Frequently asked questions
Pre-Senior Year Questions
How do I choose which extracurriculars to include?
It is helpful to have a mixture of dedication to a skill/area (depth) or a mastery of many (breadth). Ideally, your extracurricular activities make evident your passions, your level of dedication to those passions, and what you have done/accomplished in these areas.
What should I do if I can’t fill out 10 extracurriculars?
You should absolutely try your best to fill out 10 extracurriculars - there are often ways to split activities into two. For example, if you perform in plays at both a professional theater and at your high school, this can be split into two distinct activities. In the description, be sure to focus on what makes each stand out. Perhaps at your high school, you play a handful of prominent roles, while at your local theater, you focus on gaining acting experience in plays across a variety of eras/styles. However, if you go through your list and are still short of 10, it’s not something you should lose sleep over. If you feel that the extracurricular activities you have demonstrate your dedication to crafts/domains you are interested in, then you’ve achieved the goal of this section.
How important are extracurriculars to my application?
Extracurriculars and honors make up a decent chunk of your application - about 15%. As such, you should make sure to fill these out correctly and with care. The College Apps Clarified podcast explains the best way to go about filling out this section of your application, and the “Extracurricular Example” file in the Downloads section on the website (under Tools & Videos) gives you a flavor for the quality you want to have when you are finished with this section.
What do admissions officers say is important for extracurriculars?
Typically, admissions officers want to see a few key factors in your extracurriculars: time commitment, relevance to your story/profile, and tangible results/actions. Time commitment is critical - admissions officers want to see that you have activities to which you consistently dedicated a significant amount of time. For example, volunteering with one or two organizations throughout your high school career could be more impressive than bouncing back and forth between random places you volunteer at once or twice. The second factor, relevance to your story/profile, builds off of the first. Admissions officers want to see that your extracurriculars demonstrate activities you are passionate about or skills you are developing. Finally, they want to see tangible results/actions - you should be able to write about something you accomplished to some degree. This doesn’t have to be an award or some difficult-to-achieve milestone, but you should be able to talk about what you did (for example, if you had an internship at a lab, you should be able to explain what kinds of research you conducted).
How much time should I spend on filling out extracurricular activities?
While you certainly want to nail down this portion of the application, you should not need to spend more than 3-5 hours filling out extracurriculars. If you set aside this chunk of time to work on filling out extracurriculars after listening to the podcast and taking a look at the “Extracurricular Example” file on the website, 3-5 hours should be ample time to come up with your list of activities and refine their descriptions.
When should a student begin thinking about doing extracurriculars to improve their college application?
The sooner the better. The earlier you begin exploring extracurricular activities, the earlier you will discover what you are most passionate about (if you have not yet figured that out) and the more depth you will be able to gain in a particular area. Freshman year is a great time to begin pursuing extracurricular activities.
How much does my SAT/ACT matter in my overall application?
Your SAT/ACT score(s) are a big part of your application - they represent about 20% of your overall application. Additionally, your SAT/ACT score is one of the first things that college admissions officers will look at, so it is critical to have a very competitive score for the given school to which you are applying. Even if the rest of your resume is nearly flawless, it is very, very difficult to get over the hump in an admissions officer's eyes if your SAT/ACT score is not strong.
How do I determine what score I need to get into a school?
You can find the 25-75 percentile SAT/ACT ranges for the vast majority of schools you are interested in applying to online. This should give you an idea of the kind of score you’ll want to have (both overall and in particular sections) in order to get into a given school. Ideally, you want to aim for a score closer to the 75 percentile (or above) in order to make your application more competitive. Our “College Apps Organizer” file in the Downloads section on the website (under Tools & Videos) has these ranges for 350+ schools.
How do admissions officers view standardized test scores?
Your standardized test scores matter. While grades are weighted more heavily as a whole, since grades have variation across the country, depending on every high school’s rigor, grading system availability of classes, etc., standardized test scores provide admissions officers with an opportunity to compare students with a baseline and to determine whether your grades are an accurate portrayal of your academic success. Because standardized test scores are one of the first parts of your application that admissions officers evaluate, it is often used as a metric to determine whether you are a competitive applicant. Even if the rest of your application is strong, having an SAT/ACT score that is not competitive as compared to other applicants for a given school can be detrimental to your chances of getting in.
Does it matter that my test score is slightly lower than my goal?
If you have enough time before your score needs to be submitted, you should absolutely retake the test. You have the opportunity to retake the test multiple times (so the earlier you can take the test for the first time, the better) in order to get the score you want, so there is no reason why you should not take advantage of this opportunity.
What’s the best way to raise my test scores?
There are two critical steps to raising your test scores: ensuring you have the highest possible baseline score, and focusing on improving your ceiling. The key to securing your highest possible baseline score is understanding the test itself - what kinds of questions are asked, what trick questions/trap answers the test will have, and how to most efficiently complete each section in the allotted time. It is helpful to view the test as a system that you can break down into different components. Once you have a strong grasp of the test’s structure, common traps to circumvent, and the best approach for completing each section, you are ready to focus on improving your ceiling. The best way to do this is practice, practice, practice. Do as many practice tests as possible - and don’t cheat yourself! Treat each practice run as if it’s the real deal. The more tests you take, the more kinds of questions you will be exposed to, and the more you will have an opportunity to learn from mistakes/understand how to avoid ones you are commonly making.
Do schools care whether I submit my SAT or ACT score?
This depends on the particular school you are applying to. Some schools require that you take the SAT or ACT, and it is optional for some schools.
