College Essay - Writing A Memorable One

The 2019-2020 Common App essay prompts remain the same as last year’s, offering students a myriad of ways to tell their story. But the college essay continues to cause much stress and anxiety among college applicants, and it shouldn’t. The only question is will these applicants pick a topic that will allow them to tell their story properly.

All too often students either select or are given poor advice by those around them about which topic would make a strong essay. The result is an essay that is mediocre, that doesn’t show off the student in a positive light, and makes no impression on the admission officers. These individuals can spot an essay written by someone other than the applicant a mile away and they read thousands of essays every day so applicants should write something that they will remember.

The most common error students make is thinking they know what the admission officers want to read. Trust me, what they want to read is an essay that tells an interesting story about the student, and the last thing a student should do is write it using the steps learned in English class: introduction, a few points, conclusion. Boring! Rather, they should pretend they’re writing a journal entry or a letter to a dear friend. These tend to be more open, honest pieces that reveal the personality of the writer.

I find that selecting the topic is the hardest part and one of the best places to start is to think about what not to write about. Begin by avoiding the sports essay about scoring the winning goal in the tournament or that volunteer service trip to a third world country. Important to the applicant, for sure, but so over used. An essay that is a reformatted resume is also not a good idea because all that information should already be in the application. Click here for other topics to steer clear of.

Rather, students should look for an incident or experience that will allow them to reveal something about themselves that goes beyond the grades, extra curricular activities and all other information that has already been presented. The character of the student, how they think, react to a given situation, etc. should shine through in this essay. But, similar to an English class essay, there should be no misspelled words, grammar and sentence structure should be good, and it should be truthful. The word count is still 650 words which doesn’t sound like much, but is plenty to tell a good story if the topic is strong. Hint: Once the topic is chosen, I allow my students to write to their hearts content till the story is down on paper, editing to the required word count afterwards. Focusing on the word count at the beginning is a perfect way to create writer’s block.

A college essay, while not the sole piece of an application, can be a deal breaker or tip the scales in favor of the candidate, and cannot be written in one sitting. Applicants should give themselves time to write their essay and they shouldn’t hesitate to have others proof read it, but don’t ask too many people. Everyone has an opinion and in short order the applicant will be all confused. Select just one or two, don’t feel obliged to take all the advice given and always make sure that the voice that comes through at the end is that of the applicant.

Creating A Strong College Application

The foundation of a strong competitive college application is made up of three pieces of information: a student’s transcript, GPA/class rank, and SAT/ACT scores. Now, there are several schools of thought reference the order of importance of these three components and each college or university will also have its own preference. However, it’s quickly evident that they are all linked and each very important.

• Transcript - From the perspective of a college admissions officer, the transcript is the most important part of any application. A transcript shows an applicant’s progress over the course of four years: course selection, rigor, electives and corresponding grades. They’ll be looking to see if it shows steady upward movement in course difficulty? Were there any academic recognitions? Any dips in grades or disciplinary issues over those four years, and if so, what was the cause? Four years of effort, or lack of, will be reflected in this one document.

• GPA/Class Rank - A by-product of the transcript, the GPA/class rank is calculated based on the grades, and corresponding credits, in the classes taken and from it comes the class rank. Students use their GPA to determine whether a school is a reach, target or safety. Gpa/class rank will be calculated by admission officers for those schools who don’t have them and certain levels of GPA and class rank might result in merit scholarships as well.

• SAT/ACT - Two standardized tests, one measuring reasoning and the other learned material, act as a means of sorting applications at many schools. Scores tend to stay in step with the rigor of the transcript. A strong applicant will, by default, have strong scores, while students with a weaker academic profile often end up with weaker scores. If the scores are off kilter with the GPA/class rank, students either retake the test or an explanation on the application might be necessary. Many applicants take both tests because some fare better on one test over the other. We have had much success with the applications of students with lopsided academic profile which require a little more creativity to put the focus on the strengths versus the weaknesses..

In any case, it’s evident that these three components are all inter-related and inter-dependent. Extra curricular activities, a well written college essay and short answer essays complete the image an applicant aims to present to the admissions officers.

Lastly, students should make sure to use every inch of their application to present as many details about themselves as possible without repeating or reformatting information already available to admissions officers. Triage your information and let the schools decide what they will use and what they won’t.

College Application Timeline - August 2019

Amazingly enough, the relaunch of the 2019-2020 Common App on August 1st is in two days, marking the official beginning of the college application process for all incoming high school seniors. The Common App has a brand new look, a few more members colleges, and improved tools to assist students prepare the strongest possible application.

Staying organized and following a timeline helps students stay in control of the application process and will significantly reduce the stress that will invariably creep in. So let’s start keeping that anxiety at bay with a few points which might seem obvious, but are often overlooked.

