By Ben Feuer. Photo by Kevin Dooley.

ZeeMee has big dreams. They go like this.

What if your personal statement wasn't in writing, but was, in fact, a video, complete with well-thought out picture and sound, brilliantly clever and funny editing, and a great, sophisticated voice-over narration?

That's the promise of the ZeeMee platform (as well as its cousins/competitors, such as the infamous Coalition app) -- using video to supplement (replace?) written essays and save admissions officers time and sweat. Great, we're onboard. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. So you're clearly offering at least 1000 percent better information in a ZeeMee video, right?

Not so fast. As everyone who's ever read a book and then gone to watch the movie of the book knows, written English contains a lot more nuance and sophistication than its spoken counterpart. That said, video can certainly drive home points clearly and strongly, and it has its place in the admissions process.

So that's what a ZeeMee IS and why you might want one. Now, how do you make a good one?

Tough question. Fortunately, we've taken the time to watch hundreds of ZeeMee videos with a careful and critical eye. We're not going to single out the fails ( ... you know who you are ...) but we are going to call special attention to a few that have some really good things going for them. We have also put together a basic list of do's and don'ts so you can avoid the most common pitfalls.

We're linking to YouTube because it seems that about half the time, ZeeMee links don't play on their own website.  :(  And we want to make sure you guys get the benefit of all of our fabulous free advice.  

And please remember before reading further -- we are NOT in any way criticizing the people who have made these videos. This is a tough thing to do well, and all these people deserve (and have probably since gotten) rewarded for their efforts.  Give them all a big hand!  Yay!

OK, enough being nice. Let's get picky.

EXAMPLES

This is a good video. It almost gets away with being 4 minutes long. The repetition of "every day" creates a rhythm, as does the varied pace of the footage. The order of ideas is surprising (computer science!) and even though the images are sometimes goofy (which is fine, but not very informative), the narration keeps it grounded. The voice-over is paced well, so it's easy to understand.

Production values are quite sophisticated here, which does help, but the real strength of this video is the way the voice-over and images complement one another to tell a complete (if not terribly original) story.

This one is too short, and technical production's not good (could have used subtitles), but listen to how detailed the voice-over writing is. It's very specific and you really get a vivid picture of how her mind works.

We don't hear enough of the candidate's voice in this one, but when we do, there are some great facts that really illustrate the points she's making about herself. The clips show off her quirky and original perspective on the world.

This video tries to cover too much ground, and the jokes don't always land, but the pacing is great, there are some great visual choices that really highlight what the narration is saying, and the mood is upbeat and fun.

OK, this video has serious problems. Music's too loud, it's way too long, lacks visual variety, and the opening is too negative. HOWEVER. Check in around 2:00 and you'll see some really great, detailed storytelling. The candidate goes into real detail about the joys and struggles of her life, and it's moving and compelling in a way most introduction videos just aren't.

***

Now that you're getting a feel for these ZeeMees, you might be thinking you're ready to start making one. OK, gung-ho, just read our list of do's and don'ts first and save yourself a lot of time and trouble.

Important -- ZeeMee profiles have LOTS of different kinds of videos on them. These notes do not apply with equal force to all the other types of video. This article is just about intro videos. k? k.

DO

Come up with an original spin for your video.  Copycats never stand out from the pack. Don't just make another 'day in the life' video, or another 'my most memorable moment' video, or another music montage. Figure out what YOUR personal version of that is. What are you doing that's going to fit particularly well with your story, your background? What are you burning to say?

Create a thoughtful, informative poster frame.
You won't always have control over how your video is watched or in what context, but a poster frame can speak very strongly about what kind of video you're making and what the viewer should expect. Use simple text and graphics, they help. Here's a perfect example.



Use a voice-over narration script. One of the great things about movies is the way that picture and sound can combine to tell a story. You don't need to rely on just words (talking to a camera), or just pictures (without any words).  And reading from a VO script (unlike reading from a prompter in front of the camera) feels natural and easy for most people. Even if you have an accent, it's still a good idea to do this, you just might want to speak more slowly so people can understand you better.

Subtitle your video and make it sound-off-friendly. If you're like most of us, you're watching online videos on mute, paying half attention, or in a noisy environment. Shakespeare it ain't. So make sure your video can still tell a story with the sound OFF. Do the visuals send their own strong message?  Are there helpful subtitles and intertitles to guide the viewer's attention?

Here's a great example -- you can watch it with the sound off and still get the message. In fact, you SHOULD watch it with the sound off, the sound is really bad. 

DON'T

Use famous copyrighted music.
unless you're a founding member of Weezer, don't put their music under your videos. You risk a takedown notice, wasting all your hard work, and you distract from the main point -- your voice, personality and style. Famous music (especially with lyrics) calls up strong associations for people and puts your own work out of context.That said, it's OK to use commercial music -- just not a song everyone has heard on the radio 1000 times.

Hide in your own video.  This one is HUGE, and it absolutely KILLS a video stone dead. You cannot, cannot, cannot refuse to be the star of your own admissions video. I know, you don't think you're doing it. But you are. Here are a few ways students LOVE to shy away from making the video about them actually ... about ... them.

Are you ... barely seen in your own video (all shots of other people/places, or framed so we can't tell which one is you?)

Are you ... inaudible when you speak (because of that awesome Weezer song blaring over you, or not subtitling where necessary?  Remember, subtitling is a thing now)

Are you ... obviously reading from a script?  (Yeah, we can tell. And no, you are not a professional politician, you can't read off a prompter and act at the same time. Memorize, Mary Sue -- or get a couple of extra acting lessons! This goes DOUBLE for people who are trying to show off how many languages they speak. Does obviously reading them really count?)

Are you ... obviously uncomfortable talking about yourself?  (Hesitation, awkwardness, nervousness, looking around like you're waiting for someone to please please please rescue you and say you don't have to make this stupid profile video anymore ... :)  It's OK to have some wonky takes, but then it's your job to film a couple more, until you get more comfortable with what you're saying and doing on camera.

Are you ... drawing your video so that we never see anything but your hands?  Ha, thought you were gonna get away with that one, didn't you?  Nope.  Faces required.

Are you ... forcing your friends, neighbors and relatives to come up with a word-salad association about you and then making a video of THEM?  Yeah, you thought that one was gonna sneak by too. NOPE. #admissionscliche

*Overload people with information.  Let's be honest with ourselves for a hot minute. Number one -- yes, we do look fat in that dress/suit, don't be gender normative, yo. Number two -- how much do you think admissions officers REALLY want to know about you?  Ten things?  Think lower.  Four things?  Maybe if your officer is brand new and all idealistic and stuff. 

Adcoms want the highlight reel. They want the one or two most important, distinctive things, and they want those things to be MeMoRaBle.  You're trying to give someone something to write home about -- literally. So talking about how hard-working or curious or nice or whatever buzzword 101 you think colleges are looking for is NOT going to cut it.

It's about depth, people. Go DEEP into a couple of points about your personality or history, just like you would in an essay. Don't skim the surface and help them 'get to know all about you', by which I mean, make yourself into another clone. That's what your actual application is for.

Obsess over your travel, mountain climbing, winning races, captaining teams, or other college admissions cliches.  This is an old canard from essays that is now migrating to videos -- the 'if it was special to me, it's automatically special to you' problem. I know, it felt special to YOU -- but we just watched fifty videos in a row with basically the same clip. We aren't telling you not to vlog about these things, but you need to put a SPIN on them, bring some of your PERSPECTIVE into the mix. Otherwise, we might as well be reading a bullet point list.

Include more than one bathing suit clip. C'mon, guys, you're sending these videos to admissions officers, not frat brothers.

Go over 2.5 mins.  Because no one wants to watch all that. This is the internet, fool!  You're competing with kitten videos. KITTEN -- VIDEOS.

Of course, there are a million other little things that make a video feel just right -- not leaving 10-15 seconds of black before or after the video, not messing up cuts so there are tiny little jumps or repeats in the picture, varying style, speed and cadence of the narration -- but as long as you take care of the big things, the little things take care of themselves (or better still, someone takes care of them for you).
PLEASE REMEMBER -- all of this is SAID WITH LOVE. We know it's not easy to make a smokin' cool video about yourself, which you write, edit, and star in. It took Lena Dunham freaking forever. She was like 24 by the time she was finished!  Talk about a slacker.  But, and here's the amazing news ... you can do this. You just need to be honest with yourself, seek smart feedback where appropriate, and put in the work to get your video to the next level.

Always remember, in the admissions game -- if a tree falls in the forest but makes a bad ZeeMee video about it, it might as well not have happened. That's the way that old proverb goes, right? And if you need help, we're just a phone call away.


Article by Ben Feuer, photo by K.B.R.

School Nickname: Albert Einstein School of Medicine

Median MCAT: 515

Median GPA: 3.82

DeanAllen M Spiegel, MD

Prior to joining Einstein, Dr. Spiegel was Director of the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive Diseases & Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) at the National Institutes of Health, the culmination of a distinguished 33-year-career at the NIH.

 

A member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Spiegel earned his bachelor's degree summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University in 1967. He received his M.D. degree cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1971 and completed his clinical training at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He began his career at the NIH in 1973 as a Clinical Associate in its Endocrinology Training program. He then served as a Senior Investigator in the Metabolic Disease Branch from 1977 to 1984. In 1985 he was appointed Chief of Molecular Pathophysiology, and then Chief of the Metabolic Diseases Branch. In 1990, he was appointed Director of the NIDDK's Division of Intramural Research. He served in these various capacities until his appointment as Director of the NIDDK in 1999. In this role, Dr. Spiegel had responsibility for a staff of 625 full-time employees and a $1.7 billion budget.

Details on the School: Highlights below

36 Global Initiatives, 20 Research Centers, and over $160 Million in NIH grants.

One need only look at the devastation caused by emergence of the Zika virus with resultant microcephaly in babies born of mothers infected during pregnancy to see that the concerted efforts of public health experts, virologists, immunologists and neuroscientists will be critical to preventing further tragic consequences. Einstein students trained by our outstanding faculty in some of our leading laboratories will be at the forefront of the research that ultimately makes the difference for this and other major health challenges. Just as infection with HIV was turned from a certain death sentence from AIDS to a treatable chronic condition, biomedical research will provide the answers to the major threats from Alzheimer’s disease, and currently poorly treated malignancies such as pancreatic cancer.

Top Residencies: 

Anesthesiology

psychiatry

emergency medicine

Internal medicine

Application: More here

Two-stage.  First stage MUST be done through AMCAS, with a deadline of October 15th.  There is also a secondary application that usually arrives between July and September.

It is rare that we admit individuals from foreign universities because the Admissions Committee does not have satisfactory means of evaluating premedical educaiton at universities outside of the United States and Canada.

Premedical Coursework

In response and to prepare applicants for holistic review that will evaluate, equally, their personal characteristics and academic readiness for medical school, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has instituted a competency-based admissions process.

Applicants should know –

Chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, and humanities & social sciences.

Knowledge Competencies are most successfully attained by applicants who have had a minimum of three years of study toward a baccalaureate degree from an accredited college or university in the U.S. or Canada as well as 40 credit hours of science and mathematics, including advanced biology courses for which letter grades are available (not Pass/Fail, unless college policy), 40 credit hours of humanities and social sciences, and substantial experience in clinical, community, and/or research activities (as described above). Students who complete their science course work in a post-baccalaureate program must have completed at least 30 credit hours in a U.S.-chartered college or university whose grades can be reported and verified by AMCAS.

Previous Year Questions:

Albert Einstein College has a somewhat unusual secondary. It is a series of questions. If you answer no, no further explanation is required. If you answer yes, you must write 100-200 words explaining further.  Here are the 2015-2016 questions.  Your strategy with these questions, as well as the other short answers on the application, should be to be as clear and complete as the word count allows, without dwelling on or overemphasizing any particular point in an attempt to ‘sell’ yourself or show off.

***

Series of yes or no questions. Any ‘yes’ answer requires a brief 100 word explanation.

I have taken time off between high school and college

(Please explain your activities in detail, and your reasons for taking time off, and include dates)

I have taken time off during my undergraduate years

(Please explain your activities in detail, and your reasons for taking time off, and include dates)

I have taken off at least a year since college graduation

(Please explain your activities in detail, and your reasons for taking time off, and include dates)

I plan to take off this year, after just having graduated, while I apply to medical school.

(Please explain what you plan to do this year and please provide confirmation of your plans when they are complete.)

I have taken and received credit for online courses

(Please note that the College does not accept online courses that are not offered by (as opposed to, approved by) your undergraduate or graduate institution. If you have taken online courses, please indicate what courses, where they were taken, and why you elected to take the courses online.)

I have worked part- or full-time, for pay, during the academic year while in college.

