10 Do’s and Don’ts for Writing the Personal Statement (aka The Common App Essay)

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Writing the Personal Statement (aka The Common App Essay)

Our essay experts know best. Check out these 10 tips from Emma that will help you write the most effective personal statement. End of 11th grade or early summer is the best time to tackle this important essay, so start coming up with a plan now! Interested in working with Emma? Contact us 

  • Don’t worry about the prompts. It’s helpful to read through the prompts to see if doing so sparks any ideas; however, there is no need to stress about writing an essay that exactly “answers” a prompt. Your goal is to write the best essay you can about whatever you decide is best to write about. Working with students 1:1, we totally disregard the prompts and usually find that their essay still easily fits under one of the questions. And, if not, there is often an open-ended prompt such as: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”
  • Do open with a scene. A strong opening scene draws the reader into your essay. Admissions officers and their first-round readers have hundreds of applications to get through—make yours stand out from the first sentence. Intrigue them or scare them or make them laugh. Make them want to keep reading.
  • Do focus on a single story. You only have 650 words. Perhaps that sounds like a lot to you: it’s not. There is no reason you should worry about filling it up. Through our process, you will find out how to generate enough detail to write an essay about any story. Nor should you worry about cramming as much as possible into the personal statement. Remember that colleges have all of your application data and that trying to do too much in the essay will only end up making your essay feel rushed and scattered.
  • Do make sure that your story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. You can tell your story out of order—for instance, opening with a scene from a stressful moment in order to build suspense before jumping back into chronology—but you always want to make sure your story has each of these elements. Skipping any single one will confuse your reader and make your story feel incomplete (because it is!).
  • And yet don’t get bogged down in detail. We usually find students have trouble generating enough detail. But sometimes we get a student who is unable to summarize effectively, too. Having too much detail can make your story confusing and also mean that your reader will have trouble understanding what the most significant elements are. It usually also means you don’t have room for reflection—the most important element in the essay!
  • Do present yourself in a positive light. We actively encourage you to tell a story that showcases your vulnerabilities, failures, weaknesses, and mistakes. However, either your narrative or your reflection (or some combination of the two), needs to ultimately redeem you so that your essay, in the end, shows you to be someone who is actively working to improve—to rectify mistakes, move past failures, or strengthen weakness. Your essay should be honest, but its main purpose is to make you seem like someone admissions officers want to see at their colleges! Make sure you come off well.
  • Don’t use huge thesaurus words. Again: you aren’t trying to impress the admissions officers! You are trying to show them who you are—and you are trying to make them like you. Using big words can mean using words you don’t quite know how to use, and that will show. Even if you do know how to use them, unless your essay is about how much you love long words or languages, using the big, 25-cent words can make you sound pretentious and overly formal. The language should sound like you and be relatively casual—not curse-word, talking-with-friends casual, but maybe talking-with-your-grandmother casual.
  • Do use vivid, interesting words and varied sentence structure. Being casual doesn’t mean the writing shouldn’t be good or interesting! Do push yourself to use words you might not use in your everyday speech, and do mix up the sentence structure to keep the writing varied and exciting. Do feel free to include words from your personal vocabulary—words from the language you speak at home or from a regional dialect or words you’ve made up. That can add a lot of texture and personality to an essay. Just make sure you define the words for your reader if the meaning isn’t clear from context.
  • But don’t use emotional language: I was happy; I was sad. Instead, let an action depict the emotional state. That is, instead of saying “I was happy,” you might write, “I couldn’t help skipping a few steps down the street after hearing the news.” And, instead of saying “She was sad,” you might write, “Her shoulders slumped, and she cradled her head in her hands.” You can’t see an emotion, and you always want to give the reader something to see.
  • And don’t use cliche—i.e. common, predictable, overused—language. Cliche language includes (but is definitely not limited to!) phrases like:
    • I need to be true to myself.
    • Time heals all wounds.
    • Every cloud has a silver lining.
    • Good things come to those who wait.
    • I learned more from them than they did from me.
    • Every rose has its thorn.
    • You win some, you lose some.
    • Little did I know.

Of course, your essay might have one of these messages at its heart. Maybe you did learn more from the kid you tutored than they learned from you. Maybe you did find the “silver lining” in a terrible situation. Both of these could make for great essays. But you want to verbalize that realization in your own unique and surprising way.

 

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Why to Reconsider Applying to Schools with Under 10% Admit Rates in RD

College admissions can be heartbreaking on many levels, but what’s “the worst” is the number of applicants who think they can get lucky in regular decision—especially at schools with ED II, and who report RD admit rates under 10%. Even for students with a strong resume and “great” numbers, the odds are against you. At the most selective schools, there is not much luck to be had.

