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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Home » Application Process » How To: Write Your Personal Essay
How To: Write Your Personal Essay
Posted by Carolyn Pippen on Wednesday, September 11, 2013
While we still have a few more days until the official beginning of fall, around here it feels a lot like the season has already begun. Classes are back in session, the leaves are falling off the trees, and most of our counselors have departed for the two-month marathon of flights, high school visits, and college fairs that we call travel season.
In addition, thousands of high school seniors across the country have begun the process of filling out college applications. Regardless of whether or not one of your applications will be submitted to Vanderbilt, we would like to offer you a few nuggets of the expertise we have acquired working with students and evaluating applications over years.
Thus we give you: The “How To” Series. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting lists of tips concerning various pieces of the application that we hope will make this process a little less overwhelming for all of you. Today’s tips focus on the personal essay.
- Be thoughtful, but not fretful. As a senior, most of the accomplishments that will make up the bulk of your application – academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular involvement – are said and done. In a sense, the only part of the application over which you have complete control right now is the essay. Don’t let this scare you! While the essay is a valuable tool that we use to understand you better, it is rarely if ever a “make or break” component of your application.
- Keep the “personal” in personal essay. The Common Application presents six different prompts for you to choose from when writing your essay. To be honest, we don’t really care that much what you write about, as long as you’re writing about you. In other words, don’t spend the entire essay detailing the life of your favorite and most accomplished family member, but rather focus on how that person has affected you and your life decisions. Don’t give us a detailed narrative of your favorite community service trip, but instead tell us what you learned from that trip and how it has changed your outlook on the world. This is one time when it’s okay to be self-centered – more than anything, we want to know about you!
- Don’t try to guess what the reader wants to hear. If you ask a hundred different admissions counselors what their favorite kind of essay is, you will likely get a hundred different answers. Trying to figure out what topic will get us most excited is like trying to guess which outfits the judges of Project Runway are going to like the most – no matter how many times we watch, Heidi always manages to confound. Instead of trying to game the system, focus on the things that get you excited. If nothing else, I promise that passion will show through.
- Feel free to be funny or creative – but don’t overreach. If your friends tell you that you’re the funniest person in the class, use that skill to your advantage. If your creativity is what sets you apart from your peers, let that innovation guide the structure and content of the essay. On the other hand, if every joke you make at the cafeteria table falls flatter than a pancake in a Panini press, don’t try to fake it. Figure out what your personal strengths are, and stick with them.
- Tell us something we don’t already know. When writing your essay, be sure to keep in mind all of the other pieces of your application we already have in front of us while we’re reading it. Do not use this space to summarize your extracurricular involvement or your academic achievements if we’ve already seen these things in your resume and transcript. We know that there is more to you than just test scores and leadership roles, so tell us more!
- Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we’re probably going to notice.
- Edit, proof, polish, and breathe. Beyond gaining insight into your personal psyche, the purpose of the essay is also to showcase your written communication skills. Treat this essay just like any class assignment – write it early, proof and revise, keep an eagle eye out for spelling and grammatical errors, and make sure it is presented in a clean and polished way. That being said, do not call our office in a panic if you discovered a missing article or a misused “its” after you hit submit. Because of our holistic selection process, no student will be denied based on one element of his or her application; this includes typos.
Posted in Application Process, General Information, The College Essay and tagged: academic credentials, breathe, college applications, Common Application, essay writing, extracurricular activities, Heidi Klum, how to apply, personal essay, Project Runway