This popular guide helps students write essays that win admission
Winning college application essays take admission officers beyond the numbers and shows them what the students really care about, how they think, and who they really are. But even the best of students can be daunted by the task.
This easy-to-follow guide provides the tools to tell a memorable story. Updated to reflect recent changes to the all-important Common Application, which nearly all applicants to competitive colleges use, this book provides a clear path to an essay that says, "Pick me!"
-Best approaches to the new Common Application questions
-Clues to how colleges read essays
-Simple steps for successful drafts
-Quick fixes for procrastinators
-The right role of parents in the process
Critiques of actual sample essays guide students toward the best practices and away from common mistakes. No other book on this topic has this breadth and depth of expertise.
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The College Application Essay
By Sarah Myers McGinty
College BoardCopyright © 2015 Sarah Myers McGinty
All rights reserved.
How Colleges Read Applications
"The essay is the first thing I read. I really slow down over that," says Thyra Briggs, vice president and dean of admission at Harvey Mudd College. Briggs is acknowledging the importance of the essay in differentiating applicants. "A picture of the student begins there," she adds. Of course, as in all admission offices, the transcript is the primary source of information about an applicant. But after that, when admission counselors want a sense of the person behind the paper, when they are looking for the match between institution and applicant, essays can make the case. "A great essay can close the deal," says Briggs. "It's the one place to clearly hear the student's voice."
Harvey Mudd's process is its own, but it is not entirely different from that of other colleges. In most admission offices, grades, and courses — the transcript — are where evaluation begins. Then other factors are taken into account: talents, recommendations, activities, testing, special circumstances, a portfolio or supplemental materials, an audition, an interview. Woven into all this is an interest in the applicant's personality and writing ability. The application essay gives colleges useful information about both of these features.
Where It All Began
The application essay or personal statement has been a part of college admission since the explosion of college enrollment after World War II, evolving from direct queries like "Why in particular do you wish to attend Bates?" to more eccentric requests like "Your favorite word" (Princeton University) or "What activities make you lose track of time?" (Mount Holyoke College). The Reverend Robert Kinnally, former dean of admission at Stanford University, believes the essay helps admission counselors "judge the depth of the [applicant's] understanding of intellectual or social issues ... it also shows the quality and freshness of the applicant's mind." Although not every college requires an application essay, narrative prose figures into the admission process at a wide variety of institutions — for the 38,000 applicants to the University of Michigan, for the 35,000 applicants to Harvard University, for the 12,000 applicants to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and for the 1,600 applicants to Carroll College in Helena, Montana. The evaluation of the essay may contribute to how a college differentiates among its top applicants. Or it may determine whether a borderline candidate has the necessary basic skills. Colleges use essays for different purposes, but essays matter — at large, small, public, private, selective, and nonselective schools.
How Colleges Read Essays
Colleges are looking to build scholarly communities, hoping to collect a population of people who like to read and think, reflect and talk, wonder and argue. This is the mission of admission. But as William C. Hiss, former dean of admission at Bates College, says, "We are often seen, wrongly, I think, as a set of intellectual gatekeepers who, like Dante's Divine Comedy, offer three possibilities: paradise, purgatory or hell — that is, admit, wait-list, deny." In contrast, the colleges themselves see a methodical and quantifiable process of selection. Marlyn E. McGrath, director of admission at Harvard University, describes the admission staff as a group of hard-working people "determined to bring to Harvard students who are diverse in talents and interests." In choosing a class of first-year students, admission counselors make judgments that involve objective information (comparing two students' course loads, for example) and subjective information (a coach's opinion about how far a specific player might develop within the college's tennis program). It's what Fred Hargadon, former dean of admission at Princeton, liked to call "precision guesswork."
The anxiety about all this, for high school students and their families, is very real. And it's easy to start believing that the college admission process is going to be the most significant and determining feature in a young person's life. (Actually, what you do in college is more important than where you go to college.) But the "big picture" isn't a pattern of injustice and irrationality. Both colleges and applicants are looking and choosing. Both admission counselors and high school seniors are busy gathering information and making judgments based on facts and predictions. In pursuit of a common goal — the best education of the next generation of leaders and thinkers — colleges and universities, like you, will look at many options.
