September 12, 2013


How to Prepare a Standout College Application. By Alison Cooper Chisholm and Anna Ivey. Jossey-Bass. $16.95.

     One hundred hours. That is how much time Alison Cooper Chisholm and Anna Ivey say students should allot to preparing college applications, assuming they are applying to eight to 12 colleges – a typical number. Chisholm and Ivey, former university admissions officers who now work at Ivey College Consulting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, do not say what percentage of the 100 hours should be spent reading How to Prepare a Standout College Application, but count on some significant number of hours, because there is a lot of detailed, step-by-step information here.

     There is also an underlying premise that should be acknowledged by readers even though the authors do not bring it up. The whole point of the book is to provide, as the extended and asterisked subtitle puts it, “Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit,” which is a touch confusing as well as a touch ungrammatical (why not “admission”?). But following the advice will make you LMO who follow it, because the approach is quite formulaic. Intelligently formulaic, yes, but still, an admissions officer who receives multiple essays using this book’s recommendations will know it. All the submissions will begin, “A few important things to know about me before you read my application are….” They will continue, “As a student, I….” And then they will say, “Outside the classroom….” And next – a certain giveaway – there will appear, “Close friends and family describe me as….”

     These happen to be darned good elements to include in a submission, but including them with slavish devotion to the book’s format creates the risk of being found LMO who have read the book. Some creativity in presentation is called for; caveat lector (look it up!).

     In fact, the balance between formula and creativity is a major element in college applications, and Chisholm and Ivey try to show how best to strike it in all the elements of the application process. For example, they suggest creating a template for multiple applications that “will result in an answer that follows a predetermined pattern for answering the question, but the details you fill in will vary from school to school.” This prevents the application process from either taking even more than 100 hours or from becoming too much of a formula through the creation of a single generic application in which a find-and-replace word-processing tool simply substitutes the names of different schools (a sure recipe for seeming LMO). Chisholm and Ivey even suggest three separate types of template – “Week in the Life,” “Burning Qualities” and “Gets Me Where I’m Going” – to help applicants pick the approach they find most congenial.

     Not that the application process itself is a congenial one. Chisholm and Ivey do not pretend that it is. One reason their book is both long and dense is that there is so much to do in order to stand out, during a review that may be very quick even when it is thoughtful, from the thousands of other applicants who are also trying to stand out enough to catch admissions officers’ attention. The admissions process becomes a family affair, and the authors offer occasional “parent tip” boxes to suggest ways in which the whole family can help. Some of these involve what to do, such as trying to “make the family schedule fit the college admissions timeline” rather than the other way around; others say things not to do: do not be a coauthor of the application; and do not become an administrative assistant by typing everything up, since the application process should help students develop skills they will need after admission.

     Most of the book, though, is aimed firmly at students, and wow, can it seem overwhelming! Even something as simple, on the surface, as the comment that “your application should tell your story,” leads to an admonition to “think like an admissions officer” and then discover your story – and tell it by attention to demographics in the first sentence, words rather than numbers in the second, impact in the third, and so on. Oh – and that is just in the first draft. How to Prepare a Standout College Application is simply packed with detailed, highly useful advice from start to finish, including some that students may find surprising. For example, many who have faced hardship make that the topic of their self-revealing presentation; but while that can make sense in some circumstances, Chisholm and Ivey point out that “no matter how admirable it is that you overcame adversity x, that experience alone doesn’t make you qualified for a selective college. You still need to demonstrate that you have the knowledge and skills to excel at high-level academic work.” This neatly deflates the sense of entitlement that some students have because they have indeed lived through hardships greater than those faced by most other applicants.

     The level of detail in this book is impressive throughout – even to the point of suggesting what sort of E-mail address to use on an application (one that is “worthy of a serious candidate for admission to a top US college,” not one that tries to be “cute, clever, or political”). But because of the detail, the book may well be as off-putting in its way as the application process itself is in its. The authors suggest keeping How to Prepare a Standout College Application always at hand throughout the application marathon, so you can refer to it whenever you need to, and that is good if somewhat self-serving advice (not to mention potentially inconvenient: the book runs 340 oversize pages). Even if you do keep it close by, though, you will do well – whether you are a student or a student’s parent – to read through it with some attentiveness at least once before plunging into the entire application morass. And that means upping the estimated time investment for college applications to, say, 110 hours. Maybe even 120.

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