Medical school admissions are more competitive every year. The toughest part for some is the dreaded MCAT test; six hours of academic torture, followed by six weeks of equally torturous waiting. So just how concerned should you be about earning a 515 or better on your MCAT?

Every student applying to allopathic (MD) medical school must take the MCAT. Unlike with business school and certain other types of degrees, there is no substitute test that can be used in place of it. Generally speaking, it is wiser to only take the test once, since all scores must be submitted to the school. There are obviously exceptions.

Since medical school applications have risen in recent years, the MCAT has become more important because it is the most efficient way for schools to weed out large numbers of candidates. 

Here are some of the basic facts you need to know about the MCAT, and how important it really is.

All allopathic (MD) medical schools have MCAT cutoffs, but where that cutoff lies varies by school and by year.

For all intents and purposes an MCAT score below 495 will make it almost impossible for you to gain admission to allopathic (MD) medical schools. You will still be competitive for osteopathic medical schools, podiatry schools and Caribbean medical schools.

For some of the more prestigious medical schools in the country, the minimum MCAT score is between 508 and 512 - below which you will not make it past any screening for interviews, regardless of how strong the rest of your application is. That's a minimum -- if you earn that score, you're still very unlikely to be admitted!

This is the conventional wisdom, although the medical school establishment is working to counteract it. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, the AAMC polled students to determine what their GPAs and MCAT scores were, then compared that to whether they were accepted to medical school.  One important caveat here; the study evaluated whether the students were accepted to ANY school, not to their first choice school. The data showed that approximately eight percent of applicants with UGPAs ranging from 3.80 to 4.00 and MCAT total scores above 523 were rejected by all of the medical schools to which they applied. In contrast, about 18 percent of applicants with UGPAs ranging from 3.20 to 3.39 and MCAT scores ranging from 495 to 505 were accepted by at least one school.

The MCAT matters more for getting an interview than it does for getting admitted.

In 2007, Kaplan test prep reported that in a survey sent to all allopathic medical schools (about 125 at the time) and admissions officers from 83 schools responded. 77% of the responding schools reported that GPA was the first or second factor considered in applications.

75% of the responding schools reported that MCAT was the first or second factor considered in applications. This implies that about 75% of the MD schools consider GPA and MCAT to the first two factors considered in an application.  Letters of recommendation and community service round out the top five most important factors in determining admission.

Yet, the five most important pieces of data for making offers of acceptance are, in order:

1) Interview recommendation

2) Letters of recommendation

3) Science and math GPA (BCPM)

4) Medical community service

5) Cumulative GPA

Clearly, once you pass a certain threshold, the numbers become less important and other factors are weighed more highly.  In the words of one Dean of admissions at a top 10 school, "As much as we hate to turn away that 525/4.0 student in terms of our average numbers, if (s)he is an arrogant jerk they are gonna have to go somewhere else. We use the interview to screen out the arrogant jerks."

The advantages of a high MCAT score tail off after a certain point.

In 2012, a score of 498 puts you at the 50th Percentile. A score of 512, one standard deviation from the mean, corresponds with the 84th Percentile, and a score of 521, two standard deviations from the mean, corresponds with the 99th Percentile.

Obviously, even top schools cannot fill their ranks exclusively with 99th percentile MCAT students. Nor would they want to; diversity is an important factor in every school’s admissions policy. In fact, if you do have exceptionally high numbers, it is important to project humility and concern for others even more strongly than an average or above average student, to offset the impression of arrogance. Might not seem fair, but it is reality. Ultra smart students face a certain amount of prejudice, partly due to jealousy, and partly due to the fact that a lot of really smart people are arrogant.

A high MCAT score can compensate for a low GPA, or vice versa.

The GPA reflects how seriously an applicant has taken his or her undergraduate studies. A high GPA is a reflection of strong study habits.  Obviously, not all GPAs are created equal. Medical schools love to see high science GPA’s, in particular.

Generally, anything above a 3.5 GPA is considered very good and very competitive. Jumping from a 3.0 GPA to a 3.5 GPA will make a huge difference in someone's application, whereas jumping from a 3.5 GPA to a 4.0 will not be quite as dramatic (although it is obviously an advantage to have a 4.0 versus a 3.5 GPA) -- unless that candidate has a low MCAT score. Then, that extra boost to GPA can really matter a lot.

