“On Reading the Application” is a recurring series that goes behind the scenes in the Admissions Office at Bard College Berlin.
When applying to colleges, it’s easy to forget there are human beings on the other side of the application portal. Not all college admissions offices are alike, and Bard College Berlin’s approach to college admissions is especially unique. This series hopes to demystify the application process by speaking openly to the people who read your applications.
This week, we’re speaking to Andrés Martínez de Velasco. Andrés is an Admissions Counselor for Bard College Berlin, an aspiring physicist, and music composer. As Admissions Counselor, he not only reads applications, but travels the world to meet with prospective students and college counselors. In his free time, he plays the piano, listens to music, and watches French new wave movies. Despite having lived in Berlin for three years, Andrés has made it a point to never try currywurst (ever).
Andrés will be in Mexico, New Mexico (US), Italy, France, Czech Republic, Hungary, Wales, and England this fall in anticipation of BCB’s fall admissions cycle. Keep track of Bard College Berlin’s travel schedule here: Berlin on the Road.
On what’s important in an application:
I like to see sincerity—that the person who’s applying is trying to show themselves as they are. The whole application doesn’t make sense if it’s a facade.
There’s so much structure in a college application, but the writing section is one place where there’s a lot of flexibility. It’s where I can get a sense of what a student is like, and what he or she wants. It shouldn’t be a place where the student demonstrates their prowess by using big words or big concepts. We try to read applications in the context of a student’s life, of their particular story. We also want to know what they want out of college, and the writing section can help us with that.
I remember reading one application that said something like: “I just want to do this. I want to make art and learn.” I appreciated the honesty. We want to find students who would be happy and successful at Bard College Berlin, and we don’t want our job to be that of inspectors or fact-checkers.
On what’s less important:
Students might feel the need to overinflate themselves and their experiences. I guess this is to be expected: it’s a competitive process, and students are often told that the college choice will determine the rest of their lives. I see applications that exaggerate extracurricular activities, professional ambitions, what have you. Or they emphasize parts of the application they think we’ll like—students who say they have it all figured out. But you don’t need to have it all figured out!
Students sometimes misunderstand the “leadership” narrative. “Leadership” doesn’t always mean people who are leading things, or going out on their own. To me, “leadership” means being brave enough to follow your own thoughts and opinions. Sometimes, being a good “leader” means being a good team member. At BCB, we look for people who want to build their own path—the search for that path looks different on everybody, and we understand that.
On the myth of the cookie-cutter candidate:
There’s no such thing as the “best” candidate. We don’t have little boxes that we check in order to admit people to BCB. Things like test scores and grade point averages are only one part of the picture and don’t provide much insight on their own.
I like to see students with extracurricular passions—not obligations. Extracurriculars can be a very important part of a student’s life, but they aren’t everyone’s priority. Students shouldn’t feel pressured to undertake projects they are not sincerely invested in. They may be very academically minded, or aspiring artists without formal extracurriculars, and that’s great, too. We don’t want you to be anyone you’re not!
Because Bard College Berlin is so small, we have the luxury of reading every application closely. We try to find people who will grow, learn, and be happy in our program. We want as much input as students can give us to help us build a full picture.
On liberal arts:
Growing up, I was really interested in music. I applied to the Conservatory at Bard College in Annandale and got in. At Annandale, you have to double-major if you’re in the Conservatory. I started out with French Literature, but found out that I really liked physics, so I ended up choosing that as my second major. Now I’m pursuing my Master’s in theoretical physics, and I hope to get my doctorate.
That’s a typical Bard story: I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but that mattered less than the fact that I was open and excited to learn. A liberal arts education is perfect for those interested in very many different things. It doesn’t matter if you think you know what you want to do or not; you just have to love learning. At Bard, there is a lot of room to develop as a thinker and an individual.
Anything an applicant should know before starting their application:
You grow so much in those 4 years, as a scholar and as a human being. Of course you get a specific set of skills from your major, but living in the world, working, and attending graduate school are places where you can specialize, hone in. I think we get the most out of college if we think of ourselves as explorers.
However, the very best advice I can give students (and teachers) is to take John Cage’s rules to heart:
10 Rules for Students and Teachers, popularized by John Cage
- Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.
- General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher. Pull everything out of your fellow students.
- General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.
- Consider everything an experiment.
- Be self-disciplined: this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
- Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
- The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.
- Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.
- Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
- “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)
HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything: it might come in handy later.
As spoken in conversation with Patty Nash, Admissions Assistant at Bard College Berlin.