinny that list down to a manageable number of colleges, perhaps 15 or so. It seems likely to us, however, that if your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already skinnied your list down substantially. That doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t need a few colleges still on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful.

So, we are going to help you with that narrowing process starting next week. This week, we want to make a few comments on a subject that we believe in strongly and that we have talked about in two of our summertime Facebook Live chats–and that is community service. Today’s episode, however, addresses community service through the lens of the college application essay, which we hope all of you are starting or maybe even already editing this month.

Watch our Facebook Live chats on community service at the end of this post.

1. Community Service: The Background

Let’s start with some background. Some months ago, back in Episodes 61 and 62, we took a look at a new report that grew out of a meeting hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. The meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions. The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. We have referenced this report from time to time in subsequent episodes as well.

The list of “endorsers” of the report included every Ivy League institution plus an impressive list of about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities.

The question we have asked about the report and its endorsers is this: How much do they mean it? The jury is still out on that and might be for some time to come. But without getting into the politics of all that, which we believe are quite significant, one thing that is addressed strongly in the report is the value of community service. Four of the 11 recommendations in the report revolve around community service done by high school students, and personally I think that these might be the most sincere recommendations in the report. Let’s listen again to just the first of these recommendations:

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service: We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen?that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests?that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . . This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income. Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions. Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience. (quoted from the report)

Here’s what that probably means: that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service should last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. As we have said before, Marie and I saw kids at the high school we co-founded in New York City with substantial family responsibilities, which made it very difficult for them to engage in the other kinds of service that students without such responsibilities had the free time to undertake.

I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is also significant. The report is talking about sustained interactions over time that would speak to the genuine concern that a student had for whatever the community service project was. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on “high-profile” and “exotic” one-week community service projects in “faraway places”–unless perhaps a student did those projects summer after summer in some structured way and perhaps during other school vacations as well and/or had some other kind of follow-through during the rest of the year.

2. Frank Bruni’s Op-Ed Piece

Enter Frank Bruni’s excellent and though-provoking op-ed piece in The New York Times on August 13, 2016, provocatively titled “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?

I would like to read you the entire piece, but The New York Times might be slightly annoyed by that. So, let me offer a few quotations that are likely to send you off to read the full piece yourself, and you should absolutely do that. Here is how Mr. Bruni begins the piece:

 

This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.

‘An awfully large percentage of my friends–skewing towards the affluent–are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,’ he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them ‘with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,’ he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, ‘This cutie made it so hard to leave.’

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

‘It rubs me the wrong way,’ Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it ‘if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.’

‘No passport or customs line required,’ he added.

Hernandez reached out to me because he was familiar with writing I had done about the college admissions process. What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.

It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.

And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived. (quoted from the article)

 

Well, Mr. Bruni and Mr. Hernandez, it bothers us here at USACollegeChat as well. And I suspect it bothered the endorsers of the college admissions report, too. We know that it is tempting to pursue some community service option that looks spectacular on your college application, but it seems that those spectacular options are meeting with more and more skepticism by the college admissions officers. That problem is compounded when a student writes the all-important college application essay on such a community service experience. Here is what Mr. Bruni said about that:

 

‘The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,’ Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre. (quoted from the article)

 

“Their own bloated genre”–that’s quite an indictment, I think. What that means is that kids have to be careful when they undertake to write their primary application essay about a mission trip or about other community service work. While Mr. Bruni says that he and Pérez and Delahunty don’t doubt that many students doing this kind of community service “have heartfelt motivations, make a real (if fleeting) contribution and are genuinely enlightened by it,” he also tells a number of rather surprising anecdotes in the piece about upper-income parents who can and do buy short charitable experiences for their kids just so their kids have something to write about. Those are the essays that college admissions officers are on the lookout for–essays that don’t appear to come from some genuine and long-term interest on the part of the kid.

