college admissions

Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process.

Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter what neighborhood he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.
Would You Admit You? genericappblrurl’s College Essay Masterpost

Here it is: the college essay masterpost. Keep in mind that if you’ve written an essay that fits the description of any of the “don’t do this!” bits, it’s not a reflection on you as a person. The makings of a good college essay are, at times, entirely counterintuitive, so many of the errors in here seem completely justified.

The most important thing to consider when writing a college essay is the degree to which you pass the Turing Test. Basically, do you sound like a person? Even if you think the answer is yes, spoiler alert! There’s a decent chance it’s no. Why? Well, consider the fact that each admissions officer at any selective school reads hundreds, probably thousands of essays per year. Now, consider the fact that most of them have been doing their job for multiple years. That’s a heckton of essays, my friends. That’s so many. And after a while, they all seem to blur together. Now, you might be thinking, hey, but my essay talks about an extremely personal struggle/experience/situation!!! Well, yeah. But so does literally everyone else’s. Even if the specific content of your essay is different, the essay structure itself is still the same. If you designed a computer program that could write college essays, the resulting pieces would look just like the vast majority of college essays that land on any given admissions officer’s desk, and they’d end up in the same sad pile. With that in mind, let’s get started.

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W R I T I N G

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The Common App Essay/Personal Statement

From an email I sent to a student whose essay I reviewed: “Something to keep in mind is that the amount that any essay says about you is entirely dependent on your writing. You could write an essay about bagels that says a lot about you; you could write a deeply personal piece that says nothing. The mistake that many applicants tend to make is thinking that the subject matter itself has to be something profound; oftentimes, essays like this fall short because their authors put all their energy into writing about something personal and barely any of it into writing well.”

The common app essay/personal statement comes with a few prompts that, in many cases, immediately result in a “Hey! I know exactly what to write about!” And, in many cases, this immediate response is way off base. The prompts are designed as such; these days, when almost everyone has good grades and SAT scores, the essays are the only real way to tell who’s the very best. Even though your story - that immediate response - may be intensely personal, a key component of who you are, it’s still an immediate response to a prompt, and chances are every other person who chose that prompt immediately thought of a similar story from their own life.

Prompt 1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Key Ideas: Spin it differently, think smaller, keep it positive.

Unless you have a story on par with the plot of Jane The Virgin, be careful. Your struggle to improve your grades/win that competition/make friends/overcome your fears just isn’t that compelling. That doesn’t mean it’s not important; it just isn’t good college essay material unless you can find a way to spin it differently.

If you’re writing about an identity or talent, be sure to think first about the other people in the world who share that identity or talent. What makes your story different?

If you’re writing about overcoming an obstacle such as mental or physical illness, don’t make it a pity party, but don’t become detached. What makes your resilience unique?

Now, something that a lot of people don’t realize is that this essay can also go smaller. You wouldn’t be you without your love of bagels, hatred of carpeted floors, etc. so don’t shy away from writing about something other than a Deeply Personal Struggle Or Experience. These are often the essays that go far, solely because they go against the grain and admissions officers are tired of the monotony. These are the essays that get a “Hey Sue, look at this one!” And voila, a second read.

One other thing to note is that while this background may be painful - mental illness, deported parent, etc - you need to find a way to end on a positive note. A pity party won’t get you in. Regardless of how much the content of the essay makes your admissions officer cry, what they’re looking for is resilience.

Prompt 2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Key Ideas: Plot twist, think smaller, get weird.

The difficulties with this prompt are similar to the first - the essay that first strikes you is just not that compelling. Nobody wants to hear another “I failed a test and studied hard and aced the class!!” essay. Unless your specific incident of failure was wholly unique - maybe you didn’t pull the parachute string on time when skydiving and are now writing this with two broken legs - you’re going to need to think of something else. There are a few easy ways to do this.

  • Plot twist. You failed in a common way, but your response was super weird. Introduce this weirdness from the beginning. Pro tip: studying hard after failing is not weird.
  • Think smaller. This one is more creative writing than life story. Think of a really tiny instance of failure - maybe you slipped on the stairs! maybe you cut one nail slightly too short! - and write a mock epic.
  • Get hella experimental. Use an unconventional format - I know a girl who wrote hers as a series of limericks - or write from an unconventional perspective.

There are certainly other successful essays that aren’t written as one of the three outlined above, so don’t be afraid to do what you think is best. Still, remember to keep in mind the necessity of setting yourself apart.

Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Key Ideas: Stay humble.

The biggest mistake I see with this prompt is the tendency to wax philosophical & come across as someone who thinks they’re profound. Pro tip: that’s not a good thing. If you think you have something profound to say, write about something else. Seriously. It comes through & it’s not flattering. Note that this is absolutely different from being genuinely passionate about something; let your passion show, but curb your self-righteousness.

Prompt 4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Key Ideas: Stay humble, avoid waxing, let your passion show, get weird.

Many people who choose this prompt use it as an opportunity to wax philosophical about a Big Bad World Issue, but unless you have a truly unique take, don’t bother. Admissions officers have read thousands of essays about the importance of solving world hunger, widespread ignorance, etc. so unless they’ll actually gain something new by reading yours specifically you should steer clear. Some other options for this essay include:

  • Choosing a smaller problem
  • Dramatization
  • An opinion piece on something trivial

And, again, there are many more beyond these, but this is a good starting point if you find yourself stuck.

One other thing to keep in mind is authorial distance. You want to stay close to whatever you choose to write. It needs to feel personal, whatever it is. It needs to feel like you.

Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Key Ideas: Plot twist, think smaller, get weird, stay close.

A story of this nature is obviously personally important by definition, but it’s remarkably easy to write one that falls flat and blends in with the crowd. The most prominent issue I’ve seen with essays that use this prompt is the tendency to step back from the event in question through word choice and excessive summarization. What this essay calls for, fundamentally, is a sense of closeness and a feeling that we, as readers, are experiencing it for ourselves. If you’re not ready to get intensely personal, choose a different prompt.

For those of you who choose to write about a formal event or accomplishment, you have two workable options. First, you could write about an event that, while formal, is obscure. Maybe it’s a family tradition to run the perimeter of the city on your 15th birthday while carrying a pineapple. If your event/accomplishment falls into this category, you’re good to go. If it doesn’t, though, you’ll need to tell a truly unique story about the well-recognized event. This can be done through either plot or structure. Did something weird happen? Good. Did everything go according to plan? Spin it differently. Write about your bat mitzvah from the perspective of some relevant non-human object. Write about registering to vote in the format of a screenplay. Bonus points if you have a weird story and an interesting framing device or style.

