15 Tips for Writing a Great College Application
Updated: Oct 8, 2018
By Mallory Ditchey - Founder of Great Minds Education Consultants
Applying to a university can be an exhausting and stressful experience, both for students and parents. Over the course of years of preparation, the process can be long, tedious, and results are unpredictable. Colleges and universities are becoming more and more selective every year, and those months in which you’re awaiting responses can be torturous. Here’s some advice to keep in mind while navigating the application process.
1. First things first: take a deep breath, and try not to be overly stressed out. It’s going to be okay.
When I was in my senior year of high school, I desperately wanted to go to Brown. My family believed that I was Ivy League material, which I absolutely was not at that point in my life. When I received my rejection letter after applying as an Early Decision applicant, I was emotionally demolished. I was certain that my life was over, and that I was a complete failure. I couldn’t have possibly been more wrong. In retrospect, I can’t imagine having had an education that was more fulfilling. I went to a public university as an undergraduate, and ultimately ended up getting two master’s degrees at Ivy League schools because I excelled in college. Prepare yourself for the possibility that you won’t get that acceptance letter from your top choice, and manage your expectations in advance.
2. Be prepared to dedicate a lot of time to your essays, but don’t burn yourself out.
Students can be so focused on writing the perfect personal statement, which has been crafted and rewritten so meticulously, that they miss the forest for the trees. There’s no such thing as a perfect personal statement, and you may actually end up sabotaging yourself and writing something uninteresting and overly robotic trying to achieve perfection. Changing a couple of words here and there probably won’t tip the scales. Some of the best personal statements I’ve read were first drafted in an hour or two during bursts of creativity. On the other hand, some of the least successful I’ve read were written and rewritten for months.
3. Diversify your application list, but don’t overdo it.
College applications take a long time, especially when you factor in all of the preparation. A common mistake is trying to apply to too many colleges, particularly when some are not realistic choices. It is crucial that students are realistic when they compile their application list. You have to choose your school list strategically and diversify in terms of selectiveness. It pays to have a counselor help you with choosing your range of target schools.
4. Apply Early Decision to your top choice, and Early Action to as many as you can.
If you’re convinced that a certain school is absolutely your top choice and it is realistic that you could be accepted, an Early Decision application will slightly increase your chance of being admitted, particularly at prestigious schools like the Ivy Leagues. Early Action typically will not give you much of an edge, but it is beneficial for other reasons. Getting back those decision letters from Early Action schools can give you a good idea of where you stand. You may learn that you’re a strong applicant as is and that you can aim a bit higher, or that your applications aren’t succeeding and need work. It also helps you keep on track with time management, which is one of the greatest challenges in the application process.
5. You don’t need to explain everything about who you are in one essay. Actually, it’s better not to.
My favorite kind of personal statement is one that tells a short story which speaks to the overall personality and qualities of the applicant. Make interesting observations, or demonstrate how you think and react in certain situations. If you try to tell your entire life story in one essay, you’re probably not going to succeed in doing so in a coherent way. Generally, applications ask for separate essays to explain specifics about your background or your challenges anyway, so there’s no need to repeat yourself.
At Great Minds, our motto is that all great personal statements start with a great conversation. An educational consultant with the time and energy to dedicate to a client will take the time to learn about a student’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions. A personal statement is a genre that is creative, academic, emotive (but not too emotive), entertaining, and comedic all at once.
6. The Twitter strategy.
I’m going to give some offbeat advice here, but believe it or not, it works. For the first sentence of your personal statement, one strategy is to write something that kind of sounds like a comedian’s tweet—a perfect quip encapsulated in a limited number of characters. Say something funny or quirky about yourself, or state an observation relevant to the topic of the essay. You might even look back on your Facebook or Twitter posts for ideas. Have you ever said something funny about yourself that gives real insight into your personality and sense of humor? Something that would want to make a reader learn more about you? You might be able to make something of that, or at least get some good ideas for a starting point.
7. Put any adversity you have experienced or particularly impressive achievements up front and center.
Think about your personal statement as the ultimate humble brag. You need to show your reader what you have to offer and what you’re capable of. Nobody will fault you for sounding a little bit more arrogant than you would in normal conversation, because that’s just the nature of the genre. Think about it as a marketing exercise or an elevator pitch, albeit a somewhat awkward one. Sometimes people think it’s “cheating” to hint at having beaten the odds because of having grown up victim to discrimination or otherwise difficult circumstances. The reality is that “beating the odds” is a huge achievement in and of itself, and one that deserves to be celebrated.
