I don't take guest blogs, but I got this wonderful email from a parent whose child graduated from one of my favorite NYC public schools this spring (not Bard or Beacon or Stuy - keep guessing). She is a kid who squeezed the best out of her good old Brklyn high school experience and her hard work was rewarded by the kind of college placement you all dream of. It is so right on the money that I though I would share it with you. Edited slightly for space. My comments in italics.
"Having helped one kid get into her first choice college, and a smart, artistic one whose self-discipline far surpasses mine at that, it would be obnoxious to set myself up as an expert on the admissions process. Yet, I have a hankering to share what I’ve learned, and I think the observations below are universal and apply to any rising senior. I feel the same way about the experience of having survived a fire and fought an insurance company for a settlement. I don’t want all that hard-won knowledge to go to waste, and I’d like to save others some angst.
I’m focusing on two morsels of college-admissions jargon you may have heard of: “fit” and “demonstrated interest”. Maybe those buzz words have barely entered your brain, because grades, scores and extra-curriculars were whirling around and taking up all the space. My message to you is: Let ‘em in. Better believe it!
“Fit” means your kid and the school – in terms of academics, social life, sports, arts, “values”, location, environment, philosophy, you name it – are a good match for each other.
“Demonstrated interest” means your kid has shown the school that they really, truly, sincerely, intensely desire to attend that school above all others and will indeed matriculate if granted admission.
The colleges really do care about these two things, and I believe that fit and demonstrated interest guide their sorting process as much as grades, scores and extra-curriculars (GSE’s from now on). The reason I’m convinced that they do care about fit and demonstrated interest is because while my daughter got into her first choice school, which is highly selective, she was rejected or waitlisted at several schools that are considered easier to get into than her first choice. The admissions officers care about 'yield'. Their jobs depend on it. That is the percentage of students accepted who actually attend. If their yield is low, they didn't do their job: picking kids who will actually come to their school. Schools all want to believe that they are your 'reach' schools - because those are the ones that you want most. If they are obviously your safety - you may not be accepted, because they know that you are aiming higher and may actually get in someplace fancier and then take that school instead. Everyone has to believe that you have a compelling reason to attend.
1. College Visits
If at all possible, visit. And, if at all possible, visit when class is in session. And if your kid really loves the school and it might be their first or second choice, if you can swing it, visit a second time. I don't know anyone who could make this happen. The only time we visited schools a second time was for the accepted students sleep over, but it is not a bad idea.
And that’s not all. When you visit, make sure your kid does these three things: 1) goes to a class, 2) talks to a current student, and 3) chats with a professor of a department they are or might be interested in. Even if your kid is shy and detests doing this sort of thing. Ideally, make these things happen by setting it up in advance of your visit, or at least when you are wandering around. Don't rely on the admissions department to do it for you, and even if they do, it won’t be as authentic. TAKE GOOD NOTES – to collect stories. You and your kid will not remember the details of what you saw a year and a half before. And the details are key.
I went on Facebook and asked all my friends and acquaintances if they knew anyone who taught at or attended the schools we were going to visit. And it worked, like a charm! Once we met up with the daughter of a person who was the niece of the guy on the coop shift of someone I barely know. Another time we met with the kids of a guy I worked with for a few months in 1987. And another time, when the college was unfortunately not in session, we met with a faculty member who is the cousin of someone I met in my second child’s baby group. That professor served us tea and flourless chocolate cake in his house off campus and set us up with another professor who gave us our own two-hour tour of the art department. And another time, we sat in on a fascinating class taught by the friend of a woman whose connection to me is that my husband was her 6th grade teacher in Kentucky. It was always informal, and never set up by admissions. When possible, I took the students to lunch, but at the school my child is going to, the student we met with only had time to sit with us on the grass for half an hour. That was enough. Because my daughter learned from that student that it really is possible to double-major in an academic subject and studio art, a concrete detail she mentioned in her “Why Us?” essay.
Besides helping your kid write their “Why Us?” essay, college visits that include the three things above will also help them decide what they really think about the place.
2. The “Why Us?” Essay
The “Why Us”” essay is a supplement question almost all the colleges add to the Common Application (hereafter referred to as the Common App.) This essay is what they use to asses fit and demonstrated interest. The essays are never long, and can be as short as 100 words (which makes it even harder). My daughter's “Why Us?” essays for the schools where she had met a student and/or a professor and sat in on a class were vastly superior to the essays she wrote to schools that weren’t in session when we visited and where we’d had no choice but to go to the official info session and tour and look at a bunch of empty buildings. And the essays she wrote for schools we didn’t visit at all – the ones where she had to rely on brochures or their websites – were even weaker.
Like any good editor (and someone who doesn't want to bore the admissions office to death!), I insisted that she include a detailed anecdote – any detail, any anecdote – gleaned on our visit that would help her “Why Us?” essay convince admissions officers that she is a good fit for their school and demonstrate the depth of her interest in their school. I believe that the real reason that my kids got so many acceptances was the strength of their "why us?" essays! All of them true and very specific, and all of the schools were sure to think, "oh she loves us best!"
e.g. Northwestern: quarters (like her high school, where she was successful in a fast paced academic schedule) that would serve her thirst for a range of specific academic disciplines, she is a lifelong Cubs fan, and Grandma's spiral ham will always be in the mini fridge (she lives 10 miles away), "Chicago has never been 'second city' to me." They KNEW she would attend if accepted. What they didn't know was that she had different and equally compelling reasons to attend every other highly selective school she wrote to.
