Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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Writing College Application Essays: First Commandment: “Know Thyself”

Question: What’s more important than the topic of your college application essay?
Answer:
Knowing who you are.

What do I mean when I say “know who you are?”

  • Know what kind of person you are
  • Know what your values are
  • Know why you make the choices you do
  • Know how you want to represent yourself to the colleges who will be reading your college application essay.

This can be tough. We usually don’t write about ourselves, or think about what makes us interesting or what our goals are. We usually don’t reflect. But reflection is very important. You can even do it before you choose a topic. In some cases it will lead to a topic. And wouldn’t that be great?!

Question: How do you figure out who you are?
Answer:
Do the research. Interview your subject.

You’d do research on a subject for a school paper, right? Of course. Your college application essay is no different —  it’s just that the subject is you. So let’s get started. Here’s how you get to know yourself:

1. Schedule: You need a quiet time with no intrusions. It can be one longer session or several shorter ones, but try to get it done over a few days at most. Your don’t want long interruptions of time —  you want your thoughts to flow.

2. Prep: Make sure you have a pen and paper or a computer to write down your answers. After each question give yourself time to think.

3. Interview questions. Here are 6 questions to get you started:

1. What are 3 values I respect? For instance — respect, loyalty, courage? (There are many values you can think about. Google them.)

2. How do I reflect these values in my choices?

3. How would I describe myself to a stranger?

4. What do my friends like about me?

5. What’s been the hardest thing in my life?

6. What are my goals and how do I plan to reach them?

You’ll probably think of more questions as you go along. After all, you know your subject best.

When you start writing you’ll find you may not use all of your answers in your college application essay. That’s okay; you have a reservoir of material to draw from. What’s even better is these answers don’t belong to anyone else — they can’t. They help define who you are. They detail what makes you interesting, what your journey has been. No one else will be able to write your essay. That’s the way it should be. That’s what colleges are looking for in a great college application essay.

One more thing about your interview subject: Make sure he or she is honest. If you allow your subject to skate by with half-truths or skirt important answers you won’t really get to know him. Neither will the college you want to attend. And that would be a real shame.

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How to Succeed with the Common Application Essay 500 Word Limit: pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)

Welcome! This is the first of a 4 part series on how to succeed with the Common Application Essay’s 500 Word Limit.

In April 2011 the Common Application changed the word limit for the personal essay. The Common App essay word limit is now 500 words.

Why the switch? According to Common Application Executive Director Rob Killion, allowing students to write essays of unlimited length “led to essays that were far too long, less well-written, and…often skimmed rather than read by admission officers.

Are there drawbacks? Yes. Some students will have trouble saying everything they want to say in 500 words or less. You may be one of them. But don’t be discouraged, you can write a great 500 word Common App essay.

Here are 7 Important Writing Tips to Help You Stay Under 500 Words:

1. Be Focused. Know what you want to discuss and make sure each sentence helps you get there.

2. Be Succinct. Choose your words wisely.

3. Be Specific. Create interesting imagery.

4. Be Clear. The introduction should flow clearly into the body of your essay. The body of your essay should transition into a clear conclusion.

5. Make Your Point. What do you want the college admission reader to know about you by the end of your essay? Make sure you achieve this goal.

6. Keep Count. Count your words. Don’t wait until you’re finished — you might have to rework your entire essay.

7. Edit.  Editing is essential with a 500 word essay. If you’re using three words where one will do, toss the extra words. If you have a sentence that gets your essay a bit off point, leave it on the cutting room floor. Be brave! Your essay will read better and come within the word count.

These are the important basics for writing a good essay. Print them out and check that you’re doing them as you write and you’ll be on your way.

Now you’re ready for part 2: How to Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 2 (Think small and still tell a big story)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay samples)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 4 (Ideas that work)
for more info: read Time.com on the Common App Essay Word Limit

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? Get in touch! I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.

Leave a comment — I’d like to know what you think.


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Writing College Application Essays: How to Choose a Topic

I was speaking to the Joel Barlow High School PTSA in Redding today (thanks, PTSA!) about writing college application essays, and was asked a great question: Do I have any suggestions for the student who’s having trouble deciding what to write about? Yes!

Choosing a topic for a college application essay can be a daunting, if not downright intimidating experience. Many students think that because nothing big or dramatic has happened to them in their lives they don’t have anything to write about. Wrong!

You don’t have to be the best athlete, have won lots of awards, or had a big “moment of revelation” to write a great college application essay. Far from it. While big experiences can make good essays, the small things can be just as powerful, if not more so.

Remember, colleges look for 3 main things in a college application essay:

  • How well you write
  • How well you organize your thoughts
  • You. What makes you unique? What kind of person are you? What kind of choices do you make?

When you’re choosing a topic you want to find an experience — a story — that will reflect what’s unique about you. You never want 100 other students to be able to write the same essay you’re writing. It should only be able to come from you.

