Yale 2014 Tips for the Common Application

Check out more 2014 common app tips!

“What would you do with a free weekend next month?”

A student wrote me an email a few weeks ago.  In it, he asked, “Do you think I should submit a version of the essay about economics that I wrote for Penn as the Yale essay?”

I’m in favor of streamlining the essays for your college applications. Often there are ways to adapt an essay or theme that you have crafted for another college with few additional edits.  This time however, I sent a single sentence reply.  “Is your interest in economics the most important thing you have to share with Yale?” 

We didn’t need to discuss this further.  Of course he had plenty of other experiences to draw upon in crafting an essay.  Yale’s request, to “reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application or on something you would like to say more about,” is completely open-ended.  It also encourages applicants to think creatively and cohesively about their entire Yale application.  Don’t repeat themes or topics you have already written about in the Common Application.

Aspiring engineers applying to Yale will also need to write an additional essay outlining their interest and experiences related to engineering.

My favorite part of the Yale application is the short answer section.  In addition to identifying the roots of your interest in Yale, there are five questions, each requiring an answer of less than 150 characters.  It’s a chance to be creative, concise, and human.  “What would you do with a free weekend next month,” and “What is the best piece of advice you have received while in high school,” Yale wants to know.  With these, often the first answer that comes to mind is a version of the correct one, but I encourage you to be certain that you have shared your own personality in your answers.  As with all of your applications, this is the only chance you have to be understood, in your own words, by the admission committee.   Take your time, be judicious, draft carefully, and edit thoroughly.







Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

Tips for Completing Your Princeton Supplement to the Common Application

Woodrow_WilsonI’ve always enjoyed working with students who are applying to Princeton.  As a group, they have interesting and engaged minds.  Extracurricularly, their accomplishments are varied and distinctive.  The Princeton application tries to elicit specifics about those facets of each applicant through its supplement.  In the age of streamlined “easy apps” and electronic application review that makes applicants seem more similar than different, Princeton is one of the colleges that seek to learn more about the person behind the papers.

The section entitled “A Few Details” has been a part of the Princeton application for years, and applicants can truly address the categories in just a few words.  Complete sentences and lots of explanation aren’t necessary or even encouraged. As a Princeton applicant, you are no doubt intelligent, passionate, and accomplished.  Be that same intelligent, passionate, accomplished teenager in this section.  Your answers to these details need not all be highbrow, super-intellectual, SAT-word answers.  Resist the urge to be someone you are not in this section.

Recently, there has been a lot of press about how a high school student should spend his or her summers to enhance college applications.  Princeton asks you to specifically detail your recent summer activities.  Whether you travelled extensively, studied intensely, or worked a full-time job, you learned something.  Think about those life lessons as you list your summer activities.  There may also be material for your longer writing sample lurking in those months of summer vacation.
As a longer writing sample, Princeton offers four choices for candidates to write one essay of about 500 words.

1. Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

With this topic, it is easy to tell the reader a lot about the person who has influenced you, yet miss the opportunity to explain how that person’s influence has impacted you.  A strong essay does both, with an emphasis on the latter. If you considered answering the Common Application prompt about a place where you are content, this one takes the same sort of balance as the CA prompt.

2. Tell us how you would address the questions raised by the quotation below, or reflect upon an experience you have had that was relevant to these questions.

“How can we unlearn the practices of inequality? In other words, how do we increase our capacities not just to act without racism but to actively promote racial equality?”

Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies, and Faculty Associate, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University.

This is a great question to answer if you have actively engaged with issues of racial equality over the past four years. Perhaps, you’ve written research papers on the topic, or debated it. Maybe you have worked on political campaigns or been involved in social justice work. If you have felt the sting of racial inequality in your own life– how do you suggest fixing the problem?

3. Using the statement below as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.

4. “Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”

Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University.

5. Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation at the beginning of your essay.

The final three topics all address one point: “Tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.”  Each of these questions is asking you, the applicant, to tell a story. Pick an experience, large or small, that impacted you, and share it with the admissions committee.  As you tell your story, ensure that you address its impact on you.  Your options in this question allow you to address this in any number of ways, from the most macro, global event, to a smaller, more personal moment.  Don’t be afraid to think, draw connections, and demonstrate maturity through your essay.

Download 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid to learn how to eliminate the most common flaws in your application essays.

Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

2014 Tips for Completing Your Harvard Supplement to the Common Application

Click here for Harvard Application Essay Tips.Last year, more than 35,000 students applied to Harvard College.  Of those, 2,047 received offers of admission to join the class of 2017.  That’s 5.8%.  With 35,000 applicants, most of whom present nearly perfect academic credentials and outstanding commitments to extracurricular excellence, you face a critical question: How do you stand out?

With the entire college process, be yourself.  Be your best self, but yourself. Your Harvard application is no different.

This year, Harvard has reinstated the restrictive early action process. If Harvard is your first choice, you can consider applying early with a deadline of November 1.  The restrictive early action choice prohibits applicants from filing additional single choice early action, or early decision applications.  It does allow for submission of rolling admission or regular decision applications prior to receiving a decision from Harvard.  If you are admitted to Harvard under the early action program, you have until May 1 to decide whether or not to accept the offer of admission.

A completed Harvard application includes either the ACT with writing or the SAT exam.  Harvard also requires two SAT II subject tests.  To allow for your application to be fully reviewed, and to save the expense of rush reporting, try to complete all of your testing requirements in advance of the deadline, by the October deadline for early action and the November test date for regular decision.

The Harvard Common Application supplement does not require an additional essay, however, you may choose to submit one on the topic of your choice.  Before you feel compelled to fill blank space, be certain that you will enhance your application by adding additional information.  Has there been more to the last 18 years of your life than you have already explained?  Probably.  Will it take time and introspection to write a worthwhile supplemental essay?  Yes.  Before you begin writing, consider the information you have already provided through your common application.  Brainstorm about other experiences that might differentiate you from other candidates, and put yourself at the initial center of your essay.  You are the person the admission committee wants to understand. The key in answering this open-ended essay is to be certain that the reader knows more about the way you think about, engage in, or reflect on the world around you after reading the supplement than before.

One of the Harvard suggestions is to include a list of books that you have read in the last 12 months.  If you spend substantial time reading for pleasure or intellectual engagement, this list might provide compelling insight on your application.  If your list outside of AP English includes only a few bestsellers and a “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” consider a different approach to the question.

While it is tempting to ignore the question, or submit an essay that you have already written for another application, take the time to put your best work in front of the Harvard admission committee.  When you have finished the first draft, consider the reader of your application.  One extra page, times 35,000 applicants, means you best have something meaningful to say.







Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

2014 Tips for Completing Your Cornell Supplement to the Common Application

Check out our college special reports for more great admissions tips!A friend of mine has a son who studying at Cornell.  When I look at the Cornell supplement, it isn’t hard to picture “John”, sitting at his computer, writing the supplemental statement.  It’s also easy to see why he was such a compelling applicant to their admission committee.  John is a birder, and he was well acquainted with Cornell’s ornithology program.  As a high school student, he had spent hours searching for specific species and summers tracking birds in northern Canada.  He could tell you specifically what he was going to do with his Cornell education.

Happily now, he’s in Ithaca, following through on his initial plans. If you are searching for academic options in the Ivy League, look carefully at Cornell.  Its undergraduate enrollment is larger than its Ivy brethren, and the diversity of its offerings and majors complements its size.  Applicants select one (and sometimes an alternate) of the 7 undergraduate divisions when submitting an application.



While it might be tempting to check the box for a less competitive division (although they are all competitive) and then change after admission, Cornell’s supplemental essay questions ask students to write specifically about the roots of their interests.  The admissions committee is searching for students who have made deliberate choices about their intended areas of study. You’ve embarked upon a tough fiction-writing task to convince the committee of your desire to study architecture when you fulfilled your arts requirement exclusively with drama, avoided physics like the plague, and have devoted your extracurricular time to soccer and the soup kitchen.

While it isn’t uncommon for students to change their minds about their areas of study while in college, devoting thought to what excites you intellectually now will help you determine what type of environment suits you in college, and will give you career direction as you move forward in the next few years.

For students who are planning to apply to a number of colleges, writing about your area of academic interest is a common question.  For each of these questions, avoid general statements such as “English is my favorite class” and instead focus on the specifics about studying English that appeal to you.  Did a specific project excite you?  Do you enjoy a particular genre of writing?  What are your career goals, and how does your intended major relate to that?  If you are writing about extracurricular pursuits, which are particularly relevant to Agriculture and Hotel Administration applicants, again, be specific about your experiences and what you’ve learned from them.

