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October 22, 2013

Don't Freak Out: Ways Around, Over, and Through Common App Problems

Problems with the Common App have been big news, and applicants and parents all over the world are freaking out. We want to give you the same advice we're giving our clients: there is no reason to freak out.

The media are reporting that everyone (applicants, counselors, recommenders, and colleges) is encountering real and frustrating problems with the new Common App. Those reports are absolutely accurate, but Common App colleges KNOW that the problems reside with the Common App (not you), and they are not going to punish applicants for problems you did not cause and cannot fix. Colleges will respond to the Common App situation the same way they have responded to other situations (Hurricane Sandy in 2012, revolutions in the Mideast in 2010, University of California server crashes in 2009). They will do exactly what they have already done — extend deadlines or offer alternatives. 

That being said, you can save yourself a lot of unnecessary stress if you will follow our tips for navigating around, over, and through the problems with the Common App.

1. Get your applications DONE and SUBMITTED well before the submission deadlines.

Because we know that “things happen” (big things like the Common App problems and little things like applicants getting sick), we always advise that applicants complete and submit their applications well before the deadline, preferably 2 weeks before, but no later than 4 days before.

That way, even if you encounter problems, you will be able to solve them before the deadline. Want proof that this works? Applicants we are working with this year have successfully submitted early applications to Common App colleges.

2. Use the Common App's online help before you send a request to technical support for help.

The Common App has a lot of online help for you. They have instructions within the application, “help topics” on the right-hand side of each page, an online Applicant Help Center, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed (@commonapp) that include notices of known issues and workarounds. Most of your questions can be answered and many of your problems can be solved if you make use of this online help.

Consult the online help before you fire off a request to technical support — you’ll get your solution faster, and you’ll reduce the volume of technical support requests, which in turn will enable them to respond more quickly to those people with questions that can’t be handled using the online help.

However, if these online help resources don’t resolve things for you, then by all means do send a request for help to technical support. You do that through the "Ask A Question" page in the Help Center. They will reply (although the reply time can be several days when big things go wrong, as was the case a week ago).

3. Stay in touch with and offer help to your school counselor and recommenders.

Some of the most significant issues with the Common App have been those encountered by school counselors and recommenders. Check in with your school counselor and recommenders to see if they have had any problems. If they have, ask them to explain the problems to you and see if there is any way you can help them (like show them how to use a different browser!). 

4. Give the colleges the time they need to do their work.

Once you, your school counselor, and your recommenders have submitted things to the Common App, the college has to download all that material from the Common App into their systems. That always takes a certain amount of time, but it is taking longer this year because the interface between the Common App and many colleges’ systems is buggy. The colleges and the Common App are figuring it out, and you can rest assured that the colleges WILL find a way to get your application materials, and they WILL read them. But every minute that the college has to spend talking to you or emailing you is a minute that the college can’t spend processing your application. So don’t call or email to check the status of your application until a FULL TWO WEEKS have passed from the time you submitted it. Likewise, don’t overburden an already stressed college admissions office by sending them a duplicate paper copy of your application materials. That just doubles their work unnecessarily.

5. Check your email and respond promptly if you get an email from a college.

Colleges are keeping applicants up-to-date through emails. So read them and do what they ask! (And check your spam folders to make sure none of them went there.)

6. Keep records.

Anytime you submit something to a college, you should keep a copy of what you submit (preferably both electronic and paper) and keep a copy of the documentation you receive that confirms you did indeed submit it. In the case of the Common App, you can download the PDF of your submitted application and save it outside the Common App. You can also take a screen shot of the Common App screen that shows you have a green checkmark and date indicating submission.

If you discover that the college has not received your application (#4) or you get an email requesting documentation of submission (#5), then you have the records you need to resolve the problem. If you can show that you did submit your application by the deadline, then the college will accept your application as having been timely submitted, even if they didn't get it by the deadline. 

7. Be as kind as possible to everyone involved, including yourself.

Kindness is not usually the first response in situations like these. Instead, tempers flare, meltdowns come, finger-pointing begins, and harsh words are exchanged. As understandable as that may be, kindness really is the better way.

