iOS app Android app More

An Accounting of Word Counts

Josh Stephens   |   September 3, 2014    3:41 PM ET

Whenever I used to advise students on early drafts of college essays, I assured them that I didn't care about word counts. "Write it long, write it short -- I don't care," I'd tell them. "Just get your thoughts on to the page."

Often, I'd receive one of two things: a draft that was 1 percent shorter than the prescribed length, or a profuse apology for a few hundred extra words -- or even for ten extra words. It was as if they felt like they'd failed the assignment even before turning it in.

Not to worry, I assured them.

650 Easy Pieces

Writing college application essays is hard. Hundred-word "why Tufts" essays are hard, and 650-word Common Application personal statements are hard. Even some of the most accomplished students wilt when they have to write about themselves.

I imagine that students fixate on word counts because adhering to word counts is easy. As terrifyingly subjective as these essays may be -- potentially encompassing any moment from a life of 18 years; read by anonymous arbiters whose preferences are unknown -- word counts provide at least one objective measurement that can tell students when they have, or haven't, completed the assignment.

Many high school students decide that they have "finished" an essay not when they have proven their thesis or discussed an idea in depth, but rather when they have typed the requisite number of words. They write furiously, get it "done," and then hope for the best. Students don't revise as often as they should, and they subjugate the quality of their work to quantity. Meanwhile, teachers rarely demand revisions. For the most part, they grade whatever is handed in.

With college essays, the "grading scale" is unforgiving: you're either accepted or rejected. There are no A-'s. Essays have to be a student's best work. Good college essays are labored over, thought about, polished and re-polished. That's why the initial word count doesn't matter -- unless your computer blows up, you have endless opportunities to add and delete. It's no different from, say, editing a movie: to get a two-hour final cut, hundreds of hours of footage might end up on the cutting room floor.

Don't Measure, Cut As Needed

The tailor's great adage is, "measure twice, cut once." That's good advice when you're working in silk, but irrelevant when ink and paper are in abundant supply. If a writer can't get word counts out of his mind, I recommend one of two strategies:

1. Write the first draft is half as long as is recommended. On successive drafts, the writer can explain, illustrate and expand on those ideas to her heart's content.

2. Write the first draft is twice as long as is recommended. Then, the writer can refine, evaluate, pare down and prioritize.

In both cases, the real thinking takes place during the process of editing. Editing entails a deliberate process of evaluation, deliberation and decision-making, whereas "drafting" connotes a spontaneous outburst. Save the word counts for the very end of the process.

Common App Sweet Spot

While I'm on the topic, I'd like to give a shout-out to the Common App. While the Common App essay prompts and policies about revision leave much to be desired (as I've written here and here), they made the right decision by assigning a word count of 650 to the main essay and additional information sections. Six-hundred-fifty is sweet spot that enables writers to complete a thought while not letting them get carried away. (The whole point of word counts is to prevent applicants from overwhelming their readers with monstrous essays. It's a reasonable goal.)

With that said, this fixation on word counts could easily be rectified with guidelines rather than limits. I tend to think that high school seniors should be encouraged, it not expected, to think independently. If they're capable of writing 650 coherent words, then they should also be capable of deciding, within reason, when enough is enough and when too much is too much. If an essays is great at 662 words, a student shouldn't have to arbitrarily labor to get rid of 12 words.

Just that little bit of freedom can take away a ton of pressure.

Wisdom of the UCs

I'm even more fond of the University of California's approach. UC requires two essays. Neither essay has a prescribed word count, but both in combination cannot exceed 1,000 words. Both essays could be 500 words. Or one essay could be 900 and the other 100. No big deal. This approach brilliantly gives writers their autonomy while ensuring that readers don't drown in uber-long essays.

As for uber-long first drafts: that's just fine.

Applying to College Is Different This Year--Here's How

Patrick O'Connor   |   August 25, 2014    3:36 PM ET

School hasn't even started for most students, but the college application process is in high gear for the Class of 2015. Students, parents, and counselors familiar with the ins and outs of essays, deadlines, and recommendation forms have already noticed three big changes to this year's application landscape. While there are more to come, it's important to watch these three big trends, and take action accordingly:

Common App Off to a Great Start Many college counseling observers kept a close eye on August 1st, the day The Common Application was scheduled to launch for this year's seniors. With a number of technological challenges on new platform, last year's Common App got off to a rocky start, making it hard for students to pay application fees, schools to upload transcripts, and colleges to download just about anything. The bumps were eventually smoothed out, but fears were high that Common App would face a new round of big challenges this year as well.

As it turned out, Common App didn't launch on August 1st--it launched 8 hours early, on July 31st. Since then, technology complaints are almost non-existent; aside from a few concerns about a new essay format used by some colleges, it's been smooth sailing for students, high schools, and college alike. I serve on Common App's board of directors, but this wasn't remotely due to me--the thanks go to the many, many, many hours of double-and triple-checking the staff at Common App put in this summer to make sure last year's debut will become a one-time occurrence. Thanks to them, it's history.

Early Applications Up Common App's strong start has come in especially handy for colleges that are encouraging seniors to submit their applications early--in some cases, as early as July. It's unclear why colleges are taking this new approach. Some have suggested that students are more likely to attend colleges that admit them early, but it remains to be seen if that strategy will work when many applicants may not even know about the new application schedule, since their high school counselors couldn't tell them about it.

This unannounced, unexpected change in policy has left many students and high schools in the lurch. Many public high schools can't send official transcripts when their records offices are closed in the summer, while other schools are limited to sending unofficial copies without the student's senior schedule. In addition, colleges subscribing to the Statement of Principles of Good Practice from the National Association for College Admission Counseling have agreed not to set any application deadline prior to October 15, and must treat equal treatment to all applications received by October 15th.

There are concerns this new policy will give an unintended bonus to students from high schools that have the means to keep their records offices open year round, putting applicants from poorer schools at a disadvantage. This trend is worth diligent observation.

State School Leaders Silent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made sure state school chiefs had a busy summer. In late June, Secretary Duncan asked state leaders to make sure counselors had the resources they need to provide quality college counseling to students, and to lead their school's efforts in college readiness.

All this was supposed to be done by the end of this summer, but the response to date has been nonexistent. The need for better counseling is evident to students and the White House; for their sake, let's hope state officials are planning to float 50 major announcements in the next few weeks. Writing them a reminder letter could help.

Writing the Common Application Essay and What to Avoid

Jeannie Borin   |   July 5, 2014   11:07 AM ET

The Common Application will launch for the coming admissions season on August 1. In the meanwhile, the Common Application essay prompts are available so writing can begin. Students will need to choose one of the five prompts and write up to a 650-word essay.

The essay prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2.Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

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. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

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

Your essays will bring authenticity to your application and allow the admission officers to learn who you are. You need to make sure this happens. So just how should you start writing your essays?

Here are some suggestions we recommend to help you write essays where you can stand out:

1. Brainstorm possible topics: This could be absolutely anything -- Slice of life stories can be very appealing and just as noteworthy if the writing is exceptional. It's not necessary to write about some major event or achievement. Keep a file of life stories, specific moments and experiences. Think about how you have applied lessons you have learned. Read current college essay prompts and see if your ideas integrate.

