03/14/2013 04:40 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

The Essay Will Save You!

Some of you may have seen this strange headline in the Boston Globe last week: "BC celebrates its decline in applications." Huh? Why would any school ever want fewer applicants?

Turns out that in the search for that perfect freshman class, quantity does not equal quality.

Ever since US News and World Report began publishing college rankings, admissions officers have been pressured to generate increased applications for a finite number of seats. The formula is simple: more applicants = fewer acceptances = a lower acceptance rate. And a lower acceptance rate is one of the key indicators in deciding ranks. Harvard accepts 7% of its applicants, while the Walden University in Minneapolis accepts nearly 93%. This fact is not to disparage Walden, which may very well provide a stellar education, but to illustrate the disparity among the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in this country.

Applications at nearly all schools have dramatically increased in recent years - at some by as much as 40%. At first glance, this looks like good news. More ambitious students applying to a greater number of schools would seem to guarantee a better fit for both the student and the college.

But you don't have to dig too deep to uncover ominous reasons to explain why these numbers are up - many of which have nothing to do with student empowerment and everything to do with the convenience of technology and the success of shrewd marketing.

Technology is relevant for both the "buyer" and the "seller" in this transaction. With the rise of the Common Application, students can fill out one application and with the click of a mouse apply to hundreds of schools. (Provided, of course, they can afford the application fee for each school, which ranges from $50-$100; a number that can add up quickly but is a drop in the proverbial bucket considering that the average tuition and fees at private schools like Boston College has surpassed $50,000 per year - not including room and board!)

But colleges and universities are increasingly using technology to their advantage. In an effort to attract the "right" student, some even go so far as to email students applications with pre-filled data, and according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, some schools have made applying as easy as updating a Facebook page.

In the same article, one high-school senior summed up his take on what he perceives as marketing ploys by admissions officers pressured to encourage hordes of students to apply. "They want you so they can reject you," he said.

So Boston College has decided they'd like to see applications only from students who are truly interested in attending Boston College. And how will they achieve this? You guessed it - by requiring their applicants to compose a thoughtful, revealing supplementary essay.

Standard essays on the Common App are fairly straightforward, and in the hands of a terror-stricken high-school student too intimidated to "think outside of the box," can often lead to highly predictable responses. But most supplementary essays ask students to think more deeply. Take a look at one of the supplementary questions on this year's Boston College application:

From David McCullough's recent commencement address at BC:
"Facts alone are never enough. Facts rarely if ever have any soul. In writing or trying to understand history one may have all manner of 'data,' and miss the point. One can have all the facts and miss the truth. It can be like the old piano teacher's lament to her student, 'I hear all the notes, but I hear no music."
Tell us about a time you had all of the facts but missed the meaning.

Answering this question forces the student to avoid those generic essay responses admission counselors dread, ranging from How I Overcame My Tragedy to Why I Will One Day Rule the World.

Of course numbers count, and and while the acceptance rate number is important, so is the retention rate number. The bottom line is whether the student has picked the wrong school or the school has recruited the wrong student, a bad fit serves no one.

BC Essay: