The College Application Essay

The College Application Essay

by Sarah Myers McGinty, Sarah Myers McGinty

Paperback(Fourth Edition)

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Revised edition of a classic bestseller, previous editions have sold over 100,000 copies, that helps college-bound students write great application essays.

This new edition of the classic bestseller is a treasure for students who want to write vivid, distinctive essays and personal statements to support their college applications. The College Application Essay builds on what students have already learned in high school to strengthen their writing skills, and then applies those lessons to college applications in particular. In a friendly, conversational tone, the guide helps students find their voice and be "heard" on paper by emphasizing both the thinking process and the technical work of writing.

This revised edition includes dozens of current essay questions and topics, with multiple response strategies; advice from admissions directors and guidance professionals, who offer wisdom and insights about how applicants' essays are evaluated; and sample essyas written by real students. A new guide for parents shows how they can support - without interfering in - the writing process.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874477115
Publisher: College Board
Publication date: 08/16/2004
Edition description: Fourth Edition
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.09(w) x 8.99(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

Sarah Myers McGinty, who earned her Ph.D. at New York University and is currently a university supervisor in the Harvard Teacher Education Program, has extensive experience as a teacher and as a college admission director. She is a resident of Boston, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


How Colleges Read Applications

"The essay is the first thing I read. I really slow down over that," says Thyra Briggs, vice president and dean of admission at Harvey Mudd College. Briggs is acknowledging the importance of the essay in differentiating applicants. "A picture of the student begins there," she adds. Of course, as in all admission offices, the transcript is the primary source of information about an applicant. But after that, when admission counselors want a sense of the person behind the paper, when they are looking for the match between institution and applicant, essays can make the case. "A great essay can close the deal," says Briggs. "It's the one place to clearly hear the student's voice."

Harvey Mudd's process is its own, but it is not entirely different from that of other colleges. In most admission offices, grades and courses—the transcript—are where evaluation begins. Then other factors are taken into account: talents, recommendations, activities, testing, special circumstances, a portfolio or supplemental materials, an audition, an interview. Woven into all this is an interest in the applicant's personality and writing ability. The application essay gives colleges useful information about both of these features.

Where It All Began

The application essay or personal statement has been a part of college admission since the explosion of college enrollment after World War II, evolving from direct queries like "Why in particular do you wish to attend Bates?" to more eccentric requests like "Your favorite word" (Princeton University) or "What activities make you lose track of time?" (Mount Holyoke College). The Reverend Robert Kinnally, former dean of admission at Stanford University, believes the essay helps admission counselors "judge the depth of the [applicant's] understanding of intellectual or social also shows the quality and freshness of the applicant's mind." Although not every college requires an application essay, narrative prose figures into the admission process at a wide variety of institutions—for the 38,000 applicants to the University of Michigan, for the 35,000 applicants to Harvard University, for the 12,000 applicants to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and for the 1,600 applicants to Carroll College in Helena, Montana. The evaluation of the essay may contribute to how a college differentiates among its top applicants. Or it may determine whether a borderline candidate has the necessary basic skills. Colleges use essays for different purposes, but essays matter—at large, small, public, private, selective and nonselective schools.

How Colleges Read Essays

Colleges are looking to build scholarly communities, hoping to collect a population of people who like to read and think, reflect and talk, wonder, and argue. This is the mission of admission. But as William C. Hiss, former dean of admission and now a gifts officer and lecturer at Bates College, says, "We are often seen, wrongly, I think, as a set of intellectual gatekeepers who, like Dante's Divine Comedy, offer three possibilities: paradise, purgatory or hell—that is, admit, wait-list, deny." In contrast, the colleges themselves see a methodical and quantifiable process of selection. Marlyn E. McGrath, director of admissions at Harvard University, describes the admission staff as a group of hard-working people "determined to bring to Harvard, students who are diverse in talents and interests." In choosing a class of first-year students, admission counselors make judgments that involve objective information (comparing two students' course loads, for example) and subjective information (a coach's opinion about how far a specific player might develop within the college's tennis program). It's what Fred Hargadon, former dean of admission at Princeton, liked to call "precision guesswork."

