How do I apply for college as effectively as possible? – FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: What are the Admissions Officers at top colleges and universities looking for in a college essay?
A: There are many ways to present an effective college essay. In general, college essays should reflect the intellectual and cultural promise of the applicant in a colorful way. In order to avoid sounding like too many other essays, a strong college essay should reflect the unique insights, experiences, and writing skills of the applicant. Actually, creating an essay that will enhance the college application is not as hard as students suppose.

Q: What if I can’t think of anything unique about myself that shows that I am a promising applicant?
A: In my experience, most applicants have the potential to write several excellent essays about various aspects of their lives. The challenge for students is to reflect carefully on their experiences and pursue their best ideas. For many years, we have provided guidance to students who need encouragement and guidance in the college essay brainstorming process. You can be a much stronger applicant by carefully considering what to highlight in your college essay.

Q: Why is the personal essay so important to the college application?
A: The college essay is a golden opportunity to highlight the student’s qualities that are not featured in the other parts of the college application: writing skills, humor and irony, a style of leadership, hobbies, artistic talent, awareness of different cultural perspectives, philosophical reflections, work experience, entrepreneurial initiative, political engagement, community involvement, personal quirks, and other positive qualities. Make your essays and statements part of a winning college application by showing some sparkle to the Admissions Officers. If it is done well, it will be welcomed!

Q: Why do so many college essays sound alike?
A: Usually, students prepare their application essays and statements in the fall and early winter of their senior year of high school. Of course, they feel terrific pressure to complete and submit their applications by the deadlines. In many cases, high school teachers and college counselors provide minimal help with these challenges. The books and websites that publish successful college essays are not tailored to the individual needs of the student. Further, busy high school students may not fully understand how to make their case effectively to the Admissions Officers. In these circumstances, students tend to write essays on standard themes: “The Big Game”, “Family Member Dies”, “Summer Camp Experience”. Don’t be afraid to write about something completely different!

Q: Does it take a long time to write an effective college essay?
A: This depends on the student. Some students can write a powerful essay almost overnight, while others require six months to find the best way forward. In our experience, most students can write an effective essay, including all revisions, in a period of two to three months. Don’t put off this important task to the last minute!

Q: What written statements are required besides the basic college essay?
A: The Common Application requires a short statement about non-academic activities in addition to the college essay. Although there are strict limits to this statement (1000 characters), it provides a vehicle to showcase certain characteristics of the applicant that are not featured elsewhere in the Common Application. However, many applicants to leading colleges and universities are faced with formidable difficulties in the Supplements to the Common Application. The Supplements often require additional statements that vary greatly in length, topic, and difficulty of preparation. Of course, some of these supplementary requirements change from year to year.

Q: It is rumored that Admissions Officials spend only a few minutes on each application. Why does a strong college essay still matter?
A: Yes, it is true that most Admissions Offices at America’s top colleges and universities are flooded with tens of thousands of applications each year. Usually, the applications are reviewed by a limited number of people –perhaps no more than two dozen admissions professionals influence the outcomes. These persons review applications by themselves, but they also discuss batches of applications periodically as an Admissions Committee. However, it is still extremely important for the applicant to present outstanding application essays and statements. Although Admissions Officers review a huge number of applications, they operate with a practiced eye. They welcome insightful, coherent applications that reveal a student who would bring special things to their community. You have a spark, now is the time to show it!

Q: Why is authenticity so important as regards the written components of the college application?
A: It is imperative that the student prepare his or her own college applications. However, the decisions regarding where to apply, how to apply, and what to highlight can be difficult. In many cases, preparing the written materials for the college applications is an extremely helpful stage for applicants to clarify both what they bring to higher education and what higher education can bring to them in terms of vocational opportunity, cultural exposure, academic excellence, international experience, and personal development. An effective applicant presents essays and written statements that have the ring of authenticity. Some Admissions Offices may check the application essays and statements against other indications of writing competence, such as samples of graded high school written work, academic performance in English and History classes, and other factors. Honesty is the best policy.

Q: Is it true that every part of the college application must be tightly organized around a single theme?
A: This approach has been championed by some high-profile college counseling services in recent years. Students are pitched in thumbnail terms: ‘Hispanic engineer’, ‘Champion swimmer with strong community service’, and so on. This method has the advantage of presenting a coherent picture of the applicant that can be readily digested in the lightning-fast review of Admissions Officers and Admissions Committees at leading colleges and universities, but it also has its drawbacks. The applicant may come off as too glossy and inauthentic. Further, the streamlined nature of the essays and statements may reveal a somewhat lackluster high school career that is little more than a preparatory exercise for the college application process. Some students may prove to be stronger candidates with excellent essays and statements that are a little richer and deeper in content.

Q: Are the written parts of the college application likely to sway the decision of an Admissions Officer or Admissions Committee?
A: It is wise to bear in mind that applying for prestigious colleges and universities is extremely competitive, even for applicants who have family connections, legacy or development status, high athletic potential, perfect test scores, high grades, and other favorable qualities. After all, a limited number of spaces is available in each freshman class. A legacy or athletic classification is usually not the only factor that contributes to the decision. In many cases, the quality of the application itself may be quite important — creating the sharpest application possible makes sense.

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