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Advice for Writing Application Essays

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The resources in this section provide a general timeline for undergraduate applications. In this section you will also find more detailed information about each stage in the application process, as well as a handout on writing the admissions application essay.

Advice for Writing Successful Application Essays

When you sit down to write your application essays, there is very little left that you can control. You should have already taken, or retaken, the SAT and ACT, your grades from your first three years of high school are set on your transcript, and your recommenders all have their impressions of you that are unlikely to change before the recommendation deadline. The only thing that left in your control is your writing for the application essay.

As with all things related to your college application, you will need to start drafting your application essay far ahead of the due date. In fact, you should move each school’s deadline up two weeks so that no unexpected events prevent you from completing and submitting your application. The reason that you need so much time to work on your essay is primarily because many schools will ask you to write about similar topics, but to do so in different ways. You will need enough time to draft essays that address each of these questions or prompts for each school to which you are applying.

Don't use boilerplate essays. That is, resist the urge to reuse the exact same essay for different schools if each of them is giving you a slightly different writing prompt. You can, of course, adapt the same essay for similar prompts. Many schools do allow you to use the Common Application essay for admission to several participating schools. For more information on the Common Application and to check which schools participate as members, click here .

Although using the Common Application does simplify the processes, make sure that you review each of the schools’ application requirements. as many of these same schools also request that you submit a second essay along with the Common Application essay. For instance, in addition to answering one of the standard Common Application questions, Amherst College asks that you write an additional essay responding to one of several quotations.

Before you can start writing your essay, you will need to begin by reading the prompts and questions carefully. Even the Common Application has six prompts that you can choose from. Don’t feel as though you must choose one immediately after reading them. You should ask yourself what sticks out the most for you after having read through them. Think about what is most salient for you.

Brainstorm by putting your thoughts on paper. You can free write (writing without stopping or censoring yourself), create word association maps (visually clustering concepts that you feel go together), or keep a journal over the course of several days so that you can collect your thoughts in one place. See the Purdue OWL's PowerPoint on “ Finding your Focus ” for more details on these strategies.

After you have generated several ideas, reflect on where you find the most intensity or excitement in what you were writing. If nothing jumps out at you, keep brainstorming or talk with others about some possible topics until something grabs you.

Once you know what want to write about, put a rough draft on paper. Don’t be afraid of stray thoughts if they lead you to something more interesting than you had set out to write. Just make sure that you eventually come to have a rough draft that is about one thing.

Look over your draft and check for the following.

  • Your writing should be personal. After reading your essay, does it seem like anyone could have written this? Make sure that your essay captures who you are.
  • You writing should show, not tell, through vivid language. Successful essays relate an experience or analyze a pattern from the writer’s life. It is not enough to make general claims about what impacted your decision to go to college, for instance; you must elaborate by including evidence that answers “how” and “why” when you make your claims.

It is important to note that admissions officers care as much about your structure, style, and insights as they do about your content. That is not meant to add an extra layer of anxiety to your writing process, but to highlight the fact that you don’t necessarily need to have something life-changing to write about in order to write a successful essay. As Dowhan, Dowhan and Kaufman note in Essays that Will Get You into College , “Personal does not have to mean heavy, emotional or even inspiring” (10). In fact, as the authors explain, students might over rely on the significant event that they write about to speak for itself and don’t “explain what it meant to them or give a solid example of how it changed them. In other words, they do not make it personal” (10).

Finally, your writing should be about a sustained topic. You must use vivid description with a purpose. What is it that you learned because of this experience? What message can you decipher from the series of events that you present? What led you to your conclusions?

Once you have completed your rough draft, put it away for a few days. Afterwards, read the question again and look through your essay. Ask yourself if the essay answers the prompt. Is it personal? Does it use vivid language? Is it focused on one topic? Rewrite whatever needs to be strengthened. This is a great time to have other people look through your draft and get their reaction. Make sure that you ask someone early, and that you trust this person’s judgment; they will be putting in a lot of time to help you, so don’t disregard anything that is inconvenient or that you don’t want to hear.

Again, giving yourself plenty of time to work on this essay is vital. You should have enough time to rewrite or restructure your essay based on the feedback that you have received. As you are drafting and revising, feel free to fix any mistakes that you catch in terms of spelling, grammar, and mechanics, but don’t spend too much time editing early on in the writing process. Working on lower-order concerns can give you the impression that the essay is ready to submit prematurely. Instead, use this time to strengthen the main points of your essay.

To supplement the advice offered on this page, you can find a handout on writing the admissions application essay here .

Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

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How to Write an Effective Essay

Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.

Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.

Tips for Essay Writing

A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.

1. Start Early.

Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.

You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.

2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.

Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.

3. Create a Strong Opener.

Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.

Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.

4. Stay on Topic.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.

A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.

5. Think About Your Response.

Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.

6. Focus on You.

Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.

7. Stay True to Your Voice.

Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.

8. Be Specific and Factual.

Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.

9. Edit and Proofread.

When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.

Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.

What is the format of a college application essay?

Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.

Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.

How do you start an essay?

The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.

You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.

What should an essay include?

Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.

What shouldn’t be included in an essay?

When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.

How can you make your essay personal and interesting?

The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.

Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?

Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.

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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

how long is a short essay college applications

What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples

The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.

A standout essay has a few key ingredients:

  • A unique, personal topic
  • A compelling, well-structured narrative
  • A clear, creative writing style
  • Evidence of self-reflection and insight

To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.

Table of contents

Why do you need a standout essay, start organizing early, choose a unique topic, outline your essay, start with a memorable introduction, write like an artist, craft a strong conclusion, revise and receive feedback, frequently asked questions.

While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.

Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

What do colleges look for in an essay?

Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay :

  • Demonstrated values and qualities
  • Vulnerability and authenticity
  • Self-reflection and insight
  • Creative, clear, and concise writing skills

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.

Create an essay tracker sheet

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:

  • Deadlines and number of essays needed
  • Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts

You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.

College essay tracker template

Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.

If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.

What makes a good topic?

  • Meaningful and personal to you
  • Uncommon or has an unusual angle
  • Reveals something different from the rest of your application

Brainstorming questions

You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:

  • What are your top five values? What lived experiences demonstrate these values?
  • What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • What challenges or failures have you faced and overcome? What lessons did you learn from them?
  • What makes you different from your classmates?
  • What are some objects that represent your identity, your community, your relationships, your passions, or your goals?
  • Whom do you admire most? Why?
  • What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?

How to identify your topic

Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:

  • Start with your qualities : First, identify positive qualities about yourself; then, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
  • Start with a story : Brainstorm a list of memorable life moments; then, identify a value shown in each story.

After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline , which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.

Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.

Vignettes structure

The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.

This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.

Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences

  • Introduction: Tour guide introduces my museum and my “Making Sense of My Heritage” exhibit
  • Story: Racial discrimination with my eyes
  • Lesson: Using my writing to document truth
  • Story: Broadway musical interests
  • Lesson: Finding my voice
  • Story: Smells from family dinner table
  • Lesson: Appreciating home and family
  • Story: Washing dishes
  • Lesson: Finding moments of peace in busy schedule
  • Story: Biking with Ava
  • Lesson: Finding pleasure in job well done
  • Conclusion: Tour guide concludes tour, invites guest to come back for “fall College Collection,” featuring my search for identity and learning.

Single story structure

The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.

Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.

Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person

  • Situation: Football injury
  • Challenge: Friends distant, teachers don’t know how to help, football is gone for me
  • Turning point: Starting to like learning in Ms. Brady’s history class; meeting Christina and her friends
  • My reactions: Reading poetry; finding shared interest in poetry with Christina; spending more time studying and with people different from me
  • Insight: They taught me compassion and opened my eyes to a different lifestyle; even though I still can’t play football, I’m starting a new game

Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs

Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.

Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction , or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..

Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).

While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.

Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.

Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook

Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.

Option 2: Start with vivid imagery

Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.

A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story and stand out .

Show, don’t tell

“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “ Show ” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”

First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.

  • What are the most prominent images?
  • Are there any particular sounds, smells, or tastes associated with this memory?
  • What emotion or physical feeling did you have at that time?

Be vulnerable to create an emotional response

You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.

Use appropriate style and tone

Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:

  • Use a conversational yet respectful tone: less formal than academic writing, but more formal than texting your friends.
  • Prioritize using “I” statements to highlight your perspective.
  • Write within your vocabulary range to maintain an authentic voice.
  • Write concisely, and use the active voice to keep a fast pace.
  • Follow grammar rules (unless you have valid stylistic reasons for breaking them).

You should end your college essay with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:

  • Summarizing what you already wrote
  • Stating your hope of being accepted to the school
  • Mentioning character traits that should have been illustrated in the essay, such as “I’m a hard worker”

Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.

Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure

The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.

In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.

Option 2: Revealing your insight

You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.

Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.

It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.

Also check out our college essay examples to see what does and doesn’t work in an essay and the kinds of changes you can make to improve yours.

Respect the word count

Most schools specify a word count for each essay , and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.

Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Check your content, style, and grammar

  • First, check big-picture issues of message, flow, and clarity.
  • Then, check for style and tone issues.
  • Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Get feedback

Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.

  • Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your content, language, and tone.
  • Friends and family can check for authenticity.
  • An essay coach or editor has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and can give objective expert feedback.

The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.

College admissions essay checklist

I’ve organized my essay prompts and created an essay writing schedule.

I’ve done a comprehensive brainstorm for essay topics.

I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me and reveals something different from the rest of my application.

I’ve created an outline to guide my structure.

I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of telling.

I’ve shown positive traits and values in my essay.

I’ve demonstrated self-reflection and insight in my essay.

I’ve used appropriate style and tone .

I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.

I’ve revised my essay , checking my overall message, flow, clarity, and grammar.

I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.

Congratulations!

It looks like your essay ticks all the boxes. A second pair of eyes can help you take it to the next level – Scribbr's essay coaches can help.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

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How Long Do College Applications Take?

Technically, the college application process begins when you first enter high school as a freshman. The classes you take, the extracurriculars you choose, and your grades all throughout high school are all reflected in the final college applications that you send in during your senior year. That being said, the process of actually filling out your college applications and completing all of the necessary parts doesn’t start until you are an upperclassman, and there are several time-consuming steps involved. 

Luckily, you don’t need to worry about remembering everything you need to do to complete your college applications. We’ve outlined exactly what steps you need to take during the college application process, broken out by year of high school, as well as how long each should take you, on average. This way, you can plan and allocate time for your college applications far in advance and set yourself up for success. 

Junior Year 

Many students make the mistake of thinking that their college application process starts during their senior year. However, there are a few key things that you need to do during your junior year that will be necessary when filling out your applications. 

1. Take The SAT/ACT and SAT Subject Tests (40-60 hours) 

The SAT/ACT are standardized tests that assess your aptitude and college readiness on an identical scale to all other students who take the exam. You are usually required to take at least one of these tests and submit your test score for your college applications, though it is worth noting there are some schools that don’t require it, and some schools that have waived that requirement due to Coronavirus. 

You should also check whether your colleges require the SAT Subject Tests. These are hour-long, subject-specific exams, and you can take up to three in one sitting. Many students don’t realize they need to take these for more competitive schools and programs (like engineering), so that unfortunately limits where they can apply. To get a more comprehensive overview of SAT Subject Tests, check out our post What are SAT Subject Tests? .

Now, preparing for these exams properly often takes 4-6 months, with some time studying each day, and a handful of full-length practice tests, which take 3-4 hours.

