In our continued series with Seamus Malin, a former Harvard admissions officer and administrator, we focus on the various elements of the college application and the importance to ensure consistency throughout. How does an admissions officer create a composite picture of a student through their essay, letters of recommendation, and alumni interview? What are the ramifications of a student purchasing an essay through one of the many online services today and how easy is it for an admissions officer to identify the offense? Acccording to Seamus, now that the SAT requires a written essay, it’s quite easy for colleges to compare your SAT writing (albeit under pressure) with the prose you submit for your application. Click the play button below to start this prepcast on college applications.
The Consistency of Your College Application (transcript)
Karl Schellscheidt: Hi, I’m Karl Schellscheidt. Welcome to ePrep. I want to welcome Seamus Malin to ePrep. Seamus is a former administrator of Harvard University, and was nice enough to come down from Massachusetts to spend some time in Princeton, NJ. I have a million questions for Seamus so I’m just going to get right to the next one.
Seamus, I’ve heard this phrase in admissions and they talk about the “consistency” of an application. They’re looking for an application that is somehow internally consistent. There are a lot of websites now or service providers that help people write essays, they help people do their applications. If you’re a mediocre student and you now go to one of these essay sites and you basically buy an essay, how easy is that for college admissions people to identify and see through? And if they do suspect that the application is not sincere in a way, what are the ramifications?
Seamus Malin: Well the ramifications are quite serious. I don’t mean legally, but I mean in terms of the fate of the application. You’re quite right. There are a lot of books that will try to convince consumers that this particular collection of essays is what got students into whatever college. And the truth of the matter is they didn’t. The students who wrote those essays got in, yes, but not necessarily because of the essay.
People from the other side, that is who are not in the selection process, think that you need to get some kind of an eye catching formula in order to distinguish yourself from other people who have good scores and good grades and so forth, and that the essay is one way. There is an element of truth to that in a limited sense, but it goes back to the word which you began this question with which is “consistency.”
And there’s a new element that’s been added in the last couple of years that is still in its infancy stages, really, but we don’t know quite how to measure it, and that is the essay portion of the SAT, the writing portion. So now when you sit down for your SAT the first thing you have to do is do a piece of writing, which is now on record. So if I am an admissions person and I’m looking at an average or just above average student who suddenly produces an extraordinary essay, I know a place where I can go to see how that student did when under pressure to write a draft, admittedly, for the SAT to compare with this really polished piece of prose.
The other thing is that most of the universities who are doing tough selection are getting additional sources of information. They’re getting three letters of recommendation typically, two from teachers and one from the secondary school guidance counselor or assistant principal, something like that. Many of them, although not as many as previously, will also be getting written reports from interviewers, sometimes interviewers on the staff, sometimes interviewers who are trained alumns around the world.
So there are various other sources of information that are all flowing into this file, and generally what happens is that they tend to support each other. It’s very rare that you get one source of information that suddenly gives you a radically different view. It may give you nuggets of extra information, but they tend to enhance values that you already begin to suspect are there from the student based on what teachers knowing him or what the student himself has said about things.
So something that really pops out as being way out of line is generally minimized because it just doesn’t seem to ring true. And that can be for an interview that doesn’t work; sometimes interviews just don’t work very well. The interviewer has a bad day, just had an argument with his wife or something, or had a bad day with one of his kids and then turns around and suddenly has to interview for an hour a student who has been polished and prepared and so forth. It’s ships passing in the night. You cannot condemn a student for 45 minutes of a not great conversation if everything else in the file suggests that this, over the long haul, is a fantastic kid and should be admitted.
Karl Schellscheidt: Thinking back to my days when I applied to college, I wrote an essay on my own but I did have somebody review it for me.
Seamus Malin: Sure. Of course.
Karl Schellscheidt: And I thought that was completely appropriate.
Seamus Malin: Absolutely.
Karl Schellscheidt: What that person did was sort of help me a little bit with the grammar. If I had ended a sentence with a preposition, would help me rephrase it. I remember one in particular I had used the word “dual” but I used the wrong one.
