Yes it’s that time of year — the 2018-2019 applications for Common Application colleges and universities are live. While many of you have spent part of the summer working diligently on your major personal statement/essay and maybe even have a second draft, don’t forget the importance of the supplemental essay(s) required by many schools. Far too often, the supplemental essay is the forgotten step child compared to the major personal statement. Students put so much time and effort into writing the perfect Common Application / Coalition Application essay, that supplemental essays take a back seat. Big mistake!
If you think about it, perhaps the supplemental essay is one of the most important essays you’ll write for your college applications. Why? Because the supplemental essay, in most instances, requires students to answer the “Why Us” question — what are the reasons you want to attend our institution and how can you contribute to our campus community.
Here are a few tips on how to write the best supplemental essays:
- Start early. Find out what supplemental essay(s) are required by the colleges of serious interest to you and those where you know you will apply.
- If you haven’t already done so, take good notes when you attend campus tours and information sessions. Yes, each college provides basic information about their academic programs, residential housing, health and wellness services, and food plans. But the most important information relates to your interests and what the college offers that is aligned with your academic and personal interests. Create a document on your computer with your notes about a college within a day or two of the visit. Down the road, you’ll find the “Why Us” essay much easier to write and more personal.
- Avoid talking about the location, weather, or city (unless it’s related to a particular program or internship of interest to you). Stick to the more substantive impressions you came away with from a college visit, an info session at your high school, or another event. Make your reasons for wanting to attend a particular school personal, substantive, and something that differentiates you from other students.
Don’t wait until the last minute to write this essay — you’ll end up visiting that college’s web site and regurgitating information college admissions staff already know.
Congratulations! All your hard work has paid off. By now you’ve been admitted to the school you plan to attend next fall or are choosing among several schools. Those days of prepping for standardized tests and taking the hardest courses your school offers while pursuing many activities within and outside school are almost a memory. Enjoy these last special days of high school and get ready for college
Before your parents drop you off at college, here are some words of advice (in no particular order):
- Give yourself time to adjust to college life. Unlike high school, you’ll have a lot more personal freedom, but you’ll also have more responsibility for managing your classroom and study schedule as well as your personal life. Before taking on a lot of outside activities, figure out how much time you need for classes, study time, and extra preparation for tests. Choose other activities wisely to give yourself plenty of time to succeed academically and personally.
- Don’t start out taking the hardest courses. The grades you earn your first semester will count on your transcript when you apply to graduate or professional school in the future. So as you’re adjusting to college life, consider taking classes of interest to you, but put off taking harder courses until the second semester or later when you’re more settled with college academics and life. If you’re contemplating a future career in medicine, dentistry, the law or another competitive field, spread out your most challenging courses. Don’t take all your hard courses in one academic semester or year. Assess your academic strengths and be realistic about your academic schedule and what you need to be successful in these classes. You may even want to take a particularly challenging course during the summer academic session when all your time and energy is focused on one class.
- Know when you need academic support and get it sooner than later. The smartest students I know are those who know when to ask for help and are proactive in getting it. Most colleges have a dedicated tutoring or writing center where you can schedule an appointment to get academic help early on before you find yourself in real trouble. Colleges also have academic support centers, generally in a centrally-located place on campus. These centers offer a range of services including trained peer tutors and peer advisers available on a one-on-one basis to work with you on any subject or writing assignment. When you get to college, familiarize yourself with these services and use them as needed.
- Think carefully about whether Greek life is for you if that is part of the campus culture. There are benefits to joining a fraternity or sorority (friendships, peer academic and career advice, philanthropic opportunities, and simply being part of a like-minded community), but the negatives may outweigh the positives. For example, the simple act of pledging a fraternity or sorority requires literally a full-time commitment — attending special events and parties, running funny and endless errands for fraternity/sorority members. All this means less time devoted to classes and studying. Your GPA may suffer in the process. Take stock of the missed opportunities that can result from rushing and devoting considerable time to Greek life.
- Set up your safety net before you get to college. If you are a student who received special learning accommodations in high school, it is important that you make arrangements to set up these resources and services in college. By law, all institutions are required to provide academic accommodations for eligible students with Learning Disabilities. If you are age 18 or older it is your responsibility. Set up your accommodations either before you arrive on campus or during first-year orientation.