Here are some free resources to help you prepare for these exams: 

Links to Every SAT Practice Test + Other Free Resources

Your Guide to Free SAT Prep Classes

Your Guide to Online ACT Prep Classes

25 Tips and Tricks For The SAT

10 Tips to Improve Your ACT Score

SAT Subject Tests: Everything You Need to Know

2. Think About Who To Ask For Recommendation Letters (2-3 Hours)

Since you apply to college during the fall semester of your senior year, your senior year teachers won’t have had enough time with you to write your letters of recommendation for college applications. So, your choices for recommenders are usually restricted to your teachers from your first three years of high school, though you’ll ideally pick teachers from your junior year (since you had them recently). 

Now, choosing a recommender is more than just selecting a few teachers at random. You should think carefully about which teachers would write you the best recommendation letter based on which teachers:

  • Know you best and can speak best to your academic accomplishments
  • Would be willing to take the time to write you a thoughtful recommendation letter
  • Would be most reliable in submitting the letter on time. 

Then, once you’ve chosen your recommenders, you need to reach out to them for a recommendation letter kindly and respectfully, making sure that you’ve given the recommender all of the information about you that they need to craft a stellar letter (they may ask you for a brag sheet , so be prepared to make one). 

Want a more thorough explanation of how to choose which teachers to ask for recommendation letters? Follow our comprehensive guide.  

3. Research Colleges and Visit Them (20+ Hours)

You should narrow down the list of which colleges you want to apply to during your junior year because this is a big decision with a lot of factors at play. You need to think about whether you want to go to a big college or a smaller college, which colleges are best for your intended major, where in the world you want to be during college, how much each college is going to cost, etc. 

Thinking about all of these factors and choosing colleges that fit your criteria takes quite a bit of time and a lot of research. Plus, if you decide to visit some colleges to get a better idea of whether they would be right for you, those visits can sometimes take days, depending on how far you go for your visit. 

Luckily, we at CollegeVine have given you a great place to start your research and plan your college list from the comforts of your home. Our School List Builder helps you form your college list by taking into account your preferences, your chances of acceptance based on your profile, and each school’s cost of attendance. 

Moreover, if you want to get a first-hand view of what it is like to attend some of the schools you’re considering, join CollegeVine’s Livestreams , where you’ll not only gain some helpful college application tips from the experts, but also have the opportunity to have Q&A’s with current students from the top schools.

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Discover your chances at hundreds of schools

Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.

Senior Year 

1. decide whether or not you’re applying early (5-10 hours).

Most students know that the majority of colleges set their college application deadline around January 1st. However, if you are really passionate about a school, you have the opportunity to submit your college application earlier in the semester to be given early consideration for acceptance. However, many of these early decision options come with large caveats (e.g. if you get accepted early, you are obligated to attend). So it’s important to know what each early applying option is and how it might affect you: 

Early Decision (ED): Early November

Applying to a college Early Decision means that you submit your application months before the Regular Application deadline, and you commit yourself to attending that specific university if you are accepted. You can’t apply to more than one school Early Decision. 

Early Action (EA): Early November 

Early Action differs from Early Decision in that your acceptance to the school in question is not binding, and you can apply to more than one school Early Action. You could apply to a school Early Action in order to indicate your interest in the college, but you would have the option to turn down the acceptance in favor of another college if given the opportunity. 

Restrictive Early Action/Single-Choice Early Action (REA/SCEA): Early November

Like Early Action, REA/SCEA is non-binding, but you can only apply to one private school using this option. For more information on this option, check out our comprehensive post on Restrictive Early Action.

Early Decision 2 (ED 2): Early January

Some colleges offer an Early Decision 1 deadline and an Early Decision 2 deadline. The two are very similar in that they are binding decisions that require you to submit your applications early. However, ED 1 deadlines are usually earlier than ED 2 deadlines. For more details on this, see ED I vs. ED II: Frequently Asked Questions .

Regular Decision (RD): Early January

This is the college application process that most people are familiar with. You submit your application by the Regular Application deadline (usually January 1), and you’ll be considered for admission amidst the much larger Regular Decision pool of students. 

Rolling Decision

Larger public universities often use rolling decisions, which is when they review applications on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you apply, the more spots there are available, and the more lenient the standards tend to be. The good thing about schools with rolling admissions is that they tend to accept applications well into the spring, but you should always apply as early as you can to increase your chances of acceptance.

Deciding whether to apply early can take anywhere from 5-10 hours because you need to assess whether there’s a school that you want to attend enough to apply early, and also whether you can complete the application in the shortened time frame. Here are some helpful blog posts to help you make this decision: 

What Are the Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision?

Does Applying Early Decision Increase My Chances?

Should I Apply Early Decision If I Need Financial Aid?

2. Write The Common App Essays (20-30 hours)

Now it comes time to actually fill out your college applications. When you submit the Common App, you will need to use the essays to showcase who you are and why you stand out from other applicants. 

The Common App essay is one of a portfolio of essays that you will send to colleges, but it is arguably the most important. This essay will be seen by every college you apply to using the platform. Good essays are deeply personal and show how you think, solve problems, make decisions, and what you’re passionate about. 

These essays can take anywhere from 20-30 hours as you need to carefully choose a prompt, brainstorm ideas, organize your thoughts, draft, edit, re-draft, edit again, and so on. You also need to make sure you proofread before you submit for any grammar mistakes and have someone else who knows you proofread as well.

To learn more about the Common Application Essays, the Coalition Application Essays (another major application platform), and receive strategic tips on how to tackle this year’s prompts, check out: 

How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2020-2021

How to Write the Common App Essays 2020-2021—With Examples

11 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your Writing

3. Complete Each School’s Supplemental Essays (5-10 hours per school)

Supplemental essays are the college-specific essays that you may or may not have to write, depending on which colleges you are applying to. Some colleges require several short supplemental essays on prompts that are specific to their school. For example, one of MIT’s supplemental essay prompts during the 2019-2020 school year was: 

“At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)”

On the other hand, some colleges don’t require supplemental essays at all . If you do find yourself with numerous supplemental essays to write, you may notice that there are common themes among the prompts for different colleges. There will probably be essays you can write that would be applicable to multiple supplemental essay prompts for different schools. 

For example, many colleges ask for an essay describing your extracurricular involvement. With a little bit of tweaking, you could make one extracurricular essay speak to every prompt that asks about it. Since there is likely to be overlap in your supplemental essay prompts, we expect this process to take less time than the general Common App/Coalition Application essays.

That being said, there are some essays that you absolutely should not reuse for multiple schools. For example, the famous “ Why This College? ” essay needs to be unique to the school and mention specific aspects of each college that appeal to you. If you find yourself thinking you can reuse a “Why This College?” essay, you probably haven’t been specific enough with the essay. 

4. Fill Out Financial Aid Documents (5-10 hours)

Once all is said and done and your application is complete, you still need to figure out how you plan to pay for college. Of course, before you apply to colleges, you should have a conversation with your family outlining just how much they can contribute financially and how much outside funding you’ll need. 

If you need financial aid to fund your college tuition, you’ll have to submit applications. The most common financial aid applications are the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. The FAFSA is an application for U.S. citizens to apply for federal government-funded need-based student loans. The CSS Profile is a financial aid form administered by The College Board that helps over 400 colleges across the nation determine what financial aid package to offer you. 

To learn more about how to fill out the FAFSA, see The Ultimate Guide For Filling Out The FAFSA . For more information on the CSS Profile, check out Every School That Requires The CSS Profile.

Filling out these forms can take a bit of time, as you’ll need to gather your family’s financial info and relevant documents. It can be helpful to have a parent/guardian nearby while you’re going through these forms.

The Bottom Line

The college application process starts during your Junior year and can take at least 100 hours to complete. This process includes completing your standardized tests, asking for recommendation letters, researching colleges, writing essays and more. 

Once you’ve done all the preliminary steps for filling out the application, actually filling out each school-specific application and writing their supplemental essays should only take 5-10 hours. 

As you begin your College Application and research process, you may be asking yourself important questions: What test scores should I aim for? What colleges should I apply to? What colleges do I have a chance of getting into? To help you answer those tough questions, CollegeVine offers a free Chancing Engine that lets you know your chances of acceptance at the schools of your choice, plus how to improve your profile. Sign up for a free CollegeVine account to get started today.

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.

Pamela Reynolds

When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.

Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.

So, what does this mean for you?

Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.

A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.

A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.

Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.

Be Authentic

More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.

Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.

Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.

Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.

Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.

Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

Grab the Reader From the Start

You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.

Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.

Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.

Focus on Deeper Themes

Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.

College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.

They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.

Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?

Show Don’t Tell

As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.

The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.

Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.

Try Doing Something Different

If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?

If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.

You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.

However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.

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Write With the Reader in Mind

Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.

Use transitions between paragraphs.

Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?

Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?

Write Several Drafts

Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.

Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.

Read It Aloud

Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.

Don’t Repeat

If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.

Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.

Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.

Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.

Pay Attention to Form

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.

“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.

In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.

End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.

It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.

So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.

While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.

Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!

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About the Author

Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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There are several ways parents can lend support to their children during the college application process. Here's how to get the ball rolling.

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Application Essays

What this handout is about.

This handout will help you write and revise the personal statement required by many graduate programs, internships, and special academic programs.

Before you start writing

Because the application essay can have a critical effect upon your progress toward a career, you should spend significantly more time, thought, and effort on it than its typically brief length would suggest. It should reflect how you arrived at your professional goals, why the program is ideal for you, and what you bring to the program. Don’t make this a deadline task—now’s the time to write, read, rewrite, give to a reader, revise again, and on until the essay is clear, concise, and compelling. At the same time, don’t be afraid. You know most of the things you need to say already.

Read the instructions carefully. One of the basic tasks of the application essay is to follow the directions. If you don’t do what they ask, the reader may wonder if you will be able to follow directions in their program. Make sure you follow page and word limits exactly—err on the side of shortness, not length. The essay may take two forms:

  • A one-page essay answering a general question
  • Several short answers to more specific questions

Do some research before you start writing. Think about…

  • The field. Why do you want to be a _____? No, really. Think about why you and you particularly want to enter that field. What are the benefits and what are the shortcomings? When did you become interested in the field and why? What path in that career interests you right now? Brainstorm and write these ideas out.
  • The program. Why is this the program you want to be admitted to? What is special about the faculty, the courses offered, the placement record, the facilities you might be using? If you can’t think of anything particular, read the brochures they offer, go to events, or meet with a faculty member or student in the program. A word about honesty here—you may have a reason for choosing a program that wouldn’t necessarily sway your reader; for example, you want to live near the beach, or the program is the most prestigious and would look better on your resume. You don’t want to be completely straightforward in these cases and appear superficial, but skirting around them or lying can look even worse. Turn these aspects into positives. For example, you may want to go to a program in a particular location because it is a place that you know very well and have ties to, or because there is a need in your field there. Again, doing research on the program may reveal ways to legitimate even your most superficial and selfish reasons for applying.
  • Yourself. What details or anecdotes would help your reader understand you? What makes you special? Is there something about your family, your education, your work/life experience, or your values that has shaped you and brought you to this career field? What motivates or interests you? Do you have special skills, like leadership, management, research, or communication? Why would the members of the program want to choose you over other applicants? Be honest with yourself and write down your ideas. If you are having trouble, ask a friend or relative to make a list of your strengths or unique qualities that you plan to read on your own (and not argue about immediately). Ask them to give you examples to back up their impressions (For example, if they say you are “caring,” ask them to describe an incident they remember in which they perceived you as caring).