The Common App 4.0 system is new; it has problems. Handling those problems relies on all the people involved finding solutions. Kindness yields solutions more easily, more quickly, and better than meanness does. Really. You won’t feel better if you are testy with someone in an admissions office or post a nasty-gram to some poor help desk person on the Common App’s Facebook page. However, you might feel better if you take yourself for a walk or a run. Likewise, no one on the Common App tech staff is going to more motivated or better equipped to figure out why Chrome won’t generate a preview of your application just because they are hammered on the front page of USA Today or maligned on blogs and social media. However, they might be more motivated or better equipped if they receive good information from Chrome users about the nature of their problems, a bit of time to work on it, and an encouraging word along the way.

That's our advice and reassurance based on our years of experience. We hope it helps.

 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

October 14, 2013

52 Weeks to College: Week 16 — Non-Essay Parts of the Application

With all that essay work behind you, you may be tempted to think that you're basically done. Almost. Remember that every single part of your application matters, so before you hit that submit button, double-check that you've made the best use of the non-essay parts of the application forms as well. We have a bunch of tips below to help you do that.

Week 16 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Revise your 6th application.
  • Draft your 7th application.
  • Submit your early application(s).
  • Interview with colleges.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. 
  • Meet with college representatives.
  • Continue working on your CSS/PROFILE forms and college financial aid applications.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)

Tips & Tricks

1. Check that you've filled out the factual questions accurately and to your advantage. What are factual questions? These are questions asking you about you and your family: your age, your gender, your state of residence, your citizenship, your languages, your ethnicity or race, and your veteran status. If you don't feel as if the boxes on the application really represent who you are, check the ones that come closest, and then use the Additional Information section of the application to elaborate. If you're a legacy, see if you can work that in. Also make sure to use your legal name on all your college application documents so that your name is consistent (that will save you lots of headaches later). Follow the U.S. format for dates (month/day/year). Use a reliable snail-mail address. Proofread!

2. Check that you haven't missed any miscellaneous questions. Those are questions about whether you're appying for financial aid, your academic interests, and any demonstrated interest in that particular college ("Have you visited?" "How did you learn about our college?"). Don't have particular career interests yet? It's OK if that's still up in the air. But you should at least be able to articulate your academic interests. (College is an academic enterprise, after all.) Make sure that the interests you list align with your story (Week 3). If you are on the fence about whether to apply for financial aid, check whether the college is "need blind" or "need aware" — you might decide that it's not worth applying for financial aid at a "need aware" school if you can afford to do without it.

3. Make sure you know which program or division you're applying to. Some colleges have just one application for the entire undergraduate program, and you can decide later what division you want to be in and what you want to major in. Other schools make you decide upfront whether you're applying to a particular divison (or college-within-the-college). For example, some schools make you decide at the application stage whether you're applying to the School of Liberal Arts or to the School of Engineering. Make sure to read the instructions for each college carefully so that your application ends up in the right hands.

4. Check that your activities list conveys the Core Four. Go back to the work you did in Week 3 and as you review your activities list in the application, make sure you've communicated all the activities that tell your story, and that you've conveyed the Core Four (don't forget impact in particular). Also make sure you've made use of the space available to you in the activities list.

You can read more tips for these sections in chapters 3, 6, 7, 8, and 14 in our book

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

October 14, 2013

Finding Typos in Your Application After You Submit

Typos. In very important missives. That you've already sent to very important people. Argh.

Everyone has been there at one time or another, including lawyers (which can be especially embarrassing). And, as you might be acutely aware, it happens to future lawyers, too. When you've been staring at the same thing six hundred times while you polished it, trying to get it just so, your eyes can start missing the little things. The irony.

It's that time of year when people start freaking out over typos they find after they've hit the submit button. I feel your pain. There's no magic wand or time machine to undo that submission, so here's the best you can do:

If you find a typo after you have submitted your application, call up the admissions office, be very nice (always!) to the person who answers the phone, and ask if you can substitute that particular document. If your file hasn’t already been sent off for evaluation, they’ll probably let you send in the corrected document. Ask them how they would like to receive the correction, and do not treat their reply as an offer for you to negotiate some other method. It's their way or the highway.