- Take care of your health. Similarly, if you are student with a chronic medical condition or suffer from depression or another diagnosed psychiatric condition, identify medical specialists, psychiatrists and the like outside the college community who will be the primary person to make medical decisions concerning your care. While campuses provide medical and psychological services, there is no substitute for professionals who know your medical history, medications, and the specialized care and counseling you may need in college. Don’t wait for a medical crisis to occur to set up your safety net.
- Give yourself the full year to adjust to your new home. You may think midway through your freshman year that the college you’re attending isn’t the best fit for you. Give yourself the full year to determine whether it makes sense to transfer to another institution or, as an alternative, consider taking a gap year or deciding to work for a semester before returning to college. In many instances, taking some well-planned time off from college can be rewarding, confidence-building and give you some career direction. At the same time, give yourself a year to make friends, adjust to college life, manage your academic schedule and free time, and discover different opportunities of interest to you on campus and nearby. Keep in mind that if you transfer to another institution it may not necessarily be any better and you may end up extending your time in college if first-year course credits don’t transfer.
- Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to study in college. You’re not alone. Generally speaking, about 20-50 percent of students enter college as “undecided” and an overwhelming majority of students change their major at least once before graduation. My advice: enjoy the process of discovery. Take a variety of classes that interest you. Search out internships and research opportunities in areas you want to explore. And remember that some of the most interesting career paths are serendipitous and ones that are not imaginable to you now. Be open to the process of exploration and self-discovery. I promise it will all work out.
Enjoy the ride along the way!
As students sort out their admissions decisions far too many may be wondering “What should I do if I’m waitlisted?” Does a place on the waitlist mean you’re more likely to be admitted to a particular college? Truthfully, the answer is a resounding no. It’s not that students don’t get off waitlists—they do. But there is no guarantee so students need to hedge their bets.
Here’s a case in point. A friend’s daughter recently found out she was waitlisted at Harvey Mudd—a small liberal arts school with top programs in engineering and science (part of the Claremont College Consortium) and an undergraduate enrollment of nearly 900 students. According to the college’s most recent admissions statistics (for students entering in the fall of 2016), Harvey Mudd offered 528 students a place on its waitlist, 342 accepted, and only 12 eventually were offered a place in the incoming freshman class. While this number varies from year to year, it underscores why relying on the waitlist to get into your dream school is a gamble.
So what should you do if you find yourself on a college’s waitlist? My advice, if it’s a school that remains your first choice or the next most desirable college where you applied, take these steps:
- Contact your regional admissions representative and ask where you are on its waitlist—at the very top, in the middle, or the bottom third, for example. A college may not provide this information to you, but ask anyway. If you learn your name is high on the wait list, then go ahead and make your strongest case for why the college remains your first choice and what you can contribute to its community.
- Let your regional admissions representative know that if the college takes you’off its waitlist you’ll enroll and again communicate why the school remains your first choice. The key: make the commitment to enroll there.
- If you’ve communicated with schools where you’re waitlisted and haven’t heard by May 1 (the candidates reply date), send in your deposit to the school you’ve selected among those where you were admitted. A domino effect tends to occur as institutions hear from students who plan to enroll and those who plan to enroll elsewhere. Ultimately, this may result in institutions having additional space for students and going to the waitlist in late spring or summer. In enrollment circles this is known as the summer melt. For example, a student I knew sent her deposit to one institution on May 1 and received an email from Wake Forest in late June asking if she was still interested in attending Wake. She made the commitment to enroll at Wake Forest and got off its waitlist.
What’s the best waitlist strategy? Hedge your bets, make your best case for admission to the institution where you’re waitlisted, and then see what happens over time.
Most juniors and seniors have heard the warnings from high school college guidance counselors, parents, and other adults about the importance of scrubbing social media pages of questionable photos and language — no red solo cups, obviously, no wild party photos or other questionable comments that could get into the hands of admissions officers and negatively impact an admission decision at a particular college. Almost half of admissions officers do pay attention to social media sites so heeding this advice is a no-brainer.
On the flip side, maybe it’s time for students to be more proactive and creative about using social media as a tool to market themselves to colleges. A news segment on NPR’s Here and Now, Does Social Media Help Students Stand Out To Schools?, made what I think is a compelling case about students using social media to shed a brighter light on their specific talents, interests, background, and personal experiences than what is possible through a college application or essay. For example, if you’re doing summer research, why not talk about the experience, what you’ve learned, or the paper or abstract you wrote via a post on Facebook. The bottom line: use social media as a tool to positively market yourself to college admissions staff.
