Episode 106: The Nightmare of the Supplemental College Application Essays

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

We are still in Series 9, The Last Minute. That’s because we told you in our last episode that many colleges, including some top-ranked public and private ones, were still accepting applications–and will be doing so right through January and February, with some into March and April, and a few even beyond that. So, if you have a high school senior at home and he or she intends to take advantage of that fact, this episode is for you. And perhaps equally important, but less urgent: If you have a high school junior at home, this episode is for your family big time.

We have talked on numerous occasions (most recently in Episode 98) about the dreaded college application main essay or personal statement. This is the place in The Common Application where your teenager is asked to write about 650 words on his or her choice of one of five prescribed topics. Everybody talks about this essay (including us), and everybody has lots of advice about how to produce a memorable piece of work (including us).

But we are going to talk today about a slightly different topic, which we also addressed briefly back in Episode 98. This is one that I have been painfully focused on for the past couple of weeks, and it is the college application supplemental essay.

My personal story goes something like this: I had worked with a number of students here in New York City on their Common App main essays over the course of the fall months. I probably read and edited (that is, edited back and forth with the students) more than 50 of them. Suddenly, just before Christmas, some of these students started emailing me their supplemental essays and asking whether I might give them some guidance and some help in editing them. I made the “mistake” of helping the first few students, and I guess word got around. As January 1 deadlines approached, more and more students sent me more and more supplemental essays. Some kids sent as many as a dozen across six or seven different colleges! Having read and edited with students perhaps 100 supplemental essays in the past several weeks, I now feel like something of an expert on the topic. So, let me pass on what I learned in the trenches.

1. Supplemental Essays: The Word Count

As you probably know, supplemental essays are required by lots of colleges, especially by the highly selective ones. Some colleges require one, some require two, and some require even more (at last count, I put one Ivy League institution at seven open-ended questions calling for answers of various lengths, though not all actual essays). Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately–although we all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.

Many of these supplemental essays seem to call for about 350 to 400 words, or about four meaty paragraphs, which is not really too long when you think about it. Many of them seem to run quite a bit shorter, at about 100 to 150 words, which can be downright restricting if you actually have something to say. Some of them–which are not really essays at all, but more like short-answer questions–ask for just 200 characters (or about 35 words), as one Ivy put it.

Here is the point: These word limits are very different, but they are all way lower than the 650-word personal statement. These lower word limits imply a different style of writing. While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in the main 650-word essay, using lots of descriptive detail and many examples to elaborate the main idea, the shorter essays do not really permit that. They need a much more focused, straightforward, get-to-the-point style if the question is to be answered effectively in far fewer words. Now, I am sure that there are some creative writers among our current crop of college applicants who could write a brilliant poetic response to one of these shorter essay prompts. But, I am going to state, for the record, that I have not found too many of them. Most high school kids are going to have enough trouble writing a coherent, logical response, which gets in some important facts and pertinent background information and perhaps an insightful opinion or two.

So, if you are a parent who is reading supplemental essays in the next few weeks, look for essays that make sense and that are clearly written. They need to make a point (or two or maybe three) both effectively and efficiently. Help your teenager edit out the extra sentences and superfluous words–including all of those that don’t contribute to the point(s). Because we all know that getting down to 100 words can be brutal.

One final note on word limits: As you might already know or could have guessed, one college’s 400-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic. Obviously, as we will talk about in a minute, there are some topics that come up over and over again across many, many colleges. You will quickly learn that it is truly helpful for your teenager to have a drafted long response to these topics and–just as important–a drafted short response for the same topics. That takes some thoughtful and careful editing. Believe me, having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics can help you speed through the supplemental answer nightmare.

2. Supplemental Essays: The Tone

So, let’s talk about tone. I am going to use “tone” here to mean both the attitude the writer has toward the subject (or content) of the essay and the attitude the writer has toward the audience (and by “audience,” we mean, of course, the college admissions staff). I have already said that I think that most supplemental essays call for a straightforward, academic, somewhat formal tone. Yes, the applicant will be writing about his or her personal background, ideas, and even opinions, but not in the words he or she would use if writing to a friend or a relative or perhaps even to his or her own teacher.

This doesn’t mean the essays have to be stuffy or dry or boring. An applicant’s personality can shine through even though the writing is not chatty. Maybe that’s the style applicants should strive for: personality, with decorum and appropriateness.