How do I determine whether I should submit my SAT or ACT?
Determining whether you should submit your SAT or ACT is ultimately up to you - it depends on the goal you set for yourself and how happy you are with your score. This will likely be the score you believe will be sufficient to get into your top college of choice, and will likely be a score you have set as a goal for yourself going into the test. If you do not receive the score you want on your first try, don’t panic - it is very common to retake the test in hopes of improving your score. The great news about taking the SAT and ACT is that some schools actually allow you to superscore, enabling you to submit your best score in each section among all of the tests you have taken. For example, if you take the SAT twice, and you scored higher on Math the first time but higher on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing the second time, you can combine your first Math score and your second Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score into a superscore, and this is what you will be able to submit. However, keep in mind that this does not apply to all schools - you should definitely check if a particular school you want to apply/submit your score to accepts superscoring for the test you are taking. If the school you are interested in does not accept a superscore, you should then submit the best overall test score among the tests you have taken. Regardless, you should submit your SAT/ACT when you feel that you have maximized your ceiling and are satisfied with the result.
What are the best resources for doing well on standardized tests?
Are there test score tiers for top schools and Ivy Leagues?
The way in which test score are evaluated for Ivy League schools and other top schools, generally, you want to strive for a score north of 1500 in order to be a competitive applicant for highly selective schools.
What should I do if I was disrupted during an SAT or ACT while at the testing center?
This is honestly a tough situation to deal with, and it is very unlikely to happen to begin with - proctoring these exams is taken seriously. However, in the event that it does, one possible way to deal with it is to report it to College Board as soon as possible after the test. If there is still time for you to retake the test before applying, College Board should let you take the next available exam for free. If not, you should save your correspondence with College Board as evidence and perhaps submit it with your application as proof that your score was not as good as it could have been due to a disturbance.
How much does a tutor help for SAT / ACT?
Referring to the “What’s the best way to raise my test scores?” FAQ, a tutor can definitely be helpful in increasing your baseline score - tutors understand the intricacies of the test and can help you understand what tricks/traps to anticipate. However, once your baseline score is maximized, using a tutor begins to have diminishing returns, as you can improve your score by practicing on your own. While a tutor can theoretically proctor tests for you, this is something that you can have your parents do or that you can do by yourself. When you grade your practice tests, diligently go through every wrong answer and make sure you understand why you made the mistake you did and how to get to the correct answer so that you are better prepared to answer a similar question the next time. If you do so, you should not need a tutor when you are at the point where you are consistently taking practice tests.
What’s the best way to build a school list?
As we discuss in the College Apps Clarified podcast, the most efficient way to make a school list is to start off with some general research for about 1-2 hours. Explore colleges through various lists - US News is a great place to start. They have several lists by overall rank, public vs. private, liberal arts vs. engineering, etc. There is a ton of information available through just simple Google searches, so it is a great idea to take 1-2 hours to do this initial research and get a sense of what you’re interested in (location, major, sports culture, etc.). You should aim to come up with a list of 20-25 schools through this process. After you’re done, maybe take a break and come back to it the next day to do a deeper dive into each school so that you know what they have to offer. Again, US News is a great place to start, as the rankings have a pretty strong overall description of each school. You can also go on the school’s website, check out interviews from current/former students, or go on Reddit and see if there are any conversations about the school’s culture. Check out whatever interests you about these schools, and use this information to whittle your list down to 6-15 schools for your finalized school list. A good rule of thumb is to not go overboard here - there are plenty of rabbit holes you can go down as you research, but you want to just get a good enough feel for whether you could see yourself going there, which shouldn’t take up too much time.
What are safety, target, and reach schools?
A safety school is a school that you should feel 100% confident in. When you apply for college, you want to make sure that you will at the very least get into a school that you like, and a safety school should ensure that you do. There should be no doubt in your mind when you submit your application that you are getting in - your resume should easily be above that of an average student who is accepted. A target school is one that matches your overall student profile - your test scores and GPA should align with the general population of students that get accepted to the school. You aren’t necessarily guaranteed to get into a target school, but you should feel confident that you have a good chance to get in. A reach school is a school that is highly selective - a good rule of thumb is that if it has an acceptance rate of less than 25%, regardless of how strong your academic/overall resume is, you should treat it as a reach. You might have a chance of getting into a reach school, but you should not bank on it.
How many schools should I apply to?
A good range to aim for 6-15 schools. However, we recommend that you apply to 11 schools: 3 safety schools, 5 target schools, and 3 reach schools. The reason we recommend this specific range is because this optimizes your chance to have as many options as possible. You don’t want to apply to too many reach schools because it is very difficult to get into any reach school, and you also don’t want to apply to too many safety schools, because then you are limiting your opportunity to get into the best school possible/the school that is the best fit for you. With this 3/5/3 split, you give yourself the opportunity to potentially get into your dream school while still giving yourself very solid options if the reach schools you apply to don’t pan out. While this is what we have seen be successful, please take this with a grain of salt - ultimately, it is completely up to you how many schools you apply to.
What schools have application fee waivers?
The following is a list of schools (updated in August 2019) that do not have application fees: https://blog.prepscholar.com/colleges-with-no-application-fee
How many schools on my list should I visit?
This is totally contingent on how you feel and how much time you have. For example, if you think that a visit would help you better understand whether you’d enjoy the school and you have the time to do so, go for it! Generally, it’s not really necessary to go overboard on school visits - you shouldn’t feel obligated to visit all, or even half, of the schools on your list. Visiting 2-5, ideally your top choices and maybe one safety school, should be plenty - but again, do not feel pressure to visit schools if you don’t think you have to do so.
How much time should I spend researching my school list?
As the first question in this section addresses, you should limit how much time you spend here, as anything more than 3-5 hours will give you diminishing returns and take time away from more important tasks you should be doing, like writing your Common App essay. Getting an initial list of 20-25 schools should take 1-2 hours, and whittling that list down to a finalized list of 6-15 should take maybe 2-3 more.
Should I make an excel sheet to organize my school list?
Organizing your school list in an excel spreadsheet can be immensely helpful in keeping track of your progress. Feel free to check out our College Apps Organizer excel file in the Downloads section of the website (under Tools & Videos), as well as the accompanying tutorial video on how to use it.
How do I know if I should take a school off my list?
A good rule of thumb for taking a school off your list is asking yourself the following question: “can I see myself going to this school?” If the answer is no, then the school probably shouldn’t be on your list, because there is no point in taking the time to apply to a school you wouldn’t go to even if you were accepted. That takes away time you should be spending on the applications for the schools you want to attend. And this rule goes for safety schools as well - these schools should still be schools you could see yourself going to if/when accepted.
How should I narrow my school list?
The rule of thumb above is a great way to narrow your school list from an initial list of 20-25 schools to a final list of 6-15. In order to answer this question about each school, you want to make sure you have an understanding of what you want (e.g., location, major, culture, etc.) and understand how well each school on your list matches the factors you care most about. Additionally, you want to keep in mind the 3/5/3 ratio for safety, target, and reach schools that we discussed above.
What’s the best way to find good schools that I don’t know about?
The best way to find good schools you don’t know about is to use the US News rankings. They have several lists based on overall ranking, best liberal arts schools, best engineering programs, etc. Perusing through these lists is a great way to find schools that may be a good fit for you that you haven’t heard of. You can find all of those lists here: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges
What are good resources to use to build my school list?
What criteria should I use to make a school list?
The criteria you should use to make a school list is contingent on what you want out of a school. Think about what factors are most important to you - public vs. private, school size, academic programs, location, community/culture, sports, etc. It is helpful to have a good idea of what characteristics you want most in a school so that you can hone in on a list of schools with schools you can envision yourself attending.
Should I do a campus tour?
The answer to this depends on a few factors: how much time you have, how expensive/inexpensive it would be, and how helpful it would be for you in order to decide whether the school would be a good fit. If you have the time, and are able to afford the trip, it’s never a bad idea to visit your top choices to see whether they would really be a good fit. A campus tour can be helpful in confirming your beliefs or possibly in making you realize a school you initially wanted to attend might not be the best fit. If the school is local, it’s definitely a good idea to go on the tour, especially because it’s an easy way for you to experience a college campus if you haven’t already done so. Generally, it would be a good idea to do at least one campus tour to, if nothing else, get a feel for what a college campus is like.
Who should I talk to on a campus visit?
Talking to the head admissions officer and the admissions officer in charge of your region of the country/globe can be very helpful. There’s certainly no guarantee they will remember you, given that admissions officers are looking at tens of thousands of applications and meeting thousands of students each year, but at the very least, you can gain useful insights that can help shape your application. For example, if you’re visiting as a sophomore or junior, you can get a good understanding of what a school is looking for in students by speaking to its admissions officers.
Does visiting a school help my chances?
This typically depends on the school you are visiting. For example, highly selective schools, as well as large, well-known public schools, have such a high degree of interest that you visiting a school will very likely have no impact on your chances of getting into the school. However, smaller schools that are not as well known may have a higher degree of interest in students who show interest and take a campus tour, in which case visiting the school may increase your chances. Regardless, you should not bank on visiting a school to increase your chances as a differentiator in any capacity - your overall resume/profile and your essays are what matter.
Do admissions officers track who visits?
Several schools do keep track of students who demonstrate interest. This includes keeping track of campus visits, as well as attendance at information sessions, college fairs, and when an admissions officer visits your high school.
What if I cannot visit a school?
If you cannot visit a school, you should not worry. Colleges and their admissions officers understand that there are various factors that go into being able to visit a school, and if you cannot visit, it will not be held against you. For example, if you live on the east coast, a school in California is not going to expect you to fly across the country for a visit. However, as a result, college admissions representatives will often have information sessions that are near you or perhaps in your region of the country (depending on where you live/how many students the school typically accepts from a certain area) which may be more feasible for you to attend. If you can make one of those, you definitely should. Additionally, admissions officers will sometimes even visit your high school, and if an admissions officer from a school you are interested in is visiting your high school, you should, without question, attend. Not doing so can only hurt your chances.
What’s the best way to spend my time while on a school visit?
The best way to spend your time while on a school visit, aside from the general sessions (with opportunities to hear from/talk to admissions officers) and guided tours, is to make sure that you get a general understanding of daily student life and how the campus feels as a whole. Ultimately, the biggest benefit to visiting a school is understanding whether the school would be a good fit for you, so ideally, you want to be able to explore as much as possible. Whether that means you sit in on a lecture or two, go to a sporting event, or talk to students in your prospective major, a school visit is a time for you to explore. Most importantly, have fun!
What types of notes should I take while I’m on a school visit?
There are a couple of key things you should be taking notes on while you’re on a school visit. The first is what admissions officers say they look for when evaluating students. Often, campus visits will include a public session with an admissions representative, and the insights they reveal around what kinds of students they are looking to accept can be extremely valuable as you prepare your resume and get ready to apply. For example, you can use this knowledge to help you select who will write your letters of recommendation given your relationship with them. The second is details for supplemental essays. Going into the school visit, it would be a good idea to know the supplemental prompts from previous years in advance, and you can pick up helpful nuggets of information to inform the direction of your supplemental essays during the school visit.