Applicants to Cornell generally demonstrate very high levels of academic achievement in the classroom and on standardized tests.  Each undergraduate division at Cornell, however, has slightly different requirements for admission regarding testing and high school curriculum.  Double-check the requirements to ensure that you have completed all of the necessary components before submitting your application.







Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

Tips for Completing Your 2014 Columbia Supplement to the Common Application

New York City

What makes Columbia special?

When I visited Columbia University, it was clear to me that the undergraduate college takes distinct pride in two things: the 100-year-old Core Curriculum and the University’s relationship with the city in which it resides.  The Columbia University supplement reflects those emphases.  As a prospective student, I encourage you to think about how these two components of the Columbia education fit with your educational goals.

The Columbia supplement consists of several lists and three short answer questions.  For the quick questions about your interests, which ask you to list books, concerts, media that you have enjoyed over the past year, provide straightforward responses.  As an academically engaged student, there should be plenty of media and arts that have captured your attention.  Share both the mundane and the more unusual.  If you have a strong interest in a subject area, chances are your reading interests at least peripherally relate.  The Core Curriculum at Columbia includes humanities courses that focus on music and art in addition to literature, and the question about performances or exhibits dovetails with this component of the curriculum. These courses also take advantage of the rich opportunities available to students in New York City.

The three 300 word responses are equally straightforward.  With each of these questions, remember to relate your answers to your own experiences and how they have impacted you. This year, Columbia is one of a number of colleges who have adapted the “expand upon an extracurricular activity” from previous versions of the Common Application.  The second question asks you to expand upon one of the books, artworks, or creative works you listed earlier in the supplement.

The final response asks applicants what they consider most appealing about Columbia.  In answering this, you have so many options, including Columbia’s place as one of the few remaining colleges with a swim test (College only, not engineering) but think carefully about what makes Columbia special, including the integration of a strong campus center (the vast majority of students live on campus for four years) with the accessibility of the city and its commitment to a core curriculum.  There are many facets to Columbia that make it distinctive, and therefore, your short answers about your interest in Columbia should be specific.  If you feel that you need more information about Columbia and its programs, check the website for more information about their fall evening programs in cities around the United States.

Columbia is a member of the Common Application, and does offer an early decision program for students who are confident that Columbia is their first choice.

Download 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid to learn how to eliminate the most common flaws in your application essays.


Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

10 Reflections on Teacher Recommendations

For more college application advice, check out College Admissions 101

The best teacher recommendations do not reiterate information found in other parts of your application.

Teacher recommendations are an important part of your college application at many colleges, with most colleges requiring one or two letters in support of your application.  These recommendations provide additional insight into your personality, intellectual curiosity, and potential impact on your college community.

From my time on the admissions side of the desk, I know that many teacher recommendations add little to the student’s application. Admissions staff try never to penalize a student for something he can’t control, so the boilerplate recommendation generally fails to add to your application rather than detracting.

A few things to consider as you solidify your teacher recommendations:

1) In most instances, your recommendation(s) can be written by any teacher who has taught you in a solid, academic course in 10th, 11th or 12th grade.  A solid, academic course comes from the disciplines of math, science, English, social studies or foreign language. Religion is not a solid academic course in most instances. 11th grade teachers, and teachers who have taught you in multiple years are often the best candidates for a teacher recommendation.

2) Some colleges do have specific requirements regarding recommendations from specific teachers, for example math or science for Engineering applicants, or art for art applicants.  Check each college’s requirements carefully.  In general, it’s preferable to ask teachers from two different disciplines to write your recommendations.

3) Give your teachers as much time as possible to complete your recommendations.  Some teachers devote a great deal of time to each letter and popular junior year teachers may write several dozen recommendations each fall.

4) When discussing recommendations with your teacher, either in person or via email, share with your teacher your reasons for asking him or her.  Why did you enjoy the class?  Remind your teacher about some of your most memorable work in the class. Do you still have copies of papers or exams that you can provide?  The best teacher recommendations aren’t always from the class in which you earned the highest grade.