Now, write a draft

This is a hard essay to write. It’s probably much more personal than any of the papers you have written for class because it’s about you, not World War II or planaria. You may want to start by just getting something—anything—on paper. Try freewriting. Think about the questions we asked above and the prompt for the essay, and then write for 15 or 30 minutes without stopping. What do you want your audience to know after reading your essay? What do you want them to feel? Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, organization, or anything else. Just get out the ideas you have. For help getting started, see our handout on brainstorming .

Now, look at what you’ve written. Find the most relevant, memorable, concrete statements and focus in on them. Eliminate any generalizations or platitudes (“I’m a people person”, “Doctors save lives”, or “Mr. Calleson’s classes changed my life”), or anything that could be cut and pasted into anyone else’s application. Find what is specific to you about the ideas that generated those platitudes and express them more directly. Eliminate irrelevant issues (“I was a track star in high school, so I think I’ll make a good veterinarian.”) or issues that might be controversial for your reader (“My faith is the one true faith, and only nurses with that faith are worthwhile,” or “Lawyers who only care about money are evil.”).

Often, writers start out with generalizations as a way to get to the really meaningful statements, and that’s OK. Just make sure that you replace the generalizations with examples as you revise. A hint: you may find yourself writing a good, specific sentence right after a general, meaningless one. If you spot that, try to use the second sentence and delete the first.

Applications that have several short-answer essays require even more detail. Get straight to the point in every case, and address what they’ve asked you to address.

Now that you’ve generated some ideas, get a little bit pickier. It’s time to remember one of the most significant aspects of the application essay: your audience. Your readers may have thousands of essays to read, many or most of which will come from qualified applicants. This essay may be your best opportunity to communicate with the decision makers in the application process, and you don’t want to bore them, offend them, or make them feel you are wasting their time.

With this in mind:

  • Do assure your audience that you understand and look forward to the challenges of the program and the field, not just the benefits.
  • Do assure your audience that you understand exactly the nature of the work in the field and that you are prepared for it, psychologically and morally as well as educationally.
  • Do assure your audience that you care about them and their time by writing a clear, organized, and concise essay.
  • Do address any information about yourself and your application that needs to be explained (for example, weak grades or unusual coursework for your program). Include that information in your essay, and be straightforward about it. Your audience will be more impressed with your having learned from setbacks or having a unique approach than your failure to address those issues.
  • Don’t waste space with information you have provided in the rest of the application. Every sentence should be effective and directly related to the rest of the essay. Don’t ramble or use fifteen words to express something you could say in eight.
  • Don’t overstate your case for what you want to do, being so specific about your future goals that you come off as presumptuous or naïve (“I want to become a dentist so that I can train in wisdom tooth extraction, because I intend to focus my life’s work on taking 13 rather than 15 minutes per tooth.”). Your goals may change–show that such a change won’t devastate you.
  • And, one more time, don’t write in cliches and platitudes. Every doctor wants to help save lives, every lawyer wants to work for justice—your reader has read these general cliches a million times.

Imagine the worst-case scenario (which may never come true—we’re talking hypothetically): the person who reads your essay has been in the field for decades. She is on the application committee because she has to be, and she’s read 48 essays so far that morning. You are number 49, and your reader is tired, bored, and thinking about lunch. How are you going to catch and keep her attention?

Assure your audience that you are capable academically, willing to stick to the program’s demands, and interesting to have around. For more tips, see our handout on audience .

Voice and style

The voice you use and the style in which you write can intrigue your audience. The voice you use in your essay should be yours. Remember when your high school English teacher said “never say ‘I’”? Here’s your chance to use all those “I”s you’ve been saving up. The narrative should reflect your perspective, experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Focusing on events or ideas may give your audience an indirect idea of how these things became important in forming your outlook, but many others have had equally compelling experiences. By simply talking about those events in your own voice, you put the emphasis on you rather than the event or idea. Look at this anecdote:

During the night shift at Wirth Memorial Hospital, a man walked into the Emergency Room wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. He seemed confused and was moaning in pain. One of the nurses ascertained that he had been swinging from tree branches in a local park and had hit his head when he fell out of a tree. This tragic tale signified the moment at which I realized psychiatry was the only career path I could take.

An interesting tale, yes, but what does it tell you about the narrator? The following example takes the same anecdote and recasts it to make the narrator more of a presence in the story:

I was working in the Emergency Room at Wirth Memorial Hospital one night when a man walked in wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. I could tell he was confused and in pain. After a nurse asked him a few questions, I listened in surprise as he explained that he had been a monkey all of his life and knew that it was time to live with his brothers in the trees. Like many other patients I would see that year, this man suffered from an illness that only a combination of psychological and medical care would effectively treat. I realized then that I wanted to be able to help people by using that particular combination of skills only a psychiatrist develops.

The voice you use should be approachable as well as intelligent. This essay is not the place to stun your reader with ten prepositional phrases (“the goal of my study of the field of law in the winter of my discontent can best be understood by the gathering of more information about my youth”) and thirty nouns (“the research and study of the motivation behind my insights into the field of dentistry contains many pitfalls and disappointments but even more joy and enlightenment”) per sentence. (Note: If you are having trouble forming clear sentences without all the prepositions and nouns, take a look at our handout on style .)

You may want to create an impression of expertise in the field by using specialized or technical language. But beware of this unless you really know what you are doing—a mistake will look twice as ignorant as not knowing the terms in the first place. Your audience may be smart, but you don’t want to make them turn to a dictionary or fall asleep between the first word and the period of your first sentence. Keep in mind that this is a personal statement. Would you think you were learning a lot about a person whose personal statement sounded like a journal article? Would you want to spend hours in a lab or on a committee with someone who shuns plain language?

Of course, you don’t want to be chatty to the point of making them think you only speak slang, either. Your audience may not know what “I kicked that lame-o to the curb for dissing my research project” means. Keep it casual enough to be easy to follow, but formal enough to be respectful of the audience’s intelligence.

Just use an honest voice and represent yourself as naturally as possible. It may help to think of the essay as a sort of face-to-face interview, only the interviewer isn’t actually present.

Too much style

A well-written, dramatic essay is much more memorable than one that fails to make an emotional impact on the reader. Good anecdotes and personal insights can really attract an audience’s attention. BUT be careful not to let your drama turn into melodrama. You want your reader to see your choices motivated by passion and drive, not hyperbole and a lack of reality. Don’t invent drama where there isn’t any, and don’t let the drama take over. Getting someone else to read your drafts can help you figure out when you’ve gone too far.

Taking risks

Many guides to writing application essays encourage you to take a risk, either by saying something off-beat or daring or by using a unique writing style. When done well, this strategy can work—your goal is to stand out from the rest of the applicants and taking a risk with your essay will help you do that. An essay that impresses your reader with your ability to think and express yourself in original ways and shows you really care about what you are saying is better than one that shows hesitancy, lack of imagination, or lack of interest.

But be warned: this strategy is a risk. If you don’t carefully consider what you are saying and how you are saying it, you may offend your readers or leave them with a bad impression of you as flaky, immature, or careless. Do not alienate your readers.

Some writers take risks by using irony (your suffering at the hands of a barbaric dentist led you to want to become a gentle one), beginning with a personal failure (that eventually leads to the writer’s overcoming it), or showing great imagination (one famous successful example involved a student who answered a prompt about past formative experiences by beginning with a basic answer—”I have volunteered at homeless shelters”—that evolved into a ridiculous one—”I have sealed the hole in the ozone layer with plastic wrap”). One student applying to an art program described the person he did not want to be, contrasting it with the person he thought he was and would develop into if accepted. Another person wrote an essay about her grandmother without directly linking her narrative to the fact that she was applying for medical school. Her essay was risky because it called on the reader to infer things about the student’s character and abilities from the story.

Assess your credentials and your likelihood of getting into the program before you choose to take a risk. If you have little chance of getting in, try something daring. If you are almost certainly guaranteed a spot, you have more flexibility. In any case, make sure that you answer the essay question in some identifiable way.

After you’ve written a draft

Get several people to read it and write their comments down. It is worthwhile to seek out someone in the field, perhaps a professor who has read such essays before. Give it to a friend, your mom, or a neighbor. The key is to get more than one point of view, and then compare these with your own. Remember, you are the one best equipped to judge how accurately you are representing yourself. For tips on putting this advice to good use, see our handout on getting feedback .

After you’ve received feedback, revise the essay. Put it away. Get it out and revise it again (you can see why we said to start right away—this process may take time). Get someone to read it again. Revise it again.

When you think it is totally finished, you are ready to proofread and format the essay. Check every sentence and punctuation mark. You cannot afford a careless error in this essay. (If you are not comfortable with your proofreading skills, check out our handout on editing and proofreading ).

If you find that your essay is too long, do not reformat it extensively to make it fit. Making readers deal with a nine-point font and quarter-inch margins will only irritate them. Figure out what material you can cut and cut it. For strategies for meeting word limits, see our handout on writing concisely .

Finally, proofread it again. We’re not kidding.

Other resources

Don’t be afraid to talk to professors or professionals in the field. Many of them would be flattered that you asked their advice, and they will have useful suggestions that others might not have. Also keep in mind that many colleges and professional programs offer websites addressing the personal statement. You can find them either through the website of the school to which you are applying or by searching under “personal statement” or “application essays” using a search engine.

If your schedule and ours permit, we invite you to come to the Writing Center. Be aware that during busy times in the semester, we limit students to a total of two visits to discuss application essays and personal statements (two visits per student, not per essay); we do this so that students working on papers for courses will have a better chance of being seen. Make an appointment or submit your essay to our online writing center (note that we cannot guarantee that an online tutor will help you in time).

For information on other aspects of the application process, you can consult the resources at University Career Services .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Asher, Donald. 2012. Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice , 4th ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Curry, Boykin, Emily Angel Baer, and Brian Kasbar. 2003. Essays That Worked for College Applications: 50 Essays That Helped Students Get Into the Nation’s Top Colleges . New York: Ballantine Books.

Stelzer, Richard. 2002. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School , 3rd ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Thomson Peterson.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Sample Short Answer Essay on Running

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The Common Application no longer requires a short answer essay from all applicants, but many colleges continue to include the short answer as part of a supplement. The short answer essay prompt typically states something like this:

"Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences ."

Colleges like this type of question because it gives their applicants the opportunity to identify an activity that is meaningful to them and to explain why it is meaningful. This information can be useful to colleges with holistic admissions as they try to identify students who will bring interesting skills and passions to the campus community.

Sample Short Answer Essay

Christie wrote the following sample short answer essay to elaborate upon her love of running:

It is the simplest of movements: right foot, left foot, right foot. It is the simplest of actions: run, relax, breathe. For me, running is both the most basic and the most complex activity I perform in any day. While my body adjusts to the challenges of gravel paths and steep inclines, my mind is free to drift, to sift through whatever needs sorting or disposing—the upcoming day's tasks, an argument with a friend, some nagging stress. As my calf muscles loosen and my breathing settles into its deep rhythm, I am able to release that stress, forget that argument, and set my mind in order. And at the midway point, two miles into the course, I stop at the hilltop vista overlooking my little town and the surrounding woodlands. For just a moment, I stop to listen to my own strong heartbeat. Then I run again.

Critique of the Short Answer Essay

The author has focused on a personal activity, running, not any history-making achievement, team triumph, world-changing social work, or even a formal extracurricular activity . As such, the short answer essay does not highlight any kind of remarkable accomplishment or personal talent.

But think about what this short answer essay does reveal; the author is someone who can find pleasure in the "simplest" of activities. She is someone who has found an effective way of dealing with stress and finding peace and equilibrium in her life. She reveals that she is in tune with her self and her small-town environment.

