The Miraculous 15-Minute ROUGH, ROUGH Draft


Anyone who sits down to write always faces the daunting first few moments of staring at the blank computer screen or notebook page.  Even for accomplished novelists or famous journalists, the beginning can be very scary.  And, for someone who hasn’t written much but a memo or email in ages, this can be an even harder task.  Suddenly, laundry, dirty dishes and even paying bills seem appealing.  Why not answer that phone call instead, or take the dog for a walk?  Sound familiar?  Well, here’s some simple advice:






When you start to write a few words on the page – even words like “I don’t know what to say” – something miraculous happens.  Suddenly, there are WORDS on the page, not just blank space.  

Many writers start the day with what can be thought of as “brain dump.”  We just WRITE, anything, for 15 minutes.  We assure ourselves that NO ONE will read it, just us.  We whine, we complain, we worry about why we can’t write.  We vent onto the page about our annoying co-worker, our mother, our noisy neighbors.  Then we ask ourselves things like: what am I doing today?  How am I feeling (about my job, my upcoming summer vacation, my birthday, my dating life…)?  What am I having for dinner?  And maybe, if we’re up to it: how do I feel about my future?  What are my dreams?  And before we know it, the timer goes off, and we have 2 or 3 pages.  Not Hemingway maybe, not The New York Times, but it’s WRITING.  

Now, this may sound like a big waste of time.  So let’s think for a moment about exercise.  If you haven’t been to a gym in years and decide to run a 10k race next month, what do you do first?  Unless you want to pull a muscle or worse, you start slow.  You get off the couch and jog around the block a few times (and, in my case, reward yourself with an ice cream cone afterwards).  Then, you might try for a mile, or two.  You jog, you stretch, you walk a bit.  You’re sore, but the next day you do it again.  As we all know, you are MUCH more likely to succeed in the race if you warm up, practice, and do several trial runs to prepare.  

Writing works in exactly the same way.  Before taking on the big personal statement for Harvard or the leadership essay for Kellogg, I’d advise WARMING UP.  Some practice runs, nice and easy, where no one will see that you’re so out of breath you can’t even say hello.  And this is the beauty of the rough draft.  It’s the draft no one will see but you (well, and maybe your editor!).  It’s the messy, sloppy draft (hence the name rough, not smooth) that lets you remember what it feels like to jog in place a bit, to get your bearings, to put a few tentative words onto the page.  It helps you remember what your voice sounds like, and most importantly, why it’s unique.

When I sit down to write a first out-of-shape rough draft, I first turn off my phone, then my Facebook page, and finally those darn voices in my head that keep whispering “Are you nuts? This isn’t good writing!”  I set a timer for just 15 minutes (no more!), and I promise myself a reward afterwards.

Then I take a deep breath and start typing.  A few words.  A sentence.  Then there’s a paragraph.  It’s not great writing, it’s not going to change lives or win the race, but it’s a beginning.  I’m sweating a little, I can feel my heart beating.  An idea pops up.  Then another.  I don’t sprint, and I don’t push too hard.  But when the timer goes off, there’s something true and honest on that page by ME, about ME, which is the critical first step to any good piece of writing, especially a strong, effective personal statement.  


Shut off the phone, and set an alarm for 15 minutes.  Then ask yourself: What do I care about?  What do I enjoy doing?  What’s important to me?  And write.  Your only commitment is to keep going until you hear that beep.  When the timer goes off, STOP.  Hit “save.”  And then go get yourself a double scoop of sweet, cold, decadent ice cream.


By , a college writing professor specializing in the personal narrative; journalist, writing coach, and admissions consultant. She has helped applicants gain acceptance to Ivy League and other top programs.

Introducing Venture for America: How to Create 100,000 Jobs


This is a guest post by Andrew Yang, currently the President and Founder of Venture for America, formerly the CEO at Manhattan GMAT. is glad to support this initiative.

When a company has a serious problem, it sends its best people to solve it.  

Right now our country has a serious problem – we need to create more jobs.  And yet, our top college graduates are often not heading to innovative start-ups and early stage companies that will generate jobs and produce new industries.  In 2010 over 50% of Harvard graduates went to work in financial services, management consulting, or to law school, with fewer than 15% going to industry, which includes companies big and small.  The same picture holds true at other top college campuses.  

Despite the numbers, many graduating seniors would have a strong interest in working for a start-up that had the potential to grow.  It’s an ambition that’s commonly expressed among students.  But there are significant obstacles for a senior looking to pursue this sort of opportunity:  

  1. They are not actively recruited.  Start-ups often lack the resources to interview and recruit on-campus, particularly because they are generally only looking for a small number of entry-level hires.  
  2. It’s hard to find a suitable company.  It’s difficult, and a departure from past experience, for a college senior to network and do the legwork necessary to find and identify suitable start-ups that might be hiring around the country.  
  3. You’re on your own.  Many seniors learn about opportunities or on-campus interviews from career services or classmates.  Dozens of your peers generally aren’t heading to start-ups to give you guidance.  
  4. It’s potentially risky.  Even if you’ve identified a start-up and it wants to hire you, there may be concern about the risk involved, particularly as there may not be a structured path of advancement or training relative to a more conventional position or program.  

One compelling illustration of what can happen when you address these issues is Teach for America, which last year drew 46,000 applicants for 4,500 teaching positions, including 12% of Ivy League seniors applying.  Teach for America is a role model in its success in attracting a critical mass of talent to an underserved sector.  

We must make it easier for our top graduates to choose to join promising start-ups and early-stage companies.  Only then will we seed the wellspring of innovation that will enable us to create the thousands of jobs we need and keep our economy competitive.  

I have spent the last several months traveling to Detroit, Providence, New Orleans, and other cities and found dozens of promising companies that are all hungry for talent.  There’s a supply and a demand – we just need to connect the two sides.  

Venture for America is a new national non-profit that will recruit top college graduates to work in start-ups and early-stage companies around the country with a focus on regions undergoing economic change (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, Providence).  Venture Fellows will attend a 5-week Training Institute at Brown University with seasoned entrepreneurs and investors next summer before going to work at their companies.  The goal is to funnel a new generation of talent into the start-up ecosystem to both support current companies and, over time, create new ones.  Our stated goal is to generate 100,000 U.S. jobs by 2025.  

If we provide a concrete runway to our best and brightest to create opportunities for themselves and others, they will embrace the challenge and renew our nation’s economic future.  

If you know an enterprising college senior or recent graduate who wants to learn how to build businesses and create opportunities, please send them to to apply.


Summarizing Your Activities on the Common Application


This post about summarizing your activities on the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you complete the 2012 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools

You’ll find the activities chart just above the essay questions on the Common Application.  It looks straightforward, and in some ways, it is.  However, given the differences between communities, high schools and your individual passions, it is important to give some thought to the way you represent your extracurricular time.

The Common Application specifically asks you to list your activities in the order of importance to you.  (They bold it in their instructions too.)  The activity that you believe sounds most impressive may not be your most personally significant activity, and unless you’ve demonstrated an unusual level of commitment to it in other parts of the application you’ve just lost some legitimacy with the application reviewer.

  • Carefully explain your activity and your role in it.  The Common Application allows limited space for this, so choose your words carefully.  Remember, the name of the club alone does little to clarify your passions for the admission committee.
  • Likewise, don’t assume that the college wants to see any specific activity listed as most important.  Listing your community service requirement first doesn’t speak to your passions.  Colleges want all sorts of students on their campus.  They want tuba players and tennis players, presidents and prose writers.  Be yourself.
  • While many of your activities might take place within the context of your high school, think about all of your time.  Do you devote significant amounts of time to a hobby or special interest.  Are you particularly involved with a church or religious group?  One year, our committee had a student who had spent a great deal of time baking.  She took the time to explain her commitment to the croissant.  Did we find her compelling?  Absolutely. Had she explained that her interest went well beyond baking a batch of cookies for the track team bake sale?  Yes.
  • Resist the temptation to exaggerate.  Many activities fluctuate in their time commitment.  You might spend 12 hours a day in preparation for a debate tournament, or a week on a mission trip.  When your individual club commitments add up to more than 100 hours in a week, it becomes difficult to gauge your true commitments and the reader is more likely to become skeptical of your application.