8. When asked why you’d like to attend a particular school, consider why that school would like you to attend.
Most applications will ask why you would like to attend their school. Go to the school’s website and look at their “About” section in which they state their school’s philosophy. Tell them about how you relate to the school’s philosophy and can contribute to it—but make sure it’s genuine. If it’s not, then that’s probably a good indication that it’s not the school for you.
9. Essays are less important for public universities—which is not to say that they don’t count at all.
I’ll clue you in on an open secret: college application readers at very large public universities will not have the bandwidth to read your essays as thoroughly as they would at a well-funded private institution which has chosen to invest in admissions. To be fair, it’s not for a lack of caring. At UCLA, readers are paid a little over $2,500 to read 1,000 applications. That means that they make $2.50 per application, with each application including four essays, not counting all of the other information about extracurriculars and other numerical factors. At a rate of $15 per hour, that gives readers an average of 10 minutes to evaluate each application. How would you feel about carefully reading essays with all of the attention they deserve after you’re already 500 deep? If your GPA is falling far below average, they probably won’t consider you further. For those whose grades are competitive, they’ll likely speed read your personal statement and evaluate stylistically, with very little attention paid to the actual narrative, and that’s only if you’re a strong applicant to begin with from a numerical perspective. That witty first sentence is really the most important part—hence the Twitter strategy. If you can incentivize the reader to give you a little bit more reading time, that’ll go a long way. There’s really no use in writing essays that are perfectly tailored to a public school if it’s going to come at the expense of the rest of your applications. Just repurpose whatever you’re using for the Common Application or for private school applications to fit the prompt, and focus on how you convey other information, like extracurriculars.
10. Invest time in your standardized test scores, and start early.
It’s worthwhile to spend considerable time and energy learning the SAT or ACT in advance of taking the exam so you can maximize your score, particularly if you’re going to be in a huge applicant pool where numbers really matter. Aim to start studying during the spring of your junior year at the latest. Students aiming for very prestigious universities often spend a year or more studying for their standardized tests. Getting a great score on standardized tests correlates strongly with how much time you put into studying for it, not with how intelligent you are. Admissions committees know that they speak more to work ethic than to natural abilities. Taking a class or hiring a tutor to show you some tips and tricks for succeeding in standardized testing will go a very long way.
11. For small, expensive, private colleges, essays are very important.
Private colleges, particularly those that are top tier and pricey, such as Bard or Sarah Lawrence, invest much more time and money recruiting and accepting students based on a wide variety of factors. Liberal arts colleges generally want students that they believe will make their colleges more interesting. They tend to prioritize the Humanities, including English, so writing style means a lot. For that reason, a clever and unique personal statement can go a long way.
12. Extracurriculars matter more than most realize. Those one sentence responses on applications and forms where you fill out extracurriculars and the time you’ve spent on them are also pretty heavily weighted, both at large and small universities, but for different reasons. They’re heavily weighted at small colleges because they see those as great indicators of diversity in interests and experience, and they’re heavily weighted at large universities because it is an easier way for readers to evaluate you quickly.
13. Avoid college application cliches like the plague.
Check out this page for a list of the top 10 opening sentences on personal statements. Avoid those or anything that sounds like them at all costs, because readers will respond with an eye roll. Don’t tell your reader about what you wanted to be as a child, and don’t start with someone else’s quote.
14. Be genuine without being too emotional.
Going through the application process can be an intensely emotional and stressful time. It’s a common mistake to project that stress onto your application. In my experience, most admissions readers have been in the academic community for a long time and don’t really remember what it’s like to be a teenager. They’re not known for being the most emotional bunch who are particularly sympathetic to what they’ll perceive as cringey teenage angst. Gushing, passionate statements about your deepest desires and needs in life may come across as oversharing.
15. If you can afford a college consultant, it’s worth the investment. If you can’t, it would be a good idea to seek out free consulting.
College consultants have a lot of insight into the application process and can help match you up to a school that would be ideal for you. They can also make sure that your application presents your strengths in a way that makes sense to an admissions committee. If this isn’t already evident, writing a successful college application is a science in and of itself, and not one that is necessarily intuitive if you haven’t ever written one before.
If you don’t have the resources to invest in a private consultant, there are some volunteer organizations out there that can provide you with a counselor for free. Make sure to visit your guidance counselor at school as well. I take students pro bono over the summer if they aren’t able to pay, and I try to fit in a couple in fall between paying clients during fall. If your family can’t afford help, don’t hesitate to reach out to tutors and explain your circumstances. They might be willing to give you some free or discounted help as a favor, or refer you to someone who can. You don’t get into this line of work if you’re not the sort of person who likes to see kids succeed, so we tend to be a sympathetic bunch to different family circumstances.