Even if they let you send in a corrected document, they might not be willing to get rid of the old one. They might only add a more recent copy to the file, but it’s unlikely that admissions officers will do a line-by-line comparison anyway. So be it. That's still the best outcome in these circumstances.

If you can’t substitute that page or that document, go to your Happy Place with the knowledge that the odds are they won’t even notice your typo. If, on the other hand, you find multiple errors dispersed throughout your application, you've got bigger problems, whether you leave the mess the way it is or ask to substitute the entire thing. One typo is human; multiple typos make you look sloppy.

I'll end on a happy note. An applicant once called the admissions office at the University of Chicago Law School, where I used to work, and sheepishly confessed that he had misspelled his own name on the application, and what was his best option to fix that? The wonderful woman manning the phones (a) chuckled and (b) said, "Don't worry about it, honey, I'll just fix it in our system. All taken care of."

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and and a former lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

October 10, 2013

Should You Cancel Your LSAT Score?

Congratulations to the LSAT test takers among our readers! How does it feel? Do you think you nailed it? Are you happy to have it behind you? Or are you feeling queasy and agonizing about whether to cancel your score and retake? Or maybe you want to see how you did on this test and then decide whether to retake it? Just having the option of canceling causes applicants a lot of anguish, so I'll post some thoughts on the cancellation analysis, and also on the leave-my-score-and-retake-it analysis.

Canceling Your LSAT Score

Before you walk out of your LSAT test, and (as of this writing) for six calendar days afterward, you have the option of canceling your score. While that score won't be reported to law schools, admissions officers will get to see that you took the test and canceled your score. Does that look bad? It depends.

Admissions officers understand that bad days can and do happen, and they generally won't look askance at a single score cancellation. Most of them remain agnostic in that situation.

However, if you cancel it a second or a third time, at best you start looking like a flake. At worst, you look like someone who can't handle the pressure of a half-day test, and they will rightly wonder how you're going to survive law school (you won't get to cancel and retake that six-hour take-home Property Law exam), let alone the bar exam (which lasted three days each in the two states in which I took it), let alone legal practice (think law firm partners are going to give you lots of chances for do-overs? None that I know of).  So if you do need to cancel, treat the cancellation as a one-time free pass.

However, don't treat the first test as something you can waltz into on the assumption that you can always cancel and retake it. First of all, admissions officers expect you to do better each additional time you take it, because it's less scary and more familiar when you've taken the real thing before. They think that taking the test and then canceling the score gives you an advantage over someone who doesn't have the benefit of having taken the test before. You should feel well prepared walking into that test, and use the cancellation option for a worst-case scenario.

So when should you cancel your score? If you've been prepping smartly for the test, you'll have a decent sense before the test if you're scoring where you want to be, and you'll have a sense during the test, too, whether things are going as planned. If you know, as you walk out of the test, that you didn't finish a section that you normally finish, or that you bubbled in the wrong lines, or that your stomach staged a rebellion, those are good reasons to cancel. If your next test goes better, no harm done — that's a happy scenario — and you're better off showing admissions officers your one great score rather than taking it over and over again on a reported basis.

If, instead, you can't pinpoint anything that went wrong, but you're just feeling a bit nauseated by the anxiety of having studied so hard and so long for this test and now you've finally taken it and you have to wait for a score that determines where you go to the law school that will determine the rest of your life and OH MY GOD NOW YOU'RE FREAKING OUT... well, that's called spiraling, and that's not a good enough reason to cancel. You might have done just fine, in which case, wouldn't it be nice to put the LSAT behind you and NEVER, EVER have to take it again? And when the score comes, if you learn that you didn't do just fine, you can take it again with the benefit of of your score report and being able to analyze which kinds of questions caused you the most trouble.

You won't get to see your score before you cancel, so you'll have to make the cancellation decision with imperfect information: you'll have to assess your performance against the benchmark of your practice exams. The more realistically you've been simulating real test taking conditions during your practice tests, the better you'll be able to gauge how did on the real thing.

