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5 Traps for Parents to Avoid During College-Essay Season

Douglas Danoff   |   August 18, 2015   12:55 PM ET


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In seven years as a professional application-essay coach, I've come across countless parents who, while genuinely wanting the best for their sons and daughters, hit one pitfall after another around the all-important college-application essays. And parental missteps this time of year can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection by their children's dream schools on Decision Day. To move smoothly through this tricky territory, become familiar with the 5 biggest traps for parents to sidestep during college-essay season:

  1. Counsel your daughter on her application essays. You want to help. SO much! It's completely understandable, especially with stakes this high. You may have an incredibly close relationship with your daughter. You may even work in a profession -- say, psychology or journalism -- that enables you to offer great advice on how to tackle this task. And yet, even under those circumstances, you're just about the last person who should help her with the personal statement and supplementary essays. You're simply too close and too heavily invested to be an effective sounding board or guide. Plus, you may not be aware of it at first, but your involvement in this particularly delicate area risks a subtle yet sizable buildup of pressure and resentment. Pitfall prevention: Take a step back, and you'll not only give your daughter a tremendous sense of empowerment but also avoid potential strain in your relationship with her.
  2. Urge your son to spend most of his college-prep time on training for standardized tests. You're absolutely right that test scores, grades, and extracurriculars are significant pieces of any candidate's total application package. But the single biggest game changer for your son will be the essays. Period. His personal statement and supplementary essays are the most effective way for him to stand out from the crowd -- to highlight his best stories, forge a powerful emotional bond with the admissions committees, and move the needle in his favor. Pitfall prevention: Have a conversation with your son -- preferably early in the college-prep process and definitely in a relaxed tone -- to ensure he appreciates the role the application essays play in determining admissions decisions. This way, he can apportion his efforts appropriately.
  3. Believe that the whole point of the application essays is to get your daughter into her favorite schools. Your daughter's application essays, if excellent, will certainly be her greatest ticket to admissions success. And yet the essays offer the potential to be so much more than that! The essay-writing process presents a singular opportunity for your daughter to engage in self-exploration and discovery -- to clarify her passions, ideas, and core values at this extraordinary moment of transition. Pitfall prevention: Cultivate an expansive view of the application essays' benefits. Results on Decision Day
    of course matter enormously, but keep sight of how invaluable the essay-writing process itself is for your daughter. This exercise in self-exploration will make her more mature and far better equipped to maximize her opportunities in college.
  4. Encourage your son to spend a lot of time on the personal statement and virtually no time on the supplementary essays. You understand how crucial the personal statement is for your son's admissions prospects. And yet the supplementary essays (written responses to most individual colleges' additional prompts) are just as important! Admissions committees hate coming across an application with a good personal statement and sloppy supplementary essays (or worse -- essays written in answer to other colleges' similar questions). They're looking for consistency and attention to detail. Pitfall prevention: In the same conversation as in #2 (the only pass you get in offering even limited advice!), inspire your son to invest as much energy in thoughtfully writing the supplementary essays -- and even the short answers to prompts about, say, notable activities or impactful books -- as he does in crafting his personal statement.
  5. Enlist help from your daughter's English teacher or your cousin-the-writer. You may recognize that your daughter could use a hand with her application essays. Everything from brainstorming and identifying good ideas, to developing and drafting well-structured text, to paring essays down to fit the word limits can be extremely challenging, even for the most talented teenage writers. Recruiting assistance for your daughter is a wise intention, and finding the right person is essential. Pitfall prevention: Choose someone who's neither a relative nor a teacher but encompasses the qualities of both. You're looking for somebody who's curious, compassionate, literary, wise, and attentive -- and can create a safe, nurturing space for your daughter to explore her ideas. Consider seeking out a professional coach to shepherd your daughter across this tough terrain of finding not only her best stories but also her best words to convey them.

You're not alone in feeling like you're walking through a treacherous jungle this time of year. When it comes to the college-application essays, many parents believe they're stepping forward onto firm ground, only to discover that they've landed themselves -- and their son or daughter -- in quicksand. But with the above roadmap and a clearer sense of boundaries, you can successfully navigate your way around this season's hazards.

[To read the companion piece, which addresses high-school seniors, click here.]

Alexandra Ma   |   August 10, 2015    2:56 PM ET

Applying to college isn't easy, or cheap. Across the world, more and more students are hiring private college counselors who can guide them through the admissions process -- for absurdly high prices. Hiring one in the U.S. costs an average of $4,035, per a 2012 report. Across the Pacific Ocean, a Chinese student's family could pay as much as $60,000 for college counseling services.

AdmitSee, a social network that launched in August 2013, wants to make applying to college a little less stressful and more affordable for prospective students. The site charges college and graduate school hopefuls a moderate fee to view application tips and essays by students recently accepted at universities across the U.S, and it pays a small sum to those who upload documents for people to examine. But AdmitSee is not without its critics, who fear it could stifle creativity and individuality by encouraging students to cherrypick or even copy successful essays.  

AdmitSee offers five pricing plans -- from $25 per month to see unlimited successful application files to any one college, all the way to $150 per month to see files from any 20 colleges. Alternatively, people can pay a one-time fee of $75 to read 10 application files to any school. 

AdmitSee users can view documents uploaded by accepted students. They can also search for application files with a keyword search or advanced filters, as can be seen in the left sidebar. 

Users can make $10 if they offer successful application materials for viewing. These profiles must include, among other things, the name of the institution that accepted the student, the graduation year, home state and major, as well as at least one full-length admission essay and answers to at least five questions in the site's "advice" section, such as "how I chose schools to apply to" and advice for obtaining teacher recommendation letters. These students also get small additional payments when their profile is viewed by a potential applicant, per the site's FAQ.  

(AdmitSee's marketing director Frances Wong told The Huffington Post that the site verifies student profiles, adding that none of the sensitive data needed to do this is posted on the site. In addition, students' names are kept private, and they're not required to upload their entire application form with all their personal information.)

Potential applicants can use search filters or keywords to find certain kinds of successful essays or student profiles. AdmitSee also has a separate mentorship platform, on which high schoolers can reach out directly to university students for advice. 

AdmitSee has a strict anti-plagiarism policy warning students that many universities use specialized software to detect copied admissions essays.

"We are definitely not trying to help students game the system or give them 'tricks' to get into schools," Stephanie Shyu, AdmitSee's co-founder, told HuffPost in an email. 

Some college admissions officers, however, are skeptical as to how AdmitSee makes sure students use the platform honestly.

"Applicants could be taking from one line to an entire essay," Kathryn Timlin, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University, told HuffPost. "[Admissions officers] obviously have no access to what students are using when they fill out applications, and there's no way that [they] are going to be able to fact check and compare every single essay." 

Shyu clarified, however, that AdmitSee gives admissions officers open access to the site's essay databank.

That said, Timlin expressed concern that using AdmitSee might lead to less unique essays. 

"By going on websites and using information used by another student as inspiration, it sort of homogenizes the entire application process," Timlin said. "[Students become] more worried about looking like somebody who's been 'successful' than they are looking like themselves, which is not we look for."

Ultimately, she says, the most important aspects of a college application are a student's academic record and individual personality. 

AdmitSee users can search for successful application essays by topic on the site.

Despite these concerns, AdmitSee has about 15,000 prospective students who log on to view successful profiles, and 20,000 college students who have shared their application files, Shyu noted. The site has also partnered with about 40 high schools, including several in low-income communities, to provide free access to the site, she added. 

AdmitSee is not the only online platform providing more affordable services devoted to helping students get into college: Textbook rental and online learning site Chegg in 2014 launched its own online college counseling service, for which students pay at least $30 an hour to chat with college counselors online.

Shyu, however, believes college counselors aren't always as valuable to students as "near-peers who've recently gone through the process."