Put together a first draft of your activities, then rethink your roles and time commitments from the past few years.  If you need help jogging your memory, flip through your old yearbooks.


By Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as an 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.

2012 Common Application Essay Tips


This post about the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you fill out the 2012 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools

If you are a rising high school senior, there is a good chance that the Common Application website is bookmarked on your web browser, or printed, sitting on your desk.  An ominous reminder of the promise that you made to yourself:  I will write my college essays this summer. 

With more than 400 colleges and universities, including many of the nation’s most selective post-secondary institutions, accepting the Common Application, there’s also a good chance that you’ll be addressing one of its broad ranging essay questions. This year, the recommended length is 250-500 words. While the online format will not cut you off at 500 words, it is easy to lose focus on your essay. Here are a few tips for each of the essay choices.

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.  

You don’t need to have had a life changing experience to write an outstanding essay in response to this prompt.  In fact, I wouldn’t wish most of the life changing experiences that students use as essay topics on you just so that you have good essay fodder.  Think small and reflect on what you’ve learned.

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

An effective essay often makes it clear to the reader why this issue is important to the applicant.  You’ve missed an opportunity to convey your passion to the admissions committee if you simply write an essay about current newspaper headlines.  Look instead to your volunteer experiences or social action clubs in which you’ve been involved and draw upon those experiences.

  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.  

Many grandparents have had a significant influence on applicants.  Not to belittle writing about a grandparent, or a parent, or a sibling who battles cancer, as there are some powerful stories to be told, but often the reviewer is left knowing much more about the person and less about the applicant.  Thoughtful reflection and word choice will help you to shed light about both parties in an effective response to this prompt.

  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix.

This one seems so easy – simply draw upon a section of your junior year English journal or tap that essay you wrote for art history.    Don’t do it.  If you are a musician, or an avid reader, or a budding scientist, you have a plethora of material from which to draw.  Think not only about the work you choose, but perhaps the learning process that you came through in discovering the work.   

  •  Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

This question isn’t all that different from the first essay, only with a focus on diversity.  In writing about this prompt, think carefully about the diversity experience you had and your role in it.  

  • Topic of your choice.

Again, resist the urge to revisit an English paper.  This is your opportunity to tell the admission committee something.  Use it.  And don’t forget to include a prompt for the question – it serves as a guide for the conclusion you’d like the reader to draw from the essay.

Are you unsure where to start?  If one of the essay choices doesn’t leap off the page, don’t get bogged down. Go ahead, write a paragraph or two about an experience. After you have moved beyond the blank page on your computer screen, it will become clear which essay choice you should address.  You can fine-tune your answer with multiple drafts.

With all of these topics, it is easy to write a basic essay that doesn’t provide more information about the applicant to the admission committee.  Think carefully of the information that you would like the admission committee to carry away from reading your essay. Ensure that your essay stands out by writing in an authentic voice and allowing your story to shed light on your academic interests, extracurricular passions or defining experiences. 

By 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.

Why Were YOU Rejected from College?


Ivy League acceptance rates plummeted this year, reports a Daily Beast article. But that’s not actually the topic of the article which is titled “F-Bombs and ‘Jorts’: 9 Craziest College Rejection Reasons.” Some of the reasons for rejection had absolutely nothing to do with a student’s qualifications. Here are two examples:

  • Profanity in essays – One applicant at Brown would have gotten in, explains Jim Miller, admissions officer at Brown, if not for the string of profanities. Miller explains, “He had a string of F-bombs [in his personal essay] that was pretty remarkable. I am not opposed to profanity and sometimes it can work. But, every third word doesn’t work.”
  • An overly persistent character – An anonymous admission officer describes a few people who camped out in the school’s lobby, refusing to leave until they spoke to “the people [they] need to talk to.” They did end up speaking to all the right people, but ended up making the wrong impression.

P.S. “Jorts” are jean shorts and the topic of a college essay—”Why Men Shouldn’t Wear Jorts.” This applicant was not accepted.

