Best of the Blog: What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

This is the foliage of destiny.

Today we’re revisiting another one of our favorite blog posts: Essays for Ivy League Admissions, originally written by Calvin

Welcome back to What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? In this post, we will discuss one of the most challenging parts of an Ivy League application: the essay, and any other personal writing samples you are asked to complete.

Oh, the personal essay. That most excruciating part of the application arms race, where they tell you they “just want to get to know you,” but they’re also judging you at the same time. Should you be honest? Can you be honest? Should you just try to impress them? What on earth should you write about?

As with other parts of the application, it’s generally best to begin by stepping back and asking what the point of the essay is in the first place – what are the admissions officers looking for?

“Delay always breeds danger; and to protract a great design is often to ruin it.” – Don Quixote

First off, they want to see if you can write decently. Make sure you proofread your essay thoroughly – you can even have your English teacher go over it with you. This means don’t wait until the last minute to write it. If you are scrambling to finish an essay before the midnight submission deadline, the probability of spelling and grammar errors appearing in your essay increases dramatically, and dumb mistakes like that do not impress admissions officers. I’m going to do you a favor and tell you to finish the first draft of your essay a month before the deadline so you can have plenty of time to polish it. Maybe you can even send your application in early!

Second, they want to see if you know how to present yourself well. They want to know if you realize how you sound when you talk to other people. They are looking for critical thinking and meaningful self reflection. Are you self-aware? Do you know what kind of an impression you make on people when you say certain things? Do you know how to make a good first impression? Do you know what’s important to you? Do you understand yourself?

They also want to know that you really want to go to their school and nowhere else. Part of their rankings are based on the percentage of admitted students who actually decide to go there. Imagine Harvard and Yale both admit the same 2,000 incoming freshmen, and 1,500 decide they’d rather go to Harvard and 500 decide they’d rather go to Yale. That would look bad for Yale. Because the same pool of students is applying to all these schools, the same student could potentially get into more than one and have to choose between the two just like this (the year I graduated from high school, a friend of mine had to choose between Harvard and Princeton). In your essay, you should mention why the particular school to which you are applying would be the perfect place for you to do whatever it is you want to do, citing specific opportunities and programs that are unique to that school.

“You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” – Mister Rogers

Lastly, they do actually want to get a sense of who you are, what you’re into, what drives you. They want to know what makes you unique from all the other students whose applications they’re slogging through. If they get two applications that are exactly the same it’s hard to justify picking one over the other. Distinctive is better than bland. Try to make this an essay that only you could have written, and don’t be fake. They can smell fakery a mile away – awkward quotations from “great authors” you never read or don’t care about, forced use of big SAT vocab words, saying you care about something when you don’t. The trick to writing these essays is to be absolutely honest, but polished. You want to present yourself, whoever you are, in the best light possible.

On that note, there is one other thing you should know about the admissions process. At these schools, one admissions officer reads your application and essays, and, if they like your application, they defend you before a committee of their fellow admissions officers and get them to accept you, too. If you get admitted, it’s because your admissions officer really believes you have what it takes, and he or she will know your name and have your application memorized. When you write your essays, you need to give your admissions officer something to fight for.

So, what should you write about? Prompts on the common application (which is generally accepted by most of the Ivy League schools, with special supplements) include:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. Topic of your choice.

It honestly doesn’t matter what topic you choose – I did the “topic of your choice” option. Whenever you write anything you want to start by thinking about what you want your reader to think or feel when they finish reading whatever it is you’re writing. In this case you want your reader to 1) like you/think you’re friendly/want to meet you, and 2) think you’re smart/passionate/hard-working.

Thus, you should write about something that you love. Don’t write about something you dislike/disapprove of/are against. Keep things positive by writing about what you like/believe in/are in favor of. This should also preferably be something you know a lot about, and it should give you a chance to show off your knowledge. You sound smart when you teach the reader something new they didn’t know before, so take advantage of any unusual knowlegde you have of your topic. If you’re worried that you’re topic isn’t intellectual enough, try throwing in some history. Everything has a history, and adding a historical element can lend your topic some academic credence. It should also be something that you’ve done something about (maybe in an extracurricular activity) – something where you have accomplished something that you had to work for.

If you really want to talk about MLK, you need to go beyond the “I have a dream” speech.