When I look at the groups of schools my daughter got into and those that rejected or wait-listed her, they pretty much line up with two things present or missing from her “Why Us?” essays: She got into the schools when her essays incorporated details and anecdotes from a visit where we did more than just attend an official tour and info session. And she got into schools in which she wrote with some passion about why she was interested in the school and wanted to go there. She didn’t get into the schools for which she had no anecdotes to add to her essay and she didn’t get into the schools she really didn’t want to go to.
3. Don't be afraid to show how much you are thinking about them
My hunch is that this stuff is so important to the colleges that you can’t actually overdo it. My daughter begged to differ, and was worried that they would get sick of us contacting them, so we kept it, sort of, to a minimum. But for her top choices, she made more contacts than for other schools. Your kid, NOT YOU, can call the admissions officer (it’s good if you can find out who’s in charge for your region) and ask for a clarification on how to upload a paper or a tape or some artwork. They can write an extra email asking about a particular department they’re interested in. Whatever it takes to show the school how much they care. I’ve heard, and I believe it, that some schools keep a tally of how many times an applicant has made contact.
4. Have other people speak on your behalf
The other thing we did only with my daughter’s top choice is ask her college guidance counselor to add a personal note to the bottom of that school’s mid-year report in January. (The college counselors send first semester grades to all the schools.) I asked that the counselor write that it was my daughter’s first choice, that it had always been her first choice, and that the only reason she had not applied Early Decision was because of financial considerations. And I suggested that the counselor mention that my daughter’s self-motivation positioned her to take full advantage of the college’s open curriculum, ie that she would be a great fit. The counselor was happy to do this and could have done this in the recommendation she wrote when my daughter submitted her Common App, but since my daughter goes to a huge public school and the counselor is responsible for 800 kids, I didn’t want to impose on her.
5. Outside letters they supposedly do not want
A friend of the family who went to my daughter’s first choice college offered to write her a letter, and we said ok. She wrote that we hadn’t asked her to do it, which was true. And she wrote a beautiful letter, talking about something no teacher or employer would write about – my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah speech – and saying why she thought my daughter was a good fit for the school.
6. Common App Essay
If you can, get your kid to do at least a draft of the Common App essay the summer before senior year. YES! My daughter took a one-week workshop in August dedicated to writing the darn essay. Since she had nothing else to do for 15 hours – three hours a day for five days – except come up with a topic and write, that’s what she did. What a relief to have that out of the way before school started.
My daughter’s essay was weird (not provocative, or shocking, just quirky). It showed how she thinks. She got wait-listed at a school she had found, frankly, bland. Maybe they knew she was too weird for them and wouldn’t have been happy there. They really know their own institutions, and they are trying, I think, to figure out what your kid is really like and whether he or she will thrive and contribute at their school. The best thing is for the Common App essay to really communicate, directly or indirectly, but nevetheless honestly, what your kid is like.
7. Relations with your College Guidance Counselor
My daughter assigned herself the task of making the college guidance counselor her BFF, even though doing so ran counter to her typical comportment, which is pretty quiet. From early on, she dropped by the counselor’s office to chat, kept her informed of her thinking and asked her for advice. As mentioned above, in a school with 800 seniors, this was important beyond belief. The Common App requires a recommendation from the school’s counselor, but the admissions offices say they don’t expect the same personal touch from counselors who work in large schools. Frankly, if the guidance counselor in a large school does know your kid, that speaks volumes, and the counselors are also emotionally invested in your child's success and will go the extra mile.
8. Assembling the List
My daughter applied to 12 schools. This was probably 2 or 3 too many. Finishing those last few applications was really a slog. Some were universities, and others were liberal arts colleges. They were not all in the same region of the country, and geographic diversity helped. She got into her first choice reach. Waitlisted at 1 reach. Rejected at 1 reach.
She got into 2 sure thing back ups (1 with financial aid, 1 with a spot in the honors program).
Among the other 7 that hit the sweet spot: got into 3, wait-listed at 3, rejected at 1.
We took the same strategy and were not at all shy about saying loud and proud that we wanted to be considered for financial aid. My daughters applied to 10 each. Got into 7 (including their top 3), waitlisted at 1, rejected at 2.
9. Financial Aid
Even if you do not think you qualify for any need-based aid, you may get some. And, if you choose which colleges to apply carefully, your kid can also get merit-based aid. Our experience showed that if your kid is a stretch for the school, they’ll offer aid. And if the school is a stretch for your kid, they will not. What you do with the results is a family decision. Three schools offered my child aid. Two of them called it merit aid and one called it need-based aid. All the schools define “need” slightly differently, based on their endowments and priorities.
I have lots to say about this.
Your kid will get into a college and be happy there."
Rock solid advice.