"Applying to schools and deciding where to ultimately attend is a very personal, individual process that should be all about finding the best-fit school," Shyu wrote. "Our mission is to bring transparency to the admissions process and provide data insights to empower applicants to make more informed decisions."

"Especially given the way this generation of students crowdsources information and turns to peers to make decisions, a social network and marketplace platform on which students can give one another insights ... modernizes and democratizes a sorely outdated process," she added.

This post has been updated to include additional info from AdmitSee regarding admissions officers' access to the network.


Alexandra Ma covers tech and world news, and is based in New York. You can contact her at or on Twitter: @Alexandra__Ma.


Wazzup! 12+ Things You Should Know About the New Common Application 2015-16

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz   |   August 5, 2015    8:01 AM ET

Ahhhh. The first days of August! You're probably thinking sunshine, swimming pool (ocean or lake if you're lucky enough to live near the water), going on vacation with the family, and/or getting together with friends at the mall. Except...if you are a rising high school senior--or parent of one--you're probably thinking about (drum rollllllll) THE COMMON APPLICATION! Every August 1, a brand new Common App is posted online, which is often a signal to millions of students that it's time to get serious about college admissions.

Before I go on with what's new about the Common App 2015-2016, let me remind you that these days there are three possible options for submitting a college application: 1) a college's own application (offered by many public universities such as the UC's); 2) the Common Application (application home to over 600 colleges and universities in the US, 69 new ones just this year) and 3) the Universal College Application (application home to 43 colleges and universities). A couple of colleges offer all three options, some offer two and most offer just one option.

I. A FEW HOUSEKEEPING ISSUES: First things first
Before we get started on all of the new "stuff" about the Common App, let's go over some things you need to know and do to take the best advantage of the application.

A. System Requirements to Use the Common App
Over the years, I have found that some applicants had difficulty with the Common App because their operating systems and browsers were not brought up to date. Here is what the Common App folks say about what to have on your computer:

Operating systems (e.g. OS X/Tiger and Windows XP) and browsers (e.g., Google Chrome, Safari, etc.):

Operating System: OS X Tiger/Leopard/Snow Leopard
Browser: Current version of Chrome or Firefox
Safari 8 or higher

Operating System: Windows XP/Vista 7
Browser: Current version of Chrome or Firefox
Internet Explorer 10 or higher

Correct browser settings:
Javascript and Cookies enabled
Popup blocker disabled

Software needed:
Adobe Reader 10 or higher

Make sure to add to your email contact list so that you can received important messages from Common App administrators

After checking your operating systems and browser, the next thing you need to do is create a Common App account.

All that takes is your email address and a password. The password must have between 8 and 16 characters, at least one upper case letter, at least one lower case letter, one number and one of the following characters: !@#$%^& or *

Be good to yourself and come up with a password that is easy to remember, e.g., "mydogFreddy!" Don't forget to write down your password and store it someplace where you can gain quick access. You're going to be using it a lot.

One of the most useful Common App resources is their yearly list of ordinarily hard-to-find, up-to-date information about member colleges including a) whether a college is coed, women only or men only, b) early application deadlines, c) US and international student fees, d) whether the Common App essay and individual college supplement college essays are required, e) what Common App or college portfolios are accepted, f) test policies for US and international students, and g) what recommendations and reports are required.

To gain access to this extremely useful document, go to the College Search tab and then click on the Application Requirements box at the top, right hand side of the Criteria page.

1. The Common Application is divided into four major tabs: Dashboard, My Colleges, Common App and College Search

Dashboard lists all of an applicant's colleges and the status of the work that has been completed for each.

My Colleges notes the colleges that applicants have identified they will be applying to, a link to individual a college's email address and website, as well as contact information, application deadlines, application fees, test policy and recommendations required.

The Common App is the heart of the website and offers all of the informational questions students are asked to provide in these sections:

  • Profile
  • Family
  • Education
  • Testing
  • Activities
  • Writing

College Search is the mechanism by which the Common Application provides students to identify colleges that interest them and add to their list.

The Common App people have made some useful changes to their application essay section. Here are the five essay questions:


Personal Essay Prompts In the Common Application section, left column, Writing tab, applicants can choose one of the following five essays about which to write their personal essay in 250-650 words:

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

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

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 problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

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

New to the Writing section is that students now have Bold (B), Italic (I) and Underline (U) fonts to use in their essays.

Additional Information Essay
Like last year, applicants are invited to "Provide an answer if they wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application," using up to 650 words.

Unbelievably, individual colleges and universities can now choose to make the personal essay optional. Even if a college does that, Common App says you can still send in an essay to any school you choose.

On the other hand, know that many colleges require both the Common App Personal Essay, as well as their own supplemental essays.

Before this year, applicants were allowed to edit their personal essays up to three times after the first submission. This policy has been changed. Hallelujah! There are now no limits: you can edit the essay as many times as you want.

Even more useful to Common App users is the change made on printing pieces of the application as you finish them. Before, applicants had to go all the way through, completing each and every section of the application, and then finally print/preview as a part of the submission process. What a hassle that was. Not any more! Print at your pleasure.

By the way, the Preview button is located on each page, just to the left of the Instructions & Help Center header.

Unlike any time before, member colleges can require or not require a school counselor letter of recommendation. In fact, the Letter of Recommendation form has been removed from the School Report and a new Counselor Recommendation form created.

According to the Common Application, some of the questions on the new form include: a) the duration and context in which you have known the applicant, b) the first words that come to mind to describe the applicant, c) a broad-based assessment that addresses topics such as academic and personal characteristics, comment about an applicant's performance and involvement and/or observed problematic behaviors admissions should explore. (Common Application Knowledgebase) I think this is useful information for applicants to know about.

The School Report continues to be required, and the Counselor Recommendation form is accessible only after the Report is submitted.


  1. The maximum number of colleges you may apply to is 20.
  2. As in past Common Applications, for the five entries on the Honors Grid (located in the Education section of the Common Application) you have 100 characters with spaces.
  3. To complete the 10-entry Activities Grid, you have 50 characters with spaces to fill in the Position/Leadership description and organization name. You then have 150 characters with spaces to answer the question, "Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc."It's important to pay attention to the direction "list your principal activities in order of importance to you."
  4. The Common Application is for students applying for an undergraduate degree program as a freshman or transfer. It is not an application for graduate degrees.
  5. The Common App website provides two lists of all the colleges and universities who make use of the Common Application:

Live Common App Member Schools A-M and

Live Common App Member Schools N-Z

I hope the information in this blog helps you complete the Common Application confidently and as thoroughly as you can. Remember, colleges only know you from what you say to them in your application. Give them the best of what you have to offer.

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Your
College-Application Essays

Douglas Danoff   |   August 3, 2015    9:47 PM ET


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As a professional application-essay coach, I regularly encounter students with
well-intentioned but misguided strategies for their college-application essays. And how students approach this task often determines acceptance or rejection. So here are The 7 Biggest No-No's to bypass when working on your essays:

  1. Write your personal statement and all of your supplementary essays in one day. The application essays take awhile to write well, so give yourself plenty of time. Sketch out a roadmap of all the steps, from an initial brainstorming through the final editing. Then concentrate on taking just one step at a time. Pro tip: Schedule appointments into your calendar for when you'll work on your essays -- and stick to those appointments! Even if you put in only a short session on a particular day, you've successfully built momentum.
  2. Keep your phone nearby, the TV on, and social-media tabs open on your computer. As enticing as those technologies can be, you'll benefit from creating an environment that eliminates obstacles to writing your application essays. Attempt to stay fully present with your thoughts, since this project calls for focus and introspection. Pro tip: Try working on your essays first thing Saturday or Sunday morning. Those are usually quiet times, and you won't feel you're missing out on other activities.
  3. Write about what you think the admissions committees want to hear. Don't try to predict what you think the colleges want you to say in your essays. And avoid posturing, since an idealized description of yourself is unlikely to convince admissions officers. Instead, see the essay-writing process as an important and rewarding opportunity to get to the heart of what makes you unique. Pro tip: Come up with an honest assessment of who you are, imperfections and all.
  4. Try to sound like a writer. Resist any urge to assume that "writerly" voice -- you know the one! -- when you create your personal statement and supplementary essays. Pro tip: Aim to write the way you'd speak to a grandparent: no slang or inappropriate language, but still in a conversational voice, and in wording that makes your ideas easily understandable.
  5. Pack a lot of ideas into each essay. Unfortunately, strict word counts don't afford you the luxury of exploring every theme that's important to you. Essays that try to jam in as many ideas as possible end up being really disjointed. Instead, keep each essay tightly focused -- with one clear idea about yourself that the admissions officers will take away. Pro tip: Even though it's unwise to mention numerous topics in any one essay, you can envision the whole set of essays -- your personal statement and supplements -- as an opportunity to cover a range of your significant stories and thoughts.
  6. Write your essays as if they were papers for school. Writing assignments for school often deal with abstract concepts. The college-application essays are very different. They need to be about you. Your objective is to show the admissions committees which parts of your character are most fundamental. Be sure you keep your discussions anchored to particular aspects of your experiences, values, and passions. Pro tip: Even if it feels weird at first, use the word "I" at least once or twice per paragraph.
  7. Get brainstorming and writing assistance from your parents. Parents, even the smartest and most helpful, are just about the worst people to advise you on your application essays. Mom and Dad are just too emotionally involved. So it's better for everyone if you offer a polite "Thanks, but no thanks" to any offer of help from them. Pro tip: If you feel you could use a hand with your essays, look to find someone who's not a close relative or a teacher -- ideally, a person you feel comfortable with and who's wise and compassionate and recognizes a good story! Or you can turn to a professional coach for guidance on some or all of the process.

Yes, applying to college is a high-stakes game, and you want to avoid false moves. But if you breathe deeply and follow the above guidelines, writing the application essays can offer you interesting insights and your best shot at your dream school.


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Not Just the College App Essay: 'Where Else Are You Applying?'

Elizabeth Benedict   |   April 30, 2015    1:47 PM ET

Many of us feel the college app process isn't complicated or stressful enough (NOT!), so the good people at the Common Application, which creates and oversees the application you love so much (NOT!), recently announced a new question for the upcoming season that has sparked a lot of debate.

According to an article, "Inappropriate Question?" in Inside Higher Ed, "The Common Application is planning to let colleges add a question for applicants that some admissions leaders believe is unethical and will encourage more gaming of the admissions process. The question: Where else are you applying?" It's not clear yet whether all colleges will ask this on their Common App supplements and/or whether the question will be optional, and how clearly students will understand that it's optional, if it is. In other words, will the question be posed in such a way that students will feel pressure to answer it and to understand what it might reveal? As of this writing, we don't know the answers to these questions.

Todd Rinehart, Director of Admission, University of Denver, penned a response to this news that's gotten a lot of attention. It begins like this:

This may seem like a harmless question, but NACAC members have long supported the notion that students should be able to apply to colleges without being probed on the other schools they are considering. The philosophy has always been the college application process is stressful and complex enough, and we don't need to add yet another layer to the tangled web by posing a question that puts the student in an awkward position. Does the student need to strategize a response to enhance their chance for admission, or should they flat-out lie? Nothing like colleges setting the table for some good old chicanery.

The Common App folks are not saying much (well, anything) in response to these comments, and we will have to see how the issue evolves in the coming months. My suspicion, based on what's happened this year in admissions, is that the decision to let colleges question students on where they are applying is the unhappy result of students now routinely applying to dozens of colleges and universities, leaving the institutions baffled as to who might actually sign up if admitted. This year's admission season has seen unprecedented numbers of wait lists and highly qualified students rejected from safety schools and many target schools -- leaving everyone, institutions and individuals, wondering "Where the bleep do we go from here?"

The Common Application was created in the 1970s as a way to streamline college applications for students and schools, one E-Z application and you're done! Great idea, but along came the personal computer, along came the U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges, and along came the colleges' obsessive quest for low acceptance rates and high publicity and marketing of their institutions -- and we now have a perfect storm on our hands.

Should students be limited in how many colleges they can apply to? That's a money loser for a lot of important players, including the Common Application organization, the College Board and the ACT folks, which make money on every application you send in. The colleges themselves are probably ambivalent about limiting admissions, because high applicant pools push down acceptance rates and push up their desirability on the rankings game. What the colleges want, it seems, is high applicant pools but some insight as to who will say "yes" if admitted. Hence this question about where else you're applying. But once you answer that, you tip your hand that X College is not really your first choice, since you are applying to 10 schools that are much more selective in their admissions. What's a student to do?

There is no easy answer to this dilemma for students, families or institutions. The good news is that no one has to fill out any application forms for quite a few months. Between now and then, there should be plenty of insight, commentary and suggestions about how to answer the "Where else are you applying question" if it's asked, and whether you need to answer it at all. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, for those on the verge of applying -- and their families -- I offer these suggestions as the application season begins:

Widen your college search beyond standard favorites: Admissions to the most selective colleges and universities -- from Harvard to Vanderbilt, from Stanford to Duke -- is now blisteringly difficult and, it seems, getting more so. If you're considering applying to these institutions, particularly early decision, do the homework and see whether you have the numbers to make the first cut. Yes, it's true that many institutions admit a higher percentage of students early decision than regular, but that's not because standards are lower; it's because those numbers may include special cases, including recruited athletes and the children of donors and VIPS.

As you choose where to apply early, take a good hard look at the numbers and your numbers. For instance, in its description of the statistics for the Class of 2019, Vanderbilt's admissions office summarizes the stats (96 percent graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class -- and, FYI, 0 percent graduated in the bottom 50 percent) and notes that "100 percent of students admitted through Regular Decision held major leadership positions or earned significant honors in high school." If this isn't you, perhaps this isn't the institution to apply to. Yes, admissions is holistic, and not everyone needs to be a superstar, but if you're applying to the most selective schools, see whether you have the numbers that the vast majority of admitted applicants have -- unless you have some other "hook" that might get you through the door.

Find safety schools you want to attend: Now more than ever, find safety schools that you like, not just that you'll tolerate if necessary. I worked with one student this past year who came to me with a list of 15 top schools and no apparent safety schools. It wasn't until I pressed him that he applied to a state university where he had the numbers to get in. Results: He was admitted to one of the lower rung top universities, admitted to the state university, and rejected or wait listed everywhere else -- with top grades, high SATs, leadership positions and excellent essays.

Do the money math: If you will need financial aid, early on, have your parents fill out the Net Price Calculators for each school you're applying to, to determine whether you can go there if you're admitted. Based on your family's income, will they give you enough aid (which consists of grants, loans, and work-study opportunities) to make this a possibility for you? How to do this? Google the name of the institution and the words "net price calculator" and do this early in the game. If your parents need help with this (ie non-English speakers), do all you can to help them so you'll have this information.

Plan ahead: Easier said than done, but still extremely important. If possible, visit colleges and universities when you can -- preferably when school is in session.

And stay tuned to my columns and my blog for news that I hope you can use in your college quest.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling author and founder of Don't Sweat the Essay, and runs the popular blog connected to it.

Common App College Essay Prompts 2.0 - They're Here!

Elizabeth Benedict   |   April 1, 2015    4:21 PM ET

This is big news in the college application world. It's not quite landing on the moon or Beyoncé having a baby, but the twittosphere is aflame this morning. The Common Application organization has just released the essay prompts for the upcoming year. Though applications aren't due until late in the fall for most students, the arrival of the prompts marks the start of the season.