For those of you who choose to write about an informal event or accomplishment, you’ll have an easier time setting yourself apart because you could write about literally anything. Still, the advice above holds. You’ll either need a story that, plotwise, goes in unexpected directions, or you’ll need to choose a style or framing device that makes an essay about something standard seem like a New York Times bestseller. Ultimately, your goal is to make the admissions team want to keep reading. How you do this is up to you.

Summary: Make the reader care. Make the reader want to keep reading. Seriously, that’s it.

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The “Why _______” Essay

A good “Why _____” essay shows what you care about. These essays are usually much shorter - generally only about 150 to 250 words - so being concise here is key. As a general rule, if what you wrote could be found in a brochure, delete it. Reading the brochure and liking what it says doesn’t make for a compelling essay. Instead, think smaller. Write about a conversation you had, an interaction you witnessed, etc. and do so in a personal manner. Keep your authorial distance as small as possible. Get weird. Choose a formatting style that fits your story. If you can say something to the admissions officers that they haven’t already heard before, chances are you’ll do much better.

For a more detailed procedure, click here.

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The Identity Essay

Several schools ask for a short essay about an identity that affects/matters to you in some context. The same advice from the Common App applies to this essay as well. If the identity itself is not unique, write about a unique way in which you interact with it. If you’re given a specific context, write about an identity that normally would not be associated with that context. For example, in my RA application, I was asked to write about how some aspect of my identity influences how I approach conversations about diversity. I could’ve written about being bisexual, Jewish, etc, but instead I wrote about being white and how my whiteness influences the ways in which I approach these conversations. Remember, finally, to keep it personal; don’t wax philosophical about the identity in question. For bonus points, see if you can somehow mention other identities somewhere in there. This isn’t mandatory, but showing that you understand intersectionality is always a plus.

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The “Respond To This Quote” Essay

This is a super common supplemental essay question, and it’s easy to get stuck when responding to it. The process that I used for this essay went something like this:

  1. Brainstorm. Read the quote and write down everything that comes to your mind in response. This should be closer to a bulleted list than a paragraph; multiple thought trains are what you want to see. To really push yourself, set a timer for ten minutes and force yourself to write for the whole time.
  2. Take a break, then brainstorm again. You’d be surprised at how much you can generate when forced to sit and write for a while.
  3. Look at your clusterfuck of thoughts. Physically cross out anything that doesn’t seem writeable. Physically put a star next to anything you think you’d be excited to write. Don’t think too much about this; go with your gut.
  4. Don’t waste time trying to find the “best” idea! Close your eyes, stick your finger on the page, and write about whichever starred idea is closest to your finger.
  5. Write! And write! And write! Your first draft should be terrible and messy and structurally questionable! Just write!
  6. Take a break, then read over what you wrote and figure out what it says about you. Now, what do you want it to say about you?
  7. Figure out how to get from point A to point B. Which words should you change? Which sentences should you delete? What framing device would best convey what you want to convey? Form the completest plan possible.
  8. Execute!
  9. Read it again, repeat steps 6-9 as necessary until you’re happy.

Some extra tips: this essay is about you, not the quote. The quote is a framing device to get you to reveal more about who you are as a person. Thus, tone and style are crucial. Feel free to take stylistic risks; feel free to get weird. This isn’t a literary analysis.

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Any Essay That Requires You To Discuss A Book

is not a book report. See extra tips above.

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The “Talk About A ______ You Love/Admire” Essay

Since this one is super open-ended it’s hard to give concrete “do this and don’t do this” type advice. In general, your goal is still to make the reader want to keep reading. By the end of this essay, your admissions officer should desperately want to google the noun in question, but keep in mind that this is, again, an essay that should reveal something about you. What the reader gets from this essay should exceed that which they could find on Wikipedia, in a biography, etc.; you have to show passion. This is not the place to stay detached or academic; get personal. Love and admire are two strong words and you need to do them justice.

If you find yourself falling into the Wikipedia trap, consider:

  • Telling a story about [noun] that’s specific to your life. This is always a good bet tbh
  • Examining your narrative distance. Care harder!
  • Making a list of things you love about [noun] using the timer method I described in the quote essay section. Go with two minutes instead of ten. This may lead you to see something you wouldn’t have thought to write about beforehand.
  • Just writing. Stream of consciousness, no pressure to make it good writing. See where it takes you. See which format you naturally fall into.
  • If all else fails, choosing a different topic.

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The Extracurricular Essay

Unless you do some completely unheard-of independent work, you’re not the only one who’s participated in a given extracurricular activity. Given this, you have to set yourself apart in other ways. Many of the main problems seen in various common app essays resurface in this one: standard perseverance stories, excessive summarization, etc. Depending on the wording of the prompt, your response will be slightly different, but regardless of wording keep in mind that the essay is about you and your relationship to the activity.

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The Leadership Essay

This is a fairly common category as well. When writing about leadership, you’ll have a much higher success rate if you choose a narrative-based essay over one that merely summarizes your experiences. The same advice for all these other essays applies here, too; in order to set yourself apart, you need to tell a different story or you need to tell a familiar story differently, bonus points if both. Stay humble. Show instead of telling. Convince the admissions team that leadership is part of who you are, not just something you did to get into college.

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Stanford’s Supplement

What Matters To You & Why?

Tell a story. Tell a story they haven’t heard. This is truly the place to be yourself. It doesn’t matter what you indicated as your intended major; it doesn’t matter what your extracurriculars were; just answer honestly. I wrote about discovery, I have a friend who wrote about bagels. Regardless of the topic you choose, you have to convince the reader that it actually does matter to you. Keep your narrative distance as small as possible unless you’re making a deliberate stylistic choice; be as vivid as possible in your imagery. Make whatever it is matter to the reader too. Make it feel real.

Intellectual Vitality

This post is great and says everything I would’ve said anyway. Key idea: show them how your mind works.

Letter To Your Future Roommate

Be as weird as you are. Let’s be real: nobody reads a letter from someone that starts with “

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Other Essays/In Summary

If you’re facing a prompt that doesn’t appear on this list, take the general advice and run with it. In summary:

  • tell a story that hasn’t been told before
  • you don’t have to write about something inherently ~profound~
  • keep a close narrative distance unless you’re making a specific & deliberate stylistic choice not to
  • what matters most is that the reader wants to keep reading
  • avoid waxing anything other than passionate
  • vivid imagery is your friend
  • summarization is hardly ever useful
  • personal doesn’t mean unique
  • don’t be afraid to stray from the “traditional” format
  • have fun with it!

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E D I T I N G

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Common Questions

What do I do if I know a phrase sounds weird but I don’t know how to fix it?

Option 1: Read the phrase out loud. What do you want it to convey? Write several different variations of this on a note/side document and see if any of them work better. Adjust surrounding phrases accordingly.

