The long awaited day for many seniors in which selective schools release their admissions decisions has finally passed. Students are now left with either an easy decision on where to attend, or a difficult one fraught with the anxieties of evaluating the pros and cons of each school countless times.
If you are dealing with some disappointment, it always helps to put things in perspective. A recent post on the NY Times Choice Blog presents the latest statistics on a few of the most select schools (with more to come), and reminds its readers that there are a couple thousand schools in the United States, most of which not only admit all applicants, but also offer an excellent education.
Colleges may want students to describe a significant work experience. If you don't feel you have this under your belt yet, consider hunting for an internship this summer, or volunteering for a worthy cause. It cannot only lead you to a great topic for an essay, but it will also give you real world experience which will help you learn more about your goals as you prepare for college. Below is how one student described her summer work experience:
I have always had a passion for science, especially for seeing it applied in the laboratory. This past summer I seized an opportunity to further my interests in molecular biology through a program concentrating on the genetic mutations that cause Pompe’s Disease, an autosomal recessive disorder resulting in rapid muscle degeneration. At Bellevue Hospital’s Muscle Rehabilitation Unit, I assisted a research scientist in his study of the genetic disease, and learned how to actively participate in the actual manipulation of patients' genes. First, I would isolate a particular group of exons and then amplify and replicate these nucleic sequences. Next, I would strip the DNA of contaminations added in the previous procedures, thus purifying it. But a complicated step followed. It involved adding radioactive substances that would bind to certain nucleotides, enabling the depiction of the separate nucleotides. Handling such things as radioactive chemicals, fragile materials, and microscopic elements entailed meticulous efforts, and together with the research scientist, we were able to create a film with the imprints of a patient's DNA sequence, whereupon I could identify the location of a mutation. It was an effort that required an attention not only to detail, but also to safety and technique. It was a unique experience and showed me the levels to which science can rise when separate talents are united.
After all the waiting from colleges, the table is finally beginning to turn. It is soon the turn of the colleges to wait and see how many of their offers are accepted. Although much of the pressure of the application season is now in the past, there is still a bit remaining, especially for those students with a decision to make. Sometimes too many options make things more difficult rather than less.
If you want to commiserate or just be part of the soul-searching that goes on during such a decision, the NY Times Choice Blog features a group of students each season, following them through the process. You can read here as they deliberate about where they should go next fall. While definitely a challenging time, if your college list was well thought out, any of the colleges you applied to should be a great fit. In any case, it is worth taking the time to further research each school to make the best decision. Once that process is complete, the best thing to do is to move forward trusting that you did your best to secure a happy and successful college experience.
Colleges want to know your passions and what drives you, and asking to describe a personal goal is one way of exploring those topics. Below is how one student responded when a college asked her to discuss a significant personal goal she achieved. She also used it in modified form to address similar essay topics addressing personal value, intellectual interests, adversity, a personal activity, among others:
The room resonates with the sound of the last note. The echo hovers softly above the crowd until it fades into the applause of a packed auditorium. My heart races, still feeling the excitement of the piece pulsating in my blood. The entire orchestra stands up for a bow. For a second, it seems like all eyes are on just me. Now I was the Concert Master I had admired three years ago.
I switch hands into a non-dominant cradle and whip my lacrosse stick toward a fleeting opening I see in the goal. I look over to the sideline and my coach is smiling at me—a rare sign of emotion. I feel the momentum build within myself and my teammates; although we are down by two and time is winding down, there is a newly inspired hope.
After reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger, translated into English, I understand the basic plot, but the allegedly philosophical power of this novel continues to elude me. I now realize how much is really “lost in translation,” as words that technically mean the same thing in English don’t make the same impression on me as they do in their original French. I am suddenly closer to Camus and his ideas.
Existentialism itself captivated me immediately, and not merely because of Camus’s brilliant prose. I was drawn to the whole idea that a person’s existence is determined by that person’s own choices in life, that there is a freedom to one’s actions. I have made various sacrifices in my life, forgoing short-term gratification in order to strive toward long-term goals, and I used to resent these sacrifices.
