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Essayforum Piano

This week, The Choice has invited Janet Lavin Rapelye, the dean of admission at Princeton University, to stop by our virtual Guidance Office and answer your questions about college admissions. 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.

Her responses, which began on Monday, conclude with this fifth installment of answers. In this final post, Ms. Rapelye provides advice about academic preparation, SAT subject tests, extracurricular activities and athletics.

Some questions and answers have been edited for length and style. — Tanya Abrams

High School Curriculum and Extracurricular Activities


What should a ninth grader be thinking about, other than taking a challenging course load and doing well, in terms of applying for college in three years? How should a future college application factor into decisions about courses, extracurriculars, etc.?

— Liz P.


As students begin high school, they should focus primarily on their high school experience rather than just the preparation for college. These are important years not only for academic growth, but also for personal development.

We hear about students who go off to summer camp and fill their spare hours with standardized test preparation after spending many of their after-school hours during the regular school year with academic tutors. That is not what we wish for students, and I hope sincerely that high school students will enjoy the richness of life as it presents itself.

And while we are on the subject of summer camps: If you have gone to a summer camp that you love, please return to it in the next few summers. Being a senior leader at camp or working as a counselor can be a rewarding, fulfilling and meaningful experience.

A number of my colleagues at selective institutions have noted the problem of student burnout. For some students, the dash begins as early as kindergarten or prekindergarten. We recognize that the growing competitiveness of getting into top-tier institutions is a primary driver of student burnout, and for that reason it is even more important to convey this note to parents: Let your children enjoy their youth.

Keeping an eye to the future is probably how I would frame this notion of preparation, rather than focusing exclusively on it. To that end, I would advise a healthy mix of rigorous courses and extracurricular activities.
Many selective liberal arts colleges and universities have a recommended but not required list of high school courses, in part because we know that not all schools offer the same academic opportunities.

If the courses are offered, we expect students will avail themselves of the opportunities. These usually include four years of English with a curriculum that gives students continued practice in writing. We hope students will take four years of mathematics, including calculus for students interested in engineering. If a high school offers four years of a single foreign language, students would be wise to take four years of a language. In addition, we hope that students can take at least two years of laboratory science, including physics and chemistry for students interested in engineering, and at least two years of history.

Students should consider taking the most advanced and rigorous course load offered at their school. Students who have taken advantage of these opportunities will not only improve their chances of admission to selective schools, but they will be better prepared to handle the challenging course work required at the college level. At some colleges, advanced standing and credit are granted for students who have scored well on Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or A level results. Each college and university has a different policy about this, so students should check with their college counselors and the admission officers at particular schools for more information.

As for extracurricular activities, we recommend that students follow their individual interests in the special talents they want to develop in the visual and performing arts, athletics, leadership activities, and that they engage themselves civically. But they should choose these activities judiciously. Don’t overload. If students need to have a job during the year, they can learn valuable life lessons in these endeavors.

Use the criterion of interest when selecting extracurricular activities, rather than how a list of activities might appear to a college admission office.

Common App Confidentiality


Will colleges on the Common App know what other colleges the student is applying to? Thanks in advance.

— kamala


Students should think of the Common Application as a process that is confidential in every way. Admission officers at participating schools only know that you are applying to their own school. They have no knowledge of where else you may be applying through the Common Application.

The schools that have decided to participate in the Common Application did so because they recognized that much of the information they require is similar. These include high school records, test scores, an essay, and teacher and guidance counselor recommendations. Some schools, such as Princeton, require supplemental sections that seek additional information.

The Common Application was created as a convenience for the student. By allowing students to answer questions that are common to the applications of all participating schools does not mean that the schools get to share information about who has applied to what schools. This information is held strictly confidential by the Common Application organization.

SAT Subject Tests


My daughter plans to apply to Princeton for fall 2013. She decided late in August to do so after visiting family and the school. Because her other school choices did not require SAT subject exams, she had not taken any. She therefore registered for two SAT subject exams in October 2012. Will Princeton accept the scores or will it be too late?

— Lissette


Yes, we will accept SAT subject tests taken in October. Most colleges and universities will post their deadlines and their policies on their Web site.

Princeton has two admission cycles: single-choice early action and regular decision. For the early action cycle, we strongly recommended that you send us by Nov. 1 the two SAT subject tests that we require of applicants. If you take the tests in the month of November, we suggest that you tell the testing agency to send the scores directly to Princeton.

For the regular decision cycle, we strongly recommend that you send test results by Jan. 1. If you take the tests in January, and the admissions office said it will process the results, please send the scores directly to the college to which you are applying. You can find most of the answers to questions like these in admissions materials distributed by each college. It is wise to check these deadlines with every school, since each institution has its own guidelines.

If you have other questions about deadlines or the application process, you should check with your college counselor.



How much importance is given to a student’s participation in team-oriented extracurricular activities (as in most sports) as opposed to those requiring individual participation (as in music- or arts-related activities)? I ask this since a child’s social skills in a team may not be very obvious if she has spent most of her life pursuing her interest in music or arts.

— Rita


Sports. How important is participation in athletics to the admission staff at an elite college or university? Is merely being on a school team enough to help admission, or must the student be a star player? Does it only help if he or she may be good enough to play at the college level? Does pursuing physical activity as a hobby (say running or cycling) help at all? And dare I ask why sports are important at institutions that are leaders in intellectual achievement?

— PB


We’ve received many questions about the value of athletics and the arts in our admission process. The two questions above pose the subject a little bit differently, asking if we place more emphasis on one than the other, and why sports should even be part of the equation in an intellectual environment.