You’ll need something special (or a special combination of things) to get a fair look at a top-top school in RD: be at the top of your class with perfect or near-perfect grades, have little/no competition from classmates, be a legacy, and often very important, attend a high school that has an already established pipeline to these schools. You’ll need some awesome essays, too.

It might help to see that a 5% admit rate = 95% rejection rate

I know this sounds negative, and anyone who knows me knows that I am a glass half full type of person, but it’s time to start seeing rejection rates for what they are, especially if your list is full of schools with admit rates under ~25% (meaning the RD rate could dip to under ~10%).

Sometimes [insert uber-selective school here] just needs a new library, or full-pays, or more women from Idaho, or a flute player. So…

Don’t take it personally if you don’t fall into that tiny, tiny pool; you are, I promise, still enough.

 

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Choosing Classes in High School

UVA’s Dean J always has it right. 9-11th graders listen up! This advice applies beyond UVA.

1. All of your core classes are important.

A lot of people focus on the core areas that correspond to their current academic interest. I’ve even had people wave off certain subjects because they aren’t interested in them or they don’t come “naturally” to them. I wish they’d stop this. High school is the time to get a broad foundation in several areas and college is the time to specialize. We are most concerned with a student’s work in five core areas (in alpha order, not order of importance): English, Math, Science, Social Science, and World Language.

2. The number of APs or the IB Diploma don’t drive a decision.

Plenty of people want to know how many AP courses a student should take to be competitive in our process. We don’t approach applications this way. First of all, not everyone goes to a school with APs as an option. Second, some schools limit how many AP courses a student may take. Third, with the number of AP courses offered these days, you can rack up a lot of APs in just one subject. There could be students with big AP numbers who also haven’t take an advanced course in other core areas.
Similarly, students sometimes assume that full diploma candidates at IB schools (which are pretty common in Virginia) get in and everyone else is denied. If you are working on the full IB diploma, that’s fantastic. We will also be very interested in your grades and review which subjects you opted to take as your HLs. The full diploma isn’t the only route to an offer, though. There are students who weren’t able to get the full diploma done while still having some impressive HL work to show. We can admit them, too!

3. Doubling up in one subject at the expense of the core doesn’t “look good.”

There are some students who are so excited about a certain subject that they want to double or even triple up on courses in that area. I don’t think it’s smart to drop core subjects to load up classes in one area. Cover the core and use your electives to explore your interests.

Source.

 

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What Colleges Want

The following was taken directly from the JHU website, but it’s so applicable to any selective college/university, that I wanted to share it:

Academic Character 

How do you demonstrate your academic passions? What is important to you? To get a good idea of where your academic spirit lies, we’ll look at your transcripts and testing, but also your teacher and counselor recommendations.

Impact and Initiative

Our undergraduates contribute to our campus and our community. We urge students to think about how they can make a difference through service, leadership, and innovation. The admissions committee looks closely at applicants’ extracurricular activities and recommendations to assess commitments outside the classroom.

Personal Contributions

How do you engage with your community—academically, personally, and socially? What personal qualities do you possess that would make you a good fit for our campus? We’re looking for students who are eager to follow their interests at the college level and are enthusiastic about joining the campus community.

So what does all of this boil down to? Colleges seek students who are actively engaged participants in life! Everyone has time to:

  • Pursue their academic/intellectual interests outside of classes
  • Make an impact by meaningfully engaging in and giving back to their community

You don’t need that much time to make it happen. Ask us how!

 

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College Admissions Truths

Great piece by Valerie Strauss in the Washingon Post the other day. Check it out here. From it, here are some truths about college admission, as offered by college admission deans, via “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together,”:

  • “College admission is NOT about finding the one ‘right’ college for you, but discovering the many — across multiple levels of selectivity — that will welcome you and challenge you to grow as a student and a person.” — Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management, Bucknell University
  • “Even directors of admission get rejected. As a high school senior, I was denied admission to my first choice college. Now, I am the director of admission at the university I attended. Point being: Things have a way of working themselves out. Just like the John Lennon quote, ‘Everything will be all right in the end; If it’s not all right, it’s not the end,’ you are going to have ups and downs and might have to deal with some stinging rejections. These are rejections of your application, not of you as a person. But these things happen with a purpose. There’s more than one ‘perfect school’ for you, and even if it doesn’t seem apparent at this very moment, eventually, things will be all right.” — Jeff Schiffman, director of admission, Tulane University
  • “Families hold significantly more power in their college search and student’s success than they typically imagine possible.” — Candace Boeninger, associate vice provost for strategic enrollment management and director of undergraduate admissions, Ohio University
  • “No one is entitled to enroll at the selective institution of their choice. Your hard work and ability increase your college options but not your ability to choose exactly where you will go. It is a process where you can do absolutely everything right and not get what you want. For some students (and parents), it’s the first time that happens.” — Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management, Santa Clara University
  • “Every institution has different resources and priorities, so every process will be different. Trying to boil it down to a one-size-fits-all will you leave you frustrated, and probably looking like a generic applicant.” — Santiago Ybarra, director of admission, Pitzer College
  • “We enjoy ADMITTING students. I am not a Dean of Denial and there is no Denial Committee. I am a Dean of Admission and lead an ADMISSION Committee. We look for reasons to admit students, as opposed to reasons to deny them.” — Kent Rinehart, dean of admission, Marist College
  • “Students do want to find great places that will help them be successful in the next phase of their educational journeys. Colleges do want to find students who will thrive on their campuses. We all get a bit blinded by side issues of selectivity, perceived prestige and fine distinctions of quality.” — Matt Malatesta, vice president for admissions, financial aid and enrollment, Union College
  • “Selectivity has nothing to do with the quality of education.” — Heidi Simon, senior associate director of admission, University of Kansas
  • “We need to tell students: That their social and emotional well-being in a postsecondary education environment is as important as being ready for the rigors of the educational or classroom challenges. That they are not defined by an acceptance letter, T-shirt or bumper sticker. That wherever they go, they will be successful and happy and they will be supported.” — Jody Glassman, director of university admissions, Florida International University
  • “The vast majority of colleges admit more than half of their applicant pools. Their graduates go on to live happy, successful and fulfilling lives — even when they don’t attend the handful of highly selective colleges frequently cited in the media.” — Mary Wagner, assistant vice president for enrollment management, executive director of admission, University of South Carolina
  • “Much of the admission decision rests on factors beyond the student’s control by the time the application is submitted.” — Heath Einstein, dean of admission, Texas Christian University
  • “The various rankings will do more harm — making you overlook a great school — than any good you might expect after a well-researched college search process.” — Andy Borst, director of admissions, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • “College admission offices strive to support and serve a diverse and talented array of prospective students while fulfilling institutional expectations and strategic priorities. It is in the hope of serving both student and institution that admission offices navigate the complexities, challenges and incongruent priorities of these two extremely important but often disparate masters. Finding mutually successful outcomes both has become the all-consuming, challenging and increasingly difficult work of admission professionals today.” — Mike Steidel, dean of admission, Carnegie Mellon University
  • “ ‘Fit’ works both ways — students and colleges should both be true to their identities and goals when making decisions about whom they should admit (colleges) and where they should enroll (students).” — Brian Troyer, dean of admissions, Marquette University
  • “Most public colleges and universities have a greater responsibility to in-state students because of the state funding that is received. Therefore, we charge a tuition premium for an out-of-state resident.” — Clark Brigger, assistant vice president for undergraduate education and executive director for undergraduate admissions, Pennsylvania State University
  • “You can only attend one institution, and applying to more than 20 means a lot of extra work on the back end, for the student/family, trying to determine the best fit. We understand that many students are in search of the best deal (gift aid) from a university, but you can also use our net-price calculators to obtain an idea of how much you might be eligible to receive.” — John Ambrose, interim executive director of admissions, Michigan State University
  • “There are three key steps — students decide where to apply; colleges make admission offers; and students have control again in the end when they decide where to enroll. And when one considers that students have significant ownership of their curriculum and the grades they earn, they actually have great influence on all three stages of the admission process.” — Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment, University of Denver
  • “Families should be more focused on the rooms they walk into every day, i.e. their kitchens, living rooms, classrooms, than admission committee rooms they’ll never enter. Admission decisions are not fair. They are neither a value judgment, an assessment of parenting acumen, or a prediction of future success.” — Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission, Georgia Institute of Technology

 

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College Admissions Interviews: Alumni Interview Protocols

Alumni interview season is upon us, so I wanted to get a post up for seniors looking to get a sense of what’s in store for 2019-2020.

For many students, college admissions interviews are fear-inducing. And though there is some decent prep material online, you can often go right to the source for clarity on what the process entails. There is no reason to fear your alumni interview because many schools have their protocols and the guidance/instructions they give your interviewer available for you to review online—including possible interview questions.

