Ask Test Masters: SAT Score Choice

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Ask Test Masters is a great, free service that allows you to ask the experts at Test Masters all of your test prep and college admissions questions. If you have a question, send it to us – chances are other people are wondering the same thing. Reader Alissa asked:

“I have heard there was a new “law” so to speak that keeps the amount of times students have taken the SAT confidential. This will give students more of a hold on the scores they receive and the power to send the score they wish to be sent to colleges out without letting them know how many times a student has taken it. If, then, it is true, would it not matter how many times you take it?”

While no new legislation has been passed with regard to the SAT, the College Board, the corporation that creates and administers the SAT exam, changed its score reporting policy back in 2009 by introducing the Score Choice option for test takers (another very helpful website is www.scorechoice.com). Before 2009, any college that a student applied to would receive the scores from every SAT exam that that student had ever taken, the good with the bad. Now, you have the power to choose which scores you send to colleges. This means that if you do really badly one time, then Harvard will never have to know about it.

While this might sound great, there are a few caveats. For instance, you cannot choose to withhold individual sections of a particular test. This means that if you take the test and do really well on the Reading and Writing sections but terribly on the Math section, you will not be able to withhold only the Math section: you must send the scores for either the whole test or none of it. Considering that most colleges only consider your best scores from each section anyway, you might as well submit the scores from that test, warts and all, unless you can replicate or surpass your Reading and Writing scores while bringing up your Math score on a subsequent test.

College Board is the corporation that is responsible for the SAT exam.

With this in mind, the main advantage of Score Choice is that it allows you to take the test as many times as you want and only send your best scores. It is important to note, however, that some colleges have rejected Score Choice (Cornell, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale, for example), and still require students to submit all of their scores. There is however, no way for these schools to know if you actually send all of the scores or not. You can be dishonest, take the test 10 times, and only send your two best scores, and there will be no way for Yale to know about it. You might feel a bit slimy about lying, though.

Would you really want to take the test 10 times anyway, though? Each test costs money, and by waiting to see your scores before you send them you waive the opportunity to send four score reports for free. Instead of taking the real test a gazillion times, it might be wiser to just prepare and practice and then take the real test, say, twice. At Test Masters, we offer a service called Exam Club that allows students access to 42 real past SAT Exams that they can take in a proctored setting (yes, some students take all 42). Additionally, after taking an exam, they can then choose to go over their results with a professional SAT expert (like me). However you choose to do it, it’s definitely wiser to make all your mistakes before you take the SAT for real, and if you practice until you consistently get the scores you want, you can feel confident on test day that you’ll perform just as well.

Hope this answers all your questions, Alissa, and until next time, happy studying!

Transferring Colleges

The University of Texas at San Antonio, the first college I attended.

Transferring schools can be a complicated, multifaceted process. The decision to transfer to a new university is not made lightly, especially considering the effort it can take just to get accepted. But life is full of uncertainty and surprise, and sometimes a family or medical emergency, the longing to be closer to home, or just the desire to try another program can make transfers a necessary part of the college experience.

Though the transfer process is fraught with potential pitfalls, any student armed with a little bit of knowledge should be able to easily avoid those dangers and truly enjoy the adventures that come with a diverse college background. As a three time transfer student myself, I became very familiar with the transfer process and all the resulting headaches and benefits that can accompany it.

Regardless of the reason you are transferring, the most important thing to remember is that you are ultimately responsible for yourself. Most college advisers, especially at public universities like the ones I attended, are responsible for thousands of students. These brave and mostly helpful administrators are overworked and underpaid, and they simply do not have enough time to review every student’s every need. The best thing you could possibly do for yourself as a transfer student is become intimately familiar with your transcript at your current school and with the credit transfer process and degree and major requirements of your prospective new school. I’ve been told by advisers that though they wish they could do more, they generally put a student’s file away as soon as the student leaves the room. Remember, they are there to advise you, not to hold your hand; if you don’t take responsibility for your academic career, you could easily slip through the cracks in the system.