Let me say that one of the worst problems I found with tone was my high school seniors’ gushing over how wonderful the college is or what great students go there or what fantastic and potentially helpful alumni it has. To take one example, the kids often wrote about a college’s “Nobel Prize-winning professors” or “world-famous professors who are doing brilliant research” or “dedicated professors.” Parents, explain to your teenagers that colleges know how great their professors are and they don’t need a high school senior to tell them. It is fine to be admiring and polite, of course; but, gushing just sounds naïve and unsophisticated. I would settle for “well-known” or “highly respected professors” instead, if you really want to talk about them. So, let’s shoot for admiring and polite, but not over-the-top.

3. Supplemental Essays: The Likely Topics

Some of the topics for the supplemental essays, especially the shorter ones, are a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show his or her creative side. If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a kid choose one of the odder ones–unless that kid is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

However, there are several often-used and often not-optional topics that your teenager should have a longer (about 350 words) answer and shorter (about 100 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–As we said in Episode 98, this topic virtually requires your teenager to read up about the college and refer, in the essay, to what he or she has learned from that research. For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or academic strengths or curriculum or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else. If this is one of the longer-length essays, then the applicant will need to reference several things about the college.

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. This is precisely the kind of essay that can cause some teenagers to become a bit gushy and overly complimentary, so watch out for that, too. By the way, if this is the only supplementary essay required by a college, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager probably is going to need to save that content for a different essay.

  • “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 your teenager 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 supplementary 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 projects in that field; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager is probably going to need to save that for a different essay.

  • “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 or personal statement. 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?

It is likely that your teenager already had to declare a major in another question on the Common App, so this should not come as a surprise. 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 your teenager to keep in mind that the major and/or concentration written about here is not cast in stone, so it is likely better to write about something specific with as much passion as possible.

As we said in Episode 98, this is the supplemental essay where pre-med majors write about why they are drawn to the field of medicine; if you are going to do that, the story should be a good one. Everyone wants to be a pre-med major, but if an applicant has a compelling reason (and that doesn’t mean “to help people”), then the pre-med choice is more believable. I recently read an interesting essay by a high school senior of Asian background, who wrote that her immigrant parents had always had difficulty when it came time to file income taxes?both because they did not speak English very well and because they did not understand the array of documents they needed to provide in order to complete the forms. The student said that she hoped to become an accountant to help families like hers. I thought that was actually interesting, and definitely not the same thing as every other kid who wants to be a business major will write.

  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or “Write about something that is important to you” 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. This is the place for the story about conquering a fear of water and then competing on the swimming team or serving as the treasurer of your school’s cancer fundraising organization or writing for the school newspaper or playing in the orchestra that toured in China or working at a summer camp for kids or picking up a younger brother or sister or niece or nephew after school every day and watching that child until a parent comes home. Remember: “Activity” can mean something a teenager does for the family.
  • “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.

Clearly, you and your teenager must look at the totality of the supplementary essays each college asks for and mix and match the ones you have with the ones that are needed. What is one college’s “activity that is significant to you” is another college’s “community that you are part of.” You see how that works?

I recently worked with one high school senior on 11 college applications. We managed to do almost all of her supplementary essays with longer or shorter versions of three basic essays that we established at the beginning: one about her interest in medicine and medical research (and it was a compelling story, which included the biology research she did in high school competitions); one about her brother, who has a life-threatening disease, and the work she does with a community of volunteers to raise awareness and money to fight that disease (and, incidentally, how she plans to continue that work in college); and one about playing and traveling for several years on championship softball teams at school and in the community. You can already see how these work with the topics we just discussed and how they can be shaped to fit various purposes.

By the way, parents of juniors, just to give you the heads up, here are some of the super-short questions your teen might see in the future (you can start getting ready now):

  • Who or what is an inspiration to you?
  • If you could live for a day/have lunch with/ spend some time with someone past or present, fictional or real, who would that be and why?
  • If you had to invent a course to teach at our college, what would it be?
  • What books have you read recently outside of school?
  • What museums, concerts, exhibitions, films, and theatrical performances have you attended recently?

Those should get you thinking. As always, call us, if you could use some free advice!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 99: College Application Essays–One More Time (Part II)

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

As I said last week, I am still mired in the swamp of college application essays, which I am reviewing and editing for 50-plus kids. As you might recall, my comments last week and this week are based on the essays of kids who attend top-ranked public high schools. Let me just say that all of the kids are smart and that all of them take honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Last week, we talked about the content of their application essays, and this week we are going to talk about the mechanics of those essays–that is, the grammar, the punctuation, the word choice, etc. Having great content is not enough–not for selective colleges anyway. Those essays should also be well written, following standard grammatical, punctuation, and other mechanics rules.

As I said to a class of students at an elite high school a week ago, “You write like third graders.” What I meant was that they were making mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct in third grade. Well, I might have exaggerated a bit for effect. But, seriously, they were making some mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct before they went to middle school.

1. The Mistakes

After reading the essays from two classes of seniors at a well-known, highly respected New York City high school (the kind you have to take a special admissions test to get into), I made these points (among others) to the classes. You should make them now with your own teenager:

  • Pay attention to your grammar–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic grammar errors, including split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, no use of the subjunctive, poorly placed participial phrases, and incorrect or inconsistent verb tenses (like inexplicable shifts from present to past tense or vice versa and the total misuse of the past perfect tense).
  • Check your punctuation–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic punctuation mistakes, and by “basic” I mean the punctuation mistakes that kids should have stopped making years earlier. Kids must remember to put a comma before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, to put periods and commas inside quotation marks always, to use semicolons and dashes correctly, and to hyphenate compound adjectives before nouns. Of course, there are more. As I said to the seniors I was talking to last week, “Punctuation rules are not nearly as hard to learn as the physics and calculus most of you are taking right now. Just learn them.”
  • Be careful about your word choice–Tell your teenager not to use a sophisticated or “big” word that he or she would never use naturally in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher). I have found that kids typically use big words just slightly incorrectly and in a way that no educated adult would ever do. The result is that the essay just doesn’t read well; the reader is interrupted by an odd choice of a word that stops the reader in his or her tracks.
  • Avoid wordiness–Tell your teenager not to wander around in his or her sentences. I have often read a sentence of 20 words when 10 words would have said it better. Evidently, someone along the way taught the seniors in the two classes I have been visiting that short sentences are a no-no. That is ridiculous. Sometimes a short sentence makes the point best. It is arresting and causes the reader to stop short with a bit of surprise. A short sentence can be especially effective when it is found among longer sentences. That is great writing.

2. The Big Problem

So, here is the big problem: You can’t really fix a kid’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, reviewed, and submitted on time. The situation is too pressured, and there is too little time. Those of you who have seniors at home are going to need to do the best you can in a hurry. But, those of you who have a freshman or sophomore or junior at home can do a bit better. You can start working to improve your teenager’s writing in a serious way right now so that next fall’s application season will be a lot easier for both of you.

Of all the essays I have read and edited in the past two weeks, I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, especially from a mechanics point of view. I called the young man aside and said, “How did you learn to write like this when none of your classmates seems able to do it?” His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade. She went over his written work and showed him how to improve it. She worked shoulder to shoulder with him in many, many sessions. I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding. He said that he did not enjoy writing. But he sure could do it.

In my experience, both with students and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing. It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom. It is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, with the student watching and learning and absorbing and understanding the reason for every change that is being made. It sounds slow and laborious, and it is. But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.

Here is the rest of the problem. Today’s high school English teachers cannot do that for their students. Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a line by line basis–or even of 100 students or even of 50 students–day after day and week after week while talking through those corrections with each student one by one. And that’s not all English teachers have to do.

So, parents, I believe this is on you. If you can help your own teenager learn to write well, then do so, by all means. If you cannot, for whatever reason, then consider getting the kind of over-the-shoulder tutoring help that is much more likely to ensure your teenager’s success than hoping for the best from school. Ideally, of course, you would have started this a lot earlier–back in elementary school or perhaps middle school. But better late than never.

3. Help from Johns Hopkins University

You all probably know of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. We spoke about it in Episode 47 of our virtual nationwide college tour. It’s an excellent, highly selective university–really as good as any university we have in the U.S. Of particular interest to all of you in the throes of application essay writing, however, is two helpful pieces on the JHU website. First, you can find nine great tips in a section called Tackling the College Essay. You will not be sorry you checked it out.