Knowing the questions you might be asked is one thing but thoroughly preparing is another completely. You do not need to spend hours preparing answers to hundreds of questions to thoroughly prepare for alumni or any other college admissions interview. Canned responses sound unnatural. In my experience, taking the less stressful approach bodes well for students: they do not waste hours preparing, which can detract from other important tasks (homework, community engagement, writing admissions essays) and because they have not overprepared, they will sound far more natural and “themselves” therefore  win over an interviewer.

Remember, so much of a college admissions interview (and this entire process!) is about likeability—rehashing your resume word-for-word does not make you likable, but being able to hold a conversation and do so with ease does! Getting to the point of doing so with ease is the hardest part for high school students (who have not interviewed all that much, typically), but over-preparing won’t help. Resist the urge.

Below, I’ve compiled a few of the alumni interview links for some popular, selective schools. Take some time to read over the information provided, but do not obsess over it.

You can find a general list of potential interview questions in one of my older posts, but contact us if you want individualized help preparing for your college interviews—alumni or otherwise—or want access to additional materials. We’ve helped hundreds of students ace their interviews and gain acceptance to their first-choice colleges and universities—don’t miss an opportunity to shine in person!

 

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College Tour Tips

Checking out colleges in person is an important part of the application process for many students. Check out the “pro tips” in this Reader’s Digest article by Erica Lambert (which I am featured in!) to get the most out of every campus visit.

Some key takeaways:

  • The best time to start visiting colleges is in the fall of junior year, and then again in the spring, and the remaining visits can take place at the end of the summer before senior year and into early fall (September and October). Visit when school is in session!
  • If you vacation, vacation where you can visit colleges. This is a huge time-saver.
  • Take the full tour offered by Admissions, including visiting residence halls, classrooms, and labs. And if the college offers you lunch in a dining center—take it! Don’t try to cut this part of the visit short.
  • Do your homework. Read and research the schools you are visiting before you go.
  • A few weeks before you arrive, reach out to the people you want to meet with and be flexible about setting up meetings. You might also reach out to student groups with whom you share an interest. Lastly, visit the advising center of your chosen major or college and speak to an advisor, and consider meeting with a professor in the department who has office hours on the day of your visit.
  • Talk to students on campus; go to the library, dining hall, etc.—see it all!
  • Visit and stay overnight with a friend if you have one on campus. It can be particularly important for getting a sense of the school’s social scene and vibe outside of academics.
  • Go beyond campus and explore the surrounding city, town or neighborhood.

 

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3 Tips for Getting Started on LinkedIn

LinkedIn is one of the key social networks that employers today use to vet applicants and even seek them out through the platform’s recruiter tools. So, if you did not create one while you were applying to college, now is the time!

Building a comprehensive LinkedIn profile is a vital first step for setting yourself up for max exposure in your early career, and maintaining a presence on the site is just as crucial as you navigate career changes, pivots, launch new ventures, and make other notable moves.

Not everyone has time to use the more advanced features the site offers, but it is fairly easy to:

  • Keep your profile current! Sounds like a given, but when you’re busy with your job search or making career moves, it can be easy to forget. If there are only two things you always keep updated, make sure you have an accurate headline (current role) and location. Bonus points if your headline spices things up a bit. I can’t say mine does, but it would if I was looking for a new role.
  • Customize your public profile URL. Mine is https://www.linkedin.com/in/brittanymaschal. Fancy!
  • Use professional and accurate photos. If you are no longer 18, don’t have a picture of yourself from when you were 18. Now, this is likely not a huge deal if you are 22-26, but if you are 30, you should probably change it—I change mine every few years so when people meet me in person, they are meeting the current me, not the 20-something-year-old me. Also, no cropped shots where the shoulder of your best friend shows in the corner! Invest in a professional headshot, or have a friend take one that looks like a professional headshot. Including a simple but classy background photo or one that goes well with your “brand” is also a nice touch.

Want help setting up your LinkedIn profile as you apply for internships or full-time roles out of college? Contact us today!

 

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Off to College – Good Reads

Too good to not share!

To every child everywhere who is leaving home soon, could we agree that we love each other and that’s what matters? And real quick, before you go, let’s just make sure we covered everything.

Advice to My College Freshman by Kelly Corrigan

My worries have taken over my life. Which makes me like approximately every parent who’s sending their kid away right now. I can’t tell if this is a very good time or a very bad time to be reading books on “adulting” — those skills we all need to make it in this world — but read them I must. Deep breaths.

To spur innovation, compete globally and nurture prosperity in a country where factory jobs have ceased to be the answer, we need more, better college graduates. So why aren’t we doing more to create them?

