Advice for Cornell applicants (who won’t be donating buildings)

"I got into Cornell off the wait list. A lot of people were like, "Oh, you just got into Cornell because your dad donated a building." No. Okay. I got into Cornell because I'm smart. I'm smart enough to have a dad who donates buildings to things."

Andrew Bernard of "The Office" 

It would appear that the Harvard and Dartmouth grads who write for The Office are gleefully taking shots at Cornell University via "The 'Nard Dawg."  But if your parents didn't donate a building to Cornell, you'll need to make the most of the lone supplemental essay they require that asks you to write a 500-word essay about your chosen course of study.

Top of Form

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bottom of Form

Lots of schools require applicants to respond to a similar prompt, but very few allow you up to 500 words to do so.  If you've really investigated Cornell, you'll know that's not surprising.  Ezra Cornell, who founded the school, once said, "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."  Today, there are over 70 academic majors and Cornell has a reputation for academic intensity.  Successful applicants have to show not only that they've excelled in academics, but also that they're excited about the academic opportunities waiting for them at Cornell.

Here are the prompts (we'll return with advice down below):

Please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 500 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college(s) to which you are applying.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:
How have your interests and related experiences influenced your selection of major?

College of Architecture, Art, and Planning:
How does the major you would like to study in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning match your intellectual, academic, and career interests? Discuss any activities you have engaged in that are relevant to your chosen major.

College of Arts and Sciences:
Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences to further explore your interests, intended major, or field of study.

College of Engineering:
Engineers turn ideas (technical, scientific, mathematical) into reality. Tell us about an engineering idea you have or your interest in engineering. Explain how Cornell Engineering can help you further explore this idea or interest.

School of Hotel Administration:
What work and non-work experiences, academic interests, and career goals influenced your decision to study hospitality management? How will these contribute to your success at the School of Hotel Administration?

College of Human Ecology:
What do you value about the College of Human Ecology perspective as you consider your academic goals and plans for the future? Reflect on our majors that interest you as you respond.

School of Industrial and Labor Relations:
Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. In your essay please address how the ILR curriculum will help you fulfill these interests and your long-term goals.

Back to the advice…

If you apply to Cornell just because it's an Ivy League school and autumns in upstate New York are spectacular, you'll be in for a rude awaking when you arrive and realize a) Cornell's academic workload trumps that of most of the other Ivies and b) spectacular autumns in upstate New York are but a teasing precursor to the spectacularly terrible winters that follow.

Successful applicants choose Cornell in large part because they're drawn to their chosen academic program.  These students have well-developed academic interests.  They can tell you what their favorite classes have been, what subjects they have to know more about and why they find those topics so interesting.  They like to learn and can't wait to dive in and do more of it at Cornell.

Whichever prompt above you're responding to, focus on these important areas:

1)  Show the origins and development of your academic interests. 

Cornell needs to know that you're not selecting a major simply because that's one of the questions on the application.  They expect you to have defined academic interests and they want to know the story of those interests. 

Origins of interest sound like this:

"I've never seen my father angrier than the day I took our family television apart just to see how it worked.  I was 12 years old, and Monday Night Football was just about to start.  It wasn't the first time I'd done something like that, but it was the first time I wasn't able to put something back together quickly.  It took me three hours, but I did it, just in time for my dad to see his beloved Giants lose.  I never made that mistake again, but I've also never stopped trying to learn how things work." 

The development of interests sounds like this:

"My junior year of high school, I volunteered to lead a fundraiser to send our soccer team to Europe to compete in a tournament.  And while I enjoyed organizing the car wash and the donation drive and the now much maligned "shrimp-a-thon" (Sizzler doesn't really mean it when they say, "All you can eat shrimp," by the way), what I really enjoyed was crafting personal emails to ask for donations, and writing the regular update newsletters I sent to people who were supporting us, and updating the travel blog I wrote during our stay in Europe.  Every day, I thought about new ways to share our story with people who might be interested.  Yes, we raised money.  But we also raised interest.  People who had never cared about our team started caring.  We developed a following of loyal supporters, and 18 guys who had never been to Europe finally got to go because of it.  That experience was the first time I started to understand the power of the well-written word."

Those examples are specific and, more importantly, believable.  These students aren't telling us that "Engineering is interesting because I've always been fascinated with math and science," or "I learned about communications by taking AP English."  They're giving us specific, real examples to show where their academic interests came from. 

2)  Focus on your genuine interest, maybe even excitement, for the subject matter.

