High School 2 College

September 15, 2021

The Worst Common App Essay

You might not be able to identify what makes a great singer great, but you know an awful singer when you hear one. It’s hard to explain what makes a great essay great, but when I read a dreadful essay, I know it.

Every year, I write about 30 college application essays even though I graduated from college 40 years ago. I should say that I don’t exactly write them, but I do help high school seniors come up with topics for their essays and then help those kids to polish their essays after the student finishes saying what she wants to say. I can (and will) tell you what sort of topics are real winners, essays that say something meaningful and true about a student and presents that student in a thoughtful, charming, appealing way. But first I need to warn you about dreadful essays.

What makes a really terrible essay terrible?

The worst essays come from senior English class. I’m an English teacher, so I can tell you with confidence that English teachers aren’t always great writers themselves. Has your English teacher written and published a book or even an article? Has she won any writing awards? Furthermore, Your high school English teachers hasn’t known you, their student, for more than a month or so, so why are you relying on his advice and guidance when it comes to writing a superior college application essay? English class essays often reflect the advice of someone who wrote an article on “How to Write a College Essay” 10 years ago. English class essays are often boilerplate, hackneyed, dry, uninspired. English class essays could often describe you and half a dozen other kids in your school or your sport or your club with the same overused phrases. [Yawn.]

Awful essays often reflect too much interference by parents. When students write about how they’ve conquered their fear (or special ed issue or their shyness or their academic challenges or their ADD) and show you that they are great now and now they can conquer life in the same way that they’ve conquered their whatever, I know a parent has taken over. When kids say, “I trembled in fear” instead of “I thought the teacher might actually bite my head off,” I know a parent has taken over. And if I know when a parent has taken over an essay, so do admission counselors. It’s not considered cheating for a parent or teacher or tutor to review an essay for grammar and punctuation and spelling or even word choice, but the essay topic and the essay language still has to retain the voice of a 17-year old, not a 45-year old who wants the prospective college to see their student as a shining star, just as that parent does. Parents, don’t meddle with your kids’ essays. It makes it seem as if you don’t trust your student to speak for himself.

Truly terrible essays explain how you, the 17-year-old student, have life figured out. When I finished first grade, I asked my mother why I had to go to second grade since I already knew how to read and write. Any high school kid knows that you’re not done learning at age seven. And any adult knows that you haven’t understood everything there is to know about life or even about yourself at 17. When kids write that they tried to make the team but failed, and, on the verge of quitting, decided to try once again and then made the team, that’s nice, but they can’t say, “And now I understand perserverance.” When kids write that they lost the big game but “Now I understand that it’s all about teamwork,” they look juvenile. When kids write that their parents sent them to Nicaragua for two weeks to build houses and “Now I understand poverty,” no you don’t. All you understand is that your parents could afford to send you to Nicaragua for two weeks and not everyone lives in your suburban town. You look spoiled and naive to say otherwise. It’s much more sincerely humble to write that you are beginning to understand something specific about yourself, but that you have a lot more to learn, and in part that’s what you hope to do in college.

The worst essays spend four paragraphs giving the history of your medical issue or insecurity or academic challenge and finally mention where you are now in the last paragraph or two.

Nasty essays criticize others, even if they deserve it. No college wants to hear that you got a 70 in Italian or Math because you had an incompetent teacher. No one wants to read that if your parents hadn’t moved, you’d be an A+ student. No one (except your mom) cares that you were on your way to gymnastic stardom until you dislocated your shoulder. And definitely no one believes that you would have done something meaningful and important with your life – but for Covid. Every student was impacted by Covid. Every sports team had cancelled games. Every club closed. Every science research project was postponed. But no one wants to hear that you couldn’t run or play ball or dance or join a club or make a meaningful contribution because of Covid. What COULD you do? Did you tutor neighborhood children? Did you sew masks when no one could get PPE? Did you design science experiments with materials kids had at home to help your elementary school teacher? Did you teach a senior citizen how to FaceTime with his grandchildren? It’s no one’s fault that you didn’t live up to your own potential – but you could write about what you might do differently next time.

