Getting ready to apply to college? Sign up for my new online college essay course for a special low price.

Have questions about applying to college? Post them on reddit's college admissions forum.

November 21, 2014

How To Answer The “Why Do You Want To Go To This College?” Essay

Many schools (several of the Ivy Leagues, and many liberal arts colleges) have a supplemental essay that asks you to talk about you want to go to their school. They ask this question for a lot of reasons, but there are 2 big reasons, one cynical, one more warm and fuzzy.

The cynical reason is, bluntly, they want to accept students who will accept their offers of admissions. The higher the percent of students accepted that go there, the less they have to accept from the wait list, the lower their acceptance rate, and the better they look.

The other reason is less self-serving, and it's more about the students. Schools are not just looking to accept the best, the brightest, and most interesting, but also to find the students who are the best matches. They want students who will thrive on campus, not transfer out (which will hurt their rankings!), and who will contribute to campus life.

The moral is, these essays are important, so spend some time on them. If the school that you’re writing about is actually your safety, don’t let it show in your essay! Here are some tips to help:

Do research the school. It is important to show that you know a lot about the school. Look at the website, read their catalog, look at what college books say about it, talk to someone from your high school who went there, and visit if you can. The more little details you know, the more it will seem like you really want to go there (even if you don’t) and like you care.

Don't recycle the same essay for all the schools. I know it’s tempting---You’re busy and writing these essays is not a day on the beach. This essay, though, is all about showing how much you want to go to, and why you are a good match for, the SPECIFIC school. If you recycle, the essay will be broad and unspecific, and could end up hurting you.

Do talk about yourself. I can’t stress it enough: it’s an essay about why YOU will thrive at the college. They admissions committee already knows their school is great, what they want to know is why the school is great for you, and you for them. So, write about how you will contribute to campus life, how you can enrich the community, how you will take advantage of the college’s offerings, and how the college will help you to achieve your goals. If you visited the school, write about your personal reflections on the campus, students, and classes. Anecdotes and details are always the best approach. Show the admissions committee why you are the perfect match!

Don't bash other schools. Negativity is never good, and won’t impress anyone. In fact, it’s best to mention other schools at all. Be positive, and focus exclusively on why this school is so perfect for you. Leave the comparisons out.

Do talk about clubs, sports, curriculum, departments, professors, student body diversity, size, campus community, internships, study abroad, research opportunities, campus culture, class size, and location. There are more than enough specifics you can mention to fill this short essay!

Don't talk about parties, tailgates, easiness of professors, or hotness of the girls/guys on campus. Maybe those are factors in why you want to go to the school, but that will not impress anyone on the admissions committee!

November 17, 2014

College Selection Tips | Picking the Right College

Many students just want to go to the best college possible. However, how should you define "best"? "Best" isn't simply what the rankings say. It's the school that fits your needs and preferences.

This post will help you figure out how to choose the right one.

Some of the most important factors to consider when choosing the right college for you:
1. How large is the student body? Do you want a large community with a ton of opportunities, or do you want a "small town feel" where everyone knows each other? This will affect the faculty/student ratio as well.

2. How prestigious is the college? The more respected it is, the more opportunities you'll have after graduation.

3. Where is the school located? How close is it to your family? Do you want an urban, suburban, or rural environment?

4. Will the college environment expose you to new experiences? Do you want to challenge yourself in an unfamiliar environment and learn to live independently?


How to find out the answers to these questions
:
1. Visit the college's website. Look at how the college presents itself.

2. Visit the college yourself. If you might spend four years there, it's worth taking the college for a test drive. Take a tour of the campus, and don't be afraid to speak with the tour guide one-on-one to answer your individual questions.

Of course, these are not unbiased sources. Any information you get from the website or tour guide is likely to present the college in the best possible light. Would a student who disliked the college be volunteering or working as a tour guide? Of course not.

For this reason:

3. Speak with current students besides the tour guide. Where do you find them? They're all over campus! Take some initiative and speak with random students you see outside or in the student center.