Here are 3 questions to ask yourself if you’re having trouble choosing a topic for your college application essay:

1. Is there a time in my life I’ve taken a risk?

2. Is there a time I’ve turned a failure into a success?

3. Has there been a difficult choice I’ve had to make, but am glad I made it?

Notice that these questions deal with a personal journey —  they ask you to discuss and reflect on some way that you’ve grown into the person you are.

Start with these questions. If you can’t think of an answer, ask your parents. Parents are excellent resources when you’re looking for college essay topics because they know you well, have seen you grow, and may remember something that you don’t.

Always remember that no matter what topic you choose, you want to represent yourself in a positive light. But that light can shine just as brightly on the small things as the big ones — as long as it reflects you.


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College Essay Writing: Make it Easy! Keep a Journal

Have you thought about writing your college essay yet? Is that the sound of laughter I hear?

I know, it’s April. It’s way too early to think about writing a college application essay. There’s school and classes and tests — enough stress in your life. But here’s something you can do to have less stress later:

Keep a journal.

  • It’s quick
  • It’s easy
  • You can use it to get to know yourself
  • Later it can help you come up with ideas for your college application essay

Why?

Colleges want to know who they’re accepting — not just from grades and test scores — but what kind of people they’re choosing. That’s what your essay will show — what makes you unique, why you’re interesting, what you can offer your school and community. Why they should choose you.

It’s a tall order. Most students have never written this kind of essay. That’s why a journal can help. It’s just like a diary if you’ve kept one. You can put anything in it. It doesn’t matter what. Even what you ate for dinner.

Make it fun. No stress. Just open a page or flip open your computer and away you go.

Put in your journal:

  • Ideas
  • Observations
  • Plans you’d like to make
  • Descriptions of people, places, activities
  • Questions
  • Funny things
  • Small things
  • Big things
  • Surprising things
  • Things that make you proud, sad, cautious, laugh…
  • Anything

Write on a notepad, on your computer, whatever’s easiest. Get to know yourself. Then, when you’re finally ready to begin, you won’t have to stare at a blank page wondering where to start. You’ll have a notebook full of inspiration.


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Real Life Story: College Essay Rejection

This is the story of a young man who made a mistake in one sentence of his college application essay and it cost him admittance to Amherst.

Here’s how it goes:

Recently an NPR reporter went behind the scenes at Amherst College in Massachusetts to see how college admissions decisions are made. The admissions committee was having one of their final meetings; they’d narrowed it down to the top 15 percent of applicants and now, one by one, they were presenting each student’s grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and essays.

The Essay is Discussed

The committee turned to the application of the young man in question. His college application essay caught the attention of a dean, and not in a good way. She was troubled by a sentence that read ”I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject.” The student went on to say that music was his exception. No one was pleased.

“That was flabbergasting,” commented one of the admissions readers.

“Intellectual passion is a must,” said the Dean of Admissions. Everyone agreed. The student was not admitted.

What Went Wrong?

The student clearly intended to write about his passion for music. So why did the college admissions committee care more about what he said first: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject”?

The Student Violated 2 Major Rules:

1. Know Your Reader

Amherst is a small, prestigious liberal arts college. If you go to their website and read the school’s philosophy it’s all about intellectual curiosity. Did this student visit Amherst’s website? I don’t know. But when he said he wasn’t fascinated by anything other than music he certainly seemed not to understand.

Remember you’re not writing your college application essay for you — you’re writing it for college admissions readers to read and like. You want them to finish your essay and want you to go to their school. You have to figure out what makes you a good fit and how you’re going to convey that.

One way to begin is to visit the school’s website. You can get a lot of information from a website. What’s their educational philosophy? What kind of students do they want to attract? Then you can begin to decide how to show them you’re that kind of person.

2. Don’t Cast Yourself in a Negative Light

I’m sure this student had no idea he was saying anything negative about himself. After all, he was writing about his love of music. But by saying “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” he casts himself in a negative light. He’s telling the college admissions reader “I really don’t care much about stuff, except I like music.”

One other thing I want to point out is his use of the present tense: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” By writing in the present tense he’s talking about now. It’s not something that used to be — he’s not interested now.

What if the sentence were changed slightly? What if this college application essay began, “I started getting fascinated by new ideas when I fell in love with music”? Doesn’t that sound more positive? Instead of the word “rarely” I used the word “started” — something has begun. A transformation. A journey. That might get the attention of the Amherst admissions committee. I’m not saying it would have been right for this student, but you can see the difference it makes. This sentence is now about someone who loves the idea of learning, and is completely positive.

You always want to showcase yourself in a positive light. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about a personal journey or a learning experience; we all make mistakes or come to important realizations in our lives — that can make a powerful essay. But you don’t want to give a negative impression. Not a smart way to portray yourself.

Remember:

  • Know your reader
  • Don’t cast yourself in a negative light

If you’re not sure,  have someone read your essays. Find someone who understands what colleges are looking for, and where the pitfalls lie, and ask them for constructive criticism. Make sure to give yourself time to make adjustments.

