As we reach the conclusion of this illustrious series on avoiding embarrassment in an interview setting, we would like to point out that most (if not all) of these sagacious tidbits can be applied to other aspects of your life as well. This certainly extends to and includes our number one Way to NOT Embarrass Yourself during a College Admissions Interview …
It’s an interview, not a firing squad.
You want to appear friendly without being overly familiar. The best interviewees appear relaxed, and at ease speaking with someone who may be their superior. They are confident, smile frequently, and don’t fidget. They present well thought-out responses to questions, and when asked a question they didn’t expect, don’t immediately answer and try to formulate a response mid-sentence. Think about what is being presented, formulate your thoughts and then speak. No interviewer will fault you for taking time to think of your answer.
“Yes sir, no sir. Yes ma’am, no ma’am.”
In this same vein, it’s important to remember that the person interviewing is not “man” or “dude.” They are “Mister” and “Miss” or “Missus”; or, even better, “Doctor” or “Professor.” Respond to questions with “Yes sir, no sir. Yes ma’am, no ma’am.” You want them to think of you as a young professional, and the best way to accomplish this is to act professionally. Remember, everything about you is being evaluated. If you are having lunch or dinner, put your napkin on your lap and don’t eat like a pig; if you are asked about your hobbies or how you spend your free time, refrain from mentioning the ‘rager’ you went to the night before.
Rapport should be in your repertoire.
Try to establish a rapport with the person conducting the interview, but remember that their job is to evaluate you and being your friend is simply not in their job description. Don’t be intimidated by this fact, just recognize it. You can still get them to like you, and if you can get them to invest in you as a candidate for whatever school or institution you are applying to, then all’s the better! Don’t be formal, be professional.
That’s it for College Compass’s Top 5 Ways NOT to Embarrass Yourself during a College Admissions Interview. If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that there is a single characteristic that each of our five tips share; namely, being prepared. From brushing your teeth and selecting an outfit, to rehearsing answers to questions you know you will be asked, to simply learning how to behave in an interview, the single most important way to avoid embarrassing yourself in a college admissions interview is to prepare.
This post is part of a series. Previous articles in this series include:
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 Partha asked:
“I will be graduating from school at the age of 16 as I am on the fast trek program of the school and I have done my grade 7 & 8 + 9 & 10 together. Will my young age be a problem in university admission? I checked with many university and they are of the opinion that we do not discriminate any one on age/sex/race religion etc. However, I need your opinion. I am Indian and studying with AP program school in Bangkok Thailand.
My next question is: is it better to do more AP subjects or better to do AP International diploma? My school is not offering AP English & French, which is required to get the AP diploma (the two languages I know), but my school is offering Biology/U.S History? government?Chemistry – I wish to take business subject as major – I already cleared AP World History and AP Micro Economics – currently I am in 11th grade and doing AP Calculus BC and Macro Economics. Please advise in my final year what I should do – 2 Languages or 2 Science us history – what is acceptable more in IVY and other high ranked colleges and universities?”
First of all, congratulations on completing your lower education curriculum so quickly!
To answer your first question: in the United States it is illegal to discriminate against a qualified candidate based on race, age, gender, religion, etc. In the context of an admission decision, you will not suffer because you are younger than other applicants. In fact, most if not all the universities you apply to will be duly impressed with your academic achievements. That being said, there are a number of other factors you should consider before deciding where and when to pursue a higher education.
Though your age might be an advantage when it comes to admissions, it might be a disadvantage in a larger context. The most important obstacles you encounter at the university level occur in the classroom; however, you should understand that not all the challenges you face in college will be academic. This is especially true for an early graduate, and doubly so for an international student. Our main concern is that you would suffer due to your cultural and real-world inexperience.
There is a financial challenge to consider as well; again, this is especially true for international students. A full scholarship might not be entirely out of the question for a student of your caliber; however, there are areas of financial costs associated with a higher education beside just tuition. These include things like books and fees (the costs of college other than tuition), room and board (where will you stay?), living expenses (what will you eat?), as well as other more superfluous costs, like entertainment costs (will you be able to afford to go to the movies?).
Your involvement with AP programs is excellent! Earning as many college credits as possible is something we absolutely encourage! Our advice is you should continue to
pursue college credit, either through online courses, which many American universities offer, or through additional AP classes. We feel this option could potentially answer most if not all of our concerns. Not only would this allow you to shorten your time spent at an undergraduate institution, which would greatly reduce the cost associated with attending it, but it would also give you time to mature, which might lead to an easier transition period when you do eventually start taking classes in the US. In addition to continuing to earn college credit, you could spend this time creating a nest egg for financial security. Also, if you wait until your 18th birthday it might be easier for you to not just find a job but to learn to juggle the dual responsibilities of simultaneously working and going to school should you need to.
If waiting is not an option and finances are not a problem, then our advice is simple: TALK TO YOUR PARENTS! Is there a chance either your mom or dad could travel and live overseas with you, at least for your first year? This would certainly ease the cultural transition of living in a new country; it would also give you a chance to “learn the ropes” of living alone before you actually have to. Either way, hopefully your parents can give you valuable insight and advice on what is best for you going forward. In a worst case scenario, you can always apply to your school of choice this year and (if accepted) defer attending for a year.
As for your second question: which AP courses should you take? The answer, of course, is it depends. If you are determined to apply to an Ivy League undergraduate business school, you should certainly prioritize AP Math and Language classes. These classes would demonstrate to admissions officers not just a capacity to succeed in the numbers-oriented world of business, but also an ability to communicate that success across any potential language boundaries. Unfortunately, it appears from your email that your school is not offering AP English or French, which are the two languages you would be most comfortable taking at the AP level. If this is the case, our advice is to NOT sign up for an advanced language class if you are not comfortable with the subject. Do NOT sacrifice your GPA and a high class ranking in an effort to impress a university admissions officer; signing up for an AP class you are not comfortable with could potentially backfire!
If AP Language is not an option and you have already taken the most advanced AP/BC Math class your school offers, then you will need to decide between taking a social science class (like History) or a physical science class (like Biology). Our advice is relatively straightforward: most Ivy League schools will require applicants take at least one, probably two SAT Subject Tests. You should take the AP class most closely associated with the SAT Subject Test you are planning on taking. If you are planning on taking a SAT Biology Subject Test, take AP Biology; if you are planning on taking the SAT History Subject Test, take AP History. However, you should remember: the greater range you demonstrate as an applicant, the more likely you are to be accepted. (Hint: why not take one Social Science and one Physical Science?)
There is one caveat you should be aware of when it comes to taking SAT Subject Tests: most Ivy League schools ask students whose first language is not English to take their SAT Subject Tests in a subject other than their native language. For example, the webpage listing the requirements for undergraduate applicants to Harvard University cautions, “Candidates whose first language is not English should ordinarily not use a Subject Test in their first language to meet the two Subject Tests requirement.” This means, for example, if you are a native French speaker you should NOT take the SAT French Subject Test.
The class of 2012’s SAT test data spotlights a downward trend in the nation’s median Critical Reading and Writing scores; however, after reviewing the College Board’s Total Group Profile Report, it seems this data, which on its face is discouraging, has been a bit sensationalized. The most widely circulated stories explicitly mention the 40-year low these scores represent, but they barely discuss the fact scores are down only 1 point from last year’s median averages in Critical Reading and Writing, or the fact the number of students achieving elite level scores has increased greatly over the last few years.
Last year approximately 1.66 million students took the SAT; this is the largest number of students to ever take the exam, and the decrease in median Critical Reading and Writing scores is most likely due in large part to the significant increase in the number of students considering college. Since 2008, College Board reports, the number of students taking the SAT has increased by 6% each year. All around the country previously uninterested students are being encouraged by parents, counselors, and friends to explore the opportunities a university education might afford them, and this is a good thing.
A larger pool of test takers offers dedicated students an opportunity to distance themselves even further from the rest of the pack; however, it is important to remember, despite the decrease in median Critical Reading and Writing scores, competition among elite test-takers has never been higher. From 2010 to 2012, the number of students scoring between 700-800 in Critical Reading and Writing has increased, respectively, from 71,160 to 77,888 and from 66,231 to 71,771. This is especially true for the SAT Math section, which, despite maintaining a median score of 514, has seen an increase in the number of students scoring between 700-800, in the same time frame, from 104,334 to 118,682 students.
These high scores indicate a growing level of competition among elite test takers. Coupled with an ever expanding group of college candidates, this means it is more important than ever to be thoroughly prepared for the SAT; the number of students thinking about a higher education may be increasing, but the number of spots available at our country’s most elite universities are not.
Remember, if you, your friends, or your children need help preparing for the PSAT, SAT, or ACT, the experts at Test Masters are available year round for all your educational needs.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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?
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.
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:
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
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.
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.
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.
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: