Getting Your Recommendations In

Common App LogoAt this time of year, with certain Early Action and all Regular Decision applications getting close to the deadline, it can be important to revisit some of the basics to avoid last-minute... how do we put this delicately... freak-outs.

Students should remind their counselors and teachers that any forms sent by mail should be addressed to the admission office of each college to which they are applying. This certainly sounds basic, but the good people at the Common App remind us with their helpful Facebook updates that these kinds of errors are anything but uncommon.

For teachers and counselors, please do not send anything to the Common Application offices. Though they will (thoughtfully!) post it return to sender, these kinds of mistakes, if made at the last minute, can weigh heavily on students. And if you know of people who are confused about where to send their recommendations, be sure to point them here.

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Why Do You Want To Attend This College?

The most frequently-asked-about piece of advice at College Essay Organizer revolves around how to tell a school that you want to attend. Surely they're not just looking for you to write about what makes them great, right? They already wrote their own guidebooks. They should know what makes them great.

And you're right. The purpose of these essays is not to talk about them but to talk about you. Your job in all of your college essay writing is to convince the reader that you're an interesting person who belongs in their highly-selective class. You're trying to get them to choose you instead of someone else.

Easier said than done, indeed. So today we direct you to a post written last year that has gotten a lot of traffic: How to tell a college that you're interested.

Always keep in mind that your job is to express what you have that they want. It's already implied that they have what you want - a great education and a raft of opportunities for your future, whatever that may be. Do this by identifying your own intellectual interests and developing them from a personal standpoint.

The Common App and the Difference Between Online Applications & PDFs

Common App LogoAt College Essay Organizer we research college application requirements like it's our job. Actually, it is our job. And one of the odd sides of this job is that we are constantly finding inconsistencies between different versions of applications that schools put out, not to mention inconsistent or incorrect information explaining the application documents on the schools' sites.

One of the most notable disparities we've found is with the Common App itself. That's right, even the trusty old Common App has a significant difference between its paper (or PDF) version and its online version.

The paper version of the Common App calls for 150 words for it short essay, while the online version calls for 750 characters. The distinction is important, especially if you're running long, in which case the online version on the Common App will simply cut your writing off at the 750 character limit. So that 150-word essay can be significantly shorter if you're using big (some might say college-ready) vocabulary.

The Common App's short essay and optional space question are also worded differently. It's not a significant difference, though in many cases with colleges, different forms of college applications often feature different word counts, character limits, or even completely different questions! Just remember that College Essay Organizer is here to research these elements full time and contact the colleges to help resolve any confusion. So feel free to rely on us - it's our job.

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The Common App for 2011/2012 is Live

That's right. The wait is over.

The Common App went live yesterday officially beginning the application process for the class of 2016. The Common App, now totaling 456 schools, has added 45 new members this year, including Caldwell College, Howard University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

College Essay Organizer is now in the thick of the updating process, keeping track of all the new changes and supplemental essay questions for you. Expect hundreds of updates by the end of the week!

We continue to receive feedback on how College Essay Organizer is the perfect partner for using the Common App. It instantly delivers not only the supplemental essay questions, but also the department-specific questions and scholarship questions, which are often not included in the Common App. Check here for some great tips on how to use College Essay Organizer and the Common App to write winning essays.

ACT or SAT: 10 points of comparison

Stephanie from Knewton addresses your standardized test questions.

Today's post is again from our friends at Knewton - this time from test expert Stephanie Wertkin.

Most high school students planning to go to college know that they probably have to take some kind of standardized test. Often, the only question is: Which one? Many schools accept both the SAT and ACT. Before you make your choice (or decide to take both!), it’s a good idea to compare the ins and outs of each test.

Here are a few basic points of comparison:

1. Cost

SAT exam registration costs $45. The ACT exam alone costs $32 – but if you want to take the optional writing test as well, it will set you back $47.

2. Length

The SAT consists of a 25 minute essay, six 25 minute sections, two 20 minute sections and a 10 minute multiple choice writing section. That means the whole test is 3 hours 45 minutes – not counting the 3 short breaks you get in between.

The ACT consists of 4 sections that total 2 hours and 55 minutes. If you take the Writing Test as well that will add an extra 30 minutes, for a total of 3 hours and 25 minutes.