What is the best piece of advice for going on school visits?
Enjoy the visit and have fun! You shouldn’t put extra pressure on yourself during a school visit - it is a thrilling experience and you should soak it in. This is your time to explore and envision what it will be like to be in college, which is an incredible experience to have.
When do school visits take place?
School visits typically take place year round (aside from winter and spring breaks), but ideally, you want to go during the fall or spring so that you can get a better idea of the full experience with students being on campus. This way, there is more of an opportunity to speak with students, sit in on lectures, and experience campus culture. Each school will have plenty of information on their campus tours on their website, so that is a great place to start for a specific school’s visit.
When should I schedule my school visits?
The best time to visit schools are during the spring of your junior year or fall of your senior year. As such, you want to ensure that you give yourself ample time to make all of the necessary preparations - booking your place in the tour, booking a hotel, getting plane tickets, and any other necessary arrangements you may need to make. A good rule of thumb would be to plan ~6 months in advance to be safe, as tours book up rather quickly. So if you are planning to visit a school in the spring, make arrangements the previous fall, and if you are visiting a school in the fall, make arrangements in the previous spring.
What are the sections of the Common App?
The sections of the Common App are as follows: Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities (extracurriculars), Writing (essay), and Courses & Grades.
How do I access the Common App?
You can access the Common App through the following link: https://www.commonapp.org
Do all schools use the Common App?
What should I do if a school doesn’t take the Common App?
If a school does not take the Common App, you will need to research how to apply to that school - there will be a wealth of information available either on the school’s website or via general Google searching. For example, as discussed in the question above, the UC school system has its own application portal:
What do I need to submit to schools outside of the Common App?
This will depend on the specific school. If a school does not accept the Common App, it will have its own requirements or be a part of a larger application portal (such as the one for UC schools). Either way, you will be able to find out what you need to submit based on the information you find on the specific application websites.
What should I select if I’m an international student?
If you are an international student, you will have an opportunity to describe this in the Address and Geography portions of the Profile section of the Common App. In the Address portion, you will fill out your home address (wherever you will be when receiving mail). In the Geography portion, you will select your country of birth, city of birth, number of years you have lived in the United States, and number of years you have lived outside of the United States.
If I’m confused about a question on the Common App, what should I do?
How important are essays to my application?
Essays are a pivotal portion of your application - they make up 25% of the overall application and provide you with an opportunity to put your application over the top. The essay is truly a differentiator, and its importance cannot be overstated!
Do I need to hire a consultant to help with essays?
You do NOT need to hire a consultant to help with essays. In fact, that is one of the motivations behind the creation of College Apps Clarified. The College Apps Clarified podcast, along with the accompanying videos and tools, outline a unique methodology for writing essays that has helped several students gain acceptance into elite schools - and these resources are completely free. Even if you don’t utilize these resources and are writing the essay without help, at the end of the day, as long as you are using your authentic voice, stay disciplined, and go through several rounds of revision, you should be able to have an essay that is roughly 80% ready for submission. For the final 20%, this is where we recommend you have different sets of eyes on your essay to ensure that the essay flows and comes across as you think it should. Whether this is a friend, a trusted mentor, a high school English teacher (which we highly recommend), or a paid essay expert, having someone else provide feedback and their perspective on the essay can be immensely valuable. If you are interested in having an expert review your essay with a quick turnaround to get you to the finish line, we recommend that you check out our trusted partner, Narrative Applications. If there is a time during the essay writing process to hire someone to help, it would be during this final phase after you already feel good about your essay(s) and have made significant progress. But make no mistake - you do not need to hire a consultant to help with essays. You have the resources at your disposal to write a strong college essay for free.
When should I start brainstorming essays?
You should start the brainstorming process ideally when the Common App prompts come out, or at least as soon as you read the prompts for the first time. As you read each prompt out loud to yourself, think about what resonates with you as you read it - maybe it is a time you showed resilience in a sport, maybe it is a time you had an enriching learning experience through volunteering. Whatever thoughts may arise as you go through the prompts, keep them in mind as you transition into actually beginning to brainstorm ideas on paper.
How should I brainstorm essays?
For brainstorming essays, we recommend using a unique methodology called Parallel Chronological Timelines, which we discuss in the College Apps Clarified podcast. The idea behind this approach is that throughout your life, you have various timelines that you experience: time, events, ideas, decisions, travel, relationships, accomplishments, and so on. Essentially, to start, you write major milestones/memories along each of these timelines. As you take notes across each of these timelines, you may notice that some of your seemingly disconnected experiences are actually very much related, and that lessons you learned from one experience may have actually carried over to a completely different one. For example, the perseverance you learned from dedicating hours after hours perfecting your basketball shot may have been what gave you the tenacity to stick through a volunteering experience that was challenging at first, but, because you didn’t give up, ended up being the most rewarding experience of your life. The idea behind this methodology is to weave different parts of your life together, which can create a very powerful essay. We highly recommend listening to this step of the podcast, which breaks this process down in depth, as well as downloading the Brainstorm Template in the Downloads section of the website (under Tools & Videos), which outlines the process for you and can help you get started.
What are the most important things to keep in mind for writing essays?