5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in College Application Essays ~ Helping You Write Your Best

Ivy League Acceptance Rate Down


Acceptance rates at Ivy League institutions hit an all-time low this year, reports a Daily Pennsylvanian article last week. Penn, for example, accepted only 12.3% of applicants this year, compared to 14.2% last year. And this low rate is actually the second highest in the Ivy League, following Cornell admitting 18%, the highest rate.

The most selective school this year in the Ivy League was Harvard, which accepted only 6.2% of applicants. At both Penn and Harvard, minority students accounted for 44% of acceptances.

Waitlist numbers also vary among the schools in the Ivy League. Penn placed 2,400 on the waitlist; Cornell’s total was 2,988; Princeton waitlisted 1,248; and Yale waitlisted just 996 students.

You can see an interactive chart on acceptance rates by visiting the DP article, “Ivy admissions hit record low.” For a more extensive chart on acceptance rates (i.e. not just of Ivy League schools), check out the New York Times blog post, “Stanford and Duke Accepted How Many? Colleges Report 2011 Admission Figures.” (P.S. Stanford admitted 7.07% and Duke accepted 12.59.) ~ Helping You Write Your Best

Public Service Jobs on the Rise for College Grads


More and more college graduates are turning to public service jobs. The reasons, according to a recent New York Times article? The recession, the scarcity of “normal” jobs, the centrality of community service among millennials, and the fact that President Obama has made public service “cool.”

In 2009, 16% more college graduates worked for the federal government than in 2008; 11% more worked for nonprofit groups. AmeriCorps alone received 258,829 applications in 2010, up from 91,399 in 2008. Applications for Teach for America increased by 32% last year, to 46,359, a record high.

As a result of these increases, the federal government has experienced a 3% increase in jobs while the private sector has decreased its payroll by 7%.

“It’s not uncommon for me to hear of over 100 applications for a nonprofit position, sometimes many more than that, and many more Ivy League college graduates applying than before,” said Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, a trade group for nonprofits. “Some of these people haven’t been employed for a while and are happy to have something. But once they’re there, they’ve recalibrated and reoriented themselves toward public service.”

The NYT article sums it up well: College graduates are ending up “doing good because the economy did them wrong.” ~ Helping You Write Your Best

College Admissions News Round Up

  • Some U.S. colleges are facing a new challenge when it comes to diversification of their freshman classes—too many Chinese applicants. According to a New York Times article, “Recruiting in China Pays Off for U.S. Colleges,” the economic boom in China has made the prospect of attending an American university much more of a reality for Chinese students. The problem is that it has become a reality for such a large number of applicants that schools are being flooded with applications from China. On top of that, with so many Chinese applicants hiring “agents” to write their college essays, it has become increasingly difficult for admissions readers to determine which students are truly qualified and which ones simply have the money to pay their way to a good application. The adcoms have their work cut out for them, but it’s worth it—according to the article, Chinese students are strong students, and many are in positions to pay full tuition.
  • China hit college news headlines again in another article that highlights some of the hurdles that Chinese applicants face when applying to college in the U.S. The BusinessWeek article, “The SAT Is to America as _____ Is to China,” explains how the SATs aren’t offered in mainland China, but that the College Board plans on changing that. For now, Chinese applicants need to fly abroad (like to Hong Kong or South Korea) to take the SATs. “The SAT’s absence on the mainland is a relic of an era when China was less open to the West,” explains College Board President Gaston Caperton. “As a former British colony, Hong Kong has long let students take the exam.” The Board is on an ongoing mission to convince Chinese officials to change their policy. Currently in China, AP exams are allowed, and next year the PSAT exam will also be offered.
  • Two recent articles indicate that donations to colleges were on the rise in 2010. According to “Not So Full Recovery” (from Inside Higher Ed) and “Donations to Colleges Rose, if Only Slightly, in 2010” (from The Chronicle of Higher Education), donations increased 0.5% in the last year, bringing the total donation amount to $28 billion. (If you adjust for inflation, however, than that’s actually a 0.6% decrease.) Many attribute the weak increase to the poor economy—donors were hesitant to give and colleges were hesitant to ask. Please see the articles for more details.

