9780874479874

The College Application Essay

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  • ISBN13:

    9780874479874

  • ISBN10:

    0874479878

  • Edition: 5th
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 7/17/2012
  • Publisher: College Board

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Summary

A winning college application essay takes admission officers beyond the numbers and shows them what a student really cares about, how he/she thinks and who he/she really is. This easy-to-follow guide shows students how to maximize the opportunity to "tell us about yourself" by using the tools and skills they already have. Includes: Ways to choose a topic Strategies for distinctive answers Remedies for procrastinators Jumpstarts for writer's block Tips on editing Over 50 real application questions Sample essays by real students Critiques of the sample essays guide students toward the best practices and away from common mistakes.

Author Biography

Sarah Myers McGinty has more than 20 years' experience in admission and essay research. She taught at Harvard from 1993-2005; this is her seventh book.

Table of Contents

College Application Essay
Chapter 1
The Essay and Your Application
"Sometimes we let students write themselves in," says Thyra Briggs, dean of admission at Sarah Lawrence College. Briggs is acknowledging the importance of the essay in evaluating applicants to a college with a long tradition of attention to students' writing skills. In fact, in the 1970s, Sarah Lawrence required several essays from applicants ... and two from their parents. Special attention to application essays makes sense in the context of a Sarah Lawrence education. The curriculum there is built around one-on-one meetings between professors and students, biweekly classroom work, and individual writing conferences. Of course, as at all colleges, 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 compensate for issues with a transcript," says Briggs, "in a way that clubs and awards might not."
Sarah Lawrence'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 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 "What is your favorite time of day?" (Princeton University) or "You have just published your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217" (University of Pennsylvania). The Reverend Mr. Bob Kinnally, the former dean of admission at Stanford University, explains the presence of the essay: "[It] helps us see and judge the depth of the [applicant's] understanding of intellectual or social issues ... it 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 25,000 applicants to the University of Michigan, for the 8,000 applicants to Brigham Young University, for the 1,000 applicants to the Ringling School of Art and Design, for the 300 applicants to Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. 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 that likes to read and think, reflect and talk, wonder and argue. This is the mission of admissions. But as William C. Hiss, vice president for external affairs 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 themselvessee a methodical and quantifiable process of selection. Dr. Marilyn McGrath Lewis, director of admission 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 andmaking 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; everyone is striving to make the right choices.
Your research probably started first and you have many resources to draw upon:
• Guidance personnel and the counseling and career staff
• Web sites, catalogs, videos, and viewbooks from the colleges
• Admission counselors--at the colleges, at your high school, or at local-area information fairs
• Teachers, coaches, educational consultants, friends, parents, college graduates
• Guidebooks and data handbooks
• Campus visits and interviews
• Alumni and 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 are useful in doing 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)
• Recommendations
• An interview
Let's take a moment and 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 see numerical data as the most reliable predictor of success: They look first at anapplicant's grades, class rank, and test scores. California, for example, publishes eligibility minimums (grade point averages, rank, and testing) for each of its different UC campuses. Other schools try to tease from the folder a sense of an applicant's personal qualities. Julie Browning, dean of undergraduate enrollment at Rice, says, "We wonder, 'Do you have a story to tell?'" And where a school offers a distinctive program--the block plan at Colorado College, the great books curriculum at St. John's, 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 folders, looking for the most reliable and the fairest way to put together a class from the limited information of an application folder.
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. But faculty members may be part of the process. At Cal Tech, all admission decisions involve faculty. Marlboro College, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Reed College include student readers on admission committees. Applicants may also be looked at by specialists: music faculty hear auditions; art staff view portfolios. A dean of admission or an enrollment manager oversees everything.
The committee is not a nameless, faceless group of people, uniform in taste and attitude. It is made up of individuals. Assigned a seemingly endless pile of folders 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. And as Ted O'Neill, dean of admission at the University of Chicago, points out, "We don't want them all to be read in the same way." Similarly, Peter Van Buskirk, at Franklin & Marshall College, says,"We're not looking for one kind of student. A liberal arts college would be ill-advised to do that." So there is no perfect applicant. Many things are sought within a class and many different elements make up the admission committee's final judgment. The folder is a web of information, a jigsaw puzzle that is interconnected and interactive. Each element plays its own part, each makes its own argument.
Your High School Record
The numbers come first. Colleges request grades, usually beginning with ninth grade. Three and a half years of performance gives them a knowledge 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. Ford Stevenson, dean of admission at Brigham Young University, describes how BYU considers course choices: "We add a factor to a student's grades for a strong educational program and for more challenging courses; we will consider up to 70 percent of the applicant's program in this way." Grades, class rank, and grade point average are viewed in light of your course choices.
