the college application monster

December 1, 2009

Well, hello.

You may be thinking that I haven’t written here because I got busy with Thanksgiving, but you would be wrong. I haven’t written because I was attacked by the college application monster.

This is the first time this has happened to me. Back in the day, twenty-seven or so years ago, I applied to precisely one college. It was a simple check-the-boxes sort of affair, devoid of essays or any such matter, to a public university that lay within driving distance of my home. Two years later I filled out one more application, a transfer one this time, which may or may not have required an essay–I don’t remember–to a different public university at the other end of the state. I waited for a response and then packed my bags. That was it.

It’s a new millennium and my, oh my, how things have changed. The college application process has morphed into a monster. If you aren’t already acquainted with this particular beast, allow me to introduce you.

H is applying to four colleges. These days, that’s an unreasonably low number, according to H’s high school counselor and most other kids at his school. But this kid knows what he wants, and it’s a very particular sort of film production program. There are two schools which offer programs that thrill him, one that comes in a distant third, and another that fills the role, in application parlance, of “safety school”.

Four applications. Sounds manageable, doesn’t it?

Don’t be silly. Shall we begin with the essays?

You may have heard of something called the Common Application, which allows students to fill out a single application which can then be forwarded to several schools. This year’s essay options for the Common Application are as follows (Choose one, 250 words minimum):

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you. 
  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.  
  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.  
  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence. 
  • A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you. 
  • Topic of your choice. 

If one essay sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Only two of the four schools H is applying to even use the Common Application. The other two schools have their own essay requirements. Which, of course, differ from each other. One school requires a response to one of these prompts (500-700 words):

  • Write an essay about an event or experience that helped you learn what is important to you and why it is important.
  • Tell us about a creative project, performance or other work of yours and how it reflects your vision or voice.
  • Reflect on a challenge you overcame through persistence.

The other school requires a response to each of the following essays (1,000 words for both essays combined):

  • Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
  • Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

And, lest you think that a single essay for those Common Application schools is all that’s required, let me tell you about the insufficiently named “school supplements”. These are extra applications for Common Application schools, unique to each school. Some of the “supplemental” questions H must answer are:

  • If you had the opportunity to spend one day in New York City with a famous New Yorker, who would it be and what would you do?
  • Write a haiku, limerick or short (eight lines or fewer) poem that best represents you.
  • In the year 2050, a movie is being made of your life. Please tell us the name of your movie and briefly summarize the story line.
  • Please tell us what led you to select your anticipated academic program and what interests you most about your intended discipline.
  • Please tell us three specific features of our university that interest you.

Oh, and let’s not forget the short responses for the non-Common Application schools:

  • Tell us about an activity that is important to you and why.
  • Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at our university.
  • Optional: Please provide any information that you believe is relevant to our consideration of you as an applicant, but not already discussed or explained in your application.

Then there are “quick-takes” which are one-line responses to silly questions like “favorite food”, “last book read” or “role model”. My kid loved these because he could fill in goofy answers just because the requests are so ridiculous and it’s fun to fill in those spaces with something temporary and completely inappropriate so your mother sitting beside you can freak out, panicking that the form will somehow submit itself with your “role model” response saying “Jack Black” or “Bob” or “You”.

Okay. That’s a lot of writing, but it seems manageable, no? Not so fast, my friend, we haven’t even begun with the film program requirements. One school requires this:

  • The personal statement will be read by the Film & Television Production Admission Committee as a measure of creativity, self-awareness and vision. There is no standard format or correct answer. We are looking for a sense of you as a unique individual and how your distinctive experiences, characteristics, background, values and/or views of the world have shaped who you are and what you want to say as a creative filmmaker. Be specific, vivid and focused. (1,000 words or less)
  • The Production Program is committed to providing students with a broad understanding of both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, in cinema, television and new media, and in the major creative roles of writing, producing, directing, cinematography, editing and sound. Given what you know now (and without committing yourself in any way) tell us which of the above aspects of filmmaking seems of particular interest to you and why. (200 words or less)
  • Writing Samples (choose one) 
  1. An outline for a four-minute film that contains no dialogue. It can be fiction or non-fiction. The story has to be communicated visually. (no more than two pages)
  2. A dialogue scene between two people. Provide a one-paragraph introduction describing the two characters in screenplay format. (no more than three pages)
  3. Describe a concept for a feature-length movie, fiction or documentary, which you would like to develop. (No more than two pages) 
  • Create a brief narrative video in which you had a major creative role. The video can be either live-action or animation, fiction or documentary, but it should reflect your aesthetic tastes and intellectual and emotional interests. (no more than five minutes)
  • Portfolio List: The portfolio list is a written record of the applicant’s creative materials. It should include a concise description of each project, the month and year the project was completed, the applicant’s creative role and the purpose of the project.

Another film program requires this:

  • A one-page resume that highlights creative work accomplished, activities and relevant employment.
  • A film or video/ live action, animation or documentary.  Your submission should reflect storytelling skills that convey conflict, character as well as a beginning, middle and end. 
  • Dramatic Essay  – Introduce yourself.  Describe an unforgettable event in your life and how it changed your perception of yourself or the view of someone close to you.  This event can be dramatic and/or comedic.  The assignment may be written as a short story in the first person or as an essay. (Up to four typed, double-spaced 8.5” x 11″ pages.)

And a third this:

  • Essay one: Describe your dream job. (One page maximum.)
  • Essay two: Create a self-introductory video no more than two minutes in length. Your video should visually highlight something about yourself, your personality, your interests, etc. that is not related to film. The only rule is you may NOT appear in the video in any way (including any photographs of yourself) so be creative. 
  • Creative resume: Provide a one-page resume highlighting 5-7 pieces of what you consider to be your best creative work. 

Did you see that little video requirement? That meant H couldn’t use a film which he’s already made. He had to film a new one entirely.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, one of the schools H is applying to doesn’t accept film school applications until students are college juniors. So H didn’t have extra application work there. Phew.

Don’t breathe too easy yet though–there are also letters of recommendation needed. H required, I think, twelve different letters from five different people, and each request needed to be accompanied by a properly-addressed envelope, with postage applied. He also needed to arrange for transcripts and test scores to be sent to each school.

Oh, and about those transcripts? If your child has homeschooled for all or part of high school, you, as a homeschooling parent, get the glorified job of writing that transcript. I do not recommend waiting until your child is applying to college to write a transcript because you just might be busy helping that child with other things. Like his or her college applications.

Luckily for me, I’d already written a transcript for H’s homeschooled 9th and 10th grade years, when he applied to high school as a junior. I spent fathomless hours crafting that baby, and it’s a document of beauty, I tell you. That single part of the application process was easy: I just hit “print” and mailed copies.

And did I help H with the other parts of the applications? Do vegetarians like cheese? I’m a homeschooling mother–helping is my default mode. Yes, I helped. Kids who can corner this monster without the help of parents or school counselors deserve to get into every school they apply to. H is a smart kid, he’s a competent kid, but he couldn’t have done it on his own. I nagged and badgered about those essays, beginning last summer. (Did he listen then? No.) I helped him sort the deadlines and requirements for each school. I helped him brainstorm his essay drafts and I gave him feedback. I sat beside him and sighed and groaned and swore when online applications submitted with blank pages, or did not display necessary forms, or logged themselves out repeatedly because everyone under the sun was filling out the same application, two nights before the deadline.

(Note: Do not try to submit an online application the night before it’s due. The website’s servers will be busy. I just tried to pull up an application to copy questions for this post, and the application, which is due tonight, is inaccessible. And it’s too late for a snail mail postmark. Boy, do I feel sorry for all the kids trying to complete that application.)

Doesn’t this all sound insane? What if H had applied to as many schools as his counselor recommended?

