Updated: Ms. Rapelye is no longer taking questions.
This week The Choice has invited Janet Lavin Rapelye, the dean of admission at Princeton University, to answer select reader questions about college admissions in the blog’s Guidance Office, a forum for those applicants and their families seeking expert advice. Ms. Rapelye, who received a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a master’s degree from Stanford University, has 30 years’ experience in college admissions.
In this first installment of answers, Ms. Rapelye responds to questions about the essay, the importance of standardized tests and so-called “geographical diversity.” Her responses will continue each day throughout this week. Readers may continue to post questions using the comment box below, or on the original post soliciting questions.
(On Saturday, after we kicked off this series, the president of Princeton, Shirley M. Tilghman, made some news of her own: she announced she would resign, effective at the end of the academic year.)
Some questions, and answers, below have been edited, including for length and style. — Tanya Abrams
You hear admission officers and counselors talk about how important the essay is and how it shows that you are not just a test score. The importance, however, is still not clear. What exactly does an admission officer think as he goes about an applicant’s essay? What does he look for? What works in the applicant’s favor?
— Emiliano Lopez
Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.
Your command of the English language, whether or not you are a native speaker, is important because you will be asked to write extensively when you get to our campuses.
The best applications come from students who have spent time writing their essays, editing their work, and refining their message.
It is important to answer the question that is asked by a specific school, and not just to “recycle” one essay. This is not the time to take an academic paper you have written for a high school course and edit it for the application essay. This is your moment to be authentic.
Let me suggest that you take this opportunity to sit down and write about a topic you care about and know well. If you are stuck, you might begin with this question from the Common Application: “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.”
Each of you has someone in your life who has played a role in your development, someone to whom you are grateful, and someone you could describe well. That person may be an adult, a child or a peer. Write a draft that you can put aside for a few days or weeks and edit later. Even if this is not the final essay you send to a college, it will get you started, and working from a draft is much easier than staring at a blank page with a blinking cursor.
Please resist the Web sites that give you access to college essays. This needs to be your own work. Your integrity in this process is paramount.
SAT Scores and the Importance of Standardized Tests
To what extent are SAT scores scrutinized? Is there a defined cutoff for the composite SAT score, or is it more about individual module? For example, would a composite score of 2130 that included a 780 math, 710 writing, and 640 critical reading scores be regarded in the same light as a 2130 composite score that included 700 math, 700 writing and 730 critical reading scores?
Can you get into Princeton with a 1730 on the SAT?
— Joe Smith
Despite their biases, inaccuracies, limited ability to measure achievement or ability, and other flaws, why does such a world renown and highly accredited institution like Princeton University require applicants to take standardized tests? Is admission possible without it?
To answer these questions, it is important to understand how admissions officers read an application. At Princeton, every application is given a holistic review. Because we look at the totality of your experience, there is no formula to the process.
We look first at the transcript that is sent by your secondary school, and we evaluate the rigor of your program and the grades you have received. If you are in our applicant pool, we expect that you have taken the most demanding academic program offered at your school. You will be challenged when you get to our campus, and we want to be sure you are well prepared to handle our college courses.
We are looking not just at your potential, but at your performance. If you had a slow start to your studies in high school, we hope to see academic improvement.
We then review the recommendation letters that are sent by your teachers and guidance counselor. We read your essay and assess your extracurricular activities, how you have spent your summers, if you have had a job or were engaged in community service, what you may have done outside of school, and any other supporting material.
Admission officers understand that standardized tests measure quantitative ability, critical reading, an understanding of some subject areas, and writing skills. Combined with your grades, they only partially predict first-year performance in college. They do not predict, however, other values we hold in high esteem at the college level, such as motivation, creativity, independent thought, intellectual curiosity and perseverance.
When we shape our class, we look for students who will continually challenge themselves and contribute to a lively exchange of knowledge and ideas in the classroom. We seek students whose interests are varied and who have a record of accomplishment in athletics or the arts. We look for qualities that will help them become leaders in their fields and in their communities.
If one test could measure all these things, our jobs would be easy. Standardized test scores help us evaluate a student’s likelihood of succeeding at Princeton, but by themselves are not accurate predictors. For all these reasons, we have no cutoffs in test scores, nor do we have cutoffs in grade point averages or class rank. We consider all of these measures within the context of each applicant’s school and situation.