Second, you can find Essays That Worked, a section that is exactly what it sounds like. There are essays, nominated by JHU admissions officers, from the past four classes of admitted JHU students. The website explains the winning essays this way:

These entries are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and lists of activities provided in their applications. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original and creative as you share your own story, thoughts, and ideas with us. (quoted from the website)

While JHU is not the only college that puts winning essays on its website, we will say that it does an especially good job of it. So, hats off to you, JHU.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 98: College Application Essays–One More Time (Part I)

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

In November and December, we will be doing a mercifully short series entitled “The Last Minute.” Because that’s what it is–the last minute for finishing up most college applications and getting them submitted. Of course, some colleges have Regular Decision deadlines beyond the first of the year (especially some large public universities), and some colleges have rolling admissions (meaning that they take in and decide about applications virtually year-round). And some teenagers have just brushed off their hands and submitted Early Action or Early Decision applications–but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be ready with some back-up applications just in case they are not admitted to the college that they (and perhaps their parents) hoped for.

In any case, I think we can say that November and December qualify as “the last minute” for many teenagers. That’s especially true for those who have put off doing the hard and sometimes tedious work of applying until now.

Personally, I have been knee deep in college applications lately. I have been helping some kids work on the entirety of their applications (and there are some glitches I would like to talk to you about, Common App staffers). But, in addition, I have been reviewing, advising on, and editing the application essays of about 50 more kids. Man, what I could tell you.

In fact, I am going to tell you about those essays in today’s episode and in our next episode. Think of it as a wake-up call to many of you parents and your seniors. My remarks are based on working with the essays of these 50-plus kids, who attend excellent top-ranked high schools, almost all public high schools.

This week, we are going to talk about the content of the college application essays I have been reading, and next week we are going to talk about the mechanics–that is, the grammar, the punctuation, the word choice, etc. By the way, an essay must be great both in terms of content and in terms of mechanics in order to be noticed approvingly by the college admissions officers, who are swamped with thousands of them. Just think about what that would be like.

Now, we have talked about college application essays before at USACollegeChat. We chatted way back in Episode 22, and again in Episode 49, and most recently in Episode 80 at the beginning of the summer. I wish we could stop talking about this topic, but we can’t do that until your teenagers learn to write. As I said to a class of students at an elite high school a week ago, “You write like third graders.” Soon, I will explain to you why I said that.

1. The Common Application Main Essay

Though not all colleges require essays, most applicants will find themselves writing the Common App‘s 650-word main essay or “personal statement” inasmuch as over 600 colleges take the Common App.

The Common App’s five essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, therefore, as we said back in June, we can tell you what percentage of last year’s applicants chose each prompt. So let’s look at those figures and at the prompts themselves again (quoted from The Common Application website):

 

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.” This prompt is the most general and most adaptable to any kid’s circumstances. Perhaps that is why it was also the most popular prompt, chosen by 47 percent of applicants last year. I feel as though your teenager might be at a disadvantage in choosing it, precisely because it was the most popular one (and, I am going to guess, will be again); thus, college admissions officers have to read it over and over again. How many times can they read an essay about scoring the winning point in the big game because a teenager thinks his or her super-meaningful talent is soccer?

Now, I am not saying not to write on this prompt if your teenager’s background, identity, interest, or talent is truly meaningful and hopefully a bit different, but I am saying to think twice and take a look at the other prompts first. One of the most legitimate uses of this prompt, I think, is by kids who have come to the U.S. from another country or by kids whose parents had previously come from another country and still speak their native language at home. Those kids probably do have a background that defines them, at least in part. But one of the best essays I ever read on this prompt was written by a kid who has a form of autism spectrum disorder that makes it very difficult for him to speak easily to others and who now has conquered most of its effects through an amazing amount of therapy and hard work. His essay made me want to cheer at the end.

2. “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” Even though only 17 percent of applicants wrote on this last year, I have read a few essays on this prompt lately, perhaps because I have been suggesting to kids that they try one of the less popular prompts. Here is what I then had to explain to quite a few kids: If you are robbed on the street or if you are bullied in school, that is not a time when “you experienced failure.” You didn’t fail at anything; society failed you. When something miserable is done to you, you didn’t fail. Yes, you might have learned a lesson of some kind that helped you be a success later. But, still, you did not fail. My heart just about broke for kids who wrote that.

