Thinking About Your Common App Essay
By: Becky Georgenes
Senior College Advisor, Road to College - Former Princeton University Admission Officer
After the admission
officers read your essay, you want them to know you better, to have an idea
about what sets you apart from other strong applicants. Imagine that after
reading the essay, the admission officer has to write two sentences about
you. What would you want him or her to
say? If you think your best
characteristics are flexibility, compassion, and a sense of humor, then be sure
that your essay conveys that.
spend day after day reading application after application. They can be recent
college graduates, or seasoned university employees; trust that they are
dedicated to learning about you as an applicant. If you write an essay that
makes the reader look forward to finding out where you are going with it, then
you have given the admission officer (and yourself) a real gift.
There are a couple ways to go about deciding what you want to
write about for your Common App essay.
* You may already
know what topic you want to write about. So think about the topic, look at the
prompts, and see what fits in a way that will give you best opportunity to
share what is meaningful about your story. If you pick this approach, just be
sure that you are answering the question.
* You may not know
what you want to write about, but you may find a prompt that intrigues you and
gets you thinking. If you choose this approach, then be sure that you are not
only answering the prompt, but you are using it as an opportunity to let the
college learn what is important to you.
and whatever topic you pick, know that there are no right answers. You should
look at this as your opportunity to show what makes you special – about how you
think, what you have experienced, how you see the world, how you see yourself,
and how you express yourself in writing.
And be sure that you give yourself plenty of time to write your essay.
It will most likely go through several iterations and drafts. It’s fine to show
it to others, but try not to get too confused by too many opinions. Take everyone’s advice with a grain of
salt. Ultimately, what you submit as
your essay is your decision.
Posted By: Lisa Cynamon Mayers, Senior Admissions Consultant
Although I think it best to visit colleges while school is in session, summer is an easy time to schedule visits. You won’t worry about falling behind in calculus or missing the big game. You’ll also find yourself more likely to be traveling in general. This presents a great opportunity to schedule a visit while you’re out of town. Even if you’re only a freshman or sophomore, if you find yourself in a town with a college, go take a look. Get some experience touring, chatting and learning about college life. Visiting helps you hone your preferences so that when the time comes to make The College List, you’ll be ready.
Some tips to get you started:
Prior to Arrival
Research – Before you make hotel reservations and start buying plane tickets, spend time doing some serious research. Visiting colleges takes time, money, enthusiasm and a sense of humor. It would be impossible to visit every college you are remotely considering, so get organized, do your research and visit those schools that will help you reach your ultimate goal — admission to your first choice school.
Where To Visit, Part 1– If you are considering applying to any school early decision, you must plan a visit to campus. How can you sign on the dotted line that you will attend this school, if admitted, when you’ve never even seen the place?
Where To Visit, Part 2 – If you are undecided and overwhelmed by all of the college options available to you, it can help to visit a few schools to get a sense of what you like/dislike. Visiting a large state school, a small liberal arts college and an urban campus can give you different pictures of what college can be like. Even if you ultimately decide against applying to any of these schools you visited for research purposes, the time will be well spent if the visits help you determine the places you
would like to be.
Schedule Your Visit, Part 1 – Contact the admission office, via the phone or web, to schedule your visit. Admission offices want to know that you are coming to visit so they can help you make the most of your visit. It would be a shame to plan an entire visit and not realize the admission office is closed for the day. Plan ahead!
Schedule Your Visit, Part 2 – It is best to visit campus when school is in session and students are not frantically preparing for final exams. Summer is a popular time to visit colleges, but remember that the campus won’t be buzzing with normal activities or current students over the summer months.
Coordinate Multiple Visits – Let’s say you’ve decided to visit Ultimate University, your first choice school. It would be smart while you’re in Ultimate City, or on your way to Ultimate City (if you’re driving), to also visit a couple other schools. Make the most of your travels and try to see as many schools as you can, especially for comparison sake.
The Campus Visit
Information Session – Generally schools offer a group session in which an admission counselor (and sometimes a faculty member and current student) discusses basic information about the school. The presentation is often followed by a question-and- answer session so it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the school.
Tour – Typically tours are given by current students. Depending on the size of the campus, the tour can last anywhere from 45 minutes to well over two hours. This is your best opportunity to get a guided tour of the school. You might even have the chance to see residence halls and dining facilities.
