Monday, September 18, 2017

An Example of UChicago's Uncommon Admissions Essay

The following is a successful example of the University of Chicago's famous supplemental essay (the "uncommon application," as it used to be called) that gained me admission to the University of Chicago in 2010, for the College Class of 2015. Years have since passed, but the essay still expresses the intellectual experience I hoped for, and found, at UChicago. I went on to graduate in 2015 with high honors in Fundamentals: Issues & Texts, Jewish Studies, and a minor in Philosophy. I then earned my MA in Philosophy at KU Leuven, in Belgium, before beginning my Ph.D. in intellectual history at Princeton. I hope you find the essay encouraging and helpful.

Essay Option 6: In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

My Prompt: Draw upon the work of a favorite author to illustrate how something you’ve read has been realized in an influential life experience. (I opted for this over the admittedly enticing "find x.")

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

— Proverb, Book of Bokonon, Cat’s Cradle (p. 81)
(Anthropology thesis of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. University of Chicago AM’71)

I am a Bokononist, fantastical and delusional, or at least I once was. Bokononism is a fictional religion forging the framework of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, one of my favorites. Centered on the axiom that all faith is an illusion, Bokononism upholds the use of foma, or apparently harmless untruths, to ease the minds of its followers. It concedes the impossibility of fulfillment in life without some sort of faith–some sort of delusion. Ultimately, Bokononism is an intellectual, reflective ideology which graces humans’ animal limitations with our spiritual attempts to mask them.

I have lived most of my life thus far under the Bokononistic foma that I know something. As far back as I can remember, everyone has always said how swimmingly I am doing, how much I know. I even got through my summer college experience at Northwestern deluding myself with the notion that I had achieved some meaningful level of understanding about the world. The problem with this, as Vonnegut cynically suggests, is that our purpose is merely to fulfill our own expectations. Understanding is a self-fulfilling prophecy that conforms to our own vantages, a magical fish tank that stretches and shrinks to fit the figurative volume of our minds to match our own imaginations from the petty to the philosophical. It expands so that we remain necessarily small relative to the tank, lest we ever outgrow it and truly be content big fish.

For better or worse, the facade of understanding that previously contented me came crashing down at Harvard Summer School, theatrically crashing a hole in the side of the figurative fish tank that was my complacent mind. Harvard was my vin-dit, or sudden push in the direction of finding myself, and I saroon-ed or gave into that push. While both my summer programs at Northwestern and Harvard were conceptually similar, with high school students enrolled in regular classes at the university, Northwestern felt little-league in retrospect. Week upon week of the program, I found myself mindlessly following a group of other students who did not value intellectual exploration. Though I loved my classes and made lifelong friends, I walked away from the experience smiling from a whirlwind of social activity, not remembering whether I had learned much about myself or truly achieved “college level independence” as promised.

The Book of Bokonon illustrates the human tendency to claim to have seen what is on the other side of the hazy tank wall by pretending to understand the nuances of life, just as I did at Northwestern. Taking the metaphor more literally, if humans believing that they understand the world is just another animal instinct, then enlightenment is little more than a pit-stop between insoluble questions, a necessary but ultimately meaningless way of taking a sanity break. Such people are all around us; they are my wrang-wrangs. A wrang-wrang is a person who serves as a wake up call to others by showing what happens when a line of thinking is carried to its logical conclusion, in this case those who are intellectually content to understand at face value. I can’t blame them, for we can’t see through to the other side of our tank until we have thoroughly questioned where we already are, and even then we can only see through to a fraction of the gems on the other side. In hindsight, I was surrounded by them at Northwestern–people who didn’t see the value in sheer learning, who simply weren’t curious about life.

Unlike Northwestern CPP, Harvard Summer School was structured around independence and intellectual maturity. Unlike most, I was ready to take it on by myself, and to learn what it meant to make ones own choices, both academically and socially. Though I was at first fish out of water in such an intense and demanding environment, I circumstantially evolved in my understanding and became adept at terrestrial movement, developing a way of breathing in the ether outside my formerly sheltered waters. I went from being challenged by my environment to challenging it. I met a handful of people who have truly changed my life during that summer as I was thrown into a maelstrom of intellectualism. There, I played in an outstanding orchestra, explored New England, and spent countless hours pursuing dozens of different subject areas in the depths of Widener Memorial Library stacks until closing–and I had fun doing it.

