Somewhere in the nineties there was a flat-out boom in college applications. The kids of the baby-boomers came of age and started applying to college en masse, creating demand for top education like there had never been before.
What that means now is a standard of applying to six, eight, even twelve or more universities for most high school students, especially those applying to competitive schools, where they may be rejected despite being academically qualified, for reasons outside their control.
And what that means is a big ol’ pile of college apps, with their requisite essays, recommendations, and other assorted paperwork to bog students down right when they need it the least.
But what’s often overlooked are the many supplemental essays schools require, in the interest of distinguishing themselves from the other schools you might be applying to with the Common App. These can pile up, making 10 or more essays required of you, on top of the standard long- and short-answer responses the CA needs for every application.
Later this week we're going to do some posts about the colleges with the most ridiculous lists of requirements and see how we can whittle them down quickly, often by repurposing writing that's already been done. It will be a bit light-hearted because the bottom line is that each college has its own requirements reasons they think are quite important. But... we'll see about that.
It’s a jungle out there but use the tools that have shown up and are right at your fingertips to make the thing more navigable. You’re almost there! Stay tuned.
The first challenge is to come up with a topic. Write about something you’re interested in, not something you think will interest an admissions officer. Make sure the story belongs wholly to you.
Now write the first draft with your heart, not with your head. Try a free-writing exercise. Set a timer for 20 minutes and start thinking about your topic. Once your timer starts, start typing away and don’t stop until the full 20 minutes have passed. Even if you have to write the same word over and over again to keep the momentum going, an exercise like this will free up your mind and yield some really original ideas.
Once you’re ready to try a more fully developed draft, stick to writing that is descriptive. Show, don’t tell. Don’t write “I got wet in the rain” when you can be “weighed down with a waterlogged sweater.” This kind of evocative, sensory language can paint a picture of you for a stranger, which is essentially what an admissions officer is. It’s something the reader can remember you by when the time comes to make an admissions decision.
When you’ve finished, read it aloud to yourself to get a good sense of its rhythm. Are all the sentences too short, or too long? Does it feel like it drags? Or does it sound animated or energetic? Try it. Because if you don’t like the sound of your own essay, no one else is going to.
Chances are, your days are already pretty packed: classes, extracurriculars, seeing friends, spending time with family… and now throw on top of that applying to college. Senior year can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to writing your personal essays. And while you’ve certainly written essays on the Civil War, Einstein, or plant biology, a personal essay is a different animal.
Instead of trying to brainstorm an essay that matches an existing question from your school of choice, try working backward. Think of a personal experience that moved you or changed you … then tailor that to answer the question. Let’s say you want to write about your experience playing the flute for the first time with a large orchestra. This story answers a lot of possible essay questions: what was a personal activity of special significance, or an accomplishment you are proud of—even an adversity you have dealt with. This one story can be tweaked into the many essays your colleges require.
It’s great to get feedback from a friend or a teacher on a draft you’ve written, but don’t overdo it. A common mistake is an essay written “by committee” – too many people have read it and the writer is trying to please too many different opinions. In the end, you’re left with an essay with all the life sucked out of it. Find one person you trust—preferably not a family member or friend—and let that individual be your sounding board.
Make sure to set aside a little bit of time every day to work on your essay. It’s better to spend 20 minutes on it daily than 10 hours right before it’s due. You’ll find that visiting it every day will help your ideas flow and connect better, give you perspective on what you’ve already written, and reduce the chances of sloppy mistakes.
A big myth about college applications: if your grades are poor, your SATs below average, and your list of extracurriculars nonexistent, you can still knock it out of the park with a stellar college essay.
False! It’s been said that a great college essay will heal the sick but won’t raise the dead. Ultimately, admissions officers are looking for students who’ve already proven they can be citizens of a larger intellectual and social community—students who have proven through grades, test scores, and recommendations that they can not only handle college but can also thrive there. So coming up with a last-minute mind-blowing essay to right the rest of your academic wrongs isn’t realistic.