This one little paragraph gives us the impression that the author is a thoughtful, sensitive, and healthy person. In a short space, the essay reveals the maturity of the writer; she is reflective, articulate, and balanced. These are all dimensions of her character that will not come across in her lists of grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. They are also personal qualities that will be attractive to a college.

The writing is also solid. The prose is tight, clear, and stylistic without being over-written. The length is a perfect  823 characters and 148 words. This is a typical length limit for a short-answer essay. That said, if your college is asking for just 100 words or something longer, be sure to follow their instructions carefully.

Role of Essays and Your College Application

Keep in mind the role of any essays, even short ones, that you submit with your college application. You want to present a dimension of yourself that isn't readily apparent elsewhere in your application materials. Reveal some hidden interest, passion, or struggle that will give the admissions folks a more detailed portrait of yourself.

The college has asked for a short essay because it has holistic admissions ; in other words, the school tries to evaluate the whole applicant through both quantitative. A short answer essay gives the college a useful window into the applicant's interests.

Christie succeeds on this front. For both the writing and the content, she has written a winning short answer essay. You may want to explore another example of a good short answer on working at Burger King as well as learn lessons from a weak short answer on soccer and a weak short answer on entrepreneurship. In general, if you follow the advice on writing a winning short answer and avoid common short answer mistakes, your essay will strengthen your application and help make you an attractive candidate for admission.

  • Sample Short Answer on Soccer
  • Sample College Application Short Answer Essay
  • Common Application Short Answer Essay on Entrepreneurship
  • How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be?
  • Short Answer Response on Working at Burger King
  • Short Answer Mistakes
  • Common Application Short Answer Tips
  • Ideal College Application Essay Length
  • How to Ace Your University of Wisconsin Personal Statements
  • What Are the Best Extracurricular Activities?
  • "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"—Sample Common Application Essay, Option #4
  • 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue
  • Tips for Writing a Winning College Application Essay
  • Sample Weak Supplemental Essay for Duke University
  • Common Supplemental Essay Mistakes
  • Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, my successful harvard application (complete common app + supplement).

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Other High School , College Admissions , Letters of Recommendation , Extracurriculars , College Essays

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In 2005, I applied to college and got into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. I decided to attend Harvard.

In this guide, I'll show you the entire college application that got me into Harvard—page by page, word for word .

In my complete analysis, I'll take you through my Common Application, Harvard supplemental application, personal statements and essays, extracurricular activities, teachers' letters of recommendation, counselor recommendation, complete high school transcript, and more. I'll also give you in-depth commentary on every part of my application.

To my knowledge, a college application analysis like this has never been done before . This is the application guide I wished I had when I was in high school.

If you're applying to top schools like the Ivy Leagues, you'll see firsthand what a successful application to Harvard and Princeton looks like. You'll learn the strategies I used to build a compelling application. You'll see what items were critical in getting me admitted, and what didn't end up helping much at all.

Reading this guide from beginning to end will be well worth your time—you might completely change your college application strategy as a result.

First Things First

Here's the letter offering me admission into Harvard College under Early Action.

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I was so thrilled when I got this letter. It validated many years of hard work, and I was excited to take my next step into college (...and work even harder).

I received similar successful letters from every college I applied to: Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. (After getting into Harvard early, I decided not to apply to Yale, Columbia, UChicago, UPenn, and other Ivy League-level schools, since I already knew I would rather go to Harvard.)

The application that got me admitted everywhere is the subject of this guide. You're going to see everything that the admissions officers saw.

If you're hoping to see an acceptance letter like this in your academic future, I highly recommend you read this entire article. I'll start first with an introduction to this guide and important disclaimers. Then I'll share the #1 question you need to be thinking about as you construct your application. Finally, we'll spend a lot of time going through every page of my college application, both the Common App and the Harvard Supplemental App.

Important Note: the foundational principles of my application are explored in detail in my How to Get Into Harvard guide . In this popular guide, I explain:

  • what top schools like the Ivy League are looking for
  • how to be truly distinctive among thousands of applicants
  • why being well-rounded is the kiss of death

If you have the time and are committed to maximizing your college application success, I recommend you read through my Harvard guide first, then come back to this one.

You might also be interested in my other two major guides:

  • How to Get a Perfect SAT Score / Perfect ACT Score
  • How to Get a 4.0 GPA

What's in This Harvard Application Guide?

From my student records, I was able to retrieve the COMPLETE original application I submitted to Harvard. Page by page, word for word, you'll see everything exactly as I presented it : extracurricular activities, awards and honors, personal statements and essays, and more.

In addition to all this detail, there are two special parts of this college application breakdown that I haven't seen anywhere else :

  • You'll see my FULL recommendation letters and evaluation forms. This includes recommendations from two teachers, one principal, and supplementary writers. Normally you don't get to see these letters because you waive access to them when applying. You'll see how effective strong teacher advocates will be to your college application, and why it's so important to build strong relationships with your letter writers .
  • You'll see the exact pen marks made by my Harvard admissions reader on my application . Members of admissions committees consider thousands of applications every year, which means they highlight the pieces of each application they find noteworthy. You'll see what the admissions officer considered important—and what she didn't.

For every piece of my application, I'll provide commentary on what made it so effective and my strategies behind creating it. You'll learn what it takes to build a compelling overall application.

Importantly, even though my application was strong, it wasn't perfect. I'll point out mistakes I made that I could have corrected to build an even stronger application.

Here's a complete table of contents for what we'll be covering. Each link goes directly to that section, although I'd recommend you read this from beginning to end on your first go.

Common Application

Personal Data

Educational data, test information.

  • Activities: Extracurricular, Personal, Volunteer
  • Short Answer
  • Additional Information

Academic Honors

Personal statement, teacher and counselor recommendations.

  • Teacher Letter #1: AP Chemistry
  • Teacher Letter #2: AP English Lang

School Report

  • Principal Recommendation

Harvard Application Supplement

  • Supplement Form
  • Writing Supplement Essay

Supplementary Recommendation #1

Supplementary recommendation #2, supplemental application materials.

Final Advice for You

I mean it—you'll see literally everything in my application.

In revealing my teenage self, some parts of my application will be pretty embarrassing (you'll see why below). But my mission through my company PrepScholar is to give the world the most helpful resources possible, so I'm publishing it.

One last thing before we dive in—I'm going to anticipate some common concerns beforehand and talk through important disclaimers so that you'll get the most out of this guide.

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Important Disclaimers

My biggest caveat for you when reading this guide: thousands of students get into Harvard and Ivy League schools every year. This guide tells a story about one person and presents one archetype of a strong applicant. As you'll see, I had a huge academic focus, especially in science ( this was my Spike ). I'm also irreverent and have a strong, direct personality.

What you see in this guide is NOT what YOU need to do to get into Harvard , especially if you don't match my interests and personality at all.

As I explain in my Harvard guide , I believe I fit into one archetype of a strong applicant—the "academic superstar" (humor me for a second, I know calling myself this sounds obnoxious). There are other distinct ways to impress, like:

  • being world-class in a non-academic talent
  • achieving something difficult and noteworthy—building a meaningful organization, writing a novel
  • coming from tremendous adversity and performing remarkably well relative to expectations

Therefore, DON'T worry about copying my approach one-for-one . Don't worry if you're taking a different number of AP courses or have lower test scores or do different extracurriculars or write totally different personal statements. This is what schools like Stanford and Yale want to see—a diversity in the student population!

The point of this guide is to use my application as a vehicle to discuss what top colleges are looking for in strong applicants. Even though the specific details of what you'll do are different from what I did, the principles are the same. What makes a candidate truly stand out is the same, at a high level. What makes for a super strong recommendation letter is the same. The strategies on how to build a cohesive, compelling application are the same.

There's a final reason you shouldn't worry about replicating my work—the application game has probably changed quite a bit since 2005. Technology is much more pervasive, the social issues teens care about are different, the extracurricular activities that are truly noteworthy have probably gotten even more advanced. What I did might not be as impressive as it used to be. So focus on my general points, not the specifics, and think about how you can take what you learn here to achieve something even greater than I ever did.

With that major caveat aside, here are a string of smaller disclaimers.

I'm going to present my application factually and be 100% straightforward about what I achieved and what I believed was strong in my application. This is what I believe will be most helpful for you. I hope you don't misinterpret this as bragging about my accomplishments. I'm here to show you what it took for me to get into Harvard and other Ivy League schools, not to ask for your admiration. So if you read this guide and are tempted to dismiss my advice because you think I'm boasting, take a step back and focus on the big picture—how you'll improve yourself.

This guide is geared toward admissions into the top colleges in the country , often with admissions rates below 10%. A sample list of schools that fit into this: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, UChicago, Duke, UPenn, CalTech, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Brown. The top 3-5 in that list are especially looking for the absolute best students in the country , since they have the pick of the litter.

Admissions for these selective schools works differently from schools with >20% rates. For less selective schools, having an overall strong, well-rounded application is sufficient for getting in. In particular, having an above average GPA and test scores goes the majority of the way toward getting you admission to those schools. The higher the admission rate, the more emphasis will be placed on your scores. The other pieces I'll present below—personal statements, extracurriculars, recommendations—will matter less.

Still, it doesn't hurt to aim for a stronger application. To state the obvious, an application strong enough to get you Columbia will get you into UCLA handily.

In my application, I've redacted pieces of my application for privacy reasons, and one supplementary recommendation letter at the request of the letter writer. Everything else is unaltered.

Throughout my application, we can see marks made by the admissions officer highlighting and circling things of note (you'll see the first example on the very first page). I don't have any other applications to compare these to, so I'm going to interpret these marks as best I can. For the most part, I assume that whatever he underlines or circles is especially important and noteworthy —points that he'll bring up later in committee discussions. It could also be that the reader got bored and just started highlighting things, but I doubt this.

Finally, I co-founded and run a company called PrepScholar . We create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to you and your strengths and weaknesses . I believe we've created the best prep program available, and if you feel you need to raise your SAT/ACT score, then I encourage you to check us out . I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a prep program to get a great score , and the advice in this guide has little to do with my company. But if you're aren't sure how to improve your score and agree with our unique approach to SAT/ACT prep, our program may be perfect for you.

With all this past us, let's get started.

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The #1 Most Important College Application Question: What Is Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE?

If you stepped into an elevator with Yale's Dean of Admissions and you had ten seconds to describe yourself and why you're interesting, what would you say?

This is what I call your PERSONAL NARRATIVE. These are the three main points that represent who you are and what you're about . This is the story that you tell through your application, over and over again. This is how an admissions officer should understand you after just glancing through your application. This is how your admissions officer will present you to the admissions committee to advocate for why they should accept you.

The more unique and noteworthy your Personal Narrative is, the better. This is how you'll stand apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants to your top choice school. This is why I recommend so strongly that you develop a Spike to show deep interest and achievement. A compelling Spike is the core of your Personal Narrative.

Well-rounded applications do NOT form compelling Personal Narratives, because "I'm a well-rounded person who's decent at everything" is the exact same thing every other well-rounded person tries to say.

Everything in your application should support your Personal Narrative , from your course selection and extracurricular activities to your personal statements and recommendation letters. You are a movie director, and your application is your way to tell a compelling, cohesive story through supporting evidence.

Yes, this is overly simplistic and reductionist. It does not represent all your complexities and your 17 years of existence. But admissions offices don't have the time to understand this for all their applicants. Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE is what they will latch onto.

