By Ben Feuer, photo by Damian Gadal

So here we are again, smack dab in the middle of another admissions season. Medical school, college and business school students around the world are clearing their schedules, holding their calls and barricading themselves in their rooms in a frantic first-ditch attempt to write some cool, sexy essays.

Bet you never thought you’d see the phrase ‘cool, sexy essay’ in a sentence, huh? Actually, around here you hear it a lot. Also things like ‘terrible, mind-numbing essay’. But I digress.

So here’s a question everyone decides, but most people never think to ask. How long should I be spending on a draft of an essay? There’s no definitive answer, but I’ve seen some of the best (and some of the worst) at work, and I can give you a few handy rules of thumb.

1) Don’t overthink your first draft. This is really, really important. Type-A people, particularly business types, are used to presenting material that’s ‘perfect’ on the first pass. To them, hearing feedback like ‘this doesn’t work at all’ is deeply unsettling. They’ll pour six, eight, sometimes twenty (!) hours into a first essay draft, and send it off to me thinking, OK, got that taken care of. Unfortunately, writing doesn’t work that way. It’s an experimental process of trial and error, failure and re-failure (followed, ultimately, by success). That’s why you should time limit first drafts to about four hours. Even if your English isn’t perfect, that’s more than enough time to get your main point across, without obsessing over word choice, sentence structure, punctuation … all for an essay that may not even work.

2) Don’t underthink it either. College applicants in particular are often guilty of this, but it can happen to anyone. They’ll look at a word count of, say, 500, and think, heck, I can knock that out in no time. They think of essay writing as filling a quota, instead of distilling a lot of good ideas into a limited space. These essays are often unfocused, and the people who wrote them have a certain hallmark attitude of, ‘Hey, it’s just a first draft’. No, it’s the beginning of a conversation about who you are. And you just lead off with, ‘Yeah, I don’t know. Whatever.’ If this could be you, force yourself to spend at least two hours per draft. It doesn’t matter if they’re productive. Just spend them thinking about your essay and yourself.

3) Don’t ‘cap’ your drafts. If you had just decided to run a marathon, how would you decide to train? Would you research online about successful practice routines and approaches, or would you walk out your door, run until you got tired, say ‘I’m all set’, and wait for the day of the marathon to arrive? It sounds ridiculous, but people writing essays assume this kind of attitude all the time. They say, ‘I’ve already written a draft of that essay’. Well, so what? You might have written five. The question is, are any of them any good? You need to get objective feedback on every draft and every story you write. Until your readers say it’s good, you can’t be sure it is, and you certainly shouldn’t place arbitrary limits on how much revision you’ll do.

4) Don’t be streaky. You know how some baseball hitters are streaky? They’ll have a few good weeks, a few bad ones? Nobody likes that in sports, and it doesn’t work for essay writers either. Once you start, don’t put down your pen until the last essay is 100 percent finished. Don’t take a few weeks off to recharge. Don’t take breaks to redo tests or focus on something else for awhile. You may get tired -- that’s OK. Your focus will produce more consistent, coherent work, which is vitally important when you’re trying to present a complete picture of yourself to admissions committees.

So there you go, a few useful guidelines to get you started with your essay writing timeline. Need some advice on your personal timeline? I’d be happy to help!



Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Starmama

It’s that time of year again!  Juniors and seniors are gearing up for college, and we all know what that means – frayed nerves and nails chewed down to nubs.

But not every parent you meet during the admissions season is anxious. There’s also another type, one you know well – in fact, you probably have a couple of good friends who fit this description to a ‘T’. That outspoken activist who’s always rallying the troops at every PTA meeting; she’s one. The high-flying finance Dad who decided to retire young and spend more time with his family; he’s definitely one. You can sum up their attitude to admissions in one word – overconfident.

Don’t get me wrong -- overconfident parents are still great parents: they work hard, get things done, and really love their kids.  The problem is, especially in the heat of college fever, they can sometimes work a little too hard and get a little too much done.

Whatever happens, your job is not to listen to the siren song of these well-meaning ‘authorities’.  Their overconfidence can lead to costly mistakes in the admissions process.  Here at Forster-Thomas, we’ve seen them damage relationships with their kids, reduce those kids’ odds of getting into their dream schools, and drive pretty much everyone up the wall, all without knowing they’re doing anything wrong.

