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8 Minutes That Will Change Your Life

In 8 minutes the average human can:

1.      Boil an egg.

2.      Run a mile.

3.      Shower and change.

And the average college admissions officer? That human can read and pass judgment on your entire college application, everything included –grades, test scores, resume and all essay responses.

Granted, two admissions officers peruse your application in tandem. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “some elite colleges review an application in 8 minutes. Or less.” Sitting side-by-side, one person reads your transcript and test scores while the other reads your essay responses. They briefly share notes about you and then decide to admit, deny or wait-list. In 8 minutes. Or less.

The main reason for this time crunch is the sheer number of college applications inundating admission offices. Students submit their applications online through the Common,  Coalition or the UC Application. Once a student has entered in the necessary information, applying to one school or twenty schools is as easy as checking an additional box; the only limit is the application and test score submission fees.

Not surprisingly, every year, the number of college applications has grown by leaps and bounds. Duke University broke 30,000 applications last year; Boston University was over 60,000. Last fall, UCLA became the first university to receive over 100,000 applications in a single year. In a perverse arms race, high school seniors submit even more applications to raise their chances of getting into college. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 36 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges in the fall of 2015. Just 10 years earlier, in the fall of 2005, only 17 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more institutions.

Pity the poor admissions officer. Faced with thousands of applications and a short deadline, the only response is an 8-minute processing time. Like a 21st century Bartleby the Scrivener working in the dead letter office, admissions officers must reject thousands and thousands of applicants, even though many are fully qualified to attend their institutions.

What a soul-crushing job.

So, who is that person on the other side of your application? Who aspires to be a collegiate bureaucrat? Most likely, the application reader, especially the most junior readers, couldn’t get a job at Google or Goldman Sachs. Or maybe they had to follow their spouses who are tenure-track professors at said university and they needed some type of paid employment.

Faced with such a reader, what can you, the applicant, do?

Well, first, pray to the application gods that your submission gets read either first thing in the morning or right after lunch. In an Israeli study, judges were more likely to grant parole to prisoners if they reviewed their cases first thing in the morning or right after lunch. A parole rate of 65% dropped close to zero as judges reviewed more cases right before lunch time. The parole rate rose again, immediately after lunch. The researchers concluded that mental fatigue sets in and judges will default to the easier decision as they get tired. The easier decision is to deny parole.

By analogy, for an admissions officer, the easier decision is to deny admissions. Therefore, college applications read early in the morning or right after lunch will probably have a slightly higher admit rate as mental fatigue has not yet taken its toll. (I haven’t found such a study, but please send me a link if you have).

Second, make sure your essays grab the reader’s attention. The Common and Coalition Applications basically ask you to tell a story that only you can tell. What story can you tell that will put a smile on the face of that possibly bitter, definitely overworked reader?

Third, use summer to get a head start on the process. By drafting your essays earlier, you can allow time between drafts and gather comments from friends, family, and teachers. Writing a good essay takes time and effort. Often your first ideas will not be your best ideas. By starting in the summer, you have the luxury to start over.

A three-month head start in the summer may pay off when faced with the 8 minutes that will change your life.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/some-elite-colleges-review-an-application-in-8-minutes-or-less-1517400001 (Need subscription to read)

To Get Parole, Have Your Case Heard Right After Lunch
By Kate Shaw, Ars Technica Between the courtroom antics of lawyers, witnesses and jurors, reason doesn’t always …
Click link above or copy & paste into browser: https://www.wired.com/2011/04/judges-mental-fatigue/

From The Atlantic article “Where College Admissions Went Wrong” on who are the gatekeepers in the admissions office: “You would never find the faculty in any decent university that would allow 24-year-olds to determine who were going to be their colleagues on the faculty; nor would they allow these 24-year-olds to determine who are going to be their graduate students or their post doctorate fellows,” said Cole, noting that admissions officers have often declined to go forward with his recommendations. “So why do we do it in undergraduate education?” The article also advocates a lottery system among all the qualified applicants. This would be fairer and less stressful for both applicants and admissions officers.
Click link above or copy & paste into browser: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/03/college-admissions-narcissists/475722/

Top Three Essay Tips Students Need to Know

Happy New Year! School is back in session and to start off right, here are the top three essay tips students need to know for literary analysis. As a writing tutor, I see the good, the bad and the ugly of essay writing across all grade levels, from elementary school to graduate school.