3. “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?” This is likely the hardest of the five prompts to write about when you are 17 years old. My view is supported by the fact that only 4 percent of applicants last year chose it. Part of the problem is that it is hard to figure out the scale of the belief or idea that should be challenged. Is it capitalism or is it the dress code at the kid’s high school? It’s hard to challenge a big idea when you are 17, but the small ones can seem inconsequential. Recently, I spoke to an intelligent young man from a different cultural background; he was considering writing about the time he challenged his culture’s tradition of arranged marriages. In the end, he didn’t write on that, but I thought it would have been a great choice.

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.” Oddly, only 10 percent of applicants wrote to this prompt last year, but I believe it is a relatively easy choice. The prompt is helped by the fact that it includes the words “anything of personal importance, no matter the scale”; so the problem can truly be something in the writer’s personal or family life. The writer does not have to solve social injustice, and it would be naïve to expect that a 17-year-old could say something unique or unusual about a problem of epic proportions, especially in just 650 words. I recently read the essay topics of several girls who attend a prestigious high-tech high school and who wrote about speaking up for women entering STEM fields. I explained to them that they were not the first females to be working on that problem, though they naïvely sounded as though they thought they might be. A smaller version of that problem–like some bias the female student had to cope with at her STEM-oriented high school–might have worked. So, choosing a problem that is closer to home–something a kid actually has a chance of solving, at least for himself or herself–could make this unpopular prompt a good way to help an essay stand out to the readers.

5. “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.” Interestingly, this is the second-most-popular prompt, chosen by 22 percent of applicants last year. I have noticed that quite a few responses to this prompt have been about the illness or death of a parent, which caused the writer to have to take on more adult responsibilities at home. Of course, I found some of these quite moving, and I imagine that the college admissions officers will, too.

After reading the essays from two classes of seniors at a well-known, top-ranked New York City high school, I made these points (among others) to the classes, and you should make them now with your own teenager:

  • Make a memorable first impression–Tell your teenager to write a great first sentence, which makes the admissions officer want to continue reading the essay (when he or she has hundreds more to read). Many kids write the most boring opening sentence you can imagine. Back in Episode 80, we told you the most common (and boring) ways that students in the U.K. started their college application essays. We begged your teenagers not to do that. Some kids, however, do a great job of that opening sentence (tell your teenagers that they are, in fact, the competition). Here are some:
  • “In the beginning, it was unidentified.”
  • “‘En los primer diez años de mi vida, yo no sabia como hablar.’ That was Spanish for ‘In the first ten years of my life, I didn’t know how to speak.'”
  • “For a typical Bengali Muslim girl, it is a given to learn how to read the Quran.”
  • “They look so comfortable, floating motionless with their eyes closed.”
  • Make a memorable last impression–Tell your teenager to write an extraordinary final sentence, which is his or her last chance to make an impression. I found that, while some kids had a great opening sentence, almost no kid had a great closing sentence. In fact, almost no kid had a great ending at all. While kids could start out with an interesting personal anecdote, they could not end on a similar note. Many tried to end their essays on a grand scale; they trailed off with platitudes and abstract, vague sentences that sounded as though they were on their way to ridding the world of hunger. It is often said that you have just one chance to make a great first impression. Well, your teenager has just one chance to make a great last–and, therefore, lasting–impression, too. As a sportswriter in college, I learned to end each story with some clincher–a line that was clever or funny or surprising or something else. It was one of the most useful writing skills I ever learned.
  • Remember what the point is–If your teenager is telling a story as part of the essay, the story is not the point. What is the point? It’s what your teenager learned from the story or experience or how the experience impacted his or her life. The story is a means to an end; the point is the end. The point is very likely the answer to the question posed in the prompt. Make sure that your teenager doesn’t get bogged down in the details of the story; the reader doesn’t need to know every single thing that happened.       For example, if the essay is about that over-used championship game (even though I have already said that a championship game might not be the best essay choice), then the reader doesn’t need every play in the last five minutes of the game. I am not making this up.
  • Make every word count– For the main essay in the Common App, there is a limit of 650 words, which is not really a lot. Make sure that your teenager doesn’t waste them. I think kids should use all 650 words, if possible.       However, tell your teenager not to write 650 words if he or she has only 550 words to say. Just leave it at 550. Extra sentences that duplicate thoughts that have already been stated will simply weaken the writing and make it less impressive rather than more.

