Essay For University Of Pennsylvania Press

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This week in the Guidance Office — a forum for readers of The Choice to seek expert advice from admissions officers, guidance counselors and others in the admissions field — our guest is Eric J. Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania since July 1, 2008.

Mr. Furda, a graduate of U. Penn, was previously executive director of undergraduate admissions at Columbia University.

Today, Mr. Furda answers questions about whether the process of choosing among early decision applicants is different from the regular decision process; how much weight is placed on the campus visit (particularly for students from far away); and the essay, and how an applicant can best communicate why he or she is interested in a particular college.

To pose a question to Mr. Furda, use the comment box on our original post or the box below. His answers are scheduled to continue through Friday. (Some questions and answers have been edited for length, style and other considerations.) — Jacques Steinberg

Q.

In what ways does the admissions office consider early decision and regular decision applicants differently? What similarities and differences do you regularly see in the applicants, and how much does the first-choice mark of an early application impact your consideration of that applicant?

—Jennifer

Q.

Is it true that those who apply early decision, or even just earlier, have a better shot at financial aid dollars?

I know of several students of color who will need full financial aid. Normally, they are advised never to apply early decision so that they can evaluate all offers and financial aid packages in April. Recently, a private counselor has pressed them to apply early decision because dollars for financial aid are assigned as students are accepted — and the college might run out. If that is true, then how does the college assign financial aid since they can’t look at Fafsa forms, which can’t be completed until January?

—Mel

A.

A number of questions posted by readers asked what impact applying early decision has on an applicant’s chances for admission, such as Jennifer’s: “Does the first-choice mark impact your consideration?”

I would suggest to all applicants that they need to demonstrate their knowledge about the school(s) to which they are applying and why that institution is appealing to them intellectually, academically, socially etc. So, many times, the difference between early decision applicants and many regular decision candidates is the depth of knowledge they are able to communicate about the school through their application.

For example, students who apply early decision to Penn share a demonstrated passion for our academic programs, the campus community and the city of Philadelphia, and we respond to this pool with a higher admit rate than in regular decision. So I would suggest that the benefit does not come from simply marking the early decision box but that the decision to apply early comes after a thoughtful search process, where one school becomes the student’s clear first choice.

The higher educational system in the United States has thousands of wonderful schools to choose from; therefore, we also recognize that, for the vast majority of applicants, identifying a school as a clear first choice is not possible. That said, I still recommend that they demonstrate and articulate their interest in the college or university as a regular decision candidate, either through their applications or an interview.

Mel asked whether applying early decision impacts a student’s chances for financial aid. At Penn the answer is no, but financial aid varies from school to school, so I highly recommend that you research a school’s financial aid policy: early decision, early action, regular decision and rolling admission processes. As Mel also suggested, for some students applying to a range of schools in regular decision will allow a student to compare financial aid packages, which is one reason why early decision is not for every student.

Q.

My daughter is interested in colleges on the East Coast, but we live in California. How much weight is placed on whether or not you visit a campus and meet with admissions officers when applying to competitive schools?

—Blair Pleasant

A.

Many institutions track interactions and contacts with prospective students: institutional outreach efforts, student-initiated via the Web, attending a regional event, visiting campus, or when the college visits your high school. The heart of Blair’s question is whether visiting (or not) will have a material difference on the admission decision.

Admissions offices want their applicants to be knowledgeable about their school, and studies have shown that the campus visit is the best way to experience and learn about the school; I know this to be the case for Penn. However, we recognize that a campus visit is not always possible, particularly for families wanting to visit schools hundreds — and thousands — of miles away from home.

Penn’s location in Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the U.S., makes it easy to travel to, if cost (and time) wasn’t an issue, but we know it is. Therefore, we at Penn and colleagues at other schools on the East Coast take this into consideration, just as our colleagues on the West Coast take this into consideration for their East Coast applicants. (Yes, the Midwest and Southwest and other parts of the country can be substituted as well.)

If visiting the school you are interested in learning more about is not feasible, I suggest for your daughter to have some contact with the colleges she is interested in by attending a local college fair, high school visit or contacting a local alumni representative. Much of this information is on their Web site. Also, learn if a college has any specific policies about a campus interview.

Some small liberal arts colleges require or prefer an on-campus interview for applicants, especially from within a certain distance. If you’re not able to get to campus, I am sure they will try to arrange an interview with a local alum or possibly provide you with a phone interview when getting to campus is not feasible.

Q.

How much emphasis do you place on the essay portion of the application process? With so many students to choose from, what are some of the standout qualities in applicants that appeal to an institution such as yours?

Students are involved in so many things in this day and age. Their guidance counselors advise them to take honors courses, advanced courses, SAT prep courses, service activities, a job, sports and on and on. Most of the students in my daughter’s high school are doing it all! So what really sets them all apart?

—SB

A.

What really stands out about applicants? What really sets them apart? And then, how can those qualities come across in an application? As SB indicates, students are involved in a range of courses and activities. To the admissions committee, the question is not only “what” has a student taken academically or “what” is she involved in? We want to dig deeper beyond the lists, to find out the why – why this class, why these activities?

