I have little kids, ages 7 and almost 5. This essentially means that, in attempting to raise them, I say the same things a lot, eat the same things a lot, and watch the same things a lot. It means other things too (like leg hugs) but we’ll just focus on the routine, repetitive nature of young humans.
Not unlike a lot of kids, mine love Disney. I think my current movie-viewing count is approximately three gazillion and my song-listening count is double that. Some of these Disney characters, lines, and themes are now forever emblazoned in my mind. They say when you learn another language you start dreaming in it. My wife recently heard me muttering something about a witch and a poison apple, so it seems I am now fluent in Disney.
Over the last year or so, Frozen has been ubiquitous. Interestingly, as Early Action and Early Decision deadlines approach, I think this movie has a lot to say about the admission process.
As you are probably aware, Elsa, the newly crowned queen, flees Arendelle in an attempt to begin a new, freer life for herself. She sings her passionate and cathartic song, “Let It Go,” as she creates an incredibly majestic ice paradise on the North Mountain.
When it comes to writing your college essays this year, I hope you will remember that scene and phrase.
You will hear supposed experts tell you to “be yourself” as you write. I think that is well-intentioned but dreadfully vague advice. To be more specific: Admission counselors want to hear YOUR voice and understand YOUR background.
All her life Elsa had been controlled and suppressed, and it was not until she left Arendelle that she could truly create something unique and beautiful. (Granted [spoiler alert!], she created an even greater masterpiece when she came back later and saved her kingdom and sister, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
You should absolutely ask others for their opinions and editing suggestions but don’t let them steal the power of YOUR story. Neither course choice nor course performance nor test scores nor extracurricular activities (that’s a lot of nors, I realize) convey you as an individual. Those details and attributes may trace a silhouette, but it’s your essay that colors in the full picture of how you are unique from the thousands of other applicants. Since very few schools interview students, think of your essay as an opportunity for the admission reader to really HEAR YOU.
The other lesson we can learn from Elsa about writing college essays is in her song “Let It Go.”
On the back end of the applications, we can see what percentage a student has completed. So when you finish detailing your extracurricular activities and biographical information, you may be 70 percent or more complete. But year in and year out, applications will sit at 90 percent or so for weeks leading up to a deadline.
My guess is, the angst and uncertainty revealed by this incomplete status emanate from the fact that the essay is the last thing students can control. Your grades are all but set, your testing and scores are likely done, and you either did or did not join that club or play that sport in your sophomore year. But the essay … ahhh, this you can still hold, continue to massage … and perhaps it’s the magic bullet that will tip the scales.
But the truth is the essay alone will not be what gets you in or keeps you out of a school.
So, here is my strong and earnest advice: Choose a topic you care about, draft, write, edit, ask for feedback, refine — and then “Let It Go.”
Recently, as I was en route to visit a high school, the counselor called my office to let me know their AV system was down. She was concerned the malfunction would jeopardize my slide presentation. My assistant assured her, “Don’t worry. He’ll just speak from the heart.” That’s what I’m hoping to do today regarding The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.
If you are skeptical:
Understandably, there has been a good bit of speculation about whether this aspirational new platform will accomplish its goal of helping a more diverse population of students enroll in thriving universities across the nation. At this point, nobody can make that guarantee; however, the effort is noble, well-intentioned, and worth striving for, especially given the need to enhance socio-economic and geographic diversity on campuses and, ultimately, in the workforce.
If you’ve been walking around with one eyebrow raised since this press release, then kudos to you. Skepticism is part of what brings about excellence, innovation, and improvement. The people of St. Louis in the 1870s would not walk over the first steel bridge across the Mississippi until an elephant did. Still, let’s commit to “benefit of the doubt” support and check back after a year — or better yet after three or four years (given that the platform aims to bring students into the process earlier in their high school experience) to see if participating schools have indeed been able to enroll more Pell-eligible or first-generation students.
If you are in the college counseling or admission field, you believe in competition. We tell students all the time to compete against the curriculum: to push themselves and try new things, even if they sometimes fail, in order to be stronger, better, faster, smarter, and more successful long term.
So one reason I’m glad to see “The Coalition” option emerge is because it introduces a new mechanism for college search and entry, forcing those of us in the marketplace to respond, review, revise, and ultimately consider how we can make our product, communication, and results better. And who wins in that? Students.
Sure, I have some reservations about installing a new application system. What will this mean for staff training and multi-app file review? How can we effectively communicate to high school freshmen and sophomores through this platform and develop logical and distinct messaging based on grade, stage, etc.?
How about practical questions such as: What’s the schedule for application release, review, launch? How will we upload documents and which ones? When will students create accounts and who needs to be involved to help them do that successfully? What will be required for initial set up and maintenance? Even writing all this makes me sweat a little. So, yes, there’s concern on the college side about what this will mean for our processes.
But here’s what I keep coming back to as it pertains to change: Progress in history has always demanded disruption. And for me personally, when fear of a new process trumps the potential to provide access to currently underserved students and enhance institutional diversity, I’ll know it’s time to quit my job.
We’ve seen this before…
A few years ago, Georgia Tech migrated to The Common Application. That announcement was met internally and externally with skepticism, some heavy breathing, and a good bit of caffeine consumption. Many in Georgia and beyond felt the Common App was simply a ploy to increase applications or raise selectivity. Many on our staff accurately foresaw the work this would necessitate from IT, as well as Institute Communications.Our goal, however, was to diversify geographically, in gender, in ethnicity, in curriculum, etc.
Two years later, those goals have been met — this year’s freshman class boasts the most women and African-American students in Tech history. Our first generation population is up, and our Tech Promise scholars are thriving. And the truth is, the collective and at times herculean effort required to implement the Common App bonded staff in our office and around campus. This is my hope for The Coalition too.
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is not a panacea. Not all low SES students will even hear of this platform and option, let alone successfully use it to be admitted to a top tier school. Yes, it will create more work, and yes, it will create some confusion. But I believe it will all be worthwhile in our collective effort to serve students, improve the college academic environment, and ultimately serve our nation in producing a diverse workforce for the future.