Standing Out In Selective Admissions: The Application & Essay

Late summer greetings from your friendly University of Chicago alumni interviewer and college fair rep, Mr. Bill Parker.  I hope your summer has gone well.  As I write this, in most places across the land, school has started.  Here in Lee County, schools are open for business, and most colleges and universities are greeting incoming freshman and starting classes.  Except, maybe, at the U of C, which has long been a laggard in getting cranked up in the fall.  Having, since its founding, based its academic calendar on the quarter system (which it originated), fall classes at Chicago start late.  With high school having started, the number of campus visitors has slowed to a trickle, and most incoming freshmen will not show up until Move-In Day, September 18th.  Fall quarter classes won’t begin until September 26th.  In the intervening week, freshmen go through O-Week (orientation), during which they visit downtown icons like the Art Institute, attend a White Sox game, tentatively explore the University’s Hyde Park neighborhood and, perhaps, take in a little of downtown Chicago, learn about life in an urban setting, sit for mandatory and elective placement tests, receive academic counseling, register for fall classes, and attend the Aims of Education address.  Other selective colleges and universities host similar programs -- though without the Aims address.   I’ve heard that the University’s late September start date follows either Oxford, which begins after Michaelmas (pronounced “Mikkle-m’ss”), or the Jewish High Holy Days -- take your pick.  Meanwhile, during the month-long interval between the late August conclusion to the summer quarter and Move-In Day, a languid summer torpor descends on campus, almost as though the University were resting to build up strength for the year ahead.

As the incoming first-years arrive on campus, they pass, administratively, from the Office of College Admissions to the Dean of the College.  And so, for the Admissions Office, with O-Week in full swing, attention shifts completely to the next cycle. In early fall, almost everybody in the office travels; even the Dean of Admissions visits a few high schools outside Chicago.  In fact, a few reps are already on the road, fall college fairs will begin shortly (my first will be in Sarasota on Sept. 8th), enthusiastic early applicants are filling out their application, and the first wave of 30,000-odd applications will shortly wash over the office like a tidal wave.   

For seniors applying to college this fall, this seems a timely place to briefly review how things work, and offer friendly bits of advice.  Applications are composed of two parts, 1 and 2.  The first part contains dry facts -- name, home address, school(s) attended, date of birth, and a list of academic and non-academic accomplishments.  In other words, a data sheet.  Part 2 contains the real meat of the application:  high school transcripts (grades) and test scores; teacher, counselor and any other recommendations; essays; personal statements and any supplemental material that accurately portray you and your accomplishments.   It will also include the interview report of a campus or alumni interviewer.  The only bits of Part 2 that you directly submit and control are your essays and supplemental materials.  Your school, your teachers and counselors, and your interviewer must turn in the rest.  When, and only when, Part 2 is complete will a reader review your application. 

Words to the wise:  in filling out you application, be yourself.  For example, if you submit a humorous essay, and you are not known to your teachers and classmates for your wit, then the effort will probably fall flat.  More important, your application is not the place for modesty.  As baseball great Jerome “Dizzy” Dean put long ago it, “If you done it, it ain’t braggin’.”  Selective colleges love students who exhibit great and wondrous talents and have already accomplished great and wondrous things.  They’re also keenly interested in “the whole person,” not merely in your classroom persona.   So everything interesting, great and wondrous, or otherwise that you’ve truly earned or accomplished, every honor, in or outside school, should be made part of your application.  Regarding supplemental material, if you have something that reflects significant accomplishment or talent -- in music, drama, dance, mathematics, science, writing -- send it along and ask to have it made part of your folder.  Video tapes, essays, even term papers or other written work you feel justly proud of, and (preferably) earned high praise, send them, too.  Caution:  Be completely, even brutally honest.  Some applicants, in their quest to gain that extra scintilla of competitive advantage, succumb to the temptation to puff up their accomplishments.   Don’t even think about it!  College admissions readers possess finely-tuned BS detectors, and all it takes is a simple phone call to a high school to back-check an application, making it almost too easy to verify a questionable claim.  If an admissions officer does spot a bogus claim -- an applicant claiming credit for something he or she didn’t do -- then the bogus claimant can kiss that school goodbye.  Syonara!  Just like that.  Finally, if circumstances have unfavorably affected your scholastic performance -- death, sickness, family problems, etc. -- it is fair to explain these to your admissions committee audience.  Despite what many might think, admissions offices know that adversity and misfortune do happen, and they bend over backwards to give your application as fair a reading as possible.   What few realize is that the majority of the admissions committee consists, not of old goats like me, but of young adults who graduated from the college within the last few years, and remember exactly what it is like to be in your shoes during this process.

Oh, I mentioned essays.  Dick Taliaferro used to say that the Ivies paid little attention to essays, assuming that applicants could easily have paid someone else to write them.  At Chicago, on the other hand, the admissions committee have always assumed that applicants write their own essays, and for that reason, they read them with intense interest and care.  Since Dick Taliaferro’s views on essays were propounded 30 years ago, it’s fair to assume that even if his assertion was accurate (which I question), things may well have changed, and whether or not you are applying to the U of C, your interests are best served if you proceed on the basis that your essays will receive Chicago-style scrutiny.  Can you afford to assume otherwise?  I will add that Chicago does not want to receive essays recycled from applications to Princeton or Yale.  Its essay prompts, with the foregoing in mind and fun and funky though they are, are deliberately crafted to reveal how well an applicant can organize and present thoughts on a topic that he or she hasn’t lain awake thinking about during the prior year.   I tell kids applying to Chicago, “Devote lapidary care to your essay.”  The same applies to applications to other selective schools. 

End of Part I- Read Part II, Standing Out in Selective Admissions: The Interview

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