2. Discuss your ideas with people you know: Listen to suggestions and elaborate on your thoughts. What do others think of your topics? Which ideas are discriminating and distinguish you as a strong applicant at your dream college?

3. Don't rush: Pace yourself well so that you have plenty of time to relax and write

4. Find a comfortable setting: Where your thoughts and ideas can flourish. Really like what you write about and mean it.

Once you have completed your "Free Write" go back and look at the specific essay prompts. The Common App Prompts can each inspire deep thoughts -- Select the one where you feel most sincere and authentic. Remember that your writing is quality over quantity so no need to write many rough drafts. Connect your topic ideas to the prompts and write a brief outline defining the paragraphs of your essay. This is where you may start to think about your opening "the grabber" and how to sustain interest. Keep track of the required word count.

Once you have your topic ideas and your general outline, you can begin writing out your rough draft.

Having reviewed countless Common App essays, below are some things we see and things you should try and avoid:

- Writing that does not emphasize the writer's strength of character

- Essays that make every effort to portray the writer as "perfect" and just try too hard

- Essays that don't reflect the writer's passion, curiosity and inspirations

- Contrived transitions that don't connect

- Narratives that do not engage the reader

- Repeating what is on the activity resume

- Dull openings that quickly lose interest

- Using quotes that don't connect or add anything to the essay

- Essays that don't realize the intent of the prompt and don't answer all the questions asked

- Essays that look too much like everyone else's. Common topics like community service in a foreign country, overcoming an obstacle and winning, a relationship with a close relative where the relative is the emphasis of the essay, winning a sporting event must remain unique with a well-told story

- Writing what you think admission officers want to read and therefore not your true self - using a thesaurus to impress

- Too much written in the passive voice

- Not keeping language specific -- writing too generally about too many things

- Use of slang or relaxed language

It is best to begin as soon as possible in order to present your best self and give your writing the time, thought and diligence it deserves!


Visit us:

Like us:

5 Pieces of Good News From a College Admissions Application Essay Counselor

Elizabeth Benedict   |   June 30, 2014    4:04 PM ET

I'm taking a guess that all rising high school seniors not glued to the World Cup are either fretting about their college app essays, casting glances at the essay prompts, or trying to put the darn essays as far out of their summer vacationing minds as possible.

The bad news is that these essays aren't going away -- until you hit the SEND button on all of your applications in the fall or winter. But there are a few pieces of good news to share with you from my perspective as both an insider and outsider in the process. (Inside, because I coach students on these essays, having taught writing at many universities, and outside, because I'm not an applicant or the parent of one.)

1. The good news is that there's plenty of time, but -- as Albert Einstein taught us (see "Theory of Relativity"), there are many definitions of time, depending on where you are and where you want to end up. If you have a summer crammed with work or adventure, with sports camp, math camp, internships on Capitol Hill, and/or a job scooping ice cream at the beach, you may not be able to devote many days or weeks to getting a head start on the essays -- but you can and should put your downtime to good use.

If you're not going to tackle any of the essays, make a chart of the schools you plan to apply to and the essay prompts required at each, with the number of words and the due dates.

Will you have to write three essays beyond the Common App essay? Will you have closer to thirteen? Can you use the same material for some essays? Are all the schools you're applying on the Common App? To date, a few schools have revealed their supplementary essays; most should be available by August 1, when the Common Application goes live. The university synonymous with quirky essays, the University of Chicago, has posted its upcoming essays. You might enjoy the prompts even if you have no plans to apply. (Prompt #1: "What's so odd about odd numbers?")

Once you have your preliminary list, you might see that you have less time than you imagined you did.

2. The Common Application essay and the supplements do not need to be perfect. You are not being considered for a Pulitzer Prize. But the essays do need to be good, thoughtful, proofread well and, depending on your high school record, and your college and academic goals, revealing about who you are. Revealing, but not too revealing. Thoughtful, but not a history paper or a political debate.

Where on earth does one start with an assignment like that? Write in a conversational voice. Don't "try to sound smart." Find a topic that excites you -- that engages you emotionally and/or intellectually. Remember that you are applying to a college or university, and that beyond the state-of-the-art gyms and student unions, these are educational institutions, where critical thinking, deep reflection, and intellectual curiosity are valued and even treasured.

3. The good news is that college admissions officers are not looking for something specific in your essays. There is no formula, no right answer. Often students ask me, "What does the school want to know? What are they looking for here?" My answer can be baffling: "They want to know who you are, whether they should offer you a space at their school, whether you'll take advantage of it."

This is where brainstorming with the right person can be extremely valuable. And this is when I always think of novelist and critic Joyce Carol Oates' great writing observation: "When a writer finds his true subject rather than the usual false one, the writing should come easily." A good topic will invite your best thinking and writing.

4. More good news: You don't have to invent your own prompts. As vague as "tell us who are you" might feel as an assignment, few if any schools ask that question. To the contrary, essay prompts are often very specific -- and probing in interesting, insightful ways. By studying the questions the schools are asking beforehand, you might feel relieved at how specific they are. One of the keys to good writing is specificity, and that's also the key to asking questions that elicit valuable information.

The Common App essay prompts -- which were new last year -- are being used again this year, and I think very highly of them. Please take a look at my HuffPost piece "I HEART the College Admissions Essay Prompts" from last year, for a closer look at each prompt and how you might begin to answer them. Take note: Not all schools use the Common App essays. The nine University of California schools (Berkeley, UCLA, etc.) are not on the Common App, and they ask students to write personal statements in response to two terrific questions, the first of which is, "Describe the world you come from -- for example, your family, community or school -- and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations."

5. More good news. There are many kinds of essay advice available online and elsewhere, including ebooks, videos, classes, essay boot camps, and consultants. In some schools, volunteers staff essay boot camps for students in the fall. (I will be posting and tweeting those I hear about.) Essay coaches, counselors and tutors worth their salt do not write students' essays, anymore than swimming coaches swim or music coaches perform in place of their students. The role of a good coach is to provide structure and guidance in a process that many agree has gotten out of hand.

The Common App and the single Common app essay were supposed to streamline the process. Instead, the electronic ability to apply to a virtually unlimited number of schools with a single application has increased the applicant pools so dramatically that schools need additional information -- all these essays -- to distinguish between many thousands of often highly qualified applicants.

The Common Application and even the colleges encourage students to show their essays to other people for feedback and proofreading: parents, friends, and school counselors. Especially if you are applying to the most selective schools, this is essential. Some schools specifically draw the line at "hired" counselors, and I certainly understand the line.

At the same time, it's important to acknowledge that there are many students whose parents and school situations bring them enormous advantages, notably parents who are writers, editors, professors and other professionals who work with words and presentation at very high levels, along with private school guidance counselors whose job is to review essays. By contrast, students in large public schools where each guidance counselor is responsible for many hundreds of students, or students whose parents are not native English speakers, can be shortchanged when it comes to having their essays reviewed.

This is a long process, and summer should be a mix of work and play, challenge and relaxation, exercise and loafing around. But you probably already know that.