From UTSA, I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.

If you are thinking about transferring and have not yet begun the application process, you might have a few questions about the various requirements necessary to be accepted by another university. From high school to college there are a number of factors that go into a university’s decision to admit. These same factors play a role at the university level as well, however, when transferring from college to college the most important requirements are GPA based. This is not to say that universities will not consider your resume, recommendations, achievements, and special circumstances when making an admission decision; but, if you are thinking about transferring, the best way to help yourself is to do your job as a student and keep your GPA up.

Transferring can also be an excellent strategy for recent high school graduates who feel they don’t have the grades to get into their university of choice. Many universities have automatic admission programs that allow for students to automatically be admitted into their university as a transfer student; again, most of these requirements are GPA based. Beware though, some universities’ automatic admissions programs depend on your grades and application status as an incoming freshman. For example, a program like the University of Texas’ Coordinated Admissions Program (CAP) requires a base GPA of 3.2 at a satellite school or other approved affiliate, among other conditions such as a particular SAT score and class rank, in order to automatically transfer the next year. Each university will have different requirements, and will require individual research.

If you feel that your high school academic career was less than stellar but you are ready to succeed at the next level, then a community college or junior college might be a great place to start. Local universities like community colleges and junior colleges allow students to accumulate college credit, experience, and learn how to deal with the various difficulties of college life. The most important aspect of taking this tack is to set goals you feel you can really achieve, and to have a plan in place that will allow you to meet those goals. For example, it’s important to understand a 4.0 GPA at your local community college probably won’t get you into Harvard, but it’s equally important to know it might get you into a premier state university, and an that additional year of excellent course work there could take you anywhere.

Finally, I ended up at the University of Houston.

There are also a number of smaller details any transfer student should pay attention to when arriving on a new campus. Though you may have a year or more experience as a student under your belt, it is important to acknowledge the fact that a new university means a new daily routine. After visiting your adviser, the next most important thing you can do is familiarize yourself with your new campus. You should know what buildings your classes are in and where those buildings are before the first day of a new school year. Likewise, it’s important to know where the other on-campus facilities are; knowing where the cafeteria, library, and even (especially!) bathrooms are can save you time, effort, and embarrassment. Spending a day or two walking around and getting to know your new campus can lead to a remarkably smoother transition than an ‘i-already-know-it-all’ attitude ever could.

My last and most important piece of advice to a recent transfer student is: DO NOT BE AFRAID! Approach your new circumstances with confidence. Yes, you may have left most or all your friends behind, and yes, a fresh start can be daunting; however, I encourage you to take advantage of the experience, not to shy away from it. Get involved on campus, join student organizations, and participate in events and activities you care about.  You will be amazed at how quickly you can make a new university ‘Your University.’ The fastest way to meet people is through university programs. Also, if you are living in a dormitory, both on or off campus, there should be any number of options available for you to participate in. One of the most lasting benefits of being a transfer student should be the social skills you gain from putting yourself through a diverse college experience. But you can only take advantage of these opportunities if you are not afraid to seek them out.

Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!
Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!

Want to learn more about the college admissions process? Learn more here! Need help with the PSAT/SAT or ACT? Go farther with Test Masters!

College Admissions – Brown University

The Brown University seal.

What do Emma Watson, John F. Kennedy Jr., and Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl have in common? They have all attended Brown University, the most liberal university in the Ivy League. Although small in area (only 143 acres), Brown is large in spirit and tradition. As one of the oldest colleges in the nation, Brown has remained a popular university because of its academic freedom and its diverse student body.

In politics, academics, and behavior, the Brown student body is known for its hippie-like sensibilities. For example, one of the major traditions of Brown includes a night called Sex Power God where the actual events remain ambiguous to those who do not attend, but wild speculation runs rampant. In fact, major conservative news personalities such as Bill O’Reilly have targeted this Brown tradition with major criticism and disgust, to the delight of many Brown students. However, not all of the school’s traditions are as controversial or as extreme, some of the most beloved traditions include the Midnight Organ Concert on Halloween where an organist performs spooky music on the largest remaining Hutchings-Votey organ in the world.