When you're sharing your stories, let the reader hear your genuine interests.  True engineers get giddy when they talk about engineering.  Seriously, they do.  Students who really love politics don't believe that talking about it ever gets old.  A real Civil War buff can talk for hours about her favorite battles.  Look for examples of you showing your true passion for the subject matter, something you weren't just doing to get a good grade.  Even if it seems silly, like the fact that you and your fellow math geeks solve problem sets together on the weekends, that's perfectly valid.  In fact, most math majors would tell you you'd be right at home with them. 

3)  Tie these interests to Cornell.

Any student who really has this kind of academic passion would investigate the academic programs of her chosen colleges.  These students don't talk about the classes they'll have to take in their chosen major; they talk about the classes they'll get to take in their chosen major.

Successful Cornell applicants can tell you with some clarity how they'll be spending their academic time at Cornell, why their chosen course of study is the right one, and what they're most excited about when it comes to learning, particularly at Cornell.   

It's just one essay.  But at Cornell, it's a crucial one.  So talk about how your academic interests got started and how they developed.  Focus on your real passion and let the reader see just how much intellectual enjoyment these subjects bring you.  And most importantly, tie those interests to Cornell and show why it's there you want to pursue them.

Andrew Bernard likely didn't do these things, but then again, his dad donated a building.  The rest of us have to get in the old fashioned way.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

Advice for applicants to Saint Mary’s College of California

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. 

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

For potential Wolverines: Advice University of Michigan applicants

It's not easy to be personal when you get 24,000 applications to review.  But that's what University of Michigan does.  Applicants have to write multiple essays.  You've got to get letters of recommendation.  You've got to compose a profane song about why Michigan will beat the snot out of Ohio State next year (yeah, I made that last one up). 

Grades and test scores still drive the process, but it's clear that Michigan is taking the time to evaluate more than just your numbers; they're going to give you a thoughtful and thorough review.  It's important that you be just as thoughtful and thorough when you complete your application, so here are a few tips.  

Speaking of tips, read Michigan's

 

Michigan gives away some good advice about how to write your essays.  In particular, pay close attention to the "What we're looking for" section.  It's got great advice like, "Remember that athletics can be a reason, but should not be the only reason you want to come to Ann Arbor!"

How to approach the short-answer question

Michigan asks that you provide a 250 word response to the following prompt:

“We know that diversity makes us a better university – better for learning, for teaching, and for conducting research.” (U-M President Mary Sue Coleman)

"Share an experience through which you have gained respect for intellectual, social, or cultural differences. Comment on how your personal experiences and achievements would contribute to the diversity of the University of Michigan."

To answer this prompt, you've got to do three things:

1)  Appreciate how and why differences can make experiences more fulfilling for those involved.

[Read more…]

Hokie Hopefuls: Advice for Virginia Tech applicants

Virginia Tech is a large public school (21,000 undergrads) that receives over 17,000 applications for admission.  And the admissions portion of the web site makes it clear what they focus on most.

"Admissions directors use a holistic approach throughout the application review process. Many factors are considered, the most important being strength of schedule, high school GPA, and standardized test scores."

That means classes, grades and test scores will dominate the admissions process.  But it doesn't mean that VT is using formulas. They're still going to read your application, so you should make the most of what opportunities they give you to help them see the person behind the numbers.

Here are a few tips to balance their need for numbers with your need to express yourself. 

Don't slack off

A lot of people talk about how colleges focus on the grades you got in your sophomore and junior years.  But at Virginia Tech, the grades you receive in the first semester of your senior year will absolutely be considered, too.  So if you're a senior reading this, view this semester as one last opportunity to show admissions officers what you are capable of.

Consider how your test scores stack up. 

Virginia Tech requires SAT or ACT scores.  But while they want to see the scores from all of your administrations, they will "use the highest scores and even combine your highest test scores from multiple test dates when evaluating your application."

Top of ForBottom of Form

December test scores will still be viable for admission at VT, so it may be in your best interest to a) re-take one of the exams, or b) try the other test type (if you've taken the SAT, try the ACT, or vice versa).  Remember, numbers drive the process here, and picking up a few extra points, even in just one of the sub-scores could really make a different. 

What about the optional personal statements? 

When a college makes essays optional (and has no required essay at all), it's a subtle way of saying that an essay won't usually carry the same importance in admissions as grades and test scores will.     

[Read more…]

Essay advice for Bucknell applicants

A college doesn't necessarily need to require a novel's worth of essays to evaluate and better understand their applicants.  Take Bucknell University, for example. 

Bucknell applicants will likely be pleasantly surprised to find that Bucknell’s Common Application supplement contains just one additional required essay and a second that's optional.  But if you make the most of those two requirements, you can really help a Bucknell admissions officer learn more about you in ways that your application alone would not reveal. 