As I have written before, here is some insightful advice that I don’t believe anyone will take. I gave it again recently and am still waiting for a first taker:

  • Tell your teenager to try writing about a few different ideas to see which one works best. I know that sounds like more work?and, in a way, it is?but all writers know that, all too often, many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape. I had an English teacher once who reminded the class that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”?meaning a trial, attempt, or effort. So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays?that is, to make several attempts?before finding the one that actually works best. In other words, kids, you might think that Prompt #2 is for you, until you try Prompt #3 and you see how well that one turns out!

2. Supplemental Essays

Let’s turn briefly to supplemental essays. These are required by quite a few colleges, especially by highly selective colleges. Some of the topics for these essays are, in a word, ridiculous. I can’t imagine why they were chosen, but I guess someone believed that they would show an applicant’s creative side. When given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a kid choose one of the more outlandish ones–unless that kid is particularly creative. However, there are three often-used topics that your teenager should already be thinking and writing about:

  • “Why are you a good fit for this college” or some version of that–I think that this topic virtually requires your teenager to read up about the college and somehow reference, in the essay, what he or she has learned from that research. For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or academic strengths or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else. This is an essay that is not easily used from college to college, so tell your teenager to be careful about trying to get double duty out of it.
  • “Why are you interested in the field of study you are proposing to major in” or some version of that–I frequently see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay. That is a mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about his or her field of academic interest for this supplemental essay. For example, what led to his or her interest in computer science or music or biology or whatever–all of that is fair game for this topic. This is the place that I suggest pre-med majors write about why they are drawn to the field of medicine, and the story should be a good one. Pre-med majors are a dime a dozen, but if an applicant has a compelling story, then the pre-med choice seems more genuine. For example, I recall a young woman who explained that her mother has the breast cancer gene (which she and her sisters have a 50 percent chance of inheriting) and that her brother has a genetic disorder, perhaps related to the breast cancer gene (just now the subject of new research). This young woman made a truly compelling case for her interest in studying genetics and then medicine.
  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or some version of that–I frequently see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay. Again, that is a mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about an activity that is especially meaningful or significant to him or her for this supplemental essay. This is the place for the story about playing on the championship softball team or tutoring in after-school programs for underserved populations or writing for the literary magazine or playing the violin or doing gymnastics or whatever it is your teenager does. One recent essay I read was about participating in an improvisational comedy tournament. That was a new one for me.

Parents of younger students, I am speaking to you now: This likely supplemental essay topic is just one more reason that your kid should have at least one activity that really means something to him or her and that he or she works really hard to excel at–rather than just a bunch of various random activities that fill after-school time and change from one year to the next.

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Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay?

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As the college search for many of you begins in earnest this summer, here’s one way to ruin your summertime: Start talking to your child about completing the college application essay. Now, as you all know, some colleges require more than one essay and usually the second and third supplementary essays for those colleges, for example, are shorter and more geared to a specific question related to the college itself than the main essay, like the one in the Common Application. We gave one perspective on college essays way back in Episode 22 and another in Episode 49 when we recounted some sad experiences we had reviewing the college essays of about 100 kids in a top New York City high school. Today, let’s talk about that main essay.

Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay? on USACollegeChat podcast

In this episode, we would like to chat about what might be at the crux of the problem in putting together a compelling essay–and that is sounding original and impressive when the applicant is still a 17-year-old.

1. The Common Application Essays

Remember, first of all, that not all colleges require essays, particularly community colleges. But let’s start with the Common App “personal statement,” which most students who have to write any essay will find themselves writing. Since over 600 colleges take the Common App, these essay prompts are likely in your child’s future.

The Common App essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, for that reason, the Common App people can tell you which prompts were the most popular. Here is the breakdown as of last January (quoted from The Common Application website):

Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47 percent have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent – making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22 percent have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.

