Episode 145: Supplemental College Application Essays–The Sequel

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First, Happy Thanksgiving to all our listeners!  We hope you will have a lovely day, filled with family and food, and that you will have a relaxing long weekend.  Oh, except for the fact that some of your teenagers will be finishing up college application supplemental essays–or worse still, just starting them–so your weekend is not likely to be all that relaxing.

Those of you who listened last week heard our discussion of the number of supplemental essays that various colleges require, the range of topics those essays can cover, the applicant’s choice of prompts for those essays, and the word limits that are typical for those essays.

This week we have some more advice, and we hope it will be helpful in the coming days.

1.  Supplemental Essays:  The Tone

So, let’s talk about tone.  I am going to use “tone” to mean the attitude the writer has toward the audience (and by “audience,” we mean, of course, the college admissions staff).

Let me say that this is one of the worst problems I find with supplemental essays, perhaps because they are too often tributes to an individual college, written by carried-away teenagers.  The problem with the tone of many supplemental essays is that teenagers gush over how wonderful the college is or what smart students go there or how much praise the college receives in national publications or what great extracurricular activities are available or how brilliant its professors are.  Really, parents and teenagers.  Colleges know how great they are (or like to think they are); they don’t need a high school teenager to tell them.

It is fine to be admiring, of course; but, gushing just sounds naïve and unsophisticated.  Have your teenager try, instead, to point out specific factual things they admire about the college (that is, things that are worth admiring)–like its biology department is ranked in the top 10 in the country, because that is factual, not gushing.

In talking with students, I have realized that it is very hard for them to see this problem in their own writing.  You might try reading aloud what your teenager has written to see if it is easier to recognize that way.  Here is one example, which was written by one of my advisees as the conclusion to a prompt about why she was interested in attending the university in question:

The programs offered, opportunities provided, and the praise the school has received for being one of the top colleges in the nation are some of the many reasons why I believe University X would be a good fit for me.

As I explained to her when I read this, “the praise the school has received for being one of the top colleges in the nation” is neither specific nor concrete.  Who gave the university that praise?  Where was it published?  Isn’t this just heaping it on?  And, by the way, I explained that this University is not actually one of the top colleges in the nation.  I said that, if you named the top 50 colleges in the nation, this University would not be on the list, and it might not even be on the list of the top 100 colleges in the nation–although it is a nice private university in the South and one that is very popular with teenagers in our part of the country.  So, her statement in the essay was just too extreme, too flattering, too effusive, too gushing.  As a matter of fact, I doubt that even the University itself believes that it is one of the top colleges in the nation.

Here are two more examples from essays written for that same prompt:

I know that the city University X is located in is a prime destination for those who want to immerse themselves in the glorious visual and performing arts available at the school and within the city.

 

As an undergraduate at University X, knowing the variety of career opportunities available for me would not only make me feel more confident and self-assured when it comes time for me to look for work, it would also make me feel more excited knowing that I would have nearly endless possibilities provided for me.

I, too, believe the arts are “glorious” and wish that career possibilities would be “nearly endless,” but both words are too exaggerated and too over-the-top to be taken seriously by an admissions officer.  This is the kind of writing you need to watch out for, parents.  By the way, the teenagers who wrote these are smart, and they go to great high schools.  They have had a lot of extracurricular experiences in the U.S. and travel abroad.  They are not naïve.  And yet, their writing hasn’t quite caught up to them, yet.

2.  Supplemental Essays:  The Likely Topics

There are several often-used and often not-optional topics that your teenager should have a longer (about 350 words) answer and shorter (about 150 words) answer for:

  • “Why our college” or “Why is our college a good fit for you” or “How will our college contribute to your goals and interests” or some version of that–The unsuccessful examples we just shared with you were for this topic.  This topic requires your teenager to read up on the college; to refer, in the essay, to what he or she has learned from that research; and to match what he or she has learned about the college with his or her own interests and pursuits.  For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or award-winning academic departments or core curriculum or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else–along with what the applicant thinks about them or admires about them.  If this is one of the longer-length essays, then the applicant will need to reference at least four or five things about the college.  Whatever the applicant references should be as specific as possible.  Here is a good example:

University X’s community service requirement also makes the University stand out in comparison to other universities. I find it intriguing that the requirement is actually built into the curriculum and that there is such a wide variety of community service activities offered, including internships, public research projects, and faculty-supported projects. One program that stood out to me was volunteering with an organization that trains dogs to help people with disabilities. I used to volunteer at a local animal shelter to walk and feed the new dogs. So, this opportunity would be something that I would welcome.

Do you see how specific that is–and memorable?  But remember:  This is an essay that is not easily used from college to college because of the specifics about the college, so tell your teenager to be careful about trying to get double duty out of it. By the way, if this is the only supplemental essay required by a college, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a major or a field of study that the college offers as one important thing to mention.

  • “How can you contribute to our college” or “What can you bring to our college” or “Our students live in suites, so what would you bring to your suitemates” or some version of that–This is the reverse of the previous topic, like “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  This essay has to be about what traits and skills and talents your teenager has–like commitment to community service or love of research or musical talent or athletic prowess–and how those will be a plus for the college if he or she is admitted.  Again, if this is one of the longer-length essays, then your teenager will likely need to write about several of his or her traits or skills or talents in order to make his or her best case.

It’s hard to write this essay without sounding boastful, so watch the tone.  Again, if this is the only supplemental essay, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers and how he or she might contribute to classes or activities or research in that field.

