With the last of the college admission letters sent, this is the time juniors ask a pretty great question -- "What happened to this year's college applicants that can help me get ready to apply to college next year?"
In years past, I haven't been able to provide much of answer, other than "it depends." The only time an applicant knows where they stand compared to other applicants is after the admissions deadline has passed -- and they can't do anything to change their status by then.
This answer may be honest, but it doesn't give juniors much to go on. That's why I'm delighted that I have a different answer for them this year:
Don't write boring essays.
This is the second year in a row college admissions officers have told me that application essays, as a group, were pretty disappointing. They use phrases like "they're writing too safe" and "we appreciate the effort," but what they mean is clear; they were given celery when they were looking for steak. Yes, there were exceptions -- like the rep who told one of my students his essay was so wonderful, it brought him to tears -- but as a rule, there's room for improvement for next year's class.
And what can juniors do to write better essays? Three things:
Write the way you talk. Admissions officers ask for essays because they can't speak with you in person. They'd much rather do that, since it's easier to get more out of a conversation, where you can hear inflection, evaluate body language, and watch the way your eyes light up whenever you talk about Voltaire.
That's the kind of thing that gets a college's attention, so that's what you have to put in your essay. Colleges say they want to hear your voice, so be you -- your strongest, clearest, best, grammatically correct you, but you. Third graders recite the Pledge of Allegiance with little enthusiasm or understanding; if the final draft of a college essay sounds like a nine-year-old rotely advocating liberty and justice for all, it's time to start over.
Don't start too soon. I was stunned when Common Application released next year's essay topics this past February, benignly giving many juniors eleven months to work on draft after draft after draft -- and slowly taking the life out of the words, somewhere in the middle of July.
Students certainly need to write drafts of all essays, but there is such a thing as overkill. Think about your essay responses over the summer, but don't put anything to paper until the Common App portal opens August 1st. If you're an athlete in training during August, remember that you'll have to play your sport *and* go to class when you're in college; this is a good chance to practice doing both at once.
Show it to only one editor. Another way to have an essay lose your voice is to ask too many people for advice. You may only get a couple of suggestions from each reader, but two fixes from six readers makes twelve changes, all coming from someone else, all in words that aren't your own.
It's important to work well in a group, but not when it comes to application essays. Find one person who knows you and grammar, give them your essays ahead of time, and set up a time to discuss what you've written. Editing by conversation increases the chances your essay will sound like a conversation, and that's what colleges want. Find something to say; say it in your own voice; don't practice too much, and all will be well.
About six months ago, an unspeakable evil entered our house -- the college essay process. Until then, we'd always been a fairly typical family, neither sensational or completely unremarkable. Just typical, with three kids, a dog, a cat and a fish named Nini. But that was before the Essay. Oh, the Essay.
My oldest child is one of the most academic teenagers I know -- the complete opposite of me when I was his age. And so when his senior year rolled around last fall here in suburban New Jersey, I envisioned a fairly uneventful college application process. Sure, it's stressful. But at least, when it came to grades and test scores, this kid would be good to go.
Over the course of several months, we visited many universities starting with the most quintessential of college towns -- Boston -- where 250,000 students converge every September. In two days, we gave the once over to MIT, Tufts, Harvard, Northeastern, Holy Cross, Boston College and Boston University.
I picked up lots of interesting tidbits. Who knew MIT required all students to pass a swim test before they can graduate or that more than one-third of students at Boston College double major?
And everywhere we went, we heard about the college essay, how it was the one thing within the control of the student. Everything else -- grades, scores, course choice -- already had been set in stone.
On occasion, I asked my son what he planned to write about, encouraging him in what I was sure would be an unforgettable exercise in self-expression. And, as I looked on with a smile, he diligently worked on his essay, burning the midnight oil as he traveled down this most important emotional journey.
But there was just one itty-bitty teeny-tiny thing I hadn't counted on: that my son would refuse to let me -- or his father -- read his essay.