4. Speak with recent alumni of that college. They might be the older siblings of your friends, or they might be random people you contact through Facebook. Most likely, they'll be happy to help you. After all, they were in your position only a few years ago.

The above list of considerations is not complete by any means. Next week, I'll cover several more factors in choosing the right college.

November 10, 2014

Recommendations for Getting College Recommendation Letters

Here's the who, what, when, where, why, and how of asking for college recommendation letters.

Who to ask: your guidance counselor, teachers, coaches, employers. Basically, anyone in a position of authority who's supervised you in some way. They should know you well, like you, and respect you. Most importantly, however, they should be reliable. A great recommender is one who actually writes and submits the recommendation letter on time.

Who NOT to ask: parents, other relatives, your friends, famous people you don't know well. In short, anyone who's clearly biased and anyone who doesn't actually know you.


What to ask: Explain what you hope to achieve in college and ask if the potential recommender is willing to write a positive letter for you. If the answer is yes, give them a brief list of potential "writing points" for the letter. This list can include any research papers you've written, any insightful comments you made during class, etc. Give the recommender this list. Make writing the letter as easy as possible for them. If they offer to let you write a draft, that's great, but never bring up this idea yourself. Also, give them addressed and stamped envelopes for each college.


What NOT to ask: "I really need a strong rec letter because my grades are terrible. I know I haven't done all the work and I've turned things in late, but I'm really going to turn things around in college. You'll write a good letter for me, right?...No?...well, how about I just write it myself and you'll sign it?"


When to ask: EARLY! I can't emphasize this enough. The nicest teachers (the ones most likely to write gushing rec letters) are likely to get a ton of requests. Beat everyone else to the punch and ask at the end of junior year. This also gives recommenders plenty of time to write a nice and detailed letter for you.

When NOT to ask: Anytime from September to January of senior year. If you're reading this, and it's already the fall, ask the potential recommender ASAP. Other bad times to ask include when the teacher is in the middle of a lesson, when other students are standing around, when you've recently bombed a test or when you've recently gotten into trouble during class.


Where to ask: Ideally, in the recommender's classroom / office after school or during an off-period.

Where NOT to ask: In the cafeteria, in the parking lot as the recommender is running to his/her car, while you're sitting in the detention room


Why to ask: Because colleges require recommendation letters! These letters help admissions officers get a fuller picture of you.

Why NOT to ask: If you want to sabotage your college admissions chances by not including everything the application requests.


How to ask: "May I stop by during your off-period or after school to chat for a few moments?" Then, you actually ask them in the course of a one-on-one conversation about your goals and future.

How NOT to ask: "Hey teach, can you write me a rec letter? It's due next week."

November 6, 2014

“Any Questions?”: The Final College Interview Question

The last question of every college interview is always the same: “Any questions?” If you are unprepared, this part can be scarier than the interview itself. However, if you’re prepared, this can be a chance to shine.

Interviewers can get as much information about you from this part as from the rest of the interview. If you ask good, thoughtful questions, you will seem smart, prepared, mature, and curious. On the flip side, if you look around nervously, stall, and say “ummmm….no, I think that covers it,” you could undo the gains made by an otherwise good interview.

The best approach is to think about, and write down, some questions before the actual interview. That way you’ll be prepared before they pop the inevitable question. Here are three types of questions you can ask. Feel free to mix it up, and ask one or two questions of each type.

Type 1: Research-Based

The first type of question asks for more information about the college’s offerings. This type of questions shows that you did your homework and care about the school, and that you are ambitious and motivated. If done right, it can also emphasize your interests and strengths.

In order to think of topics for these questions, look at the website and college catalogue for facts about the school. Find out the things the school prides itself on, whether it’s the broad liberal arts curriculum, the massive internship program, or the host of study abroad options. Think about which of these things are most relevant to your interests and goals, and then ask about it.

Now that you have the topic, it’s time to think of the actual question. Do not ask anything that is answered on the college website, or that the interviewer could answer with one word. The best question of this type shows you researched the school, highlights your personal attributes, and displays thought. The interviewer should need at least a few sentences to answer it. (Bonus: This takes up time and you don’t even have to say a thing!)