  •  “Why are you interested in the field of study you are proposing to major in” or some version of that–We frequently see applicants write a version of this essay for the main Common App essay.  That is a serious mistake.  Tell your teenager to save any talk about his or her field of academic interest for this supplemental essay if this is one that a college requires.  For example, whatever led to his or her interest in art or French or electrical engineering or something else–all of that goes into this essay.

This is also the place to look carefully on the college’s website at the academic degrees and majors listed (and concentrations, if available, within those majors) and to cite the exact name of the degree, major, and concentration, if available, that the college uses.  For example, there are many variations of “biology” within some colleges and indeed from college to college; it is important to write each college’s essay on this topic as specifically as possible, using the words that each college uses to describe its own majors, concentrations, and so on.  Know, for example, that some colleges offer both a B.A. and a B.S. in Biology.  So, what is the difference and which one is your teenager headed for?

If your teenager has no idea what he or she wants to major in, we totally understand that, but it will probably make for a less appealing essay.  Tell him or her to keep in mind that the major written about here is not cast in stone, so it is likely better to write about something specific with as much enthusiasm as possible.

  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or “Elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities” or, more specifically, “Talk about the role of sports in your life” or some version of that–We often see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay or personal statement.  Again, that is a serious mistake.  Tell your teenager to save any talk about an activity or sport that is especially meaningful or significant to him or her for this supplemental essay topic.  Remember:  “Activity” can mean something a teenager does for the family.

Here is a recent example of an out-of-school activity essay that I think worked particularly well, with a limit of 250 words:

Last year, I began taking Czech lessons at the Czech Consulate in New York City. I had been studying French in school, but could not fit both AP French and AP Biology into my schedule. I chose AP Biology, but I was not ready to give up studying a language altogether. To understand why I chose Czech, I should tell you about my grandfather.

My grandfather grew up in a rural town in North Dakota. The child of Czech immigrants, he spoke primarily Czech as a young boy, hardly using English until he started school. Because his English was limited, his classmates called him “stupid.” He grew to hate his Czech roots. Although he learned English quickly in school, he carried with him a resentment of his Czech heritage, including his native tongue.

As soon as he was old enough, my grandfather joined the U.S. Army and left home. Eventually, he proved his childhood classmates wrong. He became a scientist and traveled the world while working for the United Nations. In time, he had a change of heart about his roots.

My grandfather taught me to honor my Czech heritage as he had to teach himself to do. Our trip together to the Czech Republic to visit distant relatives was evidence of that. When I could no longer study French at school, I knew immediately that I wanted to find a Czech class to take. It is my way of paying tribute to where he and I have come from.

So, not everyone has a Czech grandfather.  Here’s another essay that could be a bit more common, but it is also effective–again with a limit of 250 words:

The time I’ve spent working and creating art at the Art Workshop Experience (AWE) will always be memorable. The first time I attended AWE’s summer session, I was just 10. I have been going back ever since, the last several summers as an intern. The staff and the kids who come back year after year are like family. The summer session, staffed by five counselors and three interns, enrolls about 50 kids?all painting and drawing and sculpting and working in close quarters in a large one-room studio. It is an amazing way to spend the summer.

At AWE, there are no set lessons or prescribed techniques. Kids are allowed to work on any art project of their choosing; the counselors and interns are there simply for guidance. As kids work on their pieces, they develop their skills and their understanding of techniques, with few limits that would restrict their creative choices. Opportunities are nearly endless for those who are willing to indulge their imaginations.

Five years ago, I painted my cat at the summer session. Someone saw it at AWE’s annual gallery show that August and actually wanted to buy it. I couldn’t have been more surprised?or delighted. Without the encouragement of the staff, I never could have sold a painting at the age of 12. Although I may never sell another painting, I am proud to have spent the past seven summers with an organization that can make something like that happen for a kid.

One thing that the Czech grandfather and AWE essays share is a great sentimental ending.  A couple of episodes back, we talked about the need for a great last sentence–the one that leaves the lasting impression about the applicant in the mind of the college admissions official.  Well, here are two good examples.

  • “Describe a community that you are part of” or some version of that–This essay allows for a bit of creativity in defining the “community” that the applicant chooses to discuss.  It also, happily, allows for the applicant to take one of the basic essays he or she has written and to bend it cleverly to fit this topic.  For example, it could be a school community or church community or community of athletes or community of volunteers or theatrical community or musical community or you name it.
  • “Write about a time when you had to work with someone whose background (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, politics, income, gender identity, or sexual orientation) was different from yours” or some version of that–Many colleges are committed to promoting student diversity on their campuses and are, understandably, interested in how new students will react to that diversity.  Specific examples drawn from an applicant’s school or community would probably work best to show whether and how that applicant values diversity.  For students who go to school or live in a community that is not racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, or otherwise diverse, this topic might be harder to write about, but could turn out to be very insightful?if, in fact, diversity is one of the main reasons the applicant chose to apply to that college.

You and your teenager must look at the totality of the supplemental essays each college asks for and mix and match the ones you have with the ones that are needed. One college’s “activity that is significant to you” is another college’s “community that you are part of.”  You see how that works?  Be creative in using what you have, especially if you have a great essay that just needs a little tweaking to match a different prompt.

3.  Our Thanksgiving Break

Since we were anxious to get you this advice to use on your Thanksgiving break, we did not take this week off.  But, fair is fair.  We are going to take our break next week.  So, just keep writing those essays until we are back together on Thursday, December 7.  The college application deadline clock will really be ticking by then!  Happy Thanksgiving!

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