Making Choices

The anxiety about all this, for high school students and their families, is very real. And it's easy to start believing that the college admission process is going to be the most significant and determining feature in a young person's life. (Actually, what you do in college is more important than where you go to college.) But the "big picture" isn't a pattern of injustice and irrationality. Both colleges and applicants are looking and choosing. Both admission counselors and high school seniors are busy gathering information and making judgments based on facts and predictions. In pursuit of a common goal—the best education of the next generation of leaders and thinkers—colleges and universities, like you, will look at many options.

Your research probably started first and you have many resources to draw upon:

Guidance personnel and the counseling and career staff at your high school and at your local library

Websites, social media, mailings, videos, blogs and viewbooks from the colleges

Admission counselors—at the colleges, visiting at your high school, or at local-area information fairs

Teachers, coaches, educational consultants, friends, parents, alumni (preferably recent alumni)

Guidebooks and data handbooks

Campus visits and interviews

Prior applicants from your own high school or community

Word of mouth, general reputation, and media coverage (not the most reliable information)

You aren't doing this alone. All these resources will help you with your half of the choosing—deciding where to apply to college. Colleges rely on a more focused set of resources:

Course of study

Grades, class rank and grade point average

Test scores

Biographical data (summer activities, jobs, special talents and interests)

One or more essays, writing samples or paragraph responses

Support materials where appropriate (audition, tapes, portfolio)


An interview when available

Inside the Admission Office

Let's look at how colleges make their decisions, in order to understand where the application essay fits into the picture.

The evaluation process differs at every school. Some colleges see numerical data as the most reliable predictor of success: They look first at an applicant's grades, class rank and test scores. The state of California, for example, publishes eligibility minimums and uses a variety of criteria for each of its different UC campuses. Other schools try to tease from the file a richer sense of the applicant. Vince Cuseo, vice president and dean for admission at Occidental College, says, "We read to uncover character, values and something of the life experience." And where a school offers a distinctive program—the K plan at Kalamazoo College, the internship options at Northeastern, the hands-on education of Deep Springs—application evaluation stresses the "fit" of applicant and education. All schools, even the large state universities, have a special process for the question marks—the "gray zone" applications that may require additional readers or consideration by a committee. Colleges and universities continually modify the way they evaluate applications, looking for the most reliable and the fairest way to put together a class from the limited information provided.

The people who make these decisions also vary. The readers of applications are usually a combination of experienced senior admission personnel and younger staffers, often themselves recent graduates of the school. A dean of admission or an enrollment manager oversees everything. But faculty members may be part of the process. At Cal Tech, all admission decisions involve faculty. Reed College includes student readers on admission committees. Applicants may also be looked at by specialists: music faculty hear auditions, art staff view portfolios. Claudia Harrison, a geography teacher and applications advisor at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich, UK, recommends the UCAS website as a useful resource for students as they complete the 47 line (4,000 characters) essay required on the application to universities in the United Kingdom. "These essays are read by admission tutors, scholars who have devoted their lives to a discipline, and they are, quite naturally, looking for achievements and depth of knowledge in that discipline." 

The committee is not then a nameless, faceless group of people, uniform in taste and attitude. It is made up of individuals. Assigned seemingly endless files of applications in the dark days of winter, such an audience—overworked and tired—may find that a creative, innovative, interesting or unique element in an application makes the difference. High scores and great grades do stand out. But students mistake their audience when they visualize a stuffy bunch of academics in search of an academic superstar.

Are all applications read in the same way? They can't be. In fact, as Ted O'Neill, former dean of admission at the University of Chicago, points out, "We don't want them all to be read in the same way. A collection of identical people would make a very boring college." So there is no perfect applicant, no "just what they want" that applicants should shape themselves to be. Many things are sought within a class and many different elements make up the admission committee's final judgment. The application is a web of information, a jigsaw puzzle that is interconnected and interactive. Each element plays its own part; each makes its own argument.