The tigers in the poem have it easy. Perhaps there is always larger game to catch, but their satiation point remains the same, limiting how far they will go out for prey, for how long they will hunt. Likewise, humans compete over incomes, spouses, and signs of validation but we never achieve anything as fulfilling as the tiger’s meal due to the laws of both material and intellectual increasing expectations that come with success. We never land or catch our pray and sleep because we were made, as Vonnegut suggests, to question our surroundings–our meals and our flights–until we are through. This intellectual jousting becomes a figurative battle that will never end. Yet, we should not disappoint, for we were meant to embark on winding quests circling and circling our tanks until the right questions are asked and the tank expands to reveal even more probing uncertainties. Harvard led me on those winding quests, quite often literally through the ten floors of Widener library, and socially through the flurry of events I attended without knowing anyone, always ending up with a new favorite book or friend.

I now consider myself an academic in that no amount of learning ever brings me back to that blindly contented stage, though I love the pursuit more than ever before. Every speck of information I hear on NPR or on some tangent in class meets another frayed wire and sparks to some former time, life experience, person, classroom, ad infinitum– never quite “landing” as the bird could. A right answer in class is met with magnetism for the ten answers I don’t know. Ways of constructing thoughts differently, emphasis on the seemingly semantic have woven me into an intellectual knot that would appear to be devouring itself. Nevertheless, I have found myself through experiential study as Bokononists find themselves through boko-maru, the intimate act of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of two persons’ feet.

The seemingly nonsensical Cat’s Cradle is at its core an anthropological masterpiece. It addresses primordial questions of human purpose, the innermost limits of human perception, and the decisive value of our attempts to make meaning in the world. It asks those integral questions about why we seek answers, experiment, and ultimately learn, all in the context of our biological existence as animals. Simply put, my quest is to understand more about human kind: our origins and cultures via anthropology, our recording of that existence via history, and our cultural representations of those ideas via literature. Yet, intellectual satiation is possible only under the foma of understanding. Where or when we stop questioning, only time will tell. Thus far, I’ve got a long way to go: the human story is a long one, and it’s still being written.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

An Uncommon College Experience

Recent post comments have asked me to post about my experience as a first-year at the University of Chicago. Having completed my first quarter, I think I’m finally prepared to share that. I’m now stocked with my own photos of campus and personal exposure to the university that just months ago existed to me mostly on paper.

To give you a general outline of my life at UChicago, I’m a first-year living in Dodd-Mead House in Burton-Judson Courts. I’m currently taking required Humanities and Social Science Core sequences, as well as Latin and humanities electives. Outside of the classroom, I’m in several reading groups and academic clubs, a writer for The Chicago Maroon and College website, and an after-school philosophy coach for neighborhood students through the Civic Knowledge Project.

After visiting campus many times my senior year for various campus events, my residential experience here officially began in late September with Orientation Week, known here as “O-week.” First-year students move into their houses one week before classes begin and have a chance to get to know their fellow classmates and the University more broadly. It’s an unusually social time for students here, many of whom don’t typically come out of their shells or have “family time” with their housemates. With O-week began my praise of the (Harry-Potter-style) House system, which provides a great group of friends with which to attend campus events, explore Chicago, and generally relax with outside of class.

Student life at UChicago is constantly buzzing with various activities, both on and off campus. These are the perfect compliment to academic life. In just this past week, I’ve attended two career events; four club meetings; three public lectures on topics ranging from economics to religion; attended a school-sponsored Lascivious Ball (I’ll let the name speak for itself); and taken advantage of Chicago by exploring Chinatown with my house and seeing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Art Institute of Chicago. I also have to plug queer life here, which is very well established on campus and, like everything at UChicago, has a definite intellectual slant that refreshingly defies many queer stereotypes. Generally, student life here has a lot to offer if one is proactive and takes advantage of it. It’s often tough to balance everything, but I love penciling exciting new events into my calendar each week.

Though extra-curricular life has certainly been eye-opening, the deeper transformation occurred in my classes this past quarter, which were unlike any I had taken before. The Humanities and Social Science Core have truly changed the way I think and write after just one quarter. Both of these sequences examine great books without the “slant” with which traditional classes approach a work. As a quote engraved in Harper Memorial Library summarizes the College's Great Books approach: “Read not to believe or contradict, but to weigh and consider.”

