In January, Ron Lieber, a money columnist for the New York Times, asked high school seniors to send in college admissions essays about money, class, working, and the economy.
Sixty-six students submitted essays, and with the help of Harry Bauld, author of “On Writing the College Application Essay,” he picked four essays that he felt were superior.
What all the essays had in common, said Lieber in a column that ran today, was that they had an “appetite for risk.” The students weren’t afraid to tackle tough topics. They also took “counterintuitive positions” on class, money, and the application process.
One student critiqued the college application process, noting that all the mailers colleges send to applicants is a waste of money and that instead they should spend the funds on their students. This student is going to Oberlin College in the fall; however, interestingly, while he did send this essay to Antioch College, which accepted him, he did not send it to Oberlin.
Another student wrote about his immigrant experience in the United States – a difficult topic to put a fresh spin on – but the admissions staff at N.Y.U, where the student will be attending next year, felt the take was unique enough, and accepted him.
The third student wrote about how she never felt the United States was her home. "The earth is my `home,'” she wrote. This declaration caught the eye of – and an acceptance from --Hamilton College. The admissions officer at Hamilton told the Times that she liked this one because she did not feel it had been written by parents or another adult, which according to her, often happens.
The fourth student, when applying to Princeton, wrote that she wondered if the college should be poorer. She did not get accepted to Princeton, but did to Cornell, where she did not write about the university’s level of affluence.
I recommend everyone read the complete story as it offers a window into the minds of admissions’ officers. For example, the admissions officer at NYU said he liked the student’s essay on his immigrant experience because the essay brought the student's background and circumstances “into Technicolor. He paints a very vivid picture.”
This comment is key to what makes a college application essay stand out – details. It’s also interesting to think that officers can tell when an essay has been written by adults. This is crucial information for all of us out there who are helping students with their essays, whether we are independent counselors, parents, English teachers, or high school counselors. While for sure young writers often need brainstorming and guidance in writing their essays, their voices must be their own.
The results are in for the 2013 college admission statistics, and two trends are clear: the applicant pool is growing larger and colleges are growing even more selective. The Choice, the New York Times college admissions blog, reports, for example, that USC received more than 74,000 applicants this year – 10,000 more than just two years ago. And UCLA received the highest amount of applicants ever in the history of college admissions: 99,559.
As far as selectivity goes, seven of the eight Ivy League schools lowered their acceptance rates this year. The University of Chicago, as an example of another selective school, accepted a paltry 8.8 percent. Stanford took the prize for the most selective school of the season – accepting 5.69 percent of students.
The Choice concludes that “the competitive nature of college admissions has yet to reach a tipping point. As students continue to apply in droves to an increasing number of schools, the admissions officers must become more selective. This selectivity, of course, gives applicants more cause to become more competitive, and, year after year, increase the number of colleges to which they apply.”
Click here for a comprehensive list of acceptance rates for colleges this year.
I know that SAT Prep isn’t normally in my repertoire, but I am posting a recent story I wrote on last-minute prep for the parenting web site, mom.me.
A few tips I wasn’t able to put into the story:
Practice Tests. Experts recommend taking at least three, but no more than one a week or you may burn out.
What to Study. Experts said too many kids waste valuable study time drilling high-level math, such as pre-calculus, that is not even on the SAT. Also, for the English portion of the test, experts advise students to focus most of their prep time on reading comprehension skills. Many students spend hours prepping vocabulary, but there are many more reading comprehension and analysis questions on the SAT than strict vocabulary questions.
The Essay. Don’t worry so much about the prompt. You are not being tested on your knowledge of the subject you are being asked to write about, say experts, but rather on your ability to organize your thoughts, take a position, and stay on-topic.
September is suddenly
upon us, which means that seniors are hopefully working on their
college application essays. For those
students in the San Gabriel Valley area, I will be putting on a workshop next
Wednesday, September 19, at the Crowell Public Library in San Marino on “Everything You Wanted to Know About College Application Writing.” I will cover what sorts of essays you should
expect to write, topics to avoid, style tips, how to recycle essays, and
The library is located at 1890
Huntington Drive in San Marino. I hope
to see you there!
