“Should I answer the “optional” essay on my college applications?”

Question from Tiffany Harrison Bryant……(it just hit he how many of my former students are now teenage parents; I probably need to write an information series on the college application process!:-)

Good Question Tiffany: The answer is; Yes, and No (it can either help, or hurt)…The college admissions/scholarship process is a serious exercise, and students should approach it as such. The student actually has the strategic advantage, but only if he/ she knows the rules of the game! First if the student is properly coached by their high school they need to get organized; the process works best for the best-organized. But if the schools college advisor’s (CA) case load is (very common) too large; or if they are not part of the group that is properly coached by the CA, then the student will need to take a strong “initiative taking” posture. Now this next statement is probably not going to go over well but here it is: It is my experience that many very capable and “transcript/SAT-ACT scores ready” boys will be less enthusiastic, aggressive and attentive about this process; the school and/or, the parent may need to be a little pushy here; I am a proponent of the hate me now, and thank me later school!  In any event the parent should monitor the process for any child, since life-determining decisions are being made!  The first item they should have as part of the College Application process (I will go into each of the items in other post) is a dedicated “College Application Process Jump drive” (with nothing else on it!); that has a back-up folder on a hard drive it should consist of:

1)      List of important dates and deadlines i.e. ACT, SAT, Scholarship programs, FAFSA, etc.

2)      A biographical /“boiler plate” essay

3)      A Resume

4)      Latest Transcripts (constantly update as new classes are taken)

5)      List of constantly used Resource websites. I.e. Foundation Center…http://foundationcenter.org/

6)      Letters of Recommendations from Teachers, Administrators, and out of school Leaders.

7)      Copies of all communications (topics and dates) with college and scholarship officials.

8)      Copies of all applications sent.

I will tackle the “Biographical Boiler Plate Essay” topic by itself; since that is very often the most confusing element in the process for students; and yet it is the most helpful. But to the immediate question: Initially I said yes and no, because it really boils down to the individual student’s academic profile, “story”, writing skill, the college, the major the student is interested in taking, etc.. By now the students should have identified the “very strong chance of getting in”, “probably will get in”, and “stretch to get in” colleges. They need to treat all three categories with the same intensity; as it will set a standard for the process. I have seen many students mistakenly send a “have-effort” application to the “in” or “probably will get in” school, because: “I don’t really want to go there”; only to be humbled when the “stretch to get in schools” rejection letters start to come in, and now they are worried! In almost every application the students “case” for admission can be made in the regular application without utilizing the Optional Essay (OE). And in fact an unsupervised OE could go bad if it provides unhelpful or TMI.  The reason for taking the OE route (and this is where the professional coaching part is important); is that the student has a “compelling personal story”, for which the telling of that story turns the hearts and minds of the reviewing team toward a favorable view of the applicant. If the OE is not biographical in essence (which means that the student is in control of its content and message) I would probably advise that the student leave the OE alone. A brilliantly written essay on the Voting Rights Act or the Affordable Care Act is wonderful; but it will move the reviewer’s minds to a different place from where you want them to be; and that is to focus on you and your “wonderfulness”; save those essays for AP History!

In the past I have seen some very successful OE moments. Some of the most successful examples I have experienced were what I dubbed: “The how I got over narrative”.  College admissions officers and Americans in general like a story where an individual achieves and succeeds by overcoming tremendous odds and challenges; this also helps with a student’s “college completion profile”, and demonstrates that the student is a good investment for a shrinking scholarships pool.  That essay should be edited (by an English teacher or a good secretary); and again, reviewed by a person thoroughly knowledgeable about the student, and the college application process. Colleges are looking for “life experiences” diversity. They are also under a lot of pressure to “screen out” potential “problematic students”.  And so an unsupervised OE can do more harm than good! The admissions review teams are more than likely made up of individuals who may not have the awareness, familiarity and knowledge of the community, race, religion, ethic and family structure from which that student emerges.  So be careful here. The student may engage in the always dangerous art of: “keeping it real” school of thought.  The student should be made to understand (hopefully having previously been taught); that this is a “code-switching” moment. Even in the successful OE’s some information had to be omitted or “cleaned up”. What many students believe is: “OK, regular, normal, average, universal, etc. may in fact be interpreted in a completely different way by an admissions or scholarship committee who has lived a very different life/cultural experience (that includes people of color who might be on the committee). Remember: This also applies to student interviews. Over the years I have constantly spoken of the:  “Rules of the game of life”; Rule #1: “you don’t have to be told the rules of the game”; Rule # 2: Not knowing the rules does not mean you are not subject to them”; Rule#3: “The rules are definitely and absolutely not fair”. My advice to students has always been to approach this college application process in the same way you would approach the taking of an important exam question: 1) What am I being asked to do? 2) What are the rubrics (rules, grading- scoring system) by which I will be evaluated 3) There is a solution to this problem; and so:  4) What are the correct algorithms (preparations, formulas, strategies, actions, postures, positions) I need to employ to be successful in this process. Finally, the student is part of a senior class, but the college application is a very individual and personalized effort; there is no team or group college application. Each student must play to, and utilized their individual strengths and advantage. The primary problem I see in too many schools across this nation is that many high school students are essentially on their own with this college application process.  We need to work in any way we can on disseminating this information to those students.