Looking at the other side of the issue for a moment, we can sympathize with kids who are faced with community service requirements from their high schools or who believe they are faced with community service as a necessary aspect of their college applications–even it that is not their essay topic. We know that kids have lots of demands on their time, including after-school clubs and sports and SAT prep and music lessons and dance lessons and the very real family responsibilities that many kids have. We know that community service can become just one more thing to do?not for its own sake, but for the sake of the college application. And, as Mr. Bruni writes, “Getting it done in one big Central American swoop becomes irresistible, and if that dilutes the intended meaning of the activity, who’s to blame: the students or the adults who set it up this way?”

So, who’s to stop that cycle? My vote would be you, parents. It is your responsibility to ensure that any community service activity that is undertaken by your own teenager is done for the right reasons and is carried out with genuine interest on his or her part and with respect for those being served. That is not the high school’s or the colleges’ responsibility. And your responsibility for this doesn’t start when your teenager is a senior. It starts much earlier, perhaps even in middle school, if we are to take into consideration what the new report says–that is, that colleges should start looking for “at least a year of sustained service or community engagement.”

Mr. Bruni has a great ending to his piece, thanks in part to the words of Mr. Hernandez. Here it is:

 

There are excellent mission trips, which some students do through churches that they already belong to, and less excellent ones. There are also plenty of other summer projects and jobs that can help students develop a deeper, humbler understanding of the world.

Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone ‘who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.’

Helicopter parents, stand down! Pérez’s assessment doesn’t mean that you should hustle your teenagers to the nearest Starbucks. It means that whatever they do, they should be able to engage in it fully and reflect on it meaningfully. And if that’s service work, why not address all the need in your own backyard?

Many college-bound teenagers do, but not nearly enough, as Hernandez can attest. He feels awfully lonely at the Flint Y.M.C.A. and, in the context of that, wonders, ‘Why is it fashionable to spend $1,000-plus, 20 hours traveling, and 120 hours volunteering in Guatemala for a week?’

He wonders something else, too. ‘Aren’t the children there sad, getting abandoned by a fresh crop of affluent American teens every few days?’ (quoted from the article)

 

That’s a stunning question from a 17-year-old. It makes me doubly proud of the work that some of our local teenagers do at Adventures in Learning, the nonprofit after-school program for low-income kids that we talked about in one of our Facebook Live chats. Maybe it isn’t as glamorous as going to Costa Rica to save the rain forest, but it’s something real that high school students can do, and they can see the results of their work in the lives of those kids every day.

One last word: Mr. Bruni writes, “A more recent phenomenon is teenagers trying to demonstrate their leadership skills in addition to their compassion by starting their own fledgling nonprofit groups rather than contributing to ones that already exist–and that might be more practiced and efficient at what they do.” Agreed, Mr. Bruni. It’s hard to create a nonprofit organization, especially one that has significant impact. So, teenagers, think about finding one near you and lending your support to it. And do that over time, not for a week. And look for ways to be a leader in that context?recruit other teenagers, make presentations at local community events, spearhead a fundraising campaign. We mentioned in one of our Facebook Live chats that Heifer International is a wonderful organization to volunteer with and that it offers suggestions on its website for volunteers leading their own activities.

Kids, there’s plenty of work to be done. Do some of it and then consider how to write about it thoughtfully in your college application essay. Be reflective. Be specific. Be persuasive. And be thankful that you had the opportunity to serve.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Watch our Facebook Live videos about community service below!

 

Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay?

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As the college search for many of you begins in earnest this summer, here’s one way to ruin your summertime: Start talking to your child about completing the college application essay. Now, as you all know, some colleges require more than one essay and usually the second and third supplementary essays for those colleges, for example, are shorter and more geared to a specific question related to the college itself than the main essay, like the one in the Common Application. We gave one perspective on college essays way back in Episode 22 and another in Episode 49 when we recounted some sad experiences we had reviewing the college essays of about 100 kids in a top New York City high school. Today, let’s talk about that main essay.

Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay? on USACollegeChat podcast

In this episode, we would like to chat about what might be at the crux of the problem in putting together a compelling essay–and that is sounding original and impressive when the applicant is still a 17-year-old.