As seniors start to think about writing their college essays, here are seven style pointers to get them started:
Watch for seven more style tips in the next blog post.
The answer: Yes and no.
Yes, you want your essay to have a beginning, middle and an end.
But no, the intro/thesis statement/three supporting paragraphs/ conclusion structure probably won’t work.
For example, let’s say you are writing an essay about how flying kites with your little brother taught you the value of slowing down and enjoying the moment. Maybe at first you didn’t want to spend the hours with your brother detangling the complicated dragon kite, trying to get it aloft, untangling the strings again after every crash, then once the kite was finally in the air, watching it fly for what felt like hours. But eventually you began to appreciate the slow beauty of the experience. And maybe you were able to apply it to other areas of your life.
In such an essay, you probably wouldn’t want to state in the introduction: “I realized the value of flying kites with my younger brother.” Rather, your entire essay will be showing this evolution. As you talk about the experience, the thesis statement will naturally emerge.
In addition, in a personal essay (or statement) unlike a traditional English essay, you are not constricted to writing about an event in chronological order. You are free to jump around in time. For example, one effective personal essay structure is to start with the present moment, go back in time to reveal its importance, then return to that moment and elaborate about its meaning to you.
I read somewhere that the structure of a personal essay is like a bridge. You start with a pillar, the intro, then your essay travels across the bridge until it ends on the other side, or pillar. The two pillars anchor your essay. This is why it is often a good technique to start an essay with the same image or thought you end on. I think this image of a bridge is much more helpful than the traditional English essay structure, and it’s one I would encourage students to hold in their minds.
I just started teaching a summer school college essay workshop at South Pasadena High School, and the students are working hard to come up with the right topic for their Personal Statements. We’ve talked about topics that work and those that don’t.
Today I want to share with everyone some topics that you can probably cross off the list because admission officers see them so often.
These topics can be done well, but it is difficult when writing about such often-told tales. If you do decide to write about one of these topics, focus on one narrow aspect of the experience. For example, one student I worked with went on a trip to India and the group was attacked by leeches as they were crossing a river. The other kids screamed and panicked; the student calmly picked them off, impressing even himself with his coolness. The vivid leech incident proved to himself that he was a lot tougher than he had thought and served to make the essay memorable.
A few topics that are risky:
And now, a topic that works surprisingly well:
Not the big “ gotcha” moments of life, but the smaller seemingly mundane details of your life. Recent essay topics that have shone include “my family has all white furniture,” “how I order my shoes in my closet,” “my family’s snack cabinet nurtures our stomachs and souls,” and “I thought the sound of the freeway outside my bedroom window was the wind.”
Before you start the process:
May 25, 2012
When applying to colleges, students know to present their best selves. They spend hours on their applications and essays polishing their resumes and their prose.
However, they might be a bit more casual when, let’s say, they e-mail a school’s admission office to request information or ask a question.
But they shouldn’t.
Some colleges and universities keep track of every contact a student makes.
American University in Washington DC is one such school. “Any correspondence goes in the student’s file,” Mimi Lewis, the assistant director of undergraduate admissions recently told me.
The trouble is, she says, many students are too casual in their e-mails. They also don’t take the time to use proper grammar and spelling. This can reflect badly on a student down the road when admission officers review the student’s file.
Another admission officer at a small liberal arts college back East I spoke to recently agreed that students are too relaxed in their e-mails. His pet peeve: When students begin an e-mail with a “Hey” instead of formal greeting. The student’s attempt to be conversational comes off as disrespectful.
Such e-mails, he says, “do not help students.”
Not all colleges track a student’s communications. And probably some are okay with a breezier e-mail tone. However, to be on the safe side, students should treat e-mails as if they were formal letters and use a proper greeting, traditional spelling (no text shorthand), and correct grammar. They should also assume that every communication they send is fair game during the evaluation process.