Feb 19, 2020

Essay-optional colleges

The Common Application recently released the seven prompts being used for the personal statement or what some consider the “college essay” for 2020-21. Not surprisingly, the prompts weren’t changed from the past several years and students can once again look forward to selecting “Topic of Your Choice” as the most engaging of the questions posed.

And various stakeholders, including high school counselors, college admissions offices, English teachers, and essay consultants could heave a sigh of relief and dust-off worksheets, brainstorming exercises and previously-successful sample essays. Yet however often we repeat the same assignment, the mystique associated with a simple essay considered a central component of the college application continues to strike fear in the hearts of rising seniors in every corner of the country and beyond. It’s only supposed to be between 250 and 650 words. And lots of college admissions folks assigned the responsibility of reading these often-tiresome documents quietly suggest that between 500 and 550 words is just fine, thank you.

Yet, parents and others continue to fret over the essay. They hire consultants and send their children to special essay-writing workshops and camps, many of which are very expensive. Some parents even stoop to writing the essay themselves or looking for someone to do it for them. And the final products are often sanitized to the point that the only obvious fingerprints might be those left by “editors” who don’t know that in the U.S. we spell it “color” and not “colour” or analyze and not “analyse.” And high school students don’t usually use the terms “whilst” or “amongst”—not often anyway.

College admissions readers tell us they can spot a parent-written or manufactured essay a mile away. The voice of a 40-something adult is usually quite distinguishable from that of an awkward adolescent, even one trying to sound a little older or more sophisticated.

But the warnings don’t always deter families from trying to control the process by offering help or enlisting the best possible help to improve the final product, including more-than-willing English teachers. And even if admissions readers aren’t always as smart as they think they are about spotting undue interference, the essays they are getting are usually quite polished and have been through a number of hands before they see them.

So what’s the solution? Some readers tell us they simply ignore the personal statement or they read it last and ascribe little to it. If that’s the case, then why assign it or even keep it in the application?
With that in mind, a significant number of Common Application member colleges have made the decision not to require the personal statement. Out of 888 colleges on the Common App for 2019-20, 398 do NOT require a personal statement. Students are offered the opportunity to include it for these colleges, but there’s no guarantee it will be read let alone considered in the final decision.

Some colleges that do not require a personal statement include:

Arizona State University
Bowling Green State University
College of Charleston
Cooper Union
DePaul University
Fairleigh Dickinson University
Florida Institute of Technology
Florida State University
George Mason University
Indiana University—Bloomington
Middle Tennessee University
New College of Florida
Ohio University
Ole Miss
Oregon State University
Radford University
St. John’s University (NY & MN)
University of Central Florida
University of Iowa
University of Kentucky
University of Missouri
UNC Charlotte
University of South Carolina
University of Tampa
West Virginia University

For the record, 381 Common App members don’t require “supplements” or college-specific essays. AND, 219 Common App colleges require neither a personal statement nor any essay supplements (nine in Virginia alone). Sweet—right?

And what’s the moral of this story? The personal statement may or may not be required for consideration in the application process. If you’re applying to colleges that don’t require one, you’re home free—no need for a workshop. And the personal statement may or may not be read or considered to be of much value, even by those requiring it. After all, it’s only a single piece of a larger puzzle that when complete should provide a detailed picture of the applicant—accomplishments, goals and character. You want to do a good job on it, but it’s usually not worth a whole lot of anxiety or thousands of dollars to get right. And it’s not worth compromising integrity to get perfect.

Yes, the Common App essay prompts have been released—six months in advance of August 1 (the usual start date for the Common App). But for now, they are for thinking about, not stressing over.

Feb 14, 2020

UVa extends early action offers to 5219 for the Class of 2024

Early action applicants to the University of Virginia’s Class of 2024 received decisions somewhat ahead of the mid-February release date originally established to accommodate bottlenecks anticipated by UVa’s early decision December release—the first since 2006, when it was discontinued.

And it’s clear that admission to the Commonwealth’s flagship university remains a highly sought-after prize among high school students—both from within the state and across the country.

Running somewhat counter to industry trends, UVa received 40,971 applications this fall, besting the previous record of 40,804 applications, set last year. Of those new applications, 25,160 were submitted through early action, also up from 25,126, from the same time last year. And by the end of January, UVa extended non-binding offers of admission to 5219 or 21% of those prospective ‘Hoos.

In addition, UVa’s binding early decision option attracted 2,159 applications—probably a bit lower than anticipated (down from 2,410 in the year 2006) given the late announcement, the October 15 deadline and the number of “unknowns” associated with the new program. Of those applicants, 748 or about 35% were offered admission in December. These students were expected to send deposits and withdraw all other applications by January 1, 2020.

Take altogether, UVa made 5,967 offers through both early decision and early action—down from the 6,541 early offers made last year. But still to come is regular admission, with decisions set to be released by April 1 (or most likely earlier). Note that 570 students deferred from early decision plus 6447 deferred from early action will be considered in the regular decision pool (about 13,650 before the addition of deferred students).

