COLLEGE ADMISSIONS FROM THE INSIDE OUT

52 Weeks to College: Week 37

Recommendations that Boost Your Chances for College Admission

Anna Ivey

September 23, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 37

Recommendations that Boost Your Chances for College Admission
September 23, 2022
Permalink

Now that your senior year is underway, it's time to line up your recommenders – they are key allies and advocates in this process.

Recommendations make a difference, and it is up to you to make sure that the recommendations you get will make a positive difference for you and influence the admissions officer in your favor.


WEEK 37 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Confirm what recommendations and supporting documentation from your high school (transcript, etc.) are required by each college on your list. A typical requirement is a counselor recommendation, a school report provided by your counselor, and recommendations from one or two teachers.

  • Check in with your school’s college counseling office and confirm the procedure for getting your counselor recommendation and the required school report (usually called a Secondary School Report – it includes your transcript and other information about your high school).

  • Secure your teacher recommendations if you haven't already done so at the end of 11th grade. Look out for specific requirements at a particular college that might influence whom you ask to be a recommender. Ask for any scholarship recommendations at the same time.

  • Continue working on your essays. You should be on a revolving three-week cycle from now until you’ve completed all the essays you have to write – each week, you’ll be drafting one set, revising another set, and finalizing a final set. This will keep your momentum going without overwhelming you. Refer often to your Writing Map to make sure you are keeping pace with deadlines. Aim to have all your essays finalized at least a week before the submission deadline.

  • Using your templates for the Why College X and Why Major X, draft your answers to 1-2 of these short answers or essays. You’ll have to do some research to make your answers sufficiently specific. See Week 36 for tips about getting the content right.

  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. Your goal should be to have these finished in the next couple of weeks. See our advice about these materials in Week 27 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.

  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, they might not be doing all their usual rounds to high schools, but they will probably also be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area.

  • Complete a draft of your first scholarship application, including drafting any essays. You’ll put your scholarship applications on the same three-week writing cycle as your applications and you’ll knock them out in no time.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

TIPS AND TRICKS

1. Help your counselor help you. Admissions officers place a lot of weight on what school counselors have to say about an applicant in the school report, and a negative report can be the kiss of death. In other words, your school counselor is an important ally in the process, so respect the role they play. Follow the rules and work within the system, because your counselor is bound by school policies as much as you are. Give your counselor as much lead time as possible, and take any opportunity to let the counselor get to know you. You can read more advice about the school report, including specific tips for international students and homeschoolers, in chapter 18 of our book, How to Prepare a Standout Application, or in recommendation-related hints found in our Inline software.

2. Choose teacher recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Go back to your story that you wrote in Week 25. Although you won’t always have a choice when it comes to your recommenders, when you do have a choice, you want to choose the recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Pick recommenders who know you well, who can speak about your positives and negatives based on direct experience, and who like you. If you have significant negatives to overcome (for example very low grades, or a disciplinary or criminal record), choose at least one recommender who can address these negatives either because of the recommender’s position or because of the recommender’s knowledge of and experience with you. Go back to Week 18 for more advice on teacher recommendations.

3. Waive access to your recommendations. Under the law, you have the right to see your recommendations (and all other application materials that remain in your student record) after you have been admitted to and enroll in a college, unless you waive that right. The recommendation forms give you an opportunity to waive your rights to access to your recommendations. Typically, the only reason applicants decline to waive access is when applicants are concerned about what the recommender might say, and so they want to discourage the recommender from saying anything negative. That creates a new and equally serious problem: a recommendation that will not have much heft. When you do not waive access, you are not only sending a signal to the recommender, you are also sending a signal to the admissions officer, who might conclude that this recommendation cannot be fully trusted because the recommender could not be completely frank. Either waive access or choose a different recommender in whom you feel more confident.

4. Be polite. Always. The way you interact with these allies shapes their impression of you. Any whiff of entitlement or ingratitude will count against you. So will blowing them off. Follow up with them, find out if they need anything from you, make sure you get them what they need, and when your applications are wrapped up, send them thank-you notes.

5. Prepare for virtual college events so you can make a positive impression. It's fine to treat these virtual college events as an information-gathering exercise on your part rather than a full-on sales pitch for your admission. But you still want to make a positive impression, because any contact you have with a school representative (whether an admissions officer, an alum, an administrator, or a current student ambassador) will make an impression that could affect the final admissions decision. You want to come across as an applicant who has done their homework about the college. Introduce yourself and ask questions or make comments that convey your genuine curiosity and interest in the college. Don’t just lurk on mute the whole time. Make sure you keep track of the names of the college representatives you meet and try to get contact information for them. Send a quick thank you via email after the event. If you do all this, you’ll leave the college reps feeling excited about the prospect of receiving an application from you.