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 get to 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.
Scores
A testing service also contributes numbers to your application. Many schools require either the SAT Reasoning Test, some SAT Subject Tests , or the American College Testing Program Assessment (ACT). These standardized tests help admission personnel evaluate applicants' abilities relative to successful performance in college. The scores are seen as a yardstick with which students of widely differing backgrounds can be compared.
You probably took the PSAT/NMSQT® or practiced with books like 10 Real SATs. Some high schools offer SAT® review courses as part of the curriculum and some students take private review courses. Familiarizing yourself with the various types of test questions can put you at ease and may make you a more efficient test-taker.
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--that you need 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 cut-off 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 freshman 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, 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. Warren Willingham's Success in College: The Role of Personal Qualities and Academic Ability (College Entrance Examination Board, 1985), showed that personal qualities are also a valid indicator of college success; many colleges look to recommendations, essays, and the interview to give them a sense of the person. And some colleges consider these elements primary criteria in an evaluation.
Recommendations
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 and your relationship with your counselor a bit remote (the national ratio of students to counselors ranges between 140 to 1 and 420 to 1), you might 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, for 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 did. Students come and go and most teachers appreciate a little memory-jogging. Be sure to provide stamped, addressed envelopes, and fill out all the parts of the form indicated asthe 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 in the catalog.
Creating that résumé will help you with questions about your academic career and activities. Many of the questions are similar to those asked on the application, so you might want to look over or complete your application before beginning the interview. 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 'Why do you think Yale is the place to apply? What made you go there?'" The better your questions, the better the impression you will make and the more useful the interview will be to you. Questions already answered in the catalog waste the interviewer's time and your time. 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 a little aggressive. 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. Don Heider, director of enrollment communications at Albright College, says, "It's the consumer's chanceto see where to spend more than $100,000." 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 you interview with uses the interview evaluatively. Sometimes you have only half an hour to make an impression and gather information, and the first 10 minutes is often 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+ you earned in English II. 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 241 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 these 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, associate 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. Colleges wonder: Can you write? Can you think?
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 Northwestern University, for example, dean and director of admission Carol Lunkenheimer says it is second only to performance in the high school course program.
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 folder. Admission counselors may connect to a student who has intrigued them with thoughts about Cuban independence or missing sweat socks or Coach Rizoli; 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 a classroom assignment. Vince Cuseo, director of admission at Occidental College, points out that a graded school paper can reveal both the writer and the "demand level" of the high school. Wheaton (MA), Middlebury, University of Vermont, and UCLA Arts are among the schools that ask for this supplementary material.
Because your ability to interpret, analyze, and express yourself clearly, correctly, and vividly will be crucial in your college courses, your college essay will be looked at in these same terms. Consider it achance to make an important claim (in this case, a claim about yourself) 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 William Faulkner. 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 on, 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. Nancy Mering, director of admission at Gordon College, says, "For us, the essay is a critical component in the application. We're looking for a special commitment and the essay gives us something the numbers don't reveal."
Nancy Siegel, a high school guidance counselor, 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 as Ford Stevenson notes, "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." The application is a jigsaw puzzle; each part contributes a piece to the overall picture.
How does this work? Choice is important here. 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. William Hiss, at Bates College, says, "The essay may help admissions see and judge the depth of the student's understanding of intellectual or social issues, but it also shows the quality and freshness of the applicant's mind." Itcan show priorities, values, the ability to synthesize and connect, the ability to get something out of an experience.
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. Nancy Donehower, a college consultant and former dean of admission at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, says, "For me the essay is the most important part of the application. For a small college with a personal approach rather than an 'acceptability quotient,' it's the place where the kids can strut their stuff. It tells you 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. It can show how analytical the applicant is. 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 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 another chance to shine. But 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 essay also shows what a student will do with an opportunity:
Did she pass it up and use a predictable, prepackaged sentiment? "I chose X College because X is committed to learning and I want to learn."
 