According to Dean J, the enrollment target for the Class of 2024 is “~3,750”—the same as last year. But according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SHEV), the class entering in the fall of 2019, actually totaled 3921, somewhat exceeding original projections. Whether this will ultimately have an impact on the size of the class entering this coming fall remains to be seen. Regardless, it appears that students coming through binding early decision will make up approximately 20% of the class—more in line with Virginia Tech than the College of William and Mary, which fills about a third of its class early decision.

Drilling a little deeper into the numbers, about 29% of the early action applicants and 54% of the early decision applicants came from Virginia. The majority of early action applicants, or about 71% came from out of state—a percentage that is consistent with past years.

Early action offers were made to 35% of the Virginia applicants (43.4% last year) and 15% of the out-of-state applicants (19% last year). Early decision offers, however, went to 40% of the Virginians and 28% of those from out of state.

 UVa indicates that 586 early action offers were made to first-generation students. Of the students accepted under early decision, 56 are the first in their families to attend college.

Admissions Dean Greg Roberts reports that of those offered admission in this year’s early action group, the mean SAT score is 1439 (out of a possible 1600), and more than 95% of these students are in the top 10% of their high school graduating class.

“We’re honored to offer admission to this impressive group of citizen-scholars. This was the most challenging and competitive admission cycle in our history and these students stood out for a host of reasons,” Roberts said. “They are truly exceptional.”

Although a considerable number of students were denied admission during the first rounds of consideration, a little over 7000 were thrown a lifeline by being deferred to the regular decision pool. Of the 40,971 students applying for spots in this year’s entering class, about two-thirds came through one early option or the other.

Decisions for deferred students and those applying regular decision should arrive sometime before April 1. Note that deferred applicants are specifically encouraged to send new test scores and midyear grades as soon as possible.

All students admitted under early action will have until May 1, to make up their minds. And those applicants who were lucky enough to be admitted to UVa’s Class of 2024 can expect to receive significant encouragement to commit as soon as possible.

Feb 13, 2020

Common App essay prompts remain the same for 2020-21

In 2019-20, USC wanted to know an applicant’s favorite snack.

Based on a survey of over 10,000 stakeholders—students, counselors, teachers, admissions officers, the Common Application has decided to make no changes to essay prompts for 2020-21, keeping them essentially the same for the fourth consecutive year. 

And a collective sigh of relief could be heard from the multi million-dollar cottage industry that’s grown up to support college essay preparation.

According to the Common App, “Over the last 8 years, based on your feedback and the indispensable counsel of our advisory committees, we’ve revised and refined the prompts so they guide students toward stories that will help Common App members make informed admissions decisions.”

In some quarters, this is good news. The Common App announcement means essay advisers won’t have to retool or come up with innovative approaches to new prompts. They can simply add another year of feedback to advice accumulated over the past several years.

In its survey, the Common App found that over 50% of respondents in all groups identified as “effective” the prompt inviting students to share a story about a meaningful background, identity, interest or talent. When asked what prompt they would like to see removed or replaced, respondents were less in agreement with no single prompt getting more than 35% “thumbs down.”

And as usual, students really like “Topic of Your Choice.” Admissions offices and counselors weren’t so sure. But while students weren’t too enthusiastic about discussing “a time when they challenged a belief or idea,” colleges “appreciate what those essays reveal about the students who write them.”

Then again, these are the very same institutions also asking [if you have favorites from the 2019-20 application cycle, include them in the comments below]:

What is your favorite candy?” (Hendrix College)
“Imagine you had an extra hour in the day—how would you spend that time?” (Stanford University)
 “What song should we be listening to while reading your application?” (Chapman University)
“Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why? (University of Chicago)
 “If you could create a food truck, what type of food would you serve? Name the truck.” (Elon University)
“What piques your curiosity and why?” (Wake Forest University)
“Yes or No: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Be sure to defend your position on this important life question.” (Presbyterian College)
“You’ve invented a time machine in your living room—well done! When and where is your first destination and why?” (Scripps College)
“If asked to write a 150-word tweet to tell the world who you are, what would you say?” (Emory University)
“Defend an unpopular opinion you hold?” (University of Notre Dame)
“You are required to spend the next year in either the past or the future. To what year would you travel and why?” (University of Richmond)
“If you had a theme song—a piece of music that describes you, what would it be and why? Please include the name of the song and artist.” (Smith College)
“What is your favorite snack?” (University of Southern California)
“What fictional character would you choose as your college roommate and why?” (
Linfield College)

In its announcement, the Common App was quick to suggest that releasing the prompts so early can “send a tacit message that the application process starts now.” That’s evidently not their intent, especially given potential changes down the road. But knowing what to expect for the coming year does provide counselors and others an opportunity to get a head start on application workshops and other activities designed to support students and reduce some of the stress inherent in a process, some aspects of which aren’t particularly transparent.

For the record, the 2020-21 Common Application prompts will inspire essays on the following topics:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? 
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.