(Please indicate when you worked, e.g., freshman year, what months of the year you worked, and how many hours. Briefly describe the work you did.)

I have applied to medical school previously

(Please list schools and year of application, and tell us what actions you have taken to improve your application.)

I have submitted an AMCAS application to Einstein previously

(Please keep in mind that if you completed two prior applications, you are ineligible for reapplication.)

(Please indicate whether you completed the application process for Einstein, the year(s) you applied, and whether you were interviewed.)

I am presently enrolled in the Sue Golding Graduate Division

(Please indicate the year you enrolled, when you plan to take your qualifying examination, and the name of your mentor/department. It is required that your mentor write a letter of recommendation on your behalf.)

I am presently enrolled as an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University

(Please indicate the month and year that you will graduate.)

I had been accepted to medical school previously but chose not to matriculate (Please indicate the name of the school, the year, and your reasons for not matriculating.)

I had been enrolled previously in a medical school

(Please indicate the name of the school, the dates of your enrollment, and your reason for leaving.)

I have not yet completed all of the competencies

(Please indicate what you are missing, and when and how you plan completion.)

I will have a Baccalaureate Degree by the time I matriculate in medical school

(Please indicate why you will not have your Degree.)

I am presently holding a deferred enrollment to a medical/professional school

(Please indicate where you are holding a deferral and why you are applying to Einstein now.)

I have received a grade of “F” during my college/graduate school years

(Please indicate the name of the course and the reason for the failure.)

I have received a grade of “D” during my college/graduate school years

(Please indicate the name of the course and the reason for this grade.)

I have received a grade of “W” during my college/graduate school years

(Please indicate the name of the course and the reason for this grade.)

I have received a grade of “I” during my college/graduate school years

(Please indicate the name of the course and the reason for this grade.)

I have transferred from one college to another during my undergraduate years

(Please explain why you chose to transfer, and indicate the names of the colleges involved.)

I have been the recipient of a warning notice for a non-academic issue that did not result in a disciplinary action

(Please explain when, where and why.)

I have been subject to a disciplinary action and/or an administrative action, expunged or not, while in school

(If yes, please answer the following questions.)

Expunged? No Yes

How many warnings did you receive prior to an action being placed on your record?

(Please explain how all of the above affected you.)

I have disciplinary charges pending

(Please explain in detail.)

I have been convicted of a crime

(Please explain in detail.)

I expect that there will be criminal charges brought against me which are now pending

(Please explain in detail.)

I have been prohibited or suspended from practicing in a professional capacity due to or as a result of alleged misconduct

(Please explain in detail.)

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Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.



Article by Ben Feuer. Photo by Barry Solow.

School Nickname: Langone

Median MCAT: 520

Median GPA: 3.91

Associate Dean: Rafael Rivera, MD

Specialties include Pediatric Radiology and Radiology. Earned his MD from Cornell in 1995, and his MBA from NYU in 2015.  Has published on Appendicitis and Magnetic Resonance Angiography.

Details on the School: Highlights below

In 2016, NYU Langone received two significant awards from Vizient—the Bernard A. Birnbaum, MD, Quality Leadership Award and the Ambulatory Care Quality and Accountability Award for demonstrated excellence in delivering high-quality, patient-centered outpatient care. We also received The Gold Seal of Approval® by The Joint Commission, the leading accreditor of healthcare organizations in America, reflecting a commitment to high-quality patient care.

 

U.S. News & World Report named us one of the top ten hospitals in the country for neurology and neurosurgery.

 

NYU offers an accelerated 3-year MD, which is uncommon among top medical schools.

 

Top Residencies: 

Anesthesiology

orthopaedic surgery

emergency medicine

pediatrics

Application: More here

Two-stage.  First stage MUST be done through AMCAS, with a deadline of October 15th.  There is then a secondary application that usually arrives between July and September.

It is rare that we admit individuals from foreign universities because the Admissions Committee does not have satisfactory means of evaluating premedical educaiton at universities outside of the United States and Canada.

Premedical Coursework

 

We recommend that MD program applicants demonstrate proficiency in the following premedical courses:

 

general biology with labs

general physics with labs

inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry with labs

genetics

English

We consider courses completed at schools of dentistry, nursing, veterinary medicine, or pharmacy as part of your application materials but do not provide credit for such courses.

If you’re invited for an interview, you participate in multiple mini interviews, in which you meet with several interviewers, rather than just one.