Here's what admission will consider:

Your High School Record

The numbers come first. Colleges request grades, usually beginning with ninth grade. If you have been homeschooled, your supervisor will complete a detailed curriculum report as part of your application. Three and a half years of performance provides a picture of your academic achievement and also a look at the pattern of your growth and progress. Straight A's are nice—but rare in a challenging course of study. An improvement in grades is positive, too—the opposite will certainly raise eyebrows in the admission office. But above all other factors in the grade pattern, most colleges scrutinize the course load. A grade of B in Advanced Placement® English is more important than an A in chorus. An A in chemistry carries more weight than an A in civics. Grades, class rank and grade point average are viewed in light of your course choices. Some admission offices add a factor to a student's grades for a strong educational program or for more challenging courses—Advanced Placement courses, a math class at the local college, study with a respected voice coach at a conservatory.

Grades, class rank and grade point average are also viewed in terms of your high school and its student body. Colleges assign regional responsibility to members of the admission staff who familiarize themselves with a few states or with one part of the country. They know each high school and its course offerings. Some secondary schools have a reputation for excellence; others have less rigorous programs. Each school's general quality is considered in evaluating class rank and course of study. So while a B in AP® Physics will count more than an A in Introduction to Science, a B from a renowned application-based high school like Boston Latin School will count for more than an A from a school that just lost its accreditation.

Test Scores

Testing contributes numbers to your application. Many schools require the SAT®, some SAT Subject Tests™, or the ACT. Some applicants may provide Advanced Placement Exam scores; language competency scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS); scores from the International Baccalaureate exam (IB); O-Levels; other testing administrated in a home country. These standardized tests help admission personnel evaluate applicants' potential for a successful performance in college. The scores are a yardstick by which students of widely differing backgrounds can be compared. Testing may seem impersonal and "unfair," but it is part of the access path to higher education in every developed country from Beijing to Istanbul, from Edinburgh to Buenos Aires.

The admission committee will look at your scores and compare them to your grades. High grades can overcome low scores, but admission personnel will carefully scrutinize the course load and the high school's reputation. High scores can sometimes compensate for low grades, but that particular combination tends to make admission personnel nervous: Does the student lack motivation? Is she just a bright goof-off?

Grades, course load, grade point average, class rank and scores are the numerical information colleges use to evaluate an application. They look to your past as a clue to your future. Studies show that neither grades nor test scores alone indicate whether an applicant will succeed in college. However, the combination of high school record and scores has been found to be a fairly valid indicator of college success. College work also relies on the same study habits, self-discipline, skills and personal qualities—enthusiasm, organization, independence of thought, responsibility, perseverance—needed in high school. These qualities contribute to success in a career as well.

As you begin to think about college options, keep all your high school numbers in mind. Don't let yourself become overwhelmed by standardized test scores. Remember that the numbers colleges list are often the median scores, not the cutoff scores. If a school lists its median SAT math score as 600, then 50 percent of the class scored higher than 600, and 50 percent scored lower. Many schools now list the SAT test score range of the middle 50 percent of the first-year class. The score range of admitted students is often higher than the range for applicants, but in both cases, there are students with scores above and below the given numbers.

Numbers are only part of your application. They will, however, help you determine which schools are for you, the long shots and which are likely to be satisfied with your performance. They will help the admission committee determine if you are a sure accept, a clear deny or a maybe.

Other sections of the application are less numerical. A long history of research, from work sponsored by the College Board to studies in applied psychology that focus on university admission, hiring practices, and even military and leadership skills, while confirming the validity of testing and grade-point averages as useful in predicting college and career success, has found that personal qualities—from motivation to study habits—figure significantly in performance. Many colleges look to recommendations, essays and the interview to give them that needed sense of the person. And some colleges consider these elements primary criteria in an admission decision.


Evaluations will be written by your high school counselor and by a few of your teachers. Make these most effective by scheduling an early appointment with your counselor to discuss your college selection. If your high school is large, your relationship with your counselor may be a bit remote. The national ratio of students to counselors is 460:1, but U.S. Department of Education data for 2008-09 found a broad range from 814:1 in Arizona to 197:1 in Wyoming. You might want to prepare a simple life history or a résumé for your counselor. It's good preparation for filling out the applications and, by listing some of your circumstances and activities, you help your counselor write a specific and informed recommendation.