Did he 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?"
 
Did she take risks?
"These are the voyages of the Starship Nussbaum."
 
Did he buy it off the Internet?
Admission people can tell. And they mark the essay "DDI" when they've concluded that "Daddy did it."
The essay is particularly useful in determining the fit between the applicant and the college. Success at any school depends on knowing what you're in for; nothing is more bitter than disappointed expectations. Karen Parker, director of admission at Hampshire, says, "Looking beyond the numbers in a student's application, we want to find students who will develop the imagination and independence necessary to drive their own education. We look to the essay, the interview, and the recommendations for this information." If a college has a particular character--it's progressive or relies on a very special kind of teaching method or curriculum--the essay can reflect your understanding and enthusiasm for this special setting: the K plan at Kalamazoo College, the internship program at Northeastern, or the leadership curriculum and regimen of a service academy like the United States Military Academy at West Point, for example.
"The essay can be a powerful 'tipper' in close cases, especially with very strong or very poor essays," says Hiss.
The essay is the part of the application that most effectively personalizes your self-presentation. The recommendations are always positive, the interview is becoming less common and more a momentary "snapshot." The essay is 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. If an essay is required or even allowed, use it to present yourself effectively. 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, 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 dark, dusty room of folders. It's not so terrible and it's not so hard. You've actually done plenty of papers like it already!
A Timeline for Applying to College
Junior Year
• Visit college fairs; talk to friends and alumni; look at various college guides; and ask counselors and teachers for suggestions.
• Talk to your parents about the finances: will you need a scholarship? A job? Loans?
• Grab an SAT testing newsprint booklet from the guidance office, ask the guidance assistant for your school's code (write that in big numerals on the front cover), and tuck it away in your desk at home for future (emergency) reference.
• Ask for viewbooks and browse online class catalogs (especially if you have an unusual or specific interest--e.g., is their psych department behavioral or humanistic? Does the linguistics department favor structural linguistics or sociolinguistics?)
• Take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall; take SAT Subject Tests and Advanced Placement Program® Examinations at the end of appropriate courses of study.
• Meet with your school counselor and, with your parents, develop a list of colleges of interest; ask for samples of financial aid forms and local scholarship options. Look for online or school-based career or interest inventories to help you choose potential college majors or careers.
• Consider visiting colleges in the spring and over the summer; many colleges do not interview applicants until after March of their junior year.
• Mention your plans to the teachers who might write your recommendations. Start to create a brief résumé, especially if you have a special talent or extensive athletic involvement. Talk to your counselor about the NCAA Clearinghouse requirements if you want to play Division I athletics.
• Take the SAT or ACT tests in the spring.
• Keep a journal or collect interesting "important moment" articles from your reading as samples for your essay.
• Schedule a strong senior year program, emphasizing depth of program rather than a smattering of everything.
• Save some of your best class work. You might offer a paper, lab, or small portfolio to the teachers who write your recommendations.
Senior Year
September
• Focus on your classes; take the most challenging course load in which you can be successful (i.e., where you can earn B's or better), and achieve the best grades possible in your senior program.
• Meet with your guidance counselor to discuss your choices and timing; present your tentative list of colleges and ask, "What am I missing? What looks like a good match to you?"
• Attend college conferences at your high school.
• Set up campus visits and interviews; attend prospective student days and open houses at colleges of interest.
• Line up your recommending teachers.
• Download application packets from colleges that interest you.
• File the NCAA Clearinghouse forms (NCAAclearinghouse.net) if you plan to play Division I sports.
• Preregister for the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® if required by any of your colleges (www.collegeboard.com/css).
October
• Confirm your list of choices with your counselor. Decide if you will apply regular decision or by one of the early deadlines (see individual college options).
• Give recommending teachers the appropriate letters and envelopes. 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 Reasoning Test and/or SAT Subject Tests. Enter the numerical codes for the colleges you are applying to.
• Write for paper copies of application forms if you cannot download them. Pool application essay questions by type (see Chapter 4); begin thinking about the questions. Group schools that accept the Common Application together but look carefully on the Web site (www.commonapp.org) for required supplements.
• Research scholarships that may apply to you; talk to your parents about the finances again.
• If applying Early Decision or to a college with rolling admission, start writing your application and essay (see Chapter 5).
• Complete any rolling admissions applications, particularly to those state institutions that require only a transcript, an application form, and test scores.
November
• Get Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms from your guidance counselor. Your parents can fill out the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
• Finish SAT Reasoning Test and/or SAT Subject Tests testing.
• Early Decision deadlines are often November 1 or 15. Remember that, in most cases, you can make only one Early Decision application.
• If you are applying Regular Decision, begin filling out applications (either paper copies or online) and writing essays (see Chapter 5). Your deadlines will fall between December 1 and February 15.
December
• Complete essays. You can download applications from assorted software programs or use the forms the colleges provide. You can, in many cases, apply entirely online.
• Proofread everything TWICE! Make a checklist to be sure you've had scores sent, enclosed checks, and notified your counselor about each school you're applying to. Mail applications early. Verify receipt of online material.
January-March
• Follow up on any missing details; continue to mail or 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 to see a college when classes are in session. Schools with rolling admission may accept applicants well into the spring.
• Prepare and file financial aid forms (www.FAFSA.ed.gov) and other scholarship applications.
April-June
• When your letters come through, expect at least one rejection. 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?"
• 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.
• 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. Try to remember, somewhere along the way, to thank your parents for all they've done for you; recognize that the big scary change in your life is mirrored by a big scary change in theirs.
© 1997, 2001, 2004, 2006 by Sarah Myers McGinty. All rights reserved. Cartoons © 1986 by V. Gene Myers. All rights reserved.

