Bridging Gaps in Context and Personal Writing in the College Application Process
As a prospective college student, how can you craft your college application to shine in the pool of thousands of applicants? One of the biggest hurdles in the application process is showcasing your skills, personality and goals—all in under 1,000 words. Finding your authentic voice to appeal to the admissions team can be especially difficult without knowing who your audience is, or what generation they’re coming from! In today’s episode, school-based counselors help close the generational gaps between students and admissions counselors, helping students find the tools to help write the “perfect essay,” and the importance in getting feedback from a mentor, tutor, supporter or advocate.
Guests: Cuca Acosta, Associate Director of Admissions at UC Santa Barbara and Lara Sandora, Lead Counselor for 11th and 12th Grades & College Counselor at TIDE Academy.
Eddie Pickett: Hello, and welcome to the College Admissions Decoded Podcast, an occasional series from the National Association for College Admission Counseling or NACAC. NACAC is an association of more than 26,000 professionals at high schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations, as well as independent counselors who support and advise students and families through the college admissions process.
I'm your host, Eddie Pickett, my pronouns are he, him and his. I'm a NACAC board member and a Senior Associate Dean of Admissions and the Director of Recruitment at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Today I'm here with two experts on college admissions. They'll share their reviews on the gaps in context and personal writing and the college admissions process. With me today are Cuca Acosta, Associate Director of Admissions at UC Santa Barbara, who's dedicated to helping students move through the admissions process at her institution.
Cuca Acosta: Hello. Thank you for letting me be here. I'm so excited.
Eddie Pickett: And our second guest is Lara Sandora, Lead Counselor and College Counselor for 11th and 12th graders at Tide Academy. This is our 25th year working in public high schools.
Lara Sandora: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Eddie Pickett: Excellent. So, we're going to jump on into my favorite and by favorite, I mean, least favorite question that I get as an admissions officer. I used to get as a college counselor as well, and it's some version of this. What do you want me to write about or what do admissions officers really want to know from my writing?
Cuca Acosta: I love this question and I hate it equally. Okay. So, for my students in the universe, I just want to get to know you, especially because in my university process, being at a University of California campus, I never actually get to meet you face to face. I don't get the luxury of being able to read a letter of recommendation. So, in the scheme of things, I'm asking, who are you as an individual and what should I know about you? You know me, the stranger in the admissions office, and that shouldn't be a hard question to answer even though I know that it is.
Lara Sandora: For me, one of the things I talk to students about all the time is trying to remove the word supposed to from the entire process. And that begins even before the writing. But where am I supposed to apply? What am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to do after school? Everything is about what some sort of invisible game of “supposed to”. And one of the things that I've started saying is it's really about what you're doing with your time and conveying that, not thinking about what you're supposed to do with your time and then trying to fabricate that into some sort of woven story. But if you're actually living your life, then you're going to have something to share.
Cuca Acosta: Right and you're not giving a template response. First sentence should be this, the second sentence should be that, or the first paragraph needs to look this way. And speaking with someone who doesn't have a "college essay", the reality is I'd rather not worry about what's supposed to be on the page. I'm excited about the discovery of what the student chooses to say and put on the page.
Eddie Pickett: You're telling them to be authentic is what it sounds like. And so how do admissions officers know when students are writing responses that are authentic?
Cuca Acosta: Well, there's two things that normally happen. Many universities are going to use software programs that showcase when writing's been used elsewhere. Let's put it out there in that sense. So, by definition, it's not authentic when it's not your own words that are being placed into a response. But the second component is that no response is ever read in a silo. So, it's not going to be, let me just read this one personal insight question, or let me just read this one supplement, and that's where I'm going to discover the student. I'm going to read the academic content and I'm going to see the classes that the student took and that they're currently in. I'm going to hop over to the activities section of an application, and the descriptions there are also being looked at and evaluated. And then I go to the personal insight question, and if the tone and the story changes dramatically, it's not authentic.
Lara Sandora: One of the things that I tell students to think about, and we don't do this, mind you, but if you were to take your personal writing for college with no name at the top, crumple it up, throw it into the quad at school, and somebody else from our senior class picked it up, could they read it and bring it back to you? Now, we don't do that because it's personal writing and that would be really messy, but the concept of that really gets people's wheels turning in terms of, is there anyone else in our senior class that could have written this?
Eddie Pickett: I used to give high school students the same exact advice, the best friend test. They should be able to read it and know it's you.
College applicants today are writing essays. They're often read by older generations such as millennials or Gen Xers. So, how should students consider their audience when writing?