Here is an example:

“College A’s career development program is very attractive to me. As a future engineering major, I was wondering whether you knew of what types of internships other engineering students have held, and how this helped them academically and on their career path?”

This question shows you’ve done your homework, are ambitious, focused, and motivated.


Type 2: Personal Questions

It’s a fact of human nature that everyone loves talking about themselves. Since the interview is basically about getting your interviewer to like you, this is a good tactic.

No, I’m not saying you should ask them about their relationship with their wife or whether they’re self-conscious about that bald spot. However, asking about their personal experiences at the college makes you seem interesting and engaged, and allows them to open up to you.

This works best if it’s a student or alumni interviewer, but you can even use this tactic on an admissions officer.

For a student interviewer, you can say something like, “I’ve done a lot of research on College X and it sounds like a great fit, but I’m interested in hearing your perspective. What are some of your favorite and least favorite things about College X?”

For an alumni interviewer, you could say something like, “My dad always says it’s not students, but alumni, who can give you the most valuable information on a college. How did your experiences on campus shape your career and life experiences after graduation?”

For an admissions officer, it’s a little trickier. You can’t ask about their experiences as a student, but you can ask about their views on the college at which they work. For example: “Your viewpoint is especially valuable because you work at College X. How would you describe the campus culture and student and faculty community at the college?”


Type 3: “I Listened” Questions

These questions follow up on something the interviewer already talked about to show that you are engaged and a good listener. If they talked about sports, the mentoring program, the libraries, whatever, ask for more details. Just make sure to ask for more information on something they already talked about, not to ask a question that they already answered.

November 3, 2014

How NOT to Write a College Essay

Here are some of the most common mistakes students make, and why you should avoid them:

Repeat info covered in another part of the application.
Students often repeat themselves in the college essay "just to be safe." However, admissions officers have already read, or will read, the rest of your application. Reading the same thing twice is boring. Trust them to do their job and read the application as thoroughly as necessary. Give them some insight into your motivations and how they indicate your abilities. If you mentioned something briefly on the application, you can go into it in more detail in the essay.

Don't do this:
"In freshman year I was in Key Club. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about helping others. I also joined the lacrosse team, which took up a lot of time. However, I still found time to volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend. All of this demonstrates that I am responsible and capable."

Whining about circumstances instead of explaining why/how you overcame them.
Nobody likes a sob story, no matter how true or heartbreaking it is. Don't look for pity. Instead, show admissions committees how you surpassed difficulties to achieve a high GPA, leadership position, or some other accomplishment. Impress them with your determination.

Don't do this:
"Because my parents had to get rid of the babysitter after we had money issues, I had to quit the soccer team to watch my little sister. It was a real shame to have to leave my teammates and give up the chance of being state champions, but family comes first, so I didn't mind making the sacrifice."

Talk about how you want to go to a particular college because it has a great reputation or you want to make money.

Many students want to go to a top school and make money. Why does this make you special and different? Self-promotion is a given. Instead, distinguish yourself through your desire to intensively study the subjects that interest you or to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas.

Don't this this:
"University X is well-renowned, and many famous people like _____, ____, and ____ graduated from there. With a degree from University X, I'll be sure to be a success in life and make my friends and family proud."

Misrepresent your achievements and goals in the essay.
If you graduated in the middle of your class and have no extracurriculars/recommendations to back up the following...

Don't do this:
"I was one of the top students in my school and hope to reduce world hunger or find a cure for cancer."

The following need no example:

Use "cute" techniques to stand out.
Covering your essay in glitter and perfume, enclosing a link to a YouTube video of yourself performing goofy antics, or writing the entire essay in Pig Latin.

Say you want to go to College X in College Y's application.
It'd be a shame to mix up the two essays and get into neither one as a result. Double check.

Include careless grammatical errors, overly wordy phrases, and clichés.
You already know the stakes are high when it comes to college admissions. Show admissions officers that you care enough about the process to write an amazing college essay.

October 31, 2014

Extracurricular Activities | How to Demonstrate Commitment

Extracurricular activities are one of the biggest parts of your college application. This means it's in your best interest to get the most bang for your buck on the clubs and sports you join.