Excerpts

College Application Essay
Chapter1
The Essay and Your Application
"Sometimes we let students write themselves in," says Thyra Briggs, dean of admission at Sarah Lawrence College. Briggs is acknowledging the importance of the essay in evaluating applicants to a college with a long tradition of attention to students' writing skills. In fact, in the 1970s, Sarah Lawrence required several essays from applicants ... and two from their parents. Special attention to application essays makes sense in the context of a Sarah Lawrence education. The curriculum there is built around one-on-one meetings between professors and students, biweekly classroom work, and individual writing conferences. Of course, as at all colleges, 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 compensate for issues with a transcript," says Briggs, "in a way that clubs and awards might not."
Sarah Lawrence'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 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 "What is your favorite time of day?" (Princeton University) or "You have just published your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217" (University of Pennsylvania). The Reverend Mr. Bob Kinnally, the former dean of admission at Stanford University, explains the presence of the essay: "[It] helps us see and judge the depth of the [applicant's] understanding of intellectual or social issues ... it 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 25,000 applicants to the University of Michigan, for the 8,000 applicants to Brigham Young University, for the 1,000 applicants to the Ringling School of Art and Design, for the 300 applicants to Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. 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 that likes to read and think, reflect and talk, wonder and argue. This is the mission of admissions. But as William C. Hiss, vice president for external affairs at Bates College, says, "We are often seen, wrongly, I think, as a set of intellectual gatekeepers who, like Dante'sDivine Comedy, offer three possibilities: paradise, purgatory, or hell--that is, admit, wait-list, deny." In contrast, the colleges themselvessee a methodical and quantifiable process of selection. Dr. Marilyn McGrath Lewis, director of admission 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.Bothcolleges and applicants are looking and choosing.Bothadmission counselors and high school seniors are busy gathering information andmaking 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; everyone is striving to make the right choices.
Your research probably started first and you have many resources to draw upon:
• Guidance personnel and the counseling and career staff
• Web sites, catalogs, videos, and viewbooks from the colleges
• Admission counselors--at the colleges, at your high school, or at local-area information fairs
• Teachers, coaches, educational consultants, friends, parents, college graduates
• Guidebooks and data handbooks
• Campus visits and interviews
• Alumni and 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 are useful in doing 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)
• Recommendations
• An interview
Let's take a moment and 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 see numerical data as the most reliable predictor of success: They look first at anapplicant's grades, class rank, and test scores. California, for example, publishes eligibility minimums (grade point averages, rank, and testing) for each of its different UC campuses. Other schools try to tease from the folder a sense of an applicant's personal qualities. Julie Browning, dean of undergraduate enrollment at Rice, says, "We wonder, 'Do you have a story to tell?'" And where a school offers a distinctive program--the block plan at Colorado College, the great books curriculum at St. John's, 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 folders, looking for the most reliable and the fairest way to put together a class from the limited information of an application folder.
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. But faculty members may be part of the process. At Cal Tech, all admission decisions involve faculty. Marlboro College, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Reed College include student readers on admission committees. Applicants may also be looked at by specialists: music faculty hear auditions; art staff view portfolios. A dean of admission or an enrollment manager oversees everything.
The committee is not a nameless, faceless group of people, uniform in taste and attitude. It is made up of individuals. Assigned a seemingly endless pile of folders 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. And as Ted O'Neill, dean of admission at the University of Chicago, points out, "We don't want them all to be read in the same way." Similarly, Peter Van Buskirk, at Franklin & Marshall College, says,"We're not looking for one kind of student. A liberal arts college would be ill-advised to do that." So there is no perfect applicant. Many things are sought within a class and many different elements make up the admission committee's final judgment. The folder is a web of information, a jigsaw puzzle that is interconnected and interactive. Each element plays its own part, each makes its own argument.
Your High School Record
The numbers come first. Colleges request grades, usually beginning with ninth grade. Three and a half years of performance gives them a knowledge 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. Ford Stevenson, dean of admission at Brigham Young University, describes how BYU considers course choices: "We add a factor to a student's grades for a strong educational program and for more challenging courses; we will consider up to 70 percent of the applicant's program in this way." Grades, class rank, and grade point average are viewed in light of your course choices.
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 get to 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.
Scores
A testing service also contributes numbers to your application. Many schools require either the SAT Reasoning Test, some SAT Subject Tests, or the American College Testing Program Assessment (ACT). These standardized tests help admission personnel evaluate applicants' abilities relative to successful performance in college. The scores are seen as a yardstick with which students of widely differing backgrounds can be compared.
