College Application Time – ‘Tis the Season

December 6, 2010 at 11:11 am Leave a comment

This year Stanford admitted only 7.2 percent of applicants and Harvard accepted only 6.9 percent of them. The process seems daunting. At Harvard, before kids even get to the essay questions, they need to circle whether their career, academic, and athletic plans are “very likely to change” or “absolutely certain.” Then they’ve got the 250-words-or-more Common Application essay. (One suggested topic: “Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.” Yikes.) And many schools add on “optional” essays.

Writing a college application essay can be pretty stressful, and it should be time-consuming. After all, you don’t want to give the admissions counselors at your dream school a bad impression based on a poorly written essay that you threw together the night before the due date. Proper planning is essential because you will need to give yourself plenty of time for adjustments, rewrites, and proofreading.

It’s no secret that your high school grades and standardized test scores will play a large role in admissions decisions, but colleges also like to get an idea of what their applicants are really like as a person. Essays are a good way for admissions committees to gain some insight about your interests and values. Essays also provide an easy way for the schools to see a first-hand example of your writing skills.

Here’s a guide to some ways you can use to help you through this rite of passage:

Be Yourself. “Applications are best if they reflect the way the student is,” says Light. “It’s very tempting to sit down and try to figure out what admissions officers — we as a species — want to see, and there are perils in that.” Why? “We have pretty good radar to detect the overly varnished,” says Keith Light, who has worked in admissions at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and now at Brown. “It’s not that we’re cynical and looking for cheating or too much input. [But] it’s not very hard for us to spot when a parent or someone else [like a teacher] has had too much of a heavy hand in the writing.” It makes admissions officers wonder, “Are we really getting to really know the student, or what others thinks the student is?” he says. It’s best when students pen their own essays, which sound as though they’re written by the person their teachers are describing in their recommendation letters.

College admissions counselors know the typical writing skill level of high school students, so they will most likely be able to see through an essay not written by the student. Some students submit essays that they had a friend or relative write for them, or even one that they purchased online—these are all bad plans. You could wind up costing yourself admission into the school and get yourself into big trouble. Just be yourself!
Getting Started. Some students make the mistake of waiting until they have access to the actual application essay topics before they start thinking about their college admissions essays. It’s actually a good idea to begin keeping a notebook or list of potential ideas during your junior year of high school. Write yourself notes every once in awhile to keep track of things you’ve done. Your list can include things such as group projects you worked on, school activities that you participated in, church functions, part-time jobs that you’ve had, and even family things that you’ve dealt with, such as divorce. Nearly anything can wind up becoming your essay topic.

Once it’s time to begin writing your essay for real, you’ll have a notebook full of ideas from which to choose. Go through your notes and see if anything seems worthy of using; you can even choose two or three topics as “maybes” and narrow things down as you go.

Decide which essay topic you are going to use, and begin by writing an outline. Even though you may have been told otherwise, your admissions essay doesn’t have to be about something that no one else has ever done. While it’s important that your essay is unique and talks about you, most high school students go through similar experiences … and you don’t want to create an essay full of lies, remember?

Once you begin writing, you’ll probably realize that the experience isn’t as bad as you’d imagined it would be. Just remember that the purpose of writing this essay is to present a personal view of you to the college admissions staff. If the school does not require in-person interviews, your essay may be all they have to go on. Take your time and allow others to read your essay and provide constructive criticism before you turn it in.

Don’t underestimate yourself. Keep your attitude positive. Most kids don’t go to Harvard — but still get into a college and love it. This fall about 7.5 million students are expected to attend public four-year institutions and 4.6

million to attend private four-year institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (There are more than 420 public colleges and universities alone, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.)

Don’t feel compelled to add extras, such as resumes. “We neither ask for or expect them, but they pop up,” says Light. (Some even include “mission statements.”) Light once received a 12-page one. The parent told him, “The son of my friend down the street just got admitted to Harvard last year, and his resume was 14 pages.” Light’s take on it: “He was admitted in spite of the essay.” (Resumes aren’t the only add-ons: Once Light received multiple copies of a color-coded family tree, dating back to the 1800s, which showed close relatives’ connections to a university.)

Follow the essay guidelines that were specified on your application. You don’t want it to be too short or too long. Most schools allow typed essays, so they will probably have specifications for font size and spacing; others will request hand-written essays, so be sure to submit your essay in the format that is required. Read your directions carefully.

Remember to proofread your essay. Check your work carefully for grammar, spelling, and structure. Ask others to proofread it, too – your English teacher is a great choice for this job, if they’re willing to help you out, as well as your friends and family. An essay that is full of typos and grammatical errors will look sloppy and rushed and will reflect poorly on you.

Save your essay. It’s fine to use the same essay with minor revisions for more than one college application, so be sure to save your essay. Keep it on the hard drive of your computer, but burn it to CD or place it on an external hard as well. You never know when your computer may crash and cause you to lose everything. You can even email it to yourself as an attachment.

Good luck!


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