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Supplemental College Essays Matter!

Monday, May 16, 2016

The question is usually some variation of “Why Do You Want to Attend Our University?” And the answer to this question plays a much larger role in college admissions than you might expect. Usually found in the section of the application called supplemental essays, this question is the first thing college admissions counselors read, after they have reviewed a student’s grades and standardized test scores.  

A panel of admissions officers, who spoke at the May, 2016 Independent Educational Consultants Association Conference, in Boston, Massachusetts, analyzed the relative importance of the different parts of the student application. They said particularly, however, that they especially looked forward to reading this essay, eager to see why the applicant wants to attend their college.

The panel of counselors said that they read this even before the personal student essay, or the high school counselor’s recommendation of the student, or the teachers’ recommendations.

This is very significant feedback for students who, as the summer approaches, will be starting their college applications for the 2016-17 admission’s season. Especially so, as high school students, who are often rushing to finish applications, do not pay enough attention to this essay, thinking it unimportant compared to their personal essays.

Here is more information about the supplemental essay that the counselors shared. They said that they looked, first, to see if the student had shared any insights or revealed any knowledge about himself. Did the student know what he was looking for in a learning environment? In a social environment? Did she know in what career direction she might be heading?  The first part of this essay, then, should show evidence of self- reflection and self- knowledge?

The second part of the “why us?” essay needs to show that the student knows about the college and its campus. Hopefully the student has been to an information session. And to the campus for a tour. Or taken the virtual tour. Has the student read any of the student blogs on the college website? Looked at postings on Instagram about the college? Studied the majors that are offered? Looked at related programs of study? Figured out whether the academic atmosphere on campus is collaborative or competitive? What role do sports play on campus? What role performing arts? What is the character of social gatherings? Is there community awareness?

Finally the student needs to talk about how she sees herself fitting in on campus. What activities and programs will the student participate in? Will he play intramural sports? Do research in the physics lab? Perform in a comedy group? Sing in a girl’s a cappella group? Paint himself blue for the big game? Where does the student see himself fitting in?

How will the student ultimately contribute to make a difference to life on this campus? And, above all, who does the student hope to become during the time on campus?


Five Reasons to Love UC's Personal Insight Questions

Sunday, April 03, 2016
In March, 2016, UC introduced a new essay format for students applying to be undergraduates. The format includes eight questions, from which the applicant is allowed to choose four about which to write. Each answer is to be no more than 350 words. The actual question prompts are included at the end of this article. 

I really love this new format. First the “personal insight” questions make high school students feel comfortable by allowing them to choose among prompts for ones that they like. Second formulating answers to them will help provide real insight to high school students struggling to figure out who they are. The University of California says this about the questions, “The personal insight questions are about getting to know you better — your life experience, interests, ambitions and inspirations. Think of it as your interview with the admissions office. Be open. Be reflective. Find your individual voice and express it.”

Third, more than other essay prompts, these prompts signal the kinds of things a college is looking for in its incoming class. Fourth applicants get to write about four of the eight prompts and so can stress four different individual aspects without seeming disjointed, which they might if they had to write one long essay. Fifth each answer is long enough (350 words) to give a student space to explain thoroughly. As the University of California website says, “Expand on a topic by using specific, concrete examples to support the points you want to make.”

Here are the UC Personal Insight Questions, following by advice from the UC admissions offices on how to answer them, if you are having trouble getting started. 

“Questions & guidance 

Remember, the personal questions are just that — personal. Which means you should use our guidance for each question just as a suggestion in case you need help. The important thing is expressing who are you, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC. 

1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time. 

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or a taking lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about your accomplishments and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities? Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school
activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family? 

2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side. 

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem? How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career? 

3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? 

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you? Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule? 

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced. 

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few. If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strived to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today? 

5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement? 

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to
talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone? If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?” 

6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you. 

Things to consider: Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or activities — and what you have gained from your involvement. Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? 

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place? 

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place – like your high school, hometown, or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community? Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community? 

8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California? 

Things to consider: Don’t be afraid to brag a little. Even if you don’t think you’re unique, you are — remember, there’s only one of you in the world. From your point of view, what do you feel makes you belong on one of UC’s campuses? When looking at your life, what does a stranger need to understand in order to know you? What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge, or opportunity that you think will help us know you better? We’re not necessarily looking for what makes you unique compared to others, but what makes you, YOU.”

Nail Your College Essay—Write a Narrative in Your Own Voice

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Material from this article is copyrighted and may not be used without the author’s permission—October 23, 2015

One of the hardest things for most high school students to realize is that writing a college essay is not like writing a school essay. When you write a school essay you have a thesis or point you want to make. You prove your thesis by sighting supporting details. In the final paragraph you restate your thesis. Also use a formal voice, as if you were a reporter. In a college essay the goal is to tell a story—a narrative—about yourself that demonstrates some of your qualities. In other words you want to “show”, not “tell” the college about yourself. The essay will have a hook that makes the reader want to know more about what happened, it will tell your story, and it will sound like you, talking to, perhaps, your favorite adult.The following excerpt (Version 1) is the beginning of an essay with an authentic voice that tells an interesting story. Version 2 (below) is the beginning of the same student’s essay as it was revised by the student and her well-meaning English tutor. Read and compare them.

Version 1: Bart

“Well, at least somebody jumped the jump,” was the first thing I heard when I looked up from the ground on the far side of the jump and saw my friend, Marge.

We were at the Vermont Summer Festival and I was participating in my first real horse show-- riding Bart, that is. I had been jumping a 3’3” oxer. The jump was situated uphill, and you need a lot of pace to jump uphill. I had asked Bart to jump without enough pace and he had stopped short--unfortunately, I didn’t. I had catapulted over the jump.

My friend Marge who was watching from the sidelines laughingly said, “Well, at least, someone jumped the jump.” She was being funny, and in a way saying, it’s okay that you fell off. Anyway because my feet had hit the ground I was out of that class. But because I would be able to participate in another class, I got right up and right back on. That’s how it is with me.”

Version 2: Riding is My Favorite Activity

“I began riding when my mom gave me riding lessons for my sixth birthday. The riding ring is where you can find me on most Saturdays and Sundays, and every day after school. Becoming a horse back rider has helped me to learn many life lessons: perseverance, discipline and how to overcome set-backs.”

(What followed were paragraphs two, three and four, each respectively, about perseverance, discipline and overcoming setbacks. The conclusion repeated the ideas of the first paragraph.)

Which of these essays do you find most interesting, most lively, and most informative regarding the student who wrote them? Both essays reveal that the student is an accomplished equestrian but the first excerpt “shows” it, while the second essay “tells” it. The first one also shows through its voice that the writer is determined, spunky, humorous, not easily embarrassed and strong enough to challenge the will of her equally strong-minded horse, Bart.

The second, well, it shows she’s learned to write a “standard” formulaic essay. Put yourself in the role of an admissions officer. Will you be wowed by the authentic person? Or will you be wowed by the person who sounds like a five-paragraph student robot? Whom would you most want to admit?



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