Here's the situation: You're just above the ACT (and SAT) fee waiver requirement limits but cannot afford the ACT registration fee. You decide that the only option is to take the free ACT offered by your high school. But you know what this means, right? You've got only one chance to get a good test score and will only be able to send in one test score to all your target schools.
Then you realize that you have the possibility to explain your situation to your target schools in the college application essay. But is this really the best idea? Not according to Sarah McGinty, author of “The College Application Essay" and founder of Boston-based McGinty Consulting Group.
“I believe the purpose of the essay is to bring a sense of the student into the application at a personal level that scores and grades don't provide. I always feel like the essay is like the scene in the Wizard of Oz, where it goes from black and white to color. Just to say 'I could only take the ACT once because of financial limitations' would be a waste of that opportunity. It would shine a tiny light on a single aspect of the student's circumstances."
Let's take a look at several other options that will help you make the best impression on the college admissions committee:
This is preferable to bringing your circumstances up in the essay. McGinty gives this example: It was my intention to take the ACT more than one time, as I believe that with a little practice my scores would be stronger. However, circumstances forbid me from doing that.
“Anything more than that feels like special pleading," she adds.
If your high school counselor is already writing a letter of recommendation for you, ask him or her to include a mention of the financial limitation that prevented you from taking the test more than once. “It's quite logical coming from a third party," McGinty says. This way, you won't have to use up any of your essay word count and can dedicate it to something more revealing about yourself.
Especially if you attend a high school with a large student body, you may not have a close relationship with your counselor. But now's the time to speak up and let him or her know that you aren't able to take the ACT (besides the free one), even though you would like to. You may be eligible for special funds set aside to help in borderline cases like this, and your counselor could get you set up. If these funds allow you to take the test a second time, there's no need to mention anything about this in your essay or elsewhere on your application.
If you can solve your financial problem by picking up an odd job that would help you cover the testing fees for a second or even third test, you've solved your problem. That's more of an essay topic and something the review committee will be interested in, because you've shown your ability to overcome a challenge. “I'm not interested if you're sitting there wearing your problem like a coat. But if you say, this is my situation and this is how I worked it out, that is worth writing about. That is much more interesting to a college – a student who had a problem and solved it, than just a kid who has a problem," McGinty explains.
If you really, really still think you need to include this topic in your essay, you should mention it in one or two very brief and concise sentences, as described in the first option above.
Don't think of your essay as a chance to give excuses about weaker parts of your application. Use it to enlighten the admissions committee about your unique qualities, strengths and lessons learned. Remember that, as McGinty points out, your financial situation “will, to a large extent, already be known, so that's not an essay topic. They absolutely do consider your economic circumstances, and that's what the new adversity score is supposed to do -- but admissions people have always done this. At Sarah Lawrence, we didn't have a number, but we knew where you lived and where you went to high school. And we didn't expect an applicant from Idaho to have same experience in high school as kid who went to Andover had."
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