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.

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."

Or…

"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.  

[Read more…]

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.