The good news is that there are few major changes from the past two years, and that the Common Application made what changes it did in response to thousands of reactions from members (the colleges and universities themselves) and the general public. Hats off to the Common App for inviting us to be part of the conversation!

The bad news -- though I may be alone in feeling this -- is that my favorite question fell by the wayside: Describe a place where you feel perfectly content. Some of the most engaging essays my clients ever wrote were in response to that prompt. One described his lifelong love of German opera, another his passion for being lost. I'm going to think positively about the very engaging replacement question about problem solving.

Now, for the winning prompts -- and my initial thoughts about them. As in previous years, students can write up to 650 words on just one of these.

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

This is a slight revision from earlier years, with the addition of "talent" to the list. The question elicits all sorts of powerful stories. Were you a triplet, were you raised on a farm, did you have to take care of your siblings while your parent worked nights? My experience with students is that they often know right away whether this is their topic.

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

Ah, yes, the difficulties of writing about failure without calling too much attention to it! This is also a slight revision from previous years, emphasizing the "lessons we take from failure" and how they connect to success. If students have strong inclinations toward writing other essays, I often think that's better than focusing on failure. And often the lesson from failure is: work hard and you'll succeed. That is vitally important, but perhaps not much of a surprise in an essay. Still, it's there for a reason, and there will be students who have meaningful stories to tell.

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

I love this question, but it is the least popular of all among students I've worked with. I'm always eager to hear how students challenge the status quo - and colleges are too.

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This is the biggest news in the list, an entirely new question to replace "describe a place where you feel perfectly content." Problem solving is indeed at the heart of everything we do that's meaningful, whether it's how to play a perfect note on an instrument or how to solve a math problem, and I imagine this question will be popular. I'm looking forward to the stories it brings out.

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

This is identical to previous years -- an excellent question, and a difficult one to write in 650 words. Check my blogpost from earlier this year, "Smart and Smarter," about how to answer this and other prompts.

With the prompts out, what's a student to do with them? Take a look at the questions and do some thinking about what you might write, what matters to you, and what you want colleges to know about you. But it's not necessary to start writing, though you might want to take notes if something occurs to you. Don't worry if it doesn't.

It is necessary to keep engaging with school work, extracurriculars, and life passions. And it is advisable to prepare to write your essays - for the Common Application and the many supplements - by doing some serious reading of well-written essays and/or books. Parents often ask what books, what essays, what magazines?

The best grammar and writing book around - full of surprises, insights and fabulous writing - is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. She is a word genius!

Consider getting a subscription to The New Yorker magazine - hands down the most well-written weekly in our midst. Short form essays, long form, news and analysis on politics, art, culture, along aside humor, fiction, poetry and cartoons. It's great to read on paper, and aside from lessons it will give in good writing, the information and the perspective on many subjects, from food to image recognition software research, is genuinely illuminating.

Books to read: Where to begin? Let's keep it simple for the moment. It's a safe bet that two yearly collections of essays will entice and entertain high school juniors and seniors: The Best American Essays collection, and the companion volume, with pieces chosen by high school students, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers.

For the time being, don't worry about the essays. Check out the prompts, check in with your feelings about them, read a book you like, and engage with all you're doing.

Elizabeth Benedict is the founder/owner of Don't Sweat the Essay. Follow her on Twitter @ElizBenedict.

Common App Overhauls Essay Prompts

Josh Stephens   |   March 31, 2015    8:32 PM ET

The Common App released this week a long-anticipated new set of prompts for the main essay (also known as the "personal statement"). They replace prompts that were instituted as part of the 2013 redesign of the Common App.

The Common App claims that "the changes...reflect the feedback and consensus of nearly 6,000 individuals who responded to our recent survey." More than half of the respondents were college counselors at high schools. Oddly, only 197 of them represented the over 500 colleges that use the Common App.

Regardless of how the prompts were devised, it's now up to this year's applicants to make the most of them and, in some cases, figure out ways around them. Fortunately, they're going to find much more inspiration than did their counterparts this year.

As I did in my pair of blogs "Hacking the Common App Essay Prompts" (here and here), I offer some commentary on the prompts, with the caveat that my thoughts are just conversation starters. They should not be essay-starters. Today's juniors have many months to ponder, prepare, and seek inspiration.


The Common App offers five prompts. Two have been rephrased, one is brand-new, and two -- No. 3, about challenging a belief or idea, and No. 5, about the transition to adulthood -- remain unchanged.

Here are the new and updated prompts, with new parts italicized:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
I'd wager that this was the most popular prompt of the past two years if only because it was the only one that directly invited students to write a story. Stories can be entertaining, insightful, powerful, intellectual, and everything in between. But the old prompt referred only to "background or story," possibly implying that a student's background had to be unique for him or her to write this essay.

The inclusion of "identity, interest, or talent" opens up a welcome range of possibilities. Most importantly, it invites students to discuss their intellectual lives. This possibility had been criminally and ironically lacking in the old prompts. If they're interested in, say, 17th century Russian history, the evolution of Urdu, or the uses of graphene, they should have the chance to say so. They are applying to college, after all.

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
The first sentence, as obvious a homily as there ever was, was added from scratch. I guess students got anxious (or overprotective adults feared that they would get anxious) just thinking about failure. If kids are really that fragile, I'm not sure how they're going to function in college.

While I like this prompt a lot, the revision has the potential to incite failure itself. The word "lesson" may inspire some students to try to write essays that are just too neat, with a saccharine moral at the end. Analysis is great. Morals are dicey. No adult reader wants to learn a life lesson from a 17-year-old, especially one who believes that failures must have happy endings.

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
The new addition is the best of the bunch. It's broad, and the inclusion of "no matter the scale" invites students to write in detail on something specific - which is exactly what they should do in an essay that's only 650 words. As with No. 1, it includes a welcome, and more explicit, reference to intellectualism and academics. Ethical dilemmas are fascinating for students mature enough to write about them. (The dilemma need not have faced the writer directly; great essays can come from observation too.)

I just wish this prompt had ended at "significance." College essays are fascinating in part because of the freedom they offer. They are not five-paragraph essays or lab reports. No. 4 curtails that freedom unnecessarily. It is the first prompt I've seen that attempts to dictate the form of a student's essay. "Explain....what steps you took" implies that this essay has to be about process, with a linear progression from event to event or idea to idea. I don't think this is a bad approach. But if some students have other ideas, they should feel free to pursue them. I also worry that "could be taken" will lead to idle speculation.

Of course, ultimate freedom lies in ignoring prompts entirely. If a student can write something great that has nothing to do with stories, failures, challenges, problems, or transitions, he or she should do so. Admissions readers appreciate great writing and great ideas when they see them.


So much for the new material. Gone entirely is the unbearable, "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content...." I am perfectly content with its demise.

Unfortunately, the Common App has not revived the open-ended prompt, the demise of which struck me as ironic for a process that is intended to enable students to express their true selves. The constraints on revisions remain, thus penalizing students who develop new ideas.

I'll have deeper thoughts in a future post. For now, I implore this years juniors not to start writing, outlining, pondering, or even acknowledging their application essays yet. They should spend the next few months working on their prose, developing their interests, appreciating their backgrounds, getting into (and, hopefully, out of) dilemmas, and looking forward to seeing what they think and how they feel--about themselves, school, and the world--in a few months.

If all goes well, next September they'll end up someplace where they're perfectly content.

Amanda Scherker   |   December 16, 2014    3:42 PM ET

It's universal knowledge that filling out college applications can be a stressful experience. Even though you're proud of your accomplishments, you may still feel the pressure to outdo every other applicant, whether by exaggerating your extracurriculars or pretending that you actually enjoyed chemistry class. Invariably, you'll probably find yourself B.S.-ing -- at least a little bit.

Here's what everyone writes on their college applications versus what they really mean.

What You Write: "I'm excited to throw myself into extracurriculars INSERT Of COLLEGE has to offer."