Elizabeth Benedict, who runs Don't Sweat the Essay, writes a popular college admissions blog, taught writing for more than 20 years at Princeton, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Swarthmore, MIT, and elsewhere, has published five novels, a well-known book on writing fiction and two noted anthologies.

From JFK to Kwasi Enin: The College Admissions Application Essay Grows Up

Elizabeth Benedict   |   June 19, 2014    5:25 PM ET

In a recent conversation with a parent who was thinking ahead to when her eighth grader applies to college, she said that she had read the application essay by the Long Island boy who got into eight Ivy League schools, and she thought "the essay was terribly written." She wanted to know what I, who read college application essays year in and year out, thought of it.

These essays have come a long way since 1935, when John F. Kennedy's succinct, handwritten and utterly unoriginal paragraph was enough to get him into his father's alma mater, answering the question: "Why do you wish to go to Harvard?" It's doubtful that today even a student with as much pull as young JFK had back then -- Dad was Chairman of the SEC -- could get into the big H with these dreary five sentences, not to mention his mediocre grades.

"The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a "Harvard man" is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain."

Students applying to selective schools in 2014 face a barrage of essays that would challenge the literary chops of Mark Twain. The Common Application essay -- most famous, most feared -- has become a genre of its own, with a contest that started this May, and a $5000 prize, inviting students to enter the essays they submitted for admission earlier in the year. And scores of schools require additional essays of every imaginable variety, asking students to design a course (Colorado College), comment on a quotation (Princeton), write a letter to a prospective roommate (Stanford), and to say what makes them happy (Tufts).

Welcome to the boutiqueification of higher education. In other countries, college applicants may have to take entrance exams that last up to three days, and judgments are based only the results of those tests. Here we judge kids on their grades, tests scores, extra curricular activities, and through a raft of essays that probe their feelings, their writing skills and, to some extent, their intellects. The exotic essay questions enchant, amuse (a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down), distinguish schools and students from one another, and perhaps keep some students from making frivolous applications to colleges that they have no interest in attending, now that the Common Application has made applying easier than live streaming a season of Breaking Bad.

I make the last claim advisedly, about frivolous applications, because there is also a powerful trend to encourage students to apply to all sorts of schools to which they have no chance of admission in order to boost the number of applicants, thereby lowering a school's admit rate, thereby raising its ranking on the sacred US News and World Report list. Perhaps an equation charting the logic and math of this could find its way to an upcoming SAT question.

But it's the essay of the year -- maybe of the decade -- we are here to examine. Move over JFK. Make room for Draft #4 of Kwasi Enin's Common Application essay, called "A Life in Music," which the New York Post got hold of and published in April 2014, soon after the son of immigrants from Ghana was admitted to the eight Ivy League schools to which he applied.

The news items were celebratory, but the reader comments exposed another side to the story. Debate raged about the justice of Enin's success, his race, affirmative action, the quality of his essay, and the state of American education. There were comments from students who had also applied to many Ivies and "only" got admitted to one or two or three. One young man from the Bronx, who applied to the same eight schools as Enin and "only" got into Yale and Cornell, was enraged by what he thought was the poor quality of the essay and by Enin's eight-school sweep in contrast to his own paltry numbers. In an anonymous reader comment, he said, "I am upset that I will share a school with an applicant as weak as Kwasi."

Quite apart from this young man's animus, he seems strangely misinformed, about both what it takes to get into Yale -- the demanding application questions and essays -- and how admissions decisions are made in the country's most elite schools. A common theme in the comments were that another applicant had higher SATs and GPAs than Enin but had been rejected from these schools.

While debate raged, none of the articles I read explained the bigger admissions picture at the most selective schools. Yes, at some state schools, decisions are based largely on raw numbers, but not at what is now known at HYP or even Stanford, which admitted only five percent of its 42,000 applicants this year.

The bigger picture gets left out, I think, partly because it's so complex and partly because the process is so secretive and unquantifiable. What goes on in those wood-paneled admissions offices isn't for public consumption, but the broad outlines are well known, and all of it is explained vividly in Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 New Yorker article, "Getting In: The social logic of Ivy League admissions," inspired by a then just-published book, The Chosen by sociologist Jerome Karabel.

In answer to those who harp on "my kid's SATs and class rank were higher than Kwasi Enin's, and how can this be fair?" here are some truths universally known about the process:

* The college admissions process is not transparent -- and it's not going to become transparent.

* At the most selective schools, there are thousands more qualified applicants -- in some cases, tens of thousands -- than there are places for them. According to the New York Times, "Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in." According to the Stanford Alumni magazine, Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw estimates that 80 percent of its applicants could handle the university's workload.

* HYP and, these days, S, could easily fill a class with students whose GPAs and standardized test scores are perfect, but that's not what they're after.

Think of admissions officers in these schools creating a large dinner party that will go on for four years, and then, as alumni, for a lifetime. Each guest is chosen to bring an assortment of worthwhile qualities to the table beyond top grades and scores, which are necessary but not sufficient. They need to spot the kids who will run the school newspaper, play second fiddle -- and double bass -- in the orchestra, keep the tennis team competitive, sign up for the Modern English Novel, act in theatre productions, and, once they graduate, become generous, involved alumni. They need ethnic, racial, geographic, musical, intellectual, and athletic diversity. A self-motivated, hyper-creative student who got a 680 on her math SAT might be more desirable than one with perfect scores who spent every summer taking science courses for extra credit. But again, this is only one detail in a much larger portrait of an individual student and of what a school decides it needs to make up a class.

* Take note, angry young man from the Bronx: Many groups of applicants are given special consideration in admissions: recruited athletes, legacies, children of the rich and powerful, children of donors (I've heard three versions of what it costs to buy a kid's way into Harvard: $1 million; $10 million; it's not for sale), children of recent immigrants, first generation college students, international students who do not need financial aid, and students who are members of underrepresented minority groups.

Which brings us back to the matter of college application essays. Not one article I've seen on Kwasi Enin has mentioned that nearly all of the eight Ivies Mr. Enin applied to require extra essays and short answers to a huge variety of questions. The Common App essay is important, but it's only one piece of the writing puzzle that admissions officers study. Some schools, including Yale, encourage applicants to submit artwork, audio recordings, film, and creative writing.

Those who harp on Kwasi Enin's 2250 SAT (because it's not 2400), his eleventh place class ranking (because it's not number one), and what they believe are the imperfections of his essay have no idea what else he conveyed in these complicated applications. I suspect it was pretty impressive.

As for the much-scrutinized essay, it contains two words that are, to me, the key to Enin's success. They are words I rarely hear from anyone anymore, neither from the students I work with nor their parents nor the oft-quoted admissions officers, the words "intellectual curiosity."