Approach your teachers early. Ask for recommendations from teachers who like you, with whom you have done well, whose courses relate to your intended area of specialization, and who are themselves articulate, careful and responsible. You want a positive letter and one that will be consistent with the rest of your application. But don't forget that such a letter isn't likely to be written by even your favorite teacher if he or she is overworked, hassled and pressed for time. Ask your teachers directly, "Do you have the time to write a strong recommendation letter for me for Bucknell?" Name the school, as that may influence their response. There are students a teacher would happily recommend to a less competitive school who should not expect the same enthusiasm toward an application to Stanford. And don't be downcast if the teacher says he or she is too busy or can't do it. Approach someone else. You don't want your letter gathering dust on the desk of a teacher who meant to do it but had too many periods of cafeteria duty to find the time.

You might want to give the teachers your brief résumé. They will rely mostly on what you've done in their classes, but it helps if they know you were entering piano competitions or working nights at McDonald's while you were turning out first-rate reports on Jacksonian democracy. Give the recommending teacher a list of the courses you took with him or her, the grades you received, and any special projects or major papers you wrote. Students come and go and most teachers appreciate a little memory jogging. Your teacher will probably upload her recommendation after receiving an email notification initiated by you through the Common Application website. Or she may submit the letter through your school's Naviance system. But if you are supplying hard-copy recommendations, be sure to provide stamped, addressed envelopes, and fill out all the parts of the form indicated as the student's responsibility. Waive your right of access; it shows confidence in your recommender and adds credibility to the letter. Thank-you notes at the end of the process are appropriate.

The Interview

The interview is no longer as common as the large-group information session, but if you have the opportunity, whether on campus or with a local alumni interviewer, go into an interview with a specific sense of what you want to emphasize about yourself and with a set of questions about the school that are not answered on the website.

Creating that résumé will help you with questions about your academic career and activities. Interview questions may be similar to those asked on the application, so review or complete your application before the interview. Review the "idea bank" you will create in Chapter 4 as another preparation. It helps to have one interview at a college that is courting you; you need to feel needed at about this time. Schedule the most important interview late in the sequence; you'll be more experienced and confident.

Do your "homework" and use the interviewer's knowledge of the college to help you get to know the school better. One applicant advised, "I tried to go into the interviews with an open mind and roll with the punches. But I had questions ready, too. When the alumni interviewer from Yale asked, 'Why Yale?' I asked 'What made you go here?'" The better your questions, the better the impression you will make and the more useful the interview will be. Questions about the social life or how many students stay on campus during the weekend are better asked during the campus tour. Make your questions genuine. It's much better to ask "Would you send your child to this school?" than "Do you have a major in computer science?" The interview is a two-way street, not just an opportunity to impress the admission personnel. Rick Rizoli, long-time director of college counseling at The Rivers School in Weston, Mass., reminds students, "You are evaluating them as much as they are evaluating you." Use the interview to assess further the fit between you and the school, to learn if you want to choose them.

The interview is rarely required and not every school uses the interview to evaluate an applicant. Sometimes you have only half an hour to make an impression and gather information, and the first five minutes is spent getting oriented and trying to relax ("Did you find a parking place? How long a drive was it?"). Some interviewers find students too shy or guarded to be accurately assessed in a short, high-pressure meeting. Some alumni interviewers won't be able to answer all your questions, either. But take the chance, at home or on campus, and remember, it's not a performance; it's a resource.

The Essay

Now for the tricky stuff. The numbers are behind you. What you've done in high school is settled. Don't expend energy or worry over things you can't change: the school you attended, the C+ in English 11. There are grades to be earned for the senior year and this is certainly no time to coast. But most of the numbers your high school will send to the colleges are fixed. Your recommendations are in the works. The last part of your evaluation will be drawn from the essay.

Not every college asks for an essay. But it is required on the Common Application, a form accepted by more than 450 colleges. And it is an option at many more schools. It may be required of transfers or the applicant applying to a special program or honors curriculum. Even two inches of white space for "Which of your extracurricular activities has had the most meaning for you?" can require all the skills (and yield most of the information) of a full-length essay.