The closest thing to the Core I have taken before are two Freshman Seminars at Harvard, which it turns out have little in common with my current classes. Freshman Seminars at Harvard (and most other colleges, from my understanding) approached a specific topic with a faculty expert and focused almost exclusively on the course material. Core classes are nearly the opposite; the texts we read are springboards into more universal topics. Discussions regularly descend into fundamental philosophical debates to the likes of Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s The School of Athens.

In accordance with the Socratic method, Core class discussions aren’t guided to a specific destination, but that doesn’t make them flimsy. Comments are expected to be relevant, insightful, and almost always to reference a specific passage in the text. This classroom method of claims, evidence, warrants, and counter-claims is meant to work hand-in-hand with the expectations for academic writing at Chicago, which are emphasized from the very beginning in an additional peer writing seminar which students must pass as part of their Humanities Core. The seminars themselves get mixed reviews from students, but the general theme is central to the College’s academic mission: critical inquiry and precise means of argument are the backbone to any liberal arts education. Professor Wendy Doniger described that philosophy most aptly in an anecdote she read for Convocation one year:
Once when I returned to Hyde Park after a long trip abroad, I dashed off to the Co- op, of blessed memory, to restock the larder. As I waited to check out, I overheard the conversation of two undergraduates standing in line in front of me. “No,” said one to the other, “but that’s not what Aristotle meant by that.” “Ah,” I thought with a happy sigh, “I’m home.” It was not merely the subject of their debate—Aristotle, the poster boy of the Common Core—that identified them as my people, but the style in which they were debating, the contentiousness of their discourse. That intellectual style is one of the things for which the University of Chicago is justly famous, our cultivation of the hawk eye that pounces on the unexamined assumption, the false logical link, the shoddy piece of evidence. And we are right to be proud of that training.
Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, June 2008 Convocation Speech entitled “Thinking More Critically About Thinking Too Critically”

In writing this post, I re-read my review of UChicago from my first visit in 2009. My understanding of the University has changed greatly since then, to say the least. For one, I was then a believer in the self-deprecating slogan, “The University of Chicago: Where fun comes to die.” I saw Chicago then as extremely niche and a college experience defined by the sacrifice of social life and non-academic activities. (Never mind that my house currently sells mugs bearing a picture of Cobb gate with the inscription "Abandon all hope... Ye who enter here," playing on the O-week photo above.) Though these characterizations aren’t "wrong," they’re fundamentally misguided in that they attempt to squeeze Chicago into a narrow box. On the contrary, Chicago’s best attribute is its resistance to such oversimplifications via its emphasis on free speech and its diverse modes of inquiry. A perfect example of this is the "Aims of Education" speech delivered to my Class of 2015 during O-week. The speech was from a statistician who presented real-world data in the form of charts and graphs with little interpretation, thus deliberately leaving it up to us to determine how it related to education in our small discussion groups following the talk.

A summer job application recently asked me to share “what I considered my greatest achievement and why.” I thought really seriously about this question for days. In the end, I felt that listing an accomplishment or award from high school would really just be resting on my laurels, which is something I try to avoid on principle. It occurred to me then that my greatest accomplishment in life thus far is that I ultimately chose the University of Chicago for my college experience. I have never been more proud of a decision in my life. Having visited over twenty top colleges, many of which provide a significantly "happier" college experience, I've had my share of reservations and doubts. (To the like of Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, be warned that the more colleges you visit, the more objects you will have for comparison. You thus run the risk of being less satisfied with the one you finally choose!) Yet, my doubts have fully dissipated, and, as it turned out, I knew what I wanted from the very beginning, when I first visited UChicago in summer 2009.

I chose the most challenging institution I came across from the over two-dozen that I visited. The one that–from day one–fanned my sense of curiosity, made me question and defend my ideas, and promised no “easy way out.” The University of Chicago's motto–Crescat scientia; vita excolatur, or Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched–means more to me than ever before. Being a part of what has been called "The Great American University" has taken my life, not just my education, that much closer to where I want it to be. As my professors and peers here have shown me in equal part, that symbiotic journey of intellectual and personal discovery, however grueling, is one worth embarking on.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Reviewed: How to Win at College

In my off-time this summer, I've put a lot of thought into what I want out of college. There are a lot of typically expected things, sure: to find my academic passion, to make friends for life, to be exposed to a diverse population and, of course, to become smarter. How does one manage such daunting objectives in the midst of the excitement and pressure of freshman year? Plan ahead, stay focused, and process your life in small, manageable steps.