Option 2: Delete the phrase altogether and read the piece without it. What meaning is now missing? What sort of transition is needed? Try to fill the gap. Does it work? If not, delete the replacement, take a ten minute break, and try again.

Option 3: Check the bits surrounding the offending phrase. The root of the problem might lie elsewhere, so don’t get yourself all worked up trying to fix the wrong part!

Option 4: Ask someone for their opinion. Maybe they’ll see a solution that wouldn’t immediately have crossed your mind!

What do I do if a friend/parent/mentor says that a phrase sounds awkward but I don’t think there’s anything wrong?

Ask. Always ask. Unless they gave you specific guidance, you won’t have any idea how to fix this unless you ask. There’s no shame in this; everybody wants you to succeed! If you still don’t see the problem, getting multiple other opinions can be helpful. Ask another friend/parent/mentor to read over the section in question, and if they do point it out but don’t give useful feedback it’s best to delete it and try Option 2 above.

I’m way over word count, but I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the piece! How can I cut down effectively without losing anything important?

How many words do you need to cut? If you’re more than 20% over word count, consider starting from scratch. If you’re not:

  • Identify redundancies. Highlight these and find a way to consolidate them.
  • Read your introduction, if you have one. Oftentimes, these words just take up space and don’t add anything to the piece. If your introduction is just a result of years of being told that you need one and doesn’t actually add anything meaningful to the essay, delete it all. Starting from the middle can actually be surprisingly effective!
  • Same goes for the conclusion. You don’t need to wrap things up like you would in a literary analysis or a research paper; you just need to end strongly.
  • Identify phrases that could be simplified and simplify them. Did you lose anything important? If so, revert the edit, highlight the section, and come back to it later if you’re really pressed for words.
  • Contractions are fine. Seriously.
  • Identify sections that just straight up don’t need to be there. Many people add unnecessary clarification, pointless parentheticals, etc. Not only do these deplete your word supply; they clutter your essay and make it less enjoyable to read. Don’t feel bad if you end up cutting entire paragraphs!
  • If you use “very” at all, cut it & replace the following words with a stronger one. This one is very important crucial!

Is it okay to be way under word count?

Technically yes, but practically it’s rarely the case that you’ll be able to answer the prompt meaningfully without at least getting close. If you feel done, let yourself be done, but revisit the piece later to confirm. Maybe you’re the master of being ridiculously concise, but chances are that an essay that doesn’t even approach the word limit doesn’t effectively answer the prompt.

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General Advice

  • Go through line by line and mark everything that leaves you less than satisfied
  • Read like an admissions officer. Would you admit you? Do your best to rid yourself of personal bias and just read as a reader.
  • Unless you’re working with someone who does this regularly, get at least two opinions on anything you write from two very different people in your life. You have no idea who’ll be reading your essay in the end, so a variety of voices in your feedback can be useful.

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R E A D I N G

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When a friend asks you for feedback on an essay, it can be difficult to remain impartial while editing. The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that lying to spare their feelings will only do them dirty in the end. So yes, be as critical as you need to be. If something sucks, tell them. But - and this is important - stay friendly. Stay pleasant. Stay constructive. Don’t say “this sucks,” say “I think this section should be reworked so that ______.” And prior to even saying a word about the piece, ask them what sort of feedback they’d find most useful. Those of you who have worked with me before know that this is how I start any editing relationship. This won’t constrain your feedback, necessarily, but it will dictate the manner in which you give it. If your friend has written an absolutely atrocious second paragraph but has asked only for comments on “overall flow,” tell them that the second paragraph interrupts the flow of the rest of the piece because of X Y and Z. It’s not wrong, and it’s not unnecessarily hurtful; your friend will examine the second paragraph carefully and rewrite it to fix X Y and Z, which would have been your goal anyway.

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A D D I T I O N A L   R E S O U R C E S

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Essays that worked:

Remember: inspiration, not emulation. Copying an idea never turns out well; admissions officers are trained to sniff this out.

Johns Hopkins - Essays That Worked

Tufts - Essays That Worked

Hamilton - Essays That Worked

50 Successful Harvard Essays (amazon link with free preview)

I’m not kidding about being weird

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If you have any specific questions about anything in here, feel free to ask. If you have an essay that you’d like me to read over, check out my contact page for submission details.

Best of luck with this admissions season! I’m rooting for you!

My own awakening to the toxicity of the achievement race came the way it does to many parents: via years of trying to keep up with it.

I sensed the problem in my home before I could name it. My daughters, Shelby and Jamey, were in middle school, and Zakary was in third grade. They were still children, in the essential sense of the word. They still played hide-and-seek, treasured their American Girl dolls, and relied on me to make their meals. But their lives had mutated into an adult-like state of busy­ness that gave our home the air of a corporate command center.

Twelve-year-old Jamey, for instance—who still wore braces and fit into children’s clothing sizes—would wake up before seven, cram in some extra studying over breakfast, and rush off to her school day, which lasted the usual seven hours. She’d go straight from there to a violin lesson or soccer prac­tice, return home at six, and commence a daily homework marathon that took her well into the night. I’d see her hunched at her desk past eleven p.m., washed in the yellow lamplight, her long brown hair spilling over her books.

We have our kids in an achievement race – it’s bad for their health, and not the way they learn

What I Wish I’d Known Senior Year

Hi guys! Long time no see. I’ve officially graduated high school and thought I’d make a post for all you incoming seniors about some things I’d wish I’d known senior year/some tips and tricks to help make your senior year less stressful because we all need a little less stress in our lives ha. So without further ado,