The craziest part is that H is doing all this on top of seven classes-worth of coursework. You’d think his high school could make an elective class of the college application process, give credit for it. I mean, these kids are researching potential schools, they’re writing essays, they’re managing deadlines, they’re learning how to fill out forms, how to ask for letters of recommendation. A pretty educational process, don’t you think?

As of yesterday, H’s monster is three-quarters slain. The beast is hunkered down in his cave, gasping and dribbling green drool. In the last two weeks, three applications have been submitted, and H has one more to complete, due January 1st.  Meanwhile, he has three weeks of messing around (with seven classes-worth of final papers and exams). Then, come Winter Break, he’ll finish that last application and kill the monster off for good.

Then we’ll have to wait and see what the monster hath wrought.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

susan December 1, 2009 at 10:01 am

I had to lie down in the middle of reading this. Right now I am telling the kids sorry, no college for you. The applications are too exhausting. You all be artists, ok?

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patricia December 1, 2009 at 10:39 am

Watch what you say or they might decide to go to art school! Wait til you see the application portfolio requirements…

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Kathy December 1, 2009 at 10:05 am

That sounds totally overwhelming. And to think that I was stressed over the third-grade projects this year. Fingers crossed for the number 1 and 2!!

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patricia December 1, 2009 at 10:41 am

I know. It gives a little perspective to the cardboard colonial house I’ve been bugging my eight-year-old to finish.

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Valarie December 1, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Greetings.We are there too. It is so overwhelming and what’s with these school counselors. My child couldn’t come up with a bevy of universities to apply to and so she is made to feel like she is failing. I set the deadline of Nov 1st for all of her apps to be completed and so I’ve been out from under this wall for a bit. Not only did we have all of the above you mentioned but she is a musician with two instruments so now we are working on audition material. All in all we’re very proud of our daughter and we’ve given ourselves a big pat on the back for successfully filling out a myriad of applications. Who cares if she gets in, we’re feeling pretty satisfied with our application accomlishments.
I wish you and H the very best in this process and may all his hard work (and yours)pay off with an entry letter to his first pick.

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patricia December 1, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Valarie! It’s nice to know that H and I aren’t the only ones going through this. If we feel bogged down with his last application, I’ll remind myself that at least he doesn’t have auditions to prepare for…

I’m delighted to find your blog(s) too. We’re considering a trip to Sweden next summer, so I’ll keep reading for inspiration!

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Kristin December 1, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Whew! This post evokes panic! It sounds so incredibly stressful. But H is sure to be a desired candidate. With that in mind, take a deep breath, or go for a run and let it go for awhile gal.

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patricia December 1, 2009 at 11:40 pm

It’s a ton of work for sure, but it’s not so bad if you plot it all out and work at one piece at a time. That’s definitely been where I come in–working ahead is not H’s forte. But he’s worked hard and I’m proud of him.

Now you know why I’m so behind on visiting all my favorite blogs!

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Carrie December 1, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Oh.my.goodness.

That sounds like more than one elective- maybe an entire semester should set aside for the college application process.

I know H. is going to breeze right into the exactly right program for him- but the process of getting there sounds downright overwhelming.

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patricia December 1, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Keep homeschooling and you can set aside an entire semester for the college application process! I’m telling you, any kid who did that would learn more than a semester’s worth of valuable life experience.

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stefaneener December 3, 2009 at 8:12 pm

This makes my “force her to start community college early” plan seem like pure gold. I can throw her out of the house after that and make her travel the world for a couple of years. Heck, maybe she can even work. Hopefully she’ll find something lucrative and fulfilling to do then. She can get an online degree when she’s 50. . .

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patricia December 7, 2009 at 9:38 am

I’m not sure who came up with this ship-them-off-when-they’re-18 plan. It’s ridiculous. But if you end up with a kid who wants to go with that plan, you don’t have a lot of choice but to go with it too.

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Cathy T December 4, 2009 at 6:07 am

A friend is going through this with her son and I was so hoping that she was over exaggerating about it all. Oh dear. I’m glad we are homeschooling and I think we’ll try that one semester devoted to the process after he tries som community college courses. Uh, a transcript to create?!