So what SHOULD you write about?

If you’re on a team, what makes you different from the student next to you? It could be something that everyone knows about you, like you’re the tallest kid in your grade or you’re addicted to chocolate or you love country western music or classic cars. It could also be something that no one knows about you, like you love to clean bathrooms because of how sparkly they look when you finish (that was me growing up) or why you prefer to visit with your grandma in an old age home than visit your three-year-old cousin or why you’ve always hated the color blue.

And how should you start an essay? Just start. You can add an introduction and conclusion later. You can fix the spelling and grammar later. You can chose more expressive verbs and adjectives later. You can rearrange the sentences later. I can edit nearly anything, but I can’t edit nothing. So put something down on paper. Start several essays. When you find a topic you can’t stop writing about, you’ve found a winner. Try writing it as a letter to a friend, at least temporarily. Try writing it as a diary entry for now.

Just start writing. You’ll evenutally need an essay between 500 – 650 words, about a page to a page and a half. But for goodness sake, please don’t write about how your coach is such an inspiring guy because he convinced you to try out for the team once again before his annual trip to Nicaragua!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

August 16, 2020

When Should I Apply to College?

The Common App opens for the new application season every August 1st.  That’s the date students entering their senior year in high school can begin to create their college applications, but by August 1st, you should really be toward the END of the college application process, which should have begun the summer going into junior year. (Juniors, are you listening?)

Sometimes I find it’s more effective to explain the schedule to students when I work backwards, like this:

The vast majority of the students I work with apply to most of their schools early action.  (Unlike early decision, early action isn’t binding.  It merely says to the college, “I’m showing you my application early so that you can give me a decision early.”)  Early action deadlines are generally November 1st.

That means EVERYTHING needs to be in by November 1st at the latest — your recommendations, your essays (yes, more than one if the college has a supplemental essay), your list of activities, your transcript, your SAT or ACT scores (which have to be ordered from either the College Board or the ACT and sent to each college directly by that organization -IF you decide to send any of the tests you’ve taken), any college credits you’ve earned by taking college-level classes.  EVERYTHING.

So realistically, you should have EVERYTHING in, done, and sent by October 7th at the latest because (1) you want to look eager to the colleges and (2) you don’t want to chance having the Common App website crash as you feverishly work to get everything in the last week in October (and it DOES crash – nearly every year!).  Most importantly, you want to apply by October 7th because the acceptance rate at nearly every college is higher for students who apply early action than for students who apply regular decision.  That’s not to say you won’t get into a college if you wait until the regular deadline between December and February depending on the school, but why not give yourself every advantage?  This article from last year explains that early action acceptance rates are getting higher every year (meaning colleges are taking more students who apply early and fewer students who wait until the regular deadline), and this year is certain to follow that trend.

Even if you’re not applying to a particular school early decision or early action,  you still can and should apply by October 7th.  Applying well before the deadline is one way to demonstrate your interest to the college.  Colleges also tend to distribute financial aid on a first come, first served basis, so the earlier you apply, the more money the college can offer you.

To get your applications finished by October 7th, you need to have:

  • taken your SATs and/or ACTs as often as you think practical or possible to show your best self
  • asked two teachers for recommendations (ideally, teachers you’ve had junior year in a subject area related to your intended major)
  • written your Common App essay (if you Google “Common App Essay topics 2020,” the list of possible topics comes up) and had your essay reviewed by a teacher or tutor or parent (as long as you don’t let your parents edit your paper for anything other than spelling or grammar – I can always tell when a parent has been too hands-on with an essay)
  • written your supplement essays (many schools require an additional essay or two or three!)
  • created a list of colleges to which you plan to apply, with at least three good-match schools, three safety schools (they’re almost guaranteed to take you unless you commit a felony between when you apply and when they get your application), and three reach schools, which are unlikely to say yes, but hey, you never know
  • visited several schools on your list (at least virtually)
  • filled out your guidance department’s forms so your counselor knows which schools to send transcripts to (some high schools substitute Naviance for this step, and some schools ask you to fill out information on Naviance AND fill out forms for your guidance department)
  • created a resume, or at least written down all of your extracurricular activities, including paid work, volunteer work, academic honors, and athletics grouped into those categories and in reverse chronological order (a resume makes it MUCH easier to complete the Common App and is useful when you go on interviews)

Look at the calendar.  October 7th is less than two months away.  What are you waiting for?