  • Make your college list over the summer: The summer before senior year is the time to finalize your college list. Do this by making a list of places you’re interested in and narrow it down based on fit. Try to visit if possible but if you can’t, most schools have virtual tours that you can take online. Make sure to have your list done before September. College apps are expensive and the fees for sending test scores to your respective schools add to the cost. Include at least one safety and two match schools on your list.
    • Get a calendar and mark all the deadlines for college apps, scholarships, testing, when test scores have to be sent in, etc. It will keep you organized and on track.
  • Start your essays over the summer (or at least brainstorm some ideas): You don’t necessarily have to start your college essays over the summer - I didn’t - but at least make a list of ideas, look over the prompts if they’ve been released, and familiarize yourself with common essay structures and how to write a good college essay. You should have a pretty good idea by September of what you want to include in your essays. Start them early so that you’ll get enough time to show them to your English teacher, parents, or anybody whose input you value.
    • While there are some topics for college essays that are too cliché and aren’t worth writing about (you can find a list here), in general, don’t be afraid of writing about something that you think will be cliché. If you give a topic an original spin and people can hear your voice and tell that it was a unique experience, you’re fine.
    • DON’T PLAGARIZE OR HAVE A PARENT/TEACHER/FRIEND/OTHER PERSON WRITE YOUR ESSAYS. No matter how tempted you are, just don’t. It will cause you more troubles that is worth and can get you in serious trouble (plus the moral repercussions of it). Be you and write your own essays.
  • Ask for your teacher recs early. This means to ask teachers by late September at the latest. Teachers need time to write your recs and chances are, you’re not the only one asking said teacher for a rec. Getting your request in early will make sure that you’ll get a letter of rec and that the teacher will have enough time to write a good letter of rec.
    • Ask for letters of rec from teachers you know will write something good about you. Go for teachers you’ve known for more than a year and/or teachers who know you better.
    • After they’ve written your letter of rec, it is customary to give your teachers a gift. A gift card, food, or a personalized gift/memento are in order.
  • Your counselor is your best friend. Seriously. Be prepared to spend significant time in the counselor’s office or emailing your counselor. You’ll likely have a lot of questions about the whole college apps process and that’s ok. Your counselor has done it before and is there to help you. Plus, most colleges require a counselor letter of rec so you’ll need to get to know your counselor and your counselor will have to get to know you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help because it will significantly reduce your stress.
    • It is also encouraged to get your counselor a gift if you feel they’ve helped you a lot. It’s a nice gesture that shows you care.
  • Send your test scores in at least 3 weeks before the college’s application deadline. This is super important because some colleges refuse to look at your application if your test scores aren’t in on time *cough* UMich *cough*. Plan ahead. This is why it’s good to have your college apps done early so that you’re not scrambling to send colleges your test scores two days before the deadline. If you’re taking a test in October, make sure to put all the colleges you’re applying to on the list of where you want your scores to be sent to so that the colleges will get the score in time. I had friends who sent their scores in too late and had their application bumped from early action to regular decision at a somewhat selective school where when you applied made all the difference. Seriously, send your scores in early and be done with it.
    • Most colleges won’t look at an unofficial score report so send the official one at all times. Don’t send paper score reports. We’re not in the 1920s.
    • If you’ve done all this but your scores will still be late, contact your college’s admissions office and let them know which brings me to my next point.
  • If you can’t find something on the college’s website or can’t find an answer to a question you have, contact the admissions office! The admissions office can give you the best answers to your questions and can help alleviate any concerns you have. Just make sure not to badger the admissions office because some colleges keep track of how many times you contact them and it can work in your disadvantage.
    • Don’t have your parents call in because it makes you look bad. You’re old enough to call someone and ask them a few questions.
  • Start looking for scholarships early. Preferably in the fall. Most of the big and prestigious scholarships have early deadlines and you don’t want to miss them. Finding the scholarships you want to apply to early gives you enough time to write the essays and get the other materials needed. 
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. There’s no point and it causes unnecessary stress. Be confident in yourself and your application and don’t worry about where others have applied/gotten in to or about what others have put on their applications. 

These are just a few points that I thought were worth mentioning. Good luck! Senior year will be over before you know it so enjoy it :)

A list of college interview tips for any seniors that freaked out like I did when I got my interview request! Some advice gets repetitive but it’s all helpful and I found the tips from current interviewers were the most helpful.

From the Interviewers Themselves 

Pre-Interview

General Tips

Post-Interview

You are not obligated

To tell others where you’re applying.

To tell anyone your SAT score.

To explain your acceptance if others think it’s a “Fluke.”

To show your friends your essays.

To rationalize your rejections.

To have a “first choice”

To like the “best” school over the right school.

To apply to a reach school.

To fill out all 10 activities on the Commonapp.

To finish your applications by August 30th*

To apply to your “legacy” school if you have strong opposition.

To write about anything you don’t want to write about.

You are obligated to make the right choices for you.

*unless you’re a certain blood relative of mine who has a lot of rolling schools.

Nonfiction Series Part 2: College Admission Essays

a whole bunch of people asked us: HELP! COLLEGE ADMISSION ESSAYS!

College admission essays are rough for exactly two reasons: there’s a lot on the line, and you don’t have the luxuries you have with any other kind of writing. In any kind of writing, you get to practice a whole lot. If you’re working on writing stories, you can write a hundred stories and they can all be terrible and it won’t matter one bit. You don’t really get that opportunity with college admission essays. That said, let’s talk a little bit about how to make your college admission essay a good one.

First, you might want to take a quick pop over to our post about essays in general. This will serve as a good background, but college admission essays are not regular essays. They are a genre of their own. With that in mind, here are some tips:

  • This isn’t all about writing. The college admission essay is the admissions counselor’s opportunity to gauge your writing ability, yes, but if they only cared about that, they’d probably have you write about some academic topic. Instead, they’re asking you to write about yourself. This means that they want you to define yourself in this essay. An admissions counselor reads loads and loads of applications that are often just streams of numbers; writing a strong essay that turns your essay from a bunch of numbers into a human is going to help them get to know you far better. The actual challenge to you as a writer is to portray yourself as precisely as possible (and with all the boring parts left out).
  • Uncle Leo is not applying to college. Neither is your teacher, your boss, your conductor, or your fish. Many college admission essays are about some inspirational figure (or fish) that has made a profound impact on the applicant’s life. The trouble is, in a 650 word essay, you shouldn’t really dedicate 500 words to Uncle Leo’s life story. I’m sure Uncle Leo is a good guy, but he isn’t applying to college. If you’re going to talk about some inspirational figure, make sure that the focus of the essay is still on you and how this person (or fish) has changed your life.
    It’s probably best to think about this idea in terms of cause and effect. Let’s say Uncle Leo gave you a summer job working at his bakery. That’s the cause. You don’t need to spend that much time on that. “That summer, my Uncle Leo got me a job at his bakery” will probably do. What’s far more important is the effect; what this job in the bakery taught you. Something along the lines of:

    “When my dough-spattered hands untied my apron at the end of the day and I returned the rag to Uncle Leo, he smiled and said, "you worked hard today, kid.” I was proud to be there with him, even though I was covered in flour.“