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patricia December 7, 2009 at 9:46 am

I wanted people to see that I wasn’t exaggerating, which is why I just copied all of what H had to do here, so folks could see for themselves. Also, I wanted to see it all in one place so I could marvel at the collective insanity of it all.

Many of H’s homeschooling friends have gone the community college route. If you transfer in from a community college, you can probably bypass the whole high school transcript, but I’m not sure. In writing one for H., I found The Homeschooler’s Guide to Portfolios and Transcripts by Loretta Heuer to be quite helpful.

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Cathy T December 11, 2009 at 3:45 pm

A friend is next door neighbors to Loretta and she showed me this book last summer. I guess I had better start making that portfolio sooner than later, while everything is a tad fresher in my memory. Thanks!

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patricia December 14, 2009 at 9:30 am

Your friend is Loretta’s neighbor? Maybe you should see if you could invite her to do a little workshop–or at least chat over tea!

One of the best ideas I learned from her book was to cluster what my son was already doing into “classes”. That way I could write up a fairly traditional-looking transcript, but then give course descriptions that showed the eclectic learning he was doing as a homeschooler.

And yes, the earlier you start, the easier it will be. And you’ll feel more relaxed about the whole process.

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Barbara December 4, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Yikes! This makes me a little panicky, even though my oldest isn’t even 9 yet!

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patricia December 7, 2009 at 9:48 am

Hey, you’re slowly preparing already! You’re helping her to love writing, which will make all those college essays a snap!

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Liz December 6, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Thanks so much for blogging about this. If Walden still wants to get into film-making in the next 5 years, this post will be really come in handy! Hope he gets his first choice school!

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patricia December 7, 2009 at 9:52 am

I’m sure you already know what it takes to get a creative portfolio together, Liz. That will be a big help, if Walden goes in that direction.

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janet January 3, 2010 at 9:44 pm

should the girls run for the hills? We are living in Junior-year-prep-for-the-future bliss? Any advice for Juniors? Regardless, I am happy that the apps are in for H and he is just in that uncomfortable waiting period…Happy New Year!

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patricia January 3, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Yikes, Janet, you have to do this for two kids at once! Let’s hope they’re more self-directed than a particular kid I know.

I think the main thing for junior year is getting the best grades you can. That year’s grades seem to bear an unreasonable amount of weight to the colleges. The colleges might make their decisions before the first semester senior year grades even get to them…

If the girls are willing, starting essays during the summer before senior year isn’t a bad idea. When they don’t have other coursework, you know? Colleges don’t always announce the prompts until later in the summer, but the prompts for the Common Application, at least, don’t seem to change much. Even having the girls look at previous prompts and freewrite on them over the summer might help. That might give them some direction about what their best topics might be, when it comes time to writing them.

No, they shouldn’t run for the hills. But if they did, I know they’d be fast. 🙂

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Michelle May 15, 2014 at 6:50 am

Archive lurker, here. Discovered your lovely blog yesterday and well, had to start at the beginning! I’m struck that these colleges are looking for so much creativity and originality in these applications…mostly from kids who have been through a school system which has little room to allow kids to develop either. Suddenly, it seems, these qualities that have been so long squashed are those most desirable.

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patricia May 15, 2014 at 7:01 am

Ha! Yes, isn’t that the great irony of it all? Four years later I’ve just gone through the same process with my daughter. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to read her college application essay, which she entered into a writing contest on Medium? She came to the same conclusion that you did. https://medium.com/extra-credit/4568b4faf7f1

It takes so long for school systems to come around. I think they are finally beginning to recognize that their No Child Left Behind, Common Core, one-curriculum-fits-everyone approach is not what kids need in today’s world. But who knows how many years it will take for them to adapt? One of the great benefits of homeschooling is that we can change our approach whenever we see fit. Today, for example!

I have a soft spot for archive lurkers, Michelle. Thanks so much for reading!

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