Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Dreaded "Why"? Question

I've found the "Why?" supplement question is something students dread.

The lurking fear is that they won't tell the college what they want to hear, and as a result, they will get rejected for it.

So students will often write something safe and generic.

Last week, in fact, I had a student into my office who decided to apply ED to Northwestern.  A quick glance at the essay confirmed my fears - this student had pretty much cut-and-pasted content from a Northwestern web page, essentially plagerizing the college's own stuff.

So I gave this student a different game plan.

He had a desire to study political science. 

So I connected him to the poly sci link on Northwestern's site.

I then asked him to do the following research exercises:

Fall 2012 course catalog.  Find one or two classes that you would get up at 7:00 am, walk across campus bundled up in three layers, willing to endure sub-freezing temperatures with a stiff wind whipping up off Lake Michigan, just to attend.

5000 level courses.  Toward the senior year year - do they offer a seminar?  a capstone?  a research opportunity?  It's always good to begin with the end in mind.  It's where the source of protein can be found to endure the first three years. 

Instructors.  Find out who teaches what and look up their credentials.  See what scholarship they have recently written that you might find interesting for a potential research project.  See if the instructor has been student reviewed and read up on his or her efficacy as an instructor.

Internships.  Thumb down through what internships appeal to you and why.

Research/Study Abroad.  Explore what exotic, travel abroad research opportunities NW offers that overlap with one of the student's burgeoning areas of interest.

After the senior did this set of exercises, he found things in his research that lit his eyes up like Clark W Griswold's house with all 10,000 Christmas lights!

The challenge then for this student was organizing and integrating in a few specific, concrete, and compelling things in regards to "Why NW?" 

Here is just a snippet of that supplemental essay:

When I peruse the Fall 2012 courses, for example, that Northwestern offers in the political science department, I get giddy at the prospect of taking courses like “Law in the Political Arena”, and an “Introduction to International Relations” with renown professor, Dr. Spruyt.  I am energized by the research opportunities that I would have both on Northwestern’s campus through the senior research seminar, as well as beyond through research grants for international programs.  I can already envision doing a research-based project on how religious politics shape political policy in India through Northwestern’s “Buddhist Studies in India” summer program.  It would be a dream come true to get to plunge my intellectual energies into researching the religious and political layers that impact Indian law.  Moreover, I am thrilled by the myriad of internship opportunities that Northwestern offers its political science majors, like getting to intern for the Obama Re-election HQ in Chicago, or interning in the summer for The Diplomacist at Cornell, where I would get a chance to platform a number of ideas about global events.  Our debate team, in fact, uses The Diplomacist as an online resource in our preparations for policy debates.  

Many "Why?" questions require incisive writing.  NW didn't.  They gave the student as much "character space" to riff.  This is the exception to the rule in an age of volume application crush.

Most schools put a tight "character limit" on their "Why?" question.

They want you to get in, drill down, and get out.

To drill down means that the student demonstrates what they know what animates the sub-strata regions with each academic, research, internship, residential program on campus.  

One of my favorite short "Why?" supplements this year was written by a student applying to Yale.

He had visited Yale's campus the week before and came back rife with fodder to answer the "Why Yale?"

But the "Why Yale?" prompt limited his response to 150 words or so.

After story boarding and drafting multiple times, this student distilled five specific, concrete, "drilled down" sub-strata reasons as to why Yale.

My campus visit over fall break solidified Yale as my top choice. The first thing I love is the shopping period. I want to “bluebook” and shop classes like "Infinity" or "Political Psychology". Hopefully, I get the opportunity to take a small discussion based course on economics with Tolga Koker. The sense of community and the residential college system sold me on Yale. I would love to experience the freshman holiday dinner at Commons. I want to join an intramural swim or basketball team and help my residential college vie for the Tyng Cup, and help inspire students with the Future Project.

My final advice to kids regarding the dreaded "Why?" questions involves approaching it as a mini-research paper.  

Here is where a student gets to put to good use what he or she learned in their US History class.

The dreaded "Mr. Wiley" US History research paper will pay off dividends here.

 The best compliment, in closing, I've ever received after a job interview was, "Our committee could tell that you really did your homework on us."

That's what every student should strive to receive as a response to their response to the "Why?" question. 

This student really did their homework.