In the next two entries, I will be exploring two aspects of the application process. First, I will take a look at the Gateway to Prep School forms and try to give some recommendations as you fill that out. In the next segment, I will explore the personal essays (specific to each school) as well as the interview process.
Gateway to Prep Schools is new, and while I saw it while working in an Admissions office, I did not use it when I applied. Some brief advice on the writing supplement and recommendations before moving into the candidate profile aspect of the applications: do not get caught up in grades, but focus rather on ideas. If you are applying to Prep School with mostly A's and one or two B+'s or A-'s, it doesn't really matter to the Prep School if the teacher writing your recommendation was in a class you received an A. It doesn't really matter if you received an A on the graded writing supplement. For reference, when I applied to high-school, I had a teacher write me a recommendation whose class I was doing the worst in. I did this for two reasons. First, I had a great relationship with him, and knew he would speak well of my abilities, and second, I wanted to address that grade head on. Rather than hide my 'B-' among the A's, I had the teacher write a recommendation so he could talk about how hard I was working in the class, and how drastically I was improving. For my college application, despite the fact that I had dozens of A or A+ essays that I could have chosen from, I picked an A- essay that I felt had the most engaging comments written on it. Most Admissions officers are not English teachers. They would rather see comments that engage what it is you've written, give positive feedback as well as helpful criticism. That way, it demonstrates that you are a student seeking to improve, rather than one who becomes content receiving A's on everything you turn in. Keep in mind, you will probably not show up at Prep School and find it as easy as you did middle school. Admissions officers know this. Therefore, they are looking for students who have the potential to receive positive feedback and improve. Show this in your essay and your recommendations. That said, don't submit an essay you received a C+ on... be strategic.
Okay... the Candidate Profile. Much of this information is rather straight-forward and informational. I would anticipate three questions from what I see: Which extra-curricular activities should I list, which personal achievements, and should I mention siblings/alumni? Let's take these one at a time. Extracurricular activities: Don't feel that you need to fill out the 9 available slots; you do not. You should begin with those activities in which you are the most invested, i.e. time consuming or most passionate. These are the activities that you are going to talk about in your personal essays, or the activities for which you have received awards. These are the activities that you are going to talk about in interview. Think of these as your calling card; this activity (or two activities) is going to be what Admissions officers take from your application, what they bring up in committee, what they remember you by, and most importantly, what they think you will bring to their community if they admit you. From there, move down to less vital but equally representative characteristics of your character. I was a soccer referee in middle school. Towards the bottom of this list, I would have included that. Some sort of volunteerism is appropriate.
Personal achievements: These are achievements that will impress. This is not a paragraph about the day you learned how to tie your shoelaces, or the elderly woman you helped cross the street last week. If you have won an academic award, such as High Honors or Honors, mention that here. Attendance awards count. If you have won an athletic award, or if your field hockey team won a State Championship, this is a great place to bring that up. There is a strong likelihood that mentioning an athletic accomplishment here will lead to greater athletic interest from a coach at a Prep School to which you are applying. That said, you should still reach out to coach rather than assuming he/she will reach out to you. Your application will be more powerful if it has a note from a Prep School coach and you have included an athletic honor than just one or the other, but we will get to that later. Again, this is a good place to include achievement that you intend to talk about later in writing, i.e. a personal essay. Try to make your application as coherent as possible, highlighting your one or two greatest assets (activities, awards) as often as possible. Think: Dear Admissions Officer, THIS is what I bring to the table.
Sibling/Alumni: This one is tough. You have to include your siblings, but I would be selective with the alumni you choose to include. I don't believe you fill out a specific Candidate Profile for each school to which you apply. If you do, then fill out alumni to the school which you are applying only for that school. In other words, include Middlesex alumni only for your Middlesex application. If you can only fill out one Candidate Profile, then just think about how what you write will be perceived. Andover might not react too well if they are loving your application, but then get to the point where both your sisters, your parents, grandparents, and all your aunts and uncles went to Exeter and, oh, you're applying to Exeter too. You can only really do this if you aren't applying to the school that they all attended. If you have a diverse background and all your relatives kind of went to different schools, then yeah, mention them all as it shows your family has experience with Prep Schools and there's a pretty good shot that you're actively looking to go to one too (expressed interest). If Concord Academy is your dream school, and all of your relatives went there, sure, you can mention all of them here, but keep in mind there may be more strategic times to mention that, such as in interview.
I will conclude with the personal reference. This is your hidden weapon--your pocket aces. You can choose anyone you want, which pretty much means you can choose what is said about you. Don't pick a parent. I probably wouldn't pick a teacher either, as they've already got two of those. Pick someone who will be powerful, who will offer a different perspective on you--preferably one of moral value, as they already have teacher recommendations to evaluate your academic potential. My godfather wrote mine. You can have a coach write yours, even if you're no good at sport but he can write about what a kind, dedicated person you are. The local grocery store check-out lady could write it, if she knows you well and will write good things. In my opinion, this is one of the most important aspects of your application because you can control it. It may not actually mean that much in the end, but there are very few aspects of the application that you can control, but here is one that is left entirely up to your discretion. You don't have to write about a topic they've given you, or do the same thing as everyone else. Be unique--have your pastor write about how you lead prayers on Sunday, and he's watched you grow up since age five and mature into a great member of the community. This is for you to show the school a different side of yourself, and to show how much you mean to another individual in your community. How much you mean to them will have the Admissions officer questioning, why wouldn't this applicant mean just as much to us and this community?
Photo credit: David Iliff
Source: The front court of Emmanuel College in Cambridge, England
Copyright: CC-BY-SA 3.0