Learn how to stand out from the crowd of other highly qualified Ivy League applicants when you view’s free webinar, Ivy League Applications that Sparkle! ~ Helping You Write Your Best

Britain Tries to Step Up Diversity in Higher Ed

A recent New York Times article, “Elite Institutions Are Tested on Diversity,” discusses a call for increased diversity in Great Britain’s universities — not just a call for racial diversity, but class diversity as well.

Extensive research shows that despite efforts to increase diversity in higher education in Britain, little progress has been made. Students have a greater chance of gaining acceptance to top schools like Cambridge or Oxford if they attended an elite, and expensive, private school, than if they come from a low-income family.

David Lammy, former British higher education minister, looks to the United States as a model. He points out that in the U.S. factors beyond test scores are taken into consideration during the admissions decision. Standardized test scores from students at inner-city public schools are generally lower than those of students from schools in wealthier suburbs, but because of the heavy premium placed on diversity, those inner-city students are still considered in admissions decisions to top schools. “If you graduate first in your class in Harlem, the Ivy League schools are going to want you,” Lammy says.

Other countries have also recently taken measures to increase the diversity ratings of their higher education institutions. Selective universities in France used to accept only about 13% of its students from low-income, scholarship-qualifying families; now they accept 20%.

University seats in schools in the Netherlands are either given to any and all high school graduates, or, for more selective courses of study, are given away based on a lottery system; plus there are no standardized entry exams. (This, the NYT article points out, would not work in a country like England where so much emphasis is placed on A-levels and where there are so many more applicants than there are seats at the elite institutions.)

According to a spokeswoman from Oxford, Oxford has made strides to increase diversity, for example by running summer schools for “students from under-represented groups.” 40% of participating students (all of whom had attended state schools) were offered admission at Oxford.

She also notes a cultural difference between Great Britain the U.S., specifically “[t]he exclusive focus in admissions on academic merit (rather than personal merit or the contribution you can make to the student body.” She continues, “We really are obsessed with finding the most academically able person.”

Some believe, however, that “by using A-level results as a filter, elite British universities may actually be missing able candidates.” “A poor child is more likely to be at a school that doesn’t push them to reach their full potential,” says Elliot Major, the Sutton Trust’s policy director. “But when they get to university they really fly.”

For professional application and admissions tips, check out Accepted’s instantly downloadable ebook, Submit a Stellar Application: 42 Terrific Tips to Help You Get Accepted. The advice in this popular book will help you navigate the admissions process from beginning to end! ~ Helping You Write Your Best


College Applications Continue to Rise…

…which means competition for colleges is also on the rise. Ivy League schools in particular are receiving record numbers of applications, some with double-digit percentage increases for the second year in a row.

According to a article, “Competition for colleges increasing as applications rise,” 1.5 million students apply to four-year colleges every year. This year, about one in 50 of those students applied to Harvard. Last year, Harvard only accepted 6.9% of its applicants. With a limited number of seats per class, it makes sense that as more applicants believe they deserve a spot, the more rejections there will be. (This year Harvard received close to 35,000 applications, an almost 15% increase.)

One reason for the boom in applications is the recent increased generosity of financial aid packages at the Ivies and other elite schools. A Chronicle of Higher Education article indicates that in the 2008-2009 academic year, 79% of first-time, full-time undergrads received financial aid, up 3% from the year before. 40% of these students received Pell Grants.

Harvard is one such school that offers a generous financial aid package. 70% of Harvard undergraduates receive financial aid; families with annual income below $60,000 are not required to pay tuition at all, while those who earn up to $180,000 will pay no more than 10% of their income towards tuition.

At Penn, even high-income families qualify for financial aid—more than 100 students from families with an annual income of more than $190,000 received, on average, $16,000 in financial aid. Penn also has a no-loans policy in place.

Other contributing factors to the application boom include an improving economy, an increase of international applicants, an increase in applicants from California and the Southwest, the fact that students are applying to more schools, and increased competitiveness among high school students.

Although not cited in this article, the sheer ease of applying to multiple schools using the Common Application is frequently considered a contributing factor in the soaring application numbers. ~ Helping You Write Your Best