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Mash-ups, Texting, and The CommonApp Activity Blurb

Tips for college applicants on the Activity Short Answer (aka, extracurricular blurb) on the CommonApp.

[Originally posted in CollegePrepExpress's blog, http://collegeprepexpress.wordpress.com/]

Thank God for loud music during exercise class.  I don’t know about you, but when I start hearing myself breathing hard—okay, panting like an almost-50-year-old—I take a psychological hit, convince myself I’m more fatigued than I am, and stop pushing myself.  So when the instructor cranked up her iPod during this morning’s 6:00AM Boot Camp, I smiled to myself and kicked it into high gear—er, higher gear.

Funny thing about her playlist.  It was all mash-ups.  And as I did my 237th squat in a row, I got to thinking about what a fitting metaphor for our time the mash-up is.  I remember when folks in my parents’ generation used to complain that all the popular songs on the radio followed the same (i.e., repetitive), three-min format.  But hey, at least we listed to ONE SONG AT A TIME! In an era characterized by multitasking—okay right now I’m composing this blog, I have an eye on Facebook in case the love-of-my life should post anything anywhere, I’m checking email every 2-3 minutes, I’m brewing the morning’s second pot of coffee in the next room, I’m having a text-message conversation with my sister, and I’ve got a load of laundry in the dryer…business as usual—shmooshing several songs into one tidy three-min format seems just what the era ordered.  Methinks it’s analogous to what texting has done to letter-writing and email, i.e., compressed it, abbreviated it, and emoticoned so we can get more done faster.  LOL. ;-)

So as a self-proclaimed multitasker, texter, and mash-up lover, I offer the following caveat: sometimes it’s nice to take more time to enjoy a slightly longer piece of music, say Beethoven’s 9th, which clocks in at around an hour when all five movements are heard consecutively as the maestro intended; and sometimes we can’t express what’s  really in our hearts or minds within the confines of a simple text message or acronym (LMAO).

So what does all this have to do with college admissions, Dr. Yo?  Good question, glad you asked. In the part of the CommonApp that is truly “common,” i.e., the part that goes to every school, there are two pieces of writing, two places where you can talk about yourself in a way that helps admissions committees get to know you better. THESE ARE ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS OF YOUR APPLICATION! The more important one is the  Personal Essay, about which I’ve written (see below) and Prep Talked (ditto) at length on prior occasions. The other is formally called the “Short Answer” question on the Writing page, what I and others refer to as the “Extracurricular Blurb.” Here’s the rub: while the Personal Essay is supposed to be 250-500 (and let’s face it, no one counts words), you get to upload a Word document and committees will at least see everything you upload. I’ve personally spoken with several admissions officers from several top schools, and no one sees 600, even 700 words as a problem.

The extracurricular blurb, however, has to fit into a text field and will truncate—that is, shut you off completely—after 1000 characters (that’s four or five sentences). In some cases 1000 characters is enough space to elaborate on an activity, just as in some cases a quick text message suffices.  But sometimes, it just isn’t enough space.  Recently, for example, I had a student explain how he started an after school fitness and nutrition program for public school students in downtown Hartford.  In 1000 characters he could only briefly outline the program–what it was, how it started, his role.  But he was frustrated that there was no space to talk about the stuff THAT REALLY MATTERED TO HIM, which, in turn, IS EXACTLY WHAT REALLY MATTERS TO ADMISSIONS COMMITTEES. He wanted to talk about his personal passion for fitness and nutrition, how THAT changed the course of his own life, the struggles and triumphs of putting the program together, the legacy he was planning to leave behind when he sallies forth to college next year. You get the idea. If you’re in a similar situation, you’ve got a few choices. 1) You can make the blurb the subject of your personal essay; 2) you can see whether your blurb topic fits a supplement question for each college; 3) you can use the Additional Information section to upload a longer version of the blurb, as long as you’re not overlapping and making anyone feel as though you’re wasting his/her time. If you’re still not sure what to do, and how to package yourself, we are surely here to help!  Email info@CollegePrepExpress.com, call 860-519-1000, or fill out our no-obligation free consultation form. Right now would be good.

For lots more on how to write stand-out applications, tune into “Prep Talk” with CollegePrepExpress next Wednesday, 10/17, 6:00-6:30PM ET, as I’ll be joined by a panel of experts who’ll offer Tips and Tricks on the CommonApp! Also check out our CommonApp Boot Camp: Getting it Done!  Ridiculously low-priced.  Highly effective.

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