3. Number of Questions

The SAT has 140 questions; the ACT has 215.

4. Subject Matter

This is one of the most important distinctions between the two tests. The SAT tests reasoning and problem-solving ability. The ACT, on the other hand, is a curriculum-based test, meaning the questions are designed to test a student’s knowledge of high school work.

The SAT covers mathematics, critical reading, and writing. The ACT covers English, mathematics, reading, and science. There are some differences in the way each test approaches the subject matter: for example, the ACT contains basic-intermediate algebra, geometry, and four trigonometry questions, while the SAT only tests basic algebra, word problems, and geometry. While the verbal sections of the SAT emphasize vocabulary, the ACT focuses on grammar and punctuation.

5. Scoring:

SAT – Aggregate score 600 – 2400, based on total of 3 scores (Reading, Math, Writing, each scored on a scale from 200-800); Score of 0-12 for Essay
ACT – Composite score 1-36 based on average of 4 sections (English Math, Reading Science);  Score 0-12 for Optional Essay.

6. The Essay

The ACT essay is optional, while the SAT essay is mandatory. The SAT prompt is usually abstract and open-ended (i.e., do people learn from their mistakes?), while the ACT prompt is more specific and high school-centric (i.e., should more schools adopt uniforms?). On both tests, you’re expected to write an essay that makes a strong argument and uses specific examples to support that argument.

7. Scoring

The ACT only counts the answers you get correct, whereas the SAT deducts 1/4 of a point for all incorrect multiple choice questions.

6. Difficulty

There’s a prevailing myth that the ACT is easier than the SAT. However, there’s not much truth to this: The vast majority of test-takers score in the same percentiles on both tests. Since both tests are scaled (that is, your final score is based on how you do compared to everybody else), that’s really all that matters.

On the SAT, questions increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section (except reading passage questions, which progress chronologically through the passage). On the ACT, the difficulty level of the questions is random.

7. College Requirements

The majority of colleges in the U.S. now accept both the ACT (+ writing section) and the SAT.  However, just to be safe and to avoid confusion (and possibly despair) near application deadline time, make sure you know which scores the schools you are applying to require for admission. If you are confused about a school’s requirements, contact that college or university’s admissions office for clarification.

In addition to SAT or ACT (with the writing section), some  schools also require 2-3 SAT Subject tests.

8. Administration dates

The SAT is offered seven times per year: January, March or April, May, June, October, November, and December
The ACT is offered six times per year: February, April, June, September, October, and December (note that some states offer the ACT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)

9. National Averages

For the Class of 2009 the average SAT scores were: Critical Reading – 501, Mathematics – 515, Writing – 493
The 90th percentile scores were: Critical Reading – 670, Mathematics – 700, Writing – 650

The ACT national averages in 2009 were: Total – 21.1, English – 20.6, Math – 21.0, Reading 21.4, Science 20.9
The 90th percentile scores were: Total – 28, English – 29, Math – 28, Reading – 30, Science – 20

10. Score Choice

Students can select which scores they send to colleges by test date for both the SAT and the ACT. Scores from an entire test are sent—scores of individual sections from different test dates cannot be selected independently for sending. Some colleges and universities (particularly the more competitive schools) require students to send all of their scores.

The way that admissions offices deal with multiple SAT scores varies from school to school. For more on College Board’s “Score Choice” program and more information about how colleges evaluate your SAT scores, check out our blog post decoding Score Choice.

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How To Tell A College That You're Interested

So, so interested.

When you're answering why you're so interested, try not to say, "because it's shiny."

Why are you interested in our college?

This kind of prompt is common, of course, and it seems easy enough at first – you’re applying to the school, aren’t you? You’re interested in it. But now what? Your first instinct might be to repeat what’s in the guidebook, or just talk about what you heard on the informational tour. You might want to act like you need to sell the school back to itself.

But don’t. Essays like these need to be interpreted as what they are – essays about you and your skills. In the broad scheme of things, this is what you might want to call an “Intellectual Interest” essay.

What you want to do with an Intellectual Interest essay is make yourself look good to the school. 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 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 the one you’re applying to.

You can, of course, talk about your personal experiences visiting the college or about student clubs or opportunities unique to the school, but if you do, make sure that these examples are more about your personal interests than about the school itself.

When broad, vague, or even crazy 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.