That said, college essays are an increasingly crucial part of the admissions process and many times can make the difference between an acceptance or rejection for students who are on the fence.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is to use the essay as a tool to show a different part of you. If your application already includes lists of homeless shelters where you volunteered and a curriculum heavy in math, don’t talk about that one time you taught a homeless person how to add. Talk about something completely different, something that will give admissions officers yet another glimpse of who you are.
And while almost any essay topic can work, any topic can also fail. Many students make the mistake of starting with too broad a focus. By the time you’re into the meat of the story, you’re out of word count. So cut to the chase. Don’t start with “I have always enjoyed science.” Start with “As soon as I cut that frog open I knew I wanted to be a biologist.”
Keep it lively, keep it personal, and, if possible, make them laugh. Admissions officers remember a smart, funny essay the same way we remember a good joke. It makes us want to pass it on and tell it again. That’s the way a good essay should be. And that’s a surefire way to make your essay matter.
Creative writing can be hard to kick-start, especially if you’re used to writing more academic essays. Here are five common mistakes to avoid.
1. Don’t write a traditional 5-paragraph essay with a thesis, body, and conclusion. Take some risks with the structure and show your personality. Use the first person and just start writing. See what happens. You can pose a question or start with a distinctive opinion on a topic. Almost anything goes.
2. Don’t be gimmicky. We’ve all heard about the student who wrote his essay about his childhood years with a crayon and got accepted to every college. The likelihood of this being true is slim. It’s like communism: good in theory, impossible in practice. Let the substance of your writing be the real story.
3. Don’t come off as arrogant. This can be difficult, because part of what you’re trying to do with your personal essay is highlight something positive about yourself. But it’s one thing to call yourself awesome in your own essay and quite another to write about things you’ve done that show how awesome you clearly are. The old rule of writing applies here: show, don’t tell.
4. Don’t be cheesy. You shouldn’t come off like a bad Hallmark card. Let’s be serious. You’re not somebody who is so inspired by the beauty of the world you are brought to tears at the sight of a single flower. Come on. You know over-sentimentality when you see it, so keep it out of your essay.
5. Don’t use overly formal language. Applying to college is serious business, but that doesn’t mean that the tone and style of your essays need to be stuffy. Colleges are looking for personality and character, so relax when you start expressing yourself. Instead of writing something dry like, “I have come to this understanding according to certain factors that have influenced my life…” write something lively like, “During the summer of 2009, I was stalked by my literary hero.”
So you’ve done all the research. You now know where you’re applying, your SAT scores are stellar, and your list of extracurriculars is a mile long. But how do you make yourself stand out amongst the thousands of other students all fighting for the same spot at your top choice school?
Writing a strong college essay is perhaps the best way to ensure that admissions officers see the student behind the cold numbers. So don’t hide who you are! Here are three tips for getting in.
1. Choose a topic that is specific to you.
Students often make the mistake of choosing a topic that is too broad or overused. For example, a vague recollection of some sports-related memory or a generally clichéd observation on life lessons learned while volunteering at a homeless shelter. Ask yourself this: What is a story only I can tell? That’s the one they want to hear.
2. Have a trusted educator read a draft.
The pressures of applications can make students feel like they have to sound “smart,” but once the thesaurus comes out for those four-syllable zingers, your personality can easily disappear. “If it sounds like a Ph.D thesis, it’s probably not their voice, the voice we’re looking for,” says Parke Muthe, the associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. Having a teacher or guidance counselor you respect read a draft can ensure the words are truly yours.
3. Be concise.
Most essay requirements cap the word count at 500, so make every word count. Cut anything that is superfluous or repetitive. Each sentence should reveal a little more information about you: the way you think, the way you act, and the way you see the world. That way, admissions officers can walk away from your essay with a sense of who you are and hopefully, remember you. That said, going a bit over the word limit is not going to hurt your chances – and it might even help if those additional words convey a great deal more about you.
Hey, it's Friday. If your college applications are driving you crazy, I don’t need to encourage you to procrastinate on them. But I’m going to anyway.
If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for Paranormal Activity, check it out. Never seen one of these before that shows shots of the audience REACTING to the movie. Scary?
