Sep 11, 2019

Resumes continue to add value in the college admissions process

Note: This is an update of an article posted last year.

High school students who invest time creating résumés may be handsomely rewarded in the college admission process. Of the Common Application member colleges and universities that are “live” as of this writing, at least 272 — or about one-third — have made specific provisions for submitting this handy document.

Résumés haven’t always been so popular. In fact, there remains a lingering controversy over the appropriateness of asking students to develop and maintain résumés throughout high school. And many colleges are quite deliberate about not including them as part of their applications.

In her blog on college admissions at the University of Virginia, Associate Dean of Admission Jeannine Lalonde makes a point of repeating, “The Common App has a résumé upload function and lets each school decide whether they want to use it. We are one of the schools that turned that function off. We prefer the Common App activity section to the various ways people choose to present their activities on résumés.”

On its website, Duke University clearly states, Please note that Duke will not accept resumes for the 2019-2020 application process.” And Tufts agrees, “Keep in mind that the Common Application is your one chance to show your extracurricular engagements: we are not able to accept a supplemental resume of activities.”

But they are in the minority, and many college advisers and lots of colleges very much disagree.

“Almost as soon as I start guiding a student through college planning, I learn about the student’s interests and hobbies and discuss the importance of extracurricular commitment in and out of school – both for college admission and life enrichment. That naturally leads to an analysis of student engagement and the creation and continual updating of a résumé,” said Judi Robinovitz, a Certified Educational Planner in Palm Beach and Broward counties, Florida. “The résumé becomes far more than a list of activities. Rather, it highlights a student’s special accomplishments, focusing on major themes in her life that set her apart from her peers —what she has done, why, how, and, most especially, leadership, initiative, creativity, and how these actions have impacted lives (hers and others’).”

Robinovitz adds, “Here’s an important secret: when you share a thoughtfully prepared and detailed résumé with anyone who will write a recommendation, you’re likely to get a stronger and more anecdotal piece of writing that supports your application. Plus, through résumé creation now, we lay critical groundwork for undergraduate summer job and internship applications – and ultimately, for graduate school and vocational opportunities. And the résumé certainly facilitates a more impactful presentation on the activities page of both the Common and Coalition Applications.”
In other words, a résumé represents an opportunity to collect, keep track of and reflect on accomplishments. And it’s likely to be a document the student will maintain, using different formats and styles, through college and beyond.

But there’s no reason to include a résumé with a college application if it totally duplicates information contained in other parts of the application, unless of course, the school specifically asks for one. And plenty of colleges outside of the Common App system do, such as Georgetown University and MIT.

For students using the Common Application, basic extracurricular-related information may be presented in the Activities section, which provides space to describe involvement in ten activities. Within each activity, the Position/Leadership blank allows 50 characters to give a solid indication of your position and the name of the organization in which you participate. A second box allows 150 characters to provide insight into what you’ve done and any distinctions you earned.

The Coalition provides space for Activities/Experience in the Profile section of the application. Students may enter up to eight activities and are asked to specify “the two experiences outside of your academic program that are most important to you.” For each activity, the student is allowed 64 characters for the activity/experience name (Cashier, Wegmans Grocery Store, Fairfax VA), as well as 255 characters for “a description of your experience” and an additional 255 characters to “List any individual distinctions you earned in this activity or experience.”  

Students using the Universal College Application (UCA) may enter up to seven “Extracurricular, Personal and Volunteer Activities” and up to five employers or job-related activities for a total of 12 entries. While the characters allowed are more limited (35 for extracurricular and 32 for jobs), students are encouraged to provide more details in the Additional Information section.

But for some students, these activities sections are still limiting and don’t provide enough of an opportunity to showcase specific accomplishments or direct attention to relevant online content. In this case, the applicant has a couple of options. 