Ring a bell? It's different from "academic achievement," and I don't think it's a quality you can fake. Based on Enin's essay, he has it in abundance. Here, for instance:

"Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity. I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music. There are millions of combinations of key signatures, chords, melodies, and rhythms in the world of music that wait to become attached to a sheet of staff lines and spaces. As I began to explore a minute fraction of these combinations from the third grade onwards, my mind began to formulate roundabout methods to solve any mathematical problem, address any literature prompt, and discover any exit in an undesirable situation. In middle school, my mind also started to become adept in the language of music. Playing the works of different composes, such as "Kol Nidrei" by Max Bruch and "Coriolan Overture" by Ludwig Van Beethoven, expands my diverse musical vocabulary, my breadth of techniques and my ability to practice in order to succeed in solo performances. ... Whenever I perform, whether as a bassist in a Men's Doo Wop Group or as a violinist in a Chamber Ensemble, I become immersed in the conversations between performers and the audience."

Last year, one of the essay prompts at the University of Chicago was "Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it." In looking over these passages from Enin's essay and thinking about how to explain their power, I feel a bit like someone trying to explain a joke without ruining it.

The complex ideas Enin expresses seem to me engaging, scintillating, and genuine, as well as intellectually and culturally sophisticated. He takes a hobby -- music - and explains eloquently how it has become a vehicle for engaging in a wide variety of music -- from Jewish liturgical music to Do Wop -- and for exploring other subjects and life challenges. And he does all of this joyfully -- and you can't fake that either. This is something quite different from getting perfect grades and perfect SAT scores.

Intellectual curiosity -- a phrase Kwasi Enin uses, and a concept he understands -- is in short supply in these days of dogged super kids, packaged applicants, and cutthroat competition. Beyond all the glitter and hype of HYP and S, these are still -- for at least a while longer -- places where intellectual curiosity is a cherished value, though it sounds kind of quaint. When it's in evidence, when it's bubbling up from the pages of an application essay, the gatekeepers in those wood-paneled offices notice. Believe me -- and believe Kwasi Enin -- they notice.

Elizabeth Benedict, who runs Don't Sweat the Essay, is the author of five novels, editor of the NY Times bestselling anthology, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, and a longtime professor of writing.

Passion over Pitfalls: The Art of the College Essay

Madeline Diamond   |   June 16, 2014    2:23 PM ET

For a high school senior, the Common Application personal statement essay may seem like the most important 650 words he or she will ever write. Throughout high school, students are coached to write the perfect "personal essay" to show why they are qualified to extend their academic careers to colleges and universities. There is intense pressure to make sure that this essay accurately represents one's intelligence, insight, experiences, and qualifications -- all in a concise, well-articulated format. So, how then, is a student supposed to represent him or herself in fewer words than an average newspaper editorial?

With some of the most competitive schools in the country, such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, and NYU, all receiving over 40,000 applications each year, there is clear pressure for applicants to stand out, and the personal essay is often the time to do so. It is understandable for students to draw from unique, and often unfortunate, experiences to appeal to admissions staff. However, in the midst of trying to set themselves apart, many students can be found competing for the most tragic story for their essay, rather than for a holistic representation of themselves as students and human beings. A seemingly beautiful opportunity to express oneself often takes a negative turn when students try to justify their mistakes or a poor grade through the telling of personal tragedies.

This is not to say that students shouldn't write about challenging experiences. We are all entitled to feel proud of our accomplishments, as well as overcoming adversity. The open-ended nature and variety of prompts allow students to truly write about what ever they please. In fact, one of the Common App's essay prompts asks students to recall an experience of failure.

What truly matters is how applicants address writing about hardship. When I was writing my college essay, I thought about discussing the many moves my family made across the country through my childhood. It was certainly difficult moving to new a new place where I knew no one, but these experiences were also incredibly enlightening. I learned to appreciate diversity in many forms and I gained a unique perspective on life. I ended up writing about how these experiences and others combined with my passion for writing inspired me to begin writing a memoir-like book of essays. My essay was far from perfect, although through the college application process, I learned how to use my passion for writing to express my feelings about experiences of my life, both difficult and joyous.

Undoubtedly a better example of a college essay comes from Kwasi Enin, the Long Island teenager who was accepted to all eight Ivy League schools this year and has since committed to Yale University. In his essay, excerpts of which can be found here, Enin shares his passion for the violin and how his love of music has influenced his life.

"The most important task of a leader is to create harmony between each member of the group, which reveals the group's maximum potential. With improvement and balance comes success and music taught me all of these virtues." Drawing from his own experience as a musician, Enin relates his musical passion to leadership and working as part of a team, showing how playing the violin has shaped his identity and values.

Writing about hardships, while it is easy to focus on the negatives, can actually be a positive healing experience. This type of writing allows students to realize their own resiliency and passions. Regardless of one's interests, whether it be writing, a sport, or music like Enin, passion will shine through in an essay. Through writing about both challenging and positive experiences, students should not sell themselves short and rather emphasize their passions as a result of these experiences, not despite them.

KIMBERLY HEFLING   |   May 9, 2014    2:50 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — Creators of the Common Application for college admissions said Friday they have made changes that should prevent snags that had the high school class of 2014 tweeting horror stories.

The Common Application is accepted by more than 500 colleges and universities and allows students to apply to multiple schools at once, but it had a rough applications season after new technology was rolled out last year that created many headaches. About 750,000 students submitted 3.3 million applications last year.

Teachable Moments: Kwasi Enin's College Application Essay

Elizabeth Benedict   |   April 4, 2014    3:02 PM ET

It's wonderful -- and rare -- that the airwaves, Internet and twitter-sphere are abuzz with the story of a young person's academic success instead of, say, a celebrity's wardrobe malfunction: Kwasi Enin's Ivy League grand slam. How many kids get into all eight Ivies? It's a small sample pool, because few -- how many, we don't know -- apply to all eight.

The conventional wisdom is to apply to a few reaches, a few targets, and a few safeties. The CW is not to apply to eight reaches and to three or four of the others -- but the CW is not for everyone. Among families I worked with this past year, two students, both children of recent immigrants, took Kwasi's approach and applied to twenty or so schools each, most of them reaches. When I suggested a more targeted approach -- pick a few reaches you really want to go to -- the parents gave me identical answers: If my kid applies to all these top schools, she might get into one. According to news report, that was Kwasi's thinking too.

It's been fascinating -- and sometimes disturbing -- to see how Kwasi Enin's story has unfolded publicly. In our celebrity driven culture, he's smack in the middle of his first 15 minutes of fame. And in our culture of endless opinions and an infinite number of places in which to express them, we have collectively revealed quite a lot. The good, bad, and the ugly.

Kwasi's story took an unexpected turn two days ago when the New York Post got hold of one of the drafts of his Common Application essay -- labeled Draft#4. I suspect he did not provide it to the paper, and it seems to me a sleazy, invasive move, more typical of the NY Post than, say, New York Times.

Again, much has been said about the essay itself -- alongside the Kwasi phenomenon. Most commenters -- even Beyonce has weighted in -- are congratulatory. Some call him "brilliant." Many talk about their own kids -- that they got higher SATs and have just as many extra curricular activities, and they were turned down at all these schools. Some attribute the school sweep to race and some to Kwasi's child-of-immigrant status. And some news reports slant the story so that it looks as though it was the essay that "got him in" to all these schools. These are three recent reader comments from an article in the Wall Street Journal:

1. We don't want a land of white bread.

2. 50 kids from my high school with better SAT's scores and overall records
were rejected from all of the Ivy League schools. 7+AP exams with 4 or 5, sports, academics, etc.

