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Articles / Applying to College / Write Your Way into College?

Write Your Way into College?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 2, 2018

Over the many years that I have been working with high school seniors, helping them with their college admissions process, one area of the application protocol has appeared to be their least anticipated and most stress inducing: the essay. Why is this? Well for starters, many seniors aren’t very confident about their ability to assess an application’s essay prompt and conjure a cogent, convincing response. I find it interesting that, more or less across the board, a majority of applicants seem to gravitate into one or more of those personal topics to avoid, such as:

– Sex

– Drugs or drunkenness

– Bad grades

– Crimes

– A mere description of why this college is perfect for you

– A news story or disaster that has no direct effect on you

– World peace

– The big game/sports triumph

– Deep confessions

I can’t tell you how many drafts I’ve seen that begin something like, “I thought I would never make it to the finish line, but something deep inside me kept pushing me forward.” I’ve also seen college professors comment on what they don’t want to see in essays. Here’s a good caution from a Columbia University advisor:

Please do not start with the story about an epiphany, such as the day that you knew you wanted to study the subject [or specific area of concentration]. Especially if it involves a child in a poor country. In my opinion, this is mostly irrelevant and largely cliche.

That made me chuckle because I’ve seen more than a few essays begin exactly like that. When the above professor says, “largely cliche,” he’s also alluding to the topics-to-avoid list. How about this cliche opening: “Through wrestling, I have learned to solve problems and get to know people better.”

Anyway (get to the point, Dave!), what nudged me to type this essay-writing commentary is an article from this past fall in Inside Higher Education: The Admissions Essay Is Back. Writer Scott Jaschick notes, “Bard College announced Sunday that it will offer a new path to admission: an online essay examination in which applicants will have to submit four 2,500-word research papers. Those whose papers are judged by the college’s faculty members to have produced B+ work or better will be offered admission, without any SAT scores, review of high school transcripts, or teacher recommendations.”

Yikes! Now there’s a challenge to strike fear into the hearts of wrestlers everywhere. Four 2,500-word “research” papers. That’s 10,000 words! I guess the old adage “no pain, no gain” applies here.

Aside from the raw impact of that mind-boggling Everest of words, this unique opportunity may bear consideration for any of you out there who are considering “unconventional” colleges. Let’s take a closer look at Bard’s revolutionary admissions application process.

Bard announced its application process in a press release, headlining with:

Bard College Launches New Online Essay Exam as Alternate Path to Admission

This October, Bard College is launching a new path to admission: an online essay examination. The Bard Entrance Examination, open to high school juniors and seniors, will be accessible online through Bard’s admission website and is composed solely of essay questions, offering a new way to apply to Bard that bypasses existing standardized tests and admission processes. …

There’s a phrase that can inspire hope: “a new way to apply to Bard that bypasses existing standardized tests and admission processes.” I love what Bard’s president, Leon Botstein says about traditional college admissions (without specifically mentioning the SAT or ACT):

“The tradition of high stakes examination, using multiple choice questions, has made the entire apparatus of high school and college entrance examinations bankrupt. Teachers, scientists, and scholars must once again take charge of the way we test. What the Bard Entrance Examination asks is that students study source materials and write comprehensively in order to show the quality of their reasoning.”

Before going any further, you may be asking yourself, “Who the heck is Bard College?” For those of you asking this question, here’s a snapshot:

Bard College is a four-year residential college of the liberal arts and sciences with a 150-year history of academic excellence. From a 540-acre park like campus in the Hudson River Valley, the college offers the bachelor of arts degree with concentrations in more than 40 academic programs in four divisions: Arts; Languages and Literature; Science, Mathematics, and Computing; and Social Studies. Bard also offers dual-degree options, including the undergraduate program at The Bard College Conservatory of Music, in which students earn both a bachelor’s degree in music and a B.A. in another field in the liberal arts or sciences.

To President Botstein’s dismissive allusion regarding standardized testing, I offer a stentorian BRAVO! However, you may be familiar with that old acronym TANSTAAFL: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Why isn’t Bard offering a no-cost meal here? Well, consider the requirements of the BEE:

[From the press release] – “The 21 questions on this exam were compiled by many faculty and staff colleagues and represent the substance and the aspirations of our curriculum,” said Botstein. “In the end, this is actually very old-fashioned. We are using modern technology to extend the sophisticated standards for colleges and universities, before the mid-20th-century tyranny of standardized testing took hold.”

Twenty-one questions! How does that work?

… Candidates must write four essays, choosing from 21 questions. The questions are organized into three categories. One question must be answered from each category. The fourth essay may be from any of the three, thereby repeating a category. The suggested length for each of the four essays is 2,500 words, with the exception of the mathematics questions (C1 and C3) and the question that asks for a musical composition (B2).

All the information needed to answer the questions is on the examination platform. However, you are not limited to these sources. If you use other materials, they must be properly cited. Remember that this is not a test of what you already know; rather it is an opportunity to demonstrate close reading, critical thinking, and the ability to interpret problems. It is an effort to connect testing to learning. …

… Anyone interested in taking the exam is encouraged to log in and see the full list of questions. There is no fee for logging in, and no penalty for doing so and not completing the exam. All incomplete entries will be discarded after the exam closes on January 1.

… The examination will be graded by members of the Bard faculty and staff. Each of the four essays will be evaluated separately. There will also be a composite grade. Candidates scoring a composite grade of B+ or higher will receive notification of an offer of admission to the College by January 31.

To all this, I say, “It’s about time!” Let’s get back to the core of higher education. Accordingly, the door to higher education should not be guarded by standardized tests. Obviously, the Bard Entrance Examination is not for everyone. However, if you’re a thoughtful writer who has a yearning for a different kind of college and you have the ability to bring out your voice and research skills in your writing, then this path to Bard may be the way to go.

If you’re curious about the kinds of questions Bard poses for their “application,” read down through Jaschik’s  Inside Higher Education article. You’ll be amazed (or end up thinking more fondly of the SAT)!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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