Here's what I would consider my Personal Narrative (humor me since I'm peacocking here):

1) A science obsessive with years of serious research work and ranked 6 th in a national science competition, with future goals of being a neuroscientist or physician

2) Balanced by strong academic performance in all subjects (4.0 GPA and perfect test scores, in both humanities and science) and proficiency in violin

3) An irreverent personality who doesn't take life too seriously, embraces controversy, and says what's on his mind

These three elements were the core to my application. Together they tell a relatively unique Personal Narrative that distinguishes me from many other strong applicants. You get a surprisingly clear picture of what I'm about. There's no question that my work in science was my "Spike" and was the strongest piece of my application, but my Personal Narrative included other supporting elements, especially a description of my personality.

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My College Application, at a High Level

Drilling down into more details, here's an overview of my application.

  • This put me comfortably in the 99 th percentile in the country, but it was NOT sufficient to get me into Harvard by itself ! Because there are roughly 4 million high school students per year, the top 1 percentile still has 40,000 students. You need other ways to set yourself apart.
  • Your Spike will most often come from your extracurriculars and academic honors, just because it's hard to really set yourself apart with your coursework and test scores.
  • My letters of recommendation were very strong. Both my recommending teachers marked me as "one of the best they'd ever taught." Importantly, they corroborated my Personal Narrative, especially regarding my personality. You'll see how below.
  • My personal statements were, in retrospect, just satisfactory. They represented my humorous and irreverent side well, but they come across as too self-satisfied. Because of my Spike, I don't think my essays were as important to my application.

Finally, let's get started by digging into the very first pages of my Common Application.

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There are a few notable points about how simple questions can actually help build a first impression around what your Personal Narrative is.

First, notice the circle around my email address. This is the first of many marks the admissions officer made on my application. The reason I think he circled this was that the email address I used is a joke pun on my name . I knew it was risky to use this vs something like [email protected], but I thought it showed my personality better (remember point #3 about having an irreverent personality in my Personal Narrative).

Don't be afraid to show who you really are, rather than your perception of what they want. What you think UChicago or Stanford wants is probably VERY wrong, because of how little information you have, both as an 18-year-old and as someone who hasn't read thousands of applications.

(It's also entirely possible that it's a formality to circle email addresses, so I don't want to read too much into it, but I think I'm right.)

Second, I knew in high school that I wanted to go into the medical sciences, either as a physician or as a scientist. I was also really into studying the brain. So I listed both in my Common App to build onto my Personal Narrative.

In the long run, both predictions turned out to be wrong. After college, I did go to Harvard Medical School for the MD/PhD program for 4 years, but I left to pursue entrepreneurship and co-founded PrepScholar . Moreover, in the time I did actually do research, I switched interests from neuroscience to bioengineering/biotech.

Colleges don't expect you to stick to career goals you stated at the age of 18. Figuring out what you want to do is the point of college! But this doesn't give you an excuse to avoid showing a preference. This early question is still a chance to build that Personal Narrative.

Thus, I recommend AGAINST "Undecided" as an area of study —it suggests a lack of flavor and is hard to build a compelling story around. From your high school work thus far, you should at least be leaning to something, even if that's likely to change in the future.

Finally, in the demographic section there is a big red A, possibly for Asian American. I'm not going to read too much into this. If you're a notable minority, this is where you'd indicate it.

Now known as: Education

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This section was straightforward for me. I didn't take college courses, and I took a summer chemistry class at a nearby high school because I didn't get into the lottery at my school that year (I refer to this briefly in my 4.0 GPA guide ).

The most notable point of this section: the admissions officer circled Principal here . This is notable because our school Principal only wrote letters for fewer than 10 students each year. Counselors wrote letters for the other hundreds of students in my class, which made my application stand out just a little.

I'll talk more about this below, when I share the Principal's recommendation.

(In the current Common Application, the Education section also includes Grades, Courses, and Honors. We'll be covering each of those below).

Now known as: Testing

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Back then AP scores weren't part of this section, but I'll take them from another part of my application here.

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However, their standards are still very high. You really do want to be in that top 1 percentile to pass the filter. A 1400 on the SAT IS going to put you at a disadvantage because there are so many students scoring higher than you. You'll really have to dig yourself out of the hole with an amazing application.

I talk about this a lot more in my Get into Harvard guide (sorry to keep linking this, but I really do think it's an important guide for you to read).

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Let's end this section with some personal notes.

Even though math and science were easy for me, I had to put in serious effort to get an 800 on the Reading section of the SAT . As much as I wish I could say it was trivial for me, it wasn't. I learned a bunch of strategies and dissected the test to get to a point where I understood the test super well and reliably earned perfect scores.

I cover the most important points in my How to Get a Perfect SAT Score guide , as well as my 800 Guides for Reading , Writing , and Math .

Between the SAT and ACT, the SAT was my primary focus, but I decided to take the ACT for fun. The tests were so similar that I scored a 36 Composite without much studying. Having two test scores is completely unnecessary —you get pretty much zero additional credit. Again, with one test score, you have already passed their filter.

Finally, class finals or state-required exams are a breeze if you get a 5 on the corresponding AP tests .

Now known as: Family (still)

This section asks for your parent information and family situation. There's not much you can do here besides report the facts.

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I'm redacting a lot of stuff again for privacy reasons.

The reader made a number of marks here for occupation and education. There's likely a standard code for different types of occupations and schools.

If I were to guess, I'd say that the numbers add to form some metric of "family prestige." My dad got a Master's at a middle-tier American school, but my mom didn't go to graduate school, and these sections were marked 2 and 3, respectively. So it seems higher numbers are given for less prestigious educations by your parents. I'd expect that if both my parents went to schools like Caltech and Dartmouth, there would be even lower numbers here.

This makes me think that the less prepared your family is, the more points you get, and this might give your application an extra boost. If you were the first one in your family to go to college, for example, you'd be excused for having lower test scores and fewer AP classes. Schools really do care about your background and how you performed relative to expectations.

In the end, schools like Harvard say pretty adamantly they don't use formulas to determine admissions decisions, so I wouldn't read too much into this. But this can be shorthand to help orient an applicant's family background.

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Extracurricular, Personal, and Volunteer Activities

Now known as: Activities

For most applicants, your Extracurriculars and your Academic Honors will be where you develop your Spike and where your Personal Narrative shines through. This was how my application worked.

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Just below I'll describe the activities in more detail, but first I want to reflect on this list.

As instructed, my extracurriculars were listed in the order of their interest to me. The current Common App doesn't seem to ask for this, but I would still recommend it to focus your reader's attention.

The most important point I have to make about my extracurriculars: as you go down the list, there is a HUGE drop in the importance of each additional activity to the overall application. If I were to guess, I assign the following weights to how much each activity contributed to the strength of my activities section:

In other words, participating in the Research Science Institute (RSI) was far more important than all of my other extracurriculars, combined. You can see that this was the only activity my admissions reader circled.

You can see how Spike-y this is. The RSI just completely dominates all my other activities.

The reason for this is the prestige of RSI. As I noted earlier, RSI was (and likely still is) the most prestigious research program for high school students in the country, with an admission rate of less than 5% . Because the program was so prestigious and selective, getting in served as a big confirmation signal of my academic quality.

In other words, the Harvard admissions reader would likely think, "OK, if this very selective program has already validated Allen as a top student, I'm inclined to believe that Allen is a top student and should pay special attention to him."

Now, it took a lot of prior work to even get into RSI because it's so selective. I had already ranked nationally in the Chemistry Olympiad (more below), and I had done a lot of prior research work in computer science (at Jisan Research Institute—more about this later). But getting into RSI really propelled my application to another level.

Because RSI was so important and was such a big Spike, all my other extracurriculars paled in importance. The admissions officer at Princeton or MIT probably didn't care at all that I volunteered at a hospital or founded a high school club .

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This is a good sign of developing a strong Spike. You want to do something so important that everything else you do pales in comparison to it. A strong Spike becomes impossible to ignore.

In contrast, if you're well-rounded, all your activities hold equal weight—which likely means none of them are really that impressive (unless you're a combination of Olympic athlete, internationally-ranked science researcher, and New York Times bestselling author, but then I'd call you unicorn because you don't exist).

Apply this concept to your own interests—what can be so impressive and such a big Spike that it completely overshadows all your other achievements?

This might be worth spending a disproportionate amount of time on. As I recommend in my Harvard guide and 4.0 GPA guide , smartly allocating your time is critical to your high school strategy.

In retrospect, one "mistake" I made was spending a lot of time on the violin. Each week I spent eight hours on practice and a lesson and four hours of orchestra rehearsals. This amounted to over 1,500 hours from freshman to junior year.

The result? I was pretty good, but definitely nowhere near world-class. Remember, there are thousands of orchestras and bands in the country, each with their own concertmasters, drum majors, and section 1 st chairs.

If I were to optimize purely for college applications, I should have spent that time on pushing my spike even further —working on more Olympiad competitions, or doing even more hardcore research.

Looking back I don't mind this much because I generally enjoyed my musical training and had a mostly fun time in orchestra (and I had a strong Spike anyway). But this problem can be a lot worse for well-rounded students who are stretched too thin.

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Aside from these considerations about a Spike, I have two major caveats.

First, developing a Spike requires continuous, increasingly ambitious foundational work. It's like climbing a staircase. From the beginning of high school, each step was more and more ambitious—my first academic team, my first research experience, leading up to state and national competitions and more serious research work.

So when I suggest devoting a lot of time to developing your Spike, it's not necessarily the Spike in itself—it's also spending time on foundational work leading up to what will be your major achievement. That's why I don't see my time with academic teams or volunteering as wasted, even though in the end they didn't contribute as much to my application.

Second, it is important to do things you enjoy. I still enjoyed playing the violin and being part of an orchestra, and I really enjoyed my school's academic teams, even though we never went beyond state level. Even if some activities don't contribute as much to your application, it's still fine to spend some time on them—just don't delude yourself into thinking they're stronger than they really are and overspend time on them.

Finally, note that most of my activities were pursued over multiple years. This is a good sign of commitment—rather than hopping from activity year to year, it's better to show sustained commitment, as this is a better signal of genuine passion.

In a future article, I'll break down these activities in more detail. But this guide is already super long, so I want to focus our attention on the main points.

Short Answer: Extracurricular Activities

In today's Common Application, you have 50 characters to describe "Position/Leadership description and organization name" and 150 characters for "Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc."

Back then, we didn't have as much space per activity, and instead had a short answer question.

The Short Answer prompt:

Please describe which of your activities (extracurricular and personal activities or work experience) has been most meaningful and why.

I chose RSI as my most significant activity for two reasons—one based on the meaning of the work, and another on the social aspect.

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It's obvious that schools like Yale and UChicago want the best students in the world that they can get their hands on. Academic honors and awards are a great, quantifiable way to show that.

Here's the complete list of Academic Honors I submitted. The Common Application now limits you to five honors only (probably because they got tired of lists like these), but chances are you capture the top 98% of your honors with the top five.

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Charlie wins a Golden Ticket to Harvard.

I know this is intimidating if you don't already have a prestigious honor. But remember there are thousands of nationally-ranked people in a multitude of honor types, from science competitions to essay contests to athletics to weird talents.

And I strongly believe the #1 differentiator of high school students who achieve things is work ethic, NOT intelligence or talent. Yes, you need a baseline level of competence to get places, but people far undervalue the progress they can make if they work hard and persevere. Far too many people give up too quickly or fatigue without putting in serious effort.

If you're stuck thinking, "well I'm just an average person, and there's no way I'm going to become world-class in anything," then you've already lost before you've begun. The truth is everyone who achieves something of note puts in an incredible amount of hard work. Because this is invisible to you, it looks like talent is what distinguishes the two of you, when really it's much more often diligence.

