Tag Archives: essay

Who writes the essay? Doonesbury weighs in.

In case you missed it in the Sunday papers, Garry Trudeau takes a look at college admissions essays and who is writing them.Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 3.27.14 PM

“It was an epifany. (Note: check spelling)” See the full strip here.

Not that that really happens. Right?

If your high school student needs help, rather than sitting at the keyboard, you might point them to a couple of key  resources:

  • Essay Hell — One of the few sites that our daughter, known here as Mod Squad Julie, dove into more deeply than I did, and then asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about this last summer?”
  • College Admission — That link will send you to a series of posts on writing essays, including how to respond to common prompts.
  • This post, from last summer when Julie was in the thick of it, provides a few more: How to write college essays.

Good luck (to the students) with the essays.



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Common App problems: she got it done [but it wasn’t easy]

Allow me to lead with the best part of this story:  Mod Squad Julie successfully submitted one early college application around midnight, October 26.

Getting ready to submit. The past couple of weeks had been stressful–Julie tried to complete final edits of multiple essays and short answer prompts, working around all the other stuff going on in her life. Around the 19th or 20th she thought she had completed all the writing. We spent part of a Sunday afternoon reading the app, page by page. Julie double-checked everything.

Just after she breathed a sigh of relief that the main part of the application was done, Julie ran into one more short answer prompt on the writing supplement, one that she had either missed or forgotten. We reacted like mother, like daughter: !%#&*@!

The Fusco Brothers by J. C. Duffy, via gocomics.com

The Fusco Brothers by J. C. Duffy, via gocomics.com

The prompt offered a great question, providing her an opportunity to write about another aspect of herself and her interests that hadn’t been covered elsewhere. But the timing was lousy.

While another few days flew by, drafting and editing that final one hundred and fifty word essay crawled. Nothing like thinking you’re done and finding out you aren’t.

Getting the app to work. By Saturday, the final essay was done–and Julie had re-checked the college requirements to avoid any new, nasty surprises. After a full day of gym workout, homework, soccer game, and work, she was ready to get this thing one.

The only part left:  copying and pasting the essays into the application interface.

We had both read a number of articles about the problems with this part and how to deal with them. And guess what:  it still was completely stupid and problematic.

We read this, by Nancy Griesemar, including:

Any formatting (italics, bold, underline only) should be done on the document and not in the box. Once you are satisfied with the document, then copy-and-paste it directly into the box. Don’t touch the box. Yes, it may look funny and a warning may appear. Simply hit continue and work toward producing a Print Preview.

And it didn’t work. The main common app essay, around 550 words, showed up on-screen and in the printed preview in one very long paragraph with no edits, no line breaks.

We read this, by Rebecca Joseph, including:

4. She copied it from TextEdit into the Common Application.

5. She fixed spacing issues but made no text or formatting changes.

6. When she went to the Preview page, it was double spaced between paragraphs as she wanted.

It that didn’t work, you unintentionally made a change in TextEdit. Go back and follow these steps again.

And it didn’t work. Oh, yes, Julie went back and followed those steps again. And again. She restarted the computer, she cleared the cache, she tried it on another computer.

Did I mention that, as much as I love Julie and wanted her to get this thing done, what I really wanted to be doing at 11 pm on that Saturday night was watching the World Series? In which my two favorite teams were battling it out?

And somewhere along then we read this by Zach Schonfeld, including:

Relax: if your application glitch is the fault of a Common Application error and not your own procrastinatory negligence, the office of admissions will almost certainly understand. They’ve dealt with this before, and you are clearly not the only one facing these hurdles. Just have your guidance counselor write a polite letter or email.

You don’t need to apply anywhere for Early Decision. In fact, for financial aid reasons, many (smart, successful) students don’t.

Safety schools are your friend. Find several you could actually see yourself attending.

If you are a parent, step away from the laptop. Let your student do the heavy lifting—they’re going to college, not you.

Oh, yes, that’s helpful. Effectively: “Chillax, dude! No big deal!”

Fortunately, when I was ready to give up and suggest submitting a 550-word block paragraph, Julie kept plugging away. What worked:  using Safari instead of Foxfire. The formatting provided in TextEdit didn’t show up on the screen, but it did show up in the print preview. Done.

Huge disclaimer: if you are reading this because you are having trouble with the Common App, I can only offer sympathy. Try the suggestions offered by Nancy Greisemar in the link cited above and here. Try restarting, clearing your cache, using a different computer, using a different browser. Keep trying.

"We've successfully processed your application payment." NOT your application.

“We’ve successfully processed your application payment.” NOT your application.

Not done yet. The actual submission requires a number of steps. The first, not surprisingly, is the credit card payment, which requires a second step to submit a signature (by typing your name into a window). [Note that it may take up to 24 hours for the signature request to appear. Meanwhile, the application is not yet submitted.] The third step: submit the Common Application. The fourth:  submit the college’s supplement.

When do you know you’re done? I would say when you receive an email from the college acknowledging receipt. Oh, and save that email, since that’s where the college explains the procedure for finding out their decision.

I wish it were easier. I wish it were less stressful, since every other part of applying to college is already stressful enough.

Good luck.

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Straight talk from a UVa admissions officer: everything’s important.

English: The Rotunda, the central historic str...

The Rotunda, the central historic structure on the campus of The University of Virginia (Photo: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago our high school offered a college planning night. One of the most popular sessions featured an admissions officer from the University of Virginia. We live near UVa and a lot of families are interested in the school.*

Ms. Admissions introduced herself as a neighbor; her children live in our district and will attend our high school. She also identifies more with the parent now than with the student when reading applications. That sympathetic stance–she’s one of us–helped shape her explanations of UVa’s perspective into something that sounded gentler than it will be for thousands of students. In 2012-2013 28,984 students applied, and 8,691 received offers of admission.

From my notes:

Selective admissions. The process is not about determining who is qualified and who is not, and letting in the qualified. That’s not the way it works. Selective admissions means we have more qualified applicants than we can admit. Who amongst the qualified applicants will we let into our university.

Every app is read by at least two; if I pulled up records from this high school last year, some of them will have been read by eight reviewers.

We look at the record. Where are you from? Did your parents go to college? Then I look at the transcript:  it is and always will be the most important part of the application.

When we look at the transcript, it will be with the school profile pulled up next to it, general info about the school. I look at what courses are available to the student. It’s not just about the grades, it’s about the rigor. It’s about the student taking what we consider the most rigorous courses.

Junior year is a very important year. If there’s a year to push that is it. It’s the last year for which I will see the full transcript for the year before the decision. The courses and grades matter probably more than any other year.

When I look at the transcript, I am looking for a trend. By junior year we want to see you hitting your stride. We’re going to take a close look at your courses and your grades. We want students at UVa who will really embrace the rigor of the academic opportunities.

One errant grade, we can overlook. If it becomes consistent, that will be a bit more of a problem.

We want to see a continued trend in academic work. We don’t want to see you step back from rigor.

On class rank, we consider whatever the school provides. We evaluate what we are given and the student is not penalized for what the school provides. We’re seeing less and less class rank nationally, a real trend. At strong high performing schools, the rank can be misleading. A student can be getting all As on top classes, and be ranked 125th class rank.

Grades and program are the most important thing. Transcript is king.

Qualitative measures are also important: Very rarely do people ask what type of student are we looking for. Character, integrity, honor, passionate, intellectuals, interested in community service, friendly, funny. Personal qualities matter.

Letters of recommendation give me a sense of the qualitative aspects. Teacher recs are a very underrated part of the process. Who taught the class where you showed the most growth, depth of thought, contributed the most, helped other students who were struggling?

Extra-curriculars are important in the same way. I’m looking for impact and contribution. If it’s not evident what you contributed, tell us. Write a phrase about what you did:  Coordinated, contributed, initiated — that’s what matters. It’s not about the laundry list of activities in which you’ve been moderately involved. It’s about the activities in which you were really involved, in which you made a difference.

The essay is also a really important aspect. Probably a little more so at UVa. We all read the essay. This is the chance for the student to have a captive audience with your admissions counselor. It’s one of my favorite aspects.