    Then move on to talk about the value of hard work, family, etc., etc. The essay’s focus should be on the values that you got out of the work in the bakery, not the actual work in the bakery.
  • This is not a vocabulary exercise. Admissions counselors know that this essay has one purpose: to impress them. They also know that you, the intrepid high-schooler, have spent a significant amount of time studying vocabulary words for the SAT or some class. (Or maybe you just have a really vigorous love of language. In which case, good for you!) The problem is that high-octane vocabulary words often shatter a college admission essay’s tone when tossed around willy-nilly. If it becomes clear to the reader that you are using fancy words for the sake of using fancy words, said reader will probably be unimpressed. It will feel artificial. Here’s a post that talks about deciding when to use certain language.
    Let’s return to our bakery example. We used the word "covered” in the last clause there. We could have used “bedaubed.” “Bedaubed” means “smear or daub with a sticky substance.” It’s a fancy word that kind of (although only partially) fulfills the needs of whichever word goes in that place. The trouble is that “bedaubed” has really fallen out of use over, say, the past sixty years, and so using it is obviously only an attempt to be impressive and use fancy language, which can look silly. Stick to “covered.”
    This doesn’t mean that there’s never an occasion to use fancy words. There always is. They’re words; they exist to be used. There are loads of occasions to use fancy words naturally. “One day, I made an egregious mistake right in front of Uncle Leo.” We could have said “terrible” or “super duper bad” (okay maybe not), but “egregious” works well here; it isn’t getting in anyone’s way.
  • Be honest. If you’re trying to show the reader exactly who you are, and you’re using a vocabulary that is right for you and your piece, make sure that you’re honest. Don’t be afraid to discuss mistakes you’ve made. Perhaps the most defining moment of your life was when you tattled on your Uncle Leo for shoplifting a book from a bookstore, and he never spoke to you again. Talk about that, how it made you feel, what you’ve learned from it, would you do the same thing again, etc.. You’re trying to show them who you are. Do so honestly.
  • Find the right editor(s). An editor for your college admission essay is someone who knows you and your writing well. This is probably an English teacher you’ve had for a full year. The reason you want someone who knows your writing well is because this person will be able to tell you “No, you can do better than this.” Showing your essay to someone who doesn’t know your writing is not that useful, because that person doesn’t know if this is the best or the worst essay you’ve ever written. Show the essay to a couple of different people, take their advice seriously, but do not feel bound by it. If you suspect that your essay has been over-edited by too many people, take some time to make sure that it still sounds like you.
  • Watch out for clichés. You want to change the world? You want to be a leader? You believe that every person comes from a different background and can’t be judged for it?
    Great. So does everyone else.
    If your essay is about any of these things (it probably is) then you’re going to have to stand out against 10,000 other essays from kids who think like you do. Show why you’re different: what experience made you think this way, and use vivid language and tell stories to show your “global perspective” as opposed to using the words “global perspective.” Here’s our post on showing and telling. You want to show here.
    In general, you don’t want to write a common essay, one that a bunch of other students are going to write. If you think that a college essay is supposed to look a certain way or be about a certain thing, then keep that in mind and make sure that your essays honors the standards of the genre (some of the advice here) but is still fresh.
  • Make cuts. That word count is strict. 650 is kind of a big number, but it’s a really small word count to tell someone your life story with. Feel free to do one full draft of the essay without worrying about the word count. This’ll let you get all of your ideas on paper and you can see what you like and what you don’t. Don’t discount any options until they’re on the page.
    But what happens when your essay is 800 words after this first draft? You have to do some cutting. Start with sections and sentences. Do you really need that? Did you say that already but with different words? Think very carefully about what each sentence means and whether or not you’ve said it already. Then start cutting words. Writers tend to do a thing where they list three words that mean pretty much the same thing: “I was tired, exhausted, and fatigued.” We don’t need that. You were tired. That’s enough. Get rid of those trios and other instances of redundancy throughout your draft.
    You might not have much redundancy; your essay might just be flat-out long. In this case, you have to prioritize and think about ways to condense your ideas. You may need to “tell” a little bit more order to keep all of your ideas on the page but in smaller packages.

The long and short of it is that this is your chance to show a bunch of strangers what kind of person you are. The essay is as much an evaluation of you and your character as it is an evaluation of your ability to write. You are being judged on your writing ability in terms of how vivid a picture of yourself you present. If the application reader can honestly say “I feel that I know a lot about this person,” then you’ve done your job. Good luck.

This is part of a nonfiction series. We have an article on research coming up soon. If you’re interested in suggesting topics for further posts, or you have any old question about writing, or you just want to tell us how lovely we are, send us a message!

Further Reading:

- O

hello appblr world!! I recently graduated high school (c/o 2015), and I will be attending Duke University in the fall, hoping to pursue a double major in English and Political Science with a minor in either Psychology or Neuroscience :’) 

applying to colleges was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, so I really want to help out anyone who is now currently feeling those tidal waves of anxiety and panic. my intention is to help and hopefully alleviate any nerves about applying to college (in America)

the summer before my senior year, every time I read the word ‘college’, my heart rate spiked & I started internally freaking out. for me, the whole process was super overwhelming, and my distaste for the education system (specifically, the american education system) quadrupled. I remember feeling incredibly confused and alone because I didn’t know where to start, so here is a lil guide thingy!!! 

THE SUMMER BEFORE SENIOR YEAR: 

  • make sure and finish all your summer assignments – I know that college applications are a strong focus, but get what you’re supposed to do out of the way first + you will feel less overwhelmed and more productive
  • start making a list of colleges that you want to apply for – my best suggestion is to categorize them into safety schools, match schools, and reach schools
    • ref: generally people look at a school’s admitted profile (on the school website) and compare stats, which means gpa, rank, test scores, etc. if you can, it’s also helpful to read into their supplementary essay prompts and examples to give you a general idea of what a college is looking for (ex. UChicago is notoriously known for their quirky supplementary essay prompts; famous past prompts include: Find X, Where’s Waldo?, Why are you here?, What’s so odd about odd numbers?) 
  • do lots of research on schools you’re interested in – ok now I know that reading these long paragraphs on school websites can get really tiring, so try watching some youtube videos or looking the school up on reddit, and be sure to talk to current students to get a first-hand account
    • look at location, diversity, the programs offered in relation to what you’re interested in, size, public vs private institutions, sports, social scene, political affiliations, financial aid offered, study abroad, etc)
  • try and figure out a general field of what you’re interested in – you do NOT need to know what you want to major in, but when you’re applying for colleges, you will most likely need to select an intended major; if not, you will apply as undeclared, which has its advantages and disadvantages!! but even with an intended major, most colleges don’t make you officially select a major until sophomore, sometimes even junior year, so it is okay to not know what you wanna do when you’re 16/17/18!!! but explore and reflect and try and figure out a general field of what you’re interested in. do NOT use your grades as a sole factor in deciding; if you are good at math and have really high grades, that does not necessarily mean that you should be a math major - pursue your passions!! if you know that you like writing and reading, then consider a major in english or literature. if you think you’d like to work with computer software, then consider a major in computer science or computer engineering. ALSO know that there are so many potential majors + even the option to create your own at some universities!! and also know that many people change majors, and that is totally ok :) 
  • in august, common app will open, which is what many colleges use for the application process. certain schools will have specific websites themselves (i.e. MIT, University of California schools, etc) – if you make an account BEFORE august, it will be deleted by then, so be careful!! now, when you make ur account, you can add schools and you can look at their supplements and stuff. be sure and note deadlines!! 