Previous Year Questions:

1. What unique qualities or experiences do you possess that would contribute specifically to the NYU School of Medicine community?

2. If you have taken any time off from your studies, either during or after college, please describe what you have done during this time and your reasons for doing so.

3. CHOOSE ONE: The most meaningful achievements are often non-academic in nature. Describe the personal accomplishment that makes you most proud. Why is this important to you?

CHOOSE ONE: Conflicts arise daily from differences in perspectives, priorities, worldviews and traditions. How do you define respect? Describe a situation in which you found it challenging to remain respectful while facing differences?

This is a ‘CHALLENGE’ essay, specifically focused on working with people who are different than you. What kind of different?  That depends – it could be a socioeconomic or cultural difference, a language barrier, or pretty much anything!  But in order to answer the question effectively, you need to break down your own thinking in detail – how did it feel to encounter someone so different from you?  What was your first response?  How did you overcome that initial resistance and eventually find an effective way to work with or help this person?

CHOOSE ONE: Describe a situation in which working with a colleague, family member or friend has been challenging. How did you resolve, if at all, the situation as a team and what did you gain from the experience that will benefit you as a future health care provider? 

4. The Admissions Committee uses a holistic approach to evaluate a wide range of student qualities and life experiences that are complementary to demonstrated academic excellence, strong interpersonal skills and leadership potential. 

5. If applicable, please comment on significant fluctuations in your academic record which are not explained elsewhere on your application.

6. The ultimate goal of our institution is to produce a population of physicians with a collective desire to improve health of all segments of our society through the outstanding patient care, research and education. In this context, where do you see your future medical career (academic medicine, research, public health, primary care, business/law, etc.) and why? Your answer need not be restricted to one category. If your plans require that you complete a dual degree program, please elaborate here. 

This question falls into a category we call ‘PRACTICE’ essays – they ask about your future intentions as a doctor. Some people have a tendency to get too detailed when answering this type of question, filling in details about their field of practice and specialty that they honestly don’t know yet. Others have a tendency to freeze up completely and feel they have nothing to say. But everyone has something to say about what kind of doctor they want to be, what they consider important or valuable about the practice of medicine, where they’d like to practice, and what kind of people they see themselves helping. So focus on that, and you’ll be fine!

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Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Rosemary Voegtli

There are literally thousands of secondary essays put out by medical schools each and every year. But most of those essays can be subdivided into specific categories and dealt with in groups. In this blog, we’re discussing the ‘practice’ category.

DEFINITION OF THE PRACTICE CATEGORY

 

Any medical school secondary essay touching on a student’s ambitions as a doctor or plans for a future medical practice. Some of the prompts emphasize certain disciplines, others emphasize time-frames (10-15 years after graduation, for example), and other ask about the student’s degree of interest in research.

 

EXAMPLES OF SECONDARY PROMPTS IN THE PRACTICE CATEGORY

 

Are there any areas of medicine that are of particular interest to you? If so, please comment. 

 

The ultimate goal of our institution is to produce a population of physicians with a collective desire to improve health of all segments of our society through the outstanding patient care, research and education. In this context, where do you see your future medical career (academic medicine, research, public health, primary care, business/law, etc.) and why? Your answer need not be restricted to one category. If your plans require that you complete a dual degree program, please elaborate here. 

 

What medical specialty are you thinking about pursuing at this point?

 

Please describe the basic and/or clinical research fields that you think you might like to explore and/or develop expertise in during your MSTP training. To the extent that you have defined potential specific future clinical interests, please describe the type(s) of medicine that you might be interested in pursuing once you have completed the MSTP.

 

How will the University of Connecticut School of Medicine best serve your needs of becoming a physician or physician scientist?

 

What are your aspirations for your medical practice? Fast-forward to 15 years in the

future: where do you imagine yourself? 

 

TECHNIQUE FOR ANSWERING THE PRACTICE CATEGORY

 

Medical school secondary essays can be divided into two basic subtypes – narrative essays, which require the applicant to tell a story, and factual essays, which require the applicant to answer a series of factual questions.  The practice essay is a factual essay, so brainstorming should be centered around the specifics of the type of career the applicant wants to pursue.

 

Always answer this type of question narrowly. In other words, if a school doesn’t ask you what specialty you are interested in pursuing, don’t tell them. Answer only the questions you are asked by each school, as each wants to know a different set of things.