Here are a few tips on how to approach the Bucknell essays. 

Before you do anything, read the directions.

You can learn a lot about what a college is looking for by just reading the directions. Here are the directions for Bucknell's supplemental essays:

The following questions are your opportunity to demonstrate, within the context of the Common Application, what makes you uncommon and uniquely you. In your responses, be bold and have some fun – really! Tell us about your talents and interests so that we can know the “you” behind the transcripts.

A lot of students will totally ignore those directions and write about things that are common, that are not unique to them, and they will do so in a way that is anything but bold or fun.  They’ll hide behind safe stories about being diligent and determined, or how they learned valuable life lessons through student government, or how community service taught them that it’s important to help people.  Responses like that make you sound like every other applicant.  That's not good. 

[Read more…]

So you want to be a horned frog? Here’s some advice for TCU applicants

Applying to TCU (Texas Christian University)?  Good for you.  TCU is one of those little colleges that we just can't help but love.  We think so highly of them we even featured them in one of our college spotlights.  We love their energy, how much our Collegewise students turned TCU horned frogs seem to love their experience there.  But enough about why we like TCU.  Here are some tips to help you get admitted.

If TCU is your first choice, you might want to consider forgoing the Common Application. 

OK, just to be clear, I am not speaking for TCU here.  I'm sure if you called their admissions office, they'd tell you that applicants who apply using the TCU's application are given no inherent advantage over those applicants submitting the Common Application.  And it's probably true.

But here's the thing.  TCU's application gives you more opportunity to express yourself than the Common App does.  You get to write an essay just for TCU.  You get to do an optional activity summary just for TCU.  And you even get to do an optional "Freedom of Expression" page where you can fill a page with anything that you think will help them get to know you better.  Those are a lot of opportunities, and you might consider using them.

If you do fill out the Common Application, you have no supplemental essays to write.  So the rest of my advice here will be directed to those students who are filling out TCU's own application. 

Advice for the long essay

Here's the prompt:

TCU is a selective university, and our Admission and Scholarship Committees review thousands of applications each year. The essay tells us a great deal about our candidates and allows for expression of writing skills, organizational skills, creativity and imagination. The essay should be 300-500 words in length and legible. Feel free to be serious, humorous or somewhere in between. Compose your essay on one of the following topics.

You want to choose the topic for which you have something to say about yourself, something that provides you with a platform to help the reader get to know something about you.  Here are a few tips for how to approach each prompt.

1. Pick an important social, political or economic problem in today’s world. Write a solution for it.

First, keep in mind that most important problems in the world today are problems because there are no easy solutions.  You want to communicate what you know, what you believe, and why you believe it, but you don't want to come off as a know-it-all either, as part of being successful in college means being open to new ideas and interpretations. 

Second, it's particularly compelling if you pick an issue for which you have some personal investment, experience and factual knowledge.  Doing so lets you combine your knowledge with your passion, and that's almost always an appealing combination. 

For example, if you've spent time volunteering at a homeless shelter, and you've seen how budget cuts reduced the number of meals that you can serve, and watched people show up hungry and be turned away because there just isn't enough food, you are personally invested in that issue.  And you know how it would be different if there were more tax dollars funneled towards county services.

People who are personally invested in issues tend to speak passionately about them, and tend to do so with more knowledge of the issue at hand.  If you don't feel that strongly about a serious problem in the world today, you might consider one of the other topics.

2. Leap forward or backward 100 years and tell us about your day.

This is begging for some imagination and creativity.  But remember that TCU is trying to get to know more about you, and in this case, a description of your day is the vehicle to help them do that.  One way to approach this is to think about something that you know for sure about yourself, and imagine how that would look 100 years ago, or 100 years from now.

For example, if you are passionate about programming computers, how could you have channeled a passion for technology 100 years ago?  What would your natural curiosities have lead you to do given that there weren’t any computers?  Or, based on what you know about computers, what kinds of things could you dream about them doing 100 years from now?  And how would you like to see yourself working with them that far in the future?

The key is that whether you go back 100 years or forward 100 years, your answer should reveal something about the person you are today.

3. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." How has the implicit philosophy in this proverb shaped the history of conflict among people?

Intellectuals, history buffs, deep thinkers–this one's for you.  While the previous topic was nudging you to be playful, this one really needs you to thoughtfully consider this question and give a critical, organized response. Stick with what you know.  Don't try to tackle all of human civilization here.  If you're a Civil War buff, or you did a research project on survivors of the holocaust, or your parents escaped war torn Bosnia to move here, you might have a knowledgeable frame of reference from which to consider this question.  And remember, the reader still needs to get to know you, not just academic reasoning in your response.  Relate how you came to know so much about this.  What drove you to become this knowledgeable?  How did the information affect you as you gathered it?  Have you continued to learn about this subject since then? 