First, check college-specific questions for additional opportunities to provide details about extracurricular activities. This is where some Common App members have made provisions for an upload of a fully-formatted résumé. These include:
  • Boston College
  • Brandeis University
  • Brown University
  • Bucknell University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Davidson College
  • George Mason University
  • Howard University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Kenyon College
  • Lafayette College
  • Macalester College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Northeastern University
  • Northwestern University
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Santa Clara University
  • Trinity College
  • Tulane University
  • University of Massachusetts-Amherst
  • University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
  • Vanderbilt University
Coalition members providing for résumés place the option in the Upload section of the application. Some examples are
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Claremont McKenna College
  • Colgate University
  • Drew University
  • Florida State University
  • University of New Hampshire
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas-Austin
  • Vassar College
  • Washington University in St. Louis
Note that a handful of Coalition members placed their Additional Information questions in the upload section of the application and seem to invite documents such as résumés. Similarly, the UCA provides for fully-formatted résumés by allowing PDFs to be uploaded in the Additional Information section of the application. But before acting on this plan, it’s wise to check with the college first to see if they’d like a copy of your résumé as part of your application for admission. They may not!

In addition to asking outright for a résumé, a number of institutions make provisions for an applicant to provide a URL on the Coalition or Common Application. The UCA not only dedicates a question to this, but also makes the response conveniently “clickable” for the application reader. This is another way students may provide a résumé on a personal website or via Linked In.

And sometimes colleges specify they only want a résumé as part of a “portfolio” or “arts supplement” submitted through a separate portal. Columbia University and Princeton University are among those falling into this category.

A résumé can be a very powerful document for pushing your college candidacy forward. It can serve to color between the lines or provide extra detail beyond what may be crammed into a standardized application form. It can also serve as vehicle for showcasing links to websites, blogs, videos or other online media.

If given the opportunity, use it. But make sure it reflects well on you and contains accurate and up-to-date information.

For lists of colleges providing for résumé uploads and/or those asking for URLs on their applications, email:

Sep 3, 2019

The ‘extracurricular’ question lives on

Harvard asks the 'extracurricular' question on 3 applications.
Harvard and Princeton both ask the ‘extracurricular’ question on each of their three applications:
  1. Common Application: “Please briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience of particular significance to you.
  2. Coalition Application: “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you.”
  3. Universal College Application (UCA): “Tell us more about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities (100-150 words).”
And they are not alone. At least 85 Common App members, or about 10 percent of the colleges currently posting applications, ask the exact same question or some near variation on the same theme. While the allowable word count ranges from 50 to 800 (the latter is an outlier), the intention is the same: focus on one item on your resume and tell us about it.

In a previous life, the Common Application required all applicants to provide two writing samples — a personal statement of about 500 words and a 150-word short answer focused on a single extracurricular activity or work experience.

Many writing coaches liked the extracurricular question because it basically served as a “warm-up” for reluctant writers or students who had little or no experience writing essays, particularly those that required a bit of reflection. In other words, it was a good place to start, especially for students nervous about their writing abilities, by asking them to describe an activity they cared about.

But several years ago, the new Common App (CA4) dropped the short answer in favor of a much longer, 650-word single writing sample (the subject of some controversy from institutions quietly objecting to the artificially-increased length of the personal statement). The extracurricular essay was relegated to one of a series of possibilities provided in a bank of questions from which colleges could choose as writing supplements or additions to the basic application.

But despite the demotion, the question apparently lives on. Among the colleges asking the extracurricular question are:
  • Amherst College (175 words)1
  • Brown University (150 words)1
  • Bryn Mawr College (word count varies by application) 1 and 2
  • Christian Brothers University (500 words)1
  • Colorado College (250 words)1
  • Cornell University (150 words)3
  • Davidson College (200 words)1 and 2
  • Fisk University (250 words)1
  • Guilford College (250 words)1
  • Harvard University (150 words) 1, 2 and 3
  • Howard University (250 words)1
  • Princeton University (150 words)1, 2 and 3
  • Purdue University (250 words) 1 and 2
  • RPI (300 words)1
  • Stanford University (150 words)1 and 2
  • Tulane University (250 words)1
  • University of Central Florida (250 words)1
  • Vanderbilt University (150–400)1 and 2
  • Washington and Lee University (250 words)1
1 Common Application
2 Coalition Application
3 Universal College Application

Students tackling this question should embrace the opportunity to write about an activity they actually care passionately about or one which provides an insight into character. Here are some tips:
  • The Activity: Don’t pick an activity because you think it needs further explanation or because you think it will impress an admissions reader. Colleges want to know what’s important to you. Use this opportunity to write about a passion or interest whether it’s playing the violin, swimming, or working at the local thrift shop.
  • Show Importance: You want to do more than simply describe the activity—keep that to a minimum. Instead, you want to provide some context in your narrative that will illustrate or otherwise surface its importance. This can be in the form of analysis or a brief anecdote. Or you can focus on specific impact — what you did and why. The purpose of the essay isn’t for readers to learn more about the activity; it’s for them to learn about you. Consider an activity that shows personal growth and development or possibly reflects career-related or personal ambitions.
  • Provide Details: Vague language and generic detail inevitably fail to convey passion. If you can imagine thousands of other applicants using the same ideas and phrases, you need to try another approach. Be colorful and specific in your descriptions, while avoiding clichés and tired language. Write in the active (not passive) tense — those helper verbs not only slow the action but they also add unnecessary words to your narrative.
  • Avoid Repetition. If you related an anecdote about one of your most important extracurricular activities in your personal statement, don’t go back over the same ground. Go for the next most important activity or one that sets you apart from the pack.
  • Be Precise: Short answers need to be concise and substantive especially if the word count is very limited. Unlike the personal statement, you may be actually “telling” as much as “showing” to get the point across that this is a meaningful activity for you. There’s no space for flowery language, wordiness, or repetition when you’re working with 150 words. On the other hand, don’t come up short on your word count. Take full advantage of the opportunity to show your passion using compelling descriptions.
  • Avoid Bragging: When elaborating on an extracurricular activity, be careful not to come across as an insufferable braggart with an ego as big as all outdoors. Again, it’s more about passion and not individual awards or accomplishments. Don’t use the essay as a vehicle for self-promotion.
  • Be Real: Resist the temptation to create a false reality in an effort to sound impressive. Don’t write about the one time you walked for hunger if your real passion is marching band. Colleges won’t admit based on a single good deed. They want students who reveal motivation, persistence, passion and honesty.

Aug 28, 2019

Colleges that invite graded papers

Last year, Princeton University began requiring a graded writing sample, preferably from an English, social studies or history course, to be submitted by all applicants for undergraduate admission.

According to the Princeton website, the paper “will further the holistic understanding of the student’s application and help admission officers evaluate the student’s potential contributions to and ability to thrive in the University’s rigorous academic environment.”

Asking a student to provide a graded paper in the admissions process isn’t anything new. Colleges and universities have been doing it for years.

But requiring a graded paper from all applicants represents a major departure from usual practice. And making the announcement in the context of no longer requiring the writing sections of the SAT or ACT gives food for thought. In fact, the new requirement might just have something to do with the current state of high school writing instruction and evaluation.

Historically, colleges have used many different tools for evaluating an applicant’s writing skills.
And considering the number of remedial writing and communications classes offered at even the most prestigious institutions, the need for making an accurate assessment of college-readiness in this key area is becoming increasingly important.

To assess writing ability, colleges may carefully review grades in writing-intensive English, history, and social science classes. Or they may require one or more essays as part of an application for admission.

Some colleges factor in SAT or ACT writing scores during their evaluations. But this is becoming a less popular policy. In fact, according to a list maintained by the Compass Education Group, only 12 out of 365 “popular” colleges require the writing sections of the SAT or ACT and nine are from the University of California system. The vast majority are labeled as optional, which suggests the possibility that a college might take them into account if they’re submitted.