The John Hay Library is the oldest library on campus.

Another aspect of Brown that emphasizes its liberal nature is the complete academic freedom given to its students. The New Curriculum is unique in that it does not have a core curriculum that every student must complete in order to graduate. The university believes that this system promotes an interest in gaining knowledge instead of just getting a grade. While there are still requirements in each specific concentration, Brown encourages its students to be fearless in their intellectual interests and delve deeper into subjects that they may not have been exposed to previously. Brown also allows students to take courses at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, one of the preeminent art schools in America.

Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, president of Brown University

With all of this freedom, it is no surprise that Brown consistently tops the list of happiest students and of dream schools for students all across the nation. However, it is one of the hardest schools to get into with an acceptance rate of only 9%, lower than University of Pennsylvania’s acceptance rate of12.3% and Rice University’s acceptance rate of 19%. The median SAT score is around 2220 and the median ACT score is around 30. Even harder to get into is the prestigious Program in Liberal Medical Education or PLME, which is an eight year program that combines Brown undergraduate studies with Alpert Medical School. All of this comes at a hefty price tag of $54,370, but don’t let that stop you from applying! Brown Financial Aid awards an average of $36,815 and acceptance is need blind.

Brown University is also known for its diversity with 96% of the student body coming from out of state and 10% of the students coming internationally. Brown is also known as a leader in promoting diversity and innovativeness with the most recent president, Ruth J. Simmons being the first African American and second female president of any Ivy League university. All in all, Brown is a first-class school with a rich history and a bright future with unlimited possibilities.

Miss last week’s College Admissions – University Profile? Check it out here! Need help with the PSAT/SAT or ACT? Go farther with Test Masters!

College Admissions – Rice University

Rice University Seal

The founding of Rice played out like a game of Clue: Massachusetts billionaire William Marsh Rice was murdered in his bedroom, poisoned with chloroform administered by his personal valet who was in cahoots with Rice’s personal lawyer. But one crime solving Houstonian lawyer, forged will, million-dollar intrigue, and litigation battle later, William Rice’s fortune founded Rice University in Houston, TX in 1912. Since then, Rice has left behind its unsavory beginnings and has become a premiere academic institution, earning the nickname the Harvard of the South. However, as many Rice students claim, Rice’s legacy could actually rename Harvard the Rice of the North. With a claim like that, College Compass Campus Profiles can only say one thing: Kudos!

William Marsh Rice University, commonly called Rice University or simply Rice, is one of the most prestigious universities in the South, and compares favorably to Ivy League schools. 77% of the ranked freshmen admitted in the 2012 admission year were in the top 5% of their graduating class, and 18% of the class of 2016 were national merit finalists. And, unlike the Ivy League schools, Rice offers a $1000/year scholarship for those finalists that is renewable each year for four years. Rice also offers a variety of other Merit-based scholarships as well as need-based financial aid.

Lovett Hall

The first step, of course, is getting in. The median SAT score for the 2012 admissions class was around a 2120 and the median ACT score was 32-35. The overall admission rate for 2012 was 17% (for a relatively small class of 939), but the early decision rate was much higher: 24% for 282 enrolled students: just over 30% of the entire class. If Rice is your first choice, then applying in the early decision round would increase your chances of getting in.

Additionally, the yearly tuition of Rice is $35,610 with an estimated total cost of attending at $52,237. However, an endowment with a market value of $4.45 billion means that Rice’s endowment assets per full-time equivalent student was $783,568 for the 2011-2012 academic year. For comparison: The University of Texas school system has an average of $69,483 while Rice has more endowment per student than Ivy League Universities such as Dartmouth ($559,508), University of Pennsylvania ($274,618), Columbia ($246,846), and Cornell ($242,057).