 

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Soon to be College Freshmen: Hit the Ground Running this Fall

College can be a transformative four years—socially, academically, and otherwise. And though you’ll be guided from the start by way of orientation and assignment to an advisor, one of the most significant differences between high school and college is that, for the most part, the guidance you receive is minimal. In fact, the majority of the resources available to you—related to your academic life, career, wellness, and otherwise—you’ll have to seek out and take advantage of on your own.

I want to cover three resources that you should make a point to get to know from early on in your college career and utilize throughout.

Career Services

One of the most underutilized resources on many college campuses is the career center. I highly suggest you get to know your career center and its staff starting in the fall of your freshmen year, or by spring of your freshmen year, latest.

Career services staff help students develop résumés, practice interviewing skills, learn about the job search process, and figure out a future career. This is one of the main reasons to attend college: preparation for your career and life beyond college. This preparation is, in part, something you will need to seek out. It is especially crucial if you are entering college unsure of what major path you might enjoy or are best suited for, or if while in college, you learn that the path you thought you desired is not the one for you.

Let’s look at one college in particular so you can get a sense of what is offered—Tulane University’s Career Center. Three essential services they provide:

  • Choose the right major by understanding the curriculum and related career options.
  • Online self-assessments help you get to know your interests, your skills, and your values.
  • Explore your career options by gathering information on career paths you might be considering.

This is just the tip of the iceberg! You can meet with an advisor or career coach 1:1 to get personalized advice, discuss self-assessment results, wor on your resume, pinpoint on-campus opportunities to help you explore majors and career paths, and so much more. Attending events, for example, career fairs, brown bag lunch speak series events by individuals in specific roles in specific organizations that might be of interest to you, speed networking events, etc.—there are more resources available than you will ever be able to take advantage of every semester, so chose two or three.

Do you have no ideas what any of these things are? You are not alone! That is why, not unlike the process of applying to college, you need to start this process early and work on it often. You need to familiarize yourself with the offerings at your school and begin to take advantage of them early in your college career.

Finding your best fit major and eventual career path is not something that you just wake up one day and know or that falls into your lap; you need to work on it, and work toward it. Your new school has the resources and guidance necessary, so please take advantage.

Wellness Center

You’ve probably noticed that wellness is a “thing” and it’s not just about your physical health or sick prevention. Wellness is about making healthy choices and maintaining a sound mind, body, and soul. You’ll want to strive for all three in college.

Stress prevention and management fall under the category of wellness at many schools, so you’ll see centers and related activities popping up to manage stress and other wellness related issues outside of formal health centers. Many schools even have dedicated “wellness” centers now that tackle the broader range of wellness habits and work to help students make healthy choices in all aspects of their lives as a means to support their academic, personal and professional goals.

Let’s take Tulane again, for example. They have a center called The Well that is devoted to engaging the Tulane community in creating a healthier campus, building individual capacity for health, and reducing barriers to wellness. The Well staff embrace a positive, holistic, social justice-oriented definition of health, and provide research-informed programming that acknowledges that well-being, engaged learning, academic success, citizenship, and openness to diversity are inextricably connected.

The Well provides resources on health topics relevant to the experience of university students that includes, but is not limited to:

  • Alcohol and Other Drugs;
  • Sexual Health
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Sexual Violence Prevention

You can meet 1:1 with a counselor, in a confidential, safe space to discuss anything that falls under any of the categories above. Keep in mind you are not alone and that many students seek help to keep their wellness in check and ensure they are working toward their best possible mind, body, and soul.

Academic Learning Center

All colleges have learning centers or offices dedicated to helping students be successful academically. The Tulane Academic Learning Center’s mission is, for example, to help students succeed in their academic career. Like most other learning centers, they offer peer tutoring, Supplemental Instruction (SI), writing coaching, pop-up review sessions, individual and group study space, workshops, and online learning resources. This is the place you go when you need help with a paper or class, need to learn new strategies to turn your B’s into A’s, or find the space to collaborate with classmates on group projects.

In high school, you might have turned to 1:1 tutoring immediately when you needed help; in college, I encourage you to first head to your learning center to explore the supports available. Many offer free or low cost 1:1 tutoring in addition to other support services.

Colleges want your experience on their campus to be a positive one. Therefore, they put the resources in place that they know you will benefit from, and create safe spaces for you to get the help you need. Never feel like you are alone in anything that you face in college, and always reach out for support—it is all around you!

And, if you feel like the resources at your new school are lacking in some way, or want even more individualized 1:1 support, let us know, as we offer affordable semester-by-semester advising packages that focus on major exploration, internship/job search, and resume/LinkedIn development.