If you need help with your application or essay, don’t hesitate to book an appointment with me through my website.  I’ve been helping kids get into college for over 30 years, so the process doesn’t intimidate me at all, but it can be very daunting the first time.

Good luck!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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March 27, 2019

What Are Colleges Looking For?

A balanced student used to be just what colleges were hoping for:  a student who gets good grades, high SAT scores, plays the clarinet and soccer, and helps at the local food pantry for the hungry.  Then colleges realized that if they enroll an amazing scholar, a world-class clarinetist, a star soccer player, and a devoted community service activist, a college could have a balanced incoming freshman class even though each student only had one area of expertise.  The sought-after student, therefore, should exhibit what was called “passion.”  Unfortunately, what that college got was a class with some very odd albeit accomplished people who had almost nothing in common.

In the past several years, colleges have not been looking for balance OR passion.  They seem to want what can best be described as “consistency.”  If a student says he wants to be an engineer, he should be getting excellent grades in honors math and science classes.  His math SAT scores should be high.  He should be doing science research or participate in the science club or science Olympiad.  He should be volunteering at the local elementary school to tutor younger kids in math or science, or, even better, he should start a science club in the local middle school.  Even his paid work should be about science or engineering – he might work at a Home Depot or Game Stop store or be the nature counselor at a day camp.

If a girl wants to be a biology major and she likes to dance, she should be a junior teacher at her dance studio, and she should organize other dancers to perform at a local hospital or senior center to combine medicine and dance.  Her grades in honors science classes should be high, but she should also perform in a school dance group or musical theater when she’s not working at the local hospital’s gift shop.

Colleges also want to see kids follow through on their commitments.  If you are a boy scout, continue on to become an eagle scout.  If you take taekwondo or karate, achieve your black belt.  If you played tennis as a child, play it all four years of high school.  If you start taking Spanish in 7th or 8th grade, keep taking it all the way through 12th grade, whether you like it or not – unless it’s a severe drag on your grade point average.

Once a college finds a stack of students with commitment and consistency, good grades and good scores, and a handful of very positive teacher recommendations, how does it decide which of those students to accept?

Much of the criteria are completely beyond your control.  (This article discusses how grades and scores aren’t always what determines who gets in.)  A particular college may want more girls in a certain major.  It may want more students from the mid-west.  It may want a tuba player, not a clarinetist.  It may want fencing, not soccer.

Is there anything a student can do to differentiate herself from the crowd?  I’m glad you asked!

First, there’s the application essay.  If a student is clearly a shoe-in, a uninspired essay might but likely won’t change that decision.  If a student is clearly unqualified, an amazing essay probably won’t change that decision, either.  But most students fall somewhat in the middle – a reasonably good fit, but fungible, that is, exchangeable for any other student with those qualifications.  That’s where a stellar essay can help.  Colleges are looking for an essay that doesn’t merely review what’s already listed on your Common App activity page.  Colleges want an essay that is so clearly YOU that even without your name on it, everyone in class would know that essay could only be yours.  What is there about you, about your story, about your interests that distinguishes you from the rest of the soccer team or your fellow dancers?