Get more essay help right within your copy of Inline.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

52 Weeks to College: Week 36

Conquering the “Why College X” and “Why Major X” Essays

Anna Ivey

September 16, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 36

Conquering the “Why College X” and “Why Major X” Essays
September 16, 2022
Permalink

A substantial percentage – upwards of 60% of selective colleges that use holistic admissions – have either a “Why College X” or “Why Major X” question on their applications. Some have both. Most of these types of questions require a short answer (50-250 words), while others require an essay (250-500 words).

These questions offer you a great opportunity to persuade an admissions officer that this college and its programs are exactly the right match for you.

The tragedy is that most applicants’ answers are pretty bad, and a good chunk of those are truly horrible. But you can beat the odds and deliver a winning answer to these questions. We'll show you how.



WEEK 36 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Continue working on your essays. You should be on a revolving three-week cycle from now until you’ve completed all the essays you have to write: each week, you’ll be drafting one set, revising another set, and finalizing a final set. This will keep your momentum going without overwhelming you. Refer often to your Writing Map to make sure you are keeping pace with deadlines. Aim to have all your essays finalized at least a week before the submission deadline.

  • Draft a template or templates for answering the Why College X and Why Major X questions on your Writing Map. You can typically use the same template for questions that ask the same basic question — Why College X or Why Major X — and require answers of the same length (short answer of essay). Your Writing Map will tell you the number of templates you need.

  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. Your goal should be to have these finished in the next couple of weeks. See our advice about these materials in Week 27 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.

  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, they might not be doing all their usual rounds to high schools, but they will probably also be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area.

  • Complete a draft of your first scholarship application, including drafting any essays. You’ll put your scholarship applications on the same three-week writing cycle as your applications and you’ll knock them out in no time.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

TIPS AND TRICKS

1. Create a template answer to make crafting your answers to Why College X and Why Major X easier without sacrificing quality. A template follows a predetermined pattern for answering the question, but allows you to fill in specific details for each college. Think of a template as a set of fill-in-the-blank sentences. A good example of a different kind of template is the Your Story template you used to develop your strategy in Week 25. When crafting your template, be aware that a template is largely defined by its structure. For example, you might choose a “story” as your structure, or you might choose a “narrated list” as your structure, or you might come up with some other organizational structure entirely. Whatever your structure, make sure it aligns well with your content for every college where you will be using the template. You can find more sample templates in Chapter 12 of our book, How to Prepare a Standout Application, and specific examples of templates in action in our digital Inline tool with hints and samples for supplemental short answer and essay questions for different colleges.

2. Focus the content on what admissions officers want to know. They want to know something about your goals and how College X or Major X will help you achieve them. They also want to know whether you have a genuine interest in College X or Major X.  Note that the specific prompt will tell you whether they are asking about College X or Major X or both, and you need to follow those instructions.

In terms of goals, answer these questions:

What is it that you actually want to get out of your college experience? Check out the last sentence of your story in Week 25 — you have articulated some career goals in the last sentence.

What do you need to accomplish in college to put you on a path to those career goals? If you don't have career goals yet, look at sentence 2 of your story — your academic interests — and go from there. College is first and foremost an academic enterprise, so those reasons should be front and center.

In order to convey genuine interest, you must be specific and personal in each answer. For your "Why College X" essays, it's not enough to identify what makes College X interesting in general; you need to specify why College X is interesting to you in particular. Is it the massive library where you want to get lost in the stacks? Is it the respect for vegan students? Is it the creative writing instructor who happens to be your favorite author? Whatever it is, name it. If you are answering a Why Major X question, go beyond your general interest in the subject and explain what draws you to the major at this particular college. Is it specific faculty? An unusual set of courses? A co-curricular opportunity like research or study abroad or service learning? Name the specifics to make your template answer come alive for each college on your list.

3. Ranking and reputation are not good reasons in and of themselves. A classic mistake that applicants make when answering the Why College X or Why Major X question is to refer to a college’s or program’s ranking or reputation. Admissions officers are not interested in your ability to parrot back their marketing materials or the US News rankings; they’re interested in knowing whether you’ve done your research and understand what makes the college attractive to you. A bonus of doing this research is that you might discover that the college isn’t actually a good fit for you despite its ranking or reputation, and that’s a good reason to take it off your list.

Get more essay help right within your copy of Inline.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

52 Weeks to College: Week 35

You did it! You're ready to finalize your first set of essays!