We here at College Essay Organizer have taken it upon ourselves to make some slapsticky videos that will while away at least two and a half minutes of your time. Check them out:
And while we’re at it with the college videos, don’t forget College Humor. It’s the kind of stuff you’ll find funny while at college, but for some reason, pretend like you’re better than after you graduate. Why is that?
Ever heard of “The Deal” before? It’s just a little thing that keeps everyone and everything thing in the entire world together. You and your friends, your parents, even you and your college have a deal – someone wants something that someone else can give them.
For you, it’s clear what you want from the school: good times, great oldies, an education in there somewhere, too. When you apply to the school, you’re making it clear you want them.
But for the school, what is it they want from you? Believe it or not, it’s your job to figure that out.
When you identify what it is about you that is desirable, you help do the college’s work for them.
Maybe you’re a left-handed oboe player from Wyoming? Maybe not. Maybe you’re a world-class chess champion who is also a left-handed oboe player. Okay, I did not make that easier on myself right there.
My point is that each applicant has something that sets him or her apart, and it’s your job as an applicant to find it, and make it a big part of your application. You need to make it clear what the deal is between you and the school – you get a four-year party with some schooling on the side for an astronomical fee, and they get… what?
Who are you and what do you bring to the table?
Remember to articulate what might stand out best about you. While you're at it, try and write as few essays as possible for all the schools you want to apply to. Now you're doing twice the work with less than twice the effort. Not half bad.
Any applicants to Penn in the house?
One of Penn’s most well known application questions reads:
You have just submitted your 300-page autobiography. Please give us page 283.
Well, for one, if you’re applying to Penn, you’re probably 17 years old. Maybe you don’t have a 300-page memoir in you just yet. Not even 283 pages, thank you. So what are they talking about?
Essays like these need to be interpreted as what they are – essays about you and your skills. In Penn’s case, this is what you might want to call an “Intellectual Interest” essay.
You don’t need to begin in mid-sentence, and you don’t need to fill the page with a series of meaningless and optionally funny anecdotes from your summer trip to Lake George with your uncle that one time when he fell off the boat and everyone laughed. What you’re really trying to communicate with this fictional page-283 is something about who you are and what you can bring to the school that no one else can. Those are your Intellectual Interests.
It wants to be an essay about the time you demonstrated your love of Steinbeck’s writing to make a point about modern America, or the time you used your knowledge of physics to bond with a carpenter about his work you saw at a fair. Something specific, but tied to your love of academics.
In writing an essay like this, you need to focus your argument or story all around you and what you are capable of. If you want to structure it as an autobiographical episode, make sure the episode is about something specific, namely your interests or skills, and why those are important to have at a university like Penn.
When these crazy kinds of prompts pop up, give them some thought about how they can be used to reflect something unique about you that the rest of your application doesn’t allow for. Then tell that story in terms of the wacked out prompt the school threw at you.
When you’ve got your heart set on one top school, it can seem like there aren’t any other universities in the country. All doe-eyed, you stare at your new university. It stares back, blankly, because technically it’s just a series of buildings. Come on, that was weird when you were doing that staring thing.
The reality of the situation is that no matter what school you’re applying to, from Harvard to Queens County Community Incorporated, there are schools out there that are different but worth comparing to your top school, be it by location, academics, extra-curricular programs, or even study-abroad opportunities.
The moral of the story is that you’ve got to diversify that application.
If Harvard is your top choice, consider other top academic programs like Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. If Bennington is more your bag, have you considered Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, or Bowdoin?
Clearly these schools aren’t the same – no two are – but they offer many interesting overlaps that may appeal to you, and when applied to as a backup, may make it possible for you to have a host of schools you’re happy to go to, rather than the typical reach-match-safety trifecta that so people seem to stuff themselves into.
The really good news about all this is that adding schools to your list can often require little to no additional work, thanks to the wonders of the Common App, the College Board, and organizational sites like ours here. You may not even have to write an additional essay to apply to several more schools, given the requirements of your other applications. Give it a look and you might be surprised.