Also, try to make your topic fairly unique. If you are writing an essay about a person who influenced or inspired you, avoid overused examples. If you are a devout Christian and want to write about your faith, instead of writing about Jesus, write about St. Francis or Martin Luther or another important figure in the church you admire – preferably one that wrote a book or started a movement (the same goes for other foundational religious figures like Mohammed or the Buddha). If you do decide to write about someone who is constantly held up as an example of an inspiring person, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi, you had better have a really in depth knowledge of their lives and works that goes beyond what you learned in school, and have a unique perspective, insight, or interpretation of these figures. Unless you have a really good reason, avoid writing about parents or family members. Even though the reality is that the most influential people in your life are the people who raised you, it would get boring for admissions officers to read hundreds of essay that are all about how important a prospective student’s parents are to him/her.

If you have a remarkable life story or have struggled against great adversity in order to make it to this point in your life, the essay is also the place to talk about these life experiences. Ivy League schools are always looking for remarkable people who beat the odds, so if you feel comfortable sharing information about tough things you’ve been through it could definitely be to your advantage. Just to be clear, I’m talking about real problems: poverty, homelessness, being a war refugee. Lesser trials and tribulations can make for good essays, too, but remember there are also people who have had things much worse.

Whatever you write on these free response portions of the application, don’t lie. If you make stuff up in order to impress people, chances are they will see through it, or be able to disprove it with a quick google search. Eventually, it will catch up to you. The point of all this is to actually be yourself, and to show them the best parts of yourself. If they don’t want you for who you are, you probably wouldn’t be happy there anyway. Don’t worry that your interests aren’t intellectual enough or impressive enough – remember, like the video games extracurricular, there are ways to dress up just about anything.

Next time on What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we discuss teacher, counselor, and other recommendations as well as supplementary applications materials. Best of luck!

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

Posted in Admissions, Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Seniors | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What is a Good Score on the New SAT?

tm

Today was exciting news in the standardized test community, as College Board released its first set of data and concordance tables regarding the New 2016 SAT. In light of this, we have updated our previous post with updated average New 2016 SAT scores by university.

Methodology

To find New SAT score equivalents, we used information provided by universities through either their websites or through their Common Data Set publications. We then used the official concordance table presented by College Board to convert Old (2005-2015) SAT scores and ACT scores to the new format. Keep in mind, however, that the ACT has disputed the validity of some concordances and that these concordances may be subject to change as College Board collects more data. In looking at the table, you may note that some universities show a significant 60-100 point difference between New Scores via ACT Concordance and New Scores via Old SAT Concordance. As more test-takers sit for the New 2016 SAT exam, College Board may revisit these preliminary concordances and adjust as needed. As such, the scores presented below are subject to change.

Further, this information is based on the most up-to-date college data we were able to obtain, but these scores may not be reflective of future entering classes, as scores may be higher or lower than in past years. We will not have official data on New SAT scores for admitted students until next year, and perhaps even until years after that, as the class of 2021 will still be able to use Old SAT scores for admissions. Schools may also elect to judge New 2016 SAT scores differently than the data presented within the concordance tables, so keep this in mind as well.

Finally, the data presented are averages (i.e. middle 50% of students admitted), so depending on your own life circumstances (e.g. low GPA, disadvantaged background, competitive high school, etc.), you should determine whether you need to score above the average to have a good shot at being admitted to these schools. Nevertheless, we hope this data will provide you with a good baseline to shoot for when preparing for this exam, and we wish you the best of luck in your college pursuits!

Continue reading “What is a Good Score on the New SAT?” »

Posted in Admissions, Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Seniors, Advice for Sophomores, New SAT 2016, Standardized Tests | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a College Admissions Essay

Break out your pen and paper, and take a look at our tips for writing a great college admissions essay!

Break out your pen and paper, and take a look at our tips for writing a great college admissions essay!

Today we’ll be giving some tips about how to and what to write for your college admissions essay! Don’t waste your summer! Make sure to start early on these essays because it’s quite possibly the most important piece of writing you’ll ever do!