Here are a few telltale warning signs that your friend is an overconfident parent:

Hey, I just had a great idea of what I can do to give Junior an edge at insert dream school.  Just thinking this kind of thing is a problem, because in the vast majority of cases, there is nothing your friend, as a parent, can do to give Junior an edge. Of course, if you tell them that, they smile and say, “Sure, but you don’t understand. I’m different.”  Trust me when I tell you, they are not. The parent’s role in the admissions process is to be supportive, inquisitive, enthusiastic, and to recruit the right partners, both amateur and professional, to support Junior as he gets the job done his way. If you do a great job at that and nothing else, you’ll be doing better than the vast majority of your peers.

Junior's a little shy / unmotivated. I'll fill the gap by being extra motivated, and talking to everybody at the school about how much he loves it and what a great fit he'd be. If I had a nickel for every hour I have spent listening to a frazzled college admissions officer kvetch about overbearing parents, I could start my own mint.  These parents’ efforts are having the opposite effect they intend. They are making their son look incapable, unwilling and unready to go to college, when the fact is he's probably just making room for them because they’re obviously having such a good time 'helping'. It’s OK to prod and propose, but when you’re carrying the banner for your offspring, there’s a problem.

I have a family friend who went to BZT U.  Maybe I'll ask her to write a letter of support.  Is your friend's friend’s name on a building on campus?  Did she pull the dean of Admissions out of a burning building?  Is your friend’s friend Prince, or at least *a* prince? If the answer to these questions is no, then a letter of support is not going to give your friend’s son a boost.  And even if she did know someone fantastically well connected, a letter of support would only help if her son was absolutely committed to going to the school, and the family friend was absolutely committed to her son, by which I mean not recommending anyone else.

I'll become an amateur college expert and save us some money on counseling. Fun fact. Do you know what professional counselors do when their kids are applying to college?  Send them to a counselor. Do you know why? Because they know better than anyone how incapable they are of having a rational, objective take on their own kid’s application.  It’s like communism – great in theory, terrible in practice.  Distance and objective evaluation are at the heart of college admissions.  Only someone with that distance is going to be to able to get the job done right.

I'm a good writer. If I tweak a few of Junior's phrases, here and there, they'll realize what he meant to say.  As an admissions officer, one of the first things you learn to spot are ghostwritten essays (and resumes, and recommendations, and short answers ...)  They stick out like sore thumbs. Schools want to fall in love with your kid. They want to be dazzled by his ideas, his beliefs, his accomplishments, not yours.  Coach if you must, although that too is best left to experts, but don’t meddle with the language, and unless you're an expert copyeditor, don't go through and 'correct' his sentence structure, either.

So what do you do if you know someone like this?

Simple. Take a deep breath, shut your ears and walk away. Sometimes doing nothing is the perfect thing.  Let go and let God. If you don't know how, we can help with that.  

In the end, I promise, you’ll be surprised, charmed and thrilled to learn just how great of a job you did as a parent.




By Ben Feuer, photo by Wonderferret

Hey there, dummy!

Just kidding! As everybody knows, grades and intelligence don't necessarily correlate. That said, if your current goal is to attend a good four-year college, then the whole ‘grades’ thing?  Yeah. It’s gonna factor in.

Fortunately, we've been helping academic ne’er-do-wells right their ships since 1995. There are no magic wands to wave here, and no quick fixes. However, if you’re willing to put in the work, you can definitely find yourself standing on your dream campus in a year or so.

This guide is designed for students who want to go directly into competitive four year schools out of high school. However, there are a number of other options for you to consider as well, including —

• Entering a trade school or joining a professional union
• Taking a gap year
• Enrolling in a two year private or community college with the intention of transferring
• Attending a school with relatively low selectivity, such as a relatively obscure liberal arts college or a non-flagship state school
• Being LeBron James

Each of these options is going to be right for some of you and wrong for others. You (possibly with some professional guidance) are going to have to figure out what works best.

PERFORM A SELF ASSESSMENT


The first step you have to take in any college application is performing a realistic self-assessment. In other words, who the heck are you? And I don’t mean your name, rank or serial number, I mean how should you be seen in comparison to other students like you? What makes you stand out? What have you been up to on the planet that is revolutionary and game changing?

What are your strengths?  Your razor-sharp wit?  Your faith?  Your encyclopedic awareness of The Big Bang Theory?  Overcoming tough obstacles in your personal background to get where you are today?  Are you a savant, brilliant at a few things and terrible at everything else?  Are you a reformed mega-jock now looking to score an academic touchdown?