1. The Common Application Essays

Remember, first of all, that not all colleges require essays, particularly community colleges. But let’s start with the Common App “personal statement,” which most students who have to write any essay will find themselves writing. Since over 600 colleges take the Common App, these essay prompts are likely in your child’s future.

The Common App essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, for that reason, the Common App people can tell you which prompts were the most popular. Here is the breakdown as of last January (quoted from The Common Application website):

Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47 percent have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent – making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22 percent have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.

I have to say those figures seem entirely understandable to me inasmuch as I, too, think that the essay prompt that proved to be the most popular is likely to be the most straightforward to write about and the most likely to be easily adaptable to most kids’ situations. But let’s look at the exact wording of all five options (quoted from The Common Application website):

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (47 percent)

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (17 percent)

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (4 percent)

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. (10 percent)

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (22 percent)

On the whole, I think these are reasonable prompts and relatively interesting prompts (without being overboard interesting) for high school seniors, though I do think that the writer has to be careful to bite off something that he or she can chew. For example, students, I wouldn’t suggest choosing global warming as a problem you’d like to solve unless you can say something very specific, unusually persuasive, and ideally somewhat original about it. It’s hard to propose the solution to an international crisis in 650 words.

2. Hugh Gallagher’s Essay

When I was in Maine this weekend, college admissions expert Allen Millett told me about a college application essay that was news to me–though I guess people who do online dating have been stealing from it for years. Allen had heard about it some time ago from his colleague at New York University, the college that admitted the student who wrote the now-famous essay. That student was Hugh Gallagher, who said this in his 2008 video interview with The Wall Street Journal:

It was 1989 and I was applying for colleges, and I thought it was really absurd for them to ask me at that age, you know, who I was or what I’d done because I hadn’t done anything.

I feel as though truer words were never spoken.

Anyway, Mr. Gallagher wrote the following essay in response to a question about significant experiences or accomplishments that helped define him as a person (that is, of course, a 17-year-old person):

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently.

Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400.

My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA.

I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid.

On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin.

I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.

Mr. Gallagher’s point is, I believe, obvious. This essay doesn’t solve your child’s problem of writing about himself or herself; it just points out how difficult getting a grasp on what a reasonable accomplishment or talent or interest or problem solution might be.

As with all assignments, the more time your child has to think about the essay and sort through his or her young life to consider what might make sense to write about, the better off you all are. And here is some excellent advice that I can’t imagine anyone will take: Try writing about a few different ideas to see which one works best. I know that sounds like more work–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that often many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape. I had an English teacher once who reminded the class that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort. So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.

3. The U.K. Weighs In

And now let’s cross the Atlantic and see what is going on with college essay writing in the U.K. Earlier this spring, the BBC reported that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles the process of admitting students to British universities, had noted that “[u]niversity applicants are overly reliant on a few ‘hackneyed phrases’ in their personal statements” (quoted from the article “University hopefuls urged to keep applications ‘personal'”. The BBC article quoted the UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook as saying that “[t]he personal statement is supposed to be personal.” In the U.K., the essay focuses on why applicants are planning to study a particular course or subject and on any skills or interests they have.

To prove the point about “a few hackneyed phrases,” the UCAS published a list of the 10 most popular opening lines used by the over 700,000 applicants in their personal statements last year. Here they are (as reported in the article):

  1. “From a young age I have (always) been..” and then typically “interested in” or “fascinated by” (1,779 applicants)
  2. “For as long as I can remember I have…” (1,451 applicants)
  3. “I am applying for this course because…” (1,370 applicants)
  4. “I have always been interested in…” (927 applicants)
  5. “Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…” (310 applicants)
  6. “Reflecting on my educational experiences…” (257 applicants)
  7. “Nursing is a very challenging and demanding (career/profession/course)…” (211 applicants)
  8. “Academically, I have always been…” (168 applicants)
  9. “I have always wanted to pursue a career in…” (160 applicants)
  10. “I have always been passionate about…” (160 applicants)

So, maybe our U.S. college applicants are more creative than our U.K. friends, but maybe not. The lesson here, students, is don’t put the words “I have always…” in the first sentence of your essay–unless you want to be like thousands of young Brits.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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