Episode 145: Supplemental College Application Essays–The Sequel

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

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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Episode 144: Supplemental College Application Essays–Oh, My!

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

I really was not going to do this episode.  I resisted doing our last two–one episode about The Common Application main essay (that 650-word statement that all seniors’ parents and teachers have come to loathe at this time of year) and one episode about the sad fact that our high school seniors in the U.S. cannot write.  I was glad when last week was over, and I thought that I could move on to other topics of importance in the college applications season.  And yet, I am drawn back into the quagmire of college application essays.

It gets worse.  When I started putting this episode together–this episode that I did not want to do–I figured that I could keep it short and sweet.  When I hit nine pages of text, I realized that it was not short (nor was it sweet, actually).  And so, I have done something else that I didn’t want to do.  I have planned for two episodes on this topic of supplemental essays.

Of course, I thought you might go back and re-listen to Episode 106, where we talk about supplemental essays.  But I fear you won’t, and so I am going to reprise it here and add some new, updated thoughts.  Why?  Because I have just spent a fair number of days working on college application supplemental essays for a few teenagers I work with individually–and they have confirmed my worst nightmare.  Our high school seniors cannot write these supplemental essays any better than they can write anything else.  I base this bold statement not just on the teenagers I am working with now (who are, by the way, bright students with excellent grades and admission test scores), but also on the teenagers I have worked with over the past several years.  I have read–and edited–hundreds of these supplemental essays.  And I still have more to read and edit ahead of me this season.  If I keep working with more and more teenagers every year, soon I will have 10 episodes on this topic.

Anyway, the last time we chatted about this topic was last January.  Let’s see what, if anything, you remember–in case you were listening then.

1. How Many and the Choice, If You Have One

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 as many as four. If you include short-answer open-ended questions that require just a sentence or two or a list of things–for example, cultural events you have attended recently–that number of supplemental “essays” for some colleges could go up to seven.  Yikes!

Let’s look at the University of California system–a public university system with a zillion applicants (okay, zillion might be a slight exaggeration).  But not much of one.  UCLA, one of nine University of California campuses, had over 102,000 freshman applicants for this past fall.  So, how UCLA, for example, can process four essays from each applicant is, frankly, beyond me.  But the University of California has some great universities–including the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA–and some very smart people.  Here are the directions for University of California applicants for what are called the “personal insight questions” (quoted from the University of California website):

Directions

  • You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
  • Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
  • Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you: But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.

Keep in mind

  • All questions are equal: All are given equal consideration in the application review process, which means there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.
  • There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions: It’s about getting to know your personality, background, interests and achievements in your own unique voice.

Questions & guidance

Remember, the personal questions are just that–personal. Which means you should use our guidance for each question just as a suggestion in case you need help. The important thing is expressing who you are, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

  1. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

  1. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

  1. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you–just to name a few.

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

  1. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”

  1. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom–such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs–and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

  1. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place–like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

  1. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?

From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.

I think that these eight topics are sensible and fair, if not especially creative.  On balance, I think that is a good thing.  I believe that teenagers can actually write answers to these, and sometimes that is the biggest hurdle.  (To tell you the truth, I have read some quirky or overly philosophical prompts that I could not respond to at all.)  And yet, four essay questions of 350 words each is a lot of writing–especially if an applicant might have used up the answer to one of the prompts in the main Common App essay, which seems quite possible to me.

Sometimes, the topics for the supplemental essays, especially short ones, can be a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show a creative or funny or witty side.  If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a teenager choose one of the odder ones–unless that teenager is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

For some examples of essay topics that can be a bit odd, let’s look at the University of Chicago.  If you don’t know the University of Chicago (one of those private universities whose name makes it sound like a public university), it is an outstanding, highly selective private university in, obviously, Chicago.  Here are the directions for University of Chicago applicants (quoted from the University of Chicago website):

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see from the attributions, the questions below were inspired by submissions from UChicago students and alumni. . . .

Required Question:

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” ? Joseph Joubert

Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?

Anonymous Suggestion

Essay Option 2.

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here.

-Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018

Essay Option 3.

Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.

-Inspired by Dani Plung, Class of 2017

Essay Option 4.

The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” Tell us about your “armor.”

-Inspired by Adam Berger, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5.

Fans of the movie Sharknado say that they enjoy it because “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Certain automobile owners prefer classic cars because they “have more character.” And recently, vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because it is perceived that they have a warmer, fuller sound. Discuss something that you love not in spite of but rather due to its quirks or imperfections.

