- Get organized: there are lots of deadlines, essays, and various requirements. Get organized, start a spreadsheet or check list, anything that'll help you track what you need to get done.
- Essays: typically the most feared part of the essay, but they don't have to be. Have the right expectations going into them - similar to a major final paper for a class (or even more important!), you'll want to revise it over and over again with help from peers and other trusted adults. Get the essays organized so that nothing falls through the cracks (be sure to check all the tabs for supplemental short answers and writing prompts). We have a lot of tips on how to put together the essays on our blog as well; they're stylistically very different from most of the writing completed in high school.
- Activities: there's a section where you can list 10 of your activities. But, the section allows 50 characters for a title and 150 for a description...characters, not words! It's hard to cram all that you did in so few words, so you'll want to set aside special time to take a look at this section. You can use this section in tandem with the Honors/Awards section in the Education section to maximize usage of space on the application.
- Word Real Estate: as mentioned in the prior bullet point, don't repeat yourself! There are only so many words, characters for each section allowed, so use them wisely. Think of the application holistically.
Thoughts on application success - career & school.
There are lots of components of the Common Application and some look at it as simple and straightforward, others feel daunted by the amount of work ahead of them. Here are some basic things to keep in mind as you start to put together the application.
Your life is filled with lots of accomplishments, events, and memories. So, there's a huge urge to want to share all of that in your college application essay. With between 500 and 750 words to work with, it's impossible to get all the wonderful things you've accomplished and want to share with the admissions officer into this one essay, at least not in any sort of meaningful way. So, resist that urge to list a bunch of events! There are multiple parts to your application - the resume, your grades, short essays, standardized testing, and recommendations. All of these components will contribute to giving the admissions offer a rich picture of who you are.
Let the resume tell your chronological accomplishments from work, volunteer, and extra curricular activities. Let recommendations brag about the more qualitative pieces of who you are - personality, drive, etc. And, let the essay tell the reader how you think, your aspirations, and where those aspirations come from. In most cases, this stems from a story or series of events that are pivotal in your life. Here are some questions that might help you pinpoint these types of events:
Once you settle on the topic, don't forget to expand on the story and why it's significant, how it's changed who you are/your goals, and how it ties to your aspirations for the future or your more immediate next steps.
After reading thousands of college application essays from students at all different levels of writing, I've learned that the most powerful essays are ones that are genuine. For whatever reason, the right words flow, the thoughts are better conveyed, and the essay never feels forced or over-edited. It's a win-win for the prospective student: it's easier to write the essay & it's a more memorable essay for the reader, too.
We can tell when a portion of the essay feels forced - when a student starts writing what they think should be written instead of their own thoughts and perspective on their life and future. Or a parent interferes and suggests what they believe an admissions officer would like to read. Big ideas and strategy for the essay can come from many different places (parents, peers, other mentor figures), but we find that something wonderful always emerges when the student finally gets to writing their own thoughts down. It's always a transformative process, guiding students through this new type of writing - about themselves, their thoughts and desires for the future. Regardless of writing skill level - a genuine essay is one of the ingredients that is most powerful.
Most families know that every component of the college admissions process is important. Families know the importance of grades, challenging coursework completed, and the cumulative GPA. Many students also take test prep courses or get private tutoring for SATs and ACTs. But what about the admissions essay? Is it just another essay – similar to the assignments at school?
The essay is the one component of the application that can really set a student apart from the pack. With selective schools, for every enrollment slot, there are 5 students with the same scores, GPA, and extracurricular leadership stats. The essay is the only real opportunity to set yourself apart from the others once you hit your senior year – the grades, coursework, and typically test taking is already completed. Your words paint a picture of your past, how you think about your future, and what you’ve learned from your experiences thus far. It paints a picture for the admissions officer – who you are, where you can contribute to the school, and what you can bring to the campus that isn’t already there. Often time, it’s what gets a student into a reach school – when all else equal, the essay is what tips the scales in an invitation to enroll at a school.
Okay, so we know it’s really important.
It’s important, and also a skill that hasn’t been honed by most 16-18 year olds that are looking to attend college. The admissions essay isn’t a book report, analysis of a concept, or summary of a historical period. It’s partially a marketing essay and partially a personal thought essay – both of which aren’t studied much in high school. If a student regularly writes their personal thoughts about life and daily ongoings into a diary – that is likely the best practice they are getting for this type of essay. However, these journal entries aren’t likely getting proofed for structure and effectiveness in getting a point across to the reader. So… a few tips on the essay writing process:
Of course, Lucent Education helps students through this process – it’s our specialty. We take the mystery out of it, helping students hone in on the skills to write these types of essays through one on one support; "on the job" type support with revisions, questions, and conversation. We never compromise the authenticity of the writer's words and our goal is to help students find their voice in the essays so that they come across genuine, individual, and thoughtful. Just as it takes many hours to learn how to put together a great book report, we structure an effective plan to help applicants learn while completing their admissions essays.
Starting an essay is always the hardest part. The blessing and the curse of an admissions essay is that the topic is incredibly broad. You have to discuss your past, present, and future all in less than 650 words. Fortunately, by approaching the topic in a structured manner you can quickly determine what gets to take up precious essay real estate.
