Saturday, May 18, 2013

Applying to College: Is UNH’s Essay Really Important for Admission?

            The college essay: its significance is great, and it causes stress among students, but is it the only thing that matters when applying to UNH? There is no doubt that seniors at Durham’s Oyster River High School are bustling about to finish applications so awaiting colleges can read them.

            In October 2012, the Common App changed its maximum essay length to 500 words – a controversial tactic, since 500 words is extremely short to write such a vital and intimate essay

After receiving several complains from admissions offices around the country, the Common App hopes to reduce long-winded verbosity and promote conciseness in applicants’ essays. Students, high school English teachers, and guidance counselors are all affected, and it usually happens in that order.

            One great thing about the Common App is that it takes complete advantage of technology. Schools that use it, such as UNH, eliminate giant floor-to-ceiling stacks of applications in offices. Additionally, applications are received instantly.

            UNH Admissions is located at Smith Hall in the center of campus. Smith Hall is a freshly renovated New England-style brick building with white, gridded windows. The waiting room is comfortable and lounge-like, boasting a multicolored and textured carpet. There is also an assortment of green sofas around a brown coffee table. A fireplace in the corner adds a feeling of warmth to the room, despite there being no actual fire. The walls are a plain, clean, off-whitish color.

            Carola Organschi is the main secretary for the admissions office. She has short silvery hair, with pink, dangling earrings and brown-rimmed glasses. She is quite pleasant and greets visitors with a polite smile, nod, and a “how can I help you?”

All is surpassingly very quiet, since it is the heat of admission season. Due to the bitter cold and high precipitation that winter brings to the New England seacoast, student tours are not so popular until the spring.

Jessica Picone, an admissions counselor for the UNH Admissions Office, recently graduated last May with a degree in Social Work. “I would say the most important part when applying to UNH is the transcript,” Picone said. “We do a whole comprehensive review, and we read the essay one-hundred-percent.”

            The instances where the essay weighs more heavily for applicants is if the student discloses a learning disability, or talks about a death or divorce in the family that ultimately impacted their grades.

            According to Picone, essay reading is an art form, and it is easy to look for things that queue flags, such as a death in the family. “Everyone has a different process in reading applications.” Picone said. “I first read the transcripts, then the Common App, then the recommendation. Some people do it differently.”

            However, once Picone starts reading applications, she must do it the same way every time in order to get a flow. In doing this, she will not miss or overlook anything. “A lot of students write about sports or talk about the most important person in their life.” Picone said. “They are two very common reoccurring themes.”

            “Different essays strike different people in a different way,” Picone said.” Since students are applying for college, the essay should have a solid structure and basic grammar. With what Picone has seen over the past year, most students are apt to stick within the one-page, 500-word guidelines, just as the Common App prompts.

            “I think the essays that are the most impactful are the ones that are personal,” Piconne said. She explains how she read about a student’s experience when she was diagnosed with cancer and another student’s experience with coming out in high school. “The essays that have the most impact and tug at the heart strings are the most honest ones, and I know that can be hard,” Picone said.

            Approximately 17,000 students apply to UNH every year. UNH’s mid-acceptance rate is average at about 70%, which means that approximately 11,500 students are accepted, while 3,000 students actually attend.

            The Common Application is widely used among high school students to apply to colleges online, saving time, money for excess stamps, and cramped hands from writing. 488 collegiate institutions in the U.S. have adopted its universal format, so students can submit only one application to as many schools as they want.

            Additionally, during the fall of 2012, the Common App decided to revamp their services by providing Web-only applications for the upcoming summer. The 250-minimum and 500-maximum word lengths will be strictly enforced, giving students an error message if essays are either too short or too long.

Catherine Smith is a retired guidance counselor from Prospect High School in Alton, N.H, where she had worked since 1997.

Smith graduated from UNH in 1969 and worked as an admissions officer at the University of Rhode Island as a graduate student a couple years later. She reminisced on reading piles and piles of applications. “We had a stack of ‘possibles’ and ‘throw away’s’ and ‘definitely keep,’” Smith said. “We read every single essay. And we read them thoughtfully.”

            Smith had about 50 seniors each year, and college planning started at the end of their junior year.

            One of the most recurring issues was a form of plagiarism, making their essays lack creative authenticity. “Kids would list material and go on the Internet and find previously done stuff,” Smith said. “A lot of kids were tempted to not do their own work.” One student from Prospect High School was even denied admission to UNH, because the admissions office found out he completely fabricated his college essay.

            “Most kids need help, but we set them up with the English department,” Smith said. “Counselors work in tandem to present workshops, so students can work on writing and be more creative.” Smith loved reading essays that her students wrote, and she offered to proofread essays and give ideas to students.

            “A well written essay is very important because a lot of kids can’t write well anymore,” Smith said. “Students come in very under prepared.” Smith always emphasized for students to be themselves when writing their admissions essay and to seek points of honesty and interest.

            “Admission boards want to see well-rounded students who will contribute to college culture,” Smith said.

            About 25 students out of a graduating class of 140 apply to UNH every year from Prospect High School.

            Shawn Kelly, an English teacher at Oyster River High School, instructs journalism, expository writing, and nonfiction classes to sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

He has about 40 seniors. Around 20 of them work on the application essay with Kelly directly outside of class, where he guides them in the right direction. Kelly believes that teaching students to write with purpose is very important.

            “The word limit can be tricky for a lot of them,” Kelly said. “Students have a lot they have to say, and conciseness isn’t always there in the initial drafts, so I often help them to decide what is essential.”

            “Some admissions offices may think that some teachers are writing essays closely with students and not recognizing a student’s ability to think and write on their own,” Kelly said. “As an English teacher, I take that role seriously, and I want students to ask themselves tough questions and write a strong essay, but I don’t write it for them.”

            Lorissa Martin, 18, is an undeclared freshman in the College of Liberal Arts. Martin started her college application essay during her senior seminar class when her teacher assigned it. “I’m pretty sure the word count was 500,” Martin said. “Personally, I needed about 500 more words.”

            Martin believes that the restricted essay length is the biggest hindrance. “You can’t write everything down about oneself in 500 words,” Martin said.

Additionally, Martin thinks the essay should play a more central role the application process. “I think the essay really sums up a person,” Martin said. “Looking at a person’s grades really shouldn’t be it for the application.”

            Lauren Lydon, 18, is an occupational therapy major. She wrote a couple different essays and then chose the one that meant the most to her, which was about a field hockey coach. “The biggest challenge I had was writing the essay in a way that reflected how it changed me on my different views instead of just telling a story,” Lydon said.

            Lydon had two English teachers read over and correct her piece. “I think that the college essay is a huge factor in your application,” Lydon said. “I did absolutely terrible on my SAT’s, but I feel that my college essay, along with my G.P.A. and school activities, are what got me into college.”

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