-Inspired by Alex Serbanescu, Class of 2021

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

And, by the way, some of the past prompts are truly wacky.  Choosing the right prompt in this kind of situation can make all the difference.  When I work with teenagers on this, we always talk through several options before settling on the one that seems the most appropriate and the most likely to yield a convincing, insightful essay.  And, yes, sometimes we get one written and realize that it just doesn’t work, and we have to switch prompts and start again!

So, the University of California and the University of Chicago are at the extremes, in terms of number of essays required and provocativeness of essay topics, respectively.  Parents, you might be thankful now if the colleges on your teenager’s list have just one or two slightly boring supplemental essays to complete!

2. The Word Count

Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately (though I just saw one from Tulane University, where the upper limit was 800 words!).  We all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and that it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.  Many 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 150 to 250 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 League school put it.

Here is the point:  Lower word limits imply a different style of writing.  While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in The Common App 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.

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.

One final note on word limits:  As you might already have guessed, one college’s 350-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic.  As we will talk about in our next episode, 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. Having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics–like an extracurricular activity that is particularly meaningful to you–can save a lot of time.

3.  No Thanksgiving Break:  New Episode Next Week

Next week is Thanksgiving, and we were going to take a holiday break.  However, we realized that the long Thanksgiving weekend might be just the time that some of you will use to work on supplemental essays for applications that will be due just weeks later.  So, we will have a new episode next week, which will cover the rest of the advice we have on supplemental essays.   We will bring it out on Tuesday, instead of our usual Thursday–just in time for the Thanksgiving celebration!

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Episode 142: What’s Wrong with Your Kid’s College Application Essay?

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

Well, it’s officially November.  Some Early Decision and Early Action deadlines have just passed, and many others are fast approaching on November 15.  There is very little time left for those of you interested in submitting early applications.  As we said at length in Episode 138 and as we have repeated in the past few episodes, we think that all of you should be applying Early Action to all of the schools on your list that have an Early Action option and that some of you should be applying to your first choice under the Early Decision option.  So, think about that one more time while there is still time!

I thought a long time about whether to do today’s episode on college application essays.  It seems like such a tired topic–one that everyone gives advice about–and we have done a number of episodes on this topic already, though not since last February (go back and listen to Episodes 98, 99, 106, and 110).  And yet, I continue to be surprised at how little many parents and teachers know about the common and supplementary essay requirements in college applications.  I am in the throes of reading and editing The Common Application main essay for about 60 high school seniors right now–that is, the main essay that is written to one of seven prompts supplied by The Common App people and that will be transmitted to any of its more than 700 colleges and universities if your kid applies to any of them (which he or she almost undoubtedly will).  Please re-listen right now to Episode 110 if you aren’t familiar with The Common App essay requirement.

As I have done for the past couple of years, I have spent almost a week in the classrooms of one of New York City’s best high schools (indeed, one of the nation’s top 75 high schools, according to U.S. News & World Report).  As a result, I have a few things I would like to say–again–though I am not sure we can say it any better now than we did in those previous four episodes.

1.  The Sad Truth

I am going to talk to you today–as I have done before and hope I never have to do again–about the sad truth that many, many, too many high school seniors cannot write.  I will not talk to you about the many, many, too many grammatical and punctuation and word choice mistakes that I see in 9 out of 10 essays I read.  For an elaborate discussion of those mistakes, go back to Episode 99.  But, trust me, the mistakes are there, and they are inexcusable for high school seniors as well as extremely distracting to any college admissions officer trying to get through hundreds or even thousands of similar essays.  I can’t imagine that some essays, written as they are, even get read all the way through.

Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To pay attention to grammar–To watch out for split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, poorly placed participial phrases modifying the wrong word, incorrect and inconsistent verb tenses, and the lack of agreement between nouns and pronouns
  • To check punctuation–To watch out for random commas inserted for no reason, commas that are left out before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, periods and commas inside quotation marks always, and the random use of semicolons
  • To be careful about word choice–To watch out for sophisticated or “big” words that he or she would never use in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher) and that, therefore, he or she is highly likely to use slightly incorrectly
  • To avoid wordiness and repetition–To watch out for sentences that have too many irrelevant and/or unnecessary words and to watch out for sentences that say the same thing as previous sentences (often in just as vague or unconvincing a way)