Cuca Acosta: There's I think less of a generational conversation and more of a familiarity conversation to be had there. The conversation that students should have is, can I articulate my thoughts and my ideas? Can I put who I am on paper so that a stranger who's 25 because they're my new admissions counselors now or who's 65, can they understand what's being written? And that means that I can't put in those fun slang words because when you tell me that you are known for your smizing, unless you watched America's top model and Tyra Banks and you understand that, that's going to be a generational issue and you're going to have that 22 year old in the office going "I don't get it," and they're not going to go look it up because we're not allowed to in our office, and they're not going to phone a friend and ask someone else to go, "What does this mean?" So, we're going to walk on by that particular statement, that particular thought process. Therefore, it's not about the generation. It's literally, “Is it clearly articulated and can a stranger understand it regardless of their age?”
Lara Sandora: And I want to speak a little bit about how students get feedback on their voice. So, years ago, you would print or type even a copy and you would hand it to one or two people. And if a student handed me a copy to read, I would say, I am happy to read this, but I need you to know that you shouldn't have 8 or 10 of us doing that. There should just be a couple people that you're getting feedback from. Because there are Google Docs now, I have opened files that have a dozen or more adults commenting on the work of one student.
Cuca Acosta: I'm so terrified by that statement right now. Oh, keep going.
Eddie Pickett: I'm going to second that. I've seen that too. And you can see when you're in it too.
Lara Sandora: So, I want to stop and say that in most cases, that student is getting a lot of feedback from a lot of well-intentioned folks. They could be some from the school, some from maybe a community-based organization, some from family or friends that are well-intentioned. There's a lot of cooks in the kitchen though. So, it's easy for me to then say, clearly you have a lot of feedback on this. I'm not going to try to provide more because again, in the times of paper, I was checking verbally, am I only one of a couple people that's going to provide feedback? But also for anyone who finds themself in that position to be able to not put words in the student's mouth. And if you are a student with a Google Doc full of adult comments, maybe take note of where the adults in a different generation are struggling to understand, but then find your own voice to reword. Because I think when the mentor, tutor, supporter advocate is actually rewording, that's where we really run into trouble.
Eddie Pickett: And do you think that the generation matters of who's giving you feedback too? So, should you try to find somebody in every generation?
Cuca Acosta: Not necessarily in every generation, but I think there has to be at least someone who's outside of your generation that reads it. So, your peer network is all well and good and intentioned, but there's not going to be that lens or that perspective of would someone who's an admissions' counselor, an admissions officer, understand what you're saying?
Eddie Pickett: You've both so graciously given your years in a profession, one, thank you for serving this profession for so long. And two, have you seen essays and read essays? Have you seen common topics from millennials into Gen Z? Are they similar? Are they different? What are your thoughts in that space?
Lara Sandora: I will say besides the obvious shift of seeing a lot of personal writing about experience during quarantine and COVID, which is sort of a given in this space, I'm grateful for a little bit of a de-escalation of what I consider to be extracurricular Olympics. I feel like there used to be a, "Well, I just started three clubs and played four sports, and that's just not enough." And now because there was a reset to a baseline of everyone being in their living room 24 hours a day, that really shifted that dynamic a little bit. And so, when students returned to things in person, their experience was not taken for granted. And I think that's coming across in what they're choosing to write about. During their high school years, our current seniors were at home for a big portion of that, and they're able to differentiate how grateful they are for in-person opportunities that are either new or returned to them. And I think that that has really changed what they're choosing to write about.
Cuca Acosta: I think the haves and the have-nots might not necessarily have the same conversation in that. While there were individuals who were in quarantine or lockdown or whatever you want to call it during the pandemic, there were plenty of students who didn't have that luxury. They were out there working, they were out there hustling, but they're unable to articulate their story in their responses. So, it's not from their essays or their personal insight questions that I'm gaining that, it's from their extracurricular activities that I'm seeing that. And that bridge hasn't fully been created between the two for our low income or low SES students in their writing abilities.
Lara Sandora: Certainly, something that I work on with all my students is articulating the fact that every day after school you pick up a sibling, is an activity that is important and valued and has a story and conveying the story of that and the time that you're spending with that individual, the responsibility of your shoulder. So, that is I think definitely a part of the conversation is reflecting on that as their story as opposed to, oh, that's what I do when I'm not able to do 17 clubs. It's like, no, no, no, that is valued, that is important, and that is your story.