We will also look at test scores. The test is important, but never as important as the transcript. What you do every day in school is always more important than one test one morning, but the scores will be noticed.

Well, then. What isn’t important to a selective school?

Our household is in the midst of application season, with essays in flux, test scores being submitted, and early applications in the works. So what if it’s also homecoming week. Hope all is going smoothly for the seniors (and their families) out there! And for the juniors:  remember, yours is a very important year.

* I write about UVa a lot because of the proximity; UVa Dean J, through Twitter and Notes from Peabody, provides great information on the admission schedules and processes; and our oldest child, Mod Squad Pete, is a second year student there.

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Essays, smack-talking siblings and a big college deadline

We are parents of a high school senior and we are in the midst of college application season.

Our oldest child worked his way through applications two years ago, acquainting us with the rhythms of deadlines and the components of transcripts, tests, essays, and recommendations.

Yet, even within one household, each student’s specific experience—in college prep coursework, activities, and his or her approach to the application itself—makes this process as singular as the student.

My husband describes the application process as complex project management. The student bears the responsibility for the content of the application; we can teach project management and help make sure not a single element of the project gets missed.

Our current senior, Mod Squad Julie, is already a skilled project manager who needs little more from us than an occasional schedule check. I may be able to help with some details, but Julie has an extraordinarily good handle on reality, what she wants to do, and what it takes to get there. Near the top of her task list now:  completing drafts of essays.

Seeing the student for who she is. Here’s where we think we can help Julie—and it’s not writing essays for her. There are two points to college essays:

  1. To see if the student can actually write at the level required by the college; and
  2. To help the college gain the best understanding they can of what each student is like.

Admissions officers will see so many similar numbers—on GPAs, SATs, SAT subject tests, APs. Well-crafted recommendations, extracurriculars, and interviews can help provide a more complete perspective of the student. Essays, though, are the student’s primary opportunity to include his or her own voice in the application package, and that “voice”—which can encompass writing style, turns of phrase, vocabulary, and philosophy, as well as choice of topic—can (and should) be as unique as the student.

Those essays can be tough to write well. Besides trying to show who they are without telling, many high school seniors mature rapidly through the year and are still trying to figure out who they are for themselves. It’s also tough on parents:  we want the best chances for our children, so there’s a strong temptation to push to make sure the essays put them in the best possible light. Yet putting every student in the best possible light defeats the purpose.

We are trying to help Julie see the young woman we see. We’re not about to tell her what to write, but we can describe to her the seventeen-year-old we know. We can remind her of how the present Julie connects to who she has been all of her life. Sometimes these conversations strike a chord; it’s very cool when her eyes light up as she thinks of a way she could write about herself that is true, genuine, and important to her self-identity. Even when our long-ranging talks don’t lead to inspiration for an essay, they provide us with something we absolutely cherish:  time with our daughter.

Missing the girl already. Here’s the biggest thing about having gone through this before. During our son’s senior year we anticipated his leaving with a parental mixture of trepidation (for us) and joy (for him). His excitement helped overcome our dismay… until he left and we missed him dreadfully. It doesn’t matter much that he lives seven miles away and we can see him often. We miss the impromptu piano recitals, the booming music heard through the walls when the car pulls into the garage, the gallons of milk that disappear, and the crazy smack-talk among three teen siblings.

College move in day

August 2012, helping the first one move to college.

We know now in a way we didn’t before—it’s seared into our hearts—that Julie will leave. We won’t have her presence in our daily lives: Julie’s insistence on “real meals” and a wide variety of fresh fruits, her sprawled out books and notes in at least four rooms of the house, her dry humor catching us unawares, girlfriend-movie-nights, basketball games, quick flashes of an almost-grown young woman. She will keep in touch, but she won’t be here.

Our relative composure about how Julie handles deadlines disappears when we think about the one with the biggest impact: eleven months from now she’ll go to college.

We accept that it’s our job to help her leave. We just will not pretend to like it.

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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How to write college essays: Help from Essay Hell and 7 other treasures.

Chromatic typewriter by Tyree Callahan.

Chromatic typewriter by Tyree Callahan.

So. We’re way past the summer midpoint. The calendar, reminders, counselors, and parents are all saying, “write your essays!” What’s the high school senior to do?

