Every college application stands as a balance between concrete and subjective – between hard, impersonal facts, and individualized expression of creativity and intellect. The admissions essays, personal statements, and letters of recommendation comprise the subjective aspects of an application. They can be wildly different for each student. For instance, one student writes about her time volunteering in China; while her classmate talks about why he thinks the Jersey Shore corrupts America’s youth. In both cases the student puts forward an individualized expression of self. A short, hopefully well-crafted essay gives an admissions officer a chance to appreciate a student’s unique personality and gifts. Idiosyncrasies, unique talents and experiences, passions and dislikes, all dance from the page of the essay into the minds of admissions staff.
Unfortunately in college admissions, as in life, time is limited. Most admissions staff can’t give much time to delving deeply into the individual personalities of applicants. There are just too many applicants at most competitive institutions. While Tommy may be the special-est snowflake on the snowman, his individuality and creativity will only be contemplated for a short, pre-allotted time frame. The same time frame each applicant at a specific school is given by the admissions officers. College admissions is a numbers game, and Tommy only gets 5 to 20 minutes, on average, to woo an admissions officer with his artistic brilliance via his essays and personal statement.
The level of special attention Tommy gets is further dictated too by his test scores. If the average ACT score for a college is 27, and Tommy has a 19, his essay will be hardly considered, if at all, despite the possible brilliance of his essays. In this case, his concrete parameters fall too far out of line to make him a viable candidate. He won’t be able to “write himself in” to this particular college. Thus no matter how much his mission trip to Arkansas changed his views of the world and the universe, he probably won’t be able to overcome the hard parameters put in place by the college. Thus an ACT or SAT score that falls in line with the average at a specific institution is vital to be considered at that college. Your artistic brilliance won’t be important if you don’t have a sufficient standardized test scores. Your objective measures need to be up to snuff to let your creativity shine through.
In the next installment I’ll look at the shortcomings of the SAT and ACT, which actually highlight why they’re so important.