Sep 19, 2016

The case against peer editing or when personal statements are not personal OR confidential

Tomorrow, at least one high school English class in northern Virginia will be listening to their teacher read aloud “the best” among all the college essays or personal statements submitted to her by students in the class for a grade. This will be after the class has engaged in an activity referred to as “peer editing,” in which essays are exchanged, read and evaluated by students in the class.

In other words, personal statements meant to be both personal and confidential will be shared and showcased for the entire class to appreciate, criticize and possibly comment on.  A document considered central to the college admissions process will be passed around and subjected to class discussion promoted by a teacher, who while well-meaning, is potentially breaching a student’s confidentiality and arranging for feedback that is amateurish at best and possibly self-serving at worst.

No one supports English teachers more than I do. I was one—albeit for a very short time. And no one wants English teachers to teach students the basics of expository writing and give them experience preparing self-reflective essays more than I do. I read hundreds of essays each year, many of which suggest to me that the student has never been asked to engage in this kind of writing before.  I want these lessons to begin, but well before fall of senior year.  I want students to have experience developing personal statements of the sort required by colleges throughout middle and high school. Why wait when communication and writing skills are considered so important by colleges and they are relatively easy to develop under less stressful conditions?

Peer editing can be a useful teaching device in which a student learns from another when carefully supervised and controlled. In small groups or on a one-to-one basis, students may be provided with opportunities to learn about the process of accepting criticism and subsequently revising written work.  And it can work equally well in early elementary years as in a freshman college writing seminar. I’m all for it.

But when it comes to peer editing college essays, I have to protest. In addition to sharing a document that really isn’t meant for sharing, the feedback isn’t always so good. I’ve seen essays in which the peer editor has provided unconstructive criticism and incorrectly corrected spelling and grammar. I have had students lose confidence in the quality of their work based on remarks provided by less-than-knowledgeable readers whose experience with college admissions is by definition limited. Who needs that kind of help?

And while I hate to attribute negative motivations among peers, it’s naïve to think that many of these students aren’t competing against one another for admission to selective and highly-selective colleges and universities.  Sharing these kinds of personal statements not only opens the work to self-interested criticism but also gives away ideas for topics, formatting and approaches to essay prompts.  Even if subconscious, it’s way too easy to take someone else’s idea and run with it. And while we tell students to write personal statements that none of their friends could write, these kinds of exercises do anything but protect the uniqueness of a student’s independent work.

Instead of reading aloud personal statements generated by students in her class, the English teacher who has embarked on the mission of helping her students with this project would do more of a service by reading sample essays from other sources and generating discussions based on those essays. I particularly like samples found on the Essay Hell website or some of those provided by colleges themselves such as the Johns Hopkins Essays That Worked series or a similar collection put together by Connecticut College.  This avoids conflicts, comparisons and possible questions about confidentiality.  And if what my students tell me is correct, it may make the lesson much more valuable.

Sep 17, 2016

Penn reverses direction on ‘Restrictive’ Early Decision

Late yesterday, the University of Pennsylvania issued a statement reversing direction on a policy announced last summer that would have prohibited students applying Early Decision (ED) to Penn from applying to other private institutions under nonbinding Early Action (EA) programs.

According to the Penn Office of Undergraduate Admissions, “…Penn will continue the practice of allowing Early Decision applicants to also apply to other institutions through their respective non-binding admission process, as we have in years past.”

But this isn’t the first time Penn has reconsidered the terms of its peculiar twist on Early Decision. The original policy as outlined on the admissions website would have barred students from applying Early Action to any other institution—public or private.  After an immediate firestorm of criticism, the policy was very quickly revised to allow students to apply Early Action to public institutions while still imposing the rule on students considering EA applications to the University of Chicago, MIT and other selective and not-so-selective private colleges and universities.

So why would Penn try to restrict Early Decision, which contractually binds a student to attend if admitted? According to sources within the admissions office, an increasing number of students were trying to break ED contracts. It was felt that early action decisions coming at about the same time as Penn’s ED offers were tempting students with better options to bolt from their commitment. The solution was to simply take this possibility off the table.

Besides, according to Penn’s statement reversing the RED policy, the language used to restrict Early Decision was “similar to Single Choice Early Action” used by competing institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. So what’s the difference—right?

The difference was that in the highly competitive marketplace for top students, the new Penn policy was forcing applicants to make a choice they might not have been ready to make. In fact, a series of conversations with students considering Penn backed by chatter on message boards suggested that students were deciding against taking a chance on Penn’s difficult-to-crack Early Decision program for greater flexibility to apply EA to other schools. 

In other words, it seemed at least possible that Penn might be losing early applicants—an outcome that the very competitive and numbers-conscious admissions office might not have seen coming.

“For us, it drops Penn from a possible ED school to only being a possible RD [regular decision] school, which is probably not what they had in mind,” commented one parent on College Confidential. 