I talk a lot more about the Growth Mindset in my How To Get a 4.0 GPA guide .

So my Chemistry Olympiad honor formed 90% of the value of this page. Just like extracurriculars, there's a quick dropoff in value of each item after that.

My research work took up the next two honors, one a presentation at an academic conference, and the other (Siemens) a research competition for high school researchers.

The rest of my honors were pretty middling:

  • National Merit Scholarship semifinalist pretty much equates to PSAT score, which is far less important than your SAT/ACT score. So I didn't really get any credit for this, and you won't either.
  • In Science Olympiad (this is a team-based competition that's not as prestigious as the academic Olympiads I just talked about), I earned a number of 1 st place state and regional medals, but we never made it to nationals.
  • I was mediocre at competition math because I didn't train for it, and I won some regional awards but nothing amazing. This is one place I would have spent more time, maybe in the time I'd save by not practicing violin as much. There are great resources for this type of training, like Art of Problem Solving , that I didn't know existed and could've helped me rank much higher.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, think about how many state medalists there are in the country, in the hundreds of competitions that exist . The number of state to national rankers is probably at least 20:1 (less than 50:1 because of variation in state size), so if there are 2,000 nationally ranked students, there are 40,000 state-ranked students in something !

So state honors really don't help you stand out on your Princeton application. There are just too many of them around.

On the other hand, if you can get to be nationally ranked in something, you will have an amazing Spike that distinguishes you.

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Now known as: Personal Essay

Now, the dreaded personal statement. Boy, oh boy, did I fuss over this one.

"What is the perfect combination of personal, funny, heartrending, and inspirational?"

I know I was wondering this when I applied.

Having read books like 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays , I was frightened. I didn't grow up as a refugee, wrenched from my war-torn home! I didn't have a sibling with a debilitating illness! How could anything I write compare to these tales of personal strength?

The trite truth is that colleges want to know who you really are . Clearly they don't expect everyone to have had immense personal struggle. But they do want students who are:

  • growth-oriented
  • introspective
  • kind and good-hearted

Whatever those words mean to you in the context of your life is what you should write about.

In retrospect, in the context of MY application, the personal statement really wasn't what got me into Harvard . I do think my Spike was nearly sufficient to get me admitted to every school in the country.

I say "nearly" because, even if you're world-class, schools do want to know you're not a jerk and that you're an interesting person (which is conveyed through your personal essay and letters of recommendation).

Back then, we had a set of different prompts :

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What did you think?

I'm still cringing a bit. Parts of this are very smug (see /r/iamverysmart ), and if you want to punch the writer in the face, I don't blame you. I want to as well.

We'll get to areas of improvement later, but first, let's talk about what this personal essay did well.

As I said above, I saw the theme of the snooze button as a VEHICLE to showcase a few qualities I cared about :

1) I fancied myself a Renaissance man (obnoxious, I know) and wanted to become an inventor and creator . I showed this through mentioning different interests (Rubik's cube, chemistry, Nietzsche) and iterating through a few designs for an alarm clock (electric shocks, explosions, Shakespearean sonnet recitation).

2) My personality was whimsical and irreverent. I don't take life too seriously. The theme of the essay—battling an alarm clock—shows this well, in comparison to the gravitas of the typical student essay. I also found individual lines funny, like "All right, so I had violated the divine honor of the family and the tenets of Confucius." At once I acknowledge my Chinese heritage but also make light of the situation.

3) I was open to admitting weaknesses , which I think is refreshing among people taking college applications too seriously and trying too hard to impress. The frank admission of a realistic lazy habit—pushing the Snooze button—served as a nice foil to my academic honors and shows that I can be down-to-earth.

So you see how the snooze button acts as a vehicle to carry these major points and a lot of details, tied together to the same theme .

In the same way, The Walking Dead is NOT a zombie show—the zombie environment is a VEHICLE by which to show human drama and conflict. Packaging my points together under the snooze button theme makes it a lot more interesting than just outright saying "I'm such an interesting guy."

So overall, I believe the essay accomplishes my goals and the main points of what I wanted to convey about myself.

Note that this is just one of many ways to write an essay . It worked for me, but it may be totally inappropriate for you.

Now let's look at this essay's weaknesses.

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Looking at it with a more seasoned perspective, some parts of it are WAY too try-hard. I try too hard to show off my breadth of knowledge in a way that seems artificial and embellishing.

The entire introduction with the Rubik's cube seems bolted on, just to describe my long-standing desire to be a Renaissance man. Only three paragraphs down do I get to the Snooze button, and I don't refer again to the introduction until the end. With just 650 words, I could have made the essay more cohesive by keeping the same theme from beginning to end.

Some phrases really make me roll my eyes. "Always hungry for more" and "ever the inventor" sound too forced and embellishing. A key principle of effective writing is to show, not say . You don't say "I'm passionate about X," you describe what extraordinary lengths you took to achieve X.

The mention of Nietzsche is over-the-top. I mean, come on. The reader probably thought, "OK, this kid just read it in English class and now he thinks he's a philosopher." The reader would be right.

The ending: "with the extra nine minutes, maybe I'll teach myself to cook fried rice" is silly. Where in the world did fried rice come from? I meant it as a nod to my Chinese heritage, but it's too sudden to work. I could have deleted the sentence and wrapped up the essay more cleanly.

So I have mixed feelings of my essay. I think it accomplished my major goals and showed the humorous, irreverent side of my personality well. However, it also gave the impression of a kid who thought he knew more than he did, a pseudo-sophisticate bordering on obnoxious. I still think it was a net positive.

At the end of the day, I believe the safest, surefire strategy is to develop a Spike so big that the importance of the Personal Essay pales in comparison to your achievements. You want your Personal Essay to be a supplement to your application, not the only reason you get in.

There are probably some cases where a well-rounded student writes an amazing Personal Essay and gets in through the strength of that. As a Hail Mary if you're a senior and can't improve your application further, this might work. But the results are very variable—some readers may love your essay, others may just think it's OK. Without a strong application to back it up, your mileage may vary.

Want to build the best possible college application?

We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools .

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This is a really fun section. Usually you don't get to read your letter of recommendation because you sign the FERPA waiver. I've also reached out to my letter writers to make sure they're ok with my showing this.

Teacher recommendations are incredibly important to your application. I would say that after your coursework/test scores and activities/honors, they're the 3 rd most important component of your application .

The average teacher sees thousands of students through a career, and so he or she is very well equipped to position you relative to all other students. Furthermore, your teachers are experienced adults—their impressions of you are much more reliable than your impressions of yourself (see my Personal Essay above). They can corroborate your entire Personal Narrative as an outside observer.

The most effective recommendation letters speak both to your academic strengths and to your personality. For the second factor, the teacher needs to have interacted with you meaningfully, ideally both in and out of class. Check out our guide on what makes for effective letters of recommendation .

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Starting from sophomore year, I started thinking about whom I connected better with and chose to engage with those teachers more deeply . Because it's standard for colleges to require two teachers in different subjects, I made sure to engage with English and history teachers as well as math and science.

The minimum requirement for a good letter is someone who taught a class in which you did well. I got straight A's in my coursework, so this wasn't an issue.

Beyond this, I had to look for teachers who would be strong advocates for me on both an academic and personal level . These tended to be teachers I vibed more strongly with, and typically these were teachers who demonstrably cared about teaching. This was made clear by their enthusiasm, how they treated students, and how much they went above expectations to help.

I had a lot of teachers who really just phoned it in and treated their job perfunctorily—these people are likely to write pretty blasé letters.

A final note before reading my actual teacher evaluations— you should avoid getting in the mindset where you get to know teachers JUST because you want a good recommendation letter . Your teachers have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of students pass through, and it's much easier to detect insincerity than you think.

If you honestly like learning and are an enthusiastic, responsible, engaging student, a great recommendation letter will follow naturally. The horse should lead the cart.

Read my How to Get a 4.0 GPA for tips on how to interact with teachers in a genuine way that'll make them love you.

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Teacher Letter #1: AP Chemistry Teacher

I took AP Chemistry in 10 th grade and had Miss Cherryl Vorak (now Mynster). She was young, having taught for fewer than 5 years when I had her. She was my favorite teacher throughout high school for these reasons:

  • She was enthusiastic, very caring, and spent a lot of time helping struggling students. She exuded pride in her work and seemed to consider teaching her craft.
  • She had a kind personality and was universally well liked by her students, even if they weren't doing so well. She was fair in her policies (it probably helped that science is more objective than English). She was also a younger teacher, and this helped her relate to kids more closely.
  • She was my advocate for much of the US National Chemistry Olympiad stuff, and in this capacity I got to know her even better outside of class. She provided me a lot of training materials, helped me figure out college chemistry, and directed me to resources to learn more.

By the time of the letter writing, I had known her for two full years and engaged with her continuously, even when I wasn't taking a class with her in junior year. We'd build up a strong relationship over the course of many small interactions.

All of this flowed down to the recommendation you see here. Remember, the horse leads the cart.

First, we'll look at the teacher evaluation page. The Common Application now has 16 qualities to rate, rather than the 10 here. But they're largely the same.

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You can see a very strong evaluation here, giving me the highest ratings possible for all qualities.

In today's Common Application, all of these Ratings are retained, aside from "Potential for Growth." Today's Common App also now includes Faculty Respect, Maturity, Leadership, Integrity, Reaction to Setbacks, Concern for Others, and TE Overall. You can tell that the updated Common App places a great emphasis on personality.

The most important point here: it is important to be ranked "One of the top few encountered in my career" for as many ratings as possible . If you're part of a big school, this is CRITICAL to distinguish yourself from other students. The more experienced and trustworthy the teacher, the more meaningful this is.

Again, it's a numbers game. Think about the 20,000+ high schools in the country housing 4 million+ high school students—how many people fit in the top 5% bucket?

Thus, being marked merely as Excellent (top 10%) is actually a negative rating , as far as admissions to top colleges is concerned. If you're in top 10%, and someone else with the SAME teacher recommender is being rated as "One of the top ever," it's really hard for the admissions officer to vouch for you over the other student.

You really want to make sure you're one of the best in your school class, if not one of the best the teacher has ever encountered. You'll see below how you can accomplish this.

Next, let's look at her letter.

As you read this, think— what are the interactions that would prompt the teacher to write a recommendation like this? This was a relationship built up in a period of over 2 years, with every small interaction adding to an overall larger impression.

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You can see how seriously they take the letter because of all the underlining . This admissions reader underlined things that weren't even underlined in my application, like my US National Chemistry Olympiad awards. It's one thing for a student to claim things about himself—it's another to have a teacher put her reputation on the line to advocate for her student.

The letter here is very strong for a multitude of reasons. First, the length is notable —most letters are just a page long, but this is nearly two full pages , single spaced. This indicates not just her overall commitment to her students but also of her enthusiastic support for me as an applicant.

The structure is effective: first Miss Vorak talks about my academic accomplishments, then about my personal qualities and interactions, then a summary to the future. This is a perfect blend of what effective letters contain .

On the micro-level, her diction and phrasing are precise and effective . She makes my standing clear with specific statements : "youngest student…top excelling student among the two sections" and "one of twenty students in the nation." She's clear about describing why my achievements are notable and the effort I put in, like studying college-level chemistry and studying independently.

When describing my personality, she's exuberant and fleshes out a range of dimensions: "conscientious, motivated and responsible," "exhibits the qualities of a leader," "actively seeks new experiences," "charismatic," "balanced individual with a warm personality and sense of humor." You can see how she's really checking off all the qualities colleges care about.