Now look at your weaknesses. Where did you get your worst grades, and why? Details matter. If you struggled in advanced-level courses, that’s a very different matter from struggling in remedial Algebra. This is the kind of information you’ll address in your so-called supplemental essay, which usually goes in the additional information field, or is uploaded as a separate file.

Get tested for any potential disorders, such as learning disabilities and autism spectrum. This kind of hard evidence can help explain to schools why you struggled so mightily.

BUILD A TARGET SCHOOL LIST

Be smart and realistic about this. Apply to a wide range of colleges — eight’s a good rule of thumb.  Seek out a range of possible partners, from reach schools to safeties. Choose places that you think might respond to your story and your candidacy. Are they a good match in subject matter, goals, faith, ethnicity, geography?  Would they have some reason to value you more highly than other schools?  What about satellite campuses of schools you like, or schools that offer exchanges with schools you like?

Whenever possible, build relationships with professors and administrators. Especially at small schools, this can sometimes make a big difference with borderline candidates.

PROVIDE ALTERNATE EVIDENCE

Believe me, colleges find your transcripts even more boring than you do. The average admissions officer considers a transcript for 30 seconds. 30 seconds. That’s barely the length of a Budweiser spot.

So no one is going over your history with a fine toothed comb. They’re looking for standout highs and lows (A+’s and Ds) and considering where, when and how they were earned. Then they’re making a snap judgement. Can he compete academically with everybody else at my school, or will he be overwhelmed and drop out?

If you have a weak GPA, you need to show that you can stand on an equal academic footing, or at least come close. How? Here are some of the best ways.

• High test scores — ACT, SAT, AP
• Summer school — A’s from quality colleges
• Testing for professional programs, or admission to other selective academic programs

BACK UP YOUR STORY

So hopefully, by now, you know what kind of candidate you are, where your strengths lie and how you’d like to be seen. The trickiest part is finding an elegant way to present this information, showing rather than telling the school who you are.

People judge you by your results and your actions, as well as by the opinions of others they trust. That’s why schools weigh extracurricular activities so heavily. If you’re a subpar student, then you’d better have some really impressive results to draw on from outside the classroom. That doesn’t mean you need to have acted on Broadway or founded a startup. It can simply mean that you grew your chess club from four members to fifteen, or created a template for delivering the school’s morning announcements that is still in use today.

Choose and use your recommenders strategically. Of course, you want people who are very familiar with your work and your personality, but you also want people who are naturally sympathetic to an underdog story. The type of recommender who will fight harder for you because you overcame adversity others didn’t have to face.

ODDS AND ENDS

There is at least one other very important factor to consider — money. Many schools are willing to take on subpar students, as long as they’re prepared to pay full freight.  That’s a lot of cash, so think carefully before reaching for that top tier school. Be sure that you’re going to get good value for your dollar.

Academic reachers should always apply regular decision rather than early decision. That way, you’ll be faced with a talent pool that more closely resembles you.

Have questions? Of course you do. Fortunately, we’re just an email or a call away!

Monday, April 25, 2016

The 2016-2017 Coalition Prompts

 

As you may be aware, there is a new Coalition alternative to the common application. Although not all coalition schools will require essays, many will -- and for those that do, here are the prompts for those essays. With one exception, they're very similar to the common app essays. There are no word limits, as of this point.

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.



Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Derek Gavey

We’ve all done things we’re not proud of in life. Things that, if we could do over again, we would definitely think twice about (or at least once).  In my capacity as an educational consultant, I’ve heard pretty much every story you can imagine. DUIs? Of course. Assault? Been there, done that. Drug convictions, rehab, shoplifting? Yes, yes, and yes.

I’ve seen people with, shall we say, colorful pasts get into their dream law school time and time again. How the heck do we pull it off?

The answer is both simple and complex. Simple, because it’s very easy to understand what you need to do. Complex, because doing it well is a delicate and nuanced process that requires a certain amount of, shall we say, finesse.

Don’t Lie. This one seems like it should be obvious, but many, many people come into the process determined to obscure, obfuscate and lie their way into a highly ethical profession. Don’t be one of those people. Even if you manage to lie your way into school, you’ll face the same exact questions when you pass the bar — that’s why they ask them! Commit to telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about your convictions.

Let me be clear — that doesn’t mean you need to dish about incidents that were expunged from your record, or every random moving violation. Answer the questions your schools ask (different schools word them differently). Don’t overshare, don’t undershare.

Own the crime.  Every incident you discuss on your applications must be approached with an attitude of 100 percent responsibility. Schools don’t care if your boyfriend talked you into it. Schools don’t care if it seemed like it was your only option. Schools don’t care if you grew up poor. They want to know that right now, in this stage of your life, you’re prepared to take full responsibility for your actions.

Contrition. What have you done since your incident to show the world how sorry you are? Have you performed community service, or created lasting change in some other area of your life? How has your character been strengthened or changed, and what did you learn?

Another way to look at this section of your essay: you need compensating factors to show the school that, despite the occasional slip-up, you’re basically a responsible and ethical person. Sometimes these factors come from a very different area of your life — your volunteer work with disabled children, or your academic decathelon results. The important thing is that you close the essay by showing another side of yourself.

So that’s the basics of how to answer Character and Fitness questions in your law school applications. Feel like you need more tips? Contact me and I’ll be happy to help!



Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Ah, the diversity essay. Prompts like “How will your academic background and experiences will help to contribute to the school’s diverse environment and program?” are an evergreen in the admissions world, and they have been popping up more and more frequently of late. Law schools, in particular, seem to love them as optional prompts, but MPH programs, architecture programs, medical school programs and a wide range of other graduate degrees ask variations of these questions.

So how do you answer it? There's no one size fits all answer, but here are a few important factors to consider.

Diversity doesn’t just mean skin color. Diversity is, at its heart, refers to the experience of being different, being in a minority, because of some aspect of your life over which you have little (or no) control. Think about that definition – it’s broader than it appears at first glance. Women are a majority of human beings on Earth – but female drill sergeants are a distinct minority, and have a diversity story to tell. Contracting an unusual disease, being born with a skin condition, spending a long time living abroad, traveling frequently for work (or because of your parents’ work) … Everybody has a story about being different.

What does it mean to be different? Once you have identified what it is that’s different about you, what makes you stand out from the pack, and described the experience in detail (write more than you think you’ll need, for every essay ever – get the story clear on paper first), the next step is to think about what it meant. What specifically changed in your behavior or your thinking because you had this experience? For instance, the female drill sergeant might write that her experience taught her how to use her unique voice to assert herself and demand respect. Someone struggling with MS might write about adjusting to the experience of feeling ‘watched’ all the time, of coming to terms with being many people’s worst nightmare come to life.

How will you contribute?  One very important component of any diversity essay (and one of the most commonly overlooked) is how you plan to use your experiences to enrich your target program. Schools, like employers, care more about what you’re going to do for them than what you’ve done in the past. Help them make the connection from your past to your present by citing specific examples of how you can improve their school if you are accepted. Talk about student-led clubs you will join, volunteer opportunities you plan to take advantage of, or anything else that catches your fancy.

Still have questions? Feel free to reach out to me anytime.


 

Article by Ben Feuer. Photo by english106.

The 2016-2017 common application questions have been released into the wild, and they're the same as last year's questions -- so our advice is the same as last year's advice!

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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

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 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 challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

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.  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 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 or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

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 was the turning point in your journey from boy to man or girl to woman.

--

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 Susan Solinski

Top MBA programs are getting more competitive every year, and finance and consulting remain two of the most popular destinations for graduates. So what should you do if you are looking to transition into one of these areas from a startup, an engineering role or even a completely unrelated field?  It's a long road, but we're here to help!

The first step is to make the problem manageable. Break down your application into its four major components and think about each of them separately.

1. Your stats.
For those looking to enter finance from less quantitatively rigorous fields like marketing, Quant GMAT and demonstrated interest in key topics like Economics, Financial Accounting and Calculus are extremely valuable.  For tech nerds and Indian or East Asian applicants, it's equally important to show strong quant verbal and a dedicated interest in writing/literature topics.  In either situation, if your candidacy is weak in a core number (GPA, GMAT or GRE), consider taking outside courses or mini-MBA programs to boost your bona fides. Remember, stats show your ability to handle an MBA workload, and you can't get into school without them.

2.  Your essays.
Career shifters need to start working on their goals essays earl in the process. Why?  Because having a clear, concrete goal in mind is an absolute essential when you are looking to make a change. Schools want to see that you have thought your decision through carefully and that you are prepared to make the most of the contacts and education they can provide you with.
Another important reason? You need to be able to tell your recommenders why you want to get an MBA so they can know how to shape your recommendation letters accordingly.

For career shifters, goals should be --

Simple.  I want to go from branding to consulting. I want to go from back-room IT to finance. I want to go from trading to buy-side.  From A to B.

Specific.  You need to cite exactly what role you plan to fill and what firm you plan to do it at. Choose a firm that actually recruits at the school you are applying to, please.

EXAMPLE: Immediately after graduation, I plan to become a management consultant. My preferred firm is Bain, because in my view they are the best at balancing a thoughtful approach to charity work with traditional management consulting, and my background is in non-profits, so I would like to continue doing good even as I do well.

Achievable.  Don't say you want to go from a big law assistant right into a venture capital maven -- that's unrealistic and business schools won't want to take a gamble on you. Instead, say that your plan is to start out at a late-stage startup in a development role and then transition to venture capital.

3.  Your recommenders.
It is very important to prep your recommenders by having an extended conversation about your career plans and why an MBA is a necessary next step. They may not know (or care) about your future field, and therefore they may have no sense of what sorts of skills will be important in it. Your job is to explain that to them (and remind them of times when you demonstrated those qualities), so they can turn around and sell those qualities in your rec letter!

If you are getting a letter of support from a donor or prominent alum, make sure they know your professional plans as well. You don't want to risk putting them in an awkward situation!

4. Your resume.
There's an old saying that goes, "Dress for the job you want to have, not the job you currently have".  Never is that more true than on an MBA resume as a career shifter, where you are essentially selling yourself to the committee as a someone with great potential in a brand new field. Look at each job on your resume -- are you emphasizing the aspects of your job that relate to what you want to be doing, instead of the ones you happened to do a lot of in the past?

Often for a career shifter resume, the first bullet point under a job description will be something you did once, or maybe a couple of times, while your day to day responsibilites will be downplayed. That's because you're showing potential, not accomplishment, on this resume.

As always, don't underestimate the power of volunteering and school extracurriculars to boost your achievements and overall 'wow' factor.

*** *** ***

Career shifting isn't easy under any circumstances, but having a degree from Wharton or MIT in your pocket certainly can make it a smoother ride. Give yourself the best chance of getting into your top choice program by following these tips -- and if you want to know more, drop us a line!

 

By Ben Feuer, Photo by Marco Bellucci

Feedback. We all need it – if we’re smart, we’re always asking for it – but how good are we at actually using it? Here at Forster-Thomas our job is to give honest (sometimes brutal) feedback to people who are applying to school so they can do a better job of applying to school. Sometimes the job is easy – more often than not, it’s really hard. It all depends on what kind of guy (or gal, gender FTW) you have sitting across the table (or Skype-chat) from you.

The guy who knows he doesn’t know.

This is our favorite kind of guy to work with – he’s almost always smart, dependable and open because he knows who he is and why he’s here – he’s great at what he does, and he’s comfortable outsourcing what he’s not great at to others.

Think of it this way -- if I dropped you in the middle of a steel mill right now and said, send the hot slag into the vibratory tumbler to de-burr it, then use the lathe to shape it as it cools and make sure to respect all the standard factory workload requirements (PS don’t cut your right hand off), you’d say, um, a little help please, a little clarification? In other words, you’d know you didn’t know, and you would make smarter decisions because of that.

If you just said to yourself, yeah, but applying to school isn’t like that, then you are not this guy. Admissions is exactly like that. Who makes the decisions? What are they based on? What are the big turn-ons and turn-offs of adcoms? You don’t know. That’s because they’re secretive, and they change pretty much every year as new deans come in and new university strategies take hold.

This guy knows he doesn’t know. That’s why he almost always gets what he wants in the end.

The guy who knows he doesn’t know, but pretends he knows.

But because of ego or anxiety (or more accurately both, since they’re two sides of the same coin), certain candidates decide their job is not to complete the admissions process but rather to game it. These people fixate on the one or two crumbs of information they do collect and (never bothering to independently verify it) decide it’s the most important thing they ever heard. We sometimes call this the ‘shiny’ effect.

“Someone secretly told me who went to U Chicago that the University really likes people with marketing background – shouldn’t I go back and rewrite my entire history to make it look like I know a lot about marketing?”

“Um, no, because you’re a finance guy and everything you’ve ever done proves that. Your job is to be the best you – remember?”

“Yeah but – my friend said!”

“And how many years has he spent on the admissions committee? How many applications has he read?”

“…”

This guy is so busy pretending to be a newly minted expert that he forgets to focus on his real job – being and knowing himself.

The guy who doesn’t know he doesn’t know.

One real application-killer is lack of self-awareness. You run into it all the time when you get to the interview stage, as anyone who’s been on the other side of that table will tell you. People will walk in that door convinced they have themselves (and you) figured out. Sometimes it really gets ridiculous – I’ve had candidates recount interviews to me where I had to tell them, “You just told your interviewer who he was and how to do his job. How do you think he liked that?” Answer – not very much.

it can be a huge problem with essays and recommenders as well. The guy who doesn’t know he doesn’t know has zero introspection skills. He’s never really thought about why he does what he does and he sees no reason to start now. Instead, he pulls convenient labels off the shelf (I’m a natural leader, I’m a team player, I’m a smart, confident empire builder) that he thinks will appeal to admissions. It's not that he’s lying – it’s more like he has a massive blind spot. He really believes he never had a drinking problem, and that he loves every member of his family equally, and that all his peers willingly defer to him all day.

The reason this guy is so hard to help is because he feels so comfortable in his ‘not-knowing’ situation. Unlike the previous two guys I described, he doesn’t even think he has a problem! Yikes.

What to do?

If you recognize yourself in one (or more) of these people, congratulations! You’re not guy #3. But no matter who you are, you still need honest, unbiased feedback if you want to present the best version of yourself to the admissions committee. No guy is an island – so don’t put yourself on one!


 

By Ben Feuer, Photo by Gabriel Millos

So you picked your topic, you worked over your language until it's flawless, but your essay still doesn't have that 'spark'.  You have two choices -- continue to revise, or start over with a completely new idea.  Most people find that prospect so terrifying that they never even consider it, but it is a viable option.  Sometimes writers (particularly beginning writers) simply fail on their first effort.  It's not a personal shortcoming, it just reflects how challenging the process of essay writing really is.

How do you know if you're better off submitting what you have, or starting over?  There's no definitive answer, but there ARE some helpful things to consider.

Brainstorm Early and Often

How can you know you've written the right essay if you haven't even brainstormed what other topics you might choose to write about?  One of the reasons people find rewriting from scratch so scary is that they don't know what else to write about.  Having arrived at a topic they consider 'suitable', they immediately throw away every other idea they had.  This type of 'convergent' thinking is very unproductive when it comes to writing essays, or creative writing more generally.  Usually, what's needed are fresh new ideas -- even if they don't result in completely rewriting the essay, they can offer a new perspective on the essay you already have.

Written brainstorms should be one or two paragraphs long, and should focus exclusively on 'the story' -- what, who, where and a lot of why.  It's doubly important to write brainstorms when it's just you working on the essays alone, because it will force you to remember details you wouldn't have retained otherwise.

Use Your Readers Effectively

Whether they're professionals or friends, your readers play an important role in evaluating your essays.  They're the objective third parties you need to make the best decision.  That said, it is very possible to listen TOO closely to notes and get lost in the weeds.

The rule of thumb is this -- pay a lot of attention to the big picture of people's advice (How did the essay make them feel about you?  Did it inspire trust, confidence, affection?  Was it confusing or boring?) and take the little picture with a grain of salt.  You don't need to worry about whether 'that sentence makes you look weird'.  You need to worry about the overall impression the essay is making.  Consensus matters -- independent opinions are valuable (which is why, at Forster-Thomas, we have many layers of people read the essays!)

Another rule of thumb with readers -- the better they know you personally, the less useful they are.  They've already formed opinions about you -- when they read your essay, it's going to be with those opinions (and that knowledge) already in mind.

Have High Standards -- Good Isn't Good Enough

When it comes to a decision to rewrite an essay, often the final choice hinges on your personal taste and standards.  Too many people are willing to sign their name to 'just OK' essays, send them in and hope for the best.  

A better approach is to look at the process as a process.  You have a time limit, and a finish line, but there's no award for finishing first (although with certain schools, like Columbia Early Decision, there is an advantage to early submitters).  The prize goes to the strongest overall application.  So if you don't love your essay, and you still have time to try again, you should probably try again.  If worst comes to worst, you'll always have your old essay to fall back on.

Operating without a safety net is always intimidating, but in the end, your essays and your application will be better because of the extra effort you took.  Stay focused and don't give up on the process!  As they're fond of saying on The X-Files, the truth is out there ...