But these efforts were, in the end, what mattered. Success is only as gratifying as it is because of the struggle and energy it entails. If success came gift-wrapped in a box waiting for me at my front door, it would not mean as much to me. That violin note, that lacrosse goal, that linguistic epiphany—each is beautiful to me because of what came before it. The memory of those private struggles is, in truth, what I experience most intensely during my moments of glory.
Whether you have just gone through the application process, or you are anxiously seeing it looming ahead, it’s easy to entertain ideas of not going to college. After all, college provides no guarantee for a job when you graduate or a successful future, and unless you’re one of the lucky few to get a free ride, it often comes with a high price tag, which includes future debt.
Most people, and especially parents, still view college as a rite of passage into the adult world, and understandably, you may not want to rock the family boat, but if you are seriously looking into your other options, here’s an article about one high school student who chose to forego college, albeit with a $100,000 award to start his own business. There are, however, notable examples of students who did not graduate from college, nor did they have a significant amount of money to fall back on, but went on to build extremely successful careers. It all depends on your goals and aspirations, and how driven you are, because whether you go to college or not, success requires lots of hard work and determination.
Colleges always want to know why you are interested in attending their school. Unfortunately, students often mistake this as a call to repeat what they have read in the college brochure. Colleges really want to hear what the student is passionate about and how the school fits into those desires. Below is a sample essay from a successful applicant who was able to describe her own goals and aspirations in order to show how the college was the ideal place for her:
Performing is the one thing I never tire of, and seeing others perform is like settling into a second home. I always look forward to diving headfirst into a new play or learning a new song and, quite often, it is the one thing that will get me out of bed in the morning after a long week.
Northwestern University’s Music Theater Certificate Program is outstanding and hardly rivaled in its comprehensiveness and intensity. What is most exciting is a student’s ability to participate in many shows throughout the year, from Main Stage extravaganzas to small student-directed plays to the lively Children's Theatre Tour. Combining the voice and opera program with the theater program assures that a Musical Theater student would be able to participate in a wide array of performance activities, from Shakespeare to Sondheim. In my ambitious theater fantasies, I’m playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and belting out D’s, and next Vivie in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Northwestern’s program encourages students to explore every facet of theater, promoting the importance of being not only knowledgeable, but also exceptionally competent in every aspect as well.
As someone who has been dancing since before she could pronounce en pointe, I know how important it is to experience a wide range of dance classes, and I feel a surge of excitement at the idea of taking courses that range from modern to tap to ballet. Such a wide spectrum is present in the acting curriculum, as well, with classes spanning from Shakespeare to Modern Drama.
What is also thrilling is that, because this is not a conservatory, I would also have the ability to explore my other passion, psychology. My interest in psychology was piqued in middle school, as I wondered how the brain could be powerful enough to orchestrate the functions of the entire body. But what came to intrigue me more was discovering what happens when the brain does not work perfectly. I can list the treatments and drugs used in asylums during almost any century. My friends find it terribly bizarre, but I someday hope to thrive in courses on clinical psychology and psychopathology.
At Northwestern, I would strive to become even more multifaceted and knowledgeable. In very few places can one encounter a program that focuses on all these facets, from singing to Shakespeare to psychosis. I can imagine myself thriving at Northwestern, knee-deep in coursework and loving every minute of it.
Colleges want to get to know you as a whole person, and the essay is clearly the key to standing out during the application process, and revealing who you are. Questions about extracurricular activities, commonly seen on college applications, are a great way to demonstrate who you are beyond the academic picture. In fact, the Common App short answer question, which the majority of students will be filling out, is about just that. It asks applicants to "briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences." Below is a sample essay in which a student describes her passion for singing and how it has helped her in her everyday life:
The alarm clock sounds. I open my eyes, and deep from under my covers I think, “What do I have to do today?” I think about the vocab quiz and the words tumbling through my head. I think about the paper on King Lear I crammed in the night before, the intricate ideas still fresh in my mind. I think about having to walk my dog, and do the laundry. I think about how I must read 20 pages of Speak, Memory on the bus to school. I think about the list of terms that I must memorize for my Economics test. I realize I had a dream about Alan Greenspan wearing leotards and think about that, too.
