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Monday, October 08, 2007

The Essay Is Not About Poetry

Jack Scheidell
Wired Counselor
Oct 8, 2007


There are few things more misunderstood in the college process than the essay. The truth is that it matters. A lot. But schools aren't looking for New Yorker-level prose. "It's not a literary exercise," says Keith Todd, director of undergraduate admissions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "I've read many lyrical, beautiful essays that don't say anything. I'd rather have a science geek talking about his love of science."
Todd also says admissions officers realize most 17-year-olds don't have dramatic stories to tell, and that's OK. Richard Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says schools assume most students run their essays past an English teacher or parent for editing help. That's fine as long as they don't remove the student's voice. "Usually the best essays are the ones that are personal," Nesbitt says.
Make a connection
Again, a school wants to see that you have more than a passing interest in attending. Keith Todd, dean of admissions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., recommends that students visit the campus or at least go to a regional Q&A session with a local alum.
Kelly Tanabe, author of "Get Into Any College," advises students not to miss the brown-bag lunch forums their admissions officers hold at your high school. In fact, make sure you ask questions and even stay afterward to talk about how you see yourself fitting into the school.
Try to get business cards and follow up with a polite e-mail, thanking them for their time. More often than not, it's that very person who will review applications from your school. If he or she remembers you, you're no longer just a piece of paper.
Cancel the trip to Costa Rica
Notes Anna Ivey, a former admissions officer who now coaches students on getting into college through her Cambridge, Mass.-based company, Anna Ivey Consulting: "A lot of parents overestimate how much it will help to send their kids on a fancy trip to build huts in Guatemala. Admissions officers are savvy. They know that these things cost a lot of money and they don't want to appear to be rewarding expensive trips for rich kids."
Same goes for those expensive summer programs on college campuses, adds Chappaqua's Lisa Jacobson, founder of Inspirica, a tutoring and SAT prep program. A better use of a student's summer downtime is to get a job. "Admissions officers like regular jobs," Jacobson says. "Especially for affluent kids."
Recommendations of teaches matter
Anna Ivey of Anna Ivey Consulting, based in Cambridge, Mass., says teacher recommendations are something students should think about when they start high school: Cultivate a relationship with a few teachers over time. Deans of admissions say it is one of the most important things they look at on the application, since it offers insight into how intellectually curious an applicant is. And while we're on the topic, no need asking an alum to write one for you. They bear no weight in the admissions office.
Stay in touch ... to a point
Exactly how much contact should you have with the admissions office? Christof Guttentag, the head of admissions at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says you should not be afraid to call them. "We like hearing from students. We're in admissions because we like students. It's not a bad thing to update us on how things are going." However, with thousands of applications each year, admissions officers are busy. "Staying in touch means our hearing from them a couple of times, not weekly e-mails," he says.

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