Back in my day (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) (also, get off my lawn!), most colleges had their own application. They were made of something called paper, and we filled them out using things we called “typewriters” and “pens.” As you can imagine, when it came time to write the application essay, lots of white-out and cursing was involved to make a good impression.
In 1975 (which was way before I went to college, just so we’re clear), several private colleges realized that most of the information on these various applications was repeated: contact information, gpa, how many years your father spent in college. (It was when I was filling out my applications that I discovered that while both my parents had attended college, neither had actually graduated. Horrors!) The Common Application was born (still on paper), making it easier for students to apply to college more efficiently, by chiseling info onto the stone tablets once and then photocopying them to mail to the member colleges. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Common Application joined the computer age.
Although it has a couple competitors, the Common Application (known to its friends as the Common App) is the Big Daddy of undergraduate college applications. Accepted by more than 600 member schools in the US and around the world, the Common App is meant to streamline your application process by allowing you to fill out one application for every school you apply to. Obviously there are more than 600 colleges in the US, so the App is not common to all of them, but most of the highly selective colleges and major state schools do accept it.
What do they want to know?
The information on Common App is pretty general. There are questions about who you are, how to get in touch with you, your family, your education, your extracurricular activities, your standardized testing. And then there is the Writing section, where you are asked to upload a personal essay of between 250-650 words on one of their predetermined, very broad topics. The application essay is the subject of another blog post so I won’t go into that here.
Essay? No, thank you!
Yes, sorry. Depending on where you apply, it may be the only essay you have to write (Bard, Middlebury) or it may be just one of a number of other short and long essays (Yale, UChicago). The Writing section also asks about your disciplinary history (and a short essay explaining it if you have one) and “Additional info” which is where you explain anything important you want colleges to know about you that has not already been covered elsewhere in the application.
What are supplements?
Most colleges that you apply to through Common App also have a supplement (sometimes called the writing supplement) for you to complete. The supplement has questions specific to the college: what extracurricular activities will you participate in on campus, are you related to any alumni, etc. This is also the place where you designate the people who will provide your letters of recommendation (only after asking them to write a letter for you!), so those people will get an email from Common App with a link where they can upload their letter. (Sending recommendation letters through snail mail is so 2005.) There will probably also be at least one additional essay in the writing supplement.
What else do I need to apply?
The Common App is free for you to use, although each individual school you apply to will probably require an application fee or fee waiver when you submit your applications. You do need to arrange through your school for a transcript and school profile to be sent. (That usually happens through Naviance or Parchment if your school has those things.) Even though you reported your test scores, you will still need to ask ACT or SAT to send official score results to the schools. Depending on the school, you may also need to submit the CSS/PROFILE, FAFSA, and other financial documents before your application is considered complete.
Are their other common applications?
Yes! The Universal Application debuted in 2014 with about 50 member schools. The Coalition for Access and Affordability is supposed to bring their new application online with 80 member schools on April 1, 2016. I would point out, though, that many highly-selective schools, like the Ivies, will accept any of these applications. There is also one common application for colleges in Texas (ApplyTexas) and for colleges in California system (The UC Application and CSU Mentor).
The college essay, for undergrad or graduate school, is the most dreaded, and most important, writing you will do senior year. The dread is in direct proportion to the importance: if it was just any old essay, who cares? But no, this essay, this one or two page piece of writing, determines your. entire. future.
The admissions essay is how you distinguish yourself from the crowd of other students the Admissions Office has never met, and whose numbers all look the same. The Committee wants to know: what makes you special? Will you be a good roommate? Will you contribute in the classroom? On campus? Who are you and why do you want to go to our school?
Your college essay doesn't have to be monumental, it just has to be true to you. Just like your Facebook page and your Twitter account (which you have cleaned up, right?), the essay is your chance to put your best foot forward and show what is unique about you. Since college is the place to re-invent yourself, consider this your first opportunity. Who do you want to be when you get to college? Write that person's essay!