3. In a fantasy world there is no racism, but this is the USA and there is in fact much latent and outright racism. Doubt that? Just read some of these posts. And if some white kid gets rejected at the expense of some kid of color, I say fine. Minorities have long suffered exactly the same treatment far longer and when whites get a taste of their own medicine they cry and whine that it's horrible.

The admissions process is not a transparent one. Admissions officers frequently offer advice to applicants about what the school is looking for, but a true behind-the-scenes look is unheard of -- though the Washington Post was recently given access to George Washington University's Admissions office in full swing in an article well worth reading.

Beyond what we can learn from the the Washington Post piece, it's not a secret that those who decide who gets into Ivy League schools are not just looking at grades and SATs. There are far too many students with perfect grades and perfect scores to choose from -- and many other considerations, including legacy students, athletic recruits, children of those who have donated large sums of money, students who do not need financial aid (international applicants among them), the need to balance geography and student interests (you don't want a school that's all economics majors and all violin players), and an increasing interest in making college classes look like more the world we live in. Brown University announced this year that 18 percent of the students it accepted are first generation college students.

There are simply not enough places at these few schools for all the students with perfect grades and perfect scores. Which brings me to Kwasi's essay, what it reveals about him, and what it reveals about what top schools seem to be looking for.

It is necessary to have good grades and high SATs for admission, and often a lot of AP courses, and extra curricular activities in abundance -- but in 2014, it is no longer sufficient for these schools. But you might be asking, what else is there that a high school student has to show? How about these? Intellectual curiosity. The ability -- the hunger -- to translate the lessons of one subject to other subjects. A craving for knowledge.

Intellectual curiosity -- a phrase I rarely hear from anyone these days -- is different from "academic achievement." I don't think it's a quality you can fake. And based on Kwasi Enin's essay, he has it in abundance.

The second paragraph of his draft essay says a great deal:

Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity. I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music. There are millions of combinations of key signatures, chords, melodies, and rhythms in the world of music that wait to become attached to a sheet of staff lies and spaces. As I began to explore a minute fraction of these combinations from the third grade onwards, my mind began to formulate roundabout methods to solve any mathematical problem, address any literature prompt, and discover any exit in an undesirable situation. In middle school, my mind also started to become adept in the language of music. Playing the works of different composes, such as Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch and Coriolan Overture by Ludwig Van Beethoven, expands my diverse musical vocabulary, my breadth of techniques and my ability to practice in order to succeed in solo performances.

The essay goes on to say a great deal more about Kwasi's world, his sense of community, and his zest for life, music, and friendship, but to me, this paragraph is the essence of what makes him stand out. I suspect that even if his SAT scores were somewhat lower and he had taken fewer AP courses, he might still have gained admission to some or all of these eight schools.

I fear that Kwasi Enin's example -- apply to all eight Ivies and hope for the best -- might become the new normal for many students. I fear that the real lessons he offers us, that the most competitive schools seem to be looking for students with wellsprings of intellectual curiosity and creativity, not just academic achievement, will be lost in the madness of fall applications.

And there is this lesson too, that also gets lost in Ivy Madness: There are many more fine -- even outstanding -- colleges and universities than the eight Ivies. Look widely, look smartly, and search for the schools where your passions and your achievements will be recognized and challenged.

Elizabeth Benedict's Don't Sweat the Essay helps students develop their application essays and college choices. She is a bestselling novelist, editor, former Ivy League writing professor, and writing coach.

College Admissions: All Over But the Waiting

Linda Flanagan   |   April 3, 2014    4:28 PM ET

The emotional phases of college admissions, not unlike Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, come in a predictable pattern: excitement, depression/anxiety, anger, disillusionment, and relief. "Closure" occurs for most of us when the deposit check is in the mail, and all the flotsam from the ordeal has been tossed -- with any luck, by mid-April.

But for many families, the "process" didn't end when the decisions came out last week. In my town, and in hundreds of other similarly ambitious communities around the country, thousands of kids found themselves neither accepted nor rejected, but placed on a wait list.

Being put on the wait list is not unlike being told by your prom-date hopeful, "I think you're great, and if Sally tells me no, you're it!" To be wait listed is to be second string, the understudy, a B-list invite. The one they really want, with better qualifications, more merit, and just the right blend of academic achievements, personal charm, and selfless service to community -- well, if that person can't make it, we'll settle for you!

Why is this happening? "We have such big wait lists because the system is so unstable," Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT and now a private college consultant, told me. Thanks to the ease of the Common App, kids now apply, on average, to 12 colleges or universities, she said. And colleges welcome the high volume: the $75 application fee, when multiplied times thousands of applicants, brings real money to colleges, especially those without substantial endowments. More important, the number of applications is the denominator in most U.S. News & World Report measurements, and the higher the number the more selective a college appears.

But admissions officers operate in a vacuum: they don't know where else each student is applying. It has gotten very hard to know among all of these applicants who is the right match, and who among the admitted will actually enroll, making it tougher to predict yield -- the term of choice to describe the percentage of accepted kids who actually enroll in a college. In the perfect world of an admissions officer, the number of students who enroll will equal the number of available slots. "There's the hope that everyone will come to my party if they're invited," Jones said. Of course, not even Harvard has a 100 percent yield, so all colleges admit more kids than they have room for. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for instance, where the reported yield for 2012 was 20 percent, admissions officers would likely have admitted five times the number of students they could accommodate. But if more students decline than the admissions office has estimated, the admissions staff will have to pick someone off the wait list.

And who is put on the wait list? Admissions offices will wait list a kid as a courtesy to a legacy. Or they'll offer it to a promising student whose calculus grade, say, has suddenly dropped; being wait listed will give her a chance to bring it back up. Alternatively, perhaps the number one student at a high school the college wants to cultivate isn't quite qualified. Putting him on the wait list sends a message to the school that it should encourage other candidates to apply next year. In short, admissions officers think of wait listed students as admitted, pending space. Waitlisted students, on the other hand, consider it a soft rejection, or just plain torture.

The wait list is one more manifestation of the arms race inherent in college admissions. Colleges invite more applications than they can reasonably evaluate. At the most selective colleges, each officer evaluates 40-60 applications a day, Jones said. Many students suffer through years of preparation, send out a dozen or more apps to secure their futures, and end up feeling crushed. It doesn't help that some kids use the college process to massage their egos. Even after being admitted to their first choice school via non-binding early action, some kids don't withdraw their applications to their less-desired colleges. The joy that comes from receiving another fat "you're accepted" envelope outweighs the empathy one might have for the less-distinguished classmate who would be thrilled to be admitted to another's safety school. And parents, whether status obsessed or sympathetic to the sacrifices and desires of their offspring, resort to more absurd measures to help their kids' chances. One friend eager to optimize her tenth grader's college options admitted -- in jest, I think -- "We're looking into competitive ping pong."