I have to say those figures seem entirely understandable to me inasmuch as I, too, think that the essay prompt that proved to be the most popular is likely to be the most straightforward to write about and the most likely to be easily adaptable to most kids’ situations. But let’s look at the exact wording of all five options (quoted from The Common Application website):

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. (47 percent)

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (17 percent)

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (4 percent)

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. (10 percent)

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (22 percent)

On the whole, I think these are reasonable prompts and relatively interesting prompts (without being overboard interesting) for high school seniors, though I do think that the writer has to be careful to bite off something that he or she can chew. For example, students, I wouldn’t suggest choosing global warming as a problem you’d like to solve unless you can say something very specific, unusually persuasive, and ideally somewhat original about it. It’s hard to propose the solution to an international crisis in 650 words.

2. Hugh Gallagher’s Essay

When I was in Maine this weekend, college admissions expert Allen Millett told me about a college application essay that was news to me–though I guess people who do online dating have been stealing from it for years. Allen had heard about it some time ago from his colleague at New York University, the college that admitted the student who wrote the now-famous essay. That student was Hugh Gallagher, who said this in his 2008 video interview with The Wall Street Journal:

It was 1989 and I was applying for colleges, and I thought it was really absurd for them to ask me at that age, you know, who I was or what I’d done because I hadn’t done anything.

I feel as though truer words were never spoken.

Anyway, Mr. Gallagher wrote the following essay in response to a question about significant experiences or accomplishments that helped define him as a person (that is, of course, a 17-year-old person):

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently.

Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400.

My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA.

I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid.

On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin.

I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.

Mr. Gallagher’s point is, I believe, obvious. This essay doesn’t solve your child’s problem of writing about himself or herself; it just points out how difficult getting a grasp on what a reasonable accomplishment or talent or interest or problem solution might be.

As with all assignments, the more time your child has to think about the essay and sort through his or her young life to consider what might make sense to write about, the better off you all are. And here is some excellent advice that I can’t imagine anyone will take: Try writing about a few different ideas to see which one works best. I know that sounds like more work–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that often many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape. I had an English teacher once who reminded the class that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort. So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.

3. The U.K. Weighs In

And now let’s cross the Atlantic and see what is going on with college essay writing in the U.K. Earlier this spring, the BBC reported that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles the process of admitting students to British universities, had noted that “[u]niversity applicants are overly reliant on a few ‘hackneyed phrases’ in their personal statements” (quoted from the article “University hopefuls urged to keep applications ‘personal'”. The BBC article quoted the UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook as saying that “[t]he personal statement is supposed to be personal.” In the U.K., the essay focuses on why applicants are planning to study a particular course or subject and on any skills or interests they have.

To prove the point about “a few hackneyed phrases,” the UCAS published a list of the 10 most popular opening lines used by the over 700,000 applicants in their personal statements last year. Here they are (as reported in the article):

  1. “From a young age I have (always) been..” and then typically “interested in” or “fascinated by” (1,779 applicants)
  2. “For as long as I can remember I have…” (1,451 applicants)
  3. “I am applying for this course because…” (1,370 applicants)
  4. “I have always been interested in…” (927 applicants)
  5. “Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…” (310 applicants)
  6. “Reflecting on my educational experiences…” (257 applicants)
  7. “Nursing is a very challenging and demanding (career/profession/course)…” (211 applicants)
  8. “Academically, I have always been…” (168 applicants)
  9. “I have always wanted to pursue a career in…” (160 applicants)
  10. “I have always been passionate about…” (160 applicants)

So, maybe our U.S. college applicants are more creative than our U.K. friends, but maybe not. The lesson here, students, is don’t put the words “I have always…” in the first sentence of your essay–unless you want to be like thousands of young Brits.

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Episode 22: Preparing for Essays

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the essay.

NYCollegeChat episode 22 tips for preparing high school students to write college application and scholarship essays

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by over 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will most likely be a required essay, sometimes called a “personal statement.”  While some large public colleges do not require essays, most selective colleges do require essays.

Sometimes there will be more than one required essay.  Sometimes the required topic or topics will be given to the student; sometimes the student may choose from several topics.  Sometimes the essays are quite short—just 250 to 300 words; when they are this short, there is usually more than one required.  Sometimes they are longer—more like 500 to 650 words.  Sometimes there is an actual character count, like 2,500 characters.  That means that every letter and space counts.  That is when great editing really comes in handy.

