Looking for a long-term relationship with the University of Puget Sound?

Going to college is a lot like getting married. 

Stay with me–I'm going somewhere with this.

The University of Puget Sound only asks for three short responses in their supplement to the Common Application.  But there's a lot going on in those three short responses, which means that if you make the most of the opportunity they're giving you, you can tell them a lot about yourself, about your interest in the school, and about your likelihood of attending (the aforementioned marital analogy will come into play later).

Here are UPS's supplemental essay questions with some Collegewise tips.

1. What are three words you would use to most aptly describe yourself?

We'll put it this way.  Here are three sample responses from three totally made up applicants.  Which one would you like to have as your roommate?

    A. Diligent, determined, trustworthy

    B. Musical, clumsy, lovable

    C. Honorable, tenacious, dedicated

Most readers would pick applicant B because there's a spark of personality there.  She didn't shy away from telling the truth.  I learned more about her from those three words than I did from the words the other two chose.  Plus, she’s just likeable (and to accomplish that in only three words isn't easy).

Don't over think this question.  There really are no right or wrong answers (although I'd shy away from "cranky" "aggressive," and "dangerous").  If you hide behind words you hope will make you sound impressive, you'll miss out on the chance to be likeable.  Pick words that really do describe you and have fun with it.   

2.  How did you first learn about Puget Sound?

Imagine you asked your boyfriend or girlfriend to recall the first time you met.  What's the difference between these two responses?

"One of our friends introduced us at a party, I think.  I'm pretty sure it was sophomore year."


"We were in AP Chemistry together and were paired up to do a lab project during the second week of school.  I remember how stupid I felt wearing the apron and goggles and you kept making me laugh by telling me I was probably feeling awkward because you looked so fantastic in your chic lab attire.  I knew I liked you then." 

Note to the guys reading this–there really is a difference between those two.

Colleges feel the same way when they ask you how you first learned about them.  They want to see that there's already some history to this potential relationship.  So don't just write, "My high school counselor told me about UPS and it seemed very interesting."  Tell them the whole story.  What were you and your counselor discussing?  What did you think, at the time, was the right college for you?  Why did she bring up UPS?  What did she say to you about it? 

Be as specific as you can be in this answer and you'll show UPS that you recall vividly the first day you met.

3.  In 300 words or less, please discuss why you are interested in attending Puget Sound.

Here's your opportunity to show that you've really imagined you and UPS spending your college years together (that's the marital analogy right there, by the way).  Applying is non-committal.  It's like a first date.  Maybe it'll work out and maybe it won't.  But attending is a long-term commitment.  And colleges want to know which applicants have long-term relationship potential. 

As with all school's who ask this question about your desire to attend, it's important that your response not be all about them, but rather, all about you.   Don't just recite statistics about class sizes or rely on the old standby, "You have a beautiful campus" or the even more common, "It's a great school."  You're just telling them things about UPS that they already know.

If you're serious about attending UPS, give them the real reasons why you think you'd be happy there.  Why, specifically, will you be excited if an acceptance is offered to you? Tell them about an experience you've had that made you consider an academic program at UPS.  Or share something you've learned about yourself and your expectations for college that match with the UPS environment.  Or help them understand what you were thinking and feeling when you visited UPS and felt like you'd found your college. 

This is where you get to demonstrate that you're serious about a potential long-term relationship with the college.  So show them that you've imagined yourselves together.

We'll back off of the relationship analogies for now.  But sometimes, they're just too effective to pass up.

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.

Essay Advice for LMU (Loyola Marymount University) applicants

Our offices in California help a lot of kids apply to LMU.  And let me tell you, LMU's essay questions are doozies.  They’re pushing kids to think critically about the questions, which actually gives those with a sincere interest in LMU a huge opportunity. Those applicants are much more likely to take the time required to really think about these questions than are the students who were hoping to just toss an application in. 

Before we give you some tips for the specific prompts, keep two things in mind. 