Do’s

  • Do show, don’t tell: This is the classic advice every essay writer receives. Engaging writing is engaging because it elicits sympathy and understanding from the reader. Humans love storytelling, as it’s essentially hard coded into our DNA, and there’s no better way to connect with your reader than to tell stories or short anecdotes. This isn’t to say you should spend 500 words elaborating on a single story. Rather, you should include sentences that allow the reader to picture themselves in the moment. For example, instead of using the bland line”I love teaching because it allows me to help others gain a better understanding of the world,”  try something like “I’ve never been more proud than when Bobby Sue finally realized how Gauss’s Law works. After hours of slogging through a single assignment during a help session, there was no greater joy than seeing his face light up with understanding, and that single moment made the entire semester of tutoring worth it.”
  • Do have a good hook: Admissions committees are reading hundreds, if not thousands, of applications, so make sure to capture their interest. Draw them in with an interesting anecdote, and give them something to remember you by. Of course, don’t be melodramatic or insincere with this hook, but make sure to start off on the right foot. Just think back to all the required reading assignments you’ve had in the past — don’t be that author who bores you starting from line 1; be the author who engages you and draws you in so you want to continue reading.
  • Do demonstrate your passion: The essay is essentially the only opportunity you get to show off who you are. Both ApplyTexas and the CommonApp only afford a very limited number of characters to describe your listed activities, so the essay is the only significant opportunity you get to describe in detail your hopes, dreams, and interests. Take advantage of this! The most important thing is to demonstrate that you’re an interesting person and that you have a life apart from just school. If you have an extracurricular you love, write about it! If you have a hobby you enjoy doing, explain why you love it! Talk about anything you have a strong passion for because that is without a doubt the easiest way to translate passion onto the page.
  • Do be humble and genuine: Admissions officers can smell insincerity a mile away. If you volunteered once at a soup kitchen, don’t write an essay about how bad you felt for the patrons and now want to dedicate your life to abolishing poverty. Even if admissions officers didn’t major in math, they can tell when something doesn’t add up. One meeting with the underprivileged likely won’t elicit an epiphany, and one event likely won’t determine your entire life’s path. Don’t be overdramatic or oversell your experiences to make some grand statement about life or morals. Be humble and true to yourself! No one expects a high schooler to have had dramatic life-changing experiences, so there’s no need to wildly upsell your accomplishments or motivations. A pinch of humility will go a long way in distinguishing yourself from the rest of the overeager pack.

Continue reading “Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a College Admissions Essay” »

Posted in Admissions, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Seniors, Advice for Sophomores | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What Does My New SAT Score Mean?

College Board just released the results from the first administration of the New SAT, administered March 2016, and with it they also released a set of concordance tables to let us know what exactly a good score is. We’ll take a look at this and analyze what exactly these new scores mean for students!

How do New SAT Scores Compare to Old 2400 SAT Scores?

Figure 1

Figure 1. Charting the difference in scores between the New SAT and Old SAT

Since the new SAT is scored out of 1600, while the old SAT was scored out of 2400, the new scores are obviously lower than the old. However, if we adjust the old scores using the “sliding scale” method (i.e. subtract 800 across the board from the old SAT scores, normalizing as if it were on the 1600 scale), we can see (Figure 1 above) that overall there is a much larger difference for lower-scoring students, with the New SAT having higher scores than the old pre-2016 SAT. This suggests that the same performance would net a higher numerical score. This means that the “sliding scale” method would not actually work for comparing new and old SAT scores.

Continue reading “What Does My New SAT Score Mean?” »

Posted in Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Sophomores, New SAT 2016, Standardized Tests | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Best of the Blogs: 5 Ways to Make the Most of Your Summer Vacation

Summer TimeWith the school year nearing an end, we’re bringing back a great post on what you should do with your summer, originally posted by Calvin!

School is finally out for summer! Congratulations, you’re free!

Now what?

Just because there isn’t anything you have to do now doesn’t mean you should spend your whole summer on the couch eating potato chips and watching reruns while obsessively checking facebook. Summer is in fact a golden opportunity for padding your resume and getting ahead of the competition when it comes time to apply to college (I know you didn’t want to hear that, but it’s true). Summer activities aren’t just about looking good on your college applications, though – they should be fun, too! These 5 summer activity ideas are all great ways to hang out with friends, make new friends, and improve yourself or your community. Besides, if you didn’t do anything you’d be bored out of your mind by Independence Day, anyway.

SONY DSC

Sure, you’ll get made fun of for the rest of your life, but think of the memories!

Extra Curricular Camp

Now that you don’t have to go to school or do homework, you finally have time to write that book you’ve been thinking about. Summer is a great time to pursue your favorite extracurricular activities, whether they involve sports, art, music, robotics, dance, scouting, or even writing your first novel (okay, maybe we’ll start with a novella). No matter what your passion is, chances are there are organizations in your area that offer summer programs where you can do what you love with other kids your age. Enrolling in programs like these can be lots of fun and they look great on your college applications. Plus, you get better at something you love. Altogether, this is a win-win.

18573_316534688292_237848598292_3542123_498714_n

“I always have depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Volunteering

Another popular summer activity is volunteering. In just about every community there are people who need help, and donating your time to a worthy cause is one of the best ways to spend your summer. Whether you’re helping out at a homeless shelter, cleaning up a park, teaching seniors how to use Google, or volunteering with the SPCA, you can know that you’re using your summer to make the world a better place. You can find opportunities to volunteer at local charities, museums, animal shelters, retirement homes, zoos, libraries, or religious organizations. These activities can teach you a lot about the world you live in and are also very impressive on college applications. Nothing, however, can equal the satisfaction you’ll feel knowing that you’ve helped improve people’s lives.

Lifeguard

“NO RUNNING!!!”

Work

Like your parents keep telling you – it’s time to get a job! Work experience looks great on a college resume, especially if it has something to do with one of your prospective majors. For instance, if you are thinking of being a pre-med (*shudder*), then you might want to try to get a job as a tech in a research lab (your pipetting technique will improve tremendously!). Even if you’re life guarding, bagging groceries, or handing out free samples at the local mall, any work experience is valuable, and plus, you’ll make some actual money, which you could start saving in order to help pay for college. Or you could just blow it on bling to show off to your jobless friends.

studying

Summer classes: where fun goes to die.

Summer Classes

Maybe you like school. Maybe you’re sad that summer is here. Maybe you hate freedom and fun of all kinds. Well then, do we have a summer activity for you! But, in all seriousness, summer can be a good time to get required classes like Health, Speech, or Microsoft Office 101 out of the way by taking them by correspondence. If you’re an over-achiever type (and if you’ve made it this far you probably are), then chances are you could probably finish a class like Health by correspondence in about a week. Considering that it would have taken up a whole semester at school, this is actually a pretty good deal, since you can free up space in your school schedule for electives you actually want to take (or an off period). If your school rewards you for taking AP/IB/Honors classes when calculating your GPA, freeing up space in your schedule for more of those classes can also make a significant difference in your class rank.

PSAT/SAT/ACT Prep!

By far the best way to spend your summer is to take PSAT/SAT/ACT prep classes! Especially with Test Masters. If you want to get into your dream school, you’re going to need great test scores, and Test Masters’ 300 point SAT score improvement guarantee just might get you there. Additionally, Test Masters classes are fun, because we hire smart, funny teachers (including one who actually went to clown school) who give out candy and pizza during class! It’s even more fun if you sign up with friends, and if you get enough of them to do it with you you could qualify for group discounts. So, what are you waiting for? Sign up today!

Whatever you choose to do with your summer, just make sure you do something. Think of all the great memories you’ll have and stories you’ll be able to tell when you go back to school and people ask you what you did over the summer. You have to admit, anything beats potato chip induced existential ennui. Have a great summer!

Posted in Admissions, Advice, Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Sophomores | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Final Call: SAT and ACT Registration Deadlines!

Though school is slowing down and nearing its end, we wanted to remind you that your academic year might not be quite over yet! Make sure to sign up for the upcoming SAT and ACT test dates if you plan on taking the exam this summer!

SAT Test Date Regular Registration Deadline Late Registration Deadline
6/4/16 5/5/16 5/20/16

You can register for the SAT exam here!

ACT Test Date Regular Registration Deadline Late Registration Deadline
6/11/16 5/6/16 5/20/16

You can register for the ACT exam here!

Continue reading “Final Call: SAT and ACT Registration Deadlines!” »

Posted in Admissions, Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Sophomores, New SAT 2016, Standardized Tests | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

AP Exams are in May! What are they? Who needs them? Why Should I take them? What about AP Exam Score Choice?

AP Exams are ComingIt’s that time of year again, when high school students must frantically juggle preparing for final exams, AP exams, and the last administrations of the SAT/ACT/SAT Subject Tests. There is a lot going on! And as you carefully plot out the next several weeks, you may be asking yourself, are AP exams really worth it? The answer, unfortunately, is yes, they really are worth it.