What You Mean: "My guidance counselor said that given my SAT scores and grades I have a decent chance of getting in. Also, I hear you guys have a pretty good party scene."

TK gifs

What You Write: "I was a committed, competitive member of the cross country team."

What You Mean: "Do you even appreciate what I endured to appear well-rounded?"

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What You Write: "My work as treasurer of Key Club taught me a lot about managing finances."

What You Mean: "I oversaw our bake sales. And yeah, it made me feel kind of powerful."

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What You Write: "I am eager to explore a new state/city/region of the country."


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What You Write: "I'm looking for a school with a community where I'll really belong."

What You Mean: "All these kids at school be #basic as hell."

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What You Write: "I am an enthusiastic student and have a lot to contribute to classroom discussions."

What You Mean: "These contributions may or may not come via Snapchat."

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What You Write: "I dedicate approximately four hours per week to cultivating my passion for the piano."

What You Mean: "Yeah, four hours per week, if you, like, round up, approximate, carry the one... what's the time, anyway?"

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What You Write: "I think I would make a great asset to INSERT COLLEGE NAME'S student community."

What You Mean: "PLEASE accept me. I'm a really good person, promise."

At the end of the day, it's hard to feel authentic when you're trying to sound as impressive as possible. Maybe in the future, colleges will just let us submit our Twitter feeds.

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How Many College Apps (and College App Essays) Are Too Many?

Elizabeth Benedict   |   November 18, 2014    5:05 PM ET

A recent piece in The New York Times, "What is the Perfect Number of College Applications to Send?" has tapped into a disturbing trend in college applications that I've seen in my business: students applying to dozens - and dozens - of colleges. Last year, I worked with two families whose children applied to 18 colleges each, despite my encouraging them to narrow the list and conserve their resources. Resources include time, money, and emotional health.

Each application costs money, and so does sending SAT/ACT results to each college. And many schools these days require supplementary essays. It's not just a matter of pressing SEND along with your credit card information.

One issue that the article does not address is the application essays that accompany these dozens of applications. Because schools now receive such a flood of applications, they need more ways to distinguish between students - and ways to read between the lines to see how serious students are about attending their school. Enter the supplementary essays. Some schools ask for just one; other schools, including Tufts, Brown, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Wake Forest, ask for upwards of three, four and sometimes six additional pieces of writing.

The girl in the Times article is applying to 29 colleges - to hedge her bets - but no one is asking how or when she'll have the time or the energy to write what might be at least 30 additional essays. Some students say to me, "It's just 150 words. That's not an essay, is it?" Yes, and those 150 words count. They need to be coherent, informed, well-written, and personal, even if you are just writing about why you want to attend that college.

The other issue the Times piece doesn't really address is strategy. Is there a perfect number of schools to apply to? No, but the point of choosing schools is to be strategic rather than scattershot.

First, apply to schools that you actually want to attend, or that you have some reason for wanting to attend. Have you visited the school? Does it have an atmosphere or programs that interest you and suit your needs? Is there something about the curriculum - the courses required of you to graduate - that is either hugely appealing - or might be a real turn-off? Do you even know what's offered and required at these many schools to which you're applying?

How will you know any of these things? Each website is a place to start, but websites are sources of information as well as advertisements. They will not give you the low-down on what it's really like to be a student in these places. These three resources will give you another perspective: 1. College Prowler - tons of statistics and up-to-date student comments about every aspect of the institution. 2. The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, edited by the Yale Daily News - a sassy, student's-eye view of some 350 colleges and universities, arranged by state. 3. The Best 378 Colleges, full of great stats and quotes from students and administrations about what each school offers.

There is a reason for the idea that you should choose schools in three categories: reach, target, safety. If you choose well, you do not need 10 in each category. If you have done your homework and are choosing schools that are suitable for you - and your family's budget - the list should be much smaller than that.

Still, you may wonder: what's wrong with applying to 15, or 20, or 30 schools?

1. It's not necessary to use your own and your family's resources this way if you've picked colleges that are suitable and expressed your interest, by applying early and/or through conveying the excellence of the match between you and school through your essays.

2. If your plan is to choose your colleges carefully, you can spend your time learning what different schools offer and writing the required essays in a way that will convey your interest. Believe it or not, colleges want to choose applicants who want to attend their school. They are looking for that in your application. Many schools are "selective," but there's a huge difference between a university that admits six percent of the applicants and one that admits 35 percent. In addition to looking at the "percent admit" rate, look at the percentage of students who enroll after being admitted. Oftentimes, the higher the admission rate, the lower the enrollment rate.

3. If you get into a dozen, or two dozen colleges, you will then have to chose which to attend. If that seems like a great luxury to envision, it might not seem that way if you have just a few weeks in which to decide, and no time or money to visit any of the schools.

The Common Application came into being in the 1970s, and it seemed like a great way to make applying to college easier. One application, and that was it. The ubiquity of the personal computer was far from anyone's thinking back then.

Now that students can just press SEND, the most selective schools are deluged with tens of thousands of applications, from people who are encouraged to "try their luck." This drives down the admit rate, making the schools seem even more "selective." Other colleges are deluged with applications from people who have no interest in going there. The profusion of application essays is a way for schools to pick up actual interest - so that the schools themselves can make better choices about whom to accept.

It's not up to applicants to make the college admissions officers' lives easier, but it is important for applicants, and their families, to understand the big picture. And it might make sense for high school counseling offices to set limits on how many applications a student can send in. The high schools, after all, have to send transcripts and letters to every college, and teachers are enlisted to write letters of recommendation. There are already limits at some schools.

The mania to apply to more and more and more colleges will either continue and skew the process even more than it's already skewed, or enough families and administrators will put the brakes on at different points in the process. I'm hoping for the latter.

Elizabeth Benedict is the founder of Don't Sweat the Essay.

7 Cliché College Application Essays You Should Avoid

Gianna Sen-Gupta   |   October 18, 2014   12:19 PM ET

"Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment or experience that is important to you."

In some form or other, this prompt will be on almost every college application this fall, leaving admissions officers inevitably to read hundreds of college essay topics that are far too similar.

So how do you distinguish yourself from the sea of other applicants in your personal statement? It all starts with the right topic that simultaneously shows your ability to write well while painting a picture of who you are in a simple and authentic fashion.

No doubt this is easier said than done.

Before you begin brainstorming, make sure you know which college essay topics to avoid and why. Here are a few of the most common.

1. A service project shows your passion for helping others.

"Many students choose to write about their participation in a community service project or a church mission trip," says Marie Schofer, director of admission at Cornell College. "These are fantastic experiences that are personally meaningful and reflect on your character. The only problem: Regardless of where you traveled or what type of service you performed, the conclusion is always the same. You like to help people. This is great," she explains, "but unfortunately, it won't differentiate you from other applications."

2. Your family's history in a specific profession.

"Being proud of family heritage is a wonderful thing, but expanding on family and the roots the family may have in a specific profession is not helpful in selling [yourself]," says Christopher Hall, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "Mick Jagger may be a fantastic performer and singer," he adds, "but this does not mean that his children will have the same potential. [You] should discuss personal talents and abilities and not the legacy of talents and abilities of [your] great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers."

3. Overcoming an athletic injury.

As Drew Nichols, director of freshman admission at St. Edward's University, explains, "Most university applicant pools are diverse, and many include prospective students who have overcome substantial hardships such as growing up in poverty, difficult family situations or serious illness. The 'athletic injury' essay often indicates a lack of self-awareness on behalf of the applicant regarding their own privilege. If not being able to play soccer for a semester is the most difficult thing [you have] had to encounter," he says, then it "doesn't serve to demonstrate significant resilience or an understanding of the considerable challenges some of [your] peers have faced."