And one of the biggest things colleges look for now is “demonstrated interest.”  Because the Common App has made it so easy to apply to dozens or even scores of colleges with one or two clicks, no college is really sure if you’re applying because you genuinely want to go there or if you’re applying just because it’s easy.  So show the colleges you’re applying to some love.  Visit their websites and enter your name and contact information in the “send me more information” page.  And when they respond with an email, open that email and click on the links.  (Yes, colleges can tell when you open their emails, how long you wait to open the email, whether you click on the link, whether you assign yourself a password – and it counts!)  Visit the college if possible, take a tour, and check out the admissions building.  Stop by the college’s booth at a college fair or attend an information session (don’t forget to sign in so the college knows you were there.)  Email the college with a question (but not one whose answer is already on their website).  And don’t dare skip attending the meeting when a college representative visits your school’s guidance department, even if it means missing a class you’ll have to make up.  Those representatives aren’t merely traveling salespeople for the college — they’re the actual admissions counselors who decide who gets in!

If  you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email through my website.  If you need help with choosing colleges to go on your list, or assistance with the essay or the Common App, you know where to find me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

August 1, 2017

Before You Click Submit: Everything You Need to Know About the Common App

Every year on August 1st, the Common App opens for business.  The new essay topics are posted and all the site improvements are completed.  The Common App stands ready for your application.

What is the Common App?

Back in the old days, when you wanted to apply to ten schools, you had to complete — by hand or by typewriter! — ten different applications with ten different essays.  On some of the applications, they asked for your name above the line.  Some asked for your name below the line.  Some wanted your name written last name first.  Others wanted first name first.  Others asked for your social security number first.  Each application was a major project.

The Common App was designed to streamline that part of the college application process.  The student has to fill out only one application, and with one click he or she can submit an application to any of a few thousand colleges.  Of course, students soon began submitting dozens and dozens of applications because they could.  It became a game, and colleges had no idea which students were sincerely interested in attending their school. Many colleges, then, began requiring supplements (see below).  Now the Common App isn’t as “one-click” easy as it used to be, but more and more colleges prefer the Common App to their own application, and many have even dropped their own application and only accept the Common App.

What is the best way to complete the Common App without going crazy?

It’s a long, long application.  Every year, it gets fine-tuned and a little easier to manage, but it’s still overwhelming to many students.  You’ll have a much easier time of it if you gather this information and have it all in front of you before you even begin:

  • your social security number
  • your parents’ email addresses and cell phone numbers
  • where your parents work
  • what your parents’ job title and profession are (I’m always surprised how many kids don’t know)
  • where your parents went to college (all schools if more than one), what degree(s) they got, what year they got those degrees
  • your guidance counselor’s name, phone number, fax number and email address (Look on your school’s website under the guidance department. Look for something called “school profile.”  That should have everything you need.  Print it out if you can.)
  • when your graduation date will be
  • your SAT/ACT scores and when you took each test (exact date — look online at act.org or collegeboard.org if you don’t remember)
  • your resume

Why do I need a resume before I start the Common App and how do I create one?

A resume lists your activities in an organized, polished way.  There are dozens of ways to format a resume (try Googling “high school resume images” and you’ll see many excellent examples), but they all list your activities in reverse chronological order — from most recent to oldest, back to 9th grade.  Don’t include anything older than 9th grade unless you still are doing that activity.  For example, if you started Taekwondo or dance when you were 11 and still do it, fine, but don’t list soccer if you stopped in 8th grade. Break your activities into 3 categories if you can:  academic achievements, community service, athletics, and/or paid employment are groupings many students use.  Once you’ve got all of your achievements and activities listed with locations and dates on your resume, you’ll fly through the hardest part of the Common App:  the “interests” page.  You’ll also have a professional-looking document to bring with you when you go on college admissions interviews (or summer job or internship interviews once you start college).  You can also give your resume to teachers who promised to write recommendations for you as a way of reminding them of your interests and activities so they can include some in your recommendation.

Any advice about the Common App essay?

Many students begin filling in the Common App before they’ve written the essay.  Why?  I have no idea.  I think they just can’t face the essay and so start the Common App before the essay is done just to feel productive.  They’re not fooling anyone, especially me. Students, finish your essay.  Make sure you’ve shown it to your parents, your tutor, me, or anyone else you think can help you polish it.  It doesn’t have to sound like a 45-year-old dad wrote it — in fact, it shouldn’t — but it should make sense, be engaging, and be spelling- and grammar-error free.  The Common App has brought back the “topic of your choice” topic so there really aren’t any excuses.