And finally, before you get too trigger-happy with the cancellation option, keep in mind the LSAC rule that limits you to taking the LSAT up to three times in two years (including scores you cancel). 

Receiving Your Score and Retaking the LSAT

Schools will see results from all tests -- up to 12 -- for which you registered in the previous five years, including absences and cancellations. Some law schools say that they average multiple scores, but bear in mind that the ABA requires law school to report the high score, and it's the ABA data that US News & Word Report relies on for its rankings. For that reason, schools have an incentive to focus on the high score, regardless of what they tell you publicly.

What does that mean for you? If you walk out of the test feeling strongly that you can squeeze some more points out of the LSAT, and the LSAT/GPA calculator tells you that a few more points would make a difference for the schools you're interested in, you should retake it. Treat the next test as a clean slate. Many applicants tell me that they worry how it will look if there's a really big jump, to which I reply: If there's a big jump, pop the champagne. That can only be good news.

Second, don't assume that your score will necessarily go up -- it can go down, too. Even though admissions officers have an incentive to focus on the high score, they are still subject to the laws of human psychology (and consumer psychology), and you'll look better applying with one really strong score that stands on its own in shining glory than applying with multiple attempts that show incremental improvements (admissions officer: "hmmm....I wonder which test is the outlier here: the high score or the low score?"), not to mention a score drop. Nobody walks into a second or third LSAT exam thinking "my score will drop today," but it does happen. Score drops just don't look good when -- as admissions officers know -- most people's scores go up slightly with each successive test. It's better to take the test once, when you're feeling in peak form, with the understanding that you can always take it again if you have a bad day. And if you do take it again, you should feel quite confident that your score will go up, and walk into the test knowing that you did something different this time: you studied harder/better/smarter, or that you took the test more calmly/more smartly/more strategically.

If an application asks you to explain a change (whether an increase or a decrease) in your LSAT scores, see my previous blog posting on that question here.

So, test-takers: how do you feel? Are you inclined to cancel, or wait and see how you did? Please share!

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook
October 8, 2013

52 Weeks to College: Week 15 — School Reports

Two applicants are applying to the same college. They both have a 3.99 GPA. Will the admissions officer give them the same academic rating while evaluating their files?

Not necessarily.

Why not? Because not all 3.99 GPAs are created equal. Maybe student A has gotten top grades in the toughest classes at the most competitive schools, while student B has gotten top grades in the easiest classes at the least competitive schools. Those GPAs aren't really the same. You know it. Admissions officers know it. Everyone knows it.

So how does an admissions officer actually figure out what your 3.99 GPA means?<--break->

That's where the school report comes in. It is a crash course for the admissions officer to learn about your high school so that he or she knows how to interpret your 3.99 GPA. The school report typically explains how the GPA is calculated and weighted; what your rank is in the class (if your school ranks); and how rigorous your courses are. What the admissions officer learns in your school report will have a direct bearing on your academic rating. 

So if admissions officers are going to be scrutinizing your school report, you should know what's in it and how an admissions officer will interpret it. We include our top tips for school reports below, and you can also find more information about them in chapter 18 of our book.

(Note that we call it a "school report" because that's what the Common Application calls it. Some colleges have other names for these reports, like "secondary school report" or "counselor recommendation." Treat those all as the same thing.)

Week 15 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Draft your 6th application.
  • Interview with your colleges.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. 
  • Meet with college representatives.
  • Continue working on your CSS/PROFILE forms and college financial aid applications.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)

Tips & Tricks

1. Educate yourself about the types of school reports and the kinds of information in them. There are several different kinds of reports: the original school report, the midyear report, the final report. Everything but the original report is just an update to that original report, so don't get bogged down by the names. Your school will submit the original report around the same time that you submit your application. Depending on circumstances, there might also be additional reports: typically optional reports, international reports, or homeschool reports. 