I will also not talk to you about the finer points of writing most essays–this college application essay or any other.  For an elaborate discussion of those finer points, go back to Episode 98.  Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To make a memorable first impression–To write a great first sentence, which makes the college admissions officer want to continue reading the essay, when he or she has way too many more to read (Back in Episode 80, we told you the most common and boring ways that students in the U.K. started their college application essays.  U.S. kids do that, too!)
  • To make a memorable last impression–To write an extraordinary final sentence, which is his or her last chance to make an impression on the college admissions officer (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that almost no kid can write a great last sentence or really a great ending at all.  Many kids ended their essays on a ridiculously grand scale in an overly dramatic way that does not fit almost any teenager’s life story.)
  • To remember what the point is–To include what he or she has learned from the story or experience or reflection that the essay is about or how that story or experience or reflection impacted his or her life (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that many kids get bogged down in the details of a story they are trying to tell in the essay and forget what the point of that story is.)

 

2.  Another Sad Truth

And let me talk to you about another sad truth–the fact that some kids don’t seem to have anything to write about.  Parents, let me make this very clear:  No amount of editing–including by your teenager’s English teacher or by the most expensive college admissions consultant you can find to work with your teenager–can save an essay that is not really about anything.

To be fair, some kids have a great idea for an essay right away; in fact, some kids, have more than one great idea, though not as many kids as you might think.  I have also found that some kids can come up with a decent topic after a long talk with me about their young lives–about their families, their hobbies, their school activities, their jobs, their career hopes, their volunteer work, their academic failures, and their personal successes.

However, some kids actually can’t come up with anything to write about.  They can’t think of anything that makes them special or interesting or appealing as a candidate for college admission.  But that’s what this essay is:  a way to look desirable to a college, whether your appeal is your brains, your kindness, your insights, your perseverance, your thoughtfulness, your compassion, your generosity, your inventiveness, your quirky outlook on life, your triumph over adversity, or something else.  The college wants a glimpse of you, to be sure, but it had better be an appealing one.

I was chatting recently about this last group of kids–the ones with no ideas for the essay–with one of their teachers.  I was asking why she thought these kids didn’t have anything to write about.  She said simply, “They don’t do anything.”  Of course, they come to school and do their schoolwork–most of them quite well.  Many also take part in the standard bunch of school activities, play on a sports team, and take music lessons.  But how many essays can a college admissions officer read about a kid who loves the piano and did really well in a statewide music competition?  Or learned about perseverance and hard work by playing on the football team?  And here’s my favorite:  learned how to be a more effective person from playing video games (I have read more of those than you might think).  So, what do these kids do outside the box?  What do they do or think or care about that makes them just a bit different and more memorable than a thousand other kids?  What makes them the kind of student a college would want?

Parents of younger high school kids, it is time to start thinking about what it will be like at your house when essay time comes–while there is still time to encourage your kid to engage in activities and causes and scholarly pursuits and cultural events and family life and community life worth writing about in a college application essay.  Here’s why this is so important:  I bet that many colleges would rather accept a kid whose essay is inspiring or enthusiastic or compelling or intriguing–even with a small grammar or punctuation mistake or two–than a kid whose essay is superficially picture perfect, but has no substance.

Parents of younger high school kids, I can make your kid’s essay superficially picture perfect, but I cannot really give your kid an experience that he or she can write an essay about.  Only you can do that for your kid and with your kid, based on the experiences of your lives.  So, start thinking.

And let me remind you again, parents of younger high school students and parents of seniors, don’t forget to check out the seven prompts for The Common Application main essay (see Episode 110).  You will see that they are reasonable options for kids to write about and, hopefully, you might get an idea of how to help your kid–now or next year or the year after that.  By the way, this year’s prompts are very similar to last year’s (with a couple of additions), so there is no reason to believe that they will change totally for next year, either.

3.  Coming Soon in Our Next Episode

So, I feel as though this episode was more of a rant than anything else.  I apologize for that, but this is the third year I have had this college application essay experience.  I don’t want to have to talk to you about this again next year, parents of younger high school students!

Last year, I told the kids I met with at the well-known New York City high school that I mentioned earlier, “You write like third graders.”  This year, I said something even scarier and more objectionable to them.  Join us next week to find out what I said to them and to consider with me how to fix the problem that our high school students can’t write–and that’s a problem much bigger and much more important than whether a kid gets into one college or another.  Unfortunately.

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Episode 106: The Nightmare of the Supplemental College Application Essays

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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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