Step 1: Brainstorm your topic
– Write out your essay ideas on post it notes and then group the post it notes based on the theme of the story
– Think about which themes apply to the essay the most and then toss the rest
– Rank the stories within each theme from top to bottom
– Grab some friend, tell them the essay question and the top story to each theme and see which stories they think highlight you the best
– You have your topic/top topics!
Step 2: Figure out the flow
Sometimes, the story you thought would work so well, doesn’t work when you start detailing it. Good stories have a clear beginning, middle, and end with sign posts throughout to tell the reader where he/she is headed. To check if your story flows, write out the structure of the essay using this form.
Topic sentence 1:
Bullet points for the paragraph
Topic sentence 2:
Bullet points for the paragraph:
Step 3: Obtain peer review
Grab a different set of friends and ask them to look through the structure. The benefit of having the structure is that it’s difficult to hide a bad story without being able to use flowery language, Ask the following questions:
– Does it address the essay question?
– Does the story make sense?
– Can you see how paragraph 1 is connected to paragraph 2 and so on?
– Which sections of the story do you want to know more about?
– What is the impression you’re left with after reading this structure?
At this point, you should have a really good idea of whether or not the story you picked is suitable. If the answer is no, that’s ok. Start at step 1 again. The whole process should be a relatively quick and easy one and will save you the pain of starting fresh when you’re chest deep in to the essay.
In my very first conversations with families and clients, one of the questions almost always is, “Agnes, why do you do this?” Well, there are a ton of reasons, but one of my most selfish reasons is that I love seeing the essays evolve. For many high school students that are in their senior year working on their college applications, this is the first time writing has no impact on their grade, but great of impact on where their life will lead. For many students, their writing for the first time has a different kind of drive.
Many of our Lucent Ed students opt for the unlimited revisions (great if you’re starting from scratch), and because of this new drive, there are significant improvements on student writing through the numerous revisions. From the very first outline or draft to the final product where each letter and comma has been agonized over – there’s a huge transformation – in not just the essay, but in the skills of the writer. Going through each revision, their questions become more thoughtful about everything from sentence structure to really articulating their aspirations, experiences, and emotions. As a coach in this process, I love seeing the student grow in their writing and personally as they tackle how they’d like to convey themselves to the world (well, really admissions), sometimes for the first time. It’s quite inspiring what they come up with, and it’s one of the primary reasons I love to be with Lucent Education.
The title to this article is pretty intimidating. If you’re a college senior (or rising senior) and starting to get serious about going to more selective schools, a good start to writing your essays is to outline and highlight important pieces of your life. You can also polish this outline to use along with your resume when you ask your teachers, coaches, and mentors for recommendations.
Ok, you’re ready to get started? The easiest way is to start from the present and start listing your biggest highlights from high school, some of which will already be on your resume. Then think back further to highlight various aspects of your life. Have you encountered birth or death? Have you led a group of your peers in a petition? Have you started your own business selling lollipops you made at home? Are you your grandma’s favorite? Were you overshadowed by siblings or cousins? Did you argue with your parents about getting serious about swimming instead of tennis?
Next, think back on the little things that have happened in your life that might have impacted you in a big way. What are the inside jokes your friends have about you? Are there stories that your parents tell about you to their friends? Check in with your friends and family and ask them about what they felt were big moments in your life or the highlights of your personality.
Now that you have a good list of highlights, start to think back on each of these moments in your life and write a few phrases about how they made you feel, what you learned, or how it affected your future goals. For some of the moments, you’ll have a hard time articulating, others you’ll realize that they were defining moments in your life. After completing this portion of the exercise, start to prioritize the moments that you’d like to share with the college admissions officers. Mainly, prioritize the moments that truly represent who you are and help to share your unique story with application readers.
Here’s an example of how your outline might look:
-Brother is born (I was age 3)
-I used to watch him in the back of our van as our parents shopped; we always rough housed by I once flipped him so hard that I could tell this was unlike any other time. This is when I realized my responsibility for him.
-Big family dinners each week
-We traveled over an hour each week to visit the family on my dad’s side; with over 15 cousins and still counting
-The inside joke of the family was that my cousin J was super talented, cousin F was a genius, and I was the cutest of them all; took this to heart and found a passion I could work hard at and excel at in my own terms
Now that you’ve put together some important moments and lessons from your personal history, you have a rough outline to work with. As suggested earlier, you can now pick out the pieces that you feel will convey who you are and make you shine to include in your college application essays. However, your application doesn’t include just your essays. With the outline that highlights your life, you have a lot of good information that you can still share with the admissions committee.
Before putting the essays together, it’s time to think about how to strategically piece together an entire application package. As an exercise, make columns for the different components of your application: essays, resume, and interview. With your “highlighting your life” outline, think about how you’d categorize the top 10-15 topics. Is the topic one of the easiest to describe in two sentences or less? Then it’s probably best in your resume. Is it a deep personal philosophy? That might be better suited for one of the essays. Is it about one of your favorite teachers, but doesn’t really fall into something you can write a whole paragraph about? Perhaps save that for the interview since many interviewers ask about your favorite class or teacher.
Many applicants sit down and tackle each component of the application separately, however, the admissions officers will be looking at the whole package – so you should be completing it as a whole package. Take the time to be intentionally strategic about what you want your entire application to convey about you.
About Lucent Education:
College, Graduate School, and Career Coaching.