Anna Ivey

September 9, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 35

You did it! You're ready to finalize your first set of essays!
September 9, 2022
Permalink

Hello end of summer!  Everything is accelerating and intensifying as you go back to school, and if you’ve been following our week-by-week plan, you are well underway with your college applications. You are ready to finalize your first essays, revise your second set, and get started on your third! That puts you in good shape and will keep you from being too stressed out as you start your senior year.

If you haven’t been following the 52 Weeks plan, start now and commit yourself to catching up as quickly as you can. You still have a window of time before the early admission deadlines in early November (if you want to leave that door open), and getting on track with your college applications by then is essential if you want to minimize your stress and maximize your success.

WEEK 35 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Finalize your first essays. If you didn’t draft anything, don’t try to skip ahead. Instead go back to Week 33 and create your drafts before moving on to revising, because drafting and revising are distinct tasks. Alternatively, you’re on track and you revised them last week, and can now finalize them. This week’s tips and tricks will help you get them letter perfect.
  • Revise your second set of essays. You drafted them last week. See Week 34 for Tips and Tricks when it comes to revising.
  • Start your third set of essays. By this point, you are an old hand at drafting, having already drafted 2-6 essays. Consult your Writing Map from Week 30 and get to work on your third set!
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. Your goal should be to have these finished in the next couple of weeks. See our advice about these materials in Week 27 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, they might not be doing all their usual rounds to high schools, but they will probably also be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area.
  • Add your scholarship essays to your Writing Map. By now, you have been researching scholarships for several weeks and have hopefully identified a few that are good matches for you. Add the deadlines to your calendar and review the applications for these scholarships and see what essays are required. Add them to your Writing Map.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

TIPS AND TRICKS

1. Smooth out the transitions. The mark of a great essay is that it moves from idea to idea in an almost effortless way. A good way to check if your essay has this type of flow is to read your essay out loud. You’ll hear missed connections or bumpy transitions long before you see them. If you stumble as you read your essay, rework your transitions until you’ve got them right.

2. Check the word counts. Most essays have a minimum word count and a maximum word count. Use your word processing software to make sure you are within the limits, because online application platforms are very rigid when it comes to enforcing these limits. If you are short on words, you need to go back and develop some additional content. Don’t just add words – add fully developed content that reveals more about you.

3. It isn’t final until it is error-free. Grammar and spelling count! That means you need to scour your essays for these kinds of errors. We suggest that you use the following checklist to proofread for one category of errors at a time:

  • Check paragraph breaks.
  • Check subject-verb agreement.
  • Check verb tenses for shifting tenses or incorrect tenses.
  • Check for pronoun-antecedent clarity and agreement.
  • Check punctuation.
  • Check capitalization.
  • Check spelling.
  • Check and double check until the essay is error-free.


Get more essay help right within your copy of Inline.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

52 Weeks to College: Week 34

Here's the best way to revise your college application essay drafts

Anna Ivey

September 2, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 34

Here's the best way to revise your college application essay drafts
September 2, 2022
Permalink

Now that you have at least a week of drafting essays behind you, you are ready to tackle the next phase of the writing process: revising.

Revising is its own art, so our tips and tricks this week focus on how to do it well.


WEEK 34 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Revise the essay drafts you wrote in the last week. If you didn’t draft anything, don’t try to skip ahead. Instead go back to Week 33 and create your drafts before moving on to revising, because drafting and revising are distinct tasks.
  • Draft 1-2 additional essays. The Writing Map you created in Week 30 is your writing to-do list. Look to see which application essays are next on your list and start drafting them.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. See our advice about these materials in Week 27 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, they might not be doing all their usual rounds to high schools, but they will probably also be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area.
  • Continue researching scholarships. Refer back to Week 24 for tips on scholarship search services.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

TIPS AND TRICKS

1. Revise content first. You will save loads of time if you revise your essay for content before you move on to revising it for things like flow and voice.

When you review the content, make sure it is focused on showing, rather than telling. When you show the admissions officer something about yourself, the admissions officer has the closest thing to a direct experience of it. Direct experiences are far more memorable. That’s why showing is the best way to influence an admissions officer in your favor, and why all great essays show rather than tell.

An easy way to check for whether you have the right amount of content in your draft is to let the word counts guide you. Most application essays have both a minimum and a maximum word count (or character count). These word counts signal how much content your essay is expected to have.

  • If your draft falls between the minimum and maximum word count, then you’ve hit the target for content. Move on to the next steps in revising.
  • If your draft is below the minimum word count, then you have to add meaningful content, not just words. How could you develop one of your ideas more deeply? What other ideas could you introduce? Stick with it until you have a draft that is the right length.
  • If your draft is above the maximum word count, then you probably have tried to develop too many ideas in the essay. Consider which ideas are central and then eliminate the others.