Conclusions

So, do you need a 515 or not?  That depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you want to get into a top school, you will need at least a 515 to clear their cutoffs.  From that point on, the other factors in your application will begin to matter more and more. If you just want to get into a medical school period, then you should make sure to study enough beat the 50% mark and focus more on other factors that are easier to control, such as recommendations and community service.  If you cannot clear 495, then you should probably choose a different type of school; there are many types of medical schools that are not as concerned with MCAT scores.

Do you have questions about your MCAT score, whether to retake a test, or how to prepare your secondary essays?  

We're happy to help -- you can contact us directly, or read more about our services.


SUPPLEMENTARY SOURCES INCLUDE:

https://www.aamc.org/download/261106/data/aibvol11_no6.pdf

https://benchprep.com/mcat/prep/what-is-a-good-mcat-score

https://ulife.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/blog/2012/01/09/is-it-all-about-my-grades-and-mcat-score/

http://www.startmedicine.com/app/gpamcat.asp


Photo by Amy, Article by David Thomas and Ben Feuer



The 2018-2019 common application questions for college have just been released!  The college board has announced that they will now be updating prompts every two years instead of every year, giving them more time to evaluate feedback from students and educators. Therefore, the prompts and word counts are the same as last year.

First, a few ground rules.  Your word count should be between 250 and 650 words for each question.  Don't feel obligated to use every word -- but don't go over, either.  Double and triple-check your spelling and grammar -- don't get dinged on a technicality!  Read all of the topics and consider each of them before choosing which one you will answer.  Don't choose based on what story about yourself you feel like telling, or what you think the committee 'ought to know' about you -- instead, select a story where you grew, changed or evolved as a person.

THE QUESTIONS

1.  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Read this prompt carefully.  This is a standard 'diversity' prompt -- which means it asks students to share some distinctive element of their background or upbringing -- BUT the wording is very strong.  Only choose this prompt if your background is so integral to your life that you really can't imagine writing about anything else.

Note that this prompt also invites you to tell a story that is central to your identity -- that could be (for instance) a narrative about personal growth, or about an unexpected friendship or chance encounter -- again, so long as it is central to who you now are as a person, it's fair game.

2.  The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The common App has softened this prompt, perhaps after a bunch of complaints of being triggered by even thinking about past failures … 😊  So now, you can write about a challenge, setback or failure. But guess what – you should still write about a failure. If you don’t feel up to it, or don’t think you have a strong failure to discuss, then call us. But seriously, if you don’t have a strong failure, you should pick another prompt, you certainly have plenty to choose between.

OTOH, if you're applying to a reach school, or if you're concerned about other areas of your application, this prompt is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make an impression.  Nothing grabs admissions officers' attention as quickly as a well-thought-out failure essay, particularly because most students run screaming from this kind of prompt.

So what makes a great failure essay?  We cover this at length in our MBA admissions book, but the fundamentals are this -- you need a singular, powerful failure narrative where you failed not just yourself, but others you cared about.  The failure must be absolute -- no saving the day at the last minute.  It must point to some underlying aspect of your character which you then identify (stubbornness, overcaution, arrogance).  You finish up the failure essay by telling a brief (50-100 word) anecdote about how you have changed as a result of this failure -- use concrete examples here! 

3.  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome

The flipside of the failure essay, the challenge (or as we call it, the leadership) essay is one of the most commonly seen essays on the common application.  This, too, has been weasel-worded down to a softer “questioned or challenged”, but your story about that time you asked the teacher if you really had to sit at the front of the class all year is NOT good essay material, trust us.

If you have accomplished something that was exceptionally challenging for you and really shaped who you are as a person, this is your prompt.  If you are just looking to brag about your killer grade in that AP History class or your five goals in the championship bocce match, this is NOT your prompt.  Move along.

When thinking about challenges, students always want to focus on the external -- what happened and why it's impressive.  This is the wrong approach. The question-writers are giving you a very big clue when they ask you to describe what prompted your thinking – they want to understand how your mind works. The important story to tell is how you GOT to the impressive result -- and what you thought about, did and said that led to that result.

Finally, remember that these types of stories work best and are most impressive when you're motivating other kids (or adults!) to excel -- contrary to what your lovin' mother told you, it ain't all about you.