It goes without saying that students should write their own essays.  It also goes without saying that adults in a student’s life might read and reflect on that essay with the student—in other words, help the student do the best job possible.  Indeed, some high school English teachers do just that when they have students write personal statements for use in college applications as a class assignment.  It seems to me that many—even most—students get some kind of adult review of their application essays, and I imagine that colleges understand that.  Nonetheless, these essays should tell students’ own stories, their own views, and their own observations and should be told in the words of teenagers—albeit, teenagers trying to put their best feet forward.

This episode is not about actually writing the college application essay.  We might do one on that later, and there are other resources that can help you help your child produce a nicely edited essay.  This episode is instead about what you can do to help your child prepare to write those essays eventually.  There are two kinds of essays that students can, in a way, prepare for in advance.

1.  The Why-Did-You-Choose-Us or Why-Are-You-a-Good-Fit-for-Us Essay

Essays with topics like these require students to have some understanding of the college and of how they would fit in well at the college.  To answer such a question, your child will need to know how to do research about a college, find out what makes it unique or special, understand the academic majors it offers (and, if it is a university, the various colleges or schools it comprises), the activities and sports it does and does not offer, and the type of community it is located in.  All of these could be addressed in such an essay.

No college wants to hear that a student is applying because that student thinks that he or she can get in.  Your child has to make a more convincing case than that.  So, as college application time approaches, help your child study up on colleges of interest.  Internet websites can be a great way to do that, but some college websites are really quite difficult to comprehend.  Even professionals have trouble with them.  So, start early.

At a minimum, understand exactly the name of the major your child would be interested in at each college he or she is applying to.  Keep in mind that something as simple as a biology major is not called the same thing at every college; furthermore, at universities, a biology major might not always be in the same college or school within the university (i.e., sometimes in arts and sciences, sometimes in health sciences, sometimes in something else).

If your child is interested in continuing with certain extracurricular activities or sports in college, it is important to see that those activities and sports exist at the college.  For example, a student should not write about his interest in continuing to be part of a wrestling team if the college does not have one.

So our advice is this:  Doing research about potential colleges of interest ahead of time enables you and your child to call an admissions office with questions—before it is time to write that essay.  It also enables you and your child to realize that some colleges might not be what you had thought and are not necessarily the right choice after all.

For more tips, listen to our Series 2: Choosing Where to Apply episodes here.

2.  The What-Can-You-Contribute-to-Our-College Essay

This is a slight variation on the first topic, but with more of a focus on what your child brings to the college.  This is not so much a how-do-we-match-up essay, but more of a why-should-we-admit-you essay.  This topic requires your child to speak about his or her accomplishments and why those would improve that college community.  It’s a bit like, “Ask not what the college can do for you; ask what you can do for the college.”

Admittedly, this can be daunting.  What can one high school kid contribute to life at Stanford University?  Well, it’s time to help position your child to answer that question.  Encouraging your child to play an instrument, participate in drama groups, play on sports teams, be part of the student government, write for the newspaper or yearbook, help younger students in school, and/or do volunteer work outside of school to help others—all of these are values and talents and abilities and skills that your child can bring to a college campus that can help make life on that campus richer for other students.  If your child does very little in your community or at school, except go to classes, writing this essay will be very difficult indeed.

Of course, academic contributions could be important, too, but it is hard to imagine what they might be.  Perhaps participating in science competitions or successful independent research projects or inclusion in selective school literary publications or being part of a winning robotics team could count for something.  So encouraging your child to go the extra mile when it comes to academic competitions certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Bottom Line

Other essay topics do not require so much preparation in advance.  Essay topics I have seen recently include these:  write about a person, who is not in your family, who has had a major impact on your life; choose a current issue and tell us your feelings about it; write about something that is so important in your life that it defines you; invent a course that all freshmen should take.  All of these take thought on the part of your child, but they are not really questions that your child needs to prepare for before it is time to complete the college applications.

The bottom line is that there is nothing worse than having nothing to say in an essay.  That problem cannot be fixed by editing.  It is just like having no activities to list in the activities section of an application.   So you and your child must think ahead.

When it comes time for your child to write the essays, he or she would likely benefit from talking about them with you or an older sibling or a teacher or another caring adult.  Sorting through ideas and experiences can be a difficult process.  But you have to have ideas and experiences to sort through—and that’s why you can’t wait till the last minute.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether essays can be important, even if not in the application process
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