These are the kinds of things readers really want learn while they’re evaluating your reasoning, organization and critical thinking in a response like this.   

4. Discuss a significant person, experience or achievement that has meaning for you.

The most important part of this topic is "…has meaning for you."  That means that the essay has to be about you.  A 500 word essay on why you admire Martin Luther King is much more about Martin Luther King than it is about you.  He’s certainly worthy of the admiration, but it would be a much more interesting essay if you tied it to something in your own life, how you act, how you feel, what you’ve done, etc.  Keep the focus on yourself. 

Second, the essay has to describe the "meaning" this subject had for you.  An essay about how you made the varsity soccer team is really just repeating a story they already know from reading your list of activities.  But if making the varsity soccer team was the first time you ever got to wear a team jacket, or it was the first time your dad left work early on a weekday to come see one of your activities, or how it finally made you feel like you'd found your place at your new school, now we're learning about the meaning, and we're learning something that we wouldn't have known just from reading your application. 

What about the "Freedom of Expression" exercise?

Yeah, you're on your own for that one.  Kidding.

It's better to submit something that you're proud of, that you really felt was a great opportunity for you to share more about yourself, than it is to do the exercise just for the sake of doing it.  If you have something worth sharing, you'll probably think of it pretty quickly because it will be important to you.

Here are ten examples of ways our Collegewise kids have filled the space. 

1.  A musician pasted a photo of him playing guitar in his band with the caption, "February 2, 2002.  This was the first time I ever played guitar in front of an audience."

2. A volleyball player included the text from a letter her father wrote to her and left on her pillow the night her team lost the state championship.

3.  A "C" student pasted a copy of a painting he'd done in art class that was selected to be displayed in the main foyer of the school.  He told TCU it was the first time in his life a teacher had ever used his work as an example for other students.

4.  A fairly shy girl wrote ten quotations on the page and titled them, "Life Lessons from My Older Brother."  The quotations ranged from,

"If you do something wrong, tell Dad first–he won't freak out like mom does,"

to…

"Don't concern yourself with what other people think about you.  You don’t know it now, but it’s all just high school bullsh*$t and nobody in college will ever care about it." 

5.  A student who worked at a daycare pasted photos of the kids at work.

6.  A youth group leader included a copy of her favorite passage from the Bible. 

7.  A science buff wrote a description of his science fair project and what he set out to prove with it.

8.  One student wrote a letter to her mother who had passed away the year before.  It told her mom how hard it had been to deal with her passing, but not to worry too much because her daughter was still on track to graduate and go to college.

9.  A list entitled "Ten Reasons There is More to Joey than My 2.1 GPA."  He wasn't admitted to TCU, but I’m including it here because I loved how he swung for the fences.

10.  Nine statements that began with "I am…" like "I am a good brother," and "I am a trumpet player" and "I am a host at Chilis."

The last statement was, "But I am not a good SAT test-taker." 

Nobody has been admitted or rejected based on the "Freedom of Expression" page alone.  But if you're going to do it, take the time to do it right.  The key is to come up with something you feel good about and share it proudly.

Spend any time on the TCU campus (or at a football game) and you’ll see that this student body doesn’t hold back.  It’s an energetic place injected with personality.  That’s one of the reasons I like the school.  If you’re the type of person who could get on board with a student body like that, show them by giving them some revealing, fun, personality-injected responses in to these questions.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

Advice for University of Washington Hopefuls

While grades and test scores are important, the University of Washington makes it clear to applicants that UW wants to get to know you and what you can contribute to their campus.  Here are a few of the tips we give to our Collegewise students that can help you make the most of that opportunity.

1.  Spend the time to show UW you are more than just your numbers.

The UW application has two required essays, an optional third essay, and an activities log.  Successful applicants see this not as a burden, but an opportunity to show sides of themselves that grades and test scores can’t convey.   So set aside enough time to reflect on and write the stories you want to share.  The time and attention you give to their application will be an indication of just how interested you really are in UW, so make sure you’re proud of what your application says about you.

2. Before you write the essays, read all the directions, including the tips.
We know that “Read the directions” isn’t exactly groundbreaking advice.   But the essay section of the UW application includes not only the essay prompts, but also tips to help you choose appropriate stories.  Don’t ignore these!  The admissions office is coming right out and telling you what they’re interested in learning more about.  You’re getting guidance from the officers themselves.  So listen to their advice.  Before you dive in and start writing, take the time to read and think about the prompts and the accompanying tips.

