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Pan Flute Simplicity

Posted by on Friday, October 16, 2009 in Application Process, Common App, File Reading Explained, Scholarships and Financial Aid, Study Abroad, The College Essay.

The poet bard Avril Lavigne was whining a tune about being complicated as I turned in the rental car this morning.  It is rare that I 1) make a habit of tuning in stations that would play Avril’s songs and 2) think much about said songs when I do.  It was that 5 minute gap between disconnecting the mp3 player and ditching the rented Prius.  I’m sitting there waiting for the attendant to check my mileage and thinking about a curious series of questions I fielded this past week:

  1. “I’m not sure what I want to major in, will that hurt me in the admissions process?” (answer = no)
  2. “I could ask my company to defer some of my compensation, should I do that to better my chances of obtaining financial aid?” (answer = no, what will you do, defer it for four years?)
  3. “I’m a sophomore, and my family’s worried that they can’t afford to send me abroad this summer, but I heard that colleges really like that, what should I do?” (answer = have a great experience doing something else you’ll enjoy and let colleges sort it out)

It’s true, Vanderbilt’s applications have grown (+73% in five years).  A natural reaction is to try and find some way to stand out in the crowd.  But for us, at the heart of the holistic review is an understanding of you – your past accomplishments, what you care about, and what drives your curiosities.  In each of these things – simplicity is a supreme virtue.  Consider the following example:

Ask yourself the question “Do I need a pan flute?”  Use the following chart to answer the question.


Print this and put it above the space you use to work on your applications.  The flow chart is good – the flow chart is wise – the flow chart is simple.

Simplicity in your extracurriculars: spell it out

  • No acronyms – OK, we think we know what the BFF club is, but go ahead and humor us.
  • The reason we like the Common App’s extracurricular section is because it limits you to a certain number of activities.  Listing your most influential activities there is expected (again, simple I know, but you’d be surprised how many times we learn about that officer position at Girl’s State from the guidance counselor, not from the student).
  • A resume is fine, but not expected.  You can include one if you would like to list more activities than the Common App will allow.

Simplicity in you essay: get to the point

  • True, there is no desired length, but please, no long walks in the desert.
  • Your essay doesn’t have to be a novel topic, or oddly formatted to stick out.  Some of the best essays I’ve read have been about the family pet, or a favorite room in the house, but they were expertly written.

Simplicity in your letters of recommendation: no surprises

  • Don’t default to the teachers in whose classes you received the best grade.  Instead, pick the teachers who know your work ethic and your classroom personality the best.
  • Make sure you feel reasonably sure what your recommenders will write about you.  I always scratch my head when I read luke warm recommendations.  “How did the student misjudge that one?” I ask.



  • Seth

    October 20th, 2009

    Cool post, Thom!
    I was at the PreVU in September and thought you did an excellent job. Its been hectic around here; trying to get my app complete for ED1. I had one question for you: On our letters of recommendation, do we have to go through the Common App process or can they just mail them in? Should I collect them first and mail together or have each writer send it in on its own? Thanks!

  • Thom

    October 21st, 2009

    Hey Seth,

    You can have your letters of rec sent through the Common App site, or print them out as pdfs and physically give them to your recommenders. It depends more on the preference of your recommender than what we would need. It reads all the same from our end. As to how to collect your letters, just have your recommenders send their forms and letters directly to us. Make sure to give them ample time to write a good letter, and follow up with them afterward (politely of course).

  • rachel

    November 30th, 2010

    I submitted my Vanderbilt supplement and Common Application online, but my instructors seemed to not be able to do the same thing. Therefore, they have printed them out and given them to me to send on to you.

    I have one teacher evaluation that the instructor sealed and signed over the seal, one counselor recommendation and official transcript in a closed envelope with an official seal, and one teacher evaluation and letter that the instructor handed to me, asked me to make copies, and put them myself in the envelope she gave me.

    Obviously, I asked this instructor to write a letter for me because I felt she would be enthusiastic about recommending me, but I do feel weird being able to read everything she wrote.

    [As an aside: My mom read the letter, and she feels the teacher is probably not the most proficient letter writer, and has a limited range of superlatives in her vocabulary!](haha-my mom would think that!)

    Any way, will you still accept this teacher’s recommendation? I did waive all rights to see any evaluations.

    I am putting the three separate envelopes in one envelope at the post office tonight, and sending them to the Office of Admissions- is that correct?


  • Kylie

    November 30th, 2010

    It sounds as if you’ve done everything correctly!