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Dear Mitch,

It's still summer here on the East Coast but I saw my guidance counselor and she told me it's not too early to be thinking about my applications for college. Since I already know which schools I'm applying to, and she knows this, I guess she means I should be thinking about how to fill them out. I know the essay is the most important part and everybody makes a big deal out of it, but I'm not ready to deal with an essay.

Is there anything else I could be doing with the applications to make things easier when school starts?




Dear M.B.,

Good question! Yes, there are things you could be doing that definitely would be worth your time.

You mention the essay, and you are right to describe it as important, but there's now an unexpected 'side-effect' from the tremendous weight that students and admission committees place on that section. And it takes the form of an almost suspicious scrutiny. In other words, there is a heightened awareness of the fact that many students receive all kinds of 'coaching' on their essays, and so admission committees do what they can to weed out the ones which they believe have received any form of assistance that goes over the line of ethics. There are students who, I am told, hardly see their essay because their parents/guardians have hired someone to write it for them (or the parents have written it themselves), and there are students whose parents, etc., have so aggressively edited the work that little remains of the student's effort. And the range, as you might imagine, goes all the way over to the student who takes the application into his bedroom or school library, writes it, completes it, and sends it off.

Now, I know you did not write in for information about the essay, but discussing applications without at least touching the essay would be a missed opportunity. Now to bring it back to your initial question: YES, there are things you could be doing. Here's one:

Remember that since the essay will be looked at with a heightened sense of suspicion, people in admission offices are apt to consider anything they can that an astute observer would consider to help decipher how much input, if any, you received from a 'third party'. The most obvious place for such a person to look for clues would be your responses to the questions that require only short answers. Knowing that there is typically very little 'coaching' on the short answers to questions such as 'please list all extra curricular activities you participated in after school' or 'Did you participate on your high school's tennis team, and, if so, for how many years did you play?'

After all, most students and their families don't feel any need to receive 'coaching' to write a "yes", or a "no", or "12 hours per week". BUT, that's the catch: Many schools use the responses to the short response questions as a point of comparison, so that if the big essay comes in as polished and original as a Hemingway, it may be revisited with the short answers alongside of it. And while an applicant obviously is going to try to produce a masterpiece for his long essay, the 'short responses' have to have something in common with it. If the extended essay is a stylistic masterpiece, and the sort essays are poorly formed, grammatically incorrect, and demonstrate a mastery of only second-grade vocabulary, it might raise some eyebrows. But even more importantly, the short questions and answers typically precede the essay on the application and therefore serve the important function of setting the tone:

Does the student sound like someone who is likely to be optimistic? Lazy? Apologetic? Proud? Conceited?

Those little blanks can make a big difference. And the way I see this most often is when the question could be read as a yes/no question. My advice: Just because the question could be answered with a one-word response, does NOT mean you should overlook the opportunity to do more! Notice, even for those so-called 'yes/no' questions, applications typically provide at least one or two lines of space. The word "no", or the word "yes" hardly take that small but important space and maximize its value to demonstrate even a drop of creativity or enthusiasm for future opportunities. Finally, a "Yes" or a "no" amidst an entire blank line or two does nothing to show the reader that the applicant understands and is alert to the power of a few well-chosen words.

To demonstrate, here is one sample question, given twice, so that two responses can be compared.

  1. Were you a member of your high school's tennis team, and if so, list the number of years of participation and indicate the semesters of participation

No, I was not a member of my high school's tennis team.

  1. Were you a member of your high school's tennis team, and if so, list the number of years of participation and indicate the semesters of participation.

I have always enjoyed the game of tennis, both as a player and a spectator. However, my school's tennis matches frequently conflicted with the matches of the debating team, which has always been my primary extracurricular passion. I hope that the college I attend has these two activities scheduled in a way that will allow me to avail myself of the opportunity to pursue both interests and develop the two sets of skills simultaneously.

(Or something like that.)

Hope this helps,