So what’s another option? A handful of colleges invite the submission of a “graded” paper in lieu of an essay or as part of additional requirements for test-optional/test-flexible admissions.

For the coming year, several Common Application member colleges, including Agnes Scott, Amherst, Brandeis, George Washington University and Stetson University have made provisions for uploading or otherwise receiving graded papers.

The Coalition Application even has built-in capacity in the Student Locker for both storing and adding these kinds of documents to applications.  And with this in mind, several Coalition members also give students the option to upload graded papers including Austin College and St. Olaf College.

And it’s not such a bad idea.

Graded papers not only provide insight into a student’s basic writing ability, but they also speak volumes about a high school’s grading system.

For example, an “A” on a paper filled with grammar, spelling or syntax errors obviously diminishes the value of the grade and suggests the possibility of grade inflation at work within a specific class or at the high school in general. And it may say something about the applicant’s ability to recognize fundamental mistakes in his or her own work.

“There were times when I would be reading the essay being awed by the poor level of writing, while the teacher still gave an A to the student,” said former dean of admissions and financial aid Tom Parker, in an interview with the Amherst Student. “[A graded paper] was a great opportunity to have a deeper look into the varying levels of writing education in high schools.”

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to discover if a college is inviting a graded paper or how it should be submitted. And there are usually no guidelines as to what should accompany the paper, if anything. In general, it might be helpful to include a cover sheet with basic identifying information such as the student’s name and birthdate; the name of the course for which the paper was written noting honors, AP or IB; the specific assignment or essay prompt; and possibly the final grade for the class.

Once the decision has been made about what to send, students sometimes need to figure out how to send it, as colleges vary enormously on how they prefer to receive graded papers. Some ask for an upload and others create a dedicated portal on the website. Still others go with snail mail, fax or email.

Although the Common App offers easy-to-use tools for uploading graded papers, a number of colleges have mysteriously chosen to make the process more complicated. For these members, the Common App may only provide an easily missed link on the “My Colleges” page under “Standardized Test Policy.” If you follow the link, you may be given instructions for submitting the paper.  Or not.

To make things even more challenging, a note might appear under the “Instructions & Help” column to the right of the college-specific preferred testing question sometimes only after you mark your intention to go test optional.

And on occasion, the Common Application provides no information relative to graded paper submissions. In this case, you’re on your own to find instructions on a school’s website or wait until the college sends you an email outlining the process.

So how does an applicant find out if a college requires or invites the submission of a graded paper or will accept a paper in lieu of test scores?

This is where it’s to a student’s benefit to research and compare different application formats accepted by individual colleges. The best place to start is the school website, where allowable applications will be listed. And don’t be surprised to find multiple applications used by a single college, including the Common App, the Universal College Application (UCA), the Coalition Application, the Cappex Application, a school-based online application and/or a paper version of the same.

Although it may take a little time, it’s often worth the effort to investigate the requirements of each application because they may differ significantly. And you should pick the application that is easiest to use and best represents your credentials.

A number of Common Application member colleges list on their websites other application forms, some of which allow students to substitute graded papers for essays—even when the Common Application does not

To give you an idea of how complicated these questions can be, here are some Common App member colleges that provided for paper submissions (graded or otherwise):

Other colleges that offered the graded paper option last year included Point Park University, the University of Baltimore, and the University of Oregon (alternate admission process). And the Ohio University Honors Tutorial College in Spanish asks for “samples of graded papers in Spanish with at least two pages of writing with teacher comments.”

Note that not all colleges, after experimenting with the graded paper option, became convinced of its value in the admissions process. Both the University of Chicago and Brown dropped the idea for this year.

But even knowing how frequently these things can change, here’s a tip for underclassmen: begin saving or setting aside good examples of graded papers. You never know when they might come in handy.