Rice Colonnade

Yet, those students who choose to attend Rice will find a 295 acre campus along with 3,708 potential new friends in the undergraduate schools (and an additional 2,374 graduate students). A gender imbalance is not a problem, as 51% of the student population is male and 49% female. There are plenty of opportunities to fraternize with your fellow students (although there are no fraternities or sororities at Rice) by being placed into one of twelve Residential Colleges. The college system at Rice, most commonly compared to the house system from Harry Potter, places incoming freshmen in a coed residential college which they can call home for the next four or so years. Although Rice only has beds for 84% of its student population and can only guarantee housing for freshman year, most upperclassmen elect to live off campus and most students who wish to live in their residential college for all four years are able to do so. The colleges that make up Rice University are Baker College, Brown College, Duncan College, Hanszen College, Jones College, Lovett College, Martel College, McMurtry College, Sid Richardson College, Wiess College and Will Rice College.

As an undergraduate at Rice, students will find themselves in either the George R. Brown School of Engineering, The School of Humanities, the School of Architecture, the Shepherd School of Music, the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, the School of Social Sciences, or under the heading of the Interdisciplinary or Other Academic Programs.

Rice alum James Casey, currently of the Houston Texans, making a TD catch.

Rice is also famous for its many traditions, which are often associated with certain colleges or college rivalries, such as: the annual Night of Decadence (NOD) Halloween party at Wiess, the nighttime escapade runs of the Baker 13, the Marching Owl Band (MOB), and the Beer Bike competitions. Rice is also home to 14 NCAA Division I Conference USA varsity athletic teams as well as numerous Club Sports and Intramural Teams. Perhaps all of these traditions and recreational opportunities are a few of the reasons why the Princeton Review named Rice the college with the happiest students for the 2011-2012 academic year.

All in all, Rice has done much to earn—and maintain—its reputation as one of the best universities in the nation and certainly the South. Nestled between the municipality of West University, the Museum District, and the Medical Center, Rice is one of the reasons Forbes.com named Houston as the coolest city in America to live in.

Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!
Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!

Miss last week’s College Admissions – University Profile? Check it out here! Need help with the PSAT/SAT or ACT? Go farther with Test Masters!

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Welcome back to College Compass’s series, What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Now that we’ve covered all of the aspects of applying to an Ivy League school, I have taken the liberty of compiling the main points from the preceding posts into a convenient Ivy League admissions checklist:

  • Straight As, with maybe 2-3 Bs max
  • As many AP/IB courses as possible
  • Summer before Junior year: know PSAT National Merit cutoff score for your state, practice and aim above that score (may include test prep sercives).
  • Take SAT and/or ACT multiple times (perhaps once at the end of Junior year and once at the beginning of Senior year), aim above 2100 on SAT and above 31 on ACT (may include test prep services).
  • Always take AP exams at the end of AP classes, try to get 5s on all of them.
  • Take two SAT II subject tests, aim above 700 on each.
  • One creative extracurricular for all four years of high school.
  • One athletic extracurricular for all four years of high school.
  • One volunteering extracurricular for all four years of high school.
  • Hold an office/leadership position in a school club or other organization.
  • Win an award/recognition for one of your extracurriculars.
  • Ask two teachers from either your Junior or Senior year (who taught classes in which you got As) for recommendation letters at least one month before the application deadline.
  • Finish a draft of your admissions essay(s) at least one month before the deadline and have your English teacher/another grammar expert proofread it.
  • Write an essay about something you love, and mention how the specific school you are applying to will help you pursue your dreams.
  • If possible, apply to your top choice early decision.
  • Do not apply to all of the Ivies. Narrow down your choice as much as possible.

Next time, we’ll have a few concluding remarks about applying and getting into Ivy League undergraduate programs. Until then, best of luck, and keep studying!