One underlying assumption made by admission offices that ask for an essay is that a student's writing will tell them something about a student's writing ability. That makes sense. Organization, usage and correctness count. In addition, colleges believe that a student's writing will tell them something about the student's personality, thought process, values, preferences and style. So content counts, too. Scott White, legendary director of guidance at Montclair High School in New Jersey, notes, "A lot of schools really do value good writing and want to get a sense of who the student is." The essay is important both for how it's written and for what it's written about. Can you write? Can you think? What do you care about?

Colleges weigh these questions—and the essay that reflects them—with varying degrees of emphasis. Where grades in English or test scores raise questions about writing ability, the essay will be carefully reviewed. Where the transcript and support documents fail to provide a strong sense of the applicant's passions and enthusiasms, the essay may fill in the blanks. For liberal arts majors applying to Connecticut College, director of admission Deborah Wright points out that the essay ranks second only to performance in the high school course program in the application review.

Even when the essay isn't among the top three or four factors in the evaluation of an applicant, it may surface in "gray zone" cases, where a clear judgment about the applicant hasn't emerged from several reviews of the application. Admission counselors may connect to a student who has intrigued them with thoughts about Cuban independence or missing sweat socks or Coach Pike; such connections can tip the balance on the last day.

Can You Write?

Combined with your English grades and some test scores, the application essay reveals your writing abilities—organization, analysis, interpretation—and your mastery of the conventions of standard written English. You'll need all this in college. As further information on the same subject, some applications require an essay prepared and graded as a classroom assignment. A graded school paper can reveal both the skill of the writer and the level of expectation at the secondary school. Wheaton (Mass.), Sarah Lawrence, Hampshire, Bennington and Ursinus are among the schools that ask for this supplementary material. David Wagner, associate dean at Hampshire, notes: "It's one of the most useful things we have; student writing confirms everything else in the file."

Because your ability to interpret, analyze and express yourself clearly, correctly and vividly will be crucial in your college courses, your application essay will be looked at in these same terms. Consider it a chance to make an important claim (in this case, the claim is "Pick me!") and be persuasive about it. Give yourself enough time to do a thorough and careful job. Tell your own story. Don't try to sound like Albert Einstein or David Foster Wallace. Get some feedback in the thinking stages from a teacher, parent or school counselor. Then polish, spell-check and proofread. Admission counselors remember—but not necessarily with affection—essays like the one that ended, "And from that day, Daniel was my best fried."

Can You Think?

In addition, admission committees use the essay to get to know the student in a more specific and personal way than the numbers and recommendations provide. Laura McPhie Oliveira, vice president for enrollment management at Salve Regina University, says, "So much is just a matter of numbers. The essay is where the student has to slow down, reflect. It's still the only time where they speak for themselves."

Nancy Siegel, director of guidance at Millburn High School in New Jersey, agrees: "Colleges want a third dimension. Without the essay, the application profile is flat." Even Brigham Young University, with a fairly homogeneous applicant pool, finds diversity in the essays. The university asks applicants why they have chosen a school within the Latter-Day Saints educational system; since most applicants are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, one might expect a fairly uniform response. But their dean noted, "Although all our applicants say they want to come to BYU for the education and for the right spiritual atmosphere, this is said in many different ways. The essay can tell us about the thought process, the maturity of thinking, purposes and goals." Clearly, each application is a jigsaw puzzle and each part contributes a piece to the overall picture.

What Do You Care About?

How does this puzzle work? Choice is important. The process of choosing an answer, and often a question, is central to all college essays. Choice shows something about what and how you think, about what you value within a set of choices; it can show priorities, preferences, and even a bit about your judgment. The applicant whose "local issue" is the need for more student parking at the high school is both a little similar and also rather different from the applicant who is concerned about the homogeneous composition of the town planning board. Nancy Donehower, director of college counseling at the Catlin Gabel School and former dean of admission at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, says, "If he says his summer in France taught him to observe cultural differences, and then says, 'For example, in France the cars are a lot smaller,' this gives a good idea of how little he's thought about and analyzed his life experiences."