However, most students don't do much in in their first 2 years of high school and then suddenly join a whole bunch of clubs in their last two. They're trying to cram in their extracurriculars (as well as properly preparing for a significant exam). Unfortunately, it's easy to see why this strategy is not optimal. The person reading your application has seen this sort of thing before and will see through the charade (see: College Admissions | Who is Reading Your Application). Here's a better way to participate in extracurriculars:

This philosophy is inspired by Carl Friedrich Gauss (a mathematician), and it signals exactly what you want to show college admissions officers. (Don’t worry, you won't have to be familiar with anything Gauss actually did to follow this strategy.) Gauss was arguably the greatest mathematician of all time. In his published mathematical works, he used this very simple phrase as a preface, “pauca sed matura,” which translates to “few but ripe.”

Gauss, while a prolific mathematician, was not a prolific writer. He refused to publish anything he considered to be incomplete. He would find one strand of research and follow it all the way to the end. Then, he'd only publish what he learned if he reached the end. (Someone following this advice for *academics* would easily fail high school for failing to turn in assignments, but that's beside the point.)

Learn from Gauss, and make this your guide to extra-curricular activities. Your objective is not to join a large number of clubs and sports. You don't want to be a jack of all trades and master of none. Instead, join fewer clubs and and remain in those clubs for at least 3 years. Get super-involved and rise to a leadership position within those clubs.

Admissions officers aren't stupid. If they see that you did nothing in your first few years of high school and then that you suddenly became a member of many clubs in the last, they'll know why. They hate these people.

The best solution? Do what our friend Gauss did: signal commitment, passion, and leadership by sticking with fewer things and doing them better as a result.

By sticking with 2 or 3 activities for 4 years rather than 6 or 7 for only one, you demonstrate that you have a lasting passion for an activity and are motivated enough to pursue it even when there is no immediate payoff. (Boost in college admissions chances) You also show that you're willing to make a commitment and pursue the things you enjoy. If you manage to rise to a leadership position within the club (and honestly, this is not difficult), then you can make this a big talking point in your application. So when joining clubs, keep in mind the Gaussian philosophy; “Few, but ripe.”

October 27, 2014

5 Steps to Starting Your College Essay

"Where do I start?!" is probably the most common question students have about the college essay. It's not like anything you've written before. It's not a tweet, and it's not an essay about "Great Expectations" or "Romeo and Juliet." It's something in-between: personal AND professional. How do you toe the line? I'll cover that combination in future blog posts. For now, here are 5 tips to help you start writing the dreaded college essay.

1. Don't start at the beginning.
Write any random potential anecdotes, details, or ideas as they come to you. You can work on connecting them later. It's possible (and highly likely) you will write the most effective sentences of your essay only after a great detail of free-writing. Feel free to use any format that works for you in the brainstorming stage - it can be bullet points, an outline, or just a word or two. Your goal is just to get as much down on paper as possible.

2. Ask a friend to interview you.
Find someone you know and trust to ask you several questions about your passions, experiences, hobbies, authors, TV shows, etc. This is much more effective than the broad (and scary!) question: "What do you want to do with your life?" After having this focused interview, your "interviewer" will be able to give you extended feedback on your interests, strengths, and weaknesses. This will be helpful in figuring out your essay topic.

3. Use writing prompts.
Filling in the blanks can help you overcome writer's block. Ex. "I like ____ because it makes me feel ____." "A global issue that excites me is _____ because ______." "I enjoy learning about ____ because ______."

4. Browse your first-choice college's website.
Since you're probably passionate about your first-choice school, looking over its website may help you figure out themes to discuss in your essay. If the school specializes in business management degree programs or humanities, then you might want to tailor your essay accordingly.

5. Make a list of your passions.
You'll notice the idea of passion comes up a few times here. That's because passion is necessary for engaging writing. If you don't enjoy what you're writing, the admissions officers probably won't either. On the other hand, if you're clearly excited about whatever it is you have to discuss, it's more likely the admissions officers will be, too.