When they say the maximum is 650 words, they mean it.  If you write an essay of 651 words, the last word won’t be sent to the colleges.  And you’ll look like a student who either can’t follow the rules or doesn’t care about the rules.  So you’re aiming for an essay that’s between 500 and 600 words, which is about one page to a page-and-a-half typed in size 12 font.  That’s shorter than you might think.

Don’t repeat what’s on your resume or transcript.  The colleges already know that stuff. Write about what makes you different from the kid who sits next to you in math class or the kid on your team.  Think about it this way:  if you dropped your essay in the hallway of your school without your name on it and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, would everyone know it’s yours because the essay is so “you”?  That’s one way good way to come up with a topic.

The other way to think about an essay topic is if that same scenario occurred and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, no one would think it was yours because it reveals something about yourself that’s not obvious.  Maybe you secretly love to iron, or maybe you adore your middle name.  Whatever it is, if you can’t wait to write about it, you’ve found the right topic.

Is there anything else I should do before I start the Common App?

Yes!  Glad you asked.  Many colleges require a supplement to the Common App in which you tell the college what your intended major is and whether any of your relatives attended that school.  Unfortunately, many of those supplements include an essay.  They’re usually shorter than the Common App essay, but there can be more than one supplement essay per school!

Don’t leave the supplement essays till the end.  Colleges care about those essays as much as they care about the Common App essay — or more so.  Go on each school’s website or on the Common App website and print out the essay topic for each supplement essay you have to write.  With just a little adjusting of each essay, you may find that one essay will suffice for more than one school.  For example, more than one school may ask why you want to go to that school or why you’ve chosen that major or what your favorite activity is.  Or you may decide that a particular school’s supplement essay is so odd that you’d rather drop that school from your list in favor of a similar school with an easier supplement.  It’s better to make that decision before you pay the application fee!

Any last words of advice before I begin to apply to college?

Based on more than 30 years of helping students apply to colleges, I have this advice. Not everyone follows it. Some who don’t forever regret not listening to me.  Here it is:

Don’t apply to your favorite school first!  

Have you ever sent an email and THEN realized you spelled something wrong or sent it to the wrong person?  Well, the same happens all the time with college applications.  I can’t tell you how often students find mistakes in their applications or realize they should have written something differently AFTER they hit “submit.”  So wise students send applications to their safest safety school first (they’ll take you even if you mess up), then a middle-difficulty school, and only then to their dream school.  Another benefit of following this method is that your safety school is likely to send an acceptance sooner, and once you get even one “yes,” the rest of your senior year should be a breeze.

Feel free to check out my website for more information and advice:  www.wendysegaltutoring.com .

Good luck!

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July 1, 2010

The College Admission Essay: What, When, and especially How

So far, it has been a glorious summer in New York.  Not too cold, not too hot, not too dry, not too wet.  I’m sure the very last thing you want to do now is write a college essay.  Too bad.  The summer is passing quickly and if you’re going into your senior year in high school, it’s time to write your college application essay.

There was a wonderful article this week in the Washington Post (wonderful because it reiterates all the advice I give my own students) about writing a college admission essay.  Keep reading, and I’ll tell you about it.

I know that many high schools provide time for you to write your essay in English class in the fall, but don’t wait.  First of all, your English teacher isn’t an expert in college essays.  In most classes, he will distribute an article and/or a sample essay, and then sit back while you struggle with what to write and how to write it.   He can’t help you much because in most cases he only met you a few weeks before and doesn’t have the slightest idea what you should write.  Secondly, your English teacher will have dozens and dozens (and dozens) of essays to grade and at best will scan your essay for obvious spelling errors.  Most of all, if you think you’re busy now, wait to see how busy you’ll be in September and October.  So don’t wait.