 

Although this type of essay is primarily about simple, direct factual answers to questions, it’s still important to have reasons and stories behind your choices. For instance, suppose you wanted to pursue a blend of research and clinical – why is it important to you to pursue both?  Or, say you wanted to start a practice in a small town – why would you prefer that to a big city?  By telling schools your reasoning, you invite them to engage with (and support) your way of thinking.

 

Remember that you are answering a question about the distant future, so it’s more important to have a clear emotional plan in your mind – the types of people you want to help, and why – than it is to have a perfected road map, which would have to change anyway.

 

***

 

Do you have more questions about this secondary essay, or about other secondary essays?  Feel free to contact us and we’ll be happy to help.


Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Robyn Jay

When we work with medical school students, one of the most common questions we hear is about AMCAS Activities versus Secondary Essays. Applying to medical school is a ton of work, and a lot of that work can seem redundant. Many candidates worry that they are talking about the same topics on their secondary essays and their AMCAS Activities, particularly the ‘most meaningful’ activities.

An understandable concern – here’s how to deal with it.

AMCAS ACTIVITIES TEMPLATE – This document should read like a resume on steroids. Students should be including extended descriptions of every activity that is important to them, taking full advantage of the available character count to show what is distinctive, and meaningful, about each position. The focus is more on facts, but not exclusively – particularly for the most meaningful activities, a couple of leadership anecdotes to show how the student is taking full advantage of the opportunities the position offers can add a special spice to the document. But for the most part, this work should be bread and butter, covering a lot of ground, giving technical/medical detail where appropriate, and differentiating the student from the pack.

SECONDARY ESSAYS – These are all about reading the prompt, considering the context and the available word count, and crafting something tailor-made to fit. In other words, if the AMCAS Template is Forever 21, the Secondary Essays are 5th Avenue Boutiques. Students should aim at a smaller, more targeted audience, should focus on storytelling over fact-listing, should avoid diving into dull, technical detail, and should limit themselves to discussing specific, focused aspects of a commitment rather than the entire scope of it. For example, in a secondary ‘challenge’ essay (talking about a challenge they have overcome), they might talk about the three-month period when they were treasurer of their local chapter of a volunteer group giving free medical education to the needy, rather than focusing on the entire 2-year scope of their commitment to the organization. They would talk about the names of their supervisors and how they convinced them to change policy, rather than discussing the position in abstract terms. And they would focus on results, subjective psychology (how do they feel about what they did?) and details rather than broad strokes.

So you see, they’re actually two very different things. In the vast majority of cases, it’s possible to write about a single activity in the AMCAS template as well as one or even two essays, depending on the scope of the commitment. But you don’t want to write all your essays about the same topic – after all, there’s more to you than just one thing!

Got more questions – we’d be happy to answer them.



By Ben Feuer, photo by Steven Lilley

The 2017-2018 common application questions have been released into the wild. This year they’re pretty consistent with other recent years, but there are a few new twists, so read carefully.

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.

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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!


By Ben Feuer, photo by Franck Mahon


If you never read past this point, you have already learned something vitally important.

What is it?

The first and last commodity, no matter whether you are writing an essay, a personal statement, a short article or the Great American Novel, is attention. If you don’t have a reader’s attention, you have nothing.

So why is it that so many people preparing to apply to college or graduate school seem to forget this basic fact, relying on bad ideas, safe, vague statements, or (worse still) quotes to begin their essays?

We get it. Writing is hard. Starting writing is even harder. So we wrote this article to help out!  Of course, there are the usual bits of advice that are helpful in any section of an essay: don’t fall back on clichés, write actively and with good grammar, make your points quickly and sharply. But the first sentence presents a unique set of challenges, and those challenges demand a specialized set of solutions. Here goes!

Hit hard. After reading a half-dozen essays or more in a row, it’s easy for a reader to fall into an unconscious rhythm. OK, here comes the part where he talks about his parents. And here’s the part where he talks about his work experience. Cookie cutter. Your opening sentence should break down those expectations. Let admissions know that you have something to say, and you’re dying to say it – get right to your toughest, most important point, right off the bat.

Don’t start at the beginning. This isn’t a fairy tale – once upon a time just won’t cut the mustard. You don’t have the word count to ramp up to what you’re planning to say, you don’t have the time to take it slow. Jump into the middle of the story. Start with the good part – the climax, the big realization, the surprising idea – and then work backwards from there. Or circle around. Or just turn the whole thing on its head. The unexpected is your friend.