3. When writing the short essay, the key is to think about your appreciation of differences. 

The short-answer questions about how you’ll contribute to the campus diversity, or to relate a personal experience with cultural differences, are really asking you to think more about UW’s diverse environment.  The UW student body comes from all different backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints.  Students who are happiest at UW enroll hoping to meet and learn from people who are different from them.  They look for ways to share their own backgrounds and viewpoints with other members of the campus community.  Are you excited to do those things?  What life experiences have you had that make you want UW’s diverse environment for your college experience?  What could you contribute to, and learn from, your fellow UW students?   Express your appreciation for those potential opportunities in your short-answer responses.

4. Make the most of your activity summary paragraphs.

UW invites you to write “a substantial paragraph” about up to five of your most significant activities.  This is a huge opportunity for you to share insight into the activity that you could never reveal in a simple resume.  For example, one of our former Collegewise students who went on to be a Husky wrote about how she was painfully shy until she got a job at the drive-through window at a fast food restaurant, and that taking customers’ orders actually made her a much more outgoing, sociable person.  That never would have been evident to an admissions officer had she just listed the basic facts about her job.  Share more.  UW wants to know!

5.  Share legitimate hardship, but don’t create it.

Buying into a misguided notion that hardship equals some sort of admissions advantage, many students manufacture hardship when applying to a college, taking a circumstance that might not have been so challenging, but presenting it as if it were.  This is always a mistake.  If you’ve experienced a hardship or other life challenge that has impacted your education, UW wants to know about it—they’ll consider your application in light of your circumstances.  But if you’re manufacturing hardship, UW will probably know it.  It’s not worth the risk.  Share another part of your life that will likely be much more interesting and effective.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our “How to” guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

Start spreadin’ the NYU (tips)

If you can make it there…well, you know the saying about New York City.  If you're hoping to call the Big Apple home and attend NYU (New York University) during your college years, here are a few tips to help you get there.

1.  Be sure to read the "Application Do's and Don'ts Guide" on the NYU admissions website. 

This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but a lot of applicants ignore this kind of available advice from the admissions officers themselves (and that's a bad idea).  Read the guide carefully.  The admissions committee is being very clear about what they want and don't want you to do.  Pay particular attention to this:

"Read and follow instructions. Please don't decide that you have a 'better' way. We wouldn't ask you to do something in a certain way unless it was important that you do it that way." 

If only every college were so direct.  

2.  Pay close attention to the testing requirements.

NYU's testing requirements are unlike those at most colleges.  You can submit the SAT or ACT, or specific combinations of SAT Subject Tests, or specific AP exam scores.  This can really allow a student to put her best testing foot forward.  So make sure you review the options carefully on the NYU website, and select the test option that puts you in the best testing light.

3. Consider that a desire to be "in the city" is more of a pre-requisite than it is a reason to apply.

In their essays to NYU, a lot of students write about a desire to go to college in New York City.  But a desire to be in New York should pretty much be a given if you do in fact want to go to college at NYU.   We're mentioning this here because NYU, like all selective colleges, is looking for evidence of a thoughtful college search and a potential match with their student community.  So don't just decide that New York seems exciting and stop there.  Really think about why life as a college student in NYC would really enhance your college experience, and what you would do to make the most of that opportunity.

4. Make the most of the personal statement essays.

NYU's Common Application supplement has four required essays.  Well, it's actually three required essays and one "haiku, limerick or short poem that best describes you."  Successful applicants won't lament the requirement to write so many essays, and they won't hide behind answers that are contrived to impress.  They'll have fun writing the haiku, imagining the movie being made in 2050 about their life and selecting a famous New Yorker to spend a day with.  They'll use those opportunities to reveal their personalities.  They'll be honest enough to show that they're just the type of self-aware, introspective, sometimes wry, sometimes sassy, sometimes self deprecating students that seem to choose (and thrive at) NYU.   

Here are some prompt-specific tips:

If you had the opportunity to spend one day in New York City with a famous New Yorker, who would it be and what would you do? (Your New Yorker can be anyone -past or present, fictional or nonfictional – who is commonly associated with New York City; they do not necessarily have to have been born and raised in New York.)

This is one of those prompts that can expose kids who haven’t given serious consideration to the school.  If you’ve really thought about what it would be like to live in New York City, you’ll have some idea about how you want to spend your days, and you probably have paid attention to who some famous New Yorkers are.  You've thought about the city and what you'd like to do there.  So this opportunity to spend a day with a famous New Yorker would probably be an exciting one.  

As with all essay questions, this should be about you, not about New York or the famous person.  The answer should reveal something about yourself and your personality.