1)  Remember that the best essay responses shed more light on who you are. 

The LMU prompts are asking you to comment on other peoples' statements, and in the case of prompt #3, to actually describe another person's actions in the essay.  But remember, a college is always looking to learn more about you, your thoughts, your personality, your priorities.  If you write an entire essay about how wonderful your youth group leader is, they'll learn a lot about him, and not much about you.  But if you write about how wonderful your youth group leader is, and how his example has inspired you to make changes in your own life, now we've got something.

2)  Be focused and clear. 

You are allotted up to 1,000 words to answer one of the three prompts.  But there really is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to make your points succinctly enough to get it done in 500-600 words.  Brevity is a mark of good writing.  Be focused.  Be clear.  Make your points forcefully. 

3)  Think (hard) before you write.

A lot of students don’t understand what the LMU prompts are really asking for.  And while we can’t just come out and explain to our Collegewise students what the prompts mean (the whole point is for applicants to think and benefit from the exercise), we can ask leading questions to get them to think about their own lives, which helps them understand what the prompts are asking.  Here are the prompts, and some examples of the questions we ask our students.  Think (hard) about the questions, and compare your answers with the information that’s mentioned in the prompts.  You’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by connections between the two.  

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Advice for USC (University of Southern California) Trojan Hopefuls

Ask a student applying to USC why he’s doing so and you’ll hear a lot of passionate answers like, “I want to go to the football games!” and, “My entire family went to USC!” and, “I exited the womb chanting ‘Fight on!’”  

They’re all valid reasons.  But while a yearning to be a proud member of the Trojan family is appealing to a USC admissions officer, that dream alone doesn’t show an interest in becoming a student at USC.  Even more than your desire to go to football games or to continue your family’s Trojan legacy, your thoughtful consideration of what you would like your academic life to be like is something the USC admissions committee wants to see.  That’s why they ask the following question on their application.

“Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC.”

Here’s an example of a common (and pretty dry) response:

“I’m interested in business and USC has one of the top business programs in the country. USC’s location will allow me to get internships in Los Angeles while I’m in school.   Finally, when I graduate, I’ll benefit from the extensive USC alumni connections to help me start my business career.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that answer.   But the USC admissions committee is already keenly aware of the school’s academic strengths—they know what they have to offer you.  A response like this doesn’t give the committee any insight about you or your academic curiosity. It doesn’t show that you’ve thoughtfully considered why business interests you or what you would do to pursue that interest at USC. 

So how should you approach this question?

1. Do some academic soul searching and think about what subjects really interest you.

Forget about USC for a second (just for a second, we promise).  Think about your academic interests.  What are you excited to learn about in college?  How did you discover these interests?  What is it about these subjects or ideas that seem particularly fascinating to you?  Show USC that you’re a curious student who’s excited to continue learning at the college level.  You don’t even necessarily have to know what you want to major in yet to discuss your favorite subjects and how you might pursue them in college.

2. Consider what you want your academic life at USC to be like

OK, now you can think about USC again.  Imagine yourself studying and learning at USC.  How clear is that picture in your mind?  If it’s not clear, then you should think more about why you really want to be a student there.  Have you really investigated the majors that interest you?  Have you looked at what classes are required, what will be expected of you and what types of students seem to flourish there?  What do you think you will need to do in order to get the most out of the experience and be a successful student?  

We know that for many students, those questions are going to be difficult—and maybe even frustrating—to answer.  But students who take the time to give thoughtful answers are more likely to be admitted to USC.  And they’re more likely to be happy and successful once they get there.

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.

Tips for “Techer” Hopefuls–Caltech (California Institute of Technology)

It would be hard to find a college where “fit” is more important for prospective applicants than at Caltech.  It takes a special kind of person to succeed at a place that discovered how old the earth really is–4.6 billion years. That’s what Caltech geochemist Clair Patterson figured out in 1953 by studying the decay rate of lead isotopes in earth's oldest rock.  How could we possibly make that up?