5) The purpose of the teacher recommendation is to clarify your academic contributions and learning style.  A good teacher recommendation will focus on these ideas (perhaps including how you overcame any challenges).

6) If the teacher has also worked with you in a club or extracurricular capacity, this can add additional insight, but the academics are more important.

7) Caution: the best teacher recommendations do not reiterate information found in other parts of your application.  As an admissions person, this was the most frustrating part for me.  I really wanted new insight and anecdotes to help me understand the applicant, not a list of clubs and organizations, It’s tempting for a lot of teachers to summarize your activities in their letter, but you’ve already included that information in your application.

8) This year, it should be easier for teachers to upload recommendations directly into the common application.  You will provide your teachers’ email addresses in your application and proceed to invite them to add their letters.  They can then create a common application account and upload their letters.  The process can be slightly different if your high school uses Naviance to handle common applications.

9) The Common Application will also ask you if you would like to waive your right to see the recommendations, and by all means, the answer is yes!  If you don’t believe the teacher you are asking will write a candid, positive letter of recommendation, then choose a different teacher!  Colleges will place less weight on a letter of recommendation if the applicant hasn’t waived the right to access the letter.

10) Finally, thank your teachers, both in advance for their time and after your letter has been submitted.








Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

2014 Common Application Advice

UCLA

UCLA

The newest version of the Common Application (www.commonapp.org) launches this week, on August 1. Certainly some students and counselors are anxiously waiting for the opportunity to login and look around and begin applications. Many other students have taken the lack of application accessibility as sanctioned procrastination. (“The supplemental essay questions aren’t even available yet!”) The wizards at work on the finishing touches of CA4 assure us that the new version will make applications easier, not just change the essay prompts.

The new essay prompts were released several months ago. In my opinion, the new prompts provide more structure while still allowing an applicant plenty of latitude to construct an essay that is personal and relevant to his or her application. The new Common Application does enforce a strict word limit of no more than 650 words; no longer does an applicant need to worry that her carefully constructed 540 word essay is over the “soft” 500 word limit.

The 2013-2014 Common Application essay prompt choices are here.

The Common Application Facebook page has been adding daily helpful tips, a few of which are particularly critical to applicants in the early stages of this process.

1) Your username is your email address. Easy, right? Yes, but, given the number of contacts a college makes and the number of colleges who are tracking interest indicators, it’s best if this email address is the same one you have been using for your entire college application process. Use the same address you provided to colleges at your high school college fair last year, on the SAT or ACT and on your college visits.

2) When you register, you will be given the opportunity to allow colleges you select as “my colleges” in the Common Application to email you prior to application submission. Again, consistency in your email address will save you from duplicates.

3) You will gain access to the supplements for relevant colleges as soon as you have added them to the “my colleges” section. Consider adding all colleges early in the process so that you can have an overall sense of the writing you need to complete over the coming months.

4) Additional information: the Common Application will still allow for adding additional information. This does not mean that all applicants should have additional information to add. The newest version of the Common Application also allows students to invite additional recommenders beyond the teacher and Counselor that are required. Again, the ability to do so does not mean that you must add these. In fact, many colleges discourage addition recommendations. Check with your colleges or your counselor before adding additional information.

The college application process can be long and sometimes overwhelming. Take it one step at a time and don’t panic!









Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

Summer Bonus Tip: Getting a Jumpstart on Standardized Testing

Preparing for College in High SchoolThis is the final post in a series of monthly blog posts designed for members of the high school class of 2014, and excerpted from Preparing for College in High School: A To-Do List for Eleventh Graders. It highlights planning steps that you can take now to make your college application process easier and more effective.

As the summer stretches out in front of you, think for a few minutes about your SAT and ACT exams. As a rising senior, you probably have a few tests on your record at this point, and that’s a good start. Are your scores where you’d like them to be? How might your expected college applications benefit if the scores were a bit higher? While your scores might already be at or above the ranges by your college choices, higher scores may make you a more competitive candidate for merit scholarships or awards.

With planning your testing calendar comes the inevitable question: how should I best prepare? There is truth to the idea that scores on the SAT or ACT are likely (in most cases) to rise when you take the test multiple times. The higher your scores, the less room for dramatic improvement, but familiarity with these exams can be to your benefit.