4. A rundown of a national disaster.

The point of a college essay is to get to know you, which gets lost when current events are the main focus, says Michelle Curtis-Bailey, senior admissions advisor and Educational Opportunity Program coordinator at Stony Brook University. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, she says, "Many students in the application cycle wrote about the hurricane, as it occurred in late October, peak college application time. Once again, the message is lost as the whole focus was more like a journal entry recounting what happened in the life of the students and their family without a clear connection to the individual. On a whole, we are aware of the impact that disasters have on the lives of our applicants," she says, but "the full scope of the college essay shouldn't recount those types of experiences."

5. A mission trip helped you to understand the struggles of impoverished youth in the U.S.

"We often get essays which describe wonderful experiences working in impoverished international countries doing such things as building houses, helping community members learn English and so on," says Hall. "But as soon as a connection is made by applicants that this experience can help them understand the plight of inner-city youth of America, or that that they have acquired special skills through these experiences to emotionally connect with impoverished U.S. youth, the power of their service work is diminished." Hall says, "Comparing U.S. inner-city youth and communities to Third World or impoverished countries demonstrates a lack of empathy and understanding of the differences in culture."

6. The sports game highlight reel.

"The game-winning catch or other sports highlight is another popular essay topic," Schofer says. "It is important to understand that the admission counselor reading your essay may not be familiar with your sport and will probably have no emotional attachment to the outcome of the District 5 semi-final game." If you do choose to write about a sports topic, Schofer recommends "an essay that debates the merits of the baseball's infield fly rule or a descriptive essay of your warm-up routine."

7. Talking about your role model.

"The challenge with this topic is that we often see essays written about the parent, grandparent, teacher, or coach," says Curtis-Bailey, adding that "most of these essays are written solely about the 'other person' with no reference to the student." She suggests avoiding this topic if you "are unable to show the connection of how the traits and characteristics of that individual are similar or even a model of tangible action that [you desire to take] or have taken."

"While it might be true that a grandparent has been of great influence to the applicant," Nichols points out that "this essay has been written hundreds of times over. When you're competing against hundreds of other students who have submitted the same answer to the prompt," he says, "it becomes more difficult to make your essay distinctive and to really stand out."

Authenticity matters most.

In all, essay readers want to know about you from your point of view. "Think about what is distinctive about [your] particular story," says Nichols, "and articulate that in an honest and meaningful way."

Don't pretend to be someone you're not simply to impress the readers. As Curtis-Bailey points out, "It's evident in reading many essays when a student is using words not commonly used in day-to-day communication that would often give the impression of a unique vocabulary." There's no need to use complex words and jargon, she says, "when all we want to see is [you], not pull a dictionary to gather the context of the terms used."


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College App Essays Run Amok: A Coach's Advice, Sympathy and a Word About Spiders

Elizabeth Benedict   |   September 22, 2014    2:50 PM ET

I know, I'm a coach. I'm supposed to do the coach thing: cheerlead, encourage, help high school students brainstorm, find great essay topics and figure out what about their interests, experiences and passions would work best on the page. In other words, help them stand out in the piles of dazzling applicants to the highly competitive University of Fill in the Blank.

This is what I do 99 percent of the time. But there are some days and weeks when I encounter articles and trends that make me cynical about what's expected of students, what's expected of parents and where we as a country are headed. Last week was one of those weeks.

While most of my time was spent answering questions about which prompt might work best to discuss a life-changing experience living in the woods for three months, or how to do the research to tell a college why it's your first choice, I encountered a number of disturbing news items that gave me pause about the extreme nature of the game that college admissions has become.

On the one hand, if students don't "play," don't go along with the rules and regulations, they're shut out. At the same time, it's worth pointing out some of what's really going on here, for students and their parents, because the system has become so demanding, byzantine, and just plain hard to make sense of.

My head-scratching began with a spider. I was going over the supplementary essays at the University Richmond with a student. From the website: "Please choose ONE of the two essay prompts: (1) From small, faculty-led classes to funded undergraduate research, the University of Richmond offers the benefits of both a liberal arts college and the opportunities and resources typically found in large research universities. Tell us how you would utilize these resources in order to reach your goals; OR (2) Tell us about Spiders."

"Spiders?" I said, perplexed.

"It's the school's nickname," the student explained.

"Oh, do you want to write about that?"

"No, I would just go to Wikipedia and regurgitate whatever's there."

Spiders. I filed that away with a long-running list of what I call Eccentric College App Essays. The University of Chicago used to corner the market on these, but in recent years, admissions offices have plunged headlong into creative writing and come up with all sorts of wild and crazy prompts. Among the stand-outs: From Tufts: "What does YOLO mean to you?" (YOLO=You Only Live Once, AKA Carpe Diem); Stanford: Write a letter to college roommate; "Take a risk in 150 words and tell us anything you want." UNC: "You're giving a speech at the White House. What's it about?" Brandeis: "What one invention would you uninvent if you could, and why?" Lehigh: "Describe your favorite 'Bazinga' moment." Dartmouth: "Every name tells a story: Tell us about your name -- any name: first, middle, last, nickname -- and its origin."

How did college essays come to this place of schools outdoing one another on eccentric questions? Of college admissions officers telling applicants to "entertain" them while reading their essays? How is it that high school students who apply to schools elsewhere in world manage to gain admission without writing essays? (Three-day exams, that's how!) Since when are Americans so keen on creative writing that we have to require examples of it for admission to hundreds of schools?

Some history. When the Common Application organization came into being in the 1970s, the point of it was to streamline college admissions, create one application and one essay that would do everything. Great idea, right? Yes. And no. The Common Application made it so easy to apply to schools that students began doing just that, and once personal computers came along, schools were deluged with applications. Thousands of students who had no particular interest in a school were applying. Things got complicated when thousands were applying who had top grades and top SATs and were generally "superkids" in every way -- extracurricular activities galore and community service that would put the United Way to shame. Suddenly, schools were swimming in smart applicants, but there was no way to tell Smart Kid #5 from Smart Kid #6543. Enter the supplementary essays.

Because it's so easy to apply to dozens of schools, the essays and short answer questions are there to help the admissions officers make distinctions -- often fine distinctions -- between students. Hence, Stanford, Princeton and Columbia ask students for multiple essays and a good number of questions: the names of favorite books, recordings, websites, quotes, and cultural outings -- information that reveals a student's level of sophistication about intellectual and cultural matters. Yale asks a series of questions to which they want 40-word answers, including "What have you changed your mind about in the last three years?"

Beyond helping admissions officers make distinctions among highly qualified students, the essays exist to encourage or discourage applicants (fewer essays=more applicants), and sometimes to help admissions offices read between the lines and get a feeling as to whether a particular applicant is serious about their school.

Here's what I mean: Since students can so easily apply to so many colleges, colleges end up admitting far more students than will sign up. At Harvard, about 75 percent of the admitted students decide to attend. At Skidmore, Brandeis and Boston University, it's closer to 25 percent. If students feel getting into their top school is a challenge, admissions officers often feel that getting the top students to agree to come to their schools once they're admitted is just as tricky. George Washington University's efforts to make sure that students who apply want to go there led them to ask applicants for a 500-word essay on Why GW? -- quite a bit longer than the usual Why This School? question.

Adding essays to the application process can help winnow out students who don't really want to go there -- and eliminating essays can increase the applicant pool, thus helping a school entice students who might not otherwise make an application.

And there are the schools that want to encourage applications because a high applicant/low admission rate helps school's ranking on the U.S. News and World Report list.

What does all of this layered information amount to? 1. There's a lot more going on than meets the eye. 2. The essays serve multiple purposes and varying purposes from school to school -- and from year to year. 3. College admissions is always an evolving, work in progress. 4. The essays matter, but sometimes not for the reasons you think they do.

It may or may not be useful to understand some of these backstories as students write their essays. As I plow through articles of all kinds about college essays, college admissions, tips on writing essays, topics to avoid, etc., etc., sometimes I want to scream at what this process has become. At the lack of transparency in all of it. At the cost of education. At the cost and complexity of applying to college. At the continuing ways in which the playing field is not level.