Recently I worked with a student who wanted to transfer after her first semester at a large public university to a smaller college in Texas. If you plan to transfer to another college, here are some important considerations to keep in mind:
- Your high school grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities will factor more heavily in the admissions decision if you plan to transfer after only your first or second semester in college. While your college grades will be taken into account, your high school record will matter equally if not more.
- You can and should retake the ACT or SAT if the score you submitted as a first-year student was lower than you anticipated and you are applying after one or two semesters of college. At many competitive colleges transfer applications are due in March or April. Plan to take the ACT or SAT test in early winter or spring to ensure your scores reach colleges by the transfer application deadline.
- Your college grades and activities will be the most important factors in the admissions decision if you attended the institution for two years or more.
- Take time to visit campuses, search college web sites, and talk to admissions officers and other college faculty and staff. Make sure you have done due diligence in finding the right college that is best for you in terms of the size, culture, academic offerings, and so forth.
- Make sure you find out the extent to which your academic credits will be accepted at transfer schools and what that means in terms of tuition costs and degree completion time.
For juniors who want to put in the good thinking and reflection it takes to write an effective Common Application essay, here’s your chance. In February, the Common Application announced the essay prompts for students applying to college during the 2017-2018 admissions year.
While you’re probably not ready to start writing, this gives you plenty of time to think deeply about the experiences, challenges, events, and other aspects of your life that best reveal something meaningful about you to college admissions officers. If you do the good thinking now, chances are you’ll have a solid draft of your Common App personal essay completed by mid summer with time to begin focusing on supplemental essays required by many colleges.
An article in the Huffington Post provides some good information about these changes and practical advice for students as they consider what to write about.
A recent New York Times article, 5 Ways to Make College Tours Fun Instead of Grueling, offers some great advice about planning and actually visiting college campuses. For families with sophomores and juniors this is advice to take to heart.
While many students are not really dialed into the college search process until spring of their junior year, it does make sense to take students to campuses that are near places where your family will be visiting or are an easy drive from home and offer other attractions students (and other members of the family) will enjoy.
Another good tip is not to cram too many college visits into any one trip. For example, a relative scheduled and hauled his two twin sons to 16 colleges and universities over their junior spring break leaving them exhausted (with heads spinning) by the end of the break. Make it fun, always!
Beginning October 1, 2016, a much praised change in the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) goes into effect. Referred to as prior-prior year (PPY), the change allows families to use tax returns completed two years before (prior-prior year) rather than 2016 tax returns to fill out the FAFSA. Among PPY’s major benefits:
- Students can file their FAFSA much earlier—as early as October 1, 2016. This will allow them to find out sooner about their eligibility for federal financial aid to pay for college rather than having to wait weeks or even months later.
- PPY allows most students to use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool. The data retrieval tool links up with tax data and this data is pre-filled in the FAFSA form. This makes completing the FAFSA easier and more accurate for families and students.
Two articles worth reading about PPY and how it benefits students and families:
It’s that time of year. Time to put down the video game controller or whatever your summer guilty pleasure and get to work—the Common Application is up and running as of August 1. Now it’s time to work on your personal statement.
This year the essay prompts are the same (which has been public knowledge for a few months). The “topic of your choice” was removed from the 2015-2016 CA so that remains the same. Here are the 2016-2017 CA essay prompts:
- Option 1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Option 2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Option 3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Option 4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Option 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Consider these essays a launching pad to write about something that shows your growth and development, values, reflective nature, the things that are important to you. These essay options give you the latitude to write about something that is interesting, powerful, and meaningful to you.
On August 1, the University of California rolled out its new application for the 2017 entering class. The application required by all the UC system campuses (e.g., UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara and so forth) replaces the personal statement with new Personal Insight Questions. Students applying for fall 2017 will be required to choose three questions (out of a list of eight) and write an essay of no more than 350 words for each.
This means that UC admissions officers want to get to know you better — “your interests, ambitions, and inspirations.” If you plan to apply or are seriously considering an application to a UC campus, take time now to review and think about these questions. It’s not too early.