Good application planning begins with establishing personal criteria. Will it be a small, medium or large campus; rural, suburban or urban setting, and what’s the geographical location? Next,  students need to identify possible areas of study, how far do they want to be from home, which campus culture will they be most comfortable in, sports interests, political and religious affiliations, financial and health needs, etc. The most important criteria of all should be personal fit.

• Check your high school transcript - Get a copy of your unofficial transcript and check it for accuracy. Are the classes and corresponding grades correct? Will all the state mandated requirements for graduation be met by June 2020 - especially important for those who have attended more than one high school? It is the student's responsibility to make sure this document is correct.

•  Senior Year Course Load - Follow the 4x5 formula as closely as possible: four years of the five core subjects: English, math, science, history and a foreign language. If it's not possible, get as close as possible. State mandated requirements for graduating from high school will vary from state to state, but in general are lower than those needed for a competitive college application. So avoid the temptation to take only what you need to graduate senior year and opt for a full course load.

• Extra Curricular Activities - All students are so much more than their grades and how they spend their time outside of school speaks volumes to admission officers. Write down everything you do and edit if necessary. See what qualifies as an extra curricular activity and remember the golden rule: quality over quantity. Don’t forget to mention those jobs (both paid and unpaid) as they show many great personal qualities that colleges are looking for in their students.

•  SAT/ACT Scores - One of the three most important parts of a student's academic profile after the transcript and GPA/class rank are their SAT/ACT scores. But what's a good score?  Also, more and more colleges are now ‘test optional’ meaning that the student decides whether to submit their scores when applying. Click here for more detailed information.

Prefer to retake either test? Next SAT is August 24th and the next ACT is September 14th. Scores will be back in time for the early admission due dates.

•  College List - Put together a list of schools you'd like to apply to. Everyone should aim to have a well balanced college list of reach, target and safety schools. While many would encourage students to throw the net wide, a well researched list of 8-12 schools has proven to be more successful in the long run. And remember, any school with a single digit admission rate, regardless of the rigor of the student's transcript or strength of SAT/ACT scores, should not be considered a safety school. 

•  College Essay - Fortunately for everyone, the 2019-2020 essay prompts are the same as last year’s. Besides good grammar and spelling, a college essay is NOT an English class essay and never assume you know what the admissions officers want to read or that a good essay is a reformatted resume. It's often the small 'incident' that makes the best essay topic. An essay has accomplished its job if the reader learns something about the applicant that is not already contained in the application.

It's hard to write about yourself, but that is what will be necessary in order to produce a solid essay, and these prompts encourage that. Ask any admissions officer and he/she will tell you that nine out of ten college essays are dull and uninteresting. A good college essay tells a story, hooking the reader from the start and giving them a peek at who the student is beyond the stats. A strong essay requires several drafts and a few weeks to complete, so be patient and don't rush the process. It is now time to start thinking about it. 

•  Campus Visits - Never a waste of time, much can be learned from a campus visit, even if it was a school you didn't like. Keep track of the little things and listen to your intuition. Best seen with students around, few spots on a campus will better tell you if the school is a good personal fit than the cafeteria, library and dorm so make sure to visit them.

 Parental Role - Parents often have a hard time knowing how to best help their children with this very exciting part of their transition from adolescent to young adults, but in five words or less: be there, be supportive, but stay out of the way.

November 1st is the first, and best known, early application due date. However, more and more schools are offering early application (Early Decision, Early Action, Priority & Rolling) due dates as early as October 15th.

So it would make sense for rising juniors to make good use of this block of time before school starts again in September to focus purely on the college application process. It will not get any easier once school is back in session, especially for the student athletes who participate in a Fall sport.

Common App: New & Improved

Common App has a new website with redesigned tools and resources ready to go for the 2019-2020 college application season. And to use their very own words ….

‘The new site features enhanced college search, upgraded applicant guides and recommender guides, video tutorials, and an expanded college roadmap - designed to help all students see themselves in all aspects of the college exploration and application process.’

Don't forget that starting July 28th the website will be offline for its annual refresh, but only for for days. It will relaunch on August 1st. All existing accounts will rollover.

So take a few minutes to check out this new site.

Financial Advice for High School Graduates

Financial awareness is an area in which many recent high school graduates are not always sufficiently prepared. If this sounds like your child, please make sure to teach your children proper financial responsibilities before they head off to college. You’ll be glad you did!

The New York Times recently published an article that covers useful information on budgets, banking, credits card use, and mobile payments, in addition to many other things. If medical help is needed, does your child have a copy of their health card in their wallet? Also, make sure that your incoming college freshman knows their social security number by heart.

Lastly, sit down with your child and have an honest conversation about the cost of their college eduction. If they helped you fill out the FAFSA then they are already aware of the costs involved. If not, they are now ready to see the financial side of going to college and the corresponding debt that will undoubtedly begin to build up. One exercise that never fails to register with students is calculating how much it costs should they decide to skip a class in college.

College Apps Made Easy would like to congratulate all the high school seniors who will be graduating this month. Its a very exciting time for these students!