Two articles that came my way last week added to my gloom about where we're headed. One, in Business Week, was about Mr. Steven Ma, a former hedge fund analyst, who charges $600,000 (yes, that many zeroes) to "guarantee" admission to an Ivy League school under certain conditions. His clients seem to be Chinese citizens with certain ideas about what a top degree can do for their children. The other article from the Washington Monthly, a much broader critique of college costs and aid, is essential reading for families who need financial aid.

In the meantime, there are many counselors, myself included, who post information of all kinds on the web about how to tackle these darn essays. Here are my thoughts about the five prompts on the Common Application. The advice I give students about "Why X College?" is to study the school's course catalog looking for courses that interest you, professors you want to work with, aspects of the school's philosophy that appeal to you, the extracurricular activities you might pursue, and what appeals to you about the location and the atmosphere. If you've visited the campus, say so. If there's a major you know you want, read about what it involves. If the school allows you to take courses at other divisions -- the arts school, the film school, the business school- and that appeals, say so.

The most common question students ask me as we go through the essay questions -- whether they are the ordinary questions or the highly eccentric ones -- is: "What do they want me to say here?" If the question is "why this college" I can be pretty specific (see above). Otherwise, the school wants to know your particular response to the question. There is no right answer. If the question is one you can't answer, perhaps that's information about yourself that you need to know. Maybe this isn't the right school for you right now. Maybe you haven't done the research. Maybe you don't know enough about the school. Maybe you haven't thought enough about yourself as a student and what you want from college. Maybe that's the work you need to do first. Bottom line: If you have nothing to say about spiders except what you can read on Wikipedia, answer the other question.

But please don't think you're the only one who's having a hard time with this. I've gotten into the habit of telling the students I work with -- just once, but I think once is enough -- that I think the current system has become a complicated game, and that, like learning to take SATs and ACTs, it's a game you have to play to be in the game. There are of course rewards for playing well -- and the rewards can be serious and meaningful. They're like playing scales or doing warm-up exercises, sending thank you notes and minding your manners: annoying and necessary, even when it's hard to see the long-term benefits.

6 Ingenious Ways to Save Money on College Applications

Gianna Sen-Gupta   |   September 18, 2014    5:49 PM ET


Paying for college doesn't just begin in your first semester freshman year. Rather, prospective college students can expect to start funding their higher education in high school -- when they send in their college applications.

According to the National Association of College Admission Counselors, almost one-third of high school seniors apply to seven or more colleges. With today's college application fees averaging $38 -- not to mention an average high of $77 among the nation's elite schools -- students can expect to shell out hundreds of dollars in college fees long before their first tuition payment is due.

But there are ways to avoid paying such hefty fees if you know where to look. With the help of our seasoned college experts, we've compiled a list of tips to help students save money when applying to colleges this fall.

1. Apply for early admission.

For students who already have their top choice school in mind, consider applying during early admission. If you're accepted, you won't have to submit costly applications elsewhere. Mark Kantrowitz, the vice president of and a nationally recognized higher education expert, says this tactic "can save the student a lot of money on application fees to safety schools. It also alleviates a lot of stress, potentially improving the applications to other match and reach schools."

2. Call schools to ask about fee waivers.

Clear up any lingering questions you may have by talking with an admissions counselor at the school you're applying to. Mike Frantz, vice president of enrollment at Buena Vista University, recommends asking the school if it will waive the fee for you. "The worst they can say is 'no,' and you've lost nothing in the process."

Don't be afraid to ask your high school counselor about fee waivers as well. "Many colleges will waive the application fee if your guidance counselor attests that you have financial limitations or difficulties," says Frantz. "Develop a good working relationship with your guidance counselor and ask them to reach out on your behalf."

3. Apply to colleges that offer free online applications.

Not all colleges charge students to apply. Stephanie Kinkaid, assistant career services director at Monmouth College, advises students to "check online to see if the college in which you are interested in offers free online applications." Kinkaid notes that the many colleges offering free online applications include Millikin University, Smith College, and Drake University. Juniata College, Colby College, and Carleton College are just a few more top schools that don't charge application fees.

If your top choice school does not offer free applications, fear not: many colleges that do require payment "will waive application fees if a student is willing to apply online," Art Goon, the vice president of enrollment management at Delaware Valley College, says. Though not always the case, he says "online applications save schools the cost of employing a staff member to physically enter the application information."

4. Take a campus tour.

In addition to learning firsthand whether a college is a good fit for you, some schools will waive application fees for students who attend a campus tour. Goon says many schools, including Delaware Valley College, "are willing to extend an application fee waiver to students who show a serious and genuine interest in attending their specific institution." To learn more about this opportunity, be sure to talk with current students, alumni, or admissions counselors at your top choice schools.

5. Include test scores on your transcripts.

In addition to your college application, most colleges require applicants to submit official SAT and/or ACT scores from the testing service, adding even more financial strain on students. A great way to avoid paying these extra fees is to "ask your high school to put your test scores on your transcript," Frantz says. "Many colleges will accept that as an official score report and it may save you from paying extra to have scores sent to more colleges than the testing services allow."

Similar to application fees, testing services sometimes waive their fee for students in need, Kinkaid adds. Students with difficult family financial situations will sometimes qualify for a fee waiver from the College Board.

6. Apply with the Common Application.

Accepted by more than 500 colleges and universities across the country, the Common Application -- also referred to as the Common App -- allows students to submit a single application to virtually all of their prospective colleges. But although the Common App saves students time on applying, it might not save them money; students are still required to pay a one-time application fee to each school on their list. As an extra incentive to use the Common App, Kantrowitz notes that some colleges may waive the application fee for students who choose to apply via the centralized platform. Check with your admissions counselor to find out if your prospective colleges might offer this free pass.

Help for the 6 Most Confusing Parts of the New 2014-15 CommonApp

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz   |   September 9, 2014   11:07 AM ET

Everyone -- students, parents, high school counselors, teachers and college admissions officers -- were all in agreement last year that the Common Application offered many challenges. As a result, I wrote three HuffPost blogs about the Common App, trying to help users work through many of the confusing parts, lack of directions and out-and-out glitches.

Things seem to be much better this year; but here and there, directions are left out, and there are areas that are not explained as thoroughly as they might be. So let's run through some of the most confusing parts of the new Common App.

But, first things first: before you can do anything on the new Common Application, you need to create an account, generating the usual, all-important Username and Password. After you do that, write down your username and password, put it in your smart phone notes and/or text it to your mother, father or someone you trust to keep it safe and handy.

Once you log in, follow the instructions on the pages, and come back to this blog for how to make your CA (Common Application, not to be confused with the abbreviation for the great state of California) experience smooth and applications complete.

I. Green Checkmarks, Yellow Dots and Red Asterisks, Oh My!

I am getting a lot of questions about what all of the green checkmarks, yellow dots, red asterisks, black and red dashes mean. In a blog last year I described what these different Common App symbols were. They appear to be the same this year. You can find the explanations in The Top 6 Questions Students (and Everyone Else) Are Asking about the New Common Application.

II. Summary of Requirements for Common App Colleges -- All in One Place! (The Application Requirements Page):

Even after completing the Common App and a number of college supplements, many students don't know about the Application Requirements page, an incredibly useful admissions resource, accessible via the Common App landing page. On this grid you will find college application deadlines, application fees, art and writing supplement info, college testing policies and the number of required recommendations for each school.

To get to this information, go to the homepage of The Common Application website, put your mouse on the top tab, "Member Colleges," click and scroll down to "Application Requirements."

All the information noted above is there for each of the 500+ colleges and universities that accept The Common Application. This is really useful, ordinarily hard-to-find information AND in one place. Imagine how much time it will save you from looking up admissions "stuff" from a thousand and one different sources.