Ultimately, the admissions process is not an exact science. But college admissions committees don’t take the process lightly; they struggle with knowing they hold each student’s future in their hands.

Make sure you hold as much of your future in your own hands as you can. Write a great essay.


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College Visits: Great Prep for College Application Essays

Planning to visit colleges during spring break? You’re not alone. March is the time many high school juniors (and some sophomores) start their college tours.

On these visits you’ll be looking for answers to questions like “Is this school for me?” and “Will I be happy here?” But let me give you another question to ask yourself: “What can I learn from this visit that will help me write a great college application essay?”

 

Here are 3 ways to make college visits work for your college application essays:

1. Make contacts

Making contacts is great for two reasons: 1. You can learn a lot from the people you talk to, and 2. You can get in touch later if you have more questions.

There are several ways to make contacts:

  • Schedule an interview for the day you’re on campus. If the school doesn’t offer interviews see if you can get an interview with a professor in a field of study that interests you. Get your contact’s name (correctly spelled) and email, and send him or her a thank-you. That way if you have more questions you can follow up knowing you’ve already made a good impression.
  • Are you an athlete? See if you can meet a coach or a student athlete. Same goes for the thank-you note.
  • Chat with your tour guide when you go on the tour. At the end ask for his or her name and email and ask if you can write if you have more questions.

2. Notice details

Details are important in college application essays. They make your essays personal and separate you from students writing essays so generic that 1,000 others could have written the same one.

When you visit each college notice what makes an impression on you. It can be anything from how you feel walking on campus to the kind of students you meet. The details don’t matter, as long as they matter to you.  Do you see a dorm you might want to live in? Find out its name. Is your tour guide a member of the student council and you think you’d like to join? Ask what her experiences have been.

The more details you collect now the more information you’ll have for your essay later.

3. Write it down:

Take a pad with you and write it down. Let me say it again: write it down. At the end of the day your note pad should have the names and emails of your contacts, and a detailed list of what you saw and liked, and why.

Why go through the trouble? Let me give you an example: A student of mine had to write a short essay about why he wanted to go to college X.  In his first draft he wrote that he went on the tour and liked the campus and dorms. It was too generic, so I asked him to find an alum or someone on campus he could talk to. He surprised me by saying that he’d hit it off with his campus tour guide and had gotten his email. So he emailed him with some questions about campus life and extra-curricular activities, and asked him more about the dorm he’d liked.  When he re-wrote his essay it was full of detail. He also made sure to mention he had corresponded with his tour guide — an impressive fact that was not going be lost on the school.

Prep for your college application essays. Use your college visits as opportunities to make contacts and gather details. The end result will be essays that are detailed, personal, and well worth the effort.


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College Admissions: Competitors to the Common App

Got applications? Maybe you’ll be using the Common Application. Then again, maybe not.

A recent article in the New York Times, entitled “More Than One Way to Apply to College,” discussed competitors to the Common Application, including the Universal College Application, the Common Black College Application, and a portal called Xap. Here’s some information you should know:

COMMON APPLICATION
www.commonapp.org

The Common Application is the granddaddy of the one-stop application, allowing students to apply to multiple schools with one form. Currently, the Common App has 414 member schools. But the requirements it makes of its members, including requiring a college application essay, have excluded many institutions from joining. Public schools are especially under-represented.

UNIVERSAL COLLEGE APPLICATION
www.universalcollegeapp.com

Universal doesn’t ask its schools to require a college application essay. In fact, if you’re applying to one that doesn’t, you won’t see that requirement pop up in your application. For schools that do require a college application essay, Universal suggests a maximum of 500 words. That’s much different from the minimum 250 required by the Common App, which often means essays go far beyond 500 words.

The Universal College Application is accepted by over 80 colleges. The hope is that as this number grows, schools will gain access to a broader range of students who are applying to both public and private colleges, thereby increasing the diversity of their applicant pool. A wide range of schools accept Universal, including the University of New Haven, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Harvard.

XAP
www.nationalappcenter.com

According to the New York Times, this portal processed 4 million college applications last year. From here students can apply to over 900 colleges and universities.

One section on the site connects to state-wide “Mentor systems.” What’s great about this system is that it imports information from one application into all the other applications in that same state. Several dozen, including Connecticut, participate. You can access this section from Xap, or from each school’s website (although not all schools have it listed). For UConn, go to http://admissions.uconn.edu, click “apply online” and you’ll see info for creating a CT Mentor  account.

There’s no charge for using the Mentor system, other than the application fee.

COMMON BLACK COLLEGE APPLICATION
www.eduinconline.com

From here a student can apply to 35 historically black colleges and universities at once. There is a $35 fee which covers all the schools, replacing the individual application fees charged by each institution. That can save a lot of money.

Which to use? That’s up to your college choices. If you’re applying to a lot of schools in-state, Xap can make the process easier. If you’re applying to primarily public schools, the Common App might be your best bet.