The essay adds a personal, human element to the application. It can breathe life into your activities, interests, experiences or family situation, making these elements real and vivid. Donehower adds, "For me, reading at Reed, the essay was the most important part of the application. For a small college with a personal approach rather than an 'acceptability quotient,' it was the place where the kids would strut their stuff. It tells a lot about character. It can reveal the person who likes to learn because she likes learning or the person who finds the process greater than the product."

A Few Red Flags

The essay should not be an explanation of grades or exceptional circumstances in your background. If your grades and scores are not reflective of your ability, if your numbers don't tell all, the essay is, of course, another chance to shine. And if there are very special circumstances in your life—an illness, a family situation, a handicap—be sure to tell the college about this in a separate statement. Submit a brief account of this subject whether it's asked for or not (the Common Application offers a place for such additional information right after the essay: "Please attach a separate sheet if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application.") But don't make this your core essay.

The essay should add—add substantially—to the application. Don't default to a predictable, prepackaged sentiment. "I chose X College because X is committed to learning and I want to learn." Oh dear, I think that's rather a given, isn't it? These are academic institutions you are applying to and while there are parties every weekend, there are also a lot of classes to be passed. "I want to give as much to X as I know X will give to me." Nice parallelism in that sentence but not much basis yet for such an assertion. Probably better to name a course you plan to take. And do take it seriously. Dartmouth once asked applicants to create an ideal application question and answer it; they did not learn much from questions like "Are you having a nice day?" and they stopped laughing after the second hundred set of responders asked "Will I be admitted" and then wrote "Yes." Don't be completely afraid of a risk: "These are the voyages of the Starship Nussbaum." But get a second opinion on any essay or response driven by your idea of your wonderful sense of humor. Get several opinions on that YouTube clip you're planning to attach; use a privacy setting and provide the access code with your link.

Reading essay drafts, Rick Rizoli at The Rivers School says, "I ask myself, 'Does this connect to everything else in the application? Does this sound like the kid?'" The essay should be you, in your words. Don't outsource this to a parent or professional and don't download it from the Internet. Admission people can tell. They've spent a little time on the Internet themselves. They have bloggers in the office and a Facebook page for the school. They've seen the "...but I've never gone to college" essay thousands of times. And they will mark your essay "DDI" if they conclude "Daddy did it."


Success at any school depends on knowing what you're in for; nothing is more bitter than disappointed expectations. The essay is particularly useful in determining the fit between the applicant and the college. David Wagner, Hampshire College's associate dean of admissions, says, "Our students design their own programs through negotiation with faculty advisers. We need to be sure they have the motivation and vision to do that. The essay is one of the places we look for confirmation." If a college has a particular character—its curriculum is tightly focused (Fashion Institute of Technology, the U.S. service academies) or it relies on a special calendar (Colorado College's block plan), teaching methodology (Sarah Lawrence College) or curriculum (St. John's great books program), the essay can reflect an understanding of and enthusiasm for this special setting.

The recommendations are always positive and the interview is becoming less common and more a momentary "snapshot." But like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the screen goes from black and white to color, the essay can light up and personalize your self-presentation. It is the one aspect of the application process that is open to development and is safely in your hands. It is an opportunity to show the admission committee a little about yourself, your insights, your enthusiasm, and your writing ability. The essay is also an opportunity to convey, under less pressure and with more preparation than the interview, something of your personal style; it counteracts the numbers and the anonymity of the application process.

Clearly, the essay adds to the overall pattern of your application. The colleges take it seriously; you should too. It is part of your need to compete and the college's need to select. "The essay can be a powerful 'tipper' in close cases, especially with very strong or very poor essays," says Bates' Bill Hiss. If an essay is required or even allowed, use it to present yourself effectively. Remember, it is a separate part of the application and should convey information not found elsewhere. If you ignore this advice, you defeat the college's purpose in requesting an essay. Seize this opportunity to stand out from the better numbers, the similar recommendations, and the other kids. Don't default on it; don't give it away. It's a wonderful opportunity to speak out for yourself in that remote, fluorescent maze of little offices. It's not so terrible and it's not so hard. You've actually done plenty of papers like it already!

Toolbox: A Timeline for Applying to College

Freshman Year

With your parents and your school counselor, plan a college preparatory academic program for all four years of high school.