But amidst all the thinking and working and studying, there is something else—a vacation for my mind where my soul can unfurl itself and just breathe. I’m talking about my singing. I sing as often as I can. I sing in school, I sing in my shower, I sing along to my favorite songs every night in my room. I’ve sung all over the world, from the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to the Cathedral in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.
Someone recently asked me what I think about when I sing a song for an audience. I searched my mind, trying to remember the thoughts that filled my head at a recent appearance. But nothing came to mind. I concentrated on what I must’ve been thinking, and even looked back to all the other times I’ve sung. Still, nothing. Then I realized, that’s precisely it: Nothing comes to mind when I sing. I simply don’t think when I’m onstage and the sounds are pouring out of me.
When I sing, my mind is totally blank, no worries and no thoughts, save a few points on keeping my pitch up and remembering the lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, I work very hard at singing. It is something that comes naturally to me, but I study the songs I sing, and I learn different techniques, and sometimes it takes a long time to get them down. There are, however, no tests—only the personal ones I set for myself onstage, and those are emotional experiences that cannot be compared to taking an exam in a classroom.
Just as all my built-up mental energy fuels my singing with intensity, my singing in turn feeds my mind, allowing it to cleanse itself through this physical and emotional artistic catharsis. I suppose this yin-yang cycle is what allows me to function throughout the day in relative harmony with the world and myself. Singing is something I am proud of, something I will continue to do for the rest of my life, personally and I hope professionally. Just as I have no memory of when exactly I started singing, I never want to have a memory of when I stopped.
Juniors may be starting to wonder more and more about the application process ahead, and what they should be doing now to stay ahead of the curve. The New York Times Choice Blog has posted a new series called Counselor’s Calendar in which two counselors from independent schools, Amy Wintermeyer and Mark Moody, offer advice on how to prepare for the application process and beyond.
Juniors need to start getting focused on the road ahead. This not only includes starting to research and visit colleges, but also thinking about what students will need to create outstanding applications. This involves creating a timeline for standardized testing (subject tests as well as the SAT or ACT), evaluating your relationships with teachers for the needed recommendations, and discussing important issues with your parents and counselors regarding finances and safety schools.
For seniors who are mostly over the application hurdle, it’s more of a waiting game at this point, as well as a concerted effort to not fall into the senior slump. For more tips on what seniors should be doing to enable their transition to college, see this posting.
As juniors begin to turn their thoughts to the college application process looming in front of them, now is the time to start to generate ideas for a stand-out essay. There is no doubt that the essay has the power to set a student apart from the pack, and is often the most challenging part of applying to college.
To get your thoughts flowing in the right direction, we'll be posting a series of essays over the coming months on commonly asked essay questions. In the below essay, the student was responding to a question asking her to describe a personal challenge. She also used the same essay in modified form to address additional essay topics from other colleges on her list that asked about a life-changing experience, personal value, and personal trait/individuality, among others:
I found out I had severe scoliosis when I was twelve, and suddenly, like my spine, my life became a twisted mess. I was told that if I didn’t wear a brace twenty-three hours a day for two full years, my spinal cord would shift and I would need surgery. In the beginning, I let my mother convince me it wouldn’t be that bad. However, my father, always the family realist, hid nothing in his reaction to the news: I was in for a horrible two years.
After two excruciatingly painful months, literally and metaphorically, I made a decision: I was not going to wear the brace. I was going to accept my physical fate, and work on being the Carly I knew I could be; whether I was standing straight or otherwise. I was well aware of the risk I was taking, but I also knew that I was prepared to assume responsibility for this choice.
As luck would have it, the curve in my spine did not get worse as I grew, though this was not something anyone could have predicted—a lucky twist in the tale, if you will. And though I was not left with a severely crooked spine, many questions remain: If I had worn my brace, would my back be straighter? Was I right to shun my brace, or was it stupid – a risky gamble and a mistake? I will never fully know the answers to these questions.
Resolution for me came through introspection and acceptance. I understand myself better as a result of this experience, as well as the world around me. I see that the cards I was dealt were not very bad in the grand scheme of things. Today, my scoliosis is rarely on my mind and I am at ease with myself once again. But I still have my brace. I keep it in the closet, because I never want to forget the experience. Once in a while, when trying to explain myself to a new friend, I pull it out. It never disappoints.