The internet and tools like the Common Application have allowed many students to apply to colleges somewhat indiscriminately, firing off applications without being able to give a cogent reason for why they're applying to each particular school. That actually gives you a huge opportunity at smaller colleges like Saint Mary's College of California who reward the applicants behind thoughtful applications.
St. Mary's supplement to the Common Application requires you to submit two short-answer questions and a longer essay of 500 words. And for the applicant who really takes the time to provide thoughtful responses, there's a lot of opportunity to help St. Mary's get to know you better, and to give them even more reasons to admit you.
Briefly describe how you learned about Saint Mary's College and why it is one of your college choices.
When a college asks you a question like this, they're looking for evidence that you are a mature college shopper who's thought about your future in college and what you want it to look like. And they want to understand how, after that thoughtful introspection, you decided to add their little school to your list when you could have picked any of over 2,000 other colleges.
The more specific you can be here, the better. Don't just say,
"I heard about St. Mary's from a friend and I was very interested."
How does that help the college learn anything at all about you (other than the fact that you reportedly have "a friend")? They want to learn something about how you and St. Mary's were originally introduced. What if you said,
"Surprisingly, I learned about St. Mary's during a visit to UCLA. I went with a friend to tour the campus and we had two completely different reactions. She felt like she had found her future college; I was totally overwhelmed. I don't know if it was because I'm a little shy or because I went to a small high school, but I was intimidated by so many people on such a large campus. We talked about it on the way home and she told me her older sister visited St. Mary's when she was applying to college and thought it seemed really comfortable. Then she said, 'You should check it out.' I'm glad I listened to her."
Now they've learned something about you. And it's believable. Anybody can say they heard about a school and it was interesting, or that they visited the college and loved it. But if you inject enough detail into the story, it becomes much more believable.
And when you're explaining why St. Mary's is one of your college choices, keep the focus on you. They don't need to know that St. Mary's has a pretty campus or that it's small or that the students seem nice. Remember, they work there. And they do so presumably by choice. They know what's great about St. Mary's. What they don't know is why you think you would flourish there.
"Small classes" alone is not a reason to apply to a particular college. But…
"I have never worked as hard to learn as I did during my sophomore English class. My teacher told me she saw potential in my writing and took the time to help me improve. She pushed me to be better, and it worked. I’d never had a teacher take such a personal interest in me; now I know how I respond when one does. That's an experience I want to repeat over and over again in college."
That is a reason to apply.
"I visited and the students seemed very nice" is something that could have happened on a lot of college campuses. But…
"I visited St. Mary's last summer. Mostly because of my own insecurities, I felt like I was wearing a t-shirt that read, 'I'm a lowly high school student visiting today.' I must have looked completely lost because, well, I was. That’s when two girls stopped to ask me if I needed help finding something. They couldn’t have been nicer, and from that second on, I felt more comfortable. I spent the next hour imagining myself walking around next fall wearing a St. Mary's College' sweatshirt. Something about that just feels right."
Now we're talking. That's a student who's thought about this.
This answer is limited to 500 characters when you're filling out the supplemental form online, which about 80 words (a short paragraph). That means you're going to need to be brief, forceful, and very specific. Don't wallow in generalities. Get right to the point.
Now, on to the next prompt.
What is your favorite subject in high school, and why?
Why would they ask this? They ask it because lots of students get great grades so they can get into college, but not all of them necessarily love to learn. That's an important distinction, one that St. Mary's is interested in evaluating.
One of the most amazing things about college is the opportunity for learning. Not drudgery where you plod through homework assignments just to get them done. I'm talking about learning things that fascinate you, learning things that make you excited to go to class, and learning them from professors who've spent their professional lives studying this subject matter.
Students who love to learn make the most of that opportunity, especially at a small school like St. Mary's. Will you actively seek out the subjects that interest you? Will you be an engaged student who's excited to be there? Will you visit professors during office hours, meet with your academic adviser and talk to TA's when you have questions?
Good grades on your high school transcript are evidence that you are intelligent and willing to work hard (which are still good things). But they aren't necessarily evidence of a love of learning. A story about your favorite subject in high school, however, can be.
Think of a time when you were really interested in what you were learning. What made you so interested? Was the subject itself fascinating? Did the teacher make it fascinating for you? How did you treat this favorite subject differently than your other subjects? Did you visit the teacher after class, do additional reading to learn more, participate in class, or even just look forward to that particular class every day? That's what St. Mary's wants to learn about in this particular answer.
Whatever course you describe, focus on why you loved it and how you treated it differently. There is no "wrong answer" here (although I wouldn't recommend that you tell them, "I loved my geology course because the teacher let us sleep and goof off all day").
One more prompt to go…
The ability to learn from one’s mistakes is key to personal growth and success. Tell us about what you learned from a mistake you’ve made.
Gonzaga University asks a similar question on their application, and I wrote an extensive entry on how to handle it here. The one difference is that Gonzaga asks about a "failure," while St. Mary's asks about a mistake. That's a subtle but important difference. Here's why.
You can do everything right and still fail. You can try your best, do exactly what you were supposed to do, and still lose a race, be passed over for a leadership position, or not make the varsity team. None of those things are necessarily due to any act on your part.
But a "mistake" is all you. You have to own up to it, accept responsibility and explain what you're doing now (or not doing now) as a result of that experience.
St. Mary's is one of those wonderful schools where you don't necessarily need straight A's, perfect test scores, and a certificate proclaiming that you invented hydrogen to get accepted. But you'll need to acknowledge the opportunity you're being given on the St. Mary's application. Don't just race through those responses in an effort to get your application done. Be thoughtful in your responses and you're more likely to find a thoughtful letter of acceptance in return.
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