There are two critical components to keep in mind for writing essays: authenticity and diligence. Staying true to yourself and using your authentic voice may sound like a cliché, but it is the key to writing a great essay. The most powerful essays come from the heart - you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Doing so can move the college admissions officer who is reading your essay and can make them relate to you, which is the best possible result you can have from an essay. Diligence, meanwhile, is necessary throughout the process. Writing these essays can be quite difficult, so you need to stay disciplined and make sure you consistently put forth your best effort.
How do I choose a topic?
As we discuss in the question about how to brainstorming essays, the Parallel Chronological Timelines methodology often reveals a topic (or multiple topics) that you can choose to write about. The key to selecting a topic is to allow it to flow naturally from your own experiences.
What structure should my essays have?
Unlike academic essays, there is no required structure when writing a college essay. Feel free to be creative!
When do essay prompts come out?
Supplemental essay prompts for schools typically come out at some point in July or August, and very likely, all will be released by September 1st at the latest. Throughout the summer, you can check the websites of schools you are interested in to track whether their essays have been released. Meanwhile, the Common App essay prompt release date varies. For example, the Common App announced in January 2019 that the 2019-2020 prompts would remain the same as the prompts from 2018-2019, which is not uncommon. If the prompts do change, usually it only 1-2 that change, with the other 5-6 remaining the same. Due to the variation in timing in which the essay prompts come out, it is a good idea to periodically check school websites and run general Google searches. Note that many supplemental essays also stay the same year to year, so feel free to get a head start by looking at older versions.
How do I choose which Common App prompt to answer?
Similar to choosing a topic, the best way to choose which Common App prompt to answer is to select the one that resonates with you the most. As you read the prompts out loud to yourself and start thinking about memories and experiences you have had that apply to the given prompt, you will likely be able to tell which prompt resonates with you the most. This will likely be a prompt that evokes strong emotions or immediately sparks ideas for what to write about (sort of like an ah-ha! moment). If there isn’t a prompt that stands out from the rest or resonates with you right away, the last prompt, which is typically open-ended, is a great option because it gives you the flexibility to respond in virtually any way you choose.
Do I actually have to answer the prompt?
There is a difference between answering a prompt and responding to a prompt - you don’t need to necessarily write an explicit answer to the prompt. The prompts are meant to guide you to write a compelling essay. Admissions officers care more about your message than how well you “answer” the prompt.
Can I submit an essay I’ve written in the past?
In theory, you can submit an essay that was written in the past. But in practice, you should probably not do so. The likelihood of an essay you’ve written in the past being suitable for a college essay is extremely unlikely, as college essays are a different form of writing that, unlike academic writing, requires deep introspection and creativity to show your voice. As a result, we highly, highly advise against submitting an essay you’ve written in the past.
What types of messages should a college essay convey?
First and foremost, the most critical part about writing a college essay is that it has genuine authenticity. There isn’t a specific type of message that a college essay should convey. For example, you shouldn’t feel obligated to follow the classic narrative of “I failed, I learned from it, I applied what I learned and then I succeeded” or a similarly common essay structure. At the end of the day, a college essay is your opportunity to show the admissions officer who you are and what makes you special. In order to do this, your message should be a genuine portrayal of who you are, what you care about, and why you care about it.
How can I get better at writing about myself?
Because writing about yourself takes deep introspection and thought, one great way to get better at writing about yourself is to surround yourself with objects or the right environment to evoke strong memories and feelings. Perhaps it is your first baseball mitt or your first pair of dancing slippers. Maybe it’s an old photo album. Maybe it’s sitting on the grass in your backyard and gazing up into the clear sky. Whatever it may be, placing yourself in the right setting can go a long way in improving your ability to write about yourself, as it facilitates your ability to feel vulnerable and emotional. And, like with any skill, you can never have enough practice. As simple as it sounds, the more you practice, the better you will become. As you start to write college essays, you will likely find that the process becomes easier and less daunting, and you will be able to write about yourself more seamlessly as a result.
Is it a smart move to take a risk on my essays?
Continuing with the theme of the importance of authenticity, if taking a risk in your essay(s) is a genuine representation of who you are as a person and what you believe in, then taking a risk can be fine and can come across well (when handled tactfully). However, it is not a smart move to take a risk for the sake of getting noticed - this will be pretty apparent in your essay, as it will likely not be a genuine portrayal of who you are, which an admissions officer will be able to read through. In any case, it is just good to keep in mind that there is always a chance that taking a risk backfires. That is not necessarily a reason not to take one, assuming it fits within your narrative, but it’s just something to keep in mind.
Can I make jokes/be funny in my essay?
It depends on your personality. Injecting a bit of humor into your essays can certainly be a good tactic, as it can make your essay more enjoyable to read/more relatable for an admissions officer when done correctly. However, you should not feel obligated to do so and you should not force jokes if they do not fit into the natural cadence of the essay, or if doing so takes away from your authentic voice.
Does writing about mistakes or failure reflect badly on my application?
The act of writing about failure or mistakes does not reflect badly on your application; what matters is how you approach writing about failure or mistakes. When doing so, you want to focus on what you learned/how you grew as an individual from the mistake or failure rather than harping too much on the mistake or failure itself. In fact, when done properly, writing about a failure or mistake can reflect positively, as it can demonstrate your resilience. That said, if you choose to write about a failure or mistake, try to avoid writing about an academic failure - since such a significant portion of your application is contingent on your academic performance, highlighting shortcomings may reflect negatively on your application.
How long do admissions officers take to read my essay?
As the volume of college applications continue to increase each year, admissions officers spend less and less time per application. As a result, admissions officers will often average less than 15 minutes to assess your entire application. It is thus a fair estimate that admissions officers will take 4-6 minutes, if not less, to read your essay.