Don’t start with something abstract. This is an essay about you – not your ideas, not someone you know, not ‘the world’ – you’re writing about yourself. So show the committee right away that you’re prepared to do just that. Make a bold statement that shows you know yourself, and you’re prepared to share.

Feel like we missed something vitally important?  Desperate to learn even more about the keys to good essays?  We’re happy to talk about it. Just make sure you come up with a snappy opening line for our first conversation. 


By Ben Feuer. Photo by Morgan Sherwood

Every year, a few students get into schools (and newspapers) by writing totally unconventional essays. Essays that break the mold, that reinvent the basics, and that often completely ignore the question asked and the school’s requirements. But, hey, essays are an art form, and art is all about breaking the rules – right?

Sure. But there’s a smart way and a dumb way to take risks. And if you’re planning to be this year’s Ziad Ahmed and write that crazy, bare-your-soul tone poem in place of an essay, check out this advice first.

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SOME GROUND RULES

Don’t write a risky essay for a match or safety school – you’re better off simply taking your chances with a strong, compelling conventional essay and seeing how it goes.  You only write a risky, hail-mary essay for a reach school. 

You should always seek the approval and agreement of coaches, counselors and family members before embarking on a strategy.  Note that I didn’t say they have to approve of all your choices or your final draft – if you’re choosing to take a risk, do so by your own rules – but you should at least make sure you’re not missing something important or obvious before making a bold move. 

Make sure the ‘risky’ essay you’re writing is actually risky. A lot of the time, people think they’re being daring and original when they’re really just being derivative or obnoxious. Again, use your lifelines on the risky essay – not so people can tell you what to write, but so that you can gauge their honest reactions to what you have written.  And don’t copycat what got a lot of press last year. That’s the complete opposite of risky.

Don’t make your first-ever essay a risky essay. If you’re new to the essay writing game, start with some of the easier ones, and work your way up to the crazy ones.  That way, you’ll be sure of who you are as a candidate and what you have to offer before going off the deep end.

HOW DO I WRITE A RISKY ESSAY?

The whole point of risky essays is that they are cheeky, original and daring. So you should already have a pretty good idea of what you want to write about. If you don’t have a strong concept, why are you even considering a risky essay in the first place?

Now that you have your concept, make sure it aligns with all the other aspects of your candidacy. Consider Ziad Ahmed again (linked above) – he considered himself first and foremost a provocateur and activist, so his provocative, activism-themed ‘essay’ fit his candidacy to a T.  The purpose of an essay is to reveal who you are, to give the committee a strong sense of who they’re considering admitting. If you’re going to break the rules, you have to be giving them twice as strong of a sense.

Write your first draft quickly. Don’t slow down or give yourself too much time to second guess. Remember that a draft is just that, a draft. If it doesn’t work, chuck it and do something new instead. But trust your instincts. They’re what drove you to make this decision in the first place, so stick with them, and they’ll stick with you.

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Writing an essay, any essay, is hard, but writing a risky essay is four times harder. Like the best modern art, it may look simple, but the simple exterior conceals a lot of truth and authenticity (and hard thinking) beneath the surface. The risky essay is not for everyone – remember, for every one student who gets in this way, 1000 are getting in the old-fashioned way, by doing the work and answering the question asked. But if you’re a risk-taker, you’re not about playing the odds anyway, are you?


By Ben Feuer, photo by Caleb Roenigk

Here we are again – at the high tide of anxiety for students on the verge of a law school application. A plunge into the unknown, safety-net-less; nothing but their wits and a dog-eared copy of the U.S. News Rankings to guide them.  But this year, one additional choice will await at least some of these future legal eagles; the choice between the LSAT and the GRE.

One thing you learn pretty fast while working (as I do) as an educational consultant is that one of your most important jobs is to dispel fear, ignorance and anxiety surrounding that bugbear that is America’s school application process. And boy, has there been a lot of FUD coming off the latest decision from HLS; allowing either test on their application.