2. Structure your essay as a story to make it flow and keep it interesting. An essay that flows well carries the admissions officer effortlessly from one idea to the next. They never stumble, get lost, or have to reread particular sentences or the whole essay to figure out what you are trying to say.

Most of you have learned to structure an essay with an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. That organization is a logical flow that works great for an academic essay, but it makes for a deathly dull personal essay. So ditch that structure, and structure your essay as a story instead. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can and should use the first person as needed (I, me, etc.) That structure grabs the reader and keeps them interested until it releases them at the end. Capturing and keeping the attention of your reader – the admissions officer – is the goal.

3. Make sure your voice comes through loud and clear. When an admissions officer reads your essay, they should feel as if they were talking with you and only you. In order to leave the admissions officer with that feeling, your essay must have your voice. Most applicants have plenty of voice in the first drafts of their essays, but strip it all away when they revise. (Or their parents or other well-intended adults strip the voice out for them thinking that that’s the safe way to go, and that safer is better. But safe and voiceless is not the way to make an impression.) Guard against doing that as you revise your own essays. For example, keep the quirky phrase that you are well known for using or hold onto your signature writing rhythm of short, emphatic sentences if that’s how you normally write. Use those aspects of your writing voice that make it yours and yours alone.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

52 Weeks to College: Week 33

Use this step-by-step process to start writing your college application essays

Anna Ivey

August 29, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 33

Use this step-by-step process to start writing your college application essays
August 29, 2022
Permalink

Drafting Your College Application Essays

Thanks to the work you’ve done over the last six weeks, you are ready to get started writing your essays. You are going to be surprised how much all your preparation pays off – most students report to us that they never knew how easy writing could be until they followed our step-by-step process.

Beyond drafting your essays, you’ll keep up with other application related work that you’ve gotten started. You can get caught up with previous weeks here.

WEEK 33 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Choose 1-2 of your core essays to draft this week. Remember you are tackling essays first — questions that require writing of more than 250 words — and leaving short answers and really short answers until later. Refer back to your Writing Map for the best place to start. Focus your first efforts on a main essay that you are going to use on many applications, for example the personal essay on the Common App. If you have more than one of these to draft, you can tackle both at the same time.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. See our advice about these materials in Week 27 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, they might not be doing all their usual rounds to high schools, but they will probably also be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area.
  • Continue researching scholarships. Refer back to Week 24 for tips on scholarship search services.

THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

TIPS & TRICKS

1. Commit the time and energy necessary to produce your best essays for your college applications. Assume you’ll spend 6-8 hours per core essay. But that time will be spaced out over several weeks, so you should be able to incorporate it into your schedule without going crazy. Writing is a multi-step process that takes time and energy to do well. No one does their best writing in one draft. No one dashes off something profound in 30 minutes on the night before a deadline. No one produces a standout essay without devoting considerable time and energy. NO ONE.

2. Take it step-by-step. Draft, then revise, then finalize. Each of these steps in the writing process engages a different part of your brain and requires you to do distinct tasks. Don’t make the mistake of trying to do all three at once. That makes it much harder than it needs to be. Instead, do it step by step.

3. Draft. In this step, just write. Stephen King, a prolific writer, is noted for saying that when it comes to writing, “the scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” Getting started on your college application essays can be scary, but the only way to alleviate your fear is to start writing. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing at this point. You are in the drafting phase right now, so just start writing. If you are following the 52 Weeks plan, you will have time to revise and polish. But if you let fear get the best of you, you’ll find yourself staring down your deadline without having written anything. That is a much scarier place to be! Start, and as Stephen King promises, it will get better.


Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

52 Weeks to College: Week 32

As you’re strategizing about which essays to write, here's a very common kind of supplemental essay: “Why College X” essays.

Anna Ivey

August 19, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 32

As you’re strategizing about which essays to write, here's a very common kind of supplemental essay: “Why College X” essays.
August 19, 2022
Permalink

As you’re strategizing about which essays to write, we want to introduce you to a very common kind of supplemental essay: “Why College X” essays.

As you finalize your list of schools, you can start thinking ahead to what you would tell them if they asked you why you’re interested in that school in particular. It’s a good exercise to go through, because even if you don’t write a supplemental essay on the topic as part of your application, it’s good information to convey in an admissions interview. It won’t go to waste!

WEEK 32 TO-DOS


THIS WEEK

  • Brainstorm possibilities for “Why College X” answers. That’s it! This research will pay off down the road.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


TIPS AND TRICKS


Colleges have different ways of phrasing “Why are you interested in us?”

Is it asking some version of "Why are you applying here" or "Why are you a good fit for our school?" If so, it's effectively asking, "Why Us?"