These three core principles form the foundation for a clear, persuasive literary analysis essay and should be committed to memory as well as be included in a writing rubric or checklist. In my tutoring, I find that students who do not write well suffer from either not knowing or failing to use these simple, yet powerful tools.

  1. TAGS
  2. Thesis = Opinion + Why
  3. 2:1

Explanation of Terms

TAGS stands for Title, Author, Genre, Short Summary. For literary analysis, students must include TAGS in the introductory paragraph. Students who forget TAGS leave the reader lost. What are we reading? Who is the author? What are the basic plot details?

For example, I recently reviewed an essay with the following introduction: “Troy Maxson is a bitter man in Fences…” Although the student was in Honors English at an award-winning high school, the teacher had forgotten to correct the lack of TAGS in the intro. TAGS was not included in the teacher’s lengthy rubric nor ever discussed in class. Oops.

What the student should have written was the following: “Troy Maxson is a bitter man in the play Fences by August Wilson.” An even better TAGS would have added the 3Ws of Who, When, and Where. “Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the play Fences by August Wilson features the main character Troy Maxson, a former baseball player now turned bitter by his life experiences.”

Students need to memorize TAGS and automatically include it every introductory paragraph for a literary analysis essay including AP English essay responses. TAGS is a basic writing requirement that should be in every teacher’s checklist. For the 3Ws of the Short Summary, students should focus on the basic plot details relevant to the literary analysis that follows.

Thesis = Opinion + Why. The thesis can be more than one sentence but it is rarely more than three sentences. Other synonyms for “opinion” are: “claim”, “argument”, “belief” or “perspective.” The “why” are the reasons to support the opinion and will become the topic sentences organizing the body paragraphs. The number of reasons can range from two or more, depending on the length of the essay. I have yet to find a student who has a better or more succinct definition of a thesis. Most will parrot back vague, meandering definitions of “what your essay is about” or “a roadmap of your main idea with subtopics.” Huh? If anyone has a better definition, please send it to me. So far, I have not found anything comparable.

2:1: This ratio comes from the Schaffer writing method. By giving students a minimum guideline of writing 2 comments for every 1 quote, teachers can ensure that students do not just regurgitate the plot but will include sufficient analysis. One student told me his teacher had the class chant “2-to-1” and “Commentary-Quote-Commentary” in English class. He was lucky as most students I have tutored have never heard of the 2:1 ratio, which may explain why they need tutoring. Applying 2:1 will greatly improve any essay. (564 words)

An Algorithm for Writing?

Excerpt from Mark Edmundson’s essay “Under the Sign of Satan: William Blake in the Corporate University”. (2012)

The engineering student sits in the fiction writer’s office and asks questions about her craft. This fiction thing, this art thing, what is it about? What is it about exactly? He has read some novels and plans to read many more. His grade point average is high. His SAT scores are also impressive. A nearly perfect score on the verbal test—he makes sure to mention this. He is—he knows—very smart.

But this fiction thing and poetry as well. How does one begin? … There are, he’s heard, guidebooks that give step-by-step instructions. Does the teacher advise trying one?

The teacher’s way of writing fiction is to find an image, something that lodges in her mind for no reason she can understand. She writes the image down. She describes it as well as she can from a vantage point that is—maybe—not quite her own.

And then what? The student is truly interested.

She waits to see what will happen from there.


Sometimes something happens. Sometimes nothing.

This is writing? This is what you do?

Other people do it differently. But yes. I wait to see what will happen. She tells the student that if she lets her attention float with just the right amount of freedom, she’ll eventually go somewhere she’s fascinated by going.

Why don’t you just start with what fascinates you?

I don’t always know, the writer confesses. I don’t always really know.


Edmundson is a professor of English at University of Virginia.  He has collected his various essays in the 2013 book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education. As the title of both essay and book implies, Professor Edmundson has grown increasingly more disconcerted about the transformation of the liberal arts college into a technical trade school.