You probably took the PSAT/NMSQT® or practiced with books like10 Real SATs. Some high schools offer SAT® review courses as part of the curriculum and some students take private review courses. Familiarizing yourself with the various types of test questions can put you at ease and may make you a more efficient test-taker.
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 recordandscores 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--that you need 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 themedianscores, not the cut-off 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 freshman 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, 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. Warren Willingham'sSuccess in College: The Role of Personal Qualities and Academic Ability(College Entrance Examination Board, 1985), showed that personal qualities are also a valid indicator of college success; many colleges look to recommendations, essays, and the interview to give them a sense of the person. And some colleges consider these elements primary criteria in an evaluation.
Recommendations
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 and your relationship with your counselor a bit remote (the national ratio of students to counselors ranges between 140 to 1 and 420 to 1), you might 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, for 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 did. Students come and go and most teachers appreciate a little memory-jogging. Be sure to provide stamped, addressed envelopes, and fill out all the parts of the form indicated asthe 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 in the catalog.
Creating that résumé will help you with questions about your academic career and activities. Many of the questions are similar to those asked on the application, so you might want to look over or complete your application before beginning the interview. 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 'Why doyouthink Yale is the place to apply? What madeyougo there?'" The better your questions, the better the impression you will make and the more useful the interview will be to you. Questions already answered in the catalog waste the interviewer's time and your time. 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 a little aggressive. 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. Don Heider, director of enrollment communications at Albright College, says, "It's the consumer's chanceto see where to spend more than $100,000." Use the interview to assess further the fit between you and the school, to learn ifyouwant to choosethem.
The interview is rarely required and not every school you interview with uses the interview evaluatively. Sometimes you have only half an hour to make an impression and gather information, and the first 10 minutes is often 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+ you earned in English II. 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 241 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 these 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, associate 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 forhowit's written and forwhatit's written about. Colleges wonder:Can you write? Can you think?
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 Northwestern University, for example, dean and director of admission Carol Lunkenheimer says it is second only to performance in the high school course program.
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 folder. Admission counselors may connect to a student who has intrigued them with thoughts about Cuban independence or missing sweat socks or Coach Rizoli; 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 a classroom assignment. Vince Cuseo, director of admission at Occidental College, points out that a graded school paper can reveal both the writer and the "demand level" of the high school. Wheaton (MA), Middlebury, University of Vermont, and UCLA Arts are among the schools that ask for this supplementary material.
Because your ability to interpret, analyze, and express yourself clearly, correctly, and vividly will be crucial in your college courses, your college essay will be looked at in these same terms. Consider it achance to make an important claim (in this case, a claim about yourself) 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 William Faulkner. 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 on, 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. Nancy Mering, director of admission at Gordon College, says, "For us, the essay is a critical component in the application. We're looking for a special commitment and the essay gives us something the numbers don't reveal."
Nancy Siegel, a high school guidance counselor, 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 as Ford Stevenson notes, "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." The application is a jigsaw puzzle; each part contributes a piece to the overall picture.
How does this work? Choice is important here. 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. William Hiss, at Bates College, says, "The essay may help admissions see and judge the depth of the student's understanding of intellectual or social issues, but it also shows the quality and freshness of the applicant's mind." Itcan show priorities, values, the ability to synthesize and connect, the ability to get something out of an experience.
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. Nancy Donehower, a college consultant and former dean of admission at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, says, "For me the essay is the most important part of the application. For a small college with a personal approach rather than an 'acceptability quotient,' it's the place where the kids can strut their stuff. It tells you 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. It can show how analytical the applicant is. 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 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 another chance to shine. But 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 essay also shows what a student will do with an opportunity:
Did she pass it up and use a predictable, prepackaged sentiment?"I chose X College because X is committed to learning and I want to learn."
 