Make friends in the guidance office.

Take SAT Subject Tests relevant to your course selections.

Find out your school code or CEEB number.

Sophomore Year

Take any testing relevant to your course selections.

Begin researching the application process if you are interested in a U.S. military service academy; their deadlines and requirements are substantially different from other colleges.

Look for a summer program, camp, volunteer opportunity or job related to your areas of interest—do something constructive and/or interesting with your summer.

Junior Year

Visit college fairs; meet with college visitors in your school; talk to friends and alumni; look at various college websites; ask counselors and teachers for suggestions.

Meet with your school counselor and, with your parents, develop a list of colleges of interest. Think about high school: What have you liked and what would you like to change? College is more school; try to make it more school of the kind you favor.

Find some online or school-supplied interest inventories to help you choose potential college majors or careers.

Talk to your parents about the finances. Is there a maximum your family can afford to pay? Ask guidance for samples of financial aid forms and for local scholarship options. Ask a parent to fill out financial aid estimates (these appear on college websites).

If you want to play Division I or II athletics, talk to your coach and counselor about the NCAA Eligibility Center requirements.

Take the PSAT/NMSQT® in October. Schedule the ACT or SAT; your school counselor will help you time this well.

Do some Web research of class listings or read students' blogs at the schools that interest you. You will need some depth of knowledge of your specific interests—e.g., is their psychology department behavioral or humanistic? Does the linguistics department favor structural linguistics or sociolinguistics? Is rowing a sport or a club? Does the a cappella choir require sight-reading auditions?

Take SAT Subject Tests if any colleges on your list require them. Take AS level exams (UK) or Advanced Placement exams at the end of the appropriate course of study.

Visit colleges in the spring when students are there; many colleges do not interview applicants until after March of their junior year.

Near the end of the year, ask recent teachers to write your recommendations. Draft a brief résumé, especially if you have a special talent or extensive athletic involvement.

Deepen extracurricular involvements.

Keep a journal or collect interesting "important moment" articles from your reading as samples for your essay. See the guide to an "idea bank" in Chapter 4.

Schedule the strongest senior course program you can handle. Unless you have good reason not to, include all five academic areas: English, math, science, languages, and social studies or history. The idea is depth of study rather than a smattering of everything.

Register on your school's Naviance site if this is used by your guidance office. Include your parents in discussions of the information you find there.

Save some of your best class work. You might offer a paper, lab or small portfolio to the teachers who write your recommendations. And some colleges ask for a graded paper as part of your application.

Summer: Build on interests and commitments you have already identified. Don't look for a new "vaccination" of something you think the college wants to see. Stick with your interests and expand them. Get a job if you can. Consider drafting a couple of rough versions of application essays. And the Common Application website will be up and renewed in August. Complete the easy parts and save; it will make your Mom happy.

Senior Year


Focus on your classes and do well in them.

Meet with your school counselor to discuss your college choices and timing; present your tentative list of colleges and ask, "What am I missing? What looks like a good match to you?"

Continue campus visits and interviews. Whenever possible, visit on ordinary days rather than choreographed "prospective student" days.

Line up your recommending teachers.

File the NCAA Eligibility Center forms if you plan to play Division I or II sports.

Preregister for the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® if required by any of your colleges (

If applying Early Decision or Early Action, or to a college with rolling admission, write your application and the necessary essays.


Confirm your list of college choices with your counselor. Decide if you will apply regular decision or by one of the early deadlines (see individual college options).

Enroll recommending teachers in Naviance or on the Common Application website (the latter generates an email from which they can submit their letters). You may want to give them your résumé. You will definitely want to drop them a thank-you note after the deadlines.

Take the SAT test and any necessary SAT Subject Tests.

Pool application essay questions by type (see Chapter 5); begin thinking about the questions. Group schools that accept the Common Application together and download the required supplements from

Research scholarships that may apply to you. Make sure you and your parents are in agreement about college finances.

Complete any rolling admission applications, particularly to those state institutions that require only a transcript, an application form and test scores. Remember, however, that no application is read until it's complete, so be sure all your pieces are submitted on time.