"It's personal," he declared.
I was speechless. After all, weren't we the ones who were going to bankroll his college education? We have an ownership stake in our Son's Future, don't we? Of course we do! And the worst part? The part I couldn't fathom? My husband actually agreed with him. He told me that the college essay was our son's chance to make a statement, good or bad, and any interference on our part would only diminish his self-esteem.
Over the next few days, my husband and I fought like demons. No, I didn't want to change the wording of the essay, I just wanted to "see" it. But my husband and my son remained an impenetrable united front, one that couldn't be cracked no matter how many practical arguments I threw out. Even so, I stuck to my guns. It's a parent's prerogative to read their kid's college essay, just like it is to embarrass their children.
But then something happened. My 17-year-old son sat me down, looked me square in the eye, and said: "Mom, I've been good all through high school. I've always gotten good grades. I don't think I've ever really disappointed you. Can't you just trust me now? Just this once?"
And with that the debate was over. Every reservation I harbored simply melted away. Today, I still haven't read his essay. It's gone out to all the colleges -- and acceptance letters have started rolling in. Soon the process will be over and he will be out the door, embarking on a new life I will know very little about.
Did I make the correct call? Does a parent have the right to review their kid's college essay? I really don't know. What I do know though is that hanging back and allowing your kid to do his own thing -- and, yes, to sometimes make his or her own mistakes -- is perhaps the greatest challenge of parenting.
If you've raised a good kid you just have to trust them. At least there's no danger of an admissions officer accusing us of parental interference. Whether our son gets into the college of his choice will be his doing. And his alone. And maybe that's the way it should be.
Look out high school juniors! Starting next fall, applicants to college will face a new version of the Common App, featuring some surprising changes to the required essay rules.
Beginning August 1, 2013, students will no longer be able to select "topic of your choice" for their personal statement. Instead, students will choose from 4-5 new essay prompts that are set to change each year. The Common App will also drop the activities essay -- a short, supplemental paragraph that is required of all applicants -- and enforce strict limits on personal statement length. Students will now be required to write statements between 250-650 words, and any essay that is too long or too short will prompt an error message and will not submit.
For students applying to college next year, this announcement should echo back four resounding words: write less, but better. As I have expressed above, the Common App currently includes two writing assignments: a personal statement and an activities essay. Although most students know to begin the personal statement early and revise it several times, the activities essay -- which is limited to a measly 150 words -- is rarely given a second glance. Too often, it's slapped together in a rush and sits like squirrel guts splayed across a manicured lawn.
The Common App does not want to be sprayed with squirrel guts. It's a waste of everyone's time to read, to write, to submit an activities essay that was written without time and care. By eliminating the activities essay, the Common App is basically saying: "OK, Seniors. Write less, but write better. "
Let me say that one more time: write less, but better. This advice lies at the heart of the Common App's upcoming changes. By eliminating the activities essay, the Common App is essentially asserting that every piece of a student's writing should be thoughtful and polished or not submitted at all.
Similarly, removal of the "topic of your choice" prompt is meant to ensure that all students produce thoughtful, honest essays with a clear narrative and focus. This action, in other words, is NOT meant to curb creative freedom or limit the stories a personal statement can tell. (Want proof? Read through the new prompts, and try to think of a single topic that doesn't work with at least one of them.) New restrictions on personal statement length likewise help guarantee that students will submit writing samples that are both thoroughly developed and well-coiffed.
In 2005, the College Board added a writing section to the SAT. Why? Because succinct and skillful writing is, more and more, a critical skill for success in college and beyond. The upcoming changes to the Common App should serve as a similar reminder that well-developed writing skills will take students far in their quest for admission to selective colleges and universities.