So let’s start with the basics, what are AP classes? As a College Compass acolyte, you are undoubtedly already familiar with AP classes (having taken literally a bajillion already), but if you are not a regular reader, AP stands for Advanced Placement. Advanced Placement classes are basically honors classes whose material has been standardized by College Board. These classes are roughly equivalent to undergraduate college classes. Oftentimes, AP classes are weighted; if you are taking an AP class you probably have both an unweighted and weighted GPA, where your AP grades count for +1 letter grade or equivalent more towards your GPA (so, for example, a letter grade of B in an AP class would count as an A toward your cumulative GPA). If you take an AP class, or in fact even if you do not, you can register to take AP exams at the end of the year. If you score well enough on an AP exam (usually a score of 4 or 5 out of 5), many universities will award you college level credit based on that score – meaning you do not have to take that class as a college student! More on that later.  Continue reading “AP Exams are in May! What are they? Who needs them? Why Should I take them? What about AP Exam Score Choice?” »

Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged | Leave a comment

What Are SAT Subject Tests?

Since the end of the school year is fast approaching, as are the deadlines for signing up for the May and June SATs, we wanted to remind people what the SAT Subject Tests are and which colleges require them. We’ve previously posted this article but consider this topic especially relevant at this time of year. Enjoy!

What Are SAT Subject Tests?

You may or may not be aware that College Board offers SAT Subject Tests. These are short, one-hour exams that test your knowledge in specific areas. We’ve compiled a table of every Subject Test offered below:

Math Level 1 Math Level 2
US History World History
Biology Chemistry
Physics Literature
Spanish French
Chinese Italian
German Hebrew
Latin Japanese
Korean

As you can see, there are quite a few Subject Tests available to you that cover a wide variety of topics. In terms of content, you can think of these Subject Tests as mini AP Exams. The two exams cover essentially the same material, but Subject Tests are only one hour long each, compared to the behemoths that are AP exams.

Continue reading “What Are SAT Subject Tests?” »

Posted in Admissions, Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Sophomores, New SAT 2016, Standardized Tests | Tagged | Leave a comment

SAT Trigonometry Problem!

Today we’ll be solving a practice SAT trigonometry problem and walking you through the steps to solve it!

Trig Problem

If Sin(A)=0.5 and side BC=10, find the length of the hypotenuse, AB.

Continue reading “SAT Trigonometry Problem!” »

Posted in New SAT 2016, Sample Questions, Standardized Tests | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

2016 (Unofficial) National Merit Commended Cutoff Score is Out!

Now that we know this year’s (unofficial) National Merit Commended cutoff score is a 209, we wanted to take a look back at how we did, and what this means for our Semifinalist predictions. To clarify, while the NMSC has not officially posted this score on their website, we have had multiple reports from parents and students who have contacted NMSC directly. Until further notice, we will proceed with this score in mind as the (unofficial) Commended student cutoff score.

How did we do?

Taking a look back at our Updated PSAT Cutoffs post, our range for Commended was between a 200-210, but more importantly, our estimate for North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming were 210’s. Historically, these states’ NMSF scores have generally coincided with the national Commended cutoff, and with only a 1-point difference between the two, it seems that our model is performing quite well. This bodes well for the rest of our predictions, which we hope will prove to be accurate once the official NMSF cutoff scores are announced.

What does this Commended score mean for students?

Firstly, it’s important to note that while the ND, SD, WV, and WY scores have historically lined up with the national Commended cutoff score, this is by no means a guarantee that any of these states’ NMSF cutoffs will be a 209. If you look at the historical data, these scores have shown subtle fluctuations, so we cannot say for certain that a 209 will be the exact National Merit Semi-finalist cutoff for these states.

It’s also interesting to note that College Board has essentially confirmed a tighter grouping of National Merit scores when compared to previous years’. When constructing our predictions, many posters expressed a concern we initially had as well, that the estimated cutoffs seem to be fairly high and tightly grouped. Consider last year’s Commended, a 202 out of 240, compared to this year’s scores of 209 out of 228. When looking at these numbers, it may seem that this year’s test must have been easier, since the cutoff score is higher, but that’s not necessarily true! Since the entire scoring system has been changed, it’s not fair to directly compare cutoff scores, as College Board may have changed the raw score to scaled score conversion on their backend to reflect the new update.

Finally, as always, though this news suggests our methodology is overall performing well in terms of predictive power and accuracy, we must stress that our predictions are by no means definitive. While we hope our numbers will line up well with the official cutoffs, states’ cutoff scores do display minor fluctuations from year to year, so the official score required for National Merit Semifinalist may be slightly higher or slightly lower than our predictions. Once the official NMSF numbers are released by the NMSC, we’ll be sure to perform an analysis and debrief to see how we fared in the big leagues!

Posted in Admissions, Standardized Tests | Tagged , , | 30 Comments