At the risk of providing another route to procrastination, here’s help:

1.  Check out Essay Hell. As an example, read How Will They Dub You? Your essay can make you memorable, or you can be one more kid who tore her ACL playing soccer. (Hat tip: College Solution)

One student wrote about how he loved tying knots, but got stuck in a tree when one of his knots tightened on him. “How about that kid who got stuck in the tree?”

2.  Read Alan Gelb’s book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. Here’s why.

3.  After spending years writing essays according to the five paragraph standard–thesis, three paragraphs of support, conclusion–many students find it tough to switch to writing about themselves. Ask yourself some of these questions, via College Admission’s The Real Topic of Your Essay is You:

  • What would I say about myself if I had to omit any mention of my extracurricular activities?
  • If I, like Tom Sawyer, had a chance to eavesdrop at my own funeral, what would people say about me?

4.  I’m sure you’ve already taken a look at the new Common App prompts, right?

5.  And you’ve looked at the supplementary essay questions from colleges on your short list? Here are this year’s prompts from UVa (our local public university). Find others via each college’s admissions site.

6.  See tips from Allen Grove for the new Common App questions.

Note the key word here: evaluate. You aren’t just describing something; the best essays will explore the complexity of the issue.

7. Or, read Irena Smith’s post for College Admission, Writing the Essay: Pushing the Right Brick for Diagon Alley, for help on how to “Stand out by being you.”

Do some data gathering: see if your friends can finish the sentence “I have this friend who…” I guarantee you they will not say things like “has strong leadership skills.” They may, however, come up with stuff like “talks nonstop,” “drives like a maniac,” “tells the most annoying jokes during cross country practice,” “is freakishly good at Words with Friends,” or “eats like a defensive lineman.” Those are all fantastic jumping off points. Use them.

8.  Step back into Essay Hell for How to Find Your Defining Qualities. “I know it always helps to have a list to get you started.”

Able, Accepting, Accurate, Achieving, Adaptable, Adorable, Adventurous, Affectionate, Alert, Alive, Altruistic, Amazing, Ambitious, Analytical, Appreciative, Appealing, Artistic, Assertive, Astonishing, Attentive, Attractive, Authentic, Aware, Awesome, Balanced, Beautiful, Blissful, Blooming, Bold, Bountiful, Brave, Breath-Taking, Bright, Calm, Capable, Careful, Carefree, Caring, Cautious, Centered, Certain, Charitable, Charming, Cheeky, Cheerful, Chirpy, Civic-Minded, Clean, Colorful, Competetive, Clear-Thinking, Communicative, Compassionate, Compatible, Competitive, Complete, Confident, Conscientious, Considerate, Conservative, Consistent, Content, Co-operative, Courageous, Conscientious, Courteous, Creative, Cuddly, Curious, Cultural, Cute…

Yes. It goes on from there.

9.  Here’s an important point from Collegewise in, Is this experience your best story?” Topics discussed in your college essays should always share new information that a college can’t learn from the application alone.”

10.  College advisor Alice Kleeman offers specific help in Advice for Students on Topics for the New Common App Essays, writing for College Admission, with academic, extracurricular, and personal questions related to each prompt.

Are you resisting the pressure in your community to do it all—and do it all perfectly—and instead are seeking balance in your life?

Were you ever told by a coach or activity director that you would not be successful in a particular activity, yet you chose to pursue it?

Has your ethnic background led you to participate deeply and fully in the dance, spiritual, or culinary traditions of your culture?

Enough of this already. Go write.

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No more “Topic of Choice” in Common App essay prompts

Mod Squad Mia, glad she doesn't have to write essays.

Mod Squad Mia, glad she doesn’t have to write essays.

The Common App Board updated their essay questions for the 2013 application season and–in the most significant change–removed the wild card, “topic of your choice.”

Your choice must be one of the following:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family?

The other significant change for this year’s applicants: essays must be within 250 to 650 words. No less, no more. For any newbies, previous prompts suggested a length of 500 words, but since the process involved uploading Word documents, the application accepted any length. Application readers may have been perturbed by over-long essays, but that’s another matter.