For example, the Beatles fanatic could talk about John Lennon (who specifically left England to live in New York City) and what a fantastic day it could be just visiting local guitar shops, hanging out in The Village drinking coffee and talking music with him, how you could finally ask him the truth about the lyric in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and find out whether or not he and Paul still liked each other. 

That answer reveals something about the writer.  It doesn’t just regurgitate information about New York City that the reader already knows.

In the year 2050, a movie is being made of your life. Please tell us the name of your movie and briefly summarize the story line.

This question and the limerick one after it are good examples of essay questions reflecting the personality of the school and the student body.  Students at NYU would have fun with a question like this if you posed it to them, even if they weren’t studying anything to do with film.  It’s just that kind of environment where people enjoy creativity and self-expression.  So NYU asks it in part to help identify students who embrace that culture. 

It doesn’t matter what the title or the story line is as long as you inject your own personality into it and help the reader get to know something about you.

Write a haiku, limerick, or short (eight lines or less) poem that best represents you.

Again, true NYU-ers will have a field day with this.  They won’t get frustrated with having to write “some stupid poem.”  They’ll want to do it.  They’ll wish that other college applications allowed them to do it.  It’s those students who are mostly likely to accept an offer of admission from NYU, and who are most likely to thrive once they get there. 

So let loose with this one.  Don’t plod along trying to create something impressive.  Be playful, serious, introspective—whatever you think represents you.    

Please tell us what led you to select your anticipated academic program and/or NYU school/college, and what interests you most about your intended discipline.

In spite of the fact that college is first and foremost, well, school, a lot of students give surprisingly little thought to questions like this.  NYU wants to know that you're not just looking forward to Central Park in fall and all that great New York pizza, but that you're also excited about the academic journey you're about to take. 

You've only got 500 characters (about one paragraph) to work with here.  So you're going to need to make your points clearly and forcefully.  And you'll need to do so in a way that focuses on you more than it does NYU.  That's how you distinguish yourself in a question like this, by writing something nobody else could write.

For example, any potential business major could write,

"Business has always interested me.  I find the combination of so many elements, from marketing to accounting to sales, fascinating.  NYU has an excellent reputation, and New York City will also provide me many opportunities to find internships where I can gain valuable experience." 

First of all, what teenager that you know talks like that?  Secondly, he just wrote the same essay that a lot of other NYU business major hopefuls will write.  And worst of all, he just told the admissions committee things about NYU that they already know.

Let them hear your academic excitement.  Show NYU that you've given appropriate thought to the major you’ve selected and why you want to pursue it.  What if this applicant above turned it around and said,

“I learned something working at my dad’s mortgage company–business isn't always fun.  I saw how much my dad worried especially as the economy started to go south.  It wasn't easy for him.  But I also saw how engaged he was in his work.  He loves what he does because it's hard, not in spite of it.  I'm a lot like my father.  I’m applying as a business major not because it seems fun, but because I want to get up in the morning and feel just as excited to go to class as I did to go to my job.”

Now we’ve gotten to know something about him, something we wouldn’t have known from the rest of his application.  And there’s an energy there, something that makes us believe he’s not just checking the “business” box because he doesn’t know what else to check. 

It takes a certain kind of student to get in, to attend, and to ultimately succeed at NYU.  And their application is designed to give you the opportunity to show that you’re one of them.  The best matched NYU students are independent, thoughtful and expressive.  They would never try to hide those qualities.  So bring them out here in your essay responses, and never hide behind language where you’re just trying to impress.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download PreviewHowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

For potential Cavaliers–advice for University of Virginia applicants

UVA (University of Virginia) is one of those selective public schools that often behaves like a private college.  Their application is a good example of this.  You've got several essays to write that range from describing your academic interests to just being playful and helping them get to know you better.  It’s a good opportunity for the serious applicant to demonstrate just how interested you are in UVA by sitting down and writing some thoughtful, revealing responses.  Here are a few tips to get you started. 

1. Read their Tips on The Application Process.  In particular, pay attention to this advice about writing essays. 

“Write good essays. Write in your style and voice about what you know, not about what you think colleges want to hear. Distinguish your experiences. Pick a small topic. Proofread.

That’s good advice.  Write essays that sound like you.  Don't write what you think they want to hear.  Avoid writing essays that lots of other students could write (like "Volleyball taught me the importance of teamwork"). 

2. Speaking of essays, read this, too. 

Parke Muth, one of UVA's very own admissions officers, wrote what we think is the definitive piece on college essays, especially his advice on avoiding trite, overused stories he calls "McEssays."  It's so good that we've featured it on our blog before. 