Eddie Pickett: And since you're just getting writing from the student, there are no letters of rec in the UCs. It's a little different process because everything is coming from the students. And so I'm going to throw the next one to Lara over here. And thinking about school-based counselors, how do school-based counselors help close the gaps or the generational gaps we'll say, in their letters of recommendations?
Lara Sandora: The number one thing that school counselors do in letters of recommendation is provide context. I think a lot of students and families perceive a letter of recommendation from a counselor as to be some sort of endorsement. They like me, they don't like me. And it is not at all that. Our job is to provide context. Part of that context is the generational piece, and that is something that we can bridge the gap on, whether it's maybe not the slang, but some of the abbreviations, some of the interests, some of the way students are spending their time, what is important to them as a cohort, as a class, as a school, what's been going on in our community. All of those things are something we can convey through a letter of recommendation and provide that context, which is essential for colleges that are requiring and requesting those.
Eddie Pickett: There's lots of tools and sites to help to write the in quotes, "perfect essay". And let's be real, perfect, I roll my eyes as I say that, but what do you think about these tools? Where are they? Should students use them?
Lara Sandora: There are a lot of tools. There are some very good ones, and there are some less than ideal ones. The most important thing is that the student finds their voice. So, if they need to use a tool or a coach or a support or a brainstorming tool to get started to find their voice, then I'm generally okay with that. But many students have the tendency to use those tools to obscure their voice, and that's where the caution comes. Maybe a student realizes that they have a struggle with grammar, and so they might use a grammar-based tool or coach or support later on in the process to clarify their work. There needs to be a big grain of salt at the beginning of the process because if the student starts from anything that is remotely like a template, an outline or too structured of a guide, then we risk losing the authenticity piece that we keep coming back to.
Cuca Acosta: I know that there are a lot of opportunities for students to go online and look at samples. And this is sometimes where I get a moment from counselors telling me, "Hey, can you share a good answer with me? Can you share one where a student got admitted?" And look at you, you're shaking your head right now because you've asked that question, haven't you?
Eddie Pickett: I've asked for it and I've received it.
Cuca Acosta: And I no longer give them why, because it wasn't the one single response that offered the student admission. If we're asking for personal insight questions, if we're asking for essays, let's be real. That means we're probably doing a holistic admission. So, is it really that answer that created the offer of admission to the student? The answer is no.
Lara Sandora: Well, I just want to echo two things that I just heard Cuca say, and they are things that I say across the entire college search and admissions process for my students. There are a lot of right answers. There's not the answer, and that's true in the search process, in list building, all across. And the other piece is this idea that there's one make or break, right? You were mentioning that in terms of personal writing, but it really applies across the entire process. At no point is there a single class, a single grade, a single word, a single paragraph that is going to make or break the application. And I think sometimes that's really hard for students to process and to think through because they feel like each word, each club, each team is the thing, and it's the whole thing.
Eddie Pickett: So, you're both over here dropping some truth bombs, and it sounds like you've had great training and a good time in this field so far. What's your favorite piece of advice to give to students on how they communicate their thoughts authentically?
Cuca Acosta: Just get it on the paper first and foremost, don't think about the vocabulary, don't think about the structure. Just put out who you are, what you want to be, put out the experiences you have. And I know that the person next door to you might have a similar experience. Don't worry about that. It might be that everyone in the neighborhood does this. Why is it special? It's you. It's you students. It's your life, it's your story. Just put it on paper and then worry about how to polish it up afterwards. Or even if you have to polish it up. Question mark. For a University of California, I don't care about style or structure, so I don't care if the commas are in the wrong place, or the word is spelled wrong. I mean, eventually I'll care, but not when it comes to your first response. So, just put it on paper and own it.
Lara Sandora: So, one of my very first jobs was actually reading applications as an undergraduate at my alma mater. At that point, I'm in the same generation as the applications I'm reading, and I wanted to know the student better. And so, at that point, that was very, very early in this journey in the college admissions space that I've been on now for more than 25 years. But that is still what it comes down to. No matter how well or not well, the person reading this knows you can get to know you better?
Eddie Pickett: I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Many thanks to Lara and to Cuca for a great conversation. And thanks to you, my friends in the audience for joining us for this episode.
College Admissions Decoded is a podcast from NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It is produced by LWC Studios. Kojin Tashiro produced this episode.
If you'd like to learn more about NACAC's guests, our organization,and the college admissions process, visit our website at nacacnet.org. That's N-A-C-A-C-N-E-T dot O-R-G.
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CITATION: National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Bridging Gaps in Context and Personal Writing in the College Application Process ” NACAC College Admissions Decoded, National Association for College Admissions Counseling, April 13, 2023.