College Application Advice for the Control-F Generation

One of my former students, a member of the Control-F generation, wrote me last week asking advice about applying to college. He's the sort of kid many would regard as being a great "whole package" applicant: smart, good test scores, committed to service, a multiple-sport athlete, high regard by teachers, good sense of humor, and an all-around nice guy. In my limited experience with high school students, he stands out as one of the better I've encountered and I'm sure he'll have no trouble gaining entry to the college that is right for him.

He headed his note "Advice" and began with, "Dear Abba." I don't know if he intended the allusion to the Dear Abby advice columns, but it did make me laugh. Since his question did arise from a genuine concern, especially one that affects many families this year, I thought I'd offer my thoughts on two things: (1) the teacher letter of recommendation and (2) the student's own personal statement.

Teacher's Letter of Recommendation

I wrote over twenty letters of recommendation this Fall for students. It takes me about 30-40 minutes to compose each letter, because each one begins from scratch. That is, I don't have an extant template that I follow and plug in the student name where needed (Believe me, I've seen this done). I do, however, have a formula I follow for each letter. Bear in mind, I do not extend to more than a single page and each paragraph is rather short, running at most to 5 sentences, usually being only 3-4:


  1. Introduction of Applicant - I try to seize upon a personal detail that stands out to my mind. Sometimes, this can be jarring: "X is a loser" and then I talk about how the student lost an election or lost weight;  or, "For the first two months of the semester, whenever Y raised his hand, a cold feeling of dread washed over my body,"  and talk about how the student's incisive mind always kept me on my toes. One letter began with, "Z has the perfect smile," and I went on to discuss how his teeth, which were noticeably off center, perfectly matched his personality. 
  2. Applicant's Strengths - My second paragraph attempts to draw a composite picture of the student's strengths. His ability as a writer, analytical abilities, clarity in expression, enthusiasm for learning, and those qualities he will bring to a college campus. I think of this as laying out the amenities of a car: I'm not giving an evaluation, per se, but trying to show what the kid has going for him.
  3. Applicant's Need for Growth - Listen, contrary to the belief of many parents, not every kid is perfect. My third - and to my mind, most crucial - sets out the areas that I consider necessary for the student's growth. My operative question is this, "How does this student need to be formed over the next few years?" My goal here is to let the reader know (1) that I know both this kid's strengths and weaknesses and (2) that the college has the opportunity to contribute to this formation. Every student has room to grow and I see it as my role as a teacher to indicate those areas, sharing my viewpoint with the admissions committee. 
  4. Synthesis and Conclusion - I now draw points (2) and (3) together and give my holistic recommendation. I've told some schools how much more their campus life will be enriched by a student's presence and how much influence they'll be able to exercise over the continued formation of his character as a force for good in the world. Sometimes I've asked schools to take a chance on the student. I've given enthusiastic support and tepid approval; some I've recommended without reservation and others I give cautious approval. Overall, I attempt to be totally honest with the committee: if I've represented the student accurately, I trust that they'll see my efforts at transparency and will trust that I'm being truthful. 
As I said, this letter is one single page and I do my best to keep my paragraphs relatively short. If the student has a diminutive form of his name "Timmy" or "Danny" I generally resist using it in (1) - (3) but will mention it in (4). Ultimately, I see my role as helping the student's case before the committee and the committee in selecting an incoming class that will be able to make best use of the school's resources. 