To take it a step further: how has that piece of literature moved you and challenged your thinking? How has your physics teacher influenced your interest in research? What came from the leadership experience in student government when your peers didn’t agree with your stance on an issue? How has your commitment to service organizations shaped your view of affecting change in society?

The applicants who stand out are able to communicate their experiences beyond the lists and resumes to convey more about who they are as a person. Some students share this through their short-answer question response, while others choose to write about it in their longer essay. Whether through a short essay or a longer one-page essay, my best advice is to remain true to your own voice and tell your story. Admissions officers want to hear a 17-18-year-old voice, not a 40-50-year-old voice. (Sorry, parents.)

Another way in which we gain insight is through counselor and teacher recommendations. Although the quality of these letters can vary widely, references provide a picture of a student through an academic lens and also from a broader community perspective. Since students can choose the teachers who write on their behalf, they should consider how they have interacted with those teachers and the perspectives the teachers can share.

As with any high school community, some students are going to stand out for exceptional intellectual capacity, passion for learning and other talents; parents, teachers and other students can point to who these students are and those characteristics that distinguish them. Even in a highly selective applicant pool like Penn’s, these applicants rise to the top.

Q.

My daughter has a strong interest in a particular field of study that is not typical, and therefore, only really offered by a minority of schools, many of which are very difficult to get into. She is very strong academically (straight As, lots of AP classes, including math), but we live in one of those places that produces a lot of strong candidates and, from this end, the selection process seems almost random.

So, my question is, does it matter to these schools at all that she wants to attend them not just for their prestige but because they are exceptionally strong in her chosen field? And if they do, what’s the best way for a student to present themselves on that basis?

Or do schools just not care about that kind of thing and go for the strongest students on paper regardless of interest?

—Barbara

A.

Students who are exceptionally strong in a particular subject and are focused on a specific field have an opportunity to make a connection with colleges that have programs in that area. I am interested in what field Barbara’s daughter has a strong interest.

As an example, departments in the natural sciences, mathematics, fine or visual arts and foreign languages will attract students who have developed capacities and deep interest in those fields. By developed I mean sustained over a period of time with a level of depth in their exposure to the field by taking courses at the highest level (perhaps at a local college), research experience, immersion in a language and culture or demonstrated talent. At Penn, we refer to these students as “well angled.”

To Barbara’s question, colleges are interested when students can make a connection with a department in which they excel. As with other questions I am answering, students can convey their interest through the short-answer question in the Common Application or Universal Application (if the school accepts these) and essays. I would also consider requesting a letter of recommendation from a teacher who will be able to communicate your commitment and talent, further supporting your intellectual interest.

This may be a case where supplemental material is appropriate through an arts supplement or research that we can have evaluated by our faculty. Just be sure the school accepts supplements.

We’ve been saying for years that admissions officers have about 5-18 minutes MAX to review an application. Every year parents and students are quite surprised to hear this. In years past the process has been that one officer typically does the review, then “pitches” the candidate to the full committee. As The Chronicle of Higher Education has just reported, UPenn and other high level universities are now stating that the number of minutes in an application review is actually closer to four minutes, and the number of eyes to an application is likely lower than ever.

As The Chronicle states, Penn admissions officers work in pairs, each reviewing an applicant’s materials electronically. Each person scores the applicant, types in notes on the file, and states “admit” or “deny.” From there, the applicant is placed into category 1, 2 or 3 and put into a final review.  Penn states that in the past admissions officers reviewed 4-5 applicants in an hour –now it’s 15 an hour.

UPenn Isn’t Alone

The Chronicle confirmed that Swarthmore has also adopted this model of applicant review and this is now the third year working under the model. Admissions officers used to read 40 students a day — now it’s 90 a day. They no longer write, or have time to write, summaries on applicants; notes point the admissions committee to a specific section of the application and THAT is what’s reviewed. That’s one shot, one very brief and quickly read shot.

Given the short amount of time that an applicant has to make a case for himself in his materials, he needs a theme or a hook of sorts to present himself once he makes the grade in terms of scores and grades. This theme is what we set out to help our students articulate and deepen. We encourage students to nurture their natural passions and then help them make choices and present this theme or collection of interests in a bold, clear way on paper. Think of it as an overview of your four years in high school coupled with your academics, extracurriculars and passions. Colleges are looking for what the student will bring to the school; not how well rounded the student is, but rather how well rounded the class will be by admitting that student. We help students see that by presenting clear, focused applications highlighting a student’s academic niche.

Admissions officers want to admit kids with clear passions backed up by action. We encourage our students to add academic activities to their free time—focusing on a very specific academic area—and create a theme that is compelling to colleges, coupled of course with the high scores, grades and rank to maximize their odds. It’s not all about participation in lots of things—lots of students do that—but how can a student stand out in his/her area of academic interest and show leadership in one or two areas? Again, colleges want scholars and we want to make sure students present with an academic niche, a clear scholarly focus. For the top schools, a student simply has to stand out in a particular area –and he must stand out strong and fast…especially with the dwindling time being spent on actual application review.

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