How many essays does each admissions officer read?
This depends on the size of the school, but more than likely, each admissions officer reads thousands of essays.
Do they assign grades to my essay?
Often, admissions officers will assign some sort of quantitative score to your essay as part of an overall score that your application as a whole is given.
Should I write about a topic that shows I’m smart/skilled?
You should not feel compelled to write an essay that demonstrates that you are smart/skilled - the rest of your resume (e.g., your grades, test scores, extracurriculars) should demonstrate your intelligence and skillset for you. However, if there is a particular skill that is an important part of your life and you want to write about it, by all means, go for it. But that again comes down to whether it is an authentic portrayal of yourself. A good rule of thumb is that if you feel like you are going out of your way to prove that you are skilled in an essay, it is probably not the right thing to be writing about.
What’s the right way to write essays?
The methodology we have developed for writing essays, which we break down in depth over the course of the College Apps Clarified podcast, has had proven success in helping students to writing strong essays that have gotten them into highly selective schools. This approach turns essay writing into a science by breaking the writing process down into several key steps: brainstorming (using the Parallel Chronological Timelines methodology), outlining, writing your first draft (using the Shotgun approach), and finally several rounds of editing. Writing essays with this structured approach makes the writing process less daunting and optimizes students’ chances of having a complete essay from top to bottom.
What’s the best way to outline?
Outlining is a very useful way to help organize a college essay, which often times will weave together disparate ideas. The Outline Template in the Downloads section of the website (under Tools & Videos) provides a great example outline that you can use to create your own, focusing on bringing together two different ideas into a coherent, strong structure for your essay. At a high level, starting with a blank sheet of paper, start by splitting up your page into three different sections: your first concept, your second concept, and synthesis. In the first section, describe the setting and provide context for the first concept you are writing about using a few phrases. Next, in the second section, use a similar approach to provide a few phrases describing the background for your second concept. Finally, in the synthesis section, write 1-2 phrases about how the two concepts are related (e.g., things you learned from one carried with you to the other), and write 1-2 phrases about the overall takeaway from these experiences.
What are the best ways to begin writing?
One of the best ways to begin writing is to place yourself in an environment that helps you relax, possibly where you are surrounded by objects that evoke old memories. Whatever environment you choose, the goal is to give yourself the opportunity to let ideas flow without having to overthink. Of course, you should use the outline you created for your essay to help guide you, but you should not be focusing on nitty gritty details - just put pen to paper and let the ideas come out. A great tactic is to give yourself 30-45 minutes to write down as much as you can and then step away from the page and go do something else. Often, people actually give themselves too much time to write, which allows them to procrastinate. Giving yourself a limited amount of time makes it more likely that you will use this time effectively.
Do I need to write a hook?
Because admissions officers are reading through thousands of essays/applications, capturing their attention from the get go can make all the difference. As a result, having a compelling opening to your essay is critical. You want to draw the reader’s attention early and make them want to keep reading. If you are able to write an essay that an admissions officer enjoys to read, you have yourself a very powerful essay, and that starts with a compelling beginning. You don’t necessarily need to write your hook first - you can always add it in at the end after you’ve written the rest of your essay. In fact, it is often easier to let your essay mature before deciding on your opening.
What if I’ve spent hours on a draft and I still don’t like it? What should I do?
If you have spent hours on a draft and still don’t like it, you should step away from it. Go outside, play some sports, watch a movie, or get some sleep. Do whatever you need to do to relax and take your mind off of the essay for a while. Often times, you will find that this actually helps you to think of ideas for your essay because your mind is freed up. If you stare at the same sheet of paper or screen for too long, you will only create more stress and compound on the writer’s block you are likely already feeling. However, if this does not work, and you feel that you still cannot come up with a draft that you like, there is no shame in starting from scratch, either with the same idea or an entirely new one. A clean slate is sometimes the best answer, and this does not mean the time you spent beforehand was wasted - the writing process for college essays is challenging, and this is a normal part of it.
How do I know when a draft is good?
Knowing when a draft is good is a critical part of the writing process. There is a degree of gut intuition - when you read it, you just have a sense that you have something good. However, as we describe in the podcast, there will be distinct reasons why you feel this way - there are certain characteristics of an essay that make it strong. As a result, we highly recommend listening to this step of the podcast and following along with the example essay. At a high level, you know a draft is good when you read it out loud and can confidently say that it establishes an emotional connection to you as an author.
When should I begin editing my draft for word choice, grammar, etc.?
Editing your draft for word choice and grammar is part of the final stage of revision. As a result, you should not even begin to think about this until you are at the end of the writing process. Said differently, you should only begin editing your draft for word choice and grammar after you have established to yourself that the draft is strong enough to move forward and after you have whittled your essay down by taking out unnecessary and/or confusing sentences. At this point, you have a draft that is a strong, compelling narrative and is at or near the word count. Once you are at this stage, you can begin to refine your essay by examining nitty gritty details such as word choice and grammar.
What’s the best strategy for dealing with word count?