4.  Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt is a somewhat unusual spin on a common theme of transformation and growth.  There is an obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) spin to this question -- after all, a laboratory experiment or a planned course of study fits into this prompt very neatly.  But resist the urge to get completely technical and step outside your own experience!  Remember that whatever prompt you choose for your essay, the central figure in the story is you -- your challenges, your growth, your maturity.

This prompt also might be a good choice for students who have been fortunate enough to have interesting experiences in unusual places and contexts.  Worked on a social issue overseas?  Spent eight months living with the Amish?  Shadowed a researcher at CERN?  This could be your prompt.

5.  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Rites of passage can be fascinating topics for essays -- if they're handled well.  No one wants to hear about how grandpa cried at your confirmation -- snoozefest!  Becoming an adult is about accepting the responsibilities, limitations and joys of being human, and so should your essay.

The focus on a particular event is important.  It's very easy when writing an essay to drift from one subject to another, but great essays have a singular focus -- they're about one thing and one thing only.  In this case, the event or accomplishment in question and why it became a period of maturation.

It’s also worth noting the emphasis on understanding others. Surprising or difficult events often deepen our ability to empathize with others’ struggles – if you have a story that involves learning to see the world in a new way, this could well be your prompt.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

This is a brand new prompt, for those of you who are just 100 percent not comfortable talking about yourselves in any way, shape or form. Now, before you breathe a sigh of relief and rush off to write yet another paean to microbiomes or Martin Luther King, let us insert a caveat. This is usually the wrong kind of prompt to choose. For most people, most of the time, you’re going to get an essay that’s dry, technical, and reveals nothing about the candidate – in other words, a waste of word count.

In order to write a good essay about an idea or concept, you have to loop in … feelings!  Yours and others.  Talk about the people who share your passion, or the ones who inspired it. Talk about the key moments in the development of your favorite obsession – how did it all begin, where do you see it going?  Relate it back to larger themes in your life. How has this experience helped you to grow and mature?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

This is what we call an open-ended prompt. You can do whatever you want with it, which most folks find utterly terrifying. Not to worry – this should really be a last resort prompt if you have a fantastic essay already written that just doesn’t seem to fit any of the other prompts.

--

So there you have it!  Not so scary after all, huh?  Still, you probably have a lot of questions as yet unanswered.  Or maybe you have a draft all written up and you want some seasoned eyes to take a look?  If so, drop us a line -- we'd be happy to help!

PHOTO BY CLINT MASON



Photo by Creative Ignition

Around this time of year, lots of teenagers are getting some very exciting fat envelopes and/or brief phone calls.  Yes, it's Early Decision / Early Action season, and in this age of instant gratification and high-stress admissions gamesmanship, more and more families have turned to this safe haven. After all, it increases your odds of getting in and gives you peace of mind throughout the Spring. What's not to love?

Money, mostly. The not-so-attractive facts about Early Decision are this -- it's an option that only the well-heeled can pursue, since you have to make your college choice independent of FAFSA, and there's no guarantee that your chosen school will cover the difference. True, if you can prove financial need, they'll usually meet you halfway, but then you're right back in the stress laden boat you were trying to get out of in the first place!  And in the meantime, you're waving goodbye to any potentially better offers from other schools. Since almost everyone who applies ED does so to a reach school, usually there ARE better financial packages on the table by the time April rolls around, but at that point, your only option is to say no.

Given this state of affairs, it's not surprising that some families are beginning to wonder just how binding Early Decision really is. 
The answer is, quite binding. Schools look very unfavorably on candidates who walk away from ED, and doing so can hurt not only your own reputation, but that of your brothers, sisters, counselors, and even your school.

So if you know you're going to be in a tricky financial situation, do yourself a favor and bypass Early Decision. There are still plenty of non-binding Early Action options to get you that coveted peace of mind.  And if you've already made your bed, find a way to sleep in it!  Call your school and work things out. After all, if you were in love with them enough to apply in the first place, you should be in love with them enough to attend.

Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Owen Benson

Congratulations!  You’ve got it all figured out!  While those other OCD kids fill out one long, dull application after another, you’re saving time and effort by focusing on more ‘important’ things, like classes and Stranger Things 2, and only completing your Early Decision application.  What could possibly go wrong?  After all, they’re going to love you …

If I could give just one piece of advice to every family currently working through the college admissions process, it’s this – BE YOURSELVES. But if I could give two, my second tip would be Don’t wait until your early decision college results come in to fill out your regular decision applications. Just … don’t.