2. Check out your own transcript. You are required to provide official transcripts from every school you have attended since ninth grade. On the transcript, the admissions officer will be able to scrutinize your grades, identify trends and patterns, and spot markers of brilliance or slackerdom. What trends do you see? What do your transcripts say about you? Are there any shining stars or black holes? Also make sure the information is accurate!

3. Make sure the school profile serves you. Because an admissions officer might not know much about your high school, the school report will include a school profile. It should give some basic information about your school (location, composition of the student body, public/private/boarding/military, accreditations); information about what advanced academic programs are available (AP? IB? honors courses? which ones?); the grading system; and a profile of the most recent graduating class (test results, grade distributions, regional/national/international academic awards, what kinds of colleges they went on to). If your high school doesn't post the school profile on its website, ask your college counselor for a copy. If the school profile is inaccurate, out of date, or lacking from your perspective, talk with your school counselor about addressing those problems. 

4. Follow up with your recommenders. Recommenders get busy and aren't necessarily paying attention to your deadlines the way you are. It is helpful for them if you check in and follow up to make sure your recommendations gets submitted on time. A short, polite e-mail is appropriate.

5. If you haven't already finished your early applications, drop everything and get those done!

You can read more tips around school reports and recommendations in chapters 18 and 19 of our book

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

October 1, 2013

52 Weeks to College: Week 14 — 'Why College X' Essays

Most college applications ask you to write some version of a "Why College X" essay. Here are some examples:

  • Please tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why.
  • Given your interests, values, and goals, explain why Oberlin College will help you grow (as a student and a person) during your undergraduate years. 

Most of these types of questions suggest an answer in the short-answer range (250-300 words), while others allow for an answer that's as long as the personal essay (250-500 words.)

Regardless of the length or the particular wording of the question, your job here is to explain why College X is a good match for you. Most applicants' "Why College X" answers are pretty bad, and good chunk of those are truly horrible. This should be an easy way for you to stand out—in a good way! We'll show you how. For more tips on the "Why College X" essay and some examples of how to make an average one really great, check out chapter 12 of our book.

Week 14 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your 5th application.
  • Finalize your supplementary materials. (See Week 4.)
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. Sign up, and add those meetings to your calendar.
  • Finalize your 3rd scholarship application.
  • Begin working on your CSS/PROFILE forms and college financial aid applications.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)
  • Order your test score reports.
  • Take the SAT.

Tips & Tricks

1. Be specific and personal. For your "Why College X" essays, it's not enough to identify what makes College X interesting in general; you need to specify why College X is interesting to you in particular. Is it the massive library where you want to get lost in the stacks? Is it the respect for vegan students? Is it the creative writing instructor who happens to be your favorite author? Whatever it is, name it. And if you're interested in a college because of its ranking, that's not a good reason to mention here. It might be why you're actually applying, but it won't be interesting at all to the college. Do your research and figure out why that school makes it to the to pof your own ranking.

2. Connect College X to your goals. It's not enough to say that there's a connection between you and the school. You also have to show it, and one way to do that is to connect the college to your goals. What is it that you actually want to get out of your college experience? Check out the last sentence of your story in Week 3—you have articulated some career goals in the last sentence. What do you need to accomplish in college to put you on a path to those career goals? If you don't have career goals yet, look at sentence 2 of your story—your academic interests—and go from there. College is first and foremost an academic enterprise, so those reasons should be front and center.

3. Learn how Expected Family Contribution (EFC) works. In particular, pay attention to the difference between Federal Methodology and Institutional Methodology. Some great online resources to learn about EFC and the different methodologies are FinAid.org, the College Board, and the college's financial aid pages themselves.

4. Collaborate with your parents in the financial aid effort. Unless you are declaring yourself financially independent from your parents for financial aid purposes, your parents will be key to filling out these financial aid forms, and you will need their input to secure the best financial aid package possible. It helps if you're all rowing in the same direction when you're working together on these forms.

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

September 26, 2013

Explaining Multiple LSAT Scores

A reader writes in:

I know you've addressed this in your book and in the blog, but I had another question regarding the multiple lsat addendum. I took the test twice and experienced a 7 point jump the second time. I have no fancy explanation...the score increase was simply the result of altering my test preparation (I actually scaled back the amount of studying and took a slower, more methodical approach....much more effective for my brain). I am more than content to let the higher score speak for itself, as you suggest, but the language put out by some schools I'd like to apply to makes me think twice about it. For example: 

  • "If there is a significant difference between an applicant's highest and lowest LSAT score (more than 4 or 5 points) the applicant should address this discrepancy in an addendum to his or her application."
  • "If you have a significant disparity between scores (six or more points), it would be very helpful to address any explanation for the difference in an optional essay or addendum."
  • "We encourage applicants with a significant difference in LSAT scores to include with their application any information that may be relevant to the interpretation of test results."

The language suggests they expect you to give them some explanation for two significantly different test scores. Does this mean that I should just write something short and simple that attempts to explain what I believe accounted for my score increase? If I ignore these statements and refuse to submit an explanation, will admissions be more inclined to take my average score?

You are asking all the right questions.

I would argue that you don't actually know why your score jumped seven points, because if you look at your LSAT reports for the two tests, you'll probably see a pretty wide score band in each one for score accuracy. So yes, maybe your score jumped seven points because you studied better/harder/smarter (fill in the blank), but when you're within the margin of error (as reflected by the score bands), or even if you've moved outside the score band, you don't actually know what's behind the difference.

What's a score band? If you look at your LSAT report, LSAC tells admissions officers to view your "real" score as falling within a range of scores. Most LSAT reports that I've seen show a band that's plus or minus 3 of your scaled score, so that's a band of 7 scaled points. Pretty huge, right? Your "real" score is anywhere in that band, and even then the score band captures the "real" score only 68% of the time.*  Think about that. That leaves a whopping 32% of the time when the score band — which is already pretty big — doesn't even include someone's "actual proficiency." (For statistics junkies out there: am I missing something? Am I being unduly harsh? Please post if you have an opinion.)

Given what LSAC itself is saying about the accuracy of its own scores and score bands, can most applicants say something meaningful or even accurate about a movement in scores?

I would say no. You are not omniscient. Sometimes you have a good day, sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes it's just the margin of error. You'll never really know.

And you're not the one writing the test questions, or grading the exam, or calibrating it against other exam administrations and other test-taker pools, or determining what the statistically appropriate score band is for a given test or a given score. LSAC employs an army of statisticians for that, and the score bands are the best they can do, with an accuracy rate that leaves a lot of room for error. And somehow you're supposed to know more about your scores than they do? Go figure. But over the years, more schools have added language to that effect, asking about score differences as small as four points. So I advise the following:

If a school expressly asks or encourages you to comment on an X-point score difference, you should say something about it, even if realistically you can't be expected to justify or explain the score difference.

If they ask and you stay silent, I don't think they are necessarily going to average your scores, since they have to report the high score to the ABA, and that creates powerful incentives for the school to focus on the high score. However, staying silent after they expressly ask about it would suggest to them that you're not following instructions, and that's not a good outcome, even if the instructions themselves are silly. You should say something, anything, even if it's just: I studied differently/had a better day. In your case, tell them about your different approach to the test.

What if an applicant has to explain a decline in scores? That's a tougher situation, obviously, since most people do better with each successive test. (LSAC says: "Data show that scores for repeat test takers often rise slightly," and there's a nice downloadable PDF with more granular data.) The things that can go wrong on a test day are wide and varied, and in a perfect universe, if you were having a bad test day, you should have canceled the score. But if you haven't canceled the score, explain what happened, and try not to give an impression that will undermine anyone's confidence in you as a future law student and lawyer. For example, it doesn't reflect well on an applicant to say that he panics in high-stakes testing situations. (How is he going to survive the much longer, more grueling bar exam? Or even law school exams? Or oral argument in front of a judge?)

I'd love for readers to post their own thoughts. Why do you think your score went up or down? How are you answering application questions about score differences? Am I missing something about the statistical reliability of the LSAT score?