Not unlike the flight reservation system, the process has grown so screwy and complex that many colleges hire specialized consultants to help them manage it. Maguire Associates, Noel-Levitz, and Ellucian are a few of the private companies that top colleges pay to help them recruit and retain students. Ellucian, a vaguely pharmaceutical-sounding company based in Fairfax, Virginia, boasts of helping more than 2,400 institutions of higher ed "move education forward." One particular service they provide is what's called "Banner Recruiting and Admissions Performance... a tightly integrated package of scorecards, dashboards, reports, and analytic capabilities that provides admissions and enrollment managers, institutional researchers, and executives with the information they need to track progress toward your institution's enrollment goals." And remember, kids, it's all about finding the right fit.

To be clear: it's not for the kids that colleges bulk up their wait lists. It's to safeguard their standing in a magazine, which in turn protects the bottom line. Though none of this should come as a surprise, it's still mildly disorienting to consider the extent to which college admissions has devolved into a giant competition among our very best schools to move up a list. University administrators argue that a higher rank attracts better professors, more talented students, and more donated money, and anyway, what can they do? But when the rankings come out over the summer, the same college officials who condemn what U.S. News has done to higher education "wave it around like a bride's garter belt if their school gets a favorable review," writes Andrew Ferguson in Crazy U, his scathing takedown of the college process.

"Let's stop this," Jones told me. To restore sanity to the process, she suggests that the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a collection of top private colleges, decide collectively to disregard the U.S. News rankings. She also wants colleges to tell the truth about what they're looking for in applicants, so that kids who don't fit the culture or who lack the necessary credentials won't apply. Taken together, these steps would likely reduce the number of applications, which would allow colleges to spend more time actually evaluating the candidates. With fewer applicants to review, admissions offices could begin to modify the application, so that students would have more authentic opportunities to express themselves. "Everybody has to start together," Jones said. "This is the education of the human species. There's nothing more important than this."

What Makes a Great College Essay

Jeannie Borin   |   February 21, 2014   10:58 AM ET

A great college essay is more than a good story. Students should ask themselves some
questions before writing and while proofreading any rough drafts.

Which character attributes should shine through?
Ability to work with others? Adaptability? Independence? Maturity?
All of these work -- it's okay also to be less than perfect as we all are just that.

What topics give the student something good to write about?
Work or volunteer experiences? Academic achievement? Overseas travel? Family life? These are good but too general -- isolate an event or one experience. Don't repeat what is evident elsewhere on the application

What happens to those applicants who don't seem to have the experiences to draw from? Writing about small daily occurrences can produce excellent essays.

Here are tips for writing an excellent college admissions essay:

1) Make yourself shine within your own story: It's important that you don't repeat what has already been stated on your activity resume, but you should highlight your accomplishments in your essay -- weave them into your story. Reveal your personality and perhaps your future goals in your writing.

2) Be humble but don't be modest: Don't underestimate yourself in any way and be proud and secure in who you are. Sincerely describe your most impressive accomplishments but don't overdo it.

3) Be confident in your statements: It's important to write as though you deserve gaining acceptance. Present yourself as unique with specific skills and passion.

4) Use personal stories: You really own your essay in this way and no one else can tell your story; this is what makes you unique.

5) Write descriptively: Engage the reader and be specific about your experience. If writing a memorable story about a ride in the car and what you saw, have that reader sitting there with you. A good story is priceless and you will catch attention in this way. Use powerful imagery and personal anecdotes whenever you can. Leave readers with a lasting impression and it will serve you well come decision time!

DOS & DON'TS in college essay writing:


  • Use personal detail: show, don't tell.
  • Be concise.
  • Vary sentence structure and use transitions.
  • Use active voice verbs.
  • Answer the question and follow directions.
  • Seek a few opinions.
  • Stay focused as you have a limited word count.
  • Revise, revise, revise and proofread.


  • Write chronologically -- it can be boring.
  • Thesaurus-ize: don't write what you think admission officers want to hear or use language that is not your own.
  • State a point of view without backing it up with details and examples.
  • Repeat what is listed on your activity resume.
  • Use slang.

Your character is the hardest thing for admission officers to measure. The essay is your chance to reveal who you are -- your passions, values, authenticity and sincerity. Be yourself!

Visit us:

Like us:

  |   December 29, 2013   12:13 PM ET

By Winnie Ma

Chances are college decisions are to blame for all of your anxiety right now. After all, it probably feels like your entire life up to this moment has lead you to this decision, and the rest of your life will be determined by it. There's the pressure to pick the right school and have your entire future figured out. Then there's the idea that your entire world is going to crumble to pieces if you don't make the right choice.

Take a breather, for one. Sure, choosing a college is most likely the biggest decision that you've ever had to make so far. But trust us when we say that it isn't the biggest decision of your life. Check out these five reasons why you'll be content wherever you decide to go to college!

1. College decisions impact the immediate future, but not necessarily the long-term future.

It’s easy to think that your college decision will entirely determine the course of the rest of your life. However, Judi Robinovitz, certified educational planner and founder of Score At The Top learning centers and schools, believes that this isn’t necessarily the case. "I would say... that the decision of which college to attend is a milestone decision, and the biggest one a senior would have made so far in her short life," Robinovitz says. "However, it’s a decision that impacts the immediate future, not necessarily the long-term future."

Although it's important to make your college decisions wisely, choosing the right college is just a first step. Sure, your college is going to determine how your next four years are going to pan out, who you'll become friends with, who you'll network with, what skills you'll gain and which internships you'll get. But in the long run, college is just the tip of the iceberg: imagine the many more lifelong friends and acquaintances you'll meet, the career that you'll choose and the job decisions that you'll make in your life.

"Choosing a major is probably a much bigger decision as that will determine [students'] future careers," Robinovitz says. "Choosing an internship or job is also a bigger decision as it has not only financial implications, but has the potential to impact many years of work experience and all the skills the student will gain in her career to impact the non-career aspects of her life, such as her social life, self-esteem, social consciousness, etc."

The college that you attend will influence these experiences, but they won't define them. College just lays down the foundation for many more decisions you'll be making in the future.

2. No matter where you go, you'll be able to gain real-world experience.

There will be plenty of resources at any school that will prepare you for life after college and help you make even bigger decisions, like which career path to take. According to Reyna Gobel, a student loan expert and author of CliffsNotes Graduation Debt: How to Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life, students can reach career goals no matter which colleges they attend.

"The biggest and smartest decision a high school student really makes is to put full effort into career exploration," Gobel says. "Whatever school they choose, they need to be in touch with career services and always think about internships. Getting some real-world experience and cementing career goals isn't just important, it's vital."

At most colleges, career centers offer opportunities for students to participate in mock interviews, network with alumni, meet with potential employers, attend resume-building workshops, learn about potential careers and jobs and engage in other activities that prepare them for their dive into the real world, no matter where their starting points are.

3. There are academic and social opportunities at every college.

Every school has its own unique student body and opportunities. No matter which college you end up at, you'll have the chance to explore so many new choices and find your own niche on campus.

"There isn't a school in the world without opportunities," Gobel says. "I would be a different person if I decided to go to the prestigious school I originally planned on attending. It ended up that at the schools I chose, my ambition and experience stood out. I had professors that mentored me."

