Every fall I read a few hundred admissions essays, most of which are intended for the admissions officers of the embattled University of California. And every year I think to myself, I wish this person had attended our college admissions workshop. For TestMagic students, it’s a free seminar and most of the time is open to the public as well.
People often ask me what we cover in the workshop, and I often tell people it’s just mostly common-sense advice. For example, plan ahead, choose your schools carefully, spend time on your essays, etc. To me, perhaps because I’ve been doing this for so long, this all seems fairly self-evident, not just for admissions season, and not just for all things academic, but for life as well: Think ahead. Be earnest. Be intelligent. Put your heart into it.
I’ve compiled a good list of dos and don’ts of applying to college, many or most or all of which I will try to share here.
Here’s one of them:
Tip #217: Don’t talk about SAT prep
How would you feel if you were reading the essay of a college applicant, and you read something like this on his essay?
Every day I come home after school, and my parents are not there. Life is hard for me. I have to cook for myself, and my parents need help around the house since they work so much. I can’t study until late at night, but learning is extremely important to me. There’s nothing I love more than learning new things. I work hard at everything I do. When I first took the SAT, it was hard. I didn’t know any of the words or the grammar, and I bombed the essay. My math was really bad. To raise my score, I took five SAT prep classes during the summers and during the school year. Because of my hard work, my SAT score went up more than 600 points.
(N.B. Just for the record, that is NOT taken from a student’s essay; I just wrote that myself based on what I’ve read in other people’s essays in past application seasons.)
Now I know what this writer was thinking. He was thinking, Hey, taking SAT-prep classes in the summer isn’t exactly how I’d choose to spend my summer if I had my druthers. So of course taking SAT classes will impress the people reading my essay. And if I took the class five times, then that will impress them even more. Well, I know I took the class only once, but how can they check?
It’s great that this hypothetical person wanted to raise his SAT score and was willing to put in the work to do so. But others might see things differently; others might not think, Wow, what a hard worker! He took SAT prep classes to raise his SAT score! We want him at our school! No, other people might have different thoughts. They might think, Wow, why’d he have to take the class five times? Wasn’t once enough? Or they might think that the applicant is somehow privileged (although many SAT-prep classes are quite affordable; some are even free). Finally, they might simply penalize the applicant thinking that his highest SAT score is not representative of his actual ability. In other words, the admissions officer might consider the applicant’s SAT score an inflated score.
In recent years, high schools and universities have come to accept the fact that people will take SAT-prep classes. Many high schools even offer them at their schools with the hope that their students have a slight edge over other students with higher SAT scores, which in turn will raise the ranking of their high school. In many ways, college admissions is very much a numbers game, and everybody’s playing.