For instance, a certain famous newspaper with a pretty strong anti-law-school bent is now dropping opinion-hints that maybe, just maybe, expanding access is a Bad Thing™.  Their argument (advanced by a late-night TV writer, speaking of absurdly pie-in-the-sky career choices) seems to be that expanding the pool of applicants will simply create more lousy, unmotivated lawyers.  Well, first of all, no, it won’t – the number of seats at any given law school won’t change. It’s possible the move might save a few lousy law schools from the scrap heap, but, if you haven’t figured out by now that any legal education outside the top 100 is a complete crap shoot, caveat emptor. Law school is a big purchase, and you should do your homework before slapping down the cash. This website’s a good place to start.

But more to the point, adding the GRE will actually give prospective students more options, not less. They’ll be able to choose not just between law schools, but between law schools and other degrees, applying to two or three types of program in one application cycle.  Then, once they know where they’ve been accepted, they can make a smart, well-thought-out choice between 2 or 3 very specific options. In the current model, it’s law school or bust, and that’s scaring away people I know who could be great lawyers, but aren’t able to devote a year of specialized education simply to the prospect of being one.

It allows schools to be more selective, weeding out low LSAT types with a low probability of success at law school and instead admitting high-GRE students with great natural ability and intellect.

It also saves students money – the great thing about the GRE is that it’s pretty comparable to the SAT in terms of subject matter and style, so you don’t have to re-learn how to test take all over again. And the fact is, logic games notwithstanding, there really isn’t anything about law school that requires highly specialized or technical knowledge before applying – after all, in many countries, law is an undergraduate degree. It’s a generalist degree. Many JDs don’t actually go on to practice law. And that’s OK too.

It limits the absurdly over-inflated power of standardized tests, which is a good thing no matter how you slice it. The fact that some schools have started to use these numbers as a crutch or a shorthand to save themselves the trouble of holistically evaluating every candidate is unfair and wasteful. Knowing how to game a test – any test, logic games and time restrictions or no – can only be one small slice of judging a student’s readiness to practice law.

As for the bogeyman fear that you might put a lot of effort into something only to find you don’t like it – that’s life! You try things and you learn. Liking the LSAT is not the same as liking Law School. Liking Law School is not the same as liking a law firm. Liking a law firm is not the same thing as liking the law. You have to find what you like. That’s the whole point of our big, unwieldy, messed up educational system.

There are no easy choices in admissions, for schools or students. But there are fair ones. Schools owe it to themselves to expand and not limit access, to make applying easier and better understood, not harder and more exclusive. And that has nothing to do with what kind of student ought to apply, and everything to do with the kind of student we ought to want.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shaping your essay-writing environment



Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Tim Taylor

Many people underestimate the importance of environment when it comes to writing a great set of essays for college or graduate school. They figure, "I'll just squeeze this in when I can ... after all, what difference does it make when I do it, as long as I do it?"  Actually, it can make a huge difference!  How effective your writing sessions are, and how many new ideas you're able to come up with, is deeply impacted by the way you prepare for and spend your precious writing time.  So, since we're all writing veterans here at Forster-Thomas, we wanted to share a couple of our best tips with you.


Everyone has an optimal time of day for writing.  For some, it's the morning. For others, the evening. But you'll know you've hit your 'sweet spot' when your mind is at its clearest, and least distractable. This is the time when most of your best ideas are going to come.
Shut off distractions. Even one notification or alarm can take up to fifteen minutes to recover from. You'll get the work done a lot more quickly if you shut off all your dings, dongs and bleeps until you're done with the difficult work of crafting your first draft.
Create a pattern. Unless you're extraordinarily lucky, the muse isn't going to show up the first time you come calling for her. It often takes a few days of marinating on the problem, trying approaches that don't work, and fumbling with your own memories, before you're able to hit on the opening that 'feels right'.  So instead of setting aside a block of time on one day, set aside a little time, even a half-hour or an hour, over several days. Get used to getting into a writing mode.
Forgive mistakes. Writer-brain and editor-brain are two very different creatures.  You're going to be a lot happier with your results if you shut off editor-brain for awhile. You'll know him when you hear him, he's the one who second-guesses and nit-picks every idea you come up with. The problem with editor-brain early in the process is that it prevents you from completing a thought and seeing where it takes you. Even if the beginning isn't promising, the day's explorations may uncover a few gems. So just start where you start, and go where you go, and worry about cleaning everything up later.


So there you have it!  A few simple, practical tips to make writing easier.  Of course, if you're still having trouble, you can always give us a call -- but then, you were already planning to do that, weren't you?