Juniors got a huge head start with their college applications when Common Application announced their 2013-14 essay topics last week. All of the topics are here, and are part of a number of changes in Common App's essay section:
The new offerings leave out what's been the most popular topic among students: "Write an essay on the topic of your choice." Students were extremely unhappy when this omission was announced in the fall, but the Common Application committee charged with developing the new essay topics made sure the choices would be very broad, allowing students ample opportunity to tell their individual stories. (Full disclosure: I was on the selection committee.)
Common Application decided to release the new topics at this time to make sure everyone understood a change was coming -- one change of many, as Common App prepares to roll out a new version of the entire application, CA4, on August 1. The essay topics now give students something to think about when it comes time to start writing college essays...
... and that time is not now. Knowing some juniors may decide this is the time to start applying, Common Application posted this notice on their Facebook page:
JUNIORS: Just because you know what our colleges will ask you to write about doesn't mean you should start writing. It's February 6. You have more pressing things to do. You'll have plenty of time to be a college applicant. For now, just be a student.
Truer words were never spoken. The essays and assignments teachers give juniors are designed to develop the skills colleges want to see in college essays -- skills like analysis, critical thinking, and evaluation. If students can hone those skills now with a lab report, a History paper, or an English essay, they will surely apply them later with a Common App prompt like "describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?"
You want to make sure your essays are engaging, and nothing kills inviting writing like too many rewrites. Several college admissions officers say students are writing essays that are "safe," writing that has good structure, but doesn't really tell the reader much about the student. This lack of color will only go up if you agonize over a small essay for up to 10 months -- make sure you tell your parents that when they suggest you spend this weekend cranking out a first draft.
College essays are part of an exciting process, but the glory of the Super Bowl comes only to those who master the nuances of training camp. Common Application has shown you the goal line, but now it's time for more training; hit the books, write for your classes, and put the college essays on hold.
For the first time in its recent history, the Common Application has changed its essay prompts for the 2013-2014 school year. More than 2 million high school seniors and 560 colleges use this college application platform; it enables students to send out the same application to member colleges. It requires one long essay, whose prompts have never changed. Until now.
Starting the upcoming 2013-2014 application year, the Common Applications plans to release new prompts each winter/spring. This change means we must share these prompts with all English teachers and counselors as students at many under-served schools will be at a great disadvantage if they don't see all of the new prompts early in the college readiness cycle.
For those who can't wait, we provide the newly released 2013-2014 Common Application instructions and prompts at the end of this piece.
Now more than ever, we will have to keep abreast of these new prompts. The Common Application removed the formal topic of your choice prompt, which more than 60 percent of all previous applicants have used, yet we believe the new first prompt takes that place and provides a great chance for students to share unique stories. Thank goodness that the application still values the unique stories students may want to tell that may not fit neatly into the other four prompts.
The Common Application is also implementing a 250-650 word limit. That is new, and students will learn how they will submit their essays when the new version is released. That word length is certainly sufficient for most students. I do not know if the application will have an additional information section.
In the past, students could adapt their Common Application essay easily for many other universities that have their own applications, including the University of California, University of Texas, and Georgetown. With these prompts, those adaptations can still work but in different ways. Students, teachers, and counselors will need to be creative in developing strategies to help student write the fewest, most powerful essays.
Some ideas already come to mind: Students can use the fourth or fifth prompts and adapt it to their first University of California Essay about describing the world they come from. University of Texas applicants can adapt the third prompt for their second essay about an issue of great importance to them. And who knows, these new essays may prompt other universities to shift their essays, including the many colleges that require additional supplements. Keeping track of the major essays is already a challenge. This new world of essays will make for an interesting year, and potential challenges for under-represented students to keep track of the different prompts.
Teaching students how to work with essay prompts is a part of effective reading and writing development. Please encourage everyone you know who works with high school students to embed the new annual prompts into their ongoing work with students. These essays encourage students to share their voices through specific stories and to ground these stories in their present day meanings for students.