Click here to read the rest of the article on

Briana Boyington   |   December 25, 2013    8:00 PM ET

This article comes to us courtesy of U.S. News & World Report, where it was originally published.

Many students who tried to apply to colleges early this fall hit a snag with The Common Application. Major technical glitches tied to the rollout of the platform's latest edition in August, used by more than 500 universities, were widely reported. But the larger problems that plagued the system – and caused many schools to push back early application deadlines – have been fixed, officials say.

Despite the improvements, experts say that students may still run into some technical issues. High school counselors, college admissions officials and representatives from The Common Application – the nonprofit organization behind the application system – encourage students to remain calm and take the following advice if they have trouble completing or submitting college applications.

1. Start applications early: If problems arise, students will have time to make sure their applications are submitted correctly.

When Raj K. Rana noticed that the paragraph formatting on his personal essay and the additional information section of the Common App wasn't saving properly, he tried to insert spaces manually, he told U.S. News on Facebook. When that didn't work, he submitted his application and hoped for the best.

"I am worried that college officials might fall asleep just by looking at my essays' format," Rana wrote.

Rana said that he's concerned about the outcome of his applications, but didn't reach out for tech support because he was a few days from deadline.

"The single most important piece of advice that any of us can give to a student right now is for them to be working and ideally submitting their application before their high school and before colleges close for the holidays," says Kelly A. Walter, associate vice president and executive director of admissions at Boston University.

Students should also avoid submitting applications on popular deadlines like Jan. 1 and 15. The large volume of applicants then can increase wait time for students who need assistance from the Common Application support team, high schools and colleges, experts warn.

[Avoid these 10 common college application mistakes.]

"Given what we have seen this year, the likelihood of problems, of submissions delays, of complications with fee payments are most likely to happen in those last few hours prior to a deadline date," Walter says.

2. Submit detailed requests for help: Experts recommend students go to the applicant help center on the Common Application website to search the FAQs and submit a help ticket before they reach out to colleges and universities for assistance.

Scott Anderson, senior director for policy of The Common Application, says students should log in to their accounts and submit tickets that thoroughly explain their problem from the same computer that was used to complete their applications, as this will help techs solve problems more quickly.

"The more information that they can provide at the outset the more quickly we can assist them," Anderson says.

[Learn how to manage the application process.]

3. Reach out to high school counselors and college admissions offices: Jim Montague, program director for guidance and support services at the Boston Latin School, advises students to talk to their high school counselor in person as soon as they run into problems.

"It makes it easier for us and more efficient if they come by our office. They can open up The Common Application with us and show us exactly what the problem is," Montague says.

Students with concerns about their application after they have submitted a ticket should also reach out to their universities, college admissions officials say.

College officials can outline any additional steps students can take and make note of any complications on the student's file, but students may need to reach out to multiple schools about the correct process.

"That answer may be different from one college to the next. What's right and what works for Ithaca College may not be what another institution wants them to do," says Gerard Turbide, director of admissions for the school.

4. Review, submit and verify: The Common App's Anderson says that it's important for students to make sure they've completed the entire submission process. Students should review their applications, pay any fees, sign an affirmation and hit "submit." After doing so, Anderson recommends they go back into the application's dashboard to make sure that all materials were submitted correctly.

Students should also receive an automated message from the Common App, and colleges typically email students to acknowledge a submission. College admission officials say it's important for students to contact schools immediately if they don't receive a notice.

[Get more tips on applying to college.]

Walter, of Boston University, also advises students to check the websites of any colleges where they've applied for any updates about deadline extensions.

Meanwhile, The Common Application is still at work to resolve any lingering problems.

"We want to help you, we want to give you the assistance that you need and answer the questions that you have," the Common App's Anderson says.

"We really need you to go to the help center to do it."

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

Briana Boyington is an education Web producer at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at

Hearing Back From Colleges Soon? Read With Caution

Patrick O'Connor   |   December 11, 2013   11:47 AM ET

High school seniors across the country are keeping a close eye on their inboxes and mailboxes, as dozens of colleges prepare to send out admissions decisions this week. Many of these applications were submitted as early decision agreements, where the student agrees to attend the college, if they are admitted now.

This kind of commitment is only made by students who really love that one special school, so it's easy to understand why it's hard to wait -- and it's even easier to understand why these students might not read their entire decision letter once they find out they haven't been admitted. That would be a mistake for any number of reasons, especially this year -- so if you get a "No" or "Maybe" from a college in the next couple of weeks, make sure to take these important steps:

Don't worry if your friends hear first. This has been an unusual year to apply to college, largely due to the technological challenges that came with a new version of the Common Application. Some colleges reported having trouble downloading student information from the new Common App, and that has put some of them behind in reading applications. The end result is that some students who applied early may hear back sooner that applicants whose information was held up by a computer.

Since these delays have nothing to do with test scores or grades, it isn't wise to assume the students who hear first will be admitted, and the students who hear later will be denied. It's more likely than ever this year's decisions will come out in a random fashion -- so hang in there.

If you're admitted Early Decision, you have work to do. A yes from an Early Decision school is a pretty amazing high, and that's very understandable. At the same time, you need to keep reading your admission letter to find out:

• When your financial aid award will be mailed to you
• If you have to let them know you're coming or submit a deposit

Once that's done, you have to contact every other college you've applied to and ask them to withdraw your application. You promised you would do this when you applied Early Decision, so you don't get to "see what happens" with your other applications -- you know where you're going to college, so it's time to honor your commitment.

If the answer isn't yes, find out why. With all of the technological challenges facing colleges and college applicants this year, there's a better chance the college may be writing to say they can't give you an answer because they're missing a part of your application. This won't be the first time they've tried to contact you about this, but if you didn't read their emails or didn't send in the missing material, they can't admit you. If your application is incomplete, contact the college immediately, find out what's missing, and send in the final pieces so you can be reviewed as a regular applicant.

Deferred? Find out what to do next. Colleges will defer a decision if they like what they see, but want to know just a little bit more about you. This is usually a request for your latest grades or test scores -- but the letter will tell you what more they'd like to know. Read closely, send the extra material -- and if you can, send along a note expressing your continued interest in the college. If they tell you not to send anything "extra", give them only what they ask for; in this case, colleges don't award students for creative interpretation.

Sticky, Not-So-Easy Final Questions About the Common App

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz   |   November 11, 2013    9:47 AM ET

If you have read my last two blogs that feature FAQ's about the Common Application, OR if you have gone through the experience of completing an app, I can imagine you have "had it" with this topic. (Me too!) So without further ado, here we go with (hopefully) the last round of Common App FAQ's, based on recent, actual student/parent questions. As always, my goal is to make life just a little easier for you by identifying and/or explaining what to do and when, as you go through the college admissions process.

1. When I cut, paste and then save an essay into any of the essay question spaces, the result is chaos: no paragraph breaks, sentences broken up right in the middle, huge spaces at the top and sometimes in the middle of the essay. I have spent hours trying to get the formatting to come out right; but each time I save an essay, it's all over the place. Help!