Rules for making your essay the best it can be:
1) Don't be afraid to show your personality. If you dropped a draft of the essay in the hallway between classes, would your best friend know you wrote it? You can (and should) ask for proofreading help and reactions from your friends, your parents, your admissions consultant and/or your teachers, but the final editing decisions must be yours, in your authentic voice. The Admissions Committee can spot a parent-written essay a mile away. (HINT: They usually sound like "Jeremy has been a model student with a 3.8 GPA...")
2) Pick a topic you feel passionate about. Was your bar mitvah or quinceanera super important to you or was it just an excuse to have a party? (One of the new Common Application essay topics is on a "coming of age" ceremony in your ethnic background.) Was working at the soup kitchen that one Thanksgiving really the turning point in your life?
If these really were transformative experiences, then write about them. But if you're writing about something because someone told you that's what Admissions Committees want to hear, forget it. There will be thousands of warmed-over soup kitchen essays, and writing the same essay as everyone else is not the way to distinguish yourself.
3. Don't wait until the last minute.
Seriously, don't wait until the day before your application is due. Not only will it cause considerable stress and probably ruin your winter break, but you'll lose the opportunity to get feedback from others. I know what I'm talking about, my mother had to lock me in my room to get me to write my essay. #real talk
TALK BACK! How's your essay coming?
Perfect standardized test scores and grades are not enough to gain entrance to the most selective colleges. Due to grade inflation and test prepping, quantitative perfection is becoming commonplace. To be successful, you must also show the school what kind of person you are. This is why getting the admissions essay right is so important.
While the undergraduate essay is the focus of many books, the graduate school essay is equally, if not more, important to your acceptance into graduate level programs. Colleen Reding has helped to fill that gap with her new book Grad’s Guide to Graduate Admissions Essays, published by Prufrock Press. This collection of essays provides grad school applicants with models of successful medical school personal statements as well as successful essays from law school, business school and general graduate school students, all of whom attended Georgetown with Ms. Reding for their undergraduate degrees.
Why do higher education programs even ask for essays? A good essay will give a sense of who you are as a person, and what you may contribute to the school’s student body. Are you a leader? Do you have an interesting background? Are you able, and willing, to make a contribution to the intellectual and social life of the college and the particular program to which you are applying?
The examples in the book go beyond the standard “I have always wanted to be a lawyer” and “I really just want to help people” essays, instead weaving personal experiences into the story of why the applicant is the ideal candidate for admission. Readers will get a good sense of what competitive graduate programs are looking for in applicant essays, and models they can use when drafting their own. Equally helpful are the writing tips provided throughout explaining why the essay was particularly effective—writing style, use of theme, choice of examples, approach to the prompt, etc. I especially like the notes about using a unifying theme for your essay. Don't believe them when they say the writing is fantastic, however. A word to the wise: if every noun needs an adjective to make it sparkle, you should use stronger nouns.
TALK BACK! Have you read this book? Did you find it helpful? Let us know in the comments!
By senior year, you've had at least 13 years of writing instruction and at least 13 different ideas of what good writing is. You know you should "show, don't tell" and "use 5 paragraph essay structure" and maybe even "kill your darlings," if your writing teacher was particularly savvy. But those tips will only get you through revision. Then what? Use these four tips to make all your writing sing.
1) Abolish adjectives and adverbs. No, really, if every noun needs an adjective and every verb needs an adverb to paint your picture, your nouns and verbs are not strong enough. Sure, the character in your story could live in a "cozy little house." Or she could live in a "cottage," which is a house with the "cozy" and "little" built right in. The difference is denotation vs connotation. A word's denotation is its dictionary definition--a house is a structure people live in. The connotation is what the word makes you think of--cottage, hovel, mansion, hut, lean-to, cabin, foxhole--all of these words connote different things, but they are all "structures people live in." Similarly, "'That's awful,' she said mournfully" is weaker than "'That's awful,' she moaned." Strong verbs put us in the story, instead of you as narrator telling us what is happening.
2) Control your thesaurus. Use those SAT words, but use them correctly, sparingly and for effect. It's fine to talk about the "vagaries of the tax code" but don't get carried away. “To me, my education, activities, and community service are more than trite and monotonous undertakings of everyday life. I view these as intellectual and philanthropic cultivators of colloquial individuals in order to create the beautifully unique"* is all kinds of nope.
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