As the essay prompts will shift each year, students will not have prior examples to examine, and I have always been grateful for colleges that share essays they like. With the specific guiding questions for several prompts, I hope that the Common Application board members will provide some advice for students about how to structure their essays and continue to provide examples. The ending of several of the prompts could lead to didactic and artificial essays if taken literally. I am hoping that as in the past, students can embed these questions into their overall essay flow. I imagine some lively debates about the interpretation of these essays, especially their endings, in the upcoming months.
The only prompt that I worry about is the second one about an incident or time of failure. I don't want students to wallow in that experience as the first part of the prompt may allow, but I want them to spend the majority of the essay focusing on the positive affects of the failure on the students and the powerful lessons learned. The University of Michigan used to have a similar prompt, and this led to many tales of unnecessary woe. That university removed that essay even before transitioning to the Common Application. We hope that students will use this prompt sparingly and turn their stories into evidence of who they are now: amazing students ready to offer unique qualities to their match colleges.
It's a brand new world in college application essay writing. I hope that the process is equitable, and that all students get these new prompts in time to write great essays that truly communicate their unique voices and stories.
2013-2014 Common Application Instructions and Prompts:
"Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)
I finally hit "submit" for the last time on the common application. I was excited, nervous, relieved and anxious all at the same time. The thought that I will never have to see another undergraduate application again is relieving, but the fact that I will have to wait for four months to hear from the schools is nerve-racking.
I spent the last two weeks of 2012 writing essays. It was great to dedicate that time to completing and finalizing my college applications without the demands of school, but fun definitely was not in my vocabulary for those two weeks. My laptop became my best friend, accompanying me everywhere I went: on the car ride to San Diego with my family, on trips to the grocery store. I didn't want to waste any opportunity to edit and improve my essays. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made to get the results you want.
I will now transfer my focus to researching and applying for scholarships. Luckily, my wonderful college counselor, Mrs. Golden, makes the search a lot easier. She prints out information for about 20 different scholarships that she thinks are fitting for the entire senior class. My fellow college peer counselors and I then create a "scholarship board," which has all the scholarship information neatly organized at the entrance to the college office, so it is easily accessible. Mrs. Golden gives so much time to students, as she should, but her passion for service prompts her to go beyond what she is expected to do. In fact, the phrase "Heart for service" is plastered on the board all year long. I've heard that counselors in other schools in my community don't dedicate nearly as much time and effort to their students as Mrs. Golden does to making sure students get all the information they need to get where they need to go.
Thankfully, applying for scholarships is a lot easier and makes me less anxious than applying for college. I acquired a list of scholarships I want to apply to by doing research on my own and asking my friends who graduated last year for advice on where to search for opportunities and which scholarships they applied for. Once I had my list, I organized it by due date and the amount of time I will need to spend on each application. Scholarships with long/multiple essay questions or questions I have not written about before are worked on first; scholarships that require an essay on a topic I have already written about are saved for later. Being able to reuse essays or write one essay that can be used for multiple scholarships is very helpful. For example, if one application's essay question is, "Why are you going to college?" and another asks, "Why is college so important to you, and how do you plan on using a college education to benefit others?" you can answer both questions in one essay.
My fall semester was probably one of the most challenging yet, between juggling a rigorous workload, standardized tests, and all those college essays. Taking on all these tasks is an accomplishment in itself, but successfully completing them while retaining my sanity is another. There needs to be some type of award for this! I look back and wonder why we allow this process to consume our lives, why we work tirelessly to be what we think our dream colleges want us to be. I realize that I did all of this work for the chance to have the college experience, whether I am studying abroad or just engaging intellectually with students, those who share my passions and those who have completely different interests. I'm excited for the opportunity to be around young visionaries who care deeply about something and to stretch myself socially and academically. I know my efforts over these past four months and throughout high school will be completely worth it because I will be experiencing something much bigger than myself at whatever university I decide to attend.