_________________

* Here's what LSAC says: "Score bands for the LSAT are designed to include your actual proficiency level approximately 68 percent of the time."

 

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook

September 24, 2013

52 Weeks to College: Week 13 — Short Answer Questions

A typical short answer question looks something like this:

Please briefly tell us more about one of your extracurricular activities or a volunteer or work experience. (1,000 characters or less)

We define a short answer question as any question that you are asked to answer in 100-300 words or up to 1,000 characters. Often it's the answers to the short questions that separate the true standout applicants from the LMOs ("Like Many Others"), so you need to give these short answers just as much weight as you do the full-length essay. (And yes, we really are dinstinguishing between "short answer questions" and "really short answer questions.")

The Common Application 4.0 has eliminated its short answer question, but on many college-specific supplements to the Common Application, there is at least one short answer question. And MIT, which does not use the Common Application, has nothing but short answer questions on its application. (MIT's advice for the short-answer questions: "These are the places in the application where we look for your voice - who you are, what drives you, what's important to you, what makes you tick.")

 For the typical applicant who applies to ten selective colleges, you can assume that you will have to write anywhere from two to fifteen short answers. Whew. Answering these kinds of questions will be much easier if you did your "pre-work" in Week 3 to create your story and your resume, so if you haven't done that pre-work yet, go back and get caught up. The best topics for any short answer question are those that will punch up one of the themes of your story, and some of the questions will expressly ask about your activities.

Week 13 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your 4th application.
  • Revise your 5th application.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, and exercise judgment about whether to include them at all. (See Week 4.)
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. Sign up, and add those meetings to your calendar.
  • Revise your 3rd scholarship application.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)

Tips & Tricks

1. Answer the question. Colleges spend a lot of time deciding which questions to ask. Read the question carefully and make sure you answer the question that is asked. If they ask you to elaborate on two activities, don't write about one or three; write about two. If they ask you to address what appeals to you about their academic program, then write about the great major they offer, not about how much you love the location.

2. Make one well-developed point only. There are really two tips here. First, make only one point (you don't have room for more than one). Second, develop the one point you make well. For any question that relates to extracurricular activities or work experience, your well developed point is all about demonstrating the "core four"—passion, talent, initiative, and impact. The core four should form the foundation of your activities list and resume. You can read more about the core four in Week 3 and in chapter 8 of our book.

3. Be specific. Details distinguish you from everyone else, and they make your answer come alive. As you are composing your short answer, look for details that don't show up elsewhere on your application. Do not waste your precious wordcount in the short answer restating what you've already said.

4. Observe the rules for formal writing.  Short answers are not text messages or Facebook posts. They are not outlines or lists. They are full-fledged sentences and paragraphs and should observe the formal rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

September 19, 2013

Order Your Academic Summary Report Now

I've been talking to big groups of law school applicants recently, and when I ask for a show of hands to find out how many people already have their Academic Summary Reports, very few hands go up. Sometimes none.

So today's post is in the spirit of a public service announcement: Send your transcripts to LSAC now so that they can process your Academic Summary Report sooner rather than later.

That's for a couple of reasons:

1. The ASR includes amazing data about your grades. LSAC doesn't just summarize your transcript, but also slices and dices your grades in a bunch of different ways. For example, they compare you to other law school applicants who applied from your college in recent years. (Privacy note: It's aggregate data, so you don't learn anything about specific prior applicants from your school.) They see lots of data about grade inflation at your school. They see information about trends in your grades over time. Admissions officers will be scrutinizing your ASR carefully, so you should educate yourself about what's in your ASR. You might learn something about your own grades and your school's grading patterns that you hadn't known before.

2. The ASR can take time to get done. Whenever you have to rely on third parties for a component of your law school applications, you should build in lots of lead time. In this case, you have to download forms from LSAC, get them over to the registrar for every college or university where you've ever taken even one class (with some exceptions), and then those registrars have to process your request and send the transcripts out to LSAC, then LSAC has to process them to generate your ASR, which it will then make available to you in your LSAC account. That's a lot of moving parts. What if there's a hold on your transcript because you never returned that library book and you owe the school money? What if there's an error in your transcript? What if the transcript is correct but LSAC makes an error in the ASR? Those problems should all be fixable, but they can take TIME to fix. 