Absolutely, we hope and pray and predict that your ED school will, in fact, love you. But life doesn’t always go as planned. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times – when the deferral or ding comes from your ED school, the LAST thing you’re going to feel like doing is completing eight, ten or twelve MORE college applications. But that’s exactly what you’ll have to do. And, you’ll have to rush because by then you’ll have two weeks (or less!) to complete them, AND you’ll have to miss Christmas and New Years and ruin your winter vacation slaving away in front of a computer. And how are you going to feel then?

Don’t let this sad, sad story happen to you. Finish everything by December 1.

Struggling with time management?  Let us know, we can help.




Article by Ben Feuer, photo by John Brawley

If you want to direct the next big Hollywood blockbuster, how do you get to where you're going?  There's certainly no one size fits all answer, but looking at the ten directors of top grossing films in 2017, it's easy to see their similarities (and differences!)  PS: We're not including animated films, because the business/operational side of animation is so radically different from traditional feature filmmaking.

THE LIST

BILL CONDON (Beauty and the Beast): Columbia University BA. No film school (considered UCLA MFA). Worked in LA as a writer very shortly after graduating.
PATTY JENKINS (Wonder Woman): Cooper Union BA. AFI MFA. Directed well-regarded first feature, "Monster", 3 years after graduating. Lived & worked in LA.
JAMES GUNN (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2): St. Louis U BA, Columbia MFA (prose writing). Worked for Troma as a writer immediately after graduating, first produced movie one year after graduating.
JON WATTS (Spider-Man Homecoming): NYU Film School (degree unclear). Worked as a commercial and music video director for Park Pictures immediately after graduating. Got his first feature made by name-checking Eli Roth in a fancy horror film trailer. Sundance director.
ANDY MUSCHIETTI (It): 40 year old Argentinian director. Film school background unclear. Credited feature directing began at age 25 (approximately).
TAIKA WAITITI COHEN (Thor: Ragnarok): From New Zealand. Victoria University of Wellington UG, drama. Nominated for a short film academy award in 2004 (aged 29). Sundance director 2x. Top grossing filmmaker in New Zealand 2x.
JAMES MANGOLD (Logan): Born in New York City, raised by two artists. CalArts Film (UG), Columbia Film (MFA). First feature won best director at Sundance film festival (Heavy). Got his first deal, with Disney, at age 22.
F GARY GRAY (The Fate of the Furious): Born in NYC, raised in Southern LA. Directed Friday, starring Ice Cube, at age 23.
ZACK SNYDER (Justice League): Studied painting, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. Became a commercial director, made feature debut, Dawn of the Dead, at age 29.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (Dunkirk): Raised in London, England and Evanston, Illinois. Moved to Chicago as a teenager. Educated at Haileybury and Imperial Service College and University College London (UCL). Funded first feature, Following, out of pocket in 1998, aged 28. Film was a 'festival success', and paved the way for Memento in 2000.


Questions about how you break through?  Reach out to us, we're happy to share what we know.

Article by Mark Puner, photo by Martin Fisch

As Forster-Thomas’s Chief Editor, I spend a lot of my time thinking about my limits. Word limits, that is. Contrary to popular belief, a genie will not appear in order to grant your every wish when you submit your personal statement at the exact word count. (Two myths debunked: genies aren’t real, word counts are.) But I will be singing your praises, or whoever else is helping you edit your essays.

Word counts are not an attack, a punishment, a test or a deterrent. Believe it or not, they’re actually helpful, once you understand why they exist. They’re forcing you to focus, to be judicious and selective about what you choose to say, and what you choose to leave out.

Consider the Common App’s maximum word allotment of 650 in terms of time, either 6:50 a.m. or 6:50 p.m. A train leaves the station at 6:50…

For STEM students:

If a train leaves the station at 6:50, it’s best to arrive early. This is an approximation of the train’s departure time. It does not account for the time you will spend buying a ticket, figuring out which track the train arrives on, or pondering multi-differential equations in the meantime.

For non-STEM students:

Get there early

For everyone:

Leave some cushion

As someone who has read your essay at every stop along the way, I invariably like the express version—the passion of your first draft combined with spit and polish that takes time to cull. Yes, this is easier said than done. No, this will not exceed 630 words. At 6:30 everyone can comfortably enjoy the ride to the next destination. No genies needed.

Have questions about how to get your essay down to size?  Contact me!




Article by Tom Locke, Photo by Matt Chan

As the Senior Interview Consultant for Forster Thomas, i have the good fortune of preparing droves of clients each year for those coveted “Invite Interviews.” And, most of the candidates I have the pleasure of prepping share some commonalities: most are excited, and rightly so! Most are wondering how they can be best prepared, and I get that. Yet, most are also absolutely freaking out. You know the type— they need to do their interview prep session 6 weeks before the interview. They send me, in advance, every essay they have written, not just for this application, and not even for all their applications. They send me every essay they have written since 8th grade. They want to know: Will we meet in person even though I am in Oklahoma and you are in New York?  If we skype, what should I wear for our skype session? What are the 20 most common questions that they are going to ask me? How long will the interview last? My friend said…, My boss, who went to HBS, told me…, I read online that…. The list goes on and on….and on. 

I am here to tell you three things:

1)    It’s going to be ok!

2)    I understand your angst

3)    YOU NEED TO STOP! NOW!

Now, let me address some of your specifics: it’s not practical or necessary to travel 1500 miles to do a prep session in person. Technology is wonderful. I don’t care what you wear for our prep session. I care what you wear to your interview. If I give you the 20 most common questions, I can promise you that: Stanford, or Harvard, or Kellogg knows what those questions are and they are going to ask you question numbers 21, 37, and 149. The interview will last as long as it lasts, and DO NOT READ INTO THAT. First of all, I have seen people have ten minute interviews and get in. I have also seen people have 2 hour interviews and get inexplicably dinged. And forget what your friend, your boss, your dad, or your milkman said. They know their experience, from one moment in time, at one school. And that probably will not apply to you!

So, what do you do? The best, most simple advice I can give you is this— TREAT IT LIKE A FIRST DATE. Treat it like a date with someone you met online.

Let’s just think about that for a second. You meet someone on Match or OKCupid or JDate or BDate or XDate or dateme.com and you scour each other’s profiles, determining if you each check enough boxes to go out with the other. Then, you use email, or maybe even texts, to determine if there is a bit of a connection there beyond those boxes. And guess what! There is. So, you both know a bit about each other, you both like what you have discovered, and now you are going to go sit across from each other, try to get to know each other, and determine if you each want to spend some more time together. Like, maybe the next two years.  And you know what? That is EXACTLY the way you should treat your MBA interview. Be focused on helping them get to know you, and be curious about them. And if you can be yourself? You will probably have more dates. If you try to impress them, or overprepare, or worry incessantly about things that don’t matter, you will not come off as AUTHENTIC and you will freak them out and you will not get another date, and you will not get into that school you have been dreaming about!

They will not ask you anything you don’t know the answer to. I repeat, you already have all the answers. You just need to be relaxed enough to let them out! Yes, there are things to think about in terms of approach, but the most important thing you can bring to an interview that nobody else in the world can bring…is YOU! Just like a date. So, if you are good at dating, relax. You’ll be fine! And if you’re not— get yourself out there in the dating game. It just might help your MBA interview.

Got questions for me?  Hit me up -- I'm around.

 

Article by Susan Clark, Photo by Peter Hellberg

GOALS AND THE GRAPE

MBA goals essays are one of the most common prompts for prospective b-school students, and some colleges are starting to ask about them as well. So you’d do well to start thinking about just what your goals are. Of course, knowing your goal is only part of a great essay. The rest … is grape juice.

There was this old TV ad that used to run all the time back when I was a kid, in the Dark Ages. It was a spot for carpet cleaner, featuring a toddler in a high chair in the middle of a pristine white room.  The mother hands the kid a sippy cup with grape juice, which the kid, predictably and immediately, tosses in the air.  Grape juice droplets fly in slow motion. Just before they splatter, everything freezes. “This mother isn’t afraid of grape juice!” the announcer says, “she has X!”  I never bought X, but I sure bought the ad! In one clear image, it created empathy and an understanding of the need for the product.

That’s why now, all my clients create a “Grape Juice Moment” (GJM) at the opening of their goals essay. And you can have one too, if you follow these simple instructions.

SQUEEZING THE GRAPE

The constituent parts of a GJM are empathy, understanding, and need.  You (the applicant) must create a desire in the reader (an admissions officer) to support your future. Start with an evocative image drawn from memory that the reader can relate to (like the baby in the white room). There’s the empathy. Clearly state the problem/opportunity you see (the freeze frame of the grape juice), and you’re on your way to understanding. Then present your dynamite solution, and BAM! That school is going to NEED you in their world.