Seamus Malin: You mean, as in swords?
Karl Schellscheidt: I used the sword fighting one when I meant two, a “dual” purpose. And so the person who was nice enough to review it for me wound up picking it up and helping me improve the essay. And I guess my question is, is there a bright line between help that’s appropriate and help that goes beyond and becomes inappropriate? Because I think we can agree that getting a little bit of help along the way is acceptable. But when does it become inappropriate?
Seamus Malin: Parents are the ones who typically are the first line of checking, if they care. Many students ask their English teacher, but a lot of English teachers simply don’t have time. I review essays for students and I tend to take the tack of raising questions. I mean, I do the same thing you do. I’m a former English teacher. I’m a stickler for grammar and there is a difference between the verb “to lie” and “to lay” and I insist on getting those right.
But I also look to say to a student, “Do you think you’ve really conveyed what you wanted?” And typically what happens in an essay is everybody knows to write an essay you’ve got to have an eye catching opening sentence. Fair enough. Opening paragraph. And typically when I read a first draft of essays of students I’m working with I’ll see a wonderful opening paragraph, a nice supportive second paragraph, and then the third paragraph dies because it’s bedtime.
And I say, “You went to sleep?”
And he says, “Yeah, I know. I just ran out of gas.”
Of course you do. But actually the third paragraph could be the most important one so I’ll say, “Just look at this. Is this making the impact that’s in your head and your heart you want made here?” And you make them examine it. You don’t examine it and give them answer. You ask the right questions, which is what education is all about, really.
The word “education,” educare in Latin means “to bring out from within,” which is what education is. So if you try to ask questions that bring out what is inside the person and say, “That’s what’s inside you, but is that what is being expressed here?”
And they look at it and say, “Well, maybe not.”
And I say, “Well maybe not, too. Have another go at it,” and so forth.
But you don’t rewrite it; that’s totally inappropriate. To raise questions how better to express oneself it seems to me is a perfectly legitimate thing to do.
Karl Schellscheidt: And just to add to what you said, I think you’re into this concept of finding out what they want to express, what’s also important is that it then gets expressed in their voice. That’s the way I think about it.
Seamus Malin: Yes. Exactly.
Karl Schellscheidt: Occasionally I work with a foreign student whose English is not great. And what I resist doing is going through and making it grammatically perfect because I think you lose their voice if you do that. While I might help them tweak certain things if they’ve kind of used the wrong word and it would mislead the reader, I try to help them change those things just to make it easier to read, but I also try to help them maintain their voice in the essay.
Seamus Malin: I work with a lot of international students and I had a student a couple of years ago from China who went to a school in the U.K. so had very good training in English, in fact was one of the best writers I have ever seen in 30 or 40 years of writing. Wonderful writer. She wrote an absolutely fantastic piece about her hometown in China and I was so moved by this piece I almost didn’t want to touch it, but in the very end of the thing I just wrote one comment, four lines.
I said, “Jane, where are you?” This is lovely, but where are you? The essay needs to tell these readers a little bit more about you.
You do not want to write an essay about how we’re going to solve the Middle East question because they can’t solve that in Washington or Beirut or in Jerusalem; you’re not going to solve it in a suburban New Jersey high school. Get a grip here. Write about something that is close to you that brings you as a human being off the page because that’s your chance to do it. Writing another term paperish essay is a completely bad idea unless — big unless — you have had personal living experience, let’s say, in a part of the world where your experience gives you a look in on something that is a well known public problem. But it becomes your angle of vision and not necessarily a “textbook” or “term paper-like” handling of the topic. That’s an important distinction to make.
Karl Schellscheidt: All right. Awesome. Thanks so much, Seamus. I appreciate it. We’re talking about applications and the importance of having a consistent application, and also the importance of making that application representative of you, of who you are.
And I’ll just add a little from Fred Hargadon. Fred would say, “You want the application to be all about who you are, but you at your best.”