Overall, Miss Vorak's letter perfectly supports my Personal Narrative —my love for science, my overall academic performance, and my personality. I'm flattered and grateful to have received this support. This letter was important to complement the overall academic performance and achievements shown on the rest of my application.

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Teacher Letter #2: AP English Language Teacher

My second teacher Mrs. Swift was another favorite. A middle-aged, veteran English teacher, the best way I would describe her is "fiery." She was invigorating and passionate, always trying to get a rise out of students and push their thinking, especially in class discussions. Emotionally she was a reliable source of support for students.

First, the evaluation:

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You can see right away that her remarks are terser. She didn't even fill out the section about "first words that come to mind to describe this student."

You might chalk this up to my not being as standout of a student in her mind, or her getting inundated with recommendation letter requests after over a decade of teaching.

In ratings, you can see that I only earned 3 of the "one of the top in my career." There are a few explanations for this. As a teacher's career lengthens, it gets increasingly hard to earn this mark. I probably also didn't stand out as much as I did to my Chemistry teacher—most of my achievement was in science (which she wasn't closely connected to), and I had talented classmates. Regardless, I did appreciate the 3 marks she gave me.

Now, the letter. Once again, as you read this letter, think: what are the hundreds of micro-interactions that would have made a teacher write a letter like this?

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Overall, this letter is very strong. It's only one page long, but her points about my personality are the critical piece of this recommendation. She also writes with the flair of an English teacher:

"In other situations where students would never speak their minds, he showed no hesitation to voice questions, thoughts, and ideas."

"controversial positions often being the spark that set off the entire class"

"ability to take the quiet and shy student and actively engage"…"went out of my way to partner him with other students who needed"

"strength of conviction"…"raw, unbridled passion"…"He will argue on any topic that has touched a nerve."

These comments most support the personality aspect of my Personal Narrative—having an irreverent, bold personality and not being afraid of speaking my mind. She stops just short of making me sound obnoxious and argumentative. An experienced teacher vouching for this adds so much more weight than just my writing it about myself.

Teacher recommendations are some of the most important components of your application. Getting very strong letters take a lot of sustained, genuine interaction over time to build mutual trust and respect. If you want detailed advice on how to interact with teachers earnestly, check out my How to Get a 4.0 GPA and Better Grades guide .

Let's go to the final recommendation, from the school counselor.

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Now known as: School Report

The first piece of this is reporting your academic status and how the school works overall. There's not much to say here, other than the fact that my Principal wrote my recommendation for me, which we'll get into next.

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Counselor Recommendation

Now known as: Counselor Recommendation

Let's talk about my school principal writing my recommendation, rather than a school counselor.

This was definitely advantageous—remember how, way up top in Educational Data, the reader circled the "Principal." Our Principal only wrote a handful of these recommendations each year , often for people who worked closely with him, like student body presidents. So it was pretty distinctive that I got a letter from our Principal, compared to other leading applicants from my school.

This was also a blessing because our counseling department was terrible . Our school had nearly 1,000 students per grade, and only 1 counselor per grade. They were overworked and ornery, and because they were the gatekeepers of academic enrollment (like class selection and prerequisites), this led to constant frictions in getting the classes you wanted.

I can empathize with them, because having 500+ neurotic parents pushing for advantages for their own kids can get REALLY annoying really fast. But the counseling department was still the worst part of our high school administration, and I could have guessed that the letters they wrote were mediocre because they just had too many students.

So how did my Principal come to write my recommendation and not those for hundreds of other students?

I don't remember exactly how this came to be, to be honest. I didn't strategize to have him write a letter for me years in advance. I didn't even interact with him much at all until junior year, when I got on his radar because of my national rankings. Come senior year I might have talked to him about my difficulty in reaching counselors and asked that he write my recommendation. Since I was a top student he was probably happy to do this.

He was very supportive, but as you can tell from the letter to come, it was clear he didn't know me that well.

Interestingly, the prompt for the recommendation has changed. It used to start with: "Please write whatever you think is important about this student."

Now, it starts with: " Please provide comments that will help us differentiate this student from others ."

The purpose of the recommendation has shifted to the specific: colleges probably found that one counselor was serving hundreds of students, so the letters started getting mushy and indistinguishable from each other.

Here's the letter:

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This letter is probably the weakest overall of all my letters. It reads more like a verbal resume than a personal account of how he understands me.

Unlike my two teacher recommendations, he doesn't comment on the nature of our interactions or about my personality (because he truly didn't understand them well). He also misreported by SAT score as 1530 instead of 1600 (I did score a 1530 in an early test, but my 1600 was ready by January 2004, so I don't know what source he was using).

Notably, the letter writer didn't underline anything.

I still appreciate that he wrote my letter, and it was probably more effective than a generic counselor letter. But this didn't add much to my application.

At this point, we've covered my entire Common Application. This is the same application I sent to every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. Thanks for reading this far—I hope you've gotten a lot out of this already.

If you keep reading to the end, I'll have advice for both younger students and current applicants to build the strongest application possible.

Next, we'll go over the Harvard Supplemental Application, which of course is unique to Harvard.

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For most top colleges like Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and so on, you will need to complete a supplemental application to provide more info than what's listed on the Common Application.

Harvard was and is the same. The good news is that it's an extra chance for you to share more about yourself and keep pushing your Personal Narrative.

There are four major components here:

  • The application form
  • Writing supplement essay
  • Supplementary recommendations
  • Supplemental application materials

I'll take you through the application section by section.

Harvard Supplement Form

First, the straightforward info and questions.

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This section is pretty straightforward and is similar to what you'd see on a Columbia application.

I planned to live in a Harvard residence, as most students do.

Just as in my Common App, I noted that I was most likely to study biological sciences, choose Medicine as my vocation, and participate in orchestra, writing, and research as my extracurriculars. Nothing surprising here—it's all part of my Personal Narrative.

Interestingly, at the time I was "absolutely certain" about my vocational goals, which clearly took a detour once I left medical school to pursue entrepreneurship to create PrepScholar...

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I had the space to list some additional honors, where I listed some musical honors that didn't make the cut in my Common App.

Here are the next two pages of the Harvard supplemental form.

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The most interesting note here is that the admissions officer wrote a question mark above "Music tape or CD." Clearly this was inconsistent with my Personal Narrative —if violin was such an important part of my story, why didn't I want to include it?

The reason was that I was actually pretty mediocre at violin and was nowhere near national-ranked. Again, remember how many concertmasters in the thousands of orchestras there are in the world—I wasn't good enough to even be in the top 3 chairs in my school orchestra (violin was very competitive).

I wanted to focus attention on my most important materials, which for my Personal Narrative meant my research work. You'll see these supplementary materials later.

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Additional Essays

Now known as: Writing Supplement

For the most part, the Harvard supplemental essay prompt has stayed the same. You can write about a topic of your choice or about any of the suggestions. There are now two more prompts that weren't previously there: "What you would want your future college roommate to know about you" and "How you hope to use your college education."

Even though this is optional, I highly recommend you write something here. Again, you have so few chances in the overall application to convey your personal voice—an extra 500 words gives you a huge opportunity. I would guess that the majority of admitted Harvard students submit a Writing Supplement.

After a lot of brainstorming, I settled on the idea that I wanted to balance my application by writing about the major non-academic piece of my Personal Narrative—my music training . Also, I don't think I explicitly recognized this at the time, but I wanted to distance myself from the Asian-American stereotype—driven entirely by parent pressure, doing most things perfunctorily and without interest. I wanted to show I'd broken out of that mold.

Here's my essay:

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Reading it now, I actually think this was a pretty bad essay, and I cringe to high heaven. But once again, let's focus on the positive first.

I used my violin teacher as a vehicle for talking about what the violin meant to me. (You can tell I love the concept of the vehicle in essays.) He represented passion for the violin—I represented my academic priorities. Our personal conflict was really the conflict between what we represented.

By the end of the essay, I'd articulated the value of musical training to me—it was cathartic and a way to balance my hard academic pursuits.

Halfway in the essay, I also explicitly acknowledged the Asian stereotype of parents who drove their kids, and said my parents were no different. The reader underlined this sentence. By pointing this out and showing how my interest took on a life of its own, I wanted to distance myself from that stereotype.

So overall I think my aims were accomplished.

Despite all that, this essay was WAY overdramatic and overwrought . Some especially terrible lines:

"I was playing for that cathartic moment when I could feel Tchaikovsky himself looking over my shoulder."

"I was wandering through the fog in search of a lighthouse, finally setting foot on a dock pervaded by white light."

OK, please. Who really honestly feels this way? This is clumsy, contrived writing. It signals insincerity, actually, which is bad.

To be fair, all of this is grounded in truth. I did have a strict violin teacher who did get pretty upset when I showed lack of improvement. I did appreciate music as a diversion to round out my academic focus. I did practice hard each day, and I did have a pretty gross callus on my pinky.

But I would have done far better by making it more sincere and less overworked.

As an applicant, you're tempted to try so hard to impress your reader. You want to show that you're Worthy of Consideration. But really the best approach is to be honest.

I think this essay was probably neutral to my application, not a strong net positive or net negative.

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Supplementary Recommendations

Harvard lets you submit letters from up to two Other Recommenders. The Princeton application, Penn application, and others are usually the same.

Unlike the other optional components (the Additional Information in the Common App, and the Supplementary Essay), I would actually consider these letters optional. The reader gets most of the recommendation value from your teacher recommendations—these are really supplementary.

A worthwhile Other Recommender:

  • has supervised an activity or honor that is noteworthy
  • has interacted with you extensively and can speak to your personality
  • is likely to support you as one of the best students they've interacted with

If your Other Recommenders don't fulfill one or more of these categories, do NOT ask for supplementary letters. They'll dilute your application without adding substantively to it.

To beat a dead horse, the primary component of my Personal Narrative was my science and research work. So naturally I chose supervisors for my two major research experiences to write supplemental letters.

First was the Director of Research Science Institute (the selective summer research program at MIT). The second was from the head of Jisan Research Institute, where I did Computer Science research.

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This letter validates my participation in RSI and incorporates the feedback from my research mentor, David Simon. At the time, the RSI students were the most talented students I had met, so I'm also flattered by some of the things the letter writer said, like "Allen stood out early on as a strong performer in academic settings."

I didn't get to know the letter writer super well, so he commented mainly on my academic qualifications and comments from my mentor.

My mentor, who was at one of the major Harvard-affiliated hospitals, said some very nice things about my research ability, like:

"is performing in many ways at the level of a graduate student"

"impressed with Allen's ability to read even advanced scientific publications and synthesize his understanding"

Once again, it's much more convincing for a seasoned expert to vouch for your abilities than for you to claim your own abilities.

My first research experience was done at Jisan Research Institute, a small private computer science lab run by a Caltech PhD. The research staff were mainly high school students like me and a few grad students/postdocs.

My research supervisor, Sanza Kazadi, wrote the letter. He's requested that I not publish the letter, so I'll only speak about his main points.

In the letter, he focused on the quality of my work and leadership. He said that I had a strong focus in my work, and my research moved along more reliably than that of other students. I was independent in my work in swarm engineering, he says, putting together a simulation of the swarm and publishing a paper in conference proceedings. He talked about my work in leading a research group and placing a high degree of trust in me.

Overall, a strong recommendation, and you get the gist of his letter without reading it.

One notable point—both supplemental letters had no marks on them. I really think this means they place less emphasis on the supplementary recommendations, compared to the teacher recommendations.

Finally, finally, we get to the very last piece of my application.

Let me beat the dead horse even deader. Because research was such a core part of my Personal Narrative, I decided to include abstracts of both of my papers. The main point was to summarize the body of work I'd done and communicate the major results.

