Last week you did your research about applications for each of the colleges on your list, so this week you are finally ready to really get started on completing those applications. I know you expect that this is when we’ll suggest you get going on the essays, but not just yet.
First, the applications for your admissions cycle (2020-21) have not gone “live” yet, meaning that most colleges have not yet released their essay questions and won’t do so until early August.
Yes, we know that the Common App and the Coalition App have announced the personal essay topics, but you want to draft those essays with the OTHER essays that will be required in mind, so you need to wait a couple more weeks to avoid wasting time.
Second, you’ll generate better topics for the essays once you’ve seen what information is shared in other places on the application. You want to use every question on the application wisely, and that means revealing as many dimensions of yourself as you can – so there’s no reason to repeat something in an essay that you’ve already gotten to include elsewhere in the application.
That’s because admissions officers don’t evaluate your essay in a vacuum, and you shouldn’t work on your essay in a vacuum either. That’s what a holistic admissions process is all about. Your best essay will be the one that fits into the rest of your application taken as a whole.
What are you going to do then in the meantime? All the “easy” parts of the application: your contact info, your family info, your educational background, and your activities.
They are easy because they require information that you can easily get, and they don’t have to be answered in essay format, BUT they are important to get right, and attention to detail is very important. These questions contain information that is vital to improving your chances for admission, so they are worth focusing on now.
A bonus: If you do these easy parts now, you can get them perfect and you won’t be sweating them at the last minute, which is a sure way to botch it.
1. Check that you've filled out the factual questions accurately and to your advantage.
What are factual questions? These are questions asking you about you and your family: your age, your gender, your state of residence, your citizenship, your languages, your ethnicity or race, and your veteran status. If you don't feel as if the boxes on the application really represent who you are, check the ones that come closest, and then use the Additional Information question of the Writing section of the application to elaborate. If you're a legacy, see if you can work that in. Also make sure to use your legal name on all your college application documents so that your name is consistent (that will save you lots of headaches later). Follow the U.S. format for dates (month/day/year). Use a reliable snail-mail and email address. Proofread!
2. Check that you haven't missed any miscellaneous questions.
Those are questions about whether you're applying for financial aid, your academic interests, and any demonstrated interest in that particular college ("Have you visited?" "How did you learn about our college?"). Don't have particular career interests yet? It's OK if that's still up in the air. But you should at least be able to articulate your academic interests. (College is an academic enterprise, after all.) Make sure that the interests you list align with your story (Week 2). If you are on the fence about whether to apply for financial aid, check whether the college is "need blind" or "need aware" — you might decide that it's not worth applying for financial aid at a "need aware" school if that school is not that important to you. Inline also includes information about whether a school is need aware or not.
3. Make sure you know which program or division you're applying to.
Some colleges have just a single application for one entire, unified undergraduate program, and you can decide later what division you want to be in and what you want to major in. Other schools make you decide upfront whether you're applying to a particular division (or program or college-within-the-college). For example, some schools make you decide at the application stage whether you're applying to the School of Liberal Arts or to the School of Engineering. Make sure to read the instructions for each college carefully so that your application ends up in the right hands.
4. Check that your activities list conveys the Core Four.
Go back to the work you did in Week 2, and as you review your activities list in the application, make sure you've communicated all the activities that tell your story, and that you've conveyed the Core Four (don't forget impact in particular). Also make sure you've made use of the space available to you in the activities list.
5. Restrain yourself when it comes to optional supplementary materials in the arts.
What are optional supplementary materials in the arts? Portfolios, videos of performances, creative writing samples, etc. Many well-meaning people will advise you that these kinds of optional supplementary materials are the key to a standout application. We beg to differ. Once upon a time (like almost 30 years ago), this was the conventional wisdom. Hours and hours were devoted to thinking about how to send exactly the “right” supplementary materials. But that was then, and this is now. Supplementary materials are now considered much differently. What once might have impressed an admissions officer is now nothing but a somewhat irritating distraction for admissions officers trying to process and evaluate tens of thousands of applications.
The takeaway for you?
More is not always more.
More is only more if it really, truly adds something to your application.
Furthermore, more is only helpful if your supplementary materials are welcomed and considered by the college (and you can find that out by checking their website).
So do yourself a favor and exhibit restraint when it comes to optional supplementary materials in the arts. Plan to submit supplementary materials only if they truly add something, and they are both welcomed and considered.
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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.