DURING SENIOR YEAR: 

  • keep up with your school work – senioritis is REAL AND ALIVE, my friends. you will think it’s really bad first semester, but then it just explodes into a frenzy of apathy and indifference second semester + you basically don’t care about anything; this is normal, but still try and focus. colleges can rescind their acceptances, altho it’s not likely unless you suddenly fail everything, but overall, it’s just important to still try
  • keep good relations with your teachers (both current teachers and past teachers) & decide on which to ask for a rec – for many schools, they will require at least one teacher recommendation, so you must decide between which teachers you wanna ask. I would advise picking the teachers you’ve always had good relations with, and in a subject where you’re really passionate about learning the material. when asking, be respectful of deadlines (aka don’t ask them to write you a rec two days before the deadline. they are people too), and be sure and say thank you. if you can, make them a card or make/buy them a little gift; I promise you, they’ll appreciate it!! 
    • if the school you’re applying to requires multiple teacher recs: many people advise asking teachers of different subjects to emphasize your well-roundedness – you can do that or you can ask teachers of one subject that you’re really interested in; weigh your options and politely ask. asking teachers can be really scary sometimes, especially if you’re very shy, but they’re there to help you and it’ll all work out :)
  • write a common app essay (if applicable) – common app has 4 prompts that you can choose from, and then you’ll submit that to all the colleges ur applying to thru common app. this is very important. if you’re not a good writer, do not fret!! most of the time, the subject of these essays are very personal. a lot of people write about some trying time in their lives, but plenty of other people write creatively about something small, but important. remember that essays are a way for admission directors to get to know the real you :’) that sounds super cliche, but keep in mind that you are more than ur gpa and ur sat/act score. prove that to them by writing about something you care about
    • if you are ok with it (and it’s totally ok to not be ok with it), ask someone you trust to read over it and edit it. a lot of people ask their language arts teachers just bc they’ll help with grammar and structure, but asking other trusted adults and peers will be helpful too!! keep in mind the potential of bias from parents + friends though 
    • you will most likely write your common app essay multiple times. you will have lots of drafts & it can be really stressful, but patience. you will be so happy when you finally finish 
  • finalize your college list and start writing supplementary essays – many colleges will have supplementary parts to the application on top of common app. this can range from totally separate essays to lil short-answer questions, so be prepared and give yourself plenty of time to write!! just as with your common app essay, getting feedback can be super helpful
    • also remember that many colleges accept arts supplements (this range depends on the college, but I’ve seen colleges accept writing, dance, music, visual art, etc) & these fall under a different deadline, usually. if you want to submit in an art supplement, you may have to submit in your essays and everything earlier 
    • OH ALSO some colleges will have an early decision or early application deadline – this is basically an earlier deadline for ur app in exchange for an earlier decision. be careful on the difference between EA and ED!!! ED is BINDING, which means that if you get in, you have to go (you can get out of it for financial reasons tho), and EA is NONBINDING, which means that even if you get in, you can decide to go to another school
  • submit in your transcript and any test scores you need – different schools have different policies, but most fall under either the SAT + SAT 2 scores OR ACT + writing scores; I would suggest contacting the counseling office asap, but be super nice!! counselors are there to help you through this process, but it can be really overwhelming for them too
    • pay close attention to whether or not ur college requires a counseling rec or not
  • double check everything for small details – some colleges accept peer recs, but sometimes they don’t publicize that detail very much so just be observant! same with priority deadlines for interviews; you may have to submit in your app earlier if you want priority for an interview
  • accept ur interview opportunities – meet with an alumni or go on campus if you can and give an interview!! they’re really helpful sometimes bc it provides the school with a look into who you are as a person, not just as a student. also, from my experience, the alumni are super nice and really interested + it’s nice to just talk and nerd out about the school you like :’) 
  • submit ur apps (hehehe of course!) 
  • apply for scholarships – this is something that I wish I had taken more seriously, but really, college is expensive and scholarships can make all the difference. talk to your counselors if you don’t know where to start & literally just google for them!! be careful you are eligible for the ones you’re interested in and make sure you submit everything in by the deadline too 

AFTER SUBMITTING YOUR APPLICATIONS:

  • distract yourself like crazy – the wait is horrible and the anticipation is killer, if you’re anything like me at least. hang out with your friends and just enjoy your senior year!! this is the last of high school & i promise you that as much as you may hate it (if you do hate it), you will feel bittersweet by the end of the year. so make memories and make the best out of the time you have left in high school 
  • check your email – colleges oftentimes send you emails if they need you to send them anything more, or they’ll update you about things. they’ll usually also email you with where you need to go to check your decision
  • don’t let the senioritis take over ur soul 

RECEIVING YOUR DECISIONS: 

  • acceptances – YAY CONGRATULATIONS!!! be proud of yourself and know that you deserve it 100000%, wholeheartedly. they did not make a mistake, and you ARE that amazing. celebrate your accomplishment, but also be humble. it’s likely that you have a friend that either got waitlisted or denied, so be careful what you say 
  • rejections – i’m sorry, my dear!! but you are not meant to be at that school, and that is okay. even if it is your dream school. this does not reflect ur self-worth & this def does not mean that you aren’t good enough. this simply means you aren’t a good fit for the school!! most people have to deal with rejections, so take some time for yourself. eat some comfort food and watch some tv. read a book if that relaxes you. take a bath with lots of bubbles. do whatever is necessary to cleanse yourself of any negative thoughts you may have, and then realize that you can accomplish SO much wherever you end up!! UR A BRILLIANT SHINING STAR & I HAVE FAITH IN YOU :’)
  • waitlisted – being waitlisted (or deferred during EA/ED, which basically pushed you back to the regular decision time) sucks so much bc you just want to know; take a deep breath and consider all your options. make backup plans. if you’re really interested in the school, email them and tell them that!! make sure if you want to be on the waitlist, that you notify them of that (usually via mail or online somehow). if you don’t wanna be on the waitlist, make sure you take yourself off so you give everyone else a better chance :) 
  • weigh your options through careful, careful consideration – there are so many factors that may come into play when finally deciding on which college to go to
    • money is usually a huge factor, and sometimes you won’t be able to go to a great school even though you got in bc it’s too expensive. but do not be sad about this. give yourself time to feel sad, but don’t let it dictate your life!! you need to stay logical and rational. think long-term. sit down with your guardians and discuss the option of taking out loans and so forth. if you’re planning on pursuing grad school afterwards, you need to keep that in the picture as well 
    • talk to current-students and compare important things – if you’re really big on community service, ask the current students at different schools how it is there. this applies for everything!! first-hand accounts are incredibly helpful. you can also consider emailing professors of departments you’re interested in for a more professional and academic perspective 
    • look into their programs and try and avoid putting too much emphasis on rankings - be specific and read up on the department that you’re interested and compare them with different schools. don’t blindly let an overall ranking mislead you!! (i.e. Duke is ranked higher overall than Georgia Tech, but Georgia Tech is ranked MUCH higher in many of its engineering programs) 
    • talk to people – talk to your parents. talk to your counselors, your teachers, your peers. basically everyone is talking about college your senior year, so take advantage of it. talk with other people and get second, third, fourth, fifth opinions. expand your mind and consider everything!! 