When you begin to write your essay, you should not think about word count at all - just focus on getting words on paper and letting your ideas flow. Only after you have a draft you feel comfortable moving forward with should you begin to deal with word count. The best strategy for dealing with word count is to read your essay in full three times, each time using a different “lens” (envision that your essay is under a microscope and you are using different resolutions to examine it), to help you whittle down your essay. The first lens is the “squinter” - this is where you remove any sentences that seem vague or confusing. If it is confusing to you, it will most likely be confusing to the college admissions officer reading the sentence. The second lens is the “survivor” - this is where you remove any sentences that do not have a distinct purpose in your essay. Each sentence should contribute to answering one of the following three questions: Who are you? What do you care about? Why do you care about it? If a sentence does not do so, it should probably be removed. Finally, the third lens is the “eye doctor” - this is where you remove any sentences that do not have any impact on the flow of the essay. If you read an essay with and without the sentence, and the essay generally feels the same, it should probably be removed. This strategy for word count will likely whittle your essay down to at least near the word count, at which point you can get into the nitty gritty details and make word choice and grammar decisions that can help you reach your target.
How should I approach “weird” essay prompts like UChicago’s infamous prompts?
What are some examples of good essay topics?
Trick question! The best essay topics stem from your own experiences in life - you should not be fitting your narrative into a topic!
What information should supplemental essays include?
What do final drafts look like?
Final drafts are perfect. You’ve gone through the entire writing process in full - you feel confident that your narrative is compelling and authentic, the essay is at or below the word count, and you have made all the minor grammatical changes you’ve needed to make. You’ve gotten another set of eyes on your essay to make sure it comes across the way you want it to, and when you read it to yourself out loud, there is nothing else you would change. If you feel like there is anything that needs to be changed, then it is not a final draft.
Should I have someone proofread my essay?
You should absolutely have someone proofread your essay. Having someone you trust read over your essay to make sure it comes across as you want it to and to ensure that the grammar/sentence structure is correct is extremely valuable and can only increase the strength of your essay.
How can I deal with writer’s block?
The best way you can deal with writer’s block is to take your mind completely off the essay by doing something else. Whether that is watching Netflix, hanging out with friends, or getting some rest, allowing your body and mind to relax is the best way to deal with writer’s block. Often, you will find that it is when you are most relaxed that you come up with some of the best ideas for your essay, because you are not straining yourself to think.
Can I use parts of an essay from one school to write essays for another school?
You can absolutely use parts of an essay from one school to write essays for another school - in fact, we highly encourage you to do so! There are plenty of prompts that have similarities, and you should definitely take advantage of work you have already written from one school and tweak it to match the prompt of another. This can save you much-needed time - there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
What are the things I should do before clicking “submit"?
Proofread, proofread, proofread. Read the essay out loud to yourself at least 3-4 times to make sure there are no grammatical errors and that the essay flows exactly as you want it to, and have someone you trust do the same. Do the same with your entire application - the last thing you need is a silly grammatical error to undo the hard work you put into this process. And when you are sure you’ve crossed all of your t’s and dotted your i’s, click submit, and then look for and save the confirmation email.
Early Decision/Early Action/Secondary Early Action
If I’m accepted Early Decision (ED) should I withdraw my other applications?
Yes, if you are accepted ED you should withdraw your other applications. You can do this by emailing the admissions offices for each of these schools, and in a simple email, explain that you got accepted ED and would like to respectfully withdraw your application from consideration.
Can I cancel my request for Early Decision even after submitting?
Yes, you can cancel your request for Early Decision even after submitting - you can either completely withdraw your application, or ask that they move you to Regular Decision instead. Just make sure to have this in writing via an email exchange and to save any confirmation, just in case.
What do I do after I’m done submitting?
When you are done submitting your applications, give yourself a pat on the back - you made it! Just be sure to maintain your academic performance (a.k.a. keep your grades up) and enjoy the rest of your senior year.
Does taking certain classes senior year help my chances?
It depends. We recommend that students strive to complete the highest level of rigor that a school’s curriculum has to offer. The timing in which this can be achieved depends on the school itself - some students are able to accomplish this by the end of their junior year, while others will be taking the most rigorous classes in their senior year. As a result, if you have already achieved the highest level of rigor before senior year, opting to take 1-2 “lighter” electives senior year to explore areas of passion is a great opportunity.
What do I do if I’m deferred?
If you are deferred, there are a few things you can do. First, you can call the admissions office and try to speak to a representative - an admissions officer can explain why you were deferred. If you choose to do so, be sure to remain positive and enthusiastic, and express that the school is still your top choice. You can also send new information to the school. This includes midyear grades (which the college will generally ask for), new SAT/ACT scores (if you retook the test), participation in a new extracurricular activity, a new leadership position in a group or on a team, a new honor/award, and so on. Just be sure to only include new content - you should not be sending anything that the school has already seen in your application. Additionally, you can have someone who has not yet written you a letter of recommendation send a new one on your behalf. Finally, you can write your own letter to the school, keeping it concise and to the point (we discuss what to include in a later question).
How does the waitlist work?
The waitlist essentially places you in a holding pattern. Depending on how high or low you are on the waitlist, your admission to the school will be contingent on the number of admitted students above you who do not end up attending the school, which the college will then use to decide how many students it wishes to admit from the waitlist. Each school has its own waitlisting process, but for any school, there is nothing you can really do - you just have to wait and see if you hear from the school that you are being taken off the waitlist. That being said, you should not bank on getting in off the waitlist - you should definitely accept your admittance into another school so that you are guaranteed a spot in the fall.
How do I write a deferral letter and what should it include?
How should I communicate with an admissions officer appropriately?
The key to communicating with an admissions officer appropriately is to be polite and respectful of their time. Admissions officers, in addition to reading through thousands of applications each year, likely have hundreds or thousands of students individually reaching out to them. As a result, you want to be wary that an admissions officer will likely be under a lot of stress. With this in mind, email is the most appropriate form of communication. You will want to keep your email short, sweet, and to the point so that the admissions officer does not have to spend too much time reading through the email and responding to it.