CASE STUDY 

Situation

My family’s textile company in India was starved for power. Why? Because electric companies have a residence first policy for power distribution. When our power was cut off, orders went out late, threatening our reputation in the global marketplace.

Solution

I noticed that subsidies for creating wind generated power had been eliminated, and many windmills were being sold for less than it cost to build them. Sensing an opportunity, I led the initiative in my company to purchase windmills, solving our power dilemma.

Goal     

This plan, I realized, could be expanded to help other Indian companies in a similar predicament. That’s why, after business school, I want to return to my family business, grow its holdings of renewable energy, and provide the first ever reliable source decentralized power for industrial use across India.  

ANALYSIS

This company failing to meet deadlines is the grape juice moment.  The nice thing about this writer’s solution is that it starts personal and scales national. That means he has the know-how to do what he says he’s going to do, PLUS, if the School supports him, they support all of India. Who wouldn’t want to get on board with that?  

WHERE’S YOUR GRAPE?

You don’t need to save the world. The most important thing in any essay is connecting with your reader. It is much harder to turn down a person you know than a statistically defined stranger. So get to work on finding your grape (or it can be an orange, even a prune … I’m not picky!) juice moment. And if you want to know more about my ideas, hit me up!




Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Lillith

If there is one type of essay every college hopeful moans and groans about — it’s their Common App personal statement.  But the “why school” essays run a close second.  Everyone struggles with them.  Shawna, bright and funny with a GPA to die for, was aces when it came to writing about her background as a half-Filipina woman trying to find her way in a prejudiced society. But once it came time for her to do school research, she stalled out. It feels like hitting a single, not a home run, she told me. But I disagree --

ANYBODY can hit a home run with a “why school” essay — if she’s willing to put in the work.  

Writing a great school-specific essay requires a very different set of skills than writing a great personal statement, but both types of essay are important. You should always take them when you have an option, AND you should always write at or near the maximum word-count for Why School essays (unlike other types of essay, where it isn’t as important).  Here are some commonly asked questions about this essay type --

Why are schools so concerned with research?  

Don’t they already know what is great about their school?  Of course they do (although it never hurts to hear it again).  They’re asking because of something called demonstrated interest. Demonstrated interest is a fancy way of saying, how much do you really want to go to OUR school?  Did you pick us just because we’ve got a good ranking, or do you actually know something about how we work?  Have you visited campus?  Have you spoken to alumni?  Are you familiar with the enviroment?  Class size?  Cultural reputation, IE, what the students behave like and what they value?  Schools like DI. DI correllates to yield, and yield boosts rankings — and everybody likes high rankings.

OK, fine.  What am I even supposed to talk about?


The world is your oyster!  Here’s a partial list.  There are many more.

Top professors (shared history, publications, work history, teaching reputation), student body (diversity, age, work history), recent alumni (willingness to communicate, quotes drawn from experience), advanced alumni (internships and placement), career services, industry strengths (sectors, disciplines), specialized majors, ability to cross-enroll, strength of cross-disciplinary opportunities, campus setting (proximity to family, friendliness, size, appearance), local opportunities (incubators, fellowships, internships, work-study, volunteering), clubs and organizations (duration, comparative strength, leadership opportunities, ways to grow or give back), conferences and campus speakers (relevance, reputation), entrepreneurial opportunities (competitions, incubators), classes (first year, second year, specializations), campus visits (info sessions, experience, sitting in on classes), family history (connections, early life)

I’m overwhelmed. Where do I start?

Start by creating a ‘headline’ for each of your target schools.  ALL of them, not just your favorite.  Summarize, in 1 or 2 sentences, what you think the unique fit is between yourself and the school. Treat these sentences as a hypothesis you need to prove.

Remember that your research will be more effective if you do early research into ALL your schools at once, or at least all the ones that have Why School essays. That way, you’ll have a basis for comparison (and a good school research point should ALWAYS be comparing one school to another, albeit not by name).

School research can be divided into three main categories.

  1. DEEP WEB RESEARCH. This should be the heart of your essay, as well as the meat and potatoes. Reading the school’s website is not a bad start, as it will give you a basic overview of what’s on offer. Keep an eye peeled for course listings, recent news events, maps and descriptions of important campus buildings, student run organizations, and other key terms.  Then take those terms and plug them right into Google, Youtube and Linkedin!  Yes, it’s that easy.  After reading 10-15 links on the things that interest you, you’ll understand it almost as well as someone at the school!  Statistical websites like College Factual are tremendously helpful here as well, as are blogs from current and former students, Vlogs, Instagram feeds – anything and everything is fair game. Cite a wide range of sources in your essay to show the depth of your research.
  2. TALK TO CURRENT/FORMER STUDENTS AND PROFS. Anyone more than 10 years out from graduation is not likely to be helpful, but more recent grads, particularly folks with similar backgrounds to you, are tremendous sources of information. But do your web research first, that way, you’ll be able to ask more specific questions. Remember, you’re trying to get interesting observations you can paraphrase, so if they’re speaking generally (or you’re not taking good notes) the whole thing will be a waste.  Don’t ask “How did you like the school?”  Ask “You took Professor Trelawney’s Divination II, right?  How did you like the reading material for that class, did you find it useful in your overall understanding of the degree?”  Focused questions result in focused answers. Better!
  3. DO A CAMPUS TOUR. Again, be prepared to take notes and take names. If you can’t get there in person, do a virtual tour. Note the date of your tour in your essay, sometimes that information comes in handy!

How many points should I be discussing?

A common bad strategy for this type of essay is overstuffing it with poorly supported points — referencing three classes in a row without explaining why any of them are necessary (or particularly strong at your chosen school), name dropping professors without explaining how their book on Cannibal Theory changed your life, using alumni quotes but providing no context as to their relevance.

Instead, make a few well chosen points and back them up.  What are the two or three things you, personally, MOST need from a college?  This, by the way, is ALSO the reason nobody can do this work for you. Ultimately, you’re the one who really knows your priorities and the things you most need in order to grow.

I wrote it, but I don’t like what I wrote. It feels general and vague. 

Every early draft of a why school essay shares the same pernicious flaw — blanket statements made without evidence (to back them up) or context (to explain why they belong in the essay).  So how do we fix these statements?  Watch the following bland comment transform into a great point — through action.

U.Chicago’s campus is very diverse.  Awful.  A blanket statement with nothing to back it up — not a shred of research or introspection.

When John Smith ’13 told me about U.Chicago’s diverse campus environment, I was very excited.  So-so — at least you spoke to (and quoted) an alumni.  But not much effort shown, nor much reflection on your own goals and needs.

When John Smith ’13 told me about U.Chicago’s diverse campus environment, I was very excited — my four years at Ball State proved to me that I thrive when I am learning from my peers as much as my professors.  Above average — not great.  Action taken, related it back to your own experience.  This is what I’d consider “bare minimum” for making a solid point as to why you and a school are a good fit.

When my best friend John Smith ‘20 told me about U.Chicago’s diverse campus environment (ranked 23rd in the nation by College Factual for its strong geographic and ethnic balance), I was excited, but skeptical — diversity can mean different things to different people.  So I went to see for myself, visiting on September 9th, 2017.  The info session was intimate — more so than any other I have attended — with a relatively select group of students offered full campus access.  Bob Davis ’12, my tour leader, was extraordinarily patient, walking me through U.Chicago’s outstanding array of clubs and societies, including the MSAC Committee. U.Chicago is one of the only schools I am considering that even offers a student-led Diversity Committee, much less one that advises faculty and university management on key outreach issues.  Outstanding.  The candidate walks us through his thought process — smoothly incorporating his actions taken (alumni interviews, campus visit, talked to tour guide for 1/2 hour) into a larger journey of how he came to fall in love with Booth.  We believe him.

Don’t fake it.  

I know, I know — you’re thinking, nah, that sounds too hard, or too expensive — I don’t want to Google-stalk a professor, or haunt an internet forum, or network on LinkedIn to meet alums from a school — I’m busy!  (as 1000 tiny violins play)  Campus visits, I’ll just make it up.  Ok, big boy, you do that.  And you might fool your parents, or even a peer reviewer or two.  But you won’t fool the experts, who have to read literally THOUSANDS of these things.  They know their own programs, and if you think you can generalize your way around campus — sorry, no.

You can’t have fit without a goal.