senior year is this giant conglomeration of sweat and tears and happiness and anger and jealous and confusion, so do not worry if you are feeling overwhelmed!! it is normal, and i promise that everyone has felt scared about the future at some point. but with that, be confident in yourself. you’re absolutely lovely + you will go far in life!! 

ok 1) I apologize for how absurdly long this post is and 2) I am here to help if ANYONE has ANY questions about anything!! literally I would love giving advice, so feel free to msg me anytime (my main account is @naiveety though, so whichever works) 

ALSO if anyone is interested in Duke, please please please come to me & I will help!!!

GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE APPLYING TO COLLEGE & MAY YOU ALL HAVE A WONDERFUL, BRILLIANT FUTURE :’) 

HOW TO WRITE THE ‘WHY US’ COLLEGE ESSAY

So I recently got a request to do an in-depth post on how to write the ‘why us’ college essay. I know I struggled a bit with this type of essay and hopefully this post will help you guys out.

1) DO NOT USE THE SAME ESSAY FOR ALL YOUR SCHOOLS

Just don’t do it. I think it’s one of the worst things you can do to show interest. Chances are, if you’re reusing the same essay for all your schools, you haven’t done your research and aren’t committed. This essay could be the factor that switches you from the reject or waitlist pile to the accepted pile. Think about it, if you had too similar candidates, both were strong in all aspects but one of them showed a lot of interest in the school in the ‘why us’ essay, who would you pick? Colleges can even pick the ‘weaker’ candidate who shows more interest because they want people who are committed to their school and are willing to matriculate. Show them that you’re committed and write different essays for each school.

2) DO YOUR RESEARCH

This means more than looking on U.S. News to check the college’s ranking and other mundane facts that are easily accessible. You want to demonstrate genuine interest in the college and not be superficial. Make a document and just bullet out all of the research for each school. Here are some things that should be included in your research:

  • Campus Visits: This is one of the other uses college visits have besides assessing fit. Did you visit the campus over the summer and fall in love with it? Indicate it in your essay. If the rural or urban setting plays a big role in campus life, then definitely mention how that came to play in your decision. For example, a school like Columbia or UChicago, both of which are deeply intertwined with their respective cities or a school like Dartmouth which is also very dependent on its location. Talk about that one gelato shop on campus that you fell in love with or the nature trails you visited etc.
  • Professors: Another indicator of interest. Ideally, you should have met with a professor on your campus visit. But this discussion should have been more than just a ‘hello’ and shaking of hands. Don’t name drop professors if you’ve never interacted with them and know nothing about what they really do. Only include talking to professors if you’ve discussed their subject matter or something else meaningful with them. If you haven’t had the chance to meet professors, fear not! This is what google’s for. Look at the listings of professors for your prospective major. Take a few minutes of your time to browse their websites and see what classes they teach, what books/articles they’ve written, what ideas they’ve pioneered. In my Why UChicago essay, I quoted a French professor who compared people to chess pieces (my interests are French and chess). It doesn’t have to be something monumental, it just has to show that you’ve taken the time to explore the school and prospective major you’ve chosen.
  • Alumni: If you know anyone who attended the school you’re applying to and they’ve helped you choose the school or learn more about it. You could mention them in your essay. Talk about what characteristics you see in them that make them successful at X College and how you exemplify those traits. Did you have an interview with this college before you submitted your application? Mention some of the stuff your interviewer talked about. Again, this shows that you’ve taken the time to explore and are dedicated to the school. 
  • Majors: Look at the website for the department of your intended major and see what they offer that makes them unique. Look at the history of the school you’re applying to with respect to your intended major. What makes this school unique? For example, the University of Michigan was one of the first schools to have computers on campus and they have a long history of a strong computer science program. The computer language BASIC was invented on Dartmouth’s campus. Little facts like this show that you’re interested. Don’t just list the facts because then they become trivial and they lose their meaning in the context of your essay. Tie the facts in to your desire to become a computer science major since you were ten when you built a computer from scratch with your dad. Since then you’ve learned numerous programming languages and have attended numerous computer science camps and it would really help your education to study at a university that’s been a pioneer in this domain for decades. If you don’t know your major, look at what departments you’re interested in and pick the one you like most and relate that to your life.
  • Programs/Extracurriculars: Does your school have a unique program that would help further your academic or extracurricular pursuits? Mention it in context to your life. For example, UChicago’s unique Careers in Law and Careers in Medicine programs which help undergrads attend lectures and seminars, get grad school application help, and get good internships in their desired fields of law or medicine. Did you attend a Model UN conference on the college’s campus and realize that you wanted to be a part of this college’s award winning Model UN team? Mention it. Did you attend a summer program or summer school at this college where you were exposed to the campus, professors, current students, alumni etc. and fell in love? Mention it. Does this college offer a unique study abroad opportunity that you just have to go on? Mention it. These are just some examples of the stuff you can mention on this essay. Look beyond academics and see what this college offers that others don’t.
  • Those Pamphlets You Have Under Your Bed: Now’s the time to dig up all that college mail and college emails from this college that you’ve received over the years and reread it. Look for the obvious stuff like programs and academics but also on how the college describes itself. Is the college very academically oriented or is it athletically driven. What profile does your college fit and how do you fit in? Look up the college’s motto, mascot, fight song etc. and relate them to your life. College mail is usually a good indicator of how the college views itself and use this in your essay.
  • Miscellaneous: Does this college have any unique traditions that you’d like to be a part of? For example the UChicago scavenger hunt. It doesn’t have to be that big but it could be small, like the $1 smoothie Wednesdays and the free tea and cookies every day at a certain time (I forget when) in one of Dartmouth’s libraries. A simple google search can give you this information. There are also unofficial sayings that go around that could be used in your essay, such as “Where fun goes to die” to describe UChicago. Look up the unique tidbits that don’t make it on the website or pamphlet.