There are several ways to prepare for standardized tests: There are large national and international companies that specialize in test prep; there are one-on-one tutors; there is a wealth of books at your library of local bookstore. Which route is best for you?

Consider your strengths. Do you work well in a group setting or do you prefer individual attention? Are you looking for guidance and a sense of accountability or are you able to focus and stick to a routine on your own? You can gain familiarity with the test by working through commercially prepared resources on your own; however, you have to spend the time with the material to make the most of it. Look for an example in your own life. Are you an athlete? If your coach suggests running 3-5 miles several times a week during the off-season, are you out doing it on your own, or are you waiting for the team captain to organize the group that will hold you accountable for being there?

Whether you sit in a classroom or complete practice tests at the kitchen table, familiarity and preparation will likely lead to higher scores in the fall.
Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.





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College Planning: July is for Beginning Your College Journey

Preparing for College in High SchoolThis post is part of a series of monthly blog posts designed for members of the high school class of 2014, and excerpted from Preparing for College in High School: A To-Do List for Eleventh Graders.  It highlights planning steps that you can take now to make your college application process easier and more effective.

If you are fortunate, you have an accessible and knowledgeable guidance counselor available in your high school. But as a recent survey from the non-profit research group Public Agenda indicated, 48% of recent high school graduates surveyed felt their counselor viewed them as simply another “face in the crowd.” If you have knowledgeable and available resources at school, it’s a great place to start. If not, other resources, such as books and websites are plentiful.

Start by evaluating your academic profile, because that’s what colleges will do first. Overall, you should plan to apply to a range of schools, covering a spectrum from “reach” to “likely.” Colleges will evaluate your application in the context of your high school. In general, the more competitive you are within your high school class, the more competitive a college you can apply to. Have you taken the AP, IB, or honors classes that are offered? Have you taken four or five solid academic courses each year? Are your test scores within or above the ranges cited by your target colleges? It might be easier to obtain “A’s” in less rigorous classes, but the most selective colleges will look for demonstrated rigor in a more challenging curriculum.

You might have a well-formed idea of your intended major, or you might join the largest freshman major on most campuses: “undecided.” How much of a role should your anticipated area of study play in your college planning? Honestly, it varies. If you have some interest in a specific field, like engineering, it’s important that you include in your search universities that offer such an option. The same holds true for nursing, business, architecture, and a few other select areas. Yes, you might change your major later on – which is why selecting a college based upon an external ranking of a single division, like engineering, can be problematic. But if you have a serious interest, consider the availability an important factor. It is quite difficult to receive an engineering degree from a college that does not have an engineering program.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.





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College Planning: June is for Judging Test Scores

Preparing for College in High SchoolAre you a high school junior planning to apply to top colleges and universities next year? This post is part of a series of posts that will help you prepare for next year’s application process. 

Oh, and if you don’t want to wait for the monthly posts, please download Preparing for College in High School: A To-Do List for Eleventh Graders. It’s all there.

At many colleges, an applicant’s SAT or ACT scores are just one piece of the admissions picture. Many times, a student’s test scores nicely correlate with his or her transcript, providing a one-time corroboration of the day-to-day achievement. But what if you are one of the students whose test scores are lower than you think they should be?

I encourage most students to plan to take the SAT or ACT more than once, and to take at least one full scale practice exam for each test prior to the real thing. Unless you score at the very upper echelons of either test, familiarity is likely to result in at least modest score increases. If your first test administrations don’t produce the scores you are seeking, then consider your test prep options.

While you are preparing for the tests and planning for subsequent test dates, keep in mind that your
scores should influence the final list of colleges to which you apply, and remain honest with yourself. Look at the scores range for admitted students. If your scores fall outside the middle 50%, your chances for admission are not as high. Not impossible, but spend time thinking about your strengths and making certain that you have explained them well in your application.

Fairtest has a comprehensive list of colleges that do not require (but may accept) standardized test
scores as part of their assessment for admission. Not all applicants to these colleges are students with
test scores below the range for the institution, but if testing is an obstacle for you, it might be worth
looking to see if these colleges and universities meet your other criteria.

Above all, it is important to remember that you are not simply a number between 0 and 2400. Each
student can bring tremendous assets to a college community, and leave after an intellectually and
socially fulfilling experience. Embrace your strengths and try to find college communities that meet
your needs.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.







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