Your school may ask you “why us” but may not ask specifically about your goals.  Use one or two sentences to tell them about your goals for college.  Why?  Because if you don’t, how are you going to show that you are a good fit on campus?  People with dreams need help making their dreams come true.  Your goal and your past experience dictate what you need from the school. 

But be as specific as you can when it comes to your needs. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you want to master leadership in college.  OK.  What aspect of leadership are you looking to develop?  Small teams?  Big teams?  Collaborating remotely?  Speaking in front of groups?  Setting long term visionary goals?  Achieving short term objectives?  By better defining your growth areas, you can focus more precisely on what the school has to offer you.  The same thing applies to every discipline you wish to develop — precise thinking and precise language will set you apart.

The end -- and the beginning.

That's it -- everything you know to write a great "why school essay.  It's not complicated -- but it's also not easy.  It takes time, and thought, to get it right.  Still, as with everything in this process, practice makes perfect -- so get to work on those drafts!

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Every once in a while at Forster-Thomas, our blog takes a break from tips, tricks and shortcuts to a better admissions future to comment on something we consider to be of great importance to the future of education in our country. A recent article in the New York Times, derived from a speech given in Australia, raises just such a topic.

The article, called the Dying Art of Disagreement, raises some incredibly disturbing findings. One that jumps out is that over twenty percent of liberal arts students think it is acceptable to silence a speaker with violence, if that speaker is saying something with which they disagree. That's one in five students fully prepared to become a fascist, as long as they're marching behind the 'right sort' of Dear Leader. And this is the most educated subset of our society. I promise you that in the swamps, plains and plateaus, the same and worse is espoused.

The facts of the situation are grim. Liberals (and intellectual conservatives) are in the process of 'normalizing' the worst habits of their worst enemies, including fear, oppression and blind hatred. Morality, the act of making another's opinion 'immoral' or 'ethically wrong', does as much damage to you as to your opponent. Morality binds and blinds, and hate is anti-scientific, anti-rational, and thoroughly tribal. If you think your feelings are leading you to a more just world, you're deluding yourself, and more importantly, helping preserve the delusion of those around you who value your opinion.

Our higher education system, the envy of and the model for much of the developing world, should be designed to combat that kind of thinking. Education, as the Lowy Institute speech makes clear, is not a fixed lesson, but rather a process of self-interrogation. To treat no proposition as sacred, and no objection as impious, used to be the cornerstone of a liberal education. And any intellectual not currently competing for a social media popularity prize would probably allow that it still is.

Many people today justify intellectual laziness by proudly labeling themselves partisans. It's too oppressive, they claim, too triggering, to be forced to consider anybody else's point of view. Besides, they're activists -- living in what has also been referred to as soldier mindset -- 24/7. How can it be wrong when it feels so right?

Because the root of activism is action. No change in the world can take place without action. A tweetstorm is not an action, it's a reaction, and a poorly reasoned one at that. Action occurs in the real world, with other people. Meaningful action takes place when we are forced to justify our beliefs before those who hold the opposite view -- we disagree well, because we understand well.

As educational consultants, we here at Forster-Thomas try to play this Socratic role to our future scholars. We challenge their preconceptions, push them to explore their own flaws and failures, and remind them how important it is to deeply evaluate difficult questions about their own futures, and the role Universities play in that future. Their choice of college or graduate school, after all, will help define them. Not every idea our clients hold dear is currently trending. On the contrary, many would get you shouted down on Twitter, or worse. But they're a necessary part of a balanced intellectual breakfast, and as long as the client can make a rational case for his perspective, we say, go for it!

IECs speak to an important audience. Our charges will one day, relatively soon, rule the world. When they do, they will face entrenched societal problems, including issues of climate, massive transfers of wealth, and a worldwide assault on free speech. We should not stand by and encourage those who disagree with us to remain silent. A silent mind never changes.

If you agree with what we're saying here -- if you want our future leaders to be well-versed and prepared to refute the specious arguments of nativists, fearmongers and opportunists -- then take action. Make sure you tell each and every one of your students that they are in college to learn, not to inform the faculty of what they already 'know' to be true. Tell them to reject any and all ideas that hold them back from gaining a better understanding of the world as it is. Tell them to stop demanding, and start understanding. Remind them that no idea is sacred, not even their favorite one. And thank them for the service they are doing for us, themselves and future generations.

Or, in the words of Badass Historical Lady Evelyn Beatrice Hall (sometimes misattributed to Voltaire) --
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.