Interview – Some schools offer prospective freshmen (that’s you) the chance to interview during a campus visit. Determine if you can interview while you are on campus and knock out a couple of birds with one stone.
Observing Classes – You might be thinking why on earth would I want to sit in on a class when I’ve planned this whole trip to get out of going to class. Point well taken, but don’t you want to get a glimpse of what college classes will be like? You don’t have to stay for the entire class — sit in the back and try to observe for a short time. Note the interaction between students and faculty and get a feel for college classes.
Food – Explore the different on-campus food options. You’ll probably end up visiting over lunch or dinner anyway, so you may as well try out the food while you’re there. Some schools will even give you a meal on them. Who can pass up free food?
Staying Overnight – Schools are going to have widely varying policies on the overnight visit. If you know a current student and can stay with a friend while you’re visiting, that’s always a good idea. Also, you may be able to arrange a visit through the admission office. The overnight visit is one of the best ways to really and truly experience a school. You’ll get to see the campus without parents and get a feel for what “real” students do.
Special Visit Days/Weekends – Almost every college and university offers special visit days/weekends. This can be a great time to visit campus. Just think, you’ll get to meet tons of potential classmates. Pay attention to your mail and to the school’s websites for information about these special open houses.
I'm glad to hear that Harvard took this decisive step. As a professional who has worked with a number of highly accomplished kids who did not get accepted to Harvard, I can't help but feel for them as those coveted Harvard spots were taken up by students who, at a minimum, participated in such stupid and and just plain wrong behavior. As a parent, I want to immediately remind my own teenage children that their actions both online and off, have big consequences - for themselves and for those they may be harming.
Which Teachers Should I Ask?
By Becky Georgenes - Senior College Counselor, Road to College. Former Princeton Univ. Admission Officer.
Juniors: As you are buckling down, preparing for final exams, there is one thing you shouldn't forget about - Letters of Recommendation.
Most selective colleges want to see two letters of recommendation from teachers of Core subjects (Math, Science, Social Studies, English, or even Foreign Language). You don't have to decide yet, but it's a good idea to ask at least one teacher before the summer. Pick someone you have had for a teacher during your Junior year, a teacher who perhaps knows you better than most - maybe because you always go for extra help, or because this teacher also coaches a sport you play or advises a club you participate in. Popular teachers get asked to write a lot of letters of recommendation - so be sure that he or she can say something unique about you. Many will ask you to fill out a form or perhaps write a couple paragraphs about yourself as a student. Even if they don't, you might want to provide them with a resume or a brief letter about what is important to you as a student and a person. Some teachers like to work on their letters of recommendation over the summer, so be sure that they have your contact information.
Once senior year begins, you should quickly pick a second teacher to write a letter for you. If you happen to have a teacher that you have had earlier in High School, that could be a strong possibility. If it is a teacher who is brand new for you, just be sure you use every opportunity to get to know this teacher well right from the start.
You should also think about subject matter when you are choosing your teachers. If you are planning to major in Math in college, then it makes sense for one of the teachers to be a math teacher. You should, however, consider asking an English or History teacher to write the other letter for you. Even if it is a subject that you are struggling in, if you have demonstrated extra determination, effort, or growth, that teacher still may be able to write a strong and supportive letter on your behalf.
And finally, if you aren't sure which teachers you should ask, get some input from your guidance counselor. While you aren't able to read the letters of recommendation, your guidance counselors can. They will know which teachers do an especially good job in letter writing!
posted by: Lisa Cynamon Mayers, senior admissions consultant
former admission counselor: Washington University in St. Louis, Case Western Reserve University
I can still rattle off the names of my favorite applicants to Washington University where I worked as an admission counselor for three years. Even those students who ultimately decided to attend another college are still marked in my memory. I can recall how we first met-- on campus, at their high schools, in a group meeting-- and I remember with fondness these amazing young people standing at the brink of this great transition. In the midst of application madness, high schoolers and their parents often forget that admission counselors are human-- sensitive, extroverted, friendly, personable folks with feelings. At a deep level admission counselors are sensitive to the rollercoaster of emotions felt by applicants and their families. We are aware of the maelstrom of feelings that the process precipitates. At a large number of colleges, dare I say the majority, applications are individually read, i.e. by a human, not a computer, and decisions are made in a sensitive, sometimes gut-wrenching way. For this reason, particularly at the most selective schools in the country, it can be advantageous for prospective students to develop a relationship, a connection, with an admission point person.