So says Cal Newport in his now widely accepted book How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country's Top Students. I have long been a follower of Newport's blog, Study Hacks, on which Newport, via interviews with and studies of a diverse group of successful individuals, attempts to "decode success" into concise patterns. How to Win at College covers much the same territory and proves to be, unlike so much other speculation on the topic, truly useful. Advice in the book is taken from hundreds of successful students at a wide variety of schools all over the country (from Harvard to the University of Arizona). Additionally, Newport knows a thing or two about college success himself. At the time of the book's writing, he was a computer science PhD student at MIT after graduating from Dartmouth Phi Beta Kappa (roughly top 10% of the class). As an incoming first-year at a school notorious for a heavy-to-unmanageable workload, I decided that this book had to make my summer reading list.

At first glance, many of this book's "secrets" sound like common sense. Start your work well in advance, don't rest on your laurels, think positive, and don't stress, right? The problem is, most of us don't do these things unless we're trained to. We assume that top students never leave the library and have horribly stressful lives. We assume that Rhodes Scholars had no social presence in college and that we could never aspire to an achievement that impossible. Worst of all, we assume that studying harder is the key to success. Newport dispels these misconceptions by clarifying that studying better is what we're really after, and that merely working harder at anything is a one-way ticket to a stressful, friendless, all-nighter-fueled college experience. On the contrary, top students are the ones who are not stressed because they have the best study habits and constantly feel in control of their own lives. The effect of this control is to boost students' ambitions. Rather than struggling to merely "get by" in their classes, these students now have time to work internships, do freelance writing, and get research published in their free time.

The book is organized into 75 useful rules for self-discipline and building ambition. Newport starts with an intentionally jaw-dropping
Don't do all of your reading (tip number 1)
that I can only see as a tool for selling books on controversy. Yet, this claim has a purpose that's central to Newport's methodology: do what you can in the limited amount of time, and you'll maximize your outcomes. Rather than staring blankly at your biology textbook, from which you are expected to read 40 pages by tomorrow, skim the text and take down the main points in half the time. During tomorrow's lecture, fill-in the missing notes during class.

In the category of de-stressing the college experience, Newport advocates forming a system of personal accountability that precludes procrastination. Students should start long-term projects the day they are assigned and break them into useful pieces, so that one always feels productive. Set daily goals for chipping away at long-term assignments and "record your efforts in a work-progress journal" (52), thus keeping yourself accountable. This feeds into another useful strategy of "setting arbitrary deadlines" (58) to keep yourself on track. Little steps like using a filing cabinet (68) and "emptying your in-box at the end of each day" (71) help keep your life in order and generally minimize the stress of disorganization. Tips like "not taking breaks from work between classes" (65) and "doing schoolwork every day of the week" (34) maintain one's academic momentum.

Yet, as intense and study-centric as the book's title may seem, How to Win at College also centers on having a rewarding life experience in college, suggesting that students
"Make friends your #1 priority" (tip number 44)
Additional tips include "seeking out fun" (53), "laughing every day" (50), and "staying in touch with friends" from home (37). Newport illustrates a social life that is rewarding and rich without wasting precious time. Far from the "work hard, play hard" system of raging on the weekends and cramming every weeknight, Newport's system is designed to give you the best of both worlds without sacrifice one's sanity. Academic and social lives no longer have to compete on the spectrum of lazy to stressed. Keeping your academic goals in center-view actually makes time for your social life without generating stress. There's a sort of mutual respect between these equally important components of life that I will surely take to heart once my classes start.