Did he 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?"
 
Did she take risks?
"These are the voyages of the Starship Nussbaum."
 
Did he buy it off the Internet?
Admission people can tell. And they mark the essay "DDI" when they've concluded that "Daddy did it."
The essay is particularly useful in determining the fit between the applicant and the college. Success at any school depends on knowing what you're in for; nothing is more bitter than disappointed expectations. Karen Parker, director of admission at Hampshire, says, "Looking beyond the numbers in a student's application, we want to find students who will develop the imagination and independence necessary to drive their own education. We look to the essay, the interview, and the recommendations for this information." If a college has a particular character--it's progressive or relies on a very special kind of teaching method or curriculum--the essay can reflect your understanding and enthusiasm for this special setting: the K plan at Kalamazoo College, the internship program at Northeastern, or the leadership curriculum and regimen of a service academy like the United States Military Academy at West Point, for example.
"The essay can be a powerful 'tipper' in close cases, especially with very strong or very poor essays," says Hiss.
The essay is the part of the application that most effectively personalizes your self-presentation. The recommendations are always positive, the interview is becoming less common and more a momentary "snapshot." The essay is one aspect of the application process that is open to development and is safely inyourhands. 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. If an essay is required or even allowed, use it to present yourself effectively. 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, 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 dark, dusty room of folders. It's not so terrible and it's not so hard. You've actually done plenty of papers like it already!
A Timeline for Applying to College
Junior Year
• Visit college fairs; talk to friends and alumni; look at various college guides; and ask counselors and teachers for suggestions.
• Talk to your parents about the finances: will you need a scholarship? A job? Loans?
• Grab an SAT testing newsprint booklet from the guidance office, ask the guidance assistant for your school's code (write that in big numerals on the front cover), and tuck it away in your desk at home for future (emergency) reference.
• Ask for viewbooks and browse online class catalogs (especially if you have an unusual or specific interest--e.g., is their psych department behavioral or humanistic? Does the linguistics department favor structural linguistics or sociolinguistics?)
• Take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall; take SAT Subject Tests and Advanced Placement Program® Examinations at the end of appropriate courses of study.
• Meet with your school counselor and, with your parents, develop a list of colleges of interest; ask for samples of financial aid forms and local scholarship options. Look for online or school-based career or interest inventories to help you choose potential college majors or careers.
• Consider visiting colleges in the spring and over the summer; many colleges do not interview applicants until after March of their junior year.
• Mention your plans to the teachers who might write your recommendations. Start to create a brief résumé, especially if you have a special talent or extensive athletic involvement. Talk to your counselor about the NCAA Clearinghouse requirements if you want to play Division I athletics.
• Take the SAT or ACT tests in the spring.
• Keep a journal or collect interesting "important moment" articles from your reading as samples for your essay.
• Schedule a strong senior year program, emphasizing depth of program rather than a smattering of everything.