Many colleges and universities divide their admission staff and the world into territories. An admission counselor is responsible for a given region which would include travel, application reading, and territory management. Imagine this, suddenly you’ve switched roles, you are no longer a high school student; you are an admission counselor. Your responsibility is to read thousands of applications from qualified students-- the majority of whom are prepared for your college-- and make admission decisions on these students. Given a group of students with comparable grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, who would you admit: the student who made a favorable impression on you and interacted with you during the process, or the student you’ve never met who you can’t gauge level of interest or other personal qualities? Ding ding ding. Obviously the right answer is the student who has made a personal connection.
So how do you make this personal connection? The greatest impressions that students made on me happened naturally during an information session, high school visit, college fair, or interview. Some of you might not have direct access to an admission counselor. There may not be visits scheduled in your area and you may not have been able to visit every campus. Not to worry. You can still demonstrate interest and establish a personal connection with an admission counselor through e-mail and the telephone. It is key to demonstrate your interest in the college and also convey to the admission counselor your unique qualities and personality. At the end of the day you want every interaction you have with the colleges on your short list to be meaningful and to make a positive impression.
By Sara Cronin, senior admissions consultant
Former admission officer at Providence
College and the University of Connecticut
As juniors begin to think about
their time after high school many will consider post-secondary college
plans. Students often begin to think about
big or small schools, far from home or close by, city or suburban. One opportunity that some juniors may begin
to explore is a gap year. The idea of a
gap year has grown in popularity over the last several years, and now Tufts
University and other similar programs are making it an easier possibility.
A gap year is generally defined as
an extended break between high school and college. Often seniors in high school apply to
college, get accepted, and then defer their admission for six months to a year. The gap year experience can take on a number
of different possibilities. The year off
after high school can be utilized to volunteer locally or abroad, travel, intern
or work in a variety of settings.
Students who take advantage of the gap year experience often find
themselves in a very different setting than what they would discover on a
According to the American Gap
Association, an organization that is an “accreditation and standards-setting
organization for gap years that is recognized as such by the US Department of
Justice and the Federal Trade Commission,” interest and enrollment is growing
steadily in gap programs. There are no
definitive numbers regarding who is choosing to pursue a gap experience, but
the overall trends show a significant growth in students taking time off prior
The reasons that students pursue gap year opportunities vary widely. Some students feel they are not ready for
the rigors of a collegiate academic experience.
Other students look to expand their horizons beyond the US borders
before embarking on their collegiate careers in the States. While other
students are looking to earn both money and experience prior to college. Although the reasons may vary as to why
students choose a gap year, colleges report that those students who take six
months to a year before enrolling have a greater maturity towards and
appreciation for the university experience.
Studies show that 90 percent of students who took a gap year returned to
college within a year (Source: Wall Street Journal).
Tufts University introduced an innovative program a few years ago to give students a gap year opportunity. Tufts offers a fully
funded "1+4" program that provides students an opportunity to engage
in civic experiences around the globe.
According to Tuft’s website, the University and its Tisch College of
Citizenship and Public Service offer a bridge-year program, called
Tufts 1+4. This program provides a
structured year of full-time national or international service before students
begin their four years of undergraduate study.
Another gap year example is at Elon University in North Carolina, which
offers a gap semester program available only to enrolling freshman. This program provides students the
opportunity to spend the fall semester in three diverse settings and then
return to Elon for the winter term and spring semester.
There are numerous groups and
organizations that provide gap year opportunities. Costs can vary as widely as the program
options, but the overall goal is often the same: to expand one’s horizons,
increase self-awareness and challenge one’s comfort zone. A great place to start is with the American
Gap Association which offers an extensive amount of information and accredits gap programs. http://www.americangap.org/
Summer is right around the corner. What do you do if you
don’t have a summer plan yet?
It’s always nice to organize your schedule around your
family’s vacation or reunion plans.
Summer is of course an important time to relax and reconnect, and it is
good to keep that as a priority.