III. Honors Grid: Where Is It? What Goes in It? What Are the Character or Word Limits?

A. Where is it?
To access the Honors Grid:

  • Click on the Common App tab at the top of the Application
  • A list of six items will appear on the left hand side. Click on the Education heading, third from the top.
  • When that section comes up, scroll down to the bottom of the page where there are eight items. Click on the Honors heading, second from the bottom, and Voila! the grid will come up.

B. How many honors can be identified?
There are spaces for up to five honors "related to your academic achievement beginning ninth grade." Try to use all of the spaces.

C. How many words/spaces for each Honor?
Although not stated on the page, there are 100 characters including spaces allotted to identify and describe each Honors title. Make sure that you take full advantage of the space, describing the honor in as much detail as you can within the character limit.

adMISSION POSSIBLE TIP In case you don't know, the best way of determining the word count for what you write is to use the Microsoft Word Tools function at the top of your screen (where it says, Word, File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Font, Tools, etc.). Highlight what you want to have counted, go up to Tools and scroll down to word count, and a screen will come up with the word, characters without spaces, and characters with spaces count.

D. What Honors should be included?
Some honors and awards to identify are:

√ National Merit Commended or Semifinalist
√ AP Scholar
√ Selected participant, talent search such as John's Hopkins CTY or Stanford's EPGY
√ Selected Member of an honor society (Sociedad Honoraria Hispanica, French or Latin Honors Society)
√ Cum Laude
√ National Honor Society
√ California Scholarship Federation
√ MVP or awardee, Mock Trial, debate or speech competition
√ Selected participant in a special summer academic program, such as the Marie Wash Sharpe Art Foundation Summer Seminar
√ Award winner in a local, state, regional, or national arts or music competition or fair
√ Award winner, school departmental academic award (if several departments or years, identify as one honor but list all departments and years)
√ Award winner in a local, state, regional, or national science or math or other academic competition, fair, Olympiad
√ Academic Honor Roll

adMISSION POSSIBLE TIP It is best to identify the most prestigious honors first and the least at the end.

Other parts of the Honors space that you will need to complete are the grade level when you received the award and whether the recognition was school, state/regional, national and/or international. Again, for repeated awards, list the award once and provide all years the award was received.

IV. Activities Grid: Where Is It? Which Activities Should Go in It? What Are the Word/Character Limits?

A. Where is it?
As you sign-in to the Common Application website, you will enter the Common App Dashboard that houses:

My Colleges (lists all of the colleges that you have identified that you want to apply to)

Common App (gateway to all of the different aspects of the application):

  • Profile

  • Family

  • Education

  • Testing

  • Activities

  • Writing

College Search (the mechanism for you to identify the colleges to which you want to apply)

As you can see, the Activities grid is the fifth item on the Common App menu.

B. How many activities can be identified?
There are ten spaces available to list out your different activities, 9th through 12th grades. Lively, energetic descriptions of activities you love are more likely to help your admissions chances than simply identifying a long list of "whatevers." As with the Honors List, note the most important activities first.

C. How many words/spaces for each activity?
There are 50 characters including spaces to identify each activity and 150 characters including spaces to describe each activity. It's very important that you give as much descriptive information as you can within the character count allowed. Here are some examples:

Example 1: Position/Leadership description and organization name, if applicable: Goalkeeper, Varsity Soccer team, Torrey Pines HS (49 characters with spaces)

Details, honors won, and accomplishments
Have played soccer entire life, high school (Varsity and Letterman since sophomore yr) and club (MVP two years), also indoor soccer during high school
(150 characters with spaces)

Example 2:
Position/Leadership description and organization name, if applicable
Selected Member/Leader, Link Crew, Coronado HS
(46 characters with spaces)

Details, honors won, and accomplishments
Selected by faculty Link Leaders develop programs/activities for new freshmen to help them adapt to high school, make friends & get involved on campus
(150 characters with spaces)

V. The Word Counts for CommonApp Personal Statement and Additional Information Essays Are 650 Words Each -- What About the World/Character Counts for the Various Supplement Essays?

Some supplements identify the word count for their essays, as in USC's 250 word count for their two "Writing Questions." However, USC also has other short questions. For example, "Describe yourself in three words." Applicants are given 25 characters with spaces to enter each word.

USC also has nine other questions such as "Favorite food" and "Best movie of all time." There are 100 characters with spaces for each of those questions. It is important that you use as much of that space as you can to answer the question and also give a detail or two.

The best way of approaching the word/character count issue for the Common App and also its supplements is to write your essays and/or responses in Word, use the Tools Word Count function to see how many words or characters you have and then edit it up or down to meet the count, but also offer a good, detailed answer.

VI. Questions and Answers About the Common Application

A. Instructions & Help Center
When you have a question about the Common App, there are a number of places you can go to get answers. Every page of the CA has a section on the top, right hand side that is titled "Instructions & Help Center." Many user questions are answered there.

B. Support Home: Ask a Question
If you don't find an answer to your question, click on "Instructions & Help Center" and you will be taken to the "Support Home" page that includes these tabs: "Knowledge Base," "Ask a Question," and "Training Resources." Go to the "Ask A Question" tab at the top of the page, follow the directions and write out your question on a Common App Ticket. You should hear back from a CA technical specialist depending on the time of day within a few hours or the next day.

C. Support Home: Knowledge Base
Just so you know, the "Knowledge Base," offers information about such CA application areas as:

  • My Account/Login

  • Dashboard

  • College Search

  • My Colleges

  • Payment & Submission

  • Uploading & Print Review

D. Support Home: Training Resources
Training Resources offers information about current Common App user problems such as "When pasting paragraphs into the essay space paragraph separations may be lost," their resolution status (fixed or reported) and some solutions. That section also lists the individual college supplements that are available and not yet available.

Common App Facebook and Twitter
The Common App also has Facebook and Twitter pages. Some students report finding them very useful.

I hope this blog helps you get through the Common Application without too many problems. Once you have completed the application itself and one supplement, the rest will come much easier.

Important Common App Details You May Not Know

Jeannie Borin   |   September 8, 2014    3:37 PM ET

Based on the difficulties of the Common Application last year, so far this year, it's been a pretty smooth ride. However, there are a few Common App details you may not know that could save you time and aggravation.

Common App Details:

• The Common Application does not restrict the number of changes that are made to any part of the application except the essays. Students generally must submit to one college first before they can make changes. They can then add or delete test scores and revise the activity page. However, there are restrictions on changes made to the essay.

• The essay can be revised twice for no more than three revisions. This is a crucial point and one that often gets missed by students. In order to make changes to an essay after you submit an application to a college, students will need to unlock their applications. Students cannot make any changes to an essay once it is submitted to a college. You can unlock again up to a maximum of three revisions. Any remaining colleges would receive your last essay version.

• Recommendations can be handled for the student in several ways. The high school may still submit using paper forms (yes, there are those) but for the most part this is being done online. Ask your high school counselor what the recommendation policy is at your high school. If your high school uses the popular Naviance program, the student should know how to use that website and invite recommenders where stated. The Common App allows students to invite recommenders to fill out their forms directly online. Get organized and ask for recommendations early!

• The most confusing change this year is that although many colleges look like they don't have a writing supplement on the College Tab, they do! That writing supplement can now be found under that college's drop down menu under the questions tab. It is essential to comb the application thoroughly and look at every drop down menu, as some essay prompts may be more difficult to find. This could be overlooked if students are not aware.

• The Common Application will allow applicants to submit up to 20 applications. This would be an extraordinarily long college list for any student. Perhaps, if a student is applying to specialized programs like art, performing arts or combined medical, they may need to apply to more schools.

• Make sure you print preview your entire application prior to submission. The application must be complete before you can print preview. Give your self enough time to check for any mistakes and be able to make corrections before you hit submit.

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