If you are applying for financial aid, use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. Your parents will fill out the FAFSA online at

If you are applying for scholarships, don't think you need to pay for searching or advice. The information on all programs is free—it just requires time to do the research and courage to make the applications.

There may be more SAT tests and/or SAT Subject Tests to complete.

Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are in October and November. Remember that you can make only one Early Decision application (you will sign an Early Decision agreement form), and you are bound to attend if that school admits you. Some colleges also offer nonbinding Early Action. But let your school counselor know exactly what you are planning so every feature of the plan you are applying under is well understood by you, your counselor and your parents.

If you are applying Regular Decision, begin filling out applications and writing essays (see Chapter 5). Most deadlines will fall between December 1 and February 15.


You may want to take additional SAT tests or SAT Subject Tests.

Cut and paste the topics and character and/or word count limits from the application and supplements as you begin to complete essays. Upload your final work. Most colleges want you to apply entirely online; some will waive the application fee if you do.

Proofread everything TWICE!

Make a checklist to be sure you've had scores sent, paid the fee and notified your counselor about each school you're applying to. Hit "send" before any midnight deadlines (and they aren't always midnight—you don't want to be caught in a server crash). Try to use whatever means the school provides to verify receipt of online material; there is an automatic notification with Common Application submissions.


Follow up on any missing details; continue to submit applications according to the deadlines.

Focus on producing a solid senior record; it's your last chance to "rule the school."

Continue to visit or interview if you missed a school of interest; it's best, however, to do this before they act on your application. Some schools with rolling admission accept applications well into the spring.

If you are applying for aid, prepare and file financial aid forms ( and other scholarship applications. Check deadlines and priority dates for each of your colleges.


When your letters come through, expect at least one denial. It's probably going to be part of the process somewhere along the way, and it only shows you've measured correctly the full range of your own possibilities.

Don't run down the halls shouting, "I got in." If you want to celebrate, make it a private affair.

Revisit the colleges that have admitted you and that are "finalists" on your list. Touring a school when you know you can enroll there is very enlightening. Ask yourself, "Is this where I want to take my talents and charms? Can these people be my friends?"

Review your financial aid offers as part of this reevaluation and selection process.

Choose one school and make your deposit before the universal reply date of May 1.

If you choose to remain on a waiting list, send a letter expressing your interest and any new information that might strengthen your case. Keep in close contact with your school counselor to understand how and when wait-listed candidates are reconsidered.

If you can find one, get a summer job that pays good money.

Go to the prom, even if you have to go with your cousin.

Sometimes I think students devote their senior summer to making home a place they are willing to leave. But thank your parents for all they've done for you at some point before you pack your bags; recognize that the big scary change in your life is mirrored by a big scary change in theirs.

THE COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY 1997, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2012 by Sarah Myers McGinty.

Table of Contents

1The Essay and Your Application1
Where It All Began2
How Colleges Read Essays2
Making Choices3
Your High School Record6
The Interview10
The Essay11
A Timeline for Applying to College16
2What You Know About Essay Writing21
A New but Familiar Assignment21
The Challenge of the College Essay22
The Structure23
The Style25
The Subject27
The Process28
A Timeline for Application Essays and Personal Statements30
3Writing an Essay33
What Exactly Is an Essay?33
Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism62
Reviewing the Process63
4Writing an Application Essay65
Colleges and Their Questions66
Short-Answer Questions67
The Real Essays68
The Questions75
Other Essay Problems82
Quick Fixes for the First Paragraph84
5Focusing on You87
Contrasting Two Essays87
Prewriting: Creating a Self-Outline91
Drafting: Converting the Self-Outline into an Essay95
The High-Risk Essay104
Making the Essay Yours111
Quick Fixes for Procrastinators113
6Parents and the Process115
A Letter to Parents116
The Essay119
Final Tips122
Quick Fixes to Make the Essay Work for Your Child124
7Analyzing Twelve Essays127
Sample 1127
Sample 2130
Sample 3132
Sample 4134
Sample 5136
Sample 6140
Sample 7142
Sample 8144
Sample 9145
Sample 10147
Sample 11148
Sample 12150
A Final Word152
Final Tips152
Suggested Reading154

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