Your research probably started first and you have many resources to draw upon:
Guidance personnel and the counseling and career staff at your high school and at your local library
Websites, social media, mailings, videos, blogs and viewbooks from the colleges
Admission counselors — at the colleges, visiting at your high school, or at local-area information fairs
Teachers, coaches, educational consultants, friends, parents, alumni (preferably recent alumni)
Guidebooks and data handbooks
Campus visits and interviews
Prior applicants from your own high school or community
Word of mouth, general reputation, and media coverage (not the most reliable information)
You aren't doing this alone. All these resources will help you with your half of the choosing — deciding where to apply to college. Colleges rely on a more focused set of resources:
Course of study
Grades, class rank, and grade point average
Biographical data (summer activities, jobs, special talents, and interests)
One or more essays, writing samples, or paragraph responses
Support materials where appropriate (audition, tapes, portfolio)
An interview when available
Inside the Admission Office
Let's look at how colleges make their decisions, in order to understand where the application essay fits into the picture.
The evaluation process differs at every school. Some colleges see numerical data as the most reliable predictor of success: They look first at an applicant's grades, class rank, and test scores. The state of California, for example, publishes eligibility minimums and uses a variety of criteria for each of its different UC campuses. Other schools try to tease from the file a richer sense of the applicant. Vince Cuseo, vice president and dean for admission at Occidental College, says, "We read to uncover character, values, and something of the life experience." And where a school offers a distinctive program — the K plan at Kalamazoo College, the internship options at Northeastern, the hands-on education of Deep Springs — application evaluation stresses the "fit" of applicant and education. All schools, even the large state universities, have a special process for the question marks — the "gray zone" applications that may require additional readers or consideration by a committee. Colleges and universities continually modify the way they evaluate applications, looking for the most reliable and the fairest way to put together a class from the limited information provided.
The people who make these decisions also vary. The readers of applications are usually a combination of experienced senior admission personnel and younger staffers, often themselves recent graduates of the school. A dean of admission or an enrollment manager oversees everything. But faculty members may be part of the process. At Cal Tech, all admission decisions involve faculty. Reed College includes student readers on admission committees. Applicants may also be looked at by specialists: music faculty hear auditions, art staff view portfolios. Claudia Harrison, a geography teacher and applications advisor at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich, UK, recommends the UCAS website as a useful resource for students as they complete the 47 line (4,000 characters) essay required on the application to universities in the United Kingdom. "These essays are read by admission tutors, scholars who have devoted their lives to a discipline, and they are, quite naturally, looking for achievements and depth of knowledge in that discipline."
The committee is not then a nameless, faceless group of people, uniform in taste and attitude. It is made up of individuals. Assigned seemingly endless files of applications in the dark days of winter, such an audience — overworked and tired — may find that a creative, innovative, interesting or unique element in an application makes the difference. High scores and great grades do stand out. But students mistake their audience when they visualize a stuffy bunch of academics in search of an academic superstar.
Are all applications read in the same way? They can't be. In fact, as Ted O'Neill, former dean of admission at the University of Chicago, points out, "We don't want them all to be read in the same way. A collection of identical people would make a very boring college." So there is no perfect applicant, no "just what they want" that applicants should shape themselves to be. Many things are sought within a class and many different elements make up the admission committee's final judgment. The application is a web of information, a jigsaw puzzle that is interconnected and interactive. Each element plays its own part; each makes its own argument.
Here's what admission will consider:
Your High School Record
The numbers come first. Colleges request grades, usually beginning with ninth grade. (If you have been homeschooled, your supervisor will complete a detailed curriculum report as part of your application.) Three and a half years of performance provides a picture of your academic achievement and also a look at the pattern of your growth and progress. Straight A's are nice — but rare in a challenging course of study. An improvement in grades is positive, too — the opposite will certainly raise eyebrows in the admission office. But above all other factors in the grade pattern, most colleges scrutinize the course load. A grade of B in Advanced Placement® English is more important than an A in chorus. An A in chemistry carries more weight than an A in civics. Grades, class rank and grade point average are viewed in light of your course choices. Some admission offices add a factor to a student's grades for a strong educational program or for more challenging courses — Advanced Placement courses, a math class at the local college, study with a respected voice coach at a conservatory.
Grades, class rank, and grade point average are also viewed in terms of your high school and its student body. Colleges assign regional responsibility to members of the admission staff who familiarize themselves with a few states or with one part of the country. They know each high school and its course offerings. Some secondary schools have a reputation for excellence; others have less rigorous programs. Each school's general quality is considered in evaluating class rank and course of study. So while a B in AP® Physics will count more than an A in Introduction to Science, a B from a renowned application-based high school like Boston Latin School will count for more than an A from a school that just lost its accreditation.