• Save some of your best class work. You might offer a paper, lab, or small portfolio to the teachers who write your recommendations.
Senior Year
September
• Focus on your classes; take the most challenging course load in which you can be successful (i.e., where you can earn B's or better), and achieve the best grades possible in your senior program.
• Meet with your guidance counselor to discuss your choices and timing; present your tentative list of colleges and ask, "What am I missing? What looks like a good match to you?"
• Attend college conferences at your high school.
• Set up campus visits and interviews; attend prospective student days and open houses at colleges of interest.
• Line up your recommending teachers.
• Download application packets from colleges that interest you.
• File the NCAA Clearinghouse forms (NCAAclearinghouse.net) if you plan to play Division I sports.
• Preregister for the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® if required by any of your colleges (www.collegeboard.com/css).
October
• Confirm your list of choices with your counselor. Decide if you will apply regular decision or by one of the early deadlines (see individual college options).
• Give recommending teachers the appropriate letters and envelopes. 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 Reasoning Test and/or SAT Subject Tests. Enter the numerical codes for the colleges you are applying to.
• Write for paper copies of application forms if you cannot download them. Pool application essay questions by type (see Chapter 4); begin thinking about the questions. Group schools that accept the Common Application together but look carefully on the Web site (www.commonapp.org) for required supplements.
• Research scholarships that may apply to you; talk to your parents about the finances again.
• If applying Early Decision or to a college with rolling admission, start writing your application and essay (see Chapter 5).
• Complete any rolling admissions applications, particularly to those state institutions that require only a transcript, an application form, and test scores.
November
• Get Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms from your guidance counselor. Your parents can fill out the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
• Finish SAT Reasoning Test and/or SAT Subject Tests testing.
• Early Decision deadlines are often November 1 or 15. Remember that, in most cases, you can make only one Early Decision application.
• If you are applying Regular Decision, begin filling out applications (either paper copies or online) and writing essays (see Chapter 5). Your deadlines will fall between December 1 and February 15.
December
• Complete essays. You can download applications from assorted software programs or use the forms the colleges provide. You can, in many cases, apply entirely online.
• Proofread everything TWICE! Make a checklist to be sure you've had scores sent, enclosed checks, and notified your counselor about each school you're applying to. Mail applications early. Verify receipt of online material.
January-March
• Follow up on any missing details; continue to mail or 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 to see a college when classes are in session. Schools with rolling admission may accept applicants well into the spring.
• Prepare and file financial aid forms (www.FAFSA.ed.gov) and other scholarship applications.
April-June
• When your letters come through, expect at least one rejection. 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?"
• 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.
• 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. Try to remember, somewhere along the way, to thank your parents for all they've done for you; recognize that the big scary change in your life is mirrored by a big scary change in theirs.
© 1997, 2001, 2004, 2006 by Sarah Myers McGinty. All rights reserved. Cartoons © 1986 by V. Gene Myers. All rights reserved.

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