Grades and test scores alone won’t get you in to Caltech (but they sure can keep you out—the mid-50% SAT scores for the most recent freshman class were 2170-2310, and we’re fairly certain someone at Caltech calculated that figure in his or her head).  Successful applicants to Caltech couple extraordinary achievements in math and science with a genuine passion for those subjects and just enough personality and verve to succeed as a Techer.  You can't fake that.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you apply to Caltech.

1.  Decide for yourself if you really are a fit.

It would be difficult to understate just how much passion and aptitude the Caltech population has for math and science.  Lots of high school students are good at those subjects, taking AP Calculus and AP Physics, and maybe even going as far as to call math and science their favorite subjects.  But Caltech has the luxury of giving around 650 offers of admission to a pool of 4400 budding mathematicians and scientists from around the world.  And the 250 who accept an offer (yep, there are only around 250 in the freshman class) come to college ready to immerse themselves in the intensity on which Caltech prides itself. 

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Insight for Oregon State Applicants

Many large state universities are trying to make their application process more personal and Oregon State University is no exception.  Applicants are required to complete an "Insight Resume" for what they call a "Written Experiential Assessment."  And as with all applications that try and make the process more personal, successful applicants will make the most of the opportunity.  After each of the questions below, we'll give you a few tips to help you find your best stories.

OSU would like to better understand your perspectives, contributions, qualifications, and diverse talents. Please address your experience in each category keeping in mind how you could contribute to the future community of excellence at OSU.  Respond to all six questions and limit answers to 100 words per question.

1. Leadership/Group contributions: Describe examples of your leadership experience in which you have significantly influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time. Consider responsibilities to initiatives taken in or out of school.

What they're looking for here is evidence of initiative and impact.  Big schools like Oregon State appreciate students who make things happen for those around them.  Don't just recite your activities or leadership titles.  Describe your contributions to those activities.  It's the difference between "I was the president of the French Club in 11th grade" and "As the president of the French Club in 11th grade, I suggested that we hold a French luncheon as a fund raiser.  We raised $800, the most the club had ever raised from one activity." 

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A plea to Pomona applicants–Be the real you

Mark Twain once said, "'Be yourself' is about the worst advice you can give to people.'"  It's witty, that's for sure, but with all due respect to Mr Twain, it's just not true at all when it comes to applicants at Pomona College. 

The pressure of college admissions has caused a lot of applicants to worry far too much about impressing colleges rather than just being themselves and selecting the colleges that fit them.  Safe, contrived efforts to impress almost certainly won't work at Pomona.  So here are a few things to consider before you apply.

1. Think hard about why you're interested in Pomona in the first place 

This is just plain good advice no matter where you're applying.  But frankly, Pomona prides itself on being a special place.  Applicants who just toss in an application "in case I don't get into an Ivy" aren't the kinds of students that are likely to be admitted.  Think hard about why Pomona would be a good fit for you.  If you were accepted, would you be genuinely excited about the opportunity to attend?  If so, why?  The more you think about that, the more likely you are to discover your true match with the college. 

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How Gonzaga applicants can learn something from “The Office”

There's a great episode of The Office where perpetually bumbling manager Michael Scott is interviewing for a job at the corporate headquarters.  And in an effort to impress the boss, Michael says,

"Why don't I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job."

In case you're not an Office fan, Michael didn't get the job.  It wasn't just because this answer was bad; you see, Michael's a big dope.  But an attempt to position your weaknesses as strengths is just a hack thing to do in a job interview…or on a college application like that for Gonzaga University. 

Gonzaga asks the following question on the Common Application supplement.

What has been your most significant failing, and what did you learn from the experience?

A lot of students we've met are inclined to make one of two mistakes with this answer:

1) To try and position the failure as evidence of a strength, like, "I was spending so much time volunteering that it actually affected my academics," or…

2) To make excuses for something rather than own the outcome, like, "I received a low grade in US history because of a personality conflict with the teacher." 