All of that's fine, but it only shows the reader the tools to being successful, not getting quite to the root of what got successful people where they are. By far the most overarching component of Cal Newport's philosophy is his insistence on challenge: setting ambitious goals, and always having a plan to achieve them. Some tips that stood out on this turf are to "always be working on a grand project" (16), to "seek out phenomenal achievers" (47), and to "do one thing better than anyone you know" (11). These are the steps that make up the difference between truly successful, groundbreaking individuals and what Newport dubs "grinds": people who work and work but lack that interesting spark. Ultimately, a burning ambition is what separates those who do phenomenal things in college from those who just get by. If your highest dream is to win a Pulitzer, take the steps to get there and don't settle for being average. Constant goal setting and the achievements that follow will only boost you onto loftier ambitions and destinations to come. Maybe winning at college is less about working hard and more about dreaming hard than you ever imagined.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

College Summer Programs for High School Students

As my own college-search winds down, I wanted to share one of the most important experiences outside of high school that got me to where I am today: college summer programs. I hope that sharing my own experiences with these programs will open some new doors for students in the college search. Ultimately, summer programs are an excellent opportunity for students to develop their academic resumes, prepare for the social environment of college, and get a grasp of what sort of college they might like to attend. (I apologize in advance: I'm a sucker for dreamy college view-book photos of library steps, outdoor classes et al.).

Throughout middle school, I attended two week professional conferences in business and law, which essentially proved to be little more than takes on the typical summer camp. Though these give students a decent sense of what certain career paths might offer thems, these programs are still run like summer camps, and students aren't given the academic or social freedom that will prepare them for college. For the summer after my sophomore year, I decided to look into more demanding programs by searching on the internet. Of the few programs I came across that actually offered college credit, Northwestern's College Preparation Program (CPP) program and the University of Chicago Summer Session sounded the most interesting, and I decided to apply. These schools were also close enough to home that I even considered commuting (but decided to live on campus for the full experience, more on this later). The application consisted of a short essay using the Common Application prompts and a preliminary course selection. This got me thinking about what to study, and I had a lot of difficulty making my final choices.

Though I was initially fixated on a dual-credit economics course, I realized that I could just take this course at my high school for free, and I decided to branch out to courses that would be unique opportunities, ultimately choosing "fundamentals of anthropology" and "global history: 1914-1991." This was one of the best decisions I have made, as these courses broadened my horizons dramatically from previously being set on economics and business. The following summer, I went for a very similar program: Harvard Summer School, in which I enrolled in two freshman seminars: "the Holocaust in history, literature, and film" at the divinity school, and "utopia and anti-utopia" in the English department.

Though Northwestern was a great opportunity and the courses were academically stimulating, the sheer quality of teaching between Harvard and Northwestern was leagues apart. My courses were the same size at each institution, both extremely small (ranging from 5-12), but the format of the classrooms was entirely different. Even though my anthropology class at Northwestern had only 7 students, it was still taught as a lecture by PowerPoint, and discussion was not facilitated. I realized after the program that next time, rather than focusing solely on the content of courses, I had to find courses with the the classroom format I really wanted: small, discussion-based seminars. Harvard provided just that though freshman seminars, which are designed to give incoming students experience in college level courses and are required of all Harvard College freshman. The classroom experience was second to none, with top scholars enthusiastically “re-learning” the material with the class and often taking time to meet with us outside of class.

Switching gears, I also wanted to discuss the residential and social components of the summer programs I’ve done. The courses really aren’t everything, though the programs are pitched as such. The real magic is the coupling of fantastic academic opportunities with a residential program that allows a student to relax and do that amount of work on his or her own schedule (thus my problem with commuting). At Northwestern, I found myself fairly distracted socially and didn’t quite get the same in depth experience I got at Harvard, where I was much more focused. I think this is due to Northwestern having a very active camp-like program feel, with a check-in meeting every night and an enforced curfew.

Harvard, on the other hand, offered me complete independence, which, though at first overwhelming, really pushed me to branch out socially and figure out my work/life balance (just as one does in college). Where Northwestern’s program added a certain social pressure to get out and enjoy the summer, Harvard allowed me the freedom to invest in my courses (for those of you who are curious, that’s 21 books in 7 weeks and a 23 page final research paper) while also living the social life I wanted. A weekday consisted of about 8 hours of reading (my only homework, given the nature of my courses), three hours of class, and still always some time in the afternoon to sit outside and read or meet someone for FroYo in Cambridge. At Harvard (as at Northwestern), I also participated in the summer school orchestra, which was an amazing experience in and of itself. The summer school program at Harvard also provided great outside opportunities, from weekly house cookouts, to outings all over New England, to a college fair, to dances, to our own "iron chef" competition.

What Harvard taught me (among other things):
1. What it means to really love learning
2. To find a social-academic balance that worked for me (without external pressures at work)
3. The wonders of a self-imposed (midnight) bedtime on weeknights
4. To build spontaneity into my life while maintaining long term priorities
5. The bigger the library, the better

And I’m going back for more. Why not (financial aid providing*)? I’ve decided to enroll in Yale University’s summer session to study philosophy in the courses “happiness” and “free will, good, and evil.” Living in a residential college should also give me a glimpse of what housing will be like at UChicago next fall, though I‘m admittedly most excited for the once-in-a-lifetime courses that should help me decide if I want to attend divinity school after college.

The best database of summer programs is linked here, complete with student reviews, to help you search for the program right for you. As you will see, almost all highly selective universities (especially the Ivies) offer summer programs open to high school students. I've applied to a good number of programs, so (as always) feel free to message me with any questions!

*A note about cost: these summer programs are prohibitively expensive, just like real college, and I get that. My take on this is that, financial aid, even if just a minor discount, can make the program of a lifetime a real possibility, and it did for me. Keep in mind when you see the tuition costs that  you are paying for actual credit from these institutions, and that credit may transfer to (or at least offer placement at) the college you end up attending.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Choice Has Been Made

After years of visiting dozens of colleges, sitting through far too many standardized tests, worrying about report cards, spending countless nights exploring reviews on in the wee hours of the morning, and boring my friends and family with long-winded rants about which college may be right for me, I have finally chosen a college. After a great deal of deliberation over my winter break, I sent my deposit to the University of Chicago on December 31st, just in time to have an anxiety-free 2011 with no more waiting.

As an accepted student in (likely) the most competitive class year to date, I am feeding what one education blog calls Chicago's "institutional ego" to become more on par with schools like Harvard or Stanford as far as prestige is concerned. Following up from my most recent post on application inflation, Chicago is the school most in the spotlight right now because it is moving up the prestige ranks (ironically determined by rejection rate) at an alarming pace. To put the school's growing competitiveness in perspective, a Chicago Maroon article detailing last year's admission season noted the fact that in 1993, the year of my birth, Chicago's acceptance rate was 77%. That means that during my short lifetime, this institution has become more than four times more selective. Harvard, by comparison has become roughly twice as selective in this same time period.

Is this the reason I chose Chicago? No. But this news is strongly correlated with what did draw me to the school as perhaps its greatest resource: a brilliant, engaging undergraduate population that I know will challenge me to become all that I can be.

The question then arises: how did I know that I would fit in with Chicagoans? A few reasons:

1. They accepted me. As strange as it may sound, I have long been prepared for rejection from this unique intellectual community. If I wasn't meant to be part of it, I would not have received an offer of acceptance, and I would have found my place elsewhere. The institution wanting me made me want it.

2. I had a fantastic time on my overnight visit. I discovered that life at Chicago had the social-academic balance I wanted in my college experience. This was made clearest by the house system (like that in Harry Potter) enhancing the academic experience I got from classroom visits.

3. The Facebook group for class of 2015 admitted students has been an extremely compelling advocate for my choice. I have, in two short weeks of this community existing, met several people I would consider true friends. Discussion questions on the forum such as "what is your favorite fruit?" turned quickly from taste to world history to literary devices and ended in foreign languages. I love the intellectual energy so apparent in what would be my future classmates. (Interestingly, it has also been noted that as the entering class becomes more selective from year to year, the Facebook group discussions have become more lively.)

4. Compared to the small liberal arts colleges I have been considering alongside Chicago, notably Swarthmore, I felt that Chicago could encompass the small school feel if I wanted it via the house system breaking up the undergraduate population into small families of around 40-100 students. Meanwhile, Chicago's unique position as a research institution (8th in the world) coupled with the "best undergraduate academic experience" in the nation (Princeton Review, 2007) provides me with the community feeling I want with room built in for the spontaneity that defines the college experience.

5. I just felt that it was right for me, and that I wouldn't regret the choice. It's obviously not a perfect institution, but it was one where I felt that I could work around the schools weaknesses.

Thank you for all of your support along my personal journey towards both finding the college right for me and being admitted to it. I can't tell you how many complimentary emails and comments from bloggers have made my day. On the sculpture picture below (Cobb gate), I have made it passed the admissions committee (the dragon gargoyle at the base) and am officially a puny first year, bound to metaphorically struggle up the slope until I have completed my fourth year, at which time I will apparently sprout wings and proudly fly out into the real world.