3) PRESENTATION

Now that you’ve done all the brunt work, it’s time to organize it all into a concise but interesting essay. The key here is to be interesting and not just list the facts; relate it to you. Weave in one of your interests of hobbies with the ‘Why Us’ part and show how those two pieces complement each other. This is where I would recommend you check out some of the Why UChicago essays people have posted on college confidential. This is the only time I would ever tell you to use that website because it’s toxic but the UChicago people are some of the most unique and creative people I’ve seen and their essays are brilliant. Look at how they weave their interests with the why us narrative to get a good essay. **** This is probably obvious to almost everyone but I’m going to say it, don’t copy their ideas. Use them as inspiration but don’t do anything remotely similar. Plagiarism has serious consequences including a rescinding of your acceptance **** They make it into a story and this is what you should strive to do. If you can do it successfully, it will set you apart from the pack and increase your odds of acceptance. In my ‘Why UChicago’ essay, I related the notation of a really good move in chess with attending UChicago. It made my essay unique and related my personality and interests with the school (I got accepted if you’re wondering). The key is to outline the research you’ve done in a way that makes it easy for the readers to see how you’d fit in with the college. As I’ve said before, don’t let them make assumptions because they’ll assume wrong and it will hurt your application. Help them help you.

4) REVISE

Once you’ve written a draft of the essay you’re happy with, revise, revise, revise. The four draft rule I mentioned in my other college essay post is still valid. Shoot for four drafts to make sure your essay is solid. Things to look for while revising can be found here in my other college essay post. There’s also the informal word limit I mentioned: shoot for less than 650 words because the college admissions people are reading hundreds of essays a day and they will most likely not read your essay in its entirety if you go over 650 words. Being concise is key. As always, don’t name drop and list facts, INTEGRATE them and explain them. Colleges know what’s on their website but how is it relevant to you? The college application process is about you.

Well, I hope this helped you guys write a strong ‘Why Us’ college essay. Hit up my ask if you have any questions and good luck!

Advice on Writing the Common App Essay this Summer...

Fall of senior year is a busy time. So we strongly urge you to have at least your Common Application essay in good shape before senior year begins because writing the essays while attending school is like adding a class to your schedule – remember, in addition to the Common App’s, there are those in the supplements. Summer provides the luxury of uninterrupted time to reflect and write. And you’re fortunate that the Common App essay prompts will remain the same, so you don’t have to wait until August 1st to start working on them.

So here’s some advice to kick start your essays over the coming summer months – from a suggested reading list that we hope will inspire to some excellent step-by-step guidance on those Common App essay prompts.

Finding Your Voice in the Essay:  A suggested reading list of first-person essays.

The Real Topic of your Essay is You: One strategy to help you find a topic.

What are colleges looking for in the essay?

Great essay advice from the deans at Vanderbilt, Chicago, University of Illinois and more.

Pushing the Right Brick for Diagon Alley  Writer and independent college consultant Irena Smith on getting started – and getting personal – in the college essay.

Advice for Students on Topics for the New Common App Essays  This has been one of our all-time most popular posts with college advisor Alice Kleeman breaking down each of the Common App prompts, with guidance on academic, extracurricular, and personal topics that might fit neatly into a response for each prompt. And there’s a bonus section on the essays that have been Ms. Kleeman’s favorites in her more than twenty years advising students.

For more information about essays, including a step-by-step guide to developing a topic, see Chapter 13, “Essays,” “ in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

It’s not just about grades and extracurricular activities

When you start to make your list of your extracurricular activities for college applications next fall, keep this important fact in mind:

Even if you spent a summer flipping burgers at the Golden Arches, write it down! You did honest work for honest pay.

Here’s another reason why you should write down all your tutoring gigs, volunteer work at church, and other activities you might otherwise overlook:

Here are some useful tips on making activities lists:

  1. How to Write Your UC (University of California) Activities List
  2. How to Decide Which Extracurricular Activity to Write About
  3. How to Write Your Common App Activities List
  4. 5 Ways to Make Your Activities List Awesome
How to Start Your College Essay

As your Rising Senior summer comes around the bend, the anxiety of applying to college is starting to rise.

Don’t worry. You’ve got this. If you’re even thinking about college applications now you’re already ahead of the pack.

But the college essay looms large. I’m not going to lie and say it will come easy. You’re going to write draft after draft after draft. And you might even write a few completely different first drafts to see which one works.

The trick with starting your essay isn’t to start off by writing. It’s to start off by listing.

Write three lists. These lists are going to be your reference points through this whole process, so keep them close and keep adding to them.

List 1: What words do I use to describe myself?

List 2: What are five things that won’t come across about you (interests, hobbies, quirks, stories, experiences, etc) through your resume and transcript?

List 3: What do I add to any group or community?

Now write a few notes with a story that backs up each of these claims. You don’t have to write an essay yet, but having these ideas and knowing these things about yourself will come in hand when you actually sit down to write.

Essays are rarely about big important events, a lot of good essays live in little details. Specificity is key.

How Not to Write a College Essay

10 Tips Guaranteed to Get You a Skinny Envelope This Spring
by Elizabeth Preston


1. Be general. Instead of using anecdotes to get a point across, speak in broad generalizations. Pepper your essay with proclamations rather than personal detail. The sentence “When I was 16 I helped my uncle dig his bakery out of the rubble left by Hurricane Arthur,” for example, is no good. Try “Hardships teach life lessons.” Or simply “Colleges should admit students.”

2. Don’t mention goals or the future. Focus on the past. Dwell on your regrets, especially trivial ones, such as that scooter you never got for your ninth birthday.

3. Don’t be concise. Why should you shorten your writing for the sake of a reader’s time? The more your essay resembles a multivolume fantasy saga, the better.

4. Avoid coherence. Put ideas on the page in the order they occur to you. Forgo segues.

5. Test out your stand-up material. A college essay is an ideal venue for jokes. Classic humor genres that rely on group stereotypes, such as “How many ____ does it take to screw in a light bulb?” or “Three ____ walk into a bar,” are best.

6. Lie. Instead of writing about Hurricane Arthur and those eight days spent sweating over a shovel, wouldn’t it be more fun to write about that time you invented a vaccine for chikungunya?

7. Ignore instructions. Different colleges may have different sets of guidelines about what to write and how to submit your application materials. These are annoying and you should disregard them.

8. Ignore conventions of grammar and spelling. You’re a creative thinker; why be bound by the “rules” of traditional English? If your Word document has so many red and green squiggles that it resembles a novelty Christmas sweater, you’re on the right track.

9. Don’t be yourself. Let’s face it—you’re not very interesting. Try writing as someone quirky but mysterious. Be the reluctant heir to the throne of Denmark. Be a non-carbon-based life form.

10. Don’t write a college essay. How about sending the admissions officers something they don’t see every day? We recommend a potted plant, preferably unattractive and/or carnivorous.  


Elizabeth Preston lives in Massachusetts and writes about science and other sundries. Her blog, Inkfish, is published by Discover. Ruling Denmark is really going to cut into her time for tropical disease research. Folow her on Twitter @Inkfish.