We do not emphasize one activity over the other; athletics as well as artistic endeavors are equally regarded. They both present students with opportunities to show and develop character. In both, students are likely to show such character traits as motivation, creativity and independence, and to learn such life lessons as overcoming adversity, demonstrating empathy or learning the importance of hard work and perseverance.

I’m not sure I would describe athletics as only being team-oriented and music as only being individually oriented. We may think of musicians, dancers or actors as people who spend most of their time practicing alone, but many will play in a band or orchestra, participate in a choreographed production or act in a play. And runners and swimmers, for example, can spend long hours alone in their training. In both the arts and athletics, there are opportunities for soloists and supporting actors, stars or team players, and both kinds of players bring equal value to their endeavor.

As I’ve also mentioned previously, we see students who have honed an interest in a particular skill and students who are well rounded and have excelled in a number of different activities. We want both of these kinds of students on our campuses. We have students who have worked their whole lives developing their skills as high jumpers, rowers, speed skaters or marksmen, some of whom have gone on to compete in the Olympics. We also have students who have spent their lives perfecting their piano or singing technique and who have gone on to win international competitions or to sing opera on the world stage. In any admission cycle, we also are likely to see the student who is both a skilled athlete and a talented musician. We also have students applying who have participated in athletics and music, and while they love the activity, they may not be the stars. There is a place for these students in our colleges.

We value students with all kinds of talents because we know they will enrich the university environment. On a residential campus such as Princeton’s, we want to see students whose enthusiasm will be infectious. When we see, for example, a student who comes here with a strong interest in cello who later joins the cycling team, we consider that a win for the individual as well as the campus. We also know that the arts on our campus can be both a curricular and an extracurricular focus.

For all these reasons, American colleges and universities have historically stressed the importance of extracurricular activities in the admission process – everything from participation in the arts and athletics to feeding the homeless or taking care of a relative. It is our mission to educate a student in every way possible. It is our duty to expand their intellectual horizons and to nurture them in ways that will prepare them ultimately to be leaders in whatever field they choose.

Ms. Rapelye is no longer taking questions. However, if you would like to further discuss college admissions, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments box below.

The point of this essay is to invoke the casual nature of roommate relationships and invite students to take a more relaxed approach to writing about themselves. It brings the application to life by asking you to write only about your own personality, which feels more open than other essays that ask you to answer a specific question like “Describe your community” or “Talk about a mentor who got you through a difficult time.” While answering both of those prompts still offers insight into who the author is, they are fundamentally centralized around another person or topic, which is why Stanford cuts straight to the chase with this prompt to actually get to know you better.


Stanford is looking for an extremely authentic 250-word portrayal of your character that could distinctly identify you from a crowd of essays. If you got to meet your admissions officer in person, and only had 60 seconds to pitch yourself without using anything from your activities or awards, what would you say first? If you were legitimately writing a letter to your roommate at Stanford, what would you want them to know about the prospect of living with you? If you imagine how your Stanford alumni interview might play out, what topics do you hope to steer towards?


Think deeply about these questions and first see if there is something meaningful that you want to convey, and look through Prompt 3 to see if it would best serve answering the question, “What matters to you, and why?” instead of this roommate prompt. If you do have a more serious answer, you can style the essay like a very formal letter or like a traditional 1-2 paragraph short essay without any of the letter gimmicks at all to stand out syntactically.


If you don’t think you have any important topics on the serious side that you want to specifically cover in the space for this prompt (an extreme medical condition, a family hardship etc.), you could also go for another popular tactic by creating a fun, miscellaneous essay.


This prompt can arguably be one of the most entertaining to write and read of all college supplemental essays because of the opportunity to present the admissions office with an amalgamation of weird topics. Last year’s CollegeVine guide encouraged students to explore their quirky side with this prompt by writing about unique hobbies or interesting personality oddities. It also advises staying away from things like politics (i.e., don’t indicate which party or ideology you tend to support, even through jokes or minor references, since you don’t want to step on any toes).


Don’t sweat too much over the exact way to put the essay in letter format. Starting with something like “Hi! I am ridiculously stoked to meet you!” or any other straightforward greeting that doesn’t sound too cheesy is totally fine. If you decide to, you can essentially make a bullet list of “fun me facts” if you want to include the maximum amount of content. Remember that this essay should be fun!


Since it is usually hard to come up with good material about your own diverse personality while staring at a blank computer screen, try keeping a note on your phone and adding to it gradually as you think of things throughout the day. Think about what you enjoy and jot down notes like:

I love Sandra Bullock movies. I wish I could stop biting my nails, and sometimes I do, but only until I take a test or watch a freaky movie. I hate doing my laundry and the song ‘Drops of Jupiter.’ I planned myself a Cutthroat Kitchen-themed birthday party last year because I love cooking contest shows. My favorite store is the Dollar Tree, and when I’m there I always feel like I’m getting too much stuff, but when I leave I regret putting stuff back. Before I go to bed, I like to watch clips from Ellen or Jimmy Fallon because I think it gives me funny dreams. I’m attracted to buying gift wrap even if I have no reason for it, a trait I inherited from my mom. I love chicken. I sleep like a rock and unfortunately, that means I need an incredibly loud alarm clock, but I also will never be bothered by late night noise, etc.


You can see by how long this section got just how easy it can be to talk about yourself once you get started…


Try to intersperse some facts that relate to activities you could do together or things that would be important for an actual roommate to know to stay true to the prompt. Juxtaposing random facts might not be the way to go if you feel they are redundant with your short answers or too all over the place for you. Putting together just a few key aspects of your personality and typical habits with more coherent elaboration on each and topping it off with a “Love, your future roomie” holds the potential to become an engaging essay as well.


Here is another example that shows a ton of personality and utilizes a list format:

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