But it's not time for goodbye, and my work here isn't over yet. In the coming months, I plan on exploring and perfecting my own study habits in preparation for my college experience, inspired by what productivity genius Cal Newport has done on his own blog, Study Hacks.

Now, please excuse me while I dump out three file cabinets of college view-books and donate my Princeton Review books to the next generation of college searching students.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Application Inflation: When Is Enough Enough?

Congratulations to me! I pressed submit on my Early Action applications to the University of Chicago and Boston College, and now I'm back to blogging after weeks of essay revisions consuming my free time.

Allen Grove at recently posted about the volume of applications students are sending in To How Many Colleges Should I Apply?, and it got me thinking about how I'm contributing to the admissions fad "more is better" in terms of application numbers.

To quote Grove, "NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, recently published their report on the "State of College Admission 2010." The study showed that in 2009, 75% of students submitted three or more applications; 23% submitted seven or more applications. Those numbers have been creeping up over the past couple of decades as the number of college-bound students has increased and online applications have made applying easier."

I am one of those 23% of applicants referenced as applying to more than seven colleges, so I feel some obligation to explain that to the adults and peers who constantly ask me "why so many?" The basic reason for me is that the colleges I'm interested in all happen to be highly selective. No matter how qualified you are, if one in four applicants are admitted at your "target schools," there's room for doubt of admission, and so my list has grown slightly out of precaution.

A fantastic article  titled Application Inflation: When is Enough Enough? was just released today by Eric Hoover, a writer for The Chronicle, the leading publication on higher education, in conjunction with the New York Times. Beginning with the question of why the number of applications institutions receive seems to be edging higher each year, Hoover looks into a few powerful examples of college marketing campaigns and their effects on drastically increased application numbers.

The first example on the table is the University of Chicago, which experienced an unbelievable 43% increase in applications last year. This change is attributed to multiple factors, namely the introduction of Jim Nondorf (formerly at Yale and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) as Dean of Admissions for the College, the school's adoption of the Common Application over their formerly "uncommon" application, and the extensive use of a marketing firm to attract more students to campus.

Students and alumni from Chicago have complained that the marketing campaign has transformed Chicago from an interesting place that drew in niche students into a more generic imitation of what a college should be, all in the name of drawing in more applicants. While Chicago used to pride in its eccentricity and deviation from the admissions norm, it now seems to be chasing averages.

So why are colleges embarking on multi-million dollar spending sprees to lure in more applicants, many paying the college board 32 cents per name, only to reject an overwhelming majority of those who apply? Many colleges claim that an increasing volume is a must in today's competitive market as an indication of institutional growth, and that increasing selectivity boosts everything from the college's credit score to alumni giving to their U.S. News Ranking, if only insignificantly.

The benefits  of bringing in more applications are dubious at best. There are many downsides to increasing application volumes as well, taken most seriously Georgetown, a school which has chosen to keep off the Common Application to keep its applicants down to those most dedicated to attending the school. It additionally wishes to provide an interview to each applicant, which it wouldn't be able to do if the college switched to the Common Application and application volume shot up double digits each year.

As Hoover's article illustrates, the debate for quantity over quantity isn't limited to paper; it affects the students who are ultimately hurt by these admissions tactics. He recounts the story of a minority applicant who was urged to apply by Harvard:
A Harvard representative contacted Sally Nuamah her junior year of high school in Chicago. Ms. Nuamah had good grades but an ACT score she describes as low. Her parents, who came from Ghana, had little money. As she welcomed the admissions rep into her living room one day, she was nervous. “I was like, ‘Oh, goodness, I don’t want to disappoint anyone,’ ” she says.
Ensuing conversations brought mixed emotions. “I felt that I was pushed and given motivation,” she says, “but on the other hand, I wondered if what they were telling me was feasible.” She knew her scores were below the average for Harvard students. Nonetheless, she applied. Months later, a rejection letter came.
Ultimately, it is a sad reality that a majority of these added applications each year are from under-qualified applicants who have no chance of being admitted, only of feeding the admissions frenzy of annually increasing volumes of applications and associated costs. However, as a current applicant myself, I see no alternative but to feed the fire until I receive some acceptance letters a few months down the road.