The announcement from the Common App folks suggests that this year, rather than uploading a document, an applicant will paste the essay text into a word-count-restricting interface.

When writing about deadlines recently, I corresponded with a number of independent college counselors. Almost all of them strongly recommended that seniors complete their essays before school starts.

That gives Mod Squad Julie and her classmates about four more weeks.

Last I checked, Julie had drafts in-progress for most of the supplementary essays, but not for the main Common App prompt. She wasn’t wild about any of the options, so she checked to see which one M.S. Pete chose a couple of years ago… Of course:  topic of your choice.

Essay-writing resources up next. Which prompt would you choose?

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What Happens When? The College Admissions Calendar, expanded.

I published a College Admissions Calendar in early May and asked for suggestions of any missed items. Here’s the calendar, updated with suggestions [credited below]. I’ve added a couple of notes at the end for recommended parent-student discussions. Those are always fun.

For college admissions May 1st marks the New Year — the end of one college admissions year and the beginning of the next. This is a great time to look at what happens throughout the year for anyone on a path toward college.

College teeMay

  • May 1 is the deadline for students to accept an offer from, and pay a deposit to, the college of their choice. Most, but not all colleges, that is. Here’s why (and no, it’s not for the benefit of the students): Random thoughts on May 1.
  • First two full weeks of May:  AP exams. All HS students taking AP courses take the exams at the same time.
  • First three weeks of May:  IB exams. All HS students taking IB courses take the exams at the same time. More information via the International Baccalaureate website, here.
  • SAT & SAT Subject tests (aka SAT IIs) offered. Typically SATs are offered every month except April, July, August, and September. SAT Subject tests are offered every time SATs are offered except March, but not all subjects are offered each time. Specific details on APs, SATS, and SAT Subject tests can be found at the College Board’s website, Big Future.
  • Parents and college counselors urge HS juniors to request recommendation letters from teachers before school lets out. (Note: typically teachers write the letters in the fall and upload them to the Common App interface after the student has specified his or her colleges. However, many teachers appreciate the advance notice and the opportunity to prep for the letters during the summer.)
  • Also, before school lets out, rising seniors should find out how to get a transcript sent from the school during the summer. Some colleges will offer targeted students incentives, such as recommendation waivers, application fee waivers or even small scholarship offers, if they get the completed application to the college in early September.


  • ACT tests are offered in June, September, October, December, February, and April. Specific details can be found at the ACT website.
  • Orientation for new college students begins, this usually includes help with registration. Parents are usually invited and are offered their own orientation track.
  • Parents of HS students may want to visit campuses while on summer road-trips.


  • The summer before senior year brings opening day for coach/athlete communications. This NCAA pdf provides a calendar for 2012-13.  Athletic recruitment adds an algorithmic level of complexity.
  • AP scores are sent to exam-takers; exams are scored on a scale of 1 [low] to 5; 3 is considered a passing score. The more selective the college, the higher score required for credit. Some colleges do not provide credit, but may use the scores for placement. See college websites for each college’s AP credit policy. Here’s what UVa accepts in the College of Arts & Sciences.
  • Parents and college counselors urge rising seniors to start drafting essays. Some students do. Read: How to Write a College Essay (in 10 Steps).
  • Another summer task for rising seniors:  investigate scholarship opportunities since many have fall or early winter deadlines. From a HS counselor, “This should start even in middle school. … It is NEVER too early to start searching for scholarships.”


  • The Common App goes live for the new application season. Some students actually apply in August. (Nobody I know.) Bookmark this site:  Common Questions for the Common App.
  • For new college students:  first tuition payment is required!


  • Many HS guidance counselors provide detailed information to seniors, including how much time is required for transcript requests, recommendation letters, etc.
  • Many HS guidance counselors will also provide guidelines on scholarship applications.
  • Freshmen, sophomores and juniors may want to start thinking about community service opportunities, if they haven’t already. Many honor societies and scholarships require service time.
  • Seniors should consider college visits. Many colleges have autumn visit days and may offer overnight stays.