Another parent agreed, “My kid went from a very likely Penn ED candidate to quite possibly not applying at all.”

But of course the Penn admissions office would not frame its decision to reverse course on Early Decision that way. Instead, Penn’s statement refers to “insightful dialogue among segments of the counseling community” and suggests that “students interested in Penn feel most supported when they are able to apply to other institutions under non-binding admissions plans.”  And since the objective of Penn’s admissions policies is “to help students make informed decisions, and not to produce additional concern around the application process,” they decided to drop a policy that may or may not have had the potential of hurting their application numbers, which by the way, they could easily see evidence of by now.

And it was probably a wise decision. As a parent trying to puzzle out Penn’s need for restricting Early Decision said, “In the fast changing world of higher education making one single bad contrarian move could dethrone you from your perch for decades. No school is willing to risk that now, [e]specially under the harsh light of yearly rankings.”

Penn’s experiment has evidently failed, and another chapter closes on the increasingly bizarre world of college admissions. That doesn’t mean, however, that some new and even more twisted policy designed to capture control over the process and numbers won’t appear on some college admissions website in the coming year. But it is encouraging to see that Penn certainly knew when to back off and did so early enough for students to adjust application strategies.

Disclosure: Nancy Griesemer is a proud graduate of the University of Pennsylvania College for Women (CW) — a designation the university no longer uses.

Sep 14, 2016

The ‘extracurricular’ question lives on

Harvard asks the question on 3 different applications.

In its 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 in 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 one activity they cared about. 

And colleges seemed to like the question. In fact, the Universal College Application (UCA) still asks applicants to “Tell us more about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities (100-150 words).”

"We promote the philosophy of ‘asking the customer’ which we do several times throughout the year," explained Joshua Reiter, Ed.D., president of ApplicationsOnline. "Our college/university members provide us with their requirements on the types of information they need in order to craft their incoming classes. This question remains because our member colleges and universities want it.”

Two years ago, the new Common App (CA4) dropped the short answer in favor of a much longer, 650-word single writing sample. 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, as nearly 60 Common App member institutions continue to ask students variations on the question such as “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you” (Princeton) or “briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience of particular significance to you” (Amherst). Included on this list are:

·       Amherst College (175 words)
·       Brown University (150 words)
·       Christian Brothers University
·       Davidson College (200 words)
·       Guilford College
·       Harvard University *#
·       Princeton University (150 words)*
·       Purdue University
·       Rice University (150 words)*#
·       Seattle University (50 to 100 words)
·       Stanford University
·       Tulane University
·       University of Wisconsin—Madison (50-100 words)
·       Vanderbilt University (150-400)*#
·       Vassar College (350 words)
·       Washington and Lee University 

Students tackling this question, or some variation, should embrace the opportunity to write about an activity they actually care passionately about. 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 your greatest passion 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. 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.
  • 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.
* Also asks the question on the Universal College Application
# Also asks the question on the Coalition Application

Sep 9, 2016

Fantastic guide to the Common Application offered as FREE download

If you’re college applicant or someone who advises college applicants, you may want to check out the Collegewise Guide to the Common Application or How to Make Your 2016-17 Common Application a Lot Less Common. Revised to reflect changes in this year’s online application, the guide is provided as a FREE download to the simply curious or anyone with a real need to know. 

And this is 90 pages of pure gold. The advice and commentary are easy to follow and right on target. It’s designed for a student to keep open in one browser tab while working the Common Application in another.

“It originally started off as an internal training tool, then something we used with our own Collegewise students, and now has evolved into a 90-page (!) document that we love sharing with folks who find this kind of nuanced information useful,” writes Allison Lopour, managing director for Collegewise. “Thousands of students, parents, and counselors downloaded it last year.”

Here are some suggestions from Collegewise on how the guide may be used:
  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with the help of step-by-step instructions provided with relevant definitions and commentary.

  • If you’ve already finished your application, use the guide to do a line-by-line review before submitting.

  • If you’re struggling with a particular section, use the guide as a reference tool.
Basically the guide picks up where the Common Application leaves off.  In fact, the information the Common App provides is actually quite comprehensive and should be the first-line resource for completing your application. But if you don’t know which phone number to use during the registration process, Collegewise will give you some serious hints.  It doesn’t rehash directions, but rather assumes you’ve read the instructions and still have a few questions. No one wants you to ignore directions, but we all know that what seems clear to one person may not be so clear to another.

For those who have used the guide in the past, you will note that the detailed screenshots that previously populated the pages and made things a little visually clearer are missing. Basically, administrators at the Common Application stopped granting permission to for-profits to use any images from the application. 

Yes, there’s a little self-promotion and advertisement. And yes, you do need to provide an email address to get the download. But the value of this tool and the integrity of its authors should remove any concerns you may have about downloading and sharing it with others.

Now we’re hoping the brilliant Collegewise staff will tackle the Coalition Application!