Testing contributes numbers to your application. Many schools require the SAT®, some SAT Subject Tests, or the ACT. Some applicants may provide Advanced Placement Exam scores; language competency scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS); scores from the International Baccalaureate exam (IB); O-Levels; other testing administrated in a home country. These standardized tests help admission personnel evaluate applicants' potential for a successful performance in college. The scores are a yardstick by which students of widely differing backgrounds can be compared. Testing may seem impersonal and "unfair," but it is part of the access path to higher education in every developed country from Beijing to Istanbul, from Edinburgh to Buenos Aires.
The admission committee will look at your scores and compare them to your grades. High grades can overcome low scores, but admission personnel will carefully scrutinize the course load and the high school's reputation. High scores can sometimes compensate for low grades, but that particular combination tends to make admission personnel nervous: Does the student lack motivation? Is she just a bright goof-off?
Grades, course load, grade point average, class rank, and scores are the numerical information colleges use to evaluate an application. They look to your past as a clue to your future. Studies show that neither grades nor test scores alone indicate whether an applicant will succeed in college. However, the combination of high school record and scores has been found to be a fairly valid indicator of college success. College work also relies on the same study habits, self-discipline, skills, and personal qualities — enthusiasm, organization, independence of thought, responsibility, perseverance — needed in high school. These qualities contribute to success in a career as well.
As you begin to think about college options, keep all your high school numbers in mind. Don't let yourself become overwhelmed by standardized test scores. Remember that the numbers colleges list are often the median scores, not the cutoff scores. If a school lists its median SAT math score as 600, then 50 percent of the class scored higher than 600, and 50 percent scored lower. Many schools now list the SAT test score range of the middle 50 percent of the first-year class. The score range of admitted students is often higher than the range for applicants, but in both cases, there are students with scores above and below the given numbers.
Numbers are only part of your application. They will, however, help you determine which schools are your long shots and which are likely to be satisfied with your performance. They will help the admission committee determine if you are a sure accept, a clear deny, or a maybe.
Other sections of the application are less numerical. A long history of research, from work sponsored by the College Board to studies in applied psychology that focus on university admission, hiring practices, and even military and leadership skills, while confirming the validity of testing and grade-point averages as useful in predicting college and career success, has found that personal qualities — from motivation to study habits — figure significantly in performance. Many colleges look to recommendations, essays, and the interview to give them that needed sense of the person. And some colleges consider these elements primary criteria in an admission decision.
Evaluations will be written by your high school counselor and by a few of your teachers. Make these most effective by scheduling an early appointment with your counselor to discuss your college selection. If your high school is large, your relationship with your counselor may be a bit remote. The national ratio of students to counselors is 460:1, but recent U.S. Department of Education data found a broad range from 814:1 in Arizona to 197:1 in Wyoming. You might want to prepare a simple life history or a resume for your counselor. It's good preparation for filling out the applications and, by listing some of your circumstances and activities, you help your counselor write a specific and informed recommendation.
Approach your teachers early. Ask for recommendations from teachers who like you, with whom you have done well, whose courses relate to your intended area of specialization, and who are themselves articulate, careful, and responsible. You want a positive letter and one that will be consistent with the rest of your application. But don't forget that such a letter isn't likely to be written by even your favorite teacher if he or she is overworked, hassled and pressed for time. Ask, "Do you have the time to write a recommendation for me? I'm looking at Wesleyan, Oberlin and Sarah Lawrence." Name the schools, as that will guide the response. And don't be downcast if the teacher says he or she is too busy or can't do it. Approach someone else. You don't want your request gathering dust on the "to-do list" of a teacher who meant to do it but had too many periods of cafeteria duty to find the time.
You might want to give the teachers your brief resume. They will rely mostly on what you've done in their classes, but it helps if they know you were entering piano competitions or working nights at McDonald's while you were turning out first-rate reports on Jacksonian democracy. Give the recommending teacher a list of the courses you took with him or her, the grades you received, and any special projects or major papers you wrote. Students come and go and most teachers appreciate a little memory jogging. Your teacher will probably upload her recommendation after receiving an email notification initiated by you through the Common Application website. Or she may submit the letter through your school's Naviance system. Waive your right of access; it shows confidence in your recommender and adds credibility to the letter. Thank-you notes at the end of the process are appropriate.
Excerpted from The College Application Essay by Sarah Myers McGinty. Copyright © 2015 Sarah Myers McGinty. Excerpted by permission of College Board.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: How Colleges Read Applications,
Chapter 2: You've Done This Before,
Chapter 3: Writing an Essay,
Chapter 4: What's the Question?,
Chapter 5: What's the Answer?,
Chapter 6: A Family Affair,
Chapter 7: A Different Story,
Chapter 8: Analyzing Some Drafts,