But what should you write about? The first step is to answer the question.  What question?  The question that the college wants you to answer.  Most colleges accept the Common Application, a generic college application that purports to allow you to apply to many schools at once.  In a few weeks, I’ll write about my concerns about the common ap, but some schools only accept the common ap, so start there.

Print out the common application.  They’ve made a few changes next year.  The official application won’t be available until mid-August, so they’ve provided students with an official preview of the revised application. Every college application is some variation of this form.  You’ll want to complete this in pencil, so hang on to it (again, more about this in a few weeks). At the end of the common ap are the essay questions.

Print out applications of other schools that you are interested in. Nearly all schools have their applications available online now, so just print them out and read the essay topic.

Group the applications by essay topic. See if you can write one essay that would fit for 5 or 6 colleges.  Sometimes kids spend all summer writing an essay that will only work for one college.

I might as well confess this now (buried as it is in the middle of my blog) that there isn’t one college essay.  You’ll probably have to write at least 3 different essays because different schools want you to respond to different questions.  Sorry to be the one to break that news.

Think about what you want to write.  The goal of the essay is to let the college know something about you it couldn’t find out from your transcript, your resume, or your application.  They already know from your application if you play a sport.  They know about your community service activities.  They know how smart you are by your grades.

But what makes you different from the other kids on your team?  What makes you different from the other B+ students in your English class?

The best essays portray a moment in time, an insight into the “real” you.  The best essay I ever read was written by a student of mine, Chris M.  He was just an average student in high school, about a C+ student if I remember.  But he wrote about his first hunting trip with his father and his uncle, a trip he had longed for as a child.  Now here he was, in the frost of fall morning, alone with his gear and his gun, praying that a deer didn’t come by because he realized he didn’t really want to kill a deer after all, remembering his grandfather who had died hunting, and thinking that this was way more important than sports or girls.  It was brilliant, charming, engaging, honest.  Sure, it needed cleaning up, but every line showed me a Chris I hadn’t known in all the weeks we had done SAT tutoring together.  (He got into his first choice college.)

Have you had an experience that shows us an insight into who you are, what makes you vulnerable? Read this excellent advice on writing a college essay from the Washington Post.   Now there are at least two of us telling you the same thing: write from the heart, be humble, don’t take yourself too seriously, show them who you are.

Here are essays that you should avoid. I’ve read DOZENS of each of these, and if I gag reading these, so do the admissions people.

  • I play sports, and I blew the big game, but I worked hard and came back to victory
  • I play sports, and now I understand about personal effort and teamwork
  • I went to Nicaragua (or Arkansas) and now I realize that there are poor people in the world and I’m very lucky
  • My mother/father/aunt/cousin had a dread disease and now I’m going to cure cancer/multiple sclerosis/heart disease
  • I most admire my dad because he’s a swell guy and he works hard for our family
  • I’ve gone to Israel/Italy/Argentina on vacation and now I understand people of the world
  • My family moved when I was 8/10/15 and I had to really define myself

I do a lot of work with kids on college essays, and I know we’ve hit on the right topic when they begin to smile.  If it’s something you really want to write about, it’s more likely that someone else will want to read it.

Lastly, keep it to 500 words. That’s about one side of a typed page at size 12 font.  The common ap used to limit the essay to a strict maximum of 500 words.  Now they ask for a minimum of 250, but some colleges still want 500, so you might as well keep it to a maximum of 500 words.  Moreover, colleges are used to looking at essays of that length.  If you go over by more than a few words, college admission people will start to get cranky.  They’ve got hundreds of these to read — what makes you think that what you’ve got to say is so important that you can use up the time they should be spending elsewhere?  It’s just arrogant to write more than 500 words, so don’t do it unless you are a brilliant writer with something  charming to say.

Write an essay or two and leave it for a few weeks. Look at it after a while.  Is it as good as you thought?  Should it be revised?  Or should it be scrapped for a new topic?  Show it to a friend or family member.  Take your time.

But don’t take so long that the summer passes by completely.  Get started now!

Wendy Segal

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