OK, you've read the advice from the admissions office and you're ready to start your essays.  UVA requires two supplemental essays as part of their application.  Some colleges' essay topics are seeking thoughtful responses, while others are inviting you to be playful.  UVA serves up examples of both. 

Here's prompt #1

We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists.  Answer the question that corresponds to the school you selected above. Limit your answer to a half page or roughly 250 words.

*College of Arts and Sciences: What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

*Engineering: Discuss experiences that led you to choose an engineering education at U.Va. and the role that scientific curiosity plays in your life.

*Architecture: What led you to apply to the School of Architecture?

*Nursing: Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.

The key words to notice in this prompt are "passionate students."  Yes, UVA wants you to be excited about dorm life, rooting for the Cavaliers, making new friends, staying up late eating pizza with the aforementioned new friends, etc.  But first and foremost, they want passionate students.  College academics aren't like high school academics; in college, you have choices.  You get to pick what interests you and pursue it as far as you are willing to go.  UVA is looking for students who are excited about this opportunity, and who have shown glimpses of that intellectual passion and academic initiative already.

All four of those prompts appear to be different, but they're really all just looking for you to give them specific examples of experiences where you were excited to learn, or to apply what you'd already learned.  So in crafting your responses, use some emotion. 

Don't tell them…

"Working as an EMT taught me that I have the aptitude for nursing." 

Instead, tell them…

"Ten minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was doing chest compressions on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do." 

There it is.  

Future engineers, don't tell them that you love math because there's always a right answer, or that you've always excelled in math and science (they know that–they have your transcripts).  Have you ever seen how engineering majors spend their time on college campuses?  They're designing machinery, engaging in cutting-edge research, solving complex equations, and reveling in the science that is engineering.  If you want to be one of those mathematical revelers, let UVA hear your passion for this subject matter. 

Tell them how the best night you’ve had in high school was the night you and the physics Olympics team stayed up all night perfecting your object projector, or how you learned the basics of mechanical engineering fixing your family's mini-van, or how you taught yourself how to repair computers over the summer and are now the go-to tech support source for all your parents' friends. 

Don't hide behind an emotionless answer.  The more you love the subject matter, the more evidence you should have that you are already one of those passionate students who’s just chomping at the bit to bring that passion to UVA and get started.  

Now, prompt #2…

Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words:

What is your favorite word and why?

Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are.

Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

These are the kinds of prompts for which there are no right answers–they are simply designed to give you the opportunity to share more about yourself and help the admissions committee get to know the student behind the grades and test scores.  So you should feel free to be serious, funny, reflective, etc.  Just tell the truth and be yourself.  And whatever you do, make sure the essay sounds like you and don't try to guess what's going to sound good. 

Here are a few more prompt-specific tips.  

"What is your favorite word and why?" 

Really, the best advice I can give is that if you don't have a favorite word, don't answer this one.  Don't try to "find" your favorite word.  People who love to write, tell stories, speak in public, etc. tend to have favorite words.  For example, mine is "kitschy."  I just like that word.  We have history together.  I love that when I need a word to describe something tawdry and designed to appeal to undiscriminating taste, kitschy has always been there for me.  

If you have a favorite word, serve it up here and explain why it's your favorite.  If you don't, move on to the next question.

"Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are." 

Remember their "Tips on the Application Process" and their recommendation that you "Distinguish your experiences" and "Pick a small topic"?  Now it's time to put that advice to use.  If something or someone in your upbringing, family, personal life, community or school has made an impact on you, something that has "shaped the person who you are," describe that someone or something here, and zero in on specific details that are unique to you.  Immigrating to this country, going through your parents’ divorce, growing up in an economically depressed area—all of those stories are worth telling, but they've also all got the potential to sound just like every other student who shared that experience unless you distinguish your story by putting in as much detail as possible. 

"Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

Again, honesty wins here.  You can be serious, like,

"I pretend to like my boss because I help support my family and I can't afford to lose this job.  But pretending to like him is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because he makes derogatory comments about homosexuals that I find terribly offensive." 

Or it could be playful.

"OK, I'm just going to say it.  Right here, right now.  I like the Jonas Brothers.  There.  It's out there in the open.  Sure, my friends hate them, but that’s not why I hide my enjoyment of their music.  The internal conflict at work here is that I'm actually a musician.  A good one, in fact.  And the Jonas Brothers are just terrible musicians.  So why can't I stop listening?  Why does their music affect me so?  Why do they make me want to dance?  Please oh please keep this just between us." 

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

How eager are you to jump into this debate?  If you read this prompt and immediately had a reaction, either to support or contradict it, go with that.  The chemistry buff who spent the summer doing complex research with a professor might immediately have something to say about this, or the student who knows everything there is to know about astronomy, or the kid who read one of Richard Feynman's  books just for fun.  If you have a reaction to this, you might have a good answer. But I recommend that you only take it on if you really feel that you have something to say.  And be comfortable geeking out with your answer–this question is pretty much begging to do so.

