High stakes: The school admissions race



Walter Hutchinson

Top sprinters train for years to make every millisecond, every heartbeat count. Amazing victories only appears effortless, because actual races last fewer than 12 seconds. Serious contenders for top schools require the same sustained commitment and focus in order to ensure that their defining moment in the application process is as impressive as it can possibly be.

Those from Japan who I assist usually aim for business, law and graduate schools in the United States or Europe, so it is not surprising that cultural differences sometimes color their initial perceptions about the admissions process.

Indeed, in the 16 years that I have been offering advice, both Japanese and foreign candidates have shared with me a mix of brilliant and some not always accurate insights into factors that make them competitive for top schools. For instance, it has generally been believed that quantitative factors such as top test scores far outweigh extracurricular activities and essays — hence Japanese applicants’ concern each season about whether they have high enough TOEFL scores, GMAT scores or grades, to name a few.

This assumption is correct in the sense that a grade transcript and respectable test scores are essential quantifiable measures of ability. However, while these measures of aptitude form a baseline gauge for competitiveness, they no longer constitute the overriding factor in every selection decision. With candidates’ scores and grades edging higher each year, schools turn to qualitative methods of evaluation — essays, resumes, evidence of extra curricular activities and interviews afford admissions committees the perspective that reaches beyond your “numbers.” Even law schools, where test scores and grades play a dominant role, will be hesitant about applications that are submitted with weak personal statements or resumes.

Even people with nearly flawless records are not automatically admitted, so it is incorrect to assume a straight-line correlation exists between performance numbers and an application’s selection ranking. Varied work experience, demonstrated commitment to societal causes and other subjective factors can help you in pulling ahead of the pack, even if you do not possess the highest scores.

Indeed, my Japanese students who did not have perfect numbers were admitted to top schools last year and the year before. They attributed their results to the advantage they gained with personalization of their application strategies.

The word “personalized” gets used or taken out of context so often, that it loses meaning for many candidates. Hopefully this clarification will be useful. In terms of admissions strategy and preparation, the best advisors know that their primary role is to help you express your ideas and aspirations through your own stories of your experiences. In so doing, efforts to tailor and personalize an application do not necessarily result in essay or resume-writing that undulates rhythmically and flows seamlessly.

Japanese applicants should be aware that the strongest essays emerge in the wake of well-developed content even if the English is not native level. Again, your advisor has to know how to guide you through this process and evaluate the result with a well-trained eye, informed by long experience with Japanese applicants and other non-native speakers, preferably in several different settings.

When I was at Milton Academy and Columbia University, one of the ways I assisted the senior admissions staff was by spending recreational time with prospective students from several countries, including Japan. Before each encounter, I recalled how the United States was one of the few nations where an applicant’s extra-curricular involvement was rated significantly in admissions procedures as an indication of character, morality and values.

Notwithstanding that bit of trivia, my task was to find some creative means to gain insight into the Japanese candidate’s personality and better understand of how he might fit in on campus. After more than 100 of those encounters spanning nearly 9 years, I fine-tuned techniques that were rather helpful to selection committees, techniques that I use to help applicants today.

When I advise Japanese or anyone else seeking admission to Ivy League colleges, graduate schools or the elite prep schools, I coach them in developing their content precisely so that admissions committees can more easily identify them as unique and worthy of acceptance. The real art involved in providing guidance is to get candidates to develop strong content while helping them avoid canned statements that they think committees want to hear. Japanese candidates best able to project their qualities through content will have an advantage in the admissions race.

Shrewd candidates always keep in mind that the competitive climate is continually evolving; they recognize that strict adherence to any one application “manual” or recipe for success has shortcomings. Formulaic approaches are only partially successful. Without or without an advisor, it is never too early to hunt the creative catalyst for the personal story shown eventually through the lens of your essays, interviews, resumes or recommendations. The type of self-reflective writing required for application essays is not common to the Japanese education system, and certainly not in English. An early start becomes all the more important.

A clear, focused plan starts you on your way to distance yourself from the competition. As admissions standards climb relentlessly, so should the level of your game. Explore your strengths and catalogue weaknesses to give your game plan a realistic framework. Trust the rigor of the process and be honest with yourself. Brilliant applications may be the culmination of forward steps, lateral shifts or the occasional cul de sac, but always, always involve intermittent experimentation with new approaches and ideas. Don’t obsess about being seen as “perfect,” because candidates forthright in assessing personal flaws are more attractive than those who claim to have none.

Thorough content development serves your interests: 1) you avoid the risks involved in having advisors write model essays for you, and 2) you reap the benefits to your image, recounting stories in your authentic voice. In addition, if you interact with school representatives, whether in Japan or on campus, the “real” you as described in your application will be more consistent, convincing and most importantly, compelling.

Planning makes all the difference in your final sprint. As you get ready to pull ahead, specialized coaching assistance is just heartbeats away.

Walter Hutchinson is the head counselor and founder of www.applicationadvantage.com. He worked for prep school, college, business and graduate admissions offices; graduated Milton Academy and Columbia University, and attended the University of Tokyo (Faculty of Law).

December 11, 2003 Japan Today

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