Saturday, February 2, 2013

Universities' Message to Applicants: "Show, Don't Tell"

While in Philadelphia last week with a group of Model UN students attending ILMUNC, or the Ivy League Model United Nations Conference, I took a day to visit three very different schools in the Philadelphia area. I began at U Penn, then headed to Drexel, and finished the day on the beautiful, snow-covered campus of Bryn Mawr. As I did when I visited the University of Chicago in December, I spent time in the Admissions Office of each of the three schools. I wanted to hear first hand a number of things. Just as I did with the University of Chicago, I asked what the schools are looking for in high school grads, what makes applicants stand out in the applicant pool and what makes an incoming freshman successful over his or her career?

While I won't tackle all three questions and their answers in this post, much of what the three Philadelphia schools told me echoed what I heard in Chicago. A theme that surfaced in all three meetings was the importance of applicants having developed an interest or passion in something and having pursued it. However, the three Philadelphia schools went a step farther and really emphasized the importance of the college essay. Anyone who knows anything about college admissions understands the gravity of the essay. For these three schools, though, the essay must do more than show off an applicant's writing ability. The essay must (not should, but must) demonstrate not only what the applicant's interest or passion is but also how the applicant has pursued and developed it.

The message for the college essay was loud and clear: Show, don't tell. Here's what that looks like:

  • Not "I like science," but rather, "I volunteered at the science museum after freshman year, volunteered to save sea turtles after my sophomore year, returned after my junior year to the sea turtle rescue center, took all available science courses in high school, and plan to intern with BP in their environmental department after graduation."
  • Not "I'm passionate about service," but rather, "I've spent the last four years working twice a month for Meals on Wheels cooking and cleaning, three weekends each month during the summers cooking and serving food, organized two fundraisers to support the organization, driven the food truck and served from its window more than thirty times, and I will volunteer full-time for two months after graduation."
  • Not "I'm interested in the music industry," but rather, "I have taken guitar and voice lessons for ten years, written 200 songs and recorded them with Garage Band on my laptop, uploaded a dozen of my best songs to YouTube,  interned at a local music studio, taught guitar lessons for three years, run the sound board for all the concerts at my church, and currently perform in my church praise band."
Knowing what colleges and universities expect to see from truly distinguished and exceptional applicants, those of us in educational leadership must ask ourselves a few questions. First, what is my school doing to foster creativity and exploration that leads to the development of an interest or passion for each student? Second, what is my school doing to promote and support the pursuit of each student's passion? Finally, what is my school doing to communicate to students and parents the importance of finding, developing and pursuing an interest or passion, not just for college but for life?

With college admissions now such a high-stakes business, shouldn't we ask and answer these questions? Absolutely. However, we should ask and answer these questions anyway because it's what our kids need now more than ever.

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