It takes some time to think through these prompts and to write thoughtful answers.  But UVA will read them carefully, much like a private school would do.  That’s a huge opportunity for you if you’re willing to take the time.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

Guidance for Bryn Mawr applicants

Some colleges try to be all things to all people, promising that no matter what you envision for your college experience, they’re large enough to offer it to you.  Bryn Mawr College is most certainly not one of those places, which is one of the reasons why I like it so much.

It takes a certain kind of young woman to seek out, appreciate, and ultimately attend a school like Bryn Mawr, someone who set out to find the right colleges (not just the most famous ones), who’s done a thoughtful college search process, who isn’t worried so much about what colleges want her to be, but rather, how she can best express to them who she really is.   If this sounds like you, here are some tips to help the Bryn Mawr admissions committee see that you match with the school.

1.  Start by thoughtfully considering not just your reasons for applying, but also your reasons you would consider attending Bryn Mawr.

One way to consider your match with a college is to imagine how you would feel if you knew today that you were going to be attending school there in the fall.  That will help you get past the surface reasons for applying to a school and really think about whether you could be happy and successful there.

Start by reading about the history and mission of Bryn Mawr.  Those things are important to understand at a school like this.  Read the profiles of young women who attend and what they have to say about their experiences.  Read about the professors, the academic programs that interest you, and the alumni who recount their time at Bryn Mawr.  Now ask yourself, do you feel even more interested in attending?  Do you wish you could be there right now just to see for yourself what that environment is like?  Are you already imagining yourself on campus as a freshman, taking in all of the learning inside and outside of the classroom? 

If the answer is, "Yes!” then carry that excitement with you through the application and interview process.  Your thoughtful and sincere desire to attend will be evident.     

2. Take Bryn Mawr up on their recommendation to interview.

The website says that interviews are not required but are strongly recommended.  To us, that means, "Do an interview."  With only one essay required on its Common Application Supplement, you don't have a lot of opportunities to communicate your match with the school.  An interview gives you a real chance to have a meaningful exchange with someone in a way that the application doesn't.  And at a school that cares as much about matchmaking as Bryn Mawr does, this is something you probably don't want to skip.

3. Speaking of the additional essay…

Here's where we can show you some of the method to our madness.  Bryn Mawr's supplemental essay prompt reads:

"Please attach an essay of no more than one page telling us what you think you would gain from the educational experience at Bryn Mawr and what you would contribute to the community."

Now you can see how why students who take our advice in #1 our much better prepared to provide a compelling answer here.  Remember, this essay should not be about Bryn Mawr–it should be about you and your future experience at Bryn Mawr.  If you tell them they have a beautiful campus, great professors and small classes, you've just told the admissions committee three things it knows already (remember, they do work there). 

A more thoughtful answer shares your hopes and expectations for your personal learning and growth while you are in college, how you want to be different when it's over, what you want to do in the world after graduation and how Bryn Mawr will help you get there. 

Those are not easy questions to answer.  In fact, lots of students have no idea what their goals for personal learning and growth are for college, which is absolutely fine, but not at a school like Bryn Mawr.  Applicants who match well here have answers to those questions.  And even if they can’t confidently map out with detail how their years in college and beyond are going to look, they’re certainly thinking about those things.   So be specific.  Let the admissions committee hear that you’ve given thoughtful consideration to what your hopes are for your Bryn Mawr years.   

And don't forget the part of the prompt that asks about what you will contribute.  Colleges want you to take advantage of all they have to offer but they also want you to make meaningful contributions to the campus community.  Contributions can be made in lots of ways on a college campus, but the common characteristic of a contributing student is one who is happy, engaged (in and out of the classroom) and participating fully in her college experience. 

What does that look like?

It’s the pre-med student who also plays on the club ultimate Frisbee team.  It’s the Spanish speaker who volunteers in the community to teach recent immigrants English.  It’s the writer who holds informal poetry discussions with her fellow wordsmiths, the student who works as a resident advisor in the dorms, the black belt in karate who teaches on-campus self-dense classes for women, the guitar player who plays shows with two fellow Bryn Mawr musicians at the local coffee house, and the future politician who lobbies for important campus issues in the student government. 

All of these students are contributing by becoming fully engaged members of the campus community.  By doing so, they’re impacting other students and making the college experience more fulfilling for those around them. 

So when you respond to this prompt, remember that when you describe your college goals, think about—and relate—how those goals will make you a contributing member of the campus community.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.