26 Weeks to College: Week 5

Create Your Essay Writing Map
August 4, 2020


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 your dream college.

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 5 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 3) or on the college’s website. Most colleges 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:

    1. 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 because we’ll teach you a special approach for tackling these questions in Week 10.

    2. 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 essays first, and Weeks 6-9 will walk you through the essay writing process step-by-step. You’ll do the short answers and really short answers in Week 12.

  • 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 Week 4 and these blog 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, it is unlikely that they will be doing 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 will convert their fall tour to a virtual event. Sign up and attend these 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. You’ll get more information about how to use a “template” for your Why College X or Why Major X essays in Week 11. 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.

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 one 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 ten years or so, 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 refer to your attendance in your answer to the “Why College X?” 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 College Board’s Big Future website in Week 3 and see if the college 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.

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