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

So, by this point you’ve made the grades, taken the tests, done the extracurriculars, gotten your recommendations, written your essays, and sent the whole thing off to the school of your dreams. You’re done, right? Not so fast. You might have to do an interview.

What do I say? How do I act? What do I wear?!! The questions scream through your by now exhausted brain. Never fear, all will become clear in this eighth (!) installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? 

To begin with, not everyone gets an interview, so you might not even have to deal with this. Don’t worry if you don’t get an interview – Columbia didn’t interview me and I got in, while Princeton did interview me (and it went really well) and I didn’t get in. If a school does choose to interview you, you should consider it to be a good sign – it means they’re seriously considering you, and you’re pretty high up on their list of possible freshmen. If you don’t get an interview, it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in you. They might not have someone available near where you live, or they might have already decided to accept you. Who knows?

When I did my interview for Princeton, I was invited to the home of a Princeton alumnus living in my hometown, and we basically just chatted for a while, mostly about my accomplishments and all the stuff I included in my application and essay. I also brought a recording of a piece of music I wrote, which I believe made a nice impression. Overall, he was very friendly and it went very smoothly. If you follow a few basic guidelines and adhere to common sense, I see no reason why your interview should be any different.

To begin with, wear business casual clothing – no jeans or t-shirts – to show that you take the interview seriously. When you arrive, smile and shake the interviewer’s hand, and ask them how they’re doing. Your interviewer will then introduce him/herself and start asking you questions, such as: “Why do you want to go to this school?” “What makes you a good candidate for going to this school?” “What are your interests?” “What are your dreams?” etc. He or she may ask you to explain a concept that has to do with one of your interests, or tell a story about something you put on your application.

You’ll be ready for your Charlie Rose appearance before you know it.

The key is to talk about how great you are without sounding like you’re boasting, and to sound intelligent and articulate as you converse. Try to come up with a few stories about impressive things you have done: how you won an award, how you got elected president of math club, how you organized a fundraiser, how you played a concerto with an orchestra, etc. Also, remember, you get to talk about whatever it is that interests you most, so you’re on your home turf, so to speak. If you stick to topics you know and care a lot about, you’re bound to sound intelligent, passionate, and dedicated.

You might try practicing for the interview with a friend or parent. Just have them ask you the above questions and talk about your accomplishments. Most of this will all be stuff that you’ve already included in your application, so it should all be fresh in your mind. Just relax, and try to be the most polite, friendly, and polished version of yourself that you can be.

After the interview (if there is an interview), that’s it. You just have to sit tight and wait for that envelope in the mail to arrive. Next time on What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, I will do my best to provide you with a convenient checklist summarizing all of the preceding posts. Until next time, keep studying!

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Today, in our seventh installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we turn from the substance and content of your applications to more strategic questions. Of course, if you don’t have the substance, this won’t get you in – but if you screw the strategy part up, it can still keep you out.

How many schools should you apply to? Which ones? Should you do early decision? These are the kinds of strategic issues I’m talking about.

When applying to Ivy League schools, one of the worst things you can do is apply to all of them and hope you get into one of them. A friend of mine in high school who was at least as strong as I was academically applied to over a dozen different schools, including all the Ivies in hopes of increasing his odds of getting into one of them. All the Ivy League schools rejected him. He still got into a very good school and is doing great in graduate school now, but he went to all the trouble of filling out all those applications and suffered all that stress for nothing. I applied to four schools, only two of them Ivies, and got into all but one.

School newspapers can be an excellent source of information for prospective students.

When sending off applications to the Ivy League, less is definitely more. Remember, these schools want all the students they accept to actually attend in the Fall and not go somewhere else instead. If you applied to all of the Ivies, then why should they believe that you would choose them if another Ivy also ends up accepting you? Thus, universal rejection.