Northwestern's optional essay topic is a good example. Here's the prompt:

While other parts of your application give us a sense of who you are, we are also excited to hear more about how you see yourself engaging with the larger Northwestern community. In 300 words or less, help us understand how you might engage specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities here. We are curious about what these specifics are, as well as how they may enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond.

What they're actually asking is: "How badly do you want to go here?" If you don't submit a thoughtful essay in response, you're essentially answering: "Not very much." And that's a quick way to get rejected.

If a school asks that question (and not all do!), what they are showing you is that they are very sensitive to who is genuinely interested in them, and they really want to know what specific things are drawing you to that college. For example, you might be really interested in their dance program and want to participate in their dance club. Be specific!

The admissions folks at Northwestern even tell you at the end of the essay prompt: "We strongly encourage a response." Assume that’s true for any optional “Why College X” essay and treat it as if it were required.

What’s an example of a college that doesn’t ask?

Here’s one.

Harvard usually has a looooong list of optional essay topics, but not a single one of them is some variety of "Why Us?" (It's nice to be Harvard; they assume that you want to go there.) You can see those optional essay prompts here, and then scroll down to Writing Supplement > Additional Essay.

So our rule is: You do NOT need to write a “Why College X” essay for a school that doesn’t expressly invite that. But for the ones that do, definitely write something, and make it good.

And if the optional essay question is not a "Why College X" essay prompt, submit something only if it's a strong piece of writing AND it says something about you that isn't already demonstrated somewhere else in the application. For example, if the optional essay question is "Is there anything else you want us to know about you," don't use that as an opportunity to say to them, "Oh by the way can I mention that I received an A+." That won't add anything valuable or new to your application, and you're better off not submitting the optional essay at all.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

How to Explain a Fluctuation in Your Grades

Don't leave the reasons to the imagination of admissions officers!

Anna Ivey

August 16, 2022

How to Explain a Fluctuation in Your Grades

Don't leave the reasons to the imagination of admissions officers!
August 16, 2022
Permalink

If you experienced a significant change in your grades during high school, it’s a good idea to share that context with all of the colleges you are applying to. That’s true whether your grades fluctuated in either direction!

But before everyone jumps on this great opportunity, stop and assess if you have had a significant fluctuation in the first place:

❎ One bad grade, one great grade: not significant fluctuations.

❎ Going from all Bs to all B+s, or vice versa: not a significant fluctuation.

✅ From mostly Cs to mostly As, or vice versa: significant fluctuation.

If you find that you do have a significant fluctuation, then you are going to seize this great opportunity AND you are also going to ask your recommenders to support what you say.

  • If your grades have gone way up, explain what you've done to become a better student and assure the admissions officer that you are going to continue to improve your performance. Leave them believing that you will be at the top of your class in college.
  • If your grades took a significant dip, make sure that you've halted, or even better reversed, the decline. Then explain how you've done that and assure the admissions officer that you are going to continue to improve your performance. In other words, give the admissions officer reason to write off those low grades as past history that will not repeat itself.

Where do you tell admissions officers that story in your application if a college doesn’t specifically invite that context? You can add it to “Additional Information” in the Writing section of your Common App.

You can speak with your school-based counselor with any questions regarding how to explain significant grade fluctuations on your college applications. Do not leave it to the imagination of admissions staff who will eventually read your application!

52 Weeks to College: Week 31

Now that you have your strategy, have done all your pre-work, and prepared your Writing Map, it’s time to choose topics for your writing.

Anna Ivey

August 12, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 31

Now that you have your strategy, have done all your pre-work, and prepared your Writing Map, it’s time to choose topics for your writing.
August 12, 2022
Permalink

Choosing the Right Essay Topics


Now that you have your strategy, have done all your pre-work, and prepared your Writing Map, it’s time to choose topics for your writing. The best way to ensure that you produce compelling essays is to choose the right topics for those essays, and that’s what you’re going to do this week using our tips and tricks.

WEEK 31 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Choose your topic for each question on your Writing Map. It’s not going to be as big a chore as you think — even if you have 25 writing questions to tackle (a fairly common number), you’ll likely end up with a core set of 4-8 short answers and essays because you’ll be able to reuse or revise these core pieces for every application. So you’re really going to be choosing 4-8 topics.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. See our advice about these materials in Week 4 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, some colleges might not have resume their usual in-person rounds to high schools, but they may be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area. See our tips and tricks here for in-person and virtual tours.
  • Continue researching scholarships. Refer back here for our tips on scholarship search services.

THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


TIPS AND TRICKS

1. Remind yourself that the real topic of all of the writing questions is YOU. No matter what the stated topic is, it is nothing more than a frame, a launching pad, or a prompt to get you to write about the real topic, which is YOU.  This is true no matter how random, obscure, or hard the essay question may seem. It is even true for the University of Chicago legendary “stump the student” style questions. For example, consider this prompt from the 2020-21 University of Chicago application:

What can actually be divided by zero?—Inspired by Mai Vu, Class of 2024

On its face, this essay prompt seems like a riddle to be solved, not an invitation to reveal something about yourself. But what the admissions officer is really looking for is not the “right” answer to the riddle, but instead insight into how YOU think and what you value. Maybe you’re a true mathematician type and you tackle the riddle from a theoretical math perspective. Or maybe you’re a poet type and you approach this as a metaphor for one of life’s great questions. Or maybe humor is a big part of who you are, and you have a funny-brainiac answer. Regardless, your answer should reveal something about YOU.

2. Use your story to generate possible topics if you have a “topic of your choice” option (like you do on both the Common App and Coalition App). This is where all that pre-work you did really pays off! Your goal is to brainstorm at least five choices for consideration. It’s even better if you come up with ten. Your story is the place to start. Make sure to check out our video about how to write your story — we even include a template for you to use. Going sentence by sentence through your story, challenge yourself to come up with at least one topic per sentence – hardly a push. What makes for the best topics? Anecdotes about experiences that reveal something important about you. Let’s say that you’ve included the word “poised” as one of the three adjectives to describe yourself in sentence 4 of your story. Your best topic would be an anecdote that shows how you developed or exhibited poise — like that time you kept your cool at a protest march when you were being heckled and mocked by some counter-protesters.

3. Use your story as your guide to make your selection of the best topic for each writing question. Remember that your story is your roadmap to what you want admissions officers to know about you. Compare your story with the choices you have for topics and identify your best choice using these guidelines:

  • Choose the topic that speaks to your most essential qualities or your most formative experiences. This is particularly true when it comes to the personal essay on the Common Application, or any other essay that is the “one and only” essay on the application.
  • Choose the topic that seems easiest to write about and easiest to make your own. Is there a topic that relates directly to some part of your story? Then it should be easy to write about, and the content will stay naturally focused on you. Don’t make the mistake of eliminating a topic just because it seems easy (and you therefore think it can’t be “right”). Exactly the opposite is true. If you’ve written your story properly, the topic should seem easy.
  • Choose the topic that reveals something about your story that you haven’t been able to tell elsewhere in the application. Remember, it’s important to think about your application as a whole, because admissions officers will be reading it and evaluating it as a whole. They will not be reading any of your essays in a vacuum. Pay attention to how the various writing questions come together on a particular application. You should use each writing question to reveal something different about yourself. Do not duplicate within an application! What part of your story has not been fully told?

In other words, which topic really allows you to tell your story best? That’s the right topic.



Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.


52 Weeks to College: Week 30

Now that the Common App is open for the coming application cycle, it’s time to work on your Writing Map!

Anna Ivey

August 5, 2022

52 Weeks to College: Week 30

Now that the Common App is open for the coming application cycle, it’s time to work on your Writing Map!
August 5, 2022
Permalink

Create Your Essay Writing Map

Now that the Common App is open for the coming application cycle, it’s time to work on your Writing Map! Yes, one more thing before you start writing.

“Work smarter, not harder,” is one of the strategies that we encourage students to use, but there is a risk that you might get so focused on minimizing your work that you sabotage yourself.

One of the most common places students stumble into self-sabotage is getting focused on minimizing the number of essays you have to write and losing sight of your ultimate goal: getting into the best college for YOU.

Creating a Writing Map and following our advice for how to be smart when it comes to reusing essays will keep you from making that mistake.

WEEK 30 TO-DOS


THIS WEEK

  • Gather all the writing questions for all of your applications. You can find those either through the college’s online application platform (see Week 26) or on the college’s website. If you’re using the Common App, making sure to look for “hidden essays” in the college supplements on your list. Most colleges (not all!) release their questions by the end of the first week of August, so you should be able to access them for most of the colleges on your list. If the application for a particular college isn’t “live” for this year yet, mark your calendar to check every few days.

  • Create a Writing Map for yourself that is a giant to-do list of all the writing you have to do. Going college by college, list each writing question and make note of two critical things:

- What the Prompt Asks. You can use shorthand here. If you have a choice of topics, include all of them on your map, so that you can see overlaps with other applications. Also be on the lookout for the “Why College X” and “Why Major X” questions.

- Word Limits. Word limits dictate how many ideas you can develop in that piece of writing. We classify college application writing into three categories.

  • Really Short Answer: requires an answer of 50 words or less
  • Short Answer: requires an answer of 50-250 words
  • Essay: requires an answer of 250+ words

You are going to tackle the full-length essays first — in subsequent weeks we’ll walk you through the essay writing process step-by-step, and you’ll also be working on the short answers and really short answers.