In deciding what you do with the rest of your summer, you
should just be sure you spend your time thoughtfully and purposefully.
Some high school students choose to do summer academic
enrichment – and while it may be too late to sign up for some of the highly
selective programs at colleges, there is likely still time to sign up for local
summer academic programs if that is something you are looking for. It is a
great opportunity to learn something that might not be offered at your high
school or to get a jump on a class that you know will be challenging for you in
My own kids always have summer jobs in the coastal community
where their grandparents live. They get plenty of time to spend with family,
hang out and play with friends outside, and get all the benefits that come with
having a job – including money! They of
course have to figure out how to balance all of this with whatever their
pre-season sports schedule and academic fall requirements may be. Sometimes
that includes spending time on SAT or ACT prep, or writing college essays.
Recently I saw a State Farm commercial on TV for a powerful
new volunteering initiative called Neighborhood
of Good. This site is a clearing house for volunteer activities in your
area – they can be ongoing opportunities or one day events. I was particularly
impressed by how people can search by interest and by location. Finding an
opportunity in your area would be a great experience to add to your college
resume, but even more importantly, it would be an excellent chance to use your
free time to make a meaningful difference.
This is a real game changer. Check it out!
Neighborhood of Good
by: Becky Georgenes
former Princeton Admission Officer
Senior College Counselor
Road to College
Posted by: Lisa Cynamon Mayers, Senior Admissions Consultant
For years I’ve told students and parents that the college admissions process is as much a test of organization than anything else. Dates and deadlines for standardized tests, applications, scholarships, financial assistance, college visits, etc. are enough to make your head spin! Add to that the mountains of printed glossy brochures, endless e-mails and other college communications. A poorly organized student could be buried under the seemingly endless marketing materials. So what are parents and students to do? How do you effectively manage the deadlines and the piles? Behold some welcome suggestions:
- Create a Master Calendar- You can keep track of those dates and deadlines by creating a master document to organize it all. Whether it’s an old fashioned paper calendar, dry-erase calendar, Outlook calendar, Google calendar or another option, you need one central location to keep everything together. Determine your system and then spend an hour or two on the Internet researching exam dates and registration deadlines, application deadlines (noting rolling, priority, early decision, etc.), scholarship deadlines, local college visit dates, evening programs, campus visits and anything else that will help you to stay on top of things. Make sure this calendar is prominently displayed in a place where you and your parents will frequently look.
- E-mail Filing System- So you’re getting 30 new e-mails a day from colleges. Your inbox is totally clogged and you’re no longer even reading the e-mails. Here’s what you need to do. If you’ve yet to enter the process, create an e-mail account exclusively for college use. Oh, and don’t make it, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Simple, straightforward and nothing questionable. Create folders for colleges you have no interest in attending, colleges you might want to attend and individual folders for the colleges on your list. As e-mails come in file them appropriately. This way you can stay on top of the e-mails that warrant your attention and eliminate the ones that don’t. Colleges are communicating more and more over e-mail so don’t carelessly miss out on important correspondence.
- Glossy Brochure Filing System- Back in my day (don’t I sound like an old gal), as soon as colleges had our addresses in hand, we were bombarded with brochures (featuring the only season in college admissions: fall), postcards, letters, flyers, etc. I think I received more mail in my junior and senior years of high school than any time since. Materials from schools that are off your radar completely should be recycled. Brochures and mailings worth keeping should be filed in an accordion file, file box, folders or your preferred method of files. A pile under your bed is not an effective filing system. Be sure to note important dates from the printed materials on your master calendar prior to filing.
If you take some time, little by little, to keep everything organized and in its place, you will find the college application process much more manageable.
Although most colleges are holding open houses and special visit days for admitted seniors, many schools are beginning to reach out to juniors as these students begin their college search journey. One such opportunity for junior year students to take a closer look is a group information session in your hometown. Notre Dame, Emory, Wash U, UVA and Johns Hopkins have teamed up to offer group presentations in various cities around the country.
You can learn more here: http://thenuwhetour.org/
Posted by: Becky Georgenes
Road to College Senior College Counselor
A friend posted this article on Facebook and I thought it was worth sharing. Now, don't everybody go asking the custodian to write a letter of recommendation! Rather, just try to be that kid whom the custodian would feel inspired to write about...