The college admissions process is getting more and more competitive each year. In order to apply to US colleges, students usually submit an application through the Common Application or a stand-alone system that some schools have like the UCs. For the Common Application, students submit a central essay and a supplemental application with additional essays. In this article, we will review the basics for submitting applications and the three most common pitfalls students make when writing essays.
Basics for submitting applications
At Synocate , we have helped thousands of students through the admissions process and found similarities in the questions students have when writing applications. Choosing the college list, developing a plan for writing essays, and finding inspiration in essay writing are the three key areas that students struggle with.
We recommend most students to apply to between 10 - 15 colleges. 77% of high school students applied to 3 or more colleges and this number is exponentially increasing each year. With no downside to applying to more colleges expect the application fee (which can be waived in financial need) and more work, students are choosing to put in more effort for the possibility of gaining acceptance to more target and reach colleges. We wrote this Huffington Post article on how to exactly select the number of schools and the type of schools to apply to.
Each college usually has 3-6 short answer questions specific to that school. We recommend that students start writing essays in senior year for two major reasons: prompts can change each year (although they rarely do) and students themselves mature over time. Some parents approach us in 10th and 11th grade and think that writing essays then is a good idea. In order to prepare in those grades, guide your child to find their specific interest and do activities in that field. That approach will result in the most genuine essays in senior year as their writing and thought processes mature. One useful tool in developing a plan is what we call the Prompt Tracker. Basically, students will create a visual plan of all of their essays and write due dates for each. By doing this, students have a roadmap for exactly when they will write each essay and usually include some notes on their approach.
Tips for different essay prompts
Schools vary widely in the types of essay prompts they ask. The biggest area most students miss is answering the prompt in each sentence of every response. Most students actually tend to ignore the prompt as they write the essays. Given the tendency of AP and IB tests to award longer, convoluted essays higher grades, students get conditioned to writing in that style. For college admissions, officers usually do not spend more than 1 hour reading through an application, and often typically less if the student's numbers are far off from the average. The best way to improve essays is to re-read the essays and make sure each paragraph supports a central thesis that in turn answers the prompt.
The second biggest area students should focus on is writing genuine, thoughtful essays. Many students try to impress admissions officers by either listing their activities or using vocabulary that distances the reader from the writer. Generally, most short responses (~300 characters) are actually asking for a short response - not an essay response. Long essay response should usually have shorter paragraphs making them faster and easier to read. An admissions officer reads thousands of essays per day in a short time frame and wants to truly understand who you are. As a writer, you can help them by being honest and genuine and supporting your claims with what you have done in high school or experiences you have had.
The third largest area students should focus on is supporting claims. Any student can claim they are interested in science, but the student who proves that interest with evidence of their life (experiences, internships, summer programs, school clubs, volunteer work) will be more convincing. Imaging most essays as persuasive essays where you are reading your essay to a panel of 10 judges. Use ethos, pathos, and logos methods to convince readers that your passion is true. More so, this will come naturally if you actually think deeply about who you are, why you have pursued certain activities, and how you hope to become. The beauty of the college admissions process is that most students (~80%) change their major in college, so admissions officers are not filtering for an exact major but an ability to find and articulate a passion.
At Synocate, we have helped students apply to all types of colleges and have seen the same three pitfalls for many years. Students should focus on actually answering the prompt in each paragraph, being concise and thoughtful instead of trying to show off, and supporting claims with evidence from their life. In most cases, if students think of these three areas when writing essays they will write much more thoughtful essays. Over the past three years, we have created a free resource for actual student essays and more analysis on each type of essay.
Please reach out to us (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any more questions on the college admissions process!
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Question: I have to write several essays explaining why I have chosen particular colleges on my list. I haven’t been able to visit any of these schools or attend fairs or meet college reps, and I can’t think of anything to say that would sound genuine and show that I clearly have a believable reason for my attraction. Even after thinking long and hard, I haven’t been able to come up with any decent reason for wanting to go to specific colleges. I don’t want my essays to sound as if they came straight from the website or brochure. I really hate writing these essays and need some suggestions on how to approach them.
I hate those “Why This College?” assignments, too. I’ve seen students write the same essay for totally disparate schools, plugging in new adjectives, as needed, almost as if they were doing a “Mad Lib.” For instance, “I’ve always wanted to attend a LARGE UNIVERSITY” quickly turns into, “I’ve always wanted to attend a SMALL COLLEGE.” Or “I prefer a COLD climate” is transformed into “I prefer a WARM climate.”
In a perfect world, I think colleges should make this essay optional. The prompt should say something like this: If you have a truly compelling reason for selecting our institution, please explain. However 99% of our applicants should not respond to this question, and if you write a bunch of B.S., it will be held against you 🙂
Of course, it’s hard enough to compose these essays when you do know why you’re interested in your target schools, and harder still if your reasons for applying are as vague as yours are.
Here are some suggestions of ways to personalize the process of writing these nasty things. Hopefully, at the same time this little exercise will force you to look more closely at the choices you’ve made and see if they’re really the right ones for you.
1) Check out the comments about your target colleges on College Confidential. Feel free to quote CC members in your “Why This College Essay.” For instance, “Penn caught my eye when I spotted a comment on the College Confidential discussion forum by a member who called himself, ‘Ilovebagels.’ I love bagels, too (but that’s probably not a wise reason to choose a college!) and also I was interested when he said, ‘I’ve found Penn to be a remarkably centrist institution. Which as a right-of-center person, I felt put it ahead of the other Ivies with their legions of hippies.’ This made me think that Penn might be a good fit for me, so I started to dig deeper …”
2) Make e-mail contact with a “real” student. Many admission Web sites have links that allow you to connect with a current student. You can also do this though a friend or acquaintance who attends your target schools, by using college Web site directories to find students who share common interests (e.g., the president of the outing club or captain of the squash team), or by writing to the admission office and asking if they might be able to refer you to a Classics major or pre-med student or anyone who shares your interests, your home state or country, etc. Then, after corresponding with this student penpal, you can cite his or her words of wisdom in your essay.
3) Comb through college catalogs–either hard copies, if you have them, or online–to find classes/programs/activities that seem special and appealing then discuss your findings in your essays. Obviously, these offerings should be pretty unusual. Admission committees won’t be impressed if you say, “I want to go to Princeton because I found that I can take classes in Shakespeare and organic chemistry.” If you peruse entire catalogs and can’t find something that excites you, you really should be rethinking your college choices.
Finally, check out this thread on “Why This College Essays” on CC if you haven’t already to get some additional tips on those ornery essays. There is some great advice there from “Shrinkrap.”
I’m not sure why you haven’t been able to go on visits, attend fairs, meet with college reps, etc. Perhaps it’s geography and/or finances. But, if at all possible, in the months ahead, I do urge you to take a closer look at the schools that interest you, if possible, and even some that don’t, just so you’ll have options to compare.
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