  • Analyze your Writing Map to identify where you can use one piece of writing for multiple applications. Even if you discover that there are 25 writing questions among the various applications for the colleges on your list (a relatively common number), you won't have to write 25 essays. Look for questions that are the same or similar, and note where multiple questions can be answered with one essay.

  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like. Note: see our advice about these materials in our posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.

  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what Fall events they are planning for prospective students. Given the pandemic, they may or may not be resuming their usual rounds to high schools in person, but they may be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area. For example, the group of liberal arts colleges branded as “8 of the Best” have announced they are resuming their in-person events and adding one virtual event. If possible, sign up and attend these in-person or virtual events so that you can meet the admissions officers who will be reviewing and shepherding your application through the process.

  • Continue researching scholarships. If you haven't already identified the scholarships available from the colleges on your list, do it now. In addition, look for opportunities from outside organizations such as focus on identifying scholarships available from businesses, civic and community organizations, religious organizations, foundations and the like.

THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

TIPS AND TRICKS

1. Know when to reuse an essay as-is, when to revise it before reusing, and when to write a completely new essay.

As you are making your Writing Map, you are looking for opportunities to reuse answers so you can work smarter, not harder. But don’t get carried away when it comes to reusing answers. Remember that your goal is to get into the colleges on your list, not to complete your applications with the fewest essays possible.

You should reuse an answer as-is if the questions are nearly identical. If the questions are similar, but distinct, you should revise your answer for each question. This is especially true for the “Why College X” questions. If the questions are unique, then you need to write a completely new essay. A generic answer will add nothing to your application and might even detract if it is inaccurate or non-responsive for a particular college, which often happens. (We’ll have specific advice about how to write the “Why College X” essays in next week’s post.)

2. Even when programs are virtual, participating in events hosted by colleges might give you a leg up in the admissions process.

Events hosted by colleges are first and foremost marketing events designed to persuade you to apply and attend their college. So why would you attend an event if you already know you want to apply to a particular college? And how could it possibly give you a leg up in the admissions process? Well, it’s all about learning to think like an admissions officer and understanding what each college on your list considers when making admissions decisions.

In the last 10-15 years, many colleges (for a variety of reasons) have begun to consider “demonstrated interest” as a factor in the admissions process. “Demonstrated interest” is nothing more than an evaluation of how interested you are in the particular college and what evidence they have of that.

One of the easiest ways to “demonstrate interest” is to attend one of these events, introduce yourself to the admissions officer, and ask at least one good question so that you leave a positive impression. You can later refer to your attendance in your answer to the “Why College X?” essay question and get double credit.

Wondering how to find out if the colleges on your list consider “demonstrated interest”? Just check the research you did on the Common Data Set for each of your colleges in Week 26 and see if the colleges listed “Level of Applicant’s Interest” as a factor they consider.

3. What you need to know about scholarship search services.

There's good news and bad news when it comes to scholarship search services. The bad news is that scholarship scams abound, and every year thousands of hopeful college applicants and their families get duped by them. It is so tempting to sign up for a service that "guarantees" you'll get a scholarship, but the only guarantee is that you'll never see the money you paid to this service again. Before you pay a single dollar to a scholarship search service, use this checklist to evaluate whether you are about to become a victim of a scam rather than the recipient of legitimate assistance.

The good news is that there are scholarships out there and that it is relatively easy for you to identify them for FREE thanks to the internet. You can use a tool like Fastweb or FinAid and the College Board’s Scholarship Search.

One note about "free" scholarship search services: They are free to you, but many of them are for-profit enterprises. So who pays? For the most part, these sites are supported by colleges, scholarship organizations, and financial aid related companies (such as lenders). They pay these sites so that they can have access to you! They want to sell you on themselves. So once you sign up for these services, you will likely become a target of a lot of marketing including internet ads, e-mails, and snail mail. Our advice? Just deal with the hassle factor of all this extra stuff coming your way. It is worth it to get the information you need about scholarships for free.

In other words, the easiest way to avoid being the victim of a scam is simply to do your research.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

52 Weeks To College: Week 29

As much as you're relaxing, it's time to start thinking ahead. Consider a special kind of academic recommendation...

Anna Ivey

July 29, 2022

52 Weeks To College: Week 29

As much as you're relaxing, it's time to start thinking ahead. Consider a special kind of academic recommendation...
July 29, 2022
Permalink

“OTHER” RECOMMENDATIONS


Now that the 2022-23 Common App has opened (hurrah!), it’s a good idea to start thinking ahead to recommenders. We’ll talk about a very special kind of recommendation this week.