The Student's Personal Statement

This will not be surprising, but I see the Student's Personal Statement in a manner similar to the Teacher's Letter: it needs to show some degree of self-awareness. That is to say, my understanding of the personal statement is to demonstrate (1) you know yourself, and (2) that you have a sense of how you're going to benefit from college

A friend recently told me that she has friends who have spent $3000 - $4000 helping their children's college application process, money spent between test preparation, writing coaches, and then spending money so that students can have spectacular experiences to serve as fodder for essays. I never had that sort of money to spend, so let me offer some free words of advice: 
  1. You Are Your Experiences - I'm not convinced that a high schooler needs to have lived in a kibbutz or have cured cancer to be a viable college applicant. Most students don't have these experiences. Each applicant is unique and while some experiences - a summer job, taking care of siblings, losing weight, struggling to make a team - might not seem to be overly sexy, they are still the applicant's experiences and they have contributed to the young man or woman who is applying. To be sure, there are some extraordinary experiences. Yet I should think it more remarkable for a student to show how an 'ordinary' experience, upon reflection, has exercised 'extraordinary' influence on one's life. 
  2. Gain Self-Knowledge - This flows from (1). Students today are often reduced to a what: a test score, a GPA or class ranking, a position in the starting line-up. Each student needs to claim his voice in order to speak in his own voice rather than relying on numbers and rankings to speak on his behalf. Before the student begins to write, a list should be drawn up of all those experiences that have made him the young man he is today (or  her the young woman). In looking at the outline, is there some theme or pattern that emerges? What does this trope indicate? 
  3. The College is Older than You - I saw a statement of a friend's daughter which, no joke, basically said that the university could not possibly survive without her. She was a 4.0+ student, took 8 AP courses, had a 35 on her ACT, played three sports, baked brownies from scratch, and was going to save the world as a piano-playing surgeon. Or something like that. I suspect statements like this are pretty common. One needs to remember that these colleges have been around for a lot longer than you've been alive and, quite probably, will outlast you as well. It's seldom that an 18-year old freshman has changed the course of a university in the first year, so some degree of humility is necessary. I mean, think about it: if you're perfect, why would a college want you? What role do they have in playing in educating someone who is obviously superior to every other candidate?
  4. Write in Light of the Purpose of College - Here's my main point: college is not a box to be checked-off but, rather, an experience of ongoing formation where the skills you have uncovered and developed in high school will be stretched further. College is, ideally, a place where a student's mind and character are given further formation. This doesn't always happen, of course, but I think it's the goal of a good college. Can you show, in your statement, that you're a person who is unafraid of embracing new challenges, that you have enough self-awareness to know both what you're willing to offer a college community and to know how you wish to grow in the future? Consider this as inviting the committee to help you in your life's journey, to give them a chance to contribute to your human formation. 
  5. Three Coordinating Questions - I would suggest three coordinating questions to help a student frame a letter. One needn't answer the questions so much as reflect on them as grist for the writing process: (1) Who am I? (2) How did I become who I am? (3) Who do I want to become in the future? If those are topic headings, they may help to give clarity to the story, or statement, the student will share with the admission committee. 
  6. Be Yourself - Just as the Teacher's Letter aims to give a good composite, so too should the student's letter. You don't need to be perfect, you need to be you. It's okay that you're not always perfect, or that you've struggled, or that you've failed: it makes you human. I know I've learned more from failing than from having lessons come easily. Often, I've failed in life when I've not been true to myself, an often painful reminder that when I am myself, I am the person God is calling me to be. If I college doesn't want the authentic student, then it's not the place for the student. Put your best - meaning your real - self forward and trust that the right school for you will see in you the promise of the type of student they want to cultivate. 
These are simply my thoughts. Of course, not every student needs to worry about this process: this advice is primarily intended for students applying to the more selective schools. In particular, I have in mind the sold all-around student who works hard, is involved in various programs (Boy Scouts, Music, Art, Sports, Service), has good grades, and is possessed of a desire to be an agent of change in the world. 

Ultimately, this is just common-sense advice, offered for free. If it's helpful: great! If not, ignore everything and do whatever is best for you or your student. I have limited experience but, after years of reading about the process and helping many students through it, it's my best effort to give a way of thinking-through two of the more daunting tasks associated with applying to college. 


2 comments

Popular posts from this blog

Literal or Literalist? Yes, Catholics DO take the Bible Literally!

The Liturgy is Useless, Not Pointless

A Jesuit's Guide to College