Many law schools are already accepting applications, and they make offers on a rolling basis. Don't let the ASR process hold you up. So if you haven't already done so, take these steps now:

1. Sign up for "CAS," LSAC's Credential Assembly Service. Read their FAQs and their grade conversion policies. (Note: If you're applying for an LLM program, there's a separate page just for you.)

2. Figure out which transcripts you have to submit. That semester abroad in Paris? The community college transcript from when you were a high school senior? That summer course in calculus you flunked and would rather make go away? That painting course you took at the Fine Arts School just for fun? Make sure you understand the rules, and if in doubt, contact LSAC directly to get confirmation.

3. Have your transcripts submitted to LSAC now. Also order copies of your transcripts for yourself, and take a close look at them. Look for any errors and do what you can to get them fixed.

4. Analyze your Academic Summary Report to see what weight LSAC has assigned to Withdrawals, Incompletes, etc. If you are still in school, you can have another round of updated transcripts sent to LSAC once your new set of grades has come in (you have a duty to update your ASR with new transcripts once they are available, even after you've submitted an application). In the meantime, you can see how LSAC handles the grades you've earned so far.

Here's a sample ASR from the LSAC website (without any instructions about how to read it, which is not super helpful). If you're not sure how to analyze your own Academic Summary Report, you can find more tips in chapter 2 of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions.

 

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook

September 17, 2013

52 Weeks to College — Week 12: Really Short Answers

 

This week we're sharing tips and tricks specifically around the questions on the Common Application (or any other college application) that require really short answers. We're defining that as an answer not much longer than a text message, tweet, or Facebook post. You should be able to own these — they are tailor-made for your generation!

But approaching these questions can feel tricky for many applicants. Are admissions officers trying to trap you when they ask about your favorite author, what historical moment you wish you'd witnessed, or your nutty idea for a gadget? Do they really care that Toy Story is your favorite movie? YES, because that gives them a window into your genuine personality. If you're answering these questions correctly, you are not too focused on what you think an admissions officer wants to hear (which rarely ends well), but rather you're focused on having an authentic answer, because that's the answer they're really looking for here. That's how you "think like an admissions officer."

Week 12 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your 3rd application.
  • Revise your 4th application.
  • Draft your 5th application.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, and exercise judgment about whether to include them at all. (See Week 4.)
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to a place near you. Sign up, and add those meetings to your calendar.
  • Draft your 3rd scholarship application.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. (See Week 6.)
  • Take the ACT.

Tips & Tricks

1. Link to your story. So how do you "be yourself" in the context of really short answers? As always, go back to your story from Week 3. Use your really short answers to emphasize or reinforce a particular theme about yourself in your application, or to bring out a side of yourself that hasn't yet made it into your application but that needs to be there.

2. Personalize the clichés. Do you think you're the only applicant naming blue as your favorite color? Not a chance. But that's perfectly OK, as long as you personalize your answer. Examples:

  • "My favorite color is the blue of my mother's eyes."
  • "My favorite color is royal blue."
  • "My favorite color is blue because I am red-green color blind, and blue is the only color that I see as others see it."

There are infinite ways to personalize your answers. You can check out some other techniques in chapter 9 of our book.

3. Watch your tone. Tone can be problematic with really short answers. What might strike you as sophistication or dry wit might strike an admissions officer as arrogance or negativity. You don't want the admissions officer to draw the wrong inferences about you just because of tone. The best way to check your tone is to ask someone who knows you well to read all of your really short answers together. You've struck the right tone if that person starts smiling and responds, "That's so you!"— in a good way.

4. Revisit your essay. Now that you've finalized three applications, consider whether you want to revisit your essay in order to realign it. All the pieces of each application should fit together to tell your story. Is there anything you could be tweaking in your essay to make the parts of the application fit together better?

5. Sleep. That's right. Sleep! Sleep is the secret weapon for performing better on standardized tests.

 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

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