From everything I hear and read about essay formatting, I don't think there is anything you can do about this. In The Common Application Daily Update (October 30, 2013), the following appeared:

"We have informed all member colleges that errors in the text-to-PDF conversion process have the potential to produce essays that contain unusual formatting, including inconsistent fonts and errant paragraph breaks. We have assured colleges that students have no control over this formatting and that these types of errors are our fault, not the students'. We have heard confirmation from many colleges that they will not in any way penalize students for a technical problem that is out of their control."

As I said above, it appears that there is no solution. So sorry, it is what it is. BUT, be sure that your essays conform to the word/character limits. Regardless of the formatting issues, essays will get cut off (right in the middle of words!) if they exceed stated limits. See my HuffPost blog, "The Top 6 Questions Students (and Everyone Else) Are Asking about the New Common Application," for what some of those limits are.

2. I understand that I can change my answers and essays on the Common App after I submit it? Is that correct?

When I sent a question ticket to the Common App Help Center about the issue, this is what they said:

"Applicants may edit the Common App after they submit to one college and before submitting to additional colleges to correct errors or update information. There is no limit to application versions. You can make unlimited edits to the application, including the Additional Information section, but not to the Personal Statement essay. The Personal Statement can have a maximum of three submitted versions."

3. I have been trying to find a place on the Common App to submit my resume. Where is it?

According to the Common App people, "...resumes may be submitted to colleges that want them and may not be submitted to colleges that don't want them. For colleges that accept them, a student can upload their resume in that college's Writing Supplement section. Unlike previous Common Applications, the Common App Additional Information section may not be used for resume submissions."

4. I just can't figure out how to actually submit my application. Will you write out the steps I can follow to help me do that?

Here are the steps for Application Submission:

A. The Dashboard on the Common Application will indicate whether you are ready or not to submit. Yellow dots indicate what has not been submitted. They will turn green upon submission of the Application and Writing Supplement.

  • Go to the Dashboard page that contains your list of colleges.
  • Click on the college to which you are applying and on the left hand side it will show whether

√ All sections of the Common App are completed, noted by ready

√ All of the College Member Questions are completed, noted by ready

√ The Assign Recommenders is completed, noted by ready

  • "Ready" status for all three means that your application can be submitted. Click on the Submit button.
  • Once again, a yellow dot will indicate if something is missing. Click on that heading to go to the section and complete it.

B. Once the Common App is submitted, then move onto the writing supplement and submit it.

  • Go to the 'My Colleges' tab. Click on one college (e.g, Stanford University) and select "Submission-Common App."
  • The first step is print preview. The print preview PDF is generated automatically once you click the "Start Submission button. If you are satisfied with the preview, then click "continue" at the bottom of the page. The only way to preview is through the submission menu. If you are not satisfied with your PDF preview, click the "X" in the top right corner to close the preview and abandon the submission.
  • Be sure to print a copy of the PDF preview.
  • Next, you will be routed to the payment page for the college you selected. Complete that page and copy down the payment tracing number you are provided. You will be able to see if the payment has been posted by following the steps of submission again. If you see the "paid" fee message after the PDF preview, you can then proceed to the signature page. (Warning! If you are prompted to pay again, stop. Don't pay again!) Most payments are posted immediately; others take 24 to 48 hours.
  • If your payment has not been posted to the application after 48 hours, let the Common App Help Center people know and provide them your payment tracing number and the name of the school to which you made the payment.
  • Once the payment is completed, you will sign, date and hit the final Submit. Note: The application will not be submitted until you complete this part.

C. You should receive a submission confirmation email within 24 hours.
Once you submit your application and you see the green check on the dashboard, the school will have access to your application and is able to view

5. Is there one place on the Common App where I can find early and regular application deadlines, application fees and which test scores colleges require?

The Common Application offers users a very helpful grid that identifies all of the information you ask for and then some. Go to the Home Page, scroll to the top where you will find three tabs: About Us, Member Colleges, and Media Inquiries. Click on Member Colleges and then click again on the pull-down tab, Application Requirements. Voila! A pdf will come up that says 2013-2014 College Deadlines, Fee, and Requirements.

The following is what you will find: (I have also provided the definitions of various notations used in the grid.):

A-Z, contains the names of the 500+ public and private colleges that use the Common App.

As the App Requirement Notes say, all of the colleges are co-educational, unless under the Type column it says:
W = Women only
M = Men only
C = Two coordinating single-sex colleges geographically adjacent to one another that share resources.

The grid gives deadline dates for ED (Early Decision), EDII (Early Decision II), EA (Early Action), EAII (Early Action II), REA (Restrictive Early Action), RD (Regular Decision), and Rolling. For explanations of these different ways of applying, go to the Early Applications section of my website.

As noted in a previous blog, there is no charge for the Common Application, itself, but some colleges charge differently for US and international students.
US = United States student, citizen or resident
INTL = International student

ART = Art Supplement
SR = SlideRoom, a website/program that allows individuals to submit their arts materials
COL = colleges that offer then own Art Supplement.
Writing = Many Common Application colleges ask students to answer their own essay questions in the section called Writing Supplement. In order to get into a college's Writing Supplement, applicants must first complete all of the college specific questions that appear in the Common Application.

The choices include
SAT w/Writng or ACT w/Writing (w = with Writing)
SAT w/o Writing or ACT w/o Writing (w/o = without Writing)
SAT w/Writing or ACT w/Writing, 2 SAT Subject Tests
SAT w/o Writing and 2 SAT Subject Test or ACT w/o Writing
"See website" = Means that the Common App finds a school's test policy too complex to be described on its grid and you should check the individual website

A = Tests Always Required
F = Test Flexible (Means that a variety of factors might be looked at by a college, including test scores. Check the college's website to see exactly what they are.)
N = Tests Never Used
S = Tests Sometimes Required

If a student is an international student and English is not his/her first or primary language, a college may require one of the following language proficiency tests.
I = IELTS = International English Language Testing System (managed by Cambridge University, the British Council and the IDP Education Pvt. Ltd
T = TOEFL = Test of English as a Foreign Language (offered by Educational Testing Service, ETS)
PTE = Pearson Test of English

Oddly enough, the grid does not offer a space for a counselor. That is taken care of by the Recommender section in each of the college sections of the Common App. However, in the notes section, Common App says, "For those counselors submitting recommendations online...all institutions now require the School Report and Final Report."
TE = Teacher Evaluations (number of teacher evaluations required: 1 or 2)
OE = Other Evaluations (indicates that a school accepts recommendations from people other than teacher, mentors, ministers, art teachers, clergy, family members, peers, work supervisors, coaches, etc.)
MR = Mid Year Report required

Indicates whether the colleges saves recommendations once a student has matriculated into a college.
Y = Yes

Just so you know, as of the 10/23/13 update of the grid, not all of the early deadlines had been brought up to date.

Unless I hear from readers that they want more, with this submission I am retiring from my self-assigned role of writing about The Common Application. Do feel free to submit comments with your questions should you still have issues or problems with the Common App. I truly wish you all well.

(Much of the above information has been excerpted from The Common Application Help Center, Application Requirements Notes, Daily Update, and Common App Facebook.)