If you are feeling intimidated by the college application process, I highly suggest breaking up the application into sizeable sections. One section…
On a seemingly ordinary day, with no great fanfare, a new epoch in my adventures as a first-time admissions officer began: reading season.
Although I’ve only been reading applications for half a month, it’s safe to say I’ve spent most of my life in "reading season." I grew up with my nose in a book (literally, because I did most of my reading in a dark bedroom after my mom had issued her “final warning” to get to sleep). I read back then for all the reasons that anyone reads: to feel connected to characters, to imagine the expansive lives that existed outside of my small Nebraska town, and to learn big words that I would mispronounce for decades. I went on to major in English at Tufts, where I started reading in a search for meaning, placing texts into context, debating the significance of powerful passages.
And now I read your applications. Which is different than the other reading I’ve done, but also the same. Let me explain.
When I read a book, I’m interested in the story. Not just what happens, and to whom, but why—and what’s the greater meaning? The same is true when I open up a student’s application: I’m looking for the story of who you are. Parts of that will have to do with what has happened to you, but the most compelling pieces of your story will always be what you create for yourself: your unique ideas, your wild curiosities, your steadfast commitments.
When I’m reading books, I appreciate all different kinds of prose. Some authors’ voices sing across the page, some are straightforward and deeply thoughtful, others possess deadpan humor or loud, clamoring wit. Your voices also vary, but when they do their job, I step away from the application feeling like I’ve just had a conversation with you. Over the past couple of weeks, I have laughed aloud while reading; other times I’ve been lulled into a reverent silence; other times I just feel comfortable and warm because you sound like the kind of person I’d like to sit beside in a café.
But it doesn’t always happen that way. That realization struck pretty early on in reading season, and has been the most difficult thing to wrestle with. Sometimes I open up an application, and I can’t hear the protagonist at all. They talk about things they don’t really seem to care about. The resulting essay feels lifeless. Other times, they don’t take advantage of the space they're given. It seems like they were bored of their essays, or rushed. They write about the same thing in “Let Your Life Speak,” in supplement essay #3, and in the Common App personal essay. The resulting character is flat, one-dimensional.
That’s a horrible feeling, on my end: the feeling of not knowing you. And that’s where reading applications becomes very different from reading a work of fiction. Everything you write is real; the outcome is real, too. I know that the decision my colleagues and I make together will matter to you. That’s a huge responsibility.
I’m honored to be reading your stories. In so many ways, it’s the coolest reading I’ve ever done. But all I can do is read; I’m the passive one in this deal. The actual crafting of the story—that’s up to you.
I know you're under an impossible amount of pressure these days, whether you're a senior in the thick of application season or a junior who's thinking ahead. But please remember that your voice is your power, and it really matters. For the next several months we'll have our noses pressed up against our laptops (see the "candid" photo above) in an effort to feel connected to you, to imagine the expansive lives that exist outside of our office, and to picture the kind of class they'd make together. Who needs The New York Times Best Seller List when you have that?
Click here to read the first post in this series.