As Harvard says, "These materials are entirely optional; please only submit them if you have unusual talents."

This is why I chose not to submit a tape of my music: I don't think my musical skill was unusually good.

And frankly, I don't think my research work was that spectacular. Unlike some of my very accomplished classmates, I hadn't ranked nationally in prestigious competitions like ISEF and Siemens. I hadn't published my work in prominent journals.

Regardless, I thought these additions would be net positive, if only marginally so.

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I made sure to note where the papers had been published or were entering competitions, just to ground the work in some achievement.

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  • Recommendation Letters: Hopefully you should have developed strong, genuine relationships with teachers you care about. The letters should flow naturally from here, and you will only need to do gentle prodding to make sure they meet deadlines.
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    Colleges still accepting applications, including rolling admission options.

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    As college application season starts to wind down and spring approaches, most high school seniors have likely finished applying to colleges. Many regular decision deadlines for colleges ended in January, with decisions to be released in early April.

    Students can still find their dream college, even late in the cycle.

    However, there is a common misconception that once the regular decision deadlines have passed, students will have no more options for applying to colleges. Some colleges around the country have late deadlines, with some accepting applications on a rolling basis as space allows and even as late as August 1. These later deadlines give students one last chance to find the best place for them to continue their higher education.

    Who Should Consider Late Application Deadlines

    • Students considering their options. Senior year can be fraught with many complex decisions, and many students are still figuring out their path. Late admission deadlines can give students, who are still exploring or undecided about their future, some additional time. Students who also got waitlisted or deferred from their top choices might also want to consider adding more schools. That additional time and longer application window offer them a chance to weigh their options or consider a broader range of majors or schools.
    • Students with unexpected circumstances. Illness, family emergencies, and other challenges are just a few examples that might prevent students from applying earlier in the cycle. Later deadlines give them the flexibility to apply to colleges that are closer to home or better fit their changing circumstances.
    • Students who needed more time to gather application materials. The early and regular decision application window comes fast for high school seniors. Between writing the personal statement and other supplemental essays, finalizing standardized test scores, asking for letters of recommendation and sending transcripts, there are many pieces of the application process that are required. Having a later deadline can be beneficial for students who didn’t gather all the application materials in time.
    • Non-traditional students. Not all students are applying to college right after high school. Some might have taken a gap year, a longer hiatus or even pursued an alternative career or academic path. Their timeline might not always fit within the confines of traditional application deadlines. Having later or rolling deadlines gives them more flexibility to make the best choice.

    Considerations Before Applying To Late Admission Deadlines

    Even though colleges are still accepting applications, it doesn’t necessarily mean students should run out and apply to more colleges. Before adding more schools to a college list, here is what students should consider.

    • Available programs and majors. Even if the undergraduate university still accepts applications, it doesn’t mean they are accepting students into every major. For example, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell accepts applications on a rolling basis but only for select majors. Students applying to its nursing program had to apply by January 5 to be considered. Before applying to the college, confirm that they have the desired program or major still available.
    • Financial aid and scholarships. Applying later to colleges might impact access to scholarships. Barry University accepts applications on a rolling basis, but if students wanted to be considered for its Stamps Scholars Program—which provides full tuition and room and board, among other benefits—they had to apply by January 15. Before applying, take time to research what options are still available.
    • Housing and campus life. Policies related to on-campus housing can vary from university to university, and not all have enough space for freshmen on-campus housing. Therefore, some schools give priority to students who committed and paid a deposit versus students who committed later in the cycle.
    • School fit. Before taking the time to apply to a school, make sure to consider the fit of the school. Take into account major options, program costs, career possibilities and anything else the student is looking for in their college experience before applying.

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    Best 5% interest savings accounts of 2024, colleges still accepting applications.

    The following are colleges that offer a late admission deadline.*

    February 15

    Abilene Christian University (TX)

    Allegheny College (PA)

    Azusa Pacific University (CA)

    California Institute of Integral Studies (CA)

    California State University East Bay (CA)

    Centenary College of Louisiana (LA)

    College of Idaho (ID)

    College of the Atlantic (ME)

    College of Wooster (OH)

    Cornish College of the Arts (WA)

    Creighton University (NE)

    Drew University (NJ)

    Emmanuel College (MA)

    Endicott College (MA)

    Haskell Indian Nations University (KS)

    Hillsdale College (MI)

    Howard University (Washington D.C.)

    Iona College (NY)

    Meredith College (NC)

    Morehouse College (GA)

    Pace University (NY)

    Point Loma Nazarene University (CA)

    Siena College (NY)

    Suffolk University (MA)

    University of Massachusetts Lowell (MA)

    University of New England (ME)

    University of Kentucky (KY)

    Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA)

    Loyola University New Orleans (LA)

    Santa Clara University (CA) **transfer only

    Regis University (CO)

    Rolling Admissions

    Adelphi (NY)

    Antioch College (OH)

    Barry University (FL)

    Fairleigh Dickinson University (NJ)

    Franklin Pierce University (NH)

    Manhattanville College (NY)

    Penn State University (PA)

    St. John’s College (both campuses, MD and NM)

    Stetson University (FL)

    Texas Christian University (TX)

    University of Alabama (AL)

    University of Massachusetts – Lowell (MA) (Rolling until Aug 1 for select majors)

    University of North Carolina—Asheville (NC)

    Ursinus College (PA)

    *Application deadlines are subject to change; please confirm the deadlines on the college website.

    Kristen Moon

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    IMAGES

    1. How To Write A College Application Essay

      how long is a short essay college applications

    2. How To Write An A College History Essay

      how long is a short essay college applications

    3. 32 College Essay Format Templates & Examples

      how long is a short essay college applications

    4. how to write a college application essay

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    5. How to write a college essay about yourself discount

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    6. 9+ College Essay Examples

      how long is a short essay college applications

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    1. The HARDEST Exam in the World

    2. College Essays: Basics

    3. 10 lines short essay on Smuggling

    COMMENTS

    1. The Best College Essay Length: How Long Should It Be?

      As exemplified by the University of Illinois, the shortest word limits for college essays are usually around 150 words (less than half a single-spaced page). Rarely will you see a word limit higher than around 650 words (over one single-spaced page). College essays are usually pretty short: between 150 and 650 words.

    2. College App Short Answer Length: Is 150 Words Ideal?

      Typical length limits are in the 150-word ( Harvard) to 250-word ( USC) range. The length requirements for the short answer have changed over the past decade. Up until 2011, the Common Application guidelines said the essay should be "150 words or fewer."

    3. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

      Published on September 29, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on June 1, 2023. Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit. If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

    4. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

      If there isn't a preferred word count, you should submit an essay that's under 650 words, according to the college application platform Common App, which works with over 900 colleges in the US [ 1 ]. Admissions officers are looking for well-written essays that follow directions. Officers review thousands of essays every year.

    5. How Long Should Your College Essay Be? What Is the Ideal Length?

      Personal statements are generally 500-650 words. For example, the Common Application, which can be used to apply to more than 800 colleges, requires an essay ranging from 250-650 words. Similarly, the Coalition Application, which has 150 member schools, features an essay with a recommended length of 500-650 words.

    6. How Long is an Essay? Guidelines for Different Types of Essay

      Revised on July 23, 2023. The length of an academic essay varies depending on your level and subject of study, departmental guidelines, and specific course requirements. In general, an essay is a shorter piece of writing than a research paper or thesis.

    7. How Long Should Your College Application Essay Be?

      The 2019-20 version of the Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words and a minimum length of 250 words. This limit has remained unchanged for the past several years. Learn how important this word limit is and how to make the most of your 650 words. Key Takeaways: Common Application Essay Length

    8. Advice for Writing Application Essays

      Advice for Writing Successful Application Essays. When you sit down to write your application essays, there is very little left that you can control. You should have already taken, or retaken, the SAT and ACT, your grades from your first three years of high school are set on your transcript, and your recommenders all have their impressions of ...

    9. A Guide to College Application Essay Timelines

      This means you should read aloud your essay from beginning to end and make changes to word choice, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and content. You should do this every three or so days. Now is a great time to share your drafts with a close family member, friend, teacher, or high school counselor.

    10. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

      A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. ... Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes. 5. Think About Your Response. Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your ...

    11. How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

      Here are some tips to get you started. Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don't have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to ...

    12. How to Write a College Essay

      What do colleges look for in an essay? Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here's what colleges look for in an essay: Demonstrated values and qualities Vulnerability and authenticity Self-reflection and insight

    13. How Long Do College Applications Take?

      1. Take The SAT/ACT and SAT Subject Tests (40-60 hours) The SAT/ACT are standardized tests that assess your aptitude and college readiness on an identical scale to all other students who take the exam.

    14. How to write a great college application essay

      6. Stick to a clear essay plan. Creativity is an aspect very much appreciated in writing, but don't assume that a creative essay is not also an organized one. Obviously, you don't want to write a bunch of words without meaning, so make sure you write about just one subject at a time.

    15. 12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

      Don't Repeat. If you've mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don't repeat it again in your essay. Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

    16. How Long is a Short Essay in Words? ️ Writing Guidelines

      A short essay is 500 words long, ... You will typically have to write this as a brief supplemental essay when applying to college. It should be smaller than a normal brief essay with an average length of 150-250 words. ... The table below summarizes and compares a regular short essay and an application answer to a question. Criteria Short ...

    17. Application Essays

      What path in that career interests you right now? Brainstorm and write these ideas out. The program. Why is this the program you want to be admitted to? What is special about the faculty, the courses offered, the placement record, the facilities you might be using?

    18. Short Answer Essays: Avoid These Application Mistakes

      College applicants often answer the short answer in broad, unfocused terms. "Swimming has made me a better person." "I have taken more of a leadership role in my life because of theater." "Orchestra has impacted me in many positive ways." Phrases such as these really don't say much. How are you a better person? How are you a leader?

    19. How Long is a College Essay? 7 Answers

      To apply to the UCs, you'll have to complete 4 (of 8 possible) prompts, each with a 350 word limit. Because these are fairly short, I'd recommend using most of not all of those 350 words. For more on the UCs, check out our guide here. Individual School Apps Some individual schools ( Georgetown and MIT, for example) have their own applications.

    20. How Long Should College Application Essays Be?

      College application essays don't typically have a required length; however, there are a few things to keep in mind when determining how long your application essays should be. Generally speaking, colleges might suggest that essays be about 650 words long. Although there really aren't any official requirements, you can keep a few points in mind ...

    21. Sample Short Answer Essay for a College Application

      The length is a perfect 823 characters and 148 words. This is a typical length limit for a short-answer essay. That said, if your college is asking for just 100 words or something longer, be sure to follow their instructions carefully. Role of Essays and Your College Application

    22. My Successful Harvard Application (Complete Common App

      See my Common App, personal essays, and recommendation letters, and learn strategies for your own college application. Call Direct: 1 (866) 811-5546 Sign In Start Free Trial SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips ... In the long run, both predictions turned out to be wrong. ... Having read books like 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, I ...

    23. How to Write a Short Essay, With Examples

      What is a short essay? A short essay is any type of essay condensed to its most important elements. There is no universal answer to what a short essay length is, but teachers generally assign short essays in the 250- to 750-word range, and occasionally up to 1,000 words. Just because the essays are short doesn't mean the subjects must be simple.

    24. Colleges Still Accepting Applications, Including Rolling ...

      Barry University accepts applications on a rolling basis, but if students wanted to be considered for its Stamps Scholars Program—which provides full tuition and room and board, among other ...