What you need to do is research – these schools actually are different and distinct from each other in a number of ways, and each one has its own unique history and personality. If possible, visit the schools, and try to set up meetings with professors in departments that interest you. Most importantly, try to talk to students who go there and are doing what you think you might want to do. They will have lots of advice and be able to tell you what it’s actually like to go to these schools, what things they love, what things annoy them, and how to take full advantage of the institution. Even if you can’t visit in person, you can try calling the admissions office and ask them if they could arrange for you to chat with a current student in a particular major. Also, try reading the college newspapers and blogs. These student publications can give you an unfiltered glimpse of student life, attitudes, and concerns on campus, which may help you narrow down the field.

Try to narrow it down to one or two top choices, and only apply to those. If you can narrow it down to one first choice school, I strongly recommend applying early decision/early action. There is no stronger message you can send a school to let them know that you are committed to going there if you are accepted, and that alone greatly increases your chances. The more students who have everything I have discussed in the previous posts that they can nail down early, the better. So if you feel like you’re looking good from the previous posts, applying early decision to your top choice is your best bet. I personally didn’t apply early decision, since I wasn’t 100% sure where I wanted to go and I didn’t want to narrow my options. Looking back, I think it would have been better if I had done more research and applied early decision – I would have had better information about the schools and I would have only had to fill out one application! Remember, in the end, you have to specify which school is your top choice on your application anyway, so you might as well get it done sooner rather than later.

Sometimes college admissions strategy can feel like a chess match.

If you don’t apply early decision, you will want to apply to at least two non-Ivy League schools, one that you are absolutely certain you can get into (a safety school) and one you feel you can probably get into. In addition to Columbia and Princeton, I applied to Rice and the University of Texas. I was guaranteed to get into UT because of Texas’s top 10% rule, and while I was uncertain about all the other schools, I felt I had a better chance of getting into Rice than I did into Princeton or Columbia, because Rice had a more forgiving acceptance rate. I listed Columbia as my top choice and got in everywhere except Princeton.

After you send off your application, you might be given the opportunity to do an interview with a representative from one of the schools to which you applied. Next time, we will discuss everything you need to know about Ivy League admissions interviews. Until then, keep studying!

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Welcome to part six of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? This time, we will discuss a critical part of your application over which you have almost no control. You don’t even get to see it: you recommendation letters. Who should I ask to write a recommendation for me? That’s pretty much the only question this time, ’cause it’s the only thing you get to decide.

You should ask teachers from your Junior or Senior year who taught an AP or IB class in which you made an A. Preferably, you will ask teachers who know who you are and like you. If possible, pick a teacher who can talk about something amazing you did for class – if you did a project that went above and beyond what was required, that would be a great thing for them to talk about in their recommendation, right? If you know them through a club or extracurricular activity in addition to acing their course, that’s a plus, too.

The main thing, though, is to get As in their courses. These teachers have to write recommendations every year, and I bet most of them have it down to a science (or a form letter with blanks where your name goes). As long as you did well and didn’t antagonize them, chances are they will write you a wonderful, glowing recommendation. Just trust them, be polite and gracious, and take it easy.

Most elite schools require two teacher recommendations, so you may want to pick one humanities teacher and one math/science teacher, although it depends on what you want to study in college. I asked my U.S. History teacher and my IB Music/Orchestra teacher for recommendations, for instance. I believe a high school counselor recommendation is often required as well, although, since you have no control over who that is, there isn’t really anything you can do or worry about in this area. I remember our counselors had us fill out a questionnaire that our counselors could use to pretend they knew who we were (at a school with 800 graduating seniors, who could blame them?), so that part was very low stress for me. As long as you don’t have some sort of epic feud with your high school counselor, that should be fine.

Whatever you do, DO NOT trade sex for college recommendations.

In addition to these required recommendations, you also have the option of submitting additional, supplementary recommendations. Remember that your college admissions officers have thousands of applications to go through, so if you do submit an extra recommendation, it had better be good: only consider doing this if there is an adult who knows you well and they are either someone who can write about something impressive you did outside of school or they are someone famous/important/powerful. For instance, if you are really into volunteering and led a big volunteering project, you might have your adult sponsor write a recommendation about your accomplishments. I personally did not submit any extra recommendations, so they really aren’t necessary. If you have something really impressive, though, go for it.

The same goes for other supplementary materials. I did submit a CD and scores of pieces of music I wrote, since music and my ambitions as a composer were a running theme throughout my application, and I like to think my pieces were pretty impressive for a high school kid. These parts of the application are truly optional, so if you don’t have supplementary materials, don’t worry about it.

That pretty much wraps up all the stuff that’s actually in your application. So, now what do you do with it? Next time we will discuss application strategy, which can be critical in getting you in. Until then, keep studying!

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

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

Ask Test Masters: AP, IB, and Dual Credit

Ask Test Masters is a great resource available to you where you can directly ask us questions about all your college admissions needs. Recently, we received the following query:

“Hey, so I’m absolutely confused about DC/ AP classes. I’ve recently just dropped out of IB, and don’t know much about AP classes. I haven’t really decided on which college I want to go to but my top priority would be Baylor or UT. Depends on my major- which is yet undecided.”

-N.G.

Dear N.G.,

As a student who did both AP and IB in high school, I hope I will be able to answer your question about switching from IB to AP. The International Baccalaureate Programme is very philosophical and has all of these special classes (Theory of Knowledge) and essays (Extended Essay) and other projects (Creativity Action Service hours) that you have to complete in order to get the diploma. The good news is that AP is much more straightforward, and if your school offers AP classes in addition to IB classes, your AP classwork should be enough to prepare you for the exams. There are no extra essays or projects or classes to complete. The bad news is that an AP exam is essentially like an HL IB exam, and you won’t have any easier SL-type exams (although the Calculus AB AP Exam does cover less material than the Calculus BC Exam, and likewise with a few other AP exams). In general, you should try to take as many AP courses as you can while keeping your grades up.

For 1,300 years in Imperial China, entry into the elite civil service was determined by rigorous standardized exams that could last up to 72 hours and took place in solitary confinement.

If your school offers AP courses, you should be fine as long as you study hard and make good grades. However, I know that many schools specialize in either IB or AP, and there are few schools that offer both. If your school is IB only, I would strongly recommend reconsidering your decision to drop out of the program. You really need AP classes to prepare you for AP exams. In fact, schools are not allowed to let you take AP exams if you do not take AP courses.

Dual Credit is another option, although it is less widely accepted than AP or IB. According to the UT Austin website, “Some students take courses during high school that count toward high school graduation and toward college credit, usually through a local community college. If you received credit for such courses and you want the credit you earned to be transferred to UT Austin, you must submit an official transcript from the college(s) that awarded the credit to you.”

In Texas, public schools generally accept dual credit, but private schools generally do not. So Rice will not accept your dual credit courses, even though UT will. Out of state schools are also unlikely to accept dual credit. In general, AP and IB courses are considered to be more academically rigorous than dual credit courses and look more impressive on your transcript. Do your homework and find out what your top schools’ policies are toward dual credit – if it serves your needs, it may be just fine, but there is no guarantee that dual credit courses will allow you to place out of entry level college courses the way AP and IB exams will.

As far as your major is concerned, don’t worry too much about that now – most college students change their major at least once. In your exams you’ll want a nice balance between math/science and the humanities. If you are thinking of applying to a math/science program, taking more advanced math/science courses and scoring well on their corresponding AP/IB exams is a good way to show that you’re ready to study math/science at the college level, though. This may also allow you to place out of entry level math/science courses your freshman year, which is good because sometimes the instructors don’t speak English very well and these courses are often full of hyper-competitive pre-med students.

If you find you want extra help while studying for AP exams, there are many test prep services (like Test Masters) that can help you get that score of 5 you need to really make your AP credits count. Hope that was helpful!