Is it pushy to reach out to an admissions officer?
Reaching out to an admissions officer can really be hit or miss, because it truly depends on the individual to whom you are reaching out. There are some admissions officers will take the time to respond to every student who reaches out, some feel that it is pushy to even send them an email, and everywhere in between. Regardless, in order to reduce your chances of coming across as pushy, you will want to keep your emails short and concise (if you decide you want to reach out). However, quite frankly, reaching out to admissions officers is not something we recommend - if they want you to reach out to them, then they will make it known.
How important are interviews?
Interviews, combined with letters of recommendation and other miscellaneous parts of your application (those that do not fall under grades, test scores, extracurriculars and honors, and essays), make up about 10% of your overall application. Thus, they are not something you should lose sleep over, but you certainly want to take the right measures to give yourself the best chance to have a good interview.
Does a good interview help my case?
A good interview can indeed help your case. If you are a strong applicant and are being compared to similar applicants for a spot, a great interview can help put you over the edge. However, do not bank on an interview to carry your weight - if you are not a competitive candidate, a good interview is not going to be what gets you into a school.
Does a bad interview hurt my case?
A bad interview can hurt your case. If you are rude, do not take the interview seriously, or come across as arrogant, this may reflect poorly on your application and could place you below candidates with similar profiles. However, a bad interview is easy to avoid. Just be respectful and polite, and be yourself - do not stress yourself out! You may find it helpful to think about some discussion points or even practice answering questions with friends and family so that you do not feel as stressed going into the interview.
What if I don’t get an interview?
If you don’t get an interview, you can reach out to the admissions office to request one. However, often times, the reason you don’t get an interview is simply due to a lack of availability. In order to increase your chances of receiving an interview, apply earlier (when there is less traffic).
How do interviews work?
The way interviews typically work is that someone from the school will reach out to you to set up a time to meet with them in a casual setting (e.g., a coffee shop). You will coordinate with them over email, agree on a time, and then meet up with them. The conversation will usually be pretty casual - the interviewer will likely ask you some questions about your background, your interests, your experiences, why you are interested in the school, and so on, and have a regular conversation with you. Ultimately, the interviewer is just trying to get to know you better, so just let the conversation flow naturally, be respectful, and show your enthusiasm about the school!
How should I dress?
Business casual is always a safe play - you can never really go wrong here, and that is what we recommend for interviews.
What should I bring to the interview?
You don’t need to go overboard with bringing materials to the interview, but it is always a good idea to have a copy of your resume in a nice folder, along with a notebook and pen.
What questions should I ask in the interview?
How should I prepare for the interview?
You should prepare for the interview by practicing answering questions about yourself with friends and family. This will help you get used to talking about yourself and can help calm your nerves during the interview. Additionally, it is a good idea to think of some discussion points that you want to work in during an interview. This doesn’t mean you should memorize a script - you shouldn’t - but this is an opportunity to talk about yourself in a one-on-one setting, so you should take advantage.
What should I do after the interview?
After the interview, be sure to send a follow up email to the interviewer the next day, thanking them for taking the time to speak with you.
Letters of Recommendation
How important are letters of recommendation?
This may come as a surprise, but letters of recommendation can make a big difference in your application. A strong letter of recommendation can, similar to a strong essay, be what helps put your application over the top. Because there are so many competitive applicants, particularly at highly selective schools, a compelling letter from a teacher/faculty member who can speak to your character and accomplishments can help you stand out from the crowd.
How many letters of recommendation should I have?
You should aim to have 2-3 - two from teachers, and perhaps one from another member of your high school’s faculty who can speak to your character - maybe that’s a coach, maybe it’s your high school counselor. This should ensure that you have enough recommenders for each school you’re going to apply to.
If a school has a limit on how many letters of recommendation to provide, should you provide additional letters to bolster your resume?
Please, please please - if a school tells you not to provide additional recommendation letters than the number they give you - DO NOT PROVIDE THEM. Providing them is deliberately disregarding what they are asking and will only hurt your chances of getting in.
What should I consider before approaching someone to write a letter of recommendation?
There are a couple of things to consider before approaching someone to write your letter. The first is relationship, how strong is your relationship with the person writing your letter? The better they know you, the more they have to say about you, speak to your strengths, what makes you stand out, Admission officers, when reading your letters, are going to want to see what makes you stand out and what you’ll bring to the table when you set foot on campus, so the stronger your relationship with the person writing your letter, the more likely it will be that this comes out in the letter. In fact, if you feel comfortable, you can even mention a particular area you’d like the person writing the letter to highlight. But that’s really up to you. By no means is it necessary, just something to keep in mind if you feel it is worthwhile bringing up. Another factor to consider is your major / interests. If you’re going into engineering, probably want at least one math/science rec letter. If your field of study will be in the liberal arts, you’ll probably want a history or english teacher.
What should I provide to the person writing my letter of recommendation?
When you ask someone to write your recommendation letter, you should provide some sort of helper document that outlines what your achievements, what you’re involved in, so that the person has an easier time writing your letter. Sometimes he or she will ask for a specific document or documents, but if it’s left up to you, the activities section of the Common App, along with an academic resume and any accomplishments not listed in your activities section should suffice.
How can I check on the status of my letters of recommendation?
Keep in mind that the person writing your letter will likely have several other ones to write as well, so it is important not to pry and to be respectful of their time. You can check on the status of each of your college’s recommenders in the My Colleges tab of the Common App.