What to Avoid in Your Application Essays

Yesterday we touched on some basic tips for improving your writing and making a lasting impression on over-worked admissions officers. Today we'd like to flip the script a bit and show you what not to do in your application essays.

These errors are all too common, and they're the kinds of things that can sink an application for good. Letting yourself be sloppy, cliched, repetitive, or negative won't just make your essays forgettable, they can even actively work against you, ruining whatever goodwill the rest of your application has engendered with the person reading it.

So without further adieu, make sure you never make these common mistakes:

  • Don't litter your essay with quotes from others
  • Don't go thesaurus-happy
  • Don't generalize or stereotype
  • Don’t use profanity or crass humor
  • Don't use stuffy language

Take a look at our more comprehensive list of writing styles to avoid and see what other kinds of common errors you can be sure to look out for.

Bad College Essay Topics For Your Applications

Sometimes knowing what not to do can be as useful as knowing what you ought to do. There are many essay topics that spring to mind quickly. These ideas can be enticing, too - in many cases they seem to almost write themselves... until you realize that they don't paint a particularly flattering portrait of you, or that the reason they sprung to mind so easily is that you've read essays just like them several times before.

Always look out for cliche! Avoid it like the plague, as well as essay topics that center themselves around your faults or around things that you are not, rather than things that you are.

Any advice about what not to do, of course, always comes with a grain of salt. There are always exceptions, so use this only as a guide. Just make sure that if you cover one of the following topics, you do so in a unique way that highlights your strengths:

  • Crime you've committed
  • Character flaws
  • Excuses for your shortcomings
  • The "Big Game"

This last one might surprise you - the big success at a sporting event is a common topic, and it talks about a positive, emotional event. So why not use it?

It often leads you down very well-worn paths without necessarily telling us much about what you will be able to bring to an academic or social environment. More often than not, these essays focus on one-off events that don't translate to your everyday life. But worse, they aren't memorable.

Picture an admissions officer reading through five hundred essays. Five. Hundred. Essays. How many of these feel the same? How many are about a success in a sporting event? Push further, past cliche and into the elements of who you are that are specific to you and what you do. Things no one else in your school can say.

There are many, many more. Take a look at CEO's list of college essay topics to avoid.

If you have more suggestions of good essay topics (or bad ones), we look forward to seeing them in the comments!

Good College Essay Topics For Your Applications

As students head back to school and the application season starts to really heat up, we thought we'd take this week to focus on things you can do to hone your work and make your writing more memorable to those overworked admissions officers.

One of the most obvious things you can do to make your writing stand out is to choose an exciting, accessible topic for your essay. Of course, many of the prompts will be decided for you, but that doesn't mean the topic is. College applications are known for their broad, interpretable questions that have a surprising amount of flexibility to them if you think about it for a bit.

Here are a few good places to start:

  • What are your favorite activities and hobbies? Why?
  • What are your talents/skills? How did you develop them? Who helped you?
  • Who have been the most influential people in your life?
  • What was your most memorable experience? Best? Worst?
  • How have you changed in the past four years?

We've got more good essay topics for you here. Remember to not always choose the first thing that comes to mind. It's much more important to have a good piece of writing than to just get it over with.

New York University Sets a Common App Record With 30 Essays

If you had a flag for every essay... That'd be thirty flags.

30? You read that right. The powers that be at New York University have so specifically divided the school that there are now 30 essays for undergrads to consider waiting in our database. 30!

To the school's credit, no undergraduate applicant will have to write thirty individual essays when applying to NYU. The numerous essays mostly belong to specific departments, like the Tisch School of the Arts or the Silver School of Social work - all told, the Violet Bobcats of NYU have essays for programs in Film, Photography, Music Business, you name it. They even have a new satellite school in Abu Dhabi. While no applicant will have to address them all, each applicant will have to write several essays, regardless of which school within the university he or she chooses.

It just goes to show that the breadth and reach of schools like NYU should not be underestimated, and that with tools like CEO you can get a shortcut to those requirements, and in turn, see the opportunities that schools of such great diversity offer.

So keep in mind that the big schools often pose as many challenges in their applications as they do in their classes! It's all benefits in the long run, but managing the task from the get-go can be daunting. Make sure you have the right tools to guide you on your journey.

And while you're at it, make sure you're not just avoiding questions like this guy.