  • Earliest Early Admission and Early Decision deadlines occur. (Note: the 2012-13 Common App listed October 30 as the earliest application deadline. However, many college counselors will advise students to submit at least two weeks prior to the published deadline.)
  • Many high schools offer PSAT/NMSQTs to sophomores (mostly for practice) and juniors (for National Merit Scholarship qualification).
  • The October SAT date is typically the latest that will get scores reported to colleges for Early deadlines.
  • Parents need to check financial aid requirements for early applications. Some will require an application in the fall. The CSS Financial Aid Profile, via College Board and required by most private universities, goes live October 1 for the following school year.


  • Early application reading season for admissions, extends into January.
  • Early applicants should prepare for the possibility of college interviews, either with admission officers or local alumni.
  • Parents and college counselors may urge seniors to finish essays over Thanksgiving break. Some students do.


  • The December SAT date is typically the latest that will get scores reported for regular deadlines.
  • Early decisions start to be received in December. Some HS students face rejection for the first time. (Deal with it and move on.)
  • Important:  many college decisions will be provided via the college’s SIS, requiring the student to log-in. Keep a file of the log-in IDs used for different colleges.
  • Important:  now is when HS seniors need to check email regularly. See Calling All Texters: Read Your Email!
  • December 31 is the deadline for the majority of regular admission applications.


  • The new FAFSA goes live January 1st. Some families actually submit that day. (Nobody I know.) Read: Catch-22: How and When to Complete the FAFSA and Your Tax Returns.
  • Regular application reading season for admissions officers, extends through March.
  • Regular season applicants should prepare for the possibility of college interviews, either with admission officers or local alumni.
  • Sophomores and juniors receive PSAT scores. Approximately three hours later they start to receive emails and marketing mailers from colleges.
  • HS course registration may begin for the next school year.
  • Summer enrichment opportunities often require applications by January or February. See a very long list our local school division provides here.


  • Many colleges require the FAFSA submission by the end of February. Parents need to prepare preliminary, or draft, tax returns in order to submit the FAFSA. Bookmark this site: FAFSA FAQs.


  • Regular admission decisions should be received by the end of March.
  • Once parents file finished tax returns, they must update the FAFSA and/or link it to the return via the FAFSA/IRS interface.


  • HS juniors may want to spend their spring break visiting campuses. Setting up appointments with professors can help them learn more about each school. Read: Sending emails to strangers. At colleges. Asking for appointments.
  • HS seniors may want to attend admitted day programs for specific questions, to help aid their final decisions. Read: Who should attend an admitted student event?
  • Many communities hold college fairs, bringing a large number of campus reps to one location.
  • Financial aid letters, in all their confusing glory, may be received through the month of April.
  • HS juniors who have qualified for National Merit recognition are notified.
  • Last two weeks of April:  many HS students put life on hold to prep for AP exams in early May. Except for Prom, spring sports, part-time jobs, and, like, hanging out with friends.
  • Last two weeks of April:  many HS senior families square up to the college decision.

Important discussions for families about the college list: 

  1. Finances. Each family will make their own decisions on this. My recommendation: have a frank and open discussion early on–at least by spring of junior year–about how finances may impact college decisions, so the student and the parents are on the same track. Families with substantial resources for college may still balk at paying a quarter of a million dollars for an undergraduate degree. Other families may be adamant about limiting student debt. Still, others may happily pay full freight (and the colleges would like to know who you are!). Does your child know what you are willing to pay? Have both parents discussed this yet? Opinions may vary widely, especially if the parents had very different experiences paying for their own college costs.
  2. Career Services. How good is each college at providing career services and providing them early on? As Patricia Krahnke, President of Global College Search suggested, “One thing that might be interesting to add is analyzing and comparing degree program curricula and career services/academic advising for each college choice. … We find that this is an area families avoid, often because they haven’t a clue about how to do it. But it can go a very long way towards making the application process, essay writing, and interview prep process less confusing and the college choices more confident and realistic.”

Additions made with thanks to Patricia L. Krahnke, Bob Gilvey, Whitney Castillo, Christel Milak-Parker, Anne Lepesant, J B Jones, Shayne Swift, and Chuck Self.

What did I miss? Write in comments below. Thanks!

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