Even the most successful people in the universe have made mistakes (many of them have even suffered catastrophic failures in their lives).  So colleges don't expect that you're going to be perfect.   But they will notice when an applicant acknowledges his or her failure, accepts responsibility and learns from it.

So think of the honest answer to the question.  What was your biggest failure?  How did it happen?  What did you learn from it?  Show that you're a mature, confident student who can discuss those things and apply the available lessons.  

What does that sound like? (And it should go without saying that you should not, repeat not try to mimic these answers–I'm just giving you examples.)

"I'm not proud of some of the decisions I made to ignore my academics during my sophomore year.  Playing sports and trying new activities and, frankly, spending a lot of time goofing off with my friends were absolutely not worth the price my GPA paid."

"I did something stupid when I was a freshman and I got suspended from school.  It's honestly embarrassing to admit today what my 14-year-old mind thought was a good idea that day in April 2006."

"Not being picked to be the lead in the school play is hardly a tragedy.  But it felt like one at the time.  I really thought I was born to play Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I was shocked I didn't get the part.  Looking back, the hard truth was that Steven O'Donnell nailed the audition.  I didn't.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but an important one; rejection is a part of acting, and if I'm going to be a drama major, I can't come apart at the seams every time I'm not the star." 

There you have it.  Own up.  Tell the truth.  Accept responsibility. 

And whatever you do, don't be Michael Scott.

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.

Tips for SUNY (State University of New York) applicants

Our colleagues in our North White Plains, NY office often take the time to remind us that our home office's home of California isn't the only state with a fine public university system.  And they're right (even if they are a little New York-style brusque about it).  So here are five tips for students applying to the State University of New York (SUNY) system, courtesy of our own Breda Malfesi.

1. Choose the right application.

The State University of New York makes it easy for students to apply.  If you are applying only to SUNY schools, the most efficient way to do this is through the SUNY application.  It is user friendly, accurate and secure.  However, if you are applying to a combination of public and private colleges and want to minimize the number of applications you are completing, the following SUNY campuses accept the Common Application as well:  Albany, Binghamton, Brockport, Buffalo, Buffalo State, Cortland, Environmental Science and Forestry, Fredonia, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, Oswego, Plattsburg, Purchase and Stony Brook.

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So you want to join the Fighting Irish: Tips for Notre Dame applicants

I love the movie Rudy.  Even a die hard Purdue fan must want to attend Notre Dame when Rudy finally runs onto the field with the crowd chanting his name.  But a love of Rudy alone is not a reason for you to apply, or a reason for Notre Dame to admit you.  Strong applicants share the university's values, and these students have already shown evidence that they fit with the Notre Dame's mission.

Here are a few tips before you dive into the Notre Dame application.

1.  Read Notre Dame's mission statement.

Before they even start Notre Dame's application, we tell our Collegewise students to read the school's mission statement here.   Really read it.  Carefully.  Notre Dame is coming right out and telling you what the university sees as its higher purpose (beyond beating USC on the football field).  They’re telling you what kind of students they’re seeking to help them fulfill that purpose.  And it should become clear to you fairly quickly that each of the essay questions posed on the Notre Dame supplement seeks evidence of your fit with one or more of the tenants described in the mission—teaching and research, scholarship and publication, and service/community. 

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Tips for Tufts

Tufts University is a highly selective college that's making real efforts to personalize their application.  They want to know who you are beyond your grades, test scores and accomplishments.  Want proof?  Look at the directions for their required supplemental essays.

Think outside the box when you answer the following questions. Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected. Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.

That’s code for, “Don’t write what you think we want to hear.  Don’t worry about impressing us.  Be yourself.  Have some fun.  Answer honestly without fear of admissions retribution.” 

In fact, that's exactly the essay advice we give to our Collegewise students for just about any college application.

Here are some tips on how to do that. 

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