WEEK 29 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Brainstorm possibilities for so-called “other” recommendations. That’s it! Enjoy this part of your college admission journey. Things will kick into high gear again in August.

THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

TIPS & TRICKS

Colleges typically require academic recommendations, which are recommendations from your teachers in high school, and some don't let you submit any others. (We’ll talk more about academic recommendations in a future post.)

But other colleges also give you the opportunity to submit "other" (non-academic) recommendations from people who aren't your teachers. Examples of non-academic recommenders include mock trial coach, rabbi, or mentor.

When is it a good idea to submit those?

Our cardinal rule: Submit a non-required recommendation only if it truly adds something meaningful to your profile.

Here are four categories of "other" (non-academic) recommendations that can add something meaningful to your profile:

1. It discusses one of your non-cognitive attributes. (Not sure what those are? Here’s a nice description.) For example, your leadership can be validated by the coach of a team where you were Captain, or by a Student Council sponsor when you were a Student Council officer. Many colleges have started caring more about non-cognitive attributes (like leadership and resilience), in addition to the usual cognitive ones (like reasoning skills and subject matter expertise). Many applicants and their families aren't used to thinking in those non-cognitive terms for their college applications, so at the end of this post we've included a longer list of examples for each.

2. It validates or explains a part of your story that would benefit from the perspective of an outside party. For example, a mentor can describe obstacles you have overcome on your path to achievement, or your employer can vouch for the long shifts you've worked to help support your family.

3. It documents a bona fide talent through a reputable source, for example a flute teacher who writes a letter for an applicant to the New England Conservatory.

4. It underscores your religious affiliation for a college where religious affiliation counts, for example a letter from a minister, priest, rabbi, or imam.


In each of those four cases, the recommender should make clear in the letter what the purpose of the letter is.

An "other" (non-academic) recommendation is not the best way to solicit "good words" from alums, donors, or famous people. If they really know you (well) and care about you (a lot) and have a strong connection to the powers-that-be at the college, they can just pick up the phone or send an email to the powers-that-be behind the curtain. Don't use one of the "other" recommendations for that.

And when are "other" recommendations a waste of time? When the only purpose they serve is basically to say that the applicant is a great kid.

EXAMPLES OF COGNITIVE ABILITIES/SKILLS/ATTRIBUTES

Knowledge: Has a basic set of facts and methods at their command; mastery of the “college prep” curriculum.

Subject Matter Expertise: Has acquired knowledge of specific subject matter both inside and outside classroom. Knowledge can be in any area, including social, personal, or interpersonal.

Application of Knowledge/Expertise/Problem Solving: Can apply what they know in new or novel situations; develops solutions to problems using that knowledge.

Analysis: Can examine and break information into parts, identify motives or causes, make inferences, find evidence to support generalizations.

Evaluation/Critical Thinking: Can make clear, reasoned judgments, can present and defend opinions by making judgments about information, can assess the validity of ideas or quality of work based on a set of criteria.

Synthesis/Creative Thinking: Can build a structure or pattern from diverse elements, put parts to together to form a new whole, compile information in a different way, create something novel, develop alternative or innovative solutions.

EXAMPLES OF NON-COGNITIVE ABILITIES/SKILLS/ATTRIBUTES

Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.

Self-Control: Self-control is the voluntary regulation of impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations. Able to defer gratification; plans ahead and sets goals.

Growth Mindset: The belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.

Positive Self-Concept: Demonstrates confidence, strength of character, determination, and independence.

Realistic Self-Appraisal: Recognizes and accepts any strengths and deficiencies, especially academic, and works hard at self-development. Recognizes the need to broaden individuality.

Successful Leadership Experience: Demonstrates strong leadership in any area: church, sports, non-educational groups, etc. Leadership involves having initiative, building consensus, innovating new strategies, and implementing policies and programs in collaboration with or under the direction of others.

Collaboration: Communication plus additional skills related to conflict resolution, decision making, problem solving, and negotiation.

Demonstrated Community Service: Identifies with a community, is involved in community work.

Openness, Tolerance, Agreeableness, Warmth/Consideration, Generosity, Cooperation/Trust: The ability to take in the perspective of others, particularly from those with different backgrounds and cultures.

Understands and Knows How to Handle the System: Exhibits a realistic view of the system based upon personal experiences and is committed to improving the existing system. Takes an assertive approach to dealing with existing wrongs, but is not hostile to society. Involves handling any “isms” (racism, sexism, etc.).

Availability of Strong Support Person: Seeks out and takes advantage of a strong support network or has someone to turn to in a crisis or for encouragement. Doesn't try to "muscle through" life's challenges alone.  



Anna Ivey is one of the founders of
Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.