Although our most promising candidates tend to earn strong grades and have comparatively high scores on standardized tests, we look at other parts of the application, including essays, to learn more about the kind of student you are and how you approach learning.
Location, Location, Location
How important is geographical diversity to admissions offices? My daughter attends a very small public school in an isolated rural town in Montana. While she will have taken (literally) every rigorous course the school offers, the school doesn’t offer AP courses, dual credit or many of the clubs, courses and opportunities available elsewhere (they just started a National Honor Society last year, for example). People from more urban states tell me she’s got it made because “you’re from Montana.” But I’m realistic: She’s simply not had the opportunities available at larger schools. Will being from a small Montana rural public school help her — or hurt her?
Do college admissions officers take into account that a student who attends a large (public) school faces more competition when competing for slots in extracurricular activities than a student from a smaller (private) school? Similarly, that a student from a small town has less opportunities for internships and jobs than a student from a more metropolitan area?
— Sheila Mehta
These questions touch on two important considerations in the admission process: where you live and the opportunities you might have to excel based on the resources of your schools.
When evaluating applications, we ask ourselves whether students have taken advantage of what their setting offers. In a perfect world, every student would have equal access to the same academic resources and extracurricular activities. We, of course, do not live in such a world.
We recognize that not all high school students are offered the same courses, opportunities or extracurricular offerings. Some schools, public or private, offer International Baccalaureate, a range of foreign languages and Advanced Placement courses; others have more limited offerings. Similarly, some students live in communities that are able to afford extremely robust athletic and arts programs with extraordinary facilities, while others do not.
We give full consideration to any applicant who has been unable to pursue the recommended studies as long as the student’s record shows promise, initiative and intellectual curiosity. We are looking for academic excellence; students who are pushing back intellectual limits no matter what their background might be. Some students have overcome great adversity. Others have had many opportunities, and they have seized those opportunities.
We’re looking for students who have made a commitment to an extracurricular activity or a set of activities. Some students are well rounded in their interests, and others have one well-honed skill. We value both kinds of students. We’re looking for students who will enrich our campus with such talents as music, art, drama, athletics, public speaking, and leadership.
On the question of geographic diversity, it is our hope that we will attract students from all over the United States and the world. We believe that our academic community benefits from the diversity of experiences that students bring with them when they come from geographically diverse backgrounds.
Just being from a remote area, or a city on the other side of the world, however, will not necessarily give you an advantage in this process. Our applicant pool is so large that we can admit only a fraction of the qualified candidates. We will evaluate each student’s academic performance and personal achievements in the context of his or her setting.
Ms. Rapelye has agreed to accept questions through Sept. 26. To pose a question to Ms. Rapelye, please visit our original post or use the comments box below.
This prompt is only required for applicants interested in receiving a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and those who mark it as one of their possible degrees of study on their application.
Given the word limit and subject matter, a strong approach to this essay is to perhaps begin with a short anecdote or a few sentences that interestingly convey to the reader your interest in engineering, and perhaps what ignited your curiosity.
After that, you should discuss practical experiences in the field and how they shaped your interests. When discussing your exposure to engineering, it can be easy to fall into the trap of simply going through your resume and listing experiences or activities. Instead, you should make sure that your discussion of your experiences with engineering have a cohesive flow to them, as opposed to simply being unlinked events in conjunction.
Finally, they give you a chance to speak to “why Princeton Engineering,” specifically, what programs, organizations, opportunities, classes, research projects, etc. pique your interest. This is a chance for you to convince the admissions committee and Engineering department that not only would you thrive in Princeton’s Engineering department and take advantage of their resources, but also that you would be an asset to the field.
This section of your essay can be enhanced by discussing opportunities that are highly specialized to your interests and experiences; perhaps there is a professor who is conducting research in a highly specific area that suits your interests. On the other hand, discussing very common engineering opportunities (such as the ACM club) could be detrimental to the entire essay, as it fails to demonstrate why Princeton, specifically, is a strong fit for you.
Overall, this is likely intended to be less of a creative essay, and more of a prompt designed to simply tell Princeton why you are particularly interested in engineering, and why Princeton’s departments are suited for these interests.
Hopefully, after reading this guide, you feel much more confident and prepared to craft a compelling supplemental application to Princeton University that will distinguish you from your peers.
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