Night after night, I spent countless hours staring at a blank computer monitor. Why did I want to go to these colleges? They were in locations I quite frankly dismissed. Although they all offered interesting courses, there was nothing that especially intrigued me. But my parents and guidance counselor insisted I needed more options and that these schools could provide fantastic opportunities for me. I would have none of this.
One night, I snapped. In my fit of stress, I vowed to create a monster that could be programmed as the ideal college applicant: diligent, cerebral, outgoing, and, of course, very persuasive as an essayist. Never again would I suffer from writer's block!
With my advanced laboratory skills, thanks to my science research teacher, I set about building the monster. After weeks of my tinkering and assembling into the wee hours of the night, it was finally ready to be brought to life. For good measure, I pulled an Ivy League sweatshirt over its perfectly coiffed hair, and I gave it a pair of incredibly intellectual-looking glasses. I flipped the switch, and I stood in awe in front of my creation.
It was about six feet in height, with extremely wide, hypnotizing eyes. But the eyes weren't even its most striking feature. Its posture was absolutely stunning, just like any overly-confident college applicant's should be. It stuck out its hand to grasp mine. Naturally, it had a perfect handshake. If only it could have been there to help me prepare for my first college interview.
Once it let go of me, it crossed the room and sat at my computer. Peering over its shoulder, I saw it quickly type in a URL that was all too familiar to me: www.commonapp.org. To my surprise, it immediately started filling out every single one of the supplemental essays I had been puzzling over for the past three months. It worked rapidly, yet its grammar was impeccable. Somehow, I had endowed it with a supernatural knowledge of every college campus in the United States. Silently, I wondered how it knew the names of all the college founders when, in fact, it had never experienced a college information session or campus tour before. Once it had its fill for the evening, it slumbered on my closet floor, using an SAT book as its pillow and stacks of looseleaf paper as its blanket.
A week went by without a hitch. But I quickly noticed a flaw in its design. It lacked the ability to trust. More specifically, it lacked the ability to trust me. After accessing my Common App account and all of my accounts associated with it, it changed my passwords. I was cursed with guilt, and I no longer had control over the only college application process I would (hopefully) ever go through. I worried that my parents would find out what I had done. Would they be impressed by my newfound engineering skills, or terrified by my creation?
I was determined to deactivate the monster. Thinking quickly, I remembered the one academic talent I had failed to bestow upon my creation: the ability to do math. I grabbed my TI-89 calculator from my desk, crept over to where the monster slept, and woke it up. Handing it the calculator and my math textbook, it attempted to do the problem I had shown it. To my excitement, its systems were overwhelmed, and the beast spontaneously combusted.
With a glance at the smoldering embers, I realized I still didn't know any of my passwords.
As the first half of senior year comes to a close, many of you are feverishly working to complete your college applications. Those of you who have broken a rule or two -- got caught drinking at a school dance, forgotten to cite a source in a history paper or used weed killer to spell out your school's name on your archrival's football field -- have the added stress of explaining those incidents as part of the disciplinary history section of the Common Application.
You may be concerned that any disciplinary infraction, no matter how small, means that you will not be admitted to the college of your choice, or any college. But as a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, I can tell you that how you address these mistakes often matters more than the violations themselves. With that in mind, here are the three steps you might consider:
Step 1 -- Own it. Regardless of whether or not you feel that the rule you broke was valid or that you truly deserved the punishment meted out, the fact is that there was a rule and you did break it. You need to accept that fact and take responsibility for it before you can move forward in this process, or everything that comes afterwards, particularly step three, will be for naught.
Step 2 -- Disclose it. Because of a variety of policies adopted by high schools, not all incidents get put on a student's permanent record or are revealed to the colleges by the high schools themselves. This can lead to the ethically murky question of whether or not to answer the disciplinary infraction query honestly.
