Your Passion in 15 Minutes or Less

Admissions counselors from several competitive schools visited Weston High School to discuss what makes or breaks a college application.

According to admissions office officials from several popular colleges and universities, winning a coveted spot in next year’s accepted student pool requires applicants to distill 13 years of academic and extracurricular achievements into 15 minutes of passion and paperwork.

At on Tuesday evening, teacher Gary Meunier moderated a panel of admissions officers from six popular colleges and universities. Panelists included representatives from Case Western Reserve University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Emory University, the University of Vermont, Franklin and Marshall College and the University of Denver.

The panelists discussed the attributes of successful applicants, the finer points of the common application and early decision, and how financial aid affects it all. The presentation featured panelist responses to prepared questions, in addition to an audience question and answer session.

Each official indicated that they spend less than 15 minutes reviewing a student’s transcript, test scores, common application short answers and personal statement. Admissions committees only review packages that aren’t easily identified as accepted or rejected.

“If you want to get your application read thoroughly, apply right to the middle of the applicant pool,” said John Young, the Director of Admissions for Hobart and William Smith. “That’s where we spend most of our time.”

Getting an application to stand out from thousands of others requires two key elements: passion and personality.

“A great personality will get a student over the admissions bubble,” said one, to the general agreement of the others. “We want to know who you are and what you are passionate about.”

The biggest unquantifiable variable is “fit,” according to Young, who said that many students who are academically qualified wind up rejected because the committee decides that the student won’t like the campus environment.

“I’m amazed at the number of students who think that foreign language is an elective,” Young said. “Foreign language is not an elective. If you are applying to a school that requires four years of language and you don’t want to do it, then that’s not the school for you.

“Select a college that respects your course choices,” Young added.

None of the schools required Advanced Placement scores or coursework – or even SAT scores – but each indicated that students should take the most demanding course load possible while still maintaining a “B” average. Schools also like to see a student’s steady progression to more difficult coursework over their academic careers.

While each school indicated that there was a minimum requirement baseline, how they used student data differed significantly from one another. For example, Emory indicated that a student’s “demonstrated interest” mattered greatly.

Students demonstrate interest by visiting the campus, attending local get-to-know-us sessions, and by asking the admissions staff during the interview what type of student they are looking for.

Schools who use the interview as part of their evaluative process expect to find out “what makes you tick,” according to David Yolan, admissions official from UVM.

“We want to know, what you are passionate about,” he asked.

The essay, or personal statement, is another way that schools evaluate candidates.

“Even if you aren’t a good writer, use the essay to say something that the rest of the application doesn’t say,” said Yolan. “One student wrote an essay [comparing himself] to Spongebob Squarepants. It was [funny and] memorable, and let us get to know who he was as a person.”

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the panel agreed that avoiding “death, disease, and divorce” was a good idea. The panel also noted that students should write their own essays in their own “voice,” and that they can tell when a student hasn’t written an essay on his own.

“I’ve admitted a lot of 48-year-old stockbrokers from Weston into Hobart and William Smith,” Young acknowledged.

Other key points from the evening included:

  • Each school indicated that they accept large percentages of their early applicant pools, in large part because of demonstrated interest but also because students who apply early tend to be better organized as well as better students.
  • When it comes to family legacies, “it’s more important that officers would have you believe but less important than what parents want,” Young said.
  • Students who want to apply for early admission but are afraid of committing to a school that’s unaffordable can ask for an early financial read. School websites also have a “net price” calculator that give a good estimate on what the final cost may be. In addition, private school net price may be less than a state school’s net price.
  • When an admissions committee is struggling to put a face to an applicant, “the first thing they do is check Facebook,” said Yolan. Young also noted that email addresses should be appropriately – meaning, maturely – named.
Susie Watts October 14, 2011 at 05:39 AM
As a private college counselor, I agree that passion and personality do win out when push comes to shove. With all of the academically qualified students that apply to every school, colleges need to find students who will fit into their campus community and bring something unique to their schools. The essay or personal statement are the perfect place for students to demonstrate this passion and personality. Susie Watts http://www.collegedirection.org
Lisa Bigelow October 14, 2011 at 10:49 AM
Thanks for commenting, Susie. One admissions official recommended avoiding showing the personal statement to too many people, lest it lose the student's "voice" in the process.
Eric C. Dobler October 14, 2011 at 01:48 PM
I find it ironic that the college reps stressed the importance of a student using his or her "own" voice in an essay only to have the rep from Hobart & William Smith say that he has admitted students who clearly did not write their own essays. While I hope my students will work through this process with a sense of integrity, I think we all know that they are often looking for any advantage they can get. A statement like this doesn't help the integrity of the process at all.
Lisa Bigelow October 14, 2011 at 02:57 PM
Hi Eric...I couldn't agree more, which was why I included the quote. I thought it was very illuminating, and disheartening, quite frankly. Thanks for commenting -- Lisa Bigelow
jodi sacchetta October 18, 2011 at 01:58 PM
My daughter's college essay was written from the heart. After reading it, you truly understood the kind of person she is, where she comes from and what she's all about. It’s not hard to write a good English paper but when admission counselors are plowing through thousands of applications you want something that’s going to get their attention quickly and make them realize why you’d fit in on their campus and be an asset to their school. She accomplished that and much more with her essay. I’m very proud of what she wrote, she got in where she applied and is very happy!


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