Writing A Strong College Essay

The source of much anxiety and stress during the college application process, the college essay remains an important component of a student's college application: the unique opportunity for the applicant to use their own voice to tell their story. Students struggle to find the right topic though it is, more often than not, a topic they would never have thought interesting enough to write about.

It's the small 'incident' that makes the best essay topic; an event, experience, revelation or moment that the student might consider inconsequential, yet was powerful enough to alter the student's view, direction or purpose. An essay has accomplished its job if the reader learns something about the applicant that is not already contained in the application. 

The seven essay prompts for the 2018-2019 Common App are identical to last year’s, offering applicants an endless variety of options of what to write about. With a maximum word count of 650 words (minimum of 250) any student regardless of their socioeconomic situation, or background, will easily find a story to tell through one of the following prompts:

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.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

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.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? 

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

There are five essay prompts for the 2018-2019 Coalition Application. Very similar to those of the Common App, the Coalition’s belief is that there is no ‘perfect’ length for an essay and propose a range of 500-550 words. The prompts are ….

1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

2. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and retreads of making your contribution.

3. Has there been time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

4. What is the hardest part of being teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Students applying to highly selective colleges and universities will find that they also have supplemental essays to write, which should never be taken lightly. With school-specific prompts and smaller word count limits these essays should also be well written, researched and should answer the prompt. Here's yet another opportunity for students to use their voice!

Making the assumption that we know what admission officers want to hear is a common error and the truth is that we have absolutely no idea. We do know, however, that a strong essay should NOT be a reformatted resume, repeat information already available somewhere in the application, and should avoid these topics.

The essay can be either a deal maker or a deal breaker, so DO NOT take it lightly, and beyond good grammar and spelling, a college essay is NOT an English class essay, but resembles more a journal entry or letter home. Write something that the admission officers will remember, not fall asleep reading!

The Coalition Application

The Coalition Application is the newest option in the college application process, having been created in 2016, as their site states, 'by a group of dedicated college leaders aiming to improve the college application process, particularly for those students from historically under-represented groups.' It stresses diversity, equality and is attempting to level the playing field.

Its members are a diverse group of 140 colleges that share the same criteria of affordable tuition, need-based aid, and a 6 yr graduation rate of 70% or higher. The Coalition Application members pride themselves in providing generous financial aid and cost-effective in-state tuition which allows students to graduate with minimal debt. 

So how does the Coalition App differ from the Common App?

The primary difference is that the Coalition Application is geared towards helping first-generation, lower-resourced and under represented students that tend to come predominately from low-income minority households, realize their dreams of going to college by proving substantial support in the form of financial aid, scholarships, etc. Students are encouraged to begin thinking about college as early as freshman year in high school, storing writing samples and other items that illustrate their passions in a digital 'locker.'

Here are some other differences ...

• The Coalition App, while still relatively new, has 140 member colleges vs the over 800 of the Common App with all Ivy League colleges accepting both of these application platforms. Each platforms has new members join every year. 

• The Coalition Application is a simpler application to complete compared to the Common App. in our opinion. Much of the same information is required, but the Coalition App asks students to self-report their classes and grades for 9th - 12th grades. That is optional on the Common App that was, at its inception, created to simplify the application process by having students fill out only one application.

• Essay prompts - The Coalition App has five essay prompts with a 500-550 word count limit compared to the Common App's seven prompts with a 650 word count limit. Some students will relish the lower word count - don't let it fool you into thinking that's easier - while others will have trouble telling their story well in so few words. Supplemental essays and additional information are college specific.

• Both platforms are free to use, do not offer an advantage over the other, require application fees for submitting, but accept fee waivers from eligible students. Not to be overlooked, the Common App having been in use for almost 20 yrs, has had chance work out the technical bugs that the Coalition App has fallen prey to due to its short existence. 

So which is best?

It really depends on the colleges that make the cut to the final college list. At the moment only three schools accept only the Coalition App: the University of Maryland, University of Florida and University of Washington. Some large state schools that used to accept only their own online application, like Rutgers University, have begun accepting the Coalition App.  Other colleges still accept only their own application and one of these two platforms, others do exactly the reverse. One thing is for sure, College Apps Made Easy does not recommend students filling out both. Students should do their due diligence before staring to fill out anything.





College Application Timeline - September 2018


Another summer comes to an end and with it the 2018-19 college application process officially begins. On August 1st, the Common App and its new features that further streamline the application process, relaunched after only four days off line. Fill it out early and don't forget to sign the FERPA waiver.

All applicants, regardless of their class rank or academic profile, will be following the same steps in the college application process, so everyone should check the following list to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. 

•  Retake the SAT/ACT - All students should be encouraged to take either, or both tests, at least twice, especially if not happy with the first scores. They are different so read up and decide which one is best suited to you. Don't forget to take advantage of the four FREE test scores that come with each registration. This is especially important for minority applicants.

The next SAT will be Oct. 6th with a registration deadline of Sept 7th. The ACT will be offered on Sept 8th, followed by another on Oct 27th with a Sept 28nd registration deadline. All students should check to see if they are eligible for fee waivers.

•  College List - Take the time to create a well-balanced college list of reach, target and safety schools. An applicant should be happy to attend any of the schools they apply to regardless if it is considered a safety. Hint: Take the time to put together a solid list. You'll be glad you did in a few months.

•  College Essay - This year's essay prompts are unchanged from 2017-2018, allowing all students many options to tell their own unique story. Highly selective schools and honors programs often ask for supplemental essays, so don't forget to check. Do not take these supplementary essays lightly because they do serve a purpose and don't let the small word count limit fool you. They take time to write properly.

•  Letters of Recommendation - If you haven't yet selected which teacher/coach/mentor will be writing your letters of recommendation now is the time to reach out and askBut don't ask just anyone!

•  HBCU - Students interested in applying to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) can also use the Black Common App. Pay only $35 to apply to all the colleges that make up this group.

•  California Common App -  Students interested in going to college in California will need to fill out the University of California application. Review this application carefully as the application requirements are slightly different and there are additional essays to write.

• Coalition Application - An alternative to the Common App, the Coalition Application is accepted by approximately 140 colleges that all meet the same criteria: affordable tuition, need-based aid, and a 6 yr graduation rate of 70% or higher. Not sure which you should use? See what the differences are here.

•  Parental Role in the Application Process - Parents are implicated in the college application process, but their roles are well defined and should be respected. 

International Students - Representing a larger percentage of the student population on campuses across the country, these students must start their application process earlier in order to accomplish the additional steps necessary.

Today's college applicant has many tools - College Board and Naviance - and even a choice of applications to use in the process of applying to college. But, with Early Decision, Early Action and Priority application deadlines fast approaching - some as early as Oct 15th - rising high school seniors no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to their college applications as they did during the summer. College Apps Made Easy will continue posting monthly application timelines to help everyone stay organized and avoid the most common college application mistakes, but never hesitate to ask me for help.