My colleagues and I always advise the same thing: if the honest answer to whether or not you have been found responsible for a disciplinary violation is yes, you should answer yes on the application. If the college finds out about your misstep from someone other than you -- anonymous letters are a particularly popular option -- the consequences are generally very bad. Once the college uncovers your dishonesty, it's hard to convincingly state that you have taken responsibility for and learned from your original mistake.
One caveat: the Common Application specifically states that students are not required to answer yes to this question or provide an explanation if the judgment or conviction was ordered by the court to be kept confidential. (Visit www.commonapp.org for the full version of this note.)
Step 3 -- Reflect on it. If owning it and disclosing it are the first steps towards redemption, reflecting on the incident is where you can truly showcase that you have learned and moved on from this lapse in judgment. Write honestly and thoughtfully about the experience. Take the blame, provide a mature explanation for what happened and why, tell your reader what you learned, and, if possible, provide a few examples of that lesson in action.
Depending on the seriousness of the infraction, you may need to apply to a few more schools than initially planned. For a truly grave mistake that involves violations of the law, you might consider making an appointment with the admissions officer to discuss what happened in person. Not all AOs will be open to this idea, but a willingness to talk about the issue may point to a greater likelihood of acceptance down the road. Still, you should probably add a few more safety options to your list and be prepared to show every single school to which you will apply some love by visiting and interviewing if that option is available.
In the end, keep in mind that all admissions officers realize that the applicants in their charge are teenagers who will sometimes make bad choices. It is how you as an applicant react to the fallout from those choices that will sway AOs back to your side.
Most colleges accept the common application, which, in my opinion, is the greatest thing ever to happen to the college process. Before this gift came into being, college hopefuls had to fill out separate applications for every school. So most people were banished to their rooms, pen in hand, to labor over a pile of applications while watching the clock move ever so slowly.
Alas, the college gods threw us a bone, and now we can use the common app -- the majority of schools accept it, and it can be completed online. No more licking stamps or making multiple trips to the nearest post office. Yes, the common app is the best -- but that doesn't mean it's easy. It's still pretty long and takes several hours to fill out. There is a ton of information to enter, and you may not know all of it off the top of your head (like exactly how many hours of community service you do a year, or what awards you won back in your freshman year). Luckily, I started early. In my junior year, the college counselors made us fill out a practice copy of the common app. This was a great exercise because when senior year came around, the application was only a matter of transferring information. This made things a lot easier, and I would recommend it to all applicants. Thank you, Mr. George and Mr. Clark!
After I filled out all the basic information, it really came down to the essay portion -- the biggest challenge. The main essay is the 500-word one I've been working on since last year. As a junior mentee in Minds Matter, I had to write a few personal statements for practice. I remember giggling with my mentors as they pitched me funny topics and I wondered how I could bring my personality to them and craft my entire story in two pages. After going through this process, I had two essays in my arsenal, but they didn't meet my expectations. Both did a good job of describing my experiences, but they focused too much on events and not enough on me. They didn't show off my great sense of humor or my desire to be the first in my family to go to college or why I would be a good fit for a particular school. They didn't talk about my family and my interests. When my senior fall started, I felt that I was back at square one. Would I ever find a way to convey the whole me?
I haven't had the smoothest ride on the roller coaster that is my life. I turned back the clock and thought about some of the darker times, because it is during these moments of adversity that you often discover more about yourself. What I learned about myself is that I have yet to find the one place where I truly feel comfortable, and so I chose to write about my desire to find a home in college. I sat in front of my laptop and the words just flowed. I wrote everything that came to my mind. I wrote about my experiences growing up, my strained relationship with my parents and the challenges I have overcome. The essay ended up being more than 500 words, but I didn't worry too much because I knew I could revise later -- the information was all there; I just had to trim the essay to perfection. (This is why you have to write essays ahead of time and not a few hours before you submit them!) After a couple more drafts, I was done!
My advice: Write a few different essays about a range of topics, making sure to always connect them back to yourself and how you've grown. Believe me, starting early and having several essays will save you a lot of time and stress.