College Bound

Compelling applications can boost a student’s chances of admission

“Students need to tell their story,” says Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm that works with Ivy League-bound kids from all over the world. She’s helped students get into Harvard and Yale for more than 20 years, but her straight shooting advice is solid for most kids. An applicant’s “story” is made up of grades, scores, recommendations, activities and essays. Like any good story, there are ways to make it more compelling.

For example, Madeleine Colvin of Bellevue, Washington, applied to seven colleges and universities, hoping to study international relations. She submitted her test scores, but also wrote an essay on her stay with a Chinese host family, describing the cultural exchange experience-a perfect fit for her desired major in international relations.

Following through on the international theme, Colvin noted the nonprofit that she had started, along with her friend Grace Grubb, while in high school: Dig Deep raised more than $20,000 through bake sales and “walks for water,” and funded construction of two water systems in Ethiopia. Colvin says that students are often underprepared for how to “sell” themselves to a college, to pitch themselves as a perfect match for an institution.

“My little brother is actually in the process of applying to college right now, and I’ve read a couple of his essays,” she says. “They’re not bad essays, but he’s having trouble selling himself to the colleges and really making himself stand out. I think I had those same problems.”

The Colvins aren’t alone. Finding a college that’s the right fit for a student and then negotiating the application process is a complicated proposition. The following pages provide tips that can help students customize their applications and enhance their chances of getting into their colleges of choice.

Identifying Colleges

The process begins with identifying colleges that are appropriate to a student’s interests. High school students typically start launching their searches in January of their junior years, says Kiersten Murphy, an Issaquah, Washington- based independent college counselor at Murphy College Consultants, which works with students regionally and worldwide. To thoroughly explore college options, she recommends meeting with your high school counselor and an independent college counselor, reading books (Murphy recommends The Fiske Guide to Colleges), attending college fairs and using websites such as College Navigator to research di fferent schools.

“You have to be smart about picking schools,” says Joie Jager-Hyman, once the assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College, and the author of B+ Grades, A+ College Application: How to Present Your Strongest Self. Write a Standout Admissions Essay, and Get Into the Perfect School for You. “Have a good list of schools with a realistic range, perhaps including small but not as prestigious schools, or an alternative program at a prestigious university” Jager-Hyman says, such as Oxford College at Emory University or the College of General Studies at Boston University.

Give Your Application a Boost: Consider taking summer classes through an online program between your juniorand senior years (for example, next year’s math class, so you can skip ahead a year). Or use the summer for job shadows, internships or research aligned with your college goals, suggests independent counselor Kiersten Murphy. For example, a student who plans to study engineering might consider a related internship or a summer discovery camp.

lan to do some traveling over your high school spring break for a few guided college tours – which not only gives the student a good look at the school, but also demonstrates a student’s interest in a school when admissions officers are making decisions on applications, Murphy says. That doesn’t mean just driving by or making a post application visit. Go before the application is submitted, when school is in session. Sit in on a class; meet with a professor or coach; and ask students questions. You’ll get a sense of the college’s feel, size, campus life and other important aspects and you’ll be able to include those details in your essay later on, as a way to confirm and reinforce your interest in the school.

Preparations for the SAT or ACT should also be part of your pre-application process. In your senior year, keep up the rigor with Advanced Placement and Honors coursework: Colleges will expect that you will continue to challenge yourself in school.

Colvin suggests that college applicants start familiarizing themselves with the application process early. Many college applications are similar, because they use the Common Application, a free online undergraduate application employed by more than 500 colleges and universities. It offers sections for personal information, test scores, recommendations and other pertinent in formation.

Other institutions, however- including the University of Washington and Georgetown University-have their own application processes, so it’s good to get organized as early as possible and to set priorities and schedules for completing the different elements of the applications.

“Besides keeping up with deadlines and making sure everything, including application forms, test scores, recommendations, supplements, et cetera, made it in on time, I think the hardest part was probably writing personal essays,” Colvin says.

The Essay

No element of the application process brings students greater anxiety than the personal essay. Essay question:; range from the more general to the specific and challenging. The Common Application, for example, asks: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?” and “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

On the other hand, the University of Chicago is famous for its unusual essay prompts, observes Sarah McGinty, author of The College Application Essay. For 2013, the application asked students to recount a favorite joke and then try to explain the joke, without ruining it. The application also asked students to compare apples and oranges, using statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics and philosophy. In addition, it offered the opportunity for applicants to come up with their own topics.

No matter the initial questions, the admissions professionals are trying to understand you as a person and envision your suitability for their school, says Taylor from Ivy Coach. “You’ve got to be likable.”

“A great essay is about a small moment in time,” Taylor says. “Too many students turn the essay into an activity sheet and end up talking about everything they’ve been involved in, or spending time patting themselves on the back, or writing on a cliche topic.”

Try to avoid overworked topics such as service trips, sports, travel, or grandma and grandpa, Jager-Hyman suggests. “Write clearly without using too many confusing SAT words,” she adds. “Make it personal. Every essay needs a narrative, which means that you should show the reader how you evolved or what you learned from an experience.”

Students should start early and take their time writing and rewriting their essays, Jager-Hyman says. They should incorporate feedback from trusted adults.


Although you’re not writing your own recommendations, “In a way, you are held responsible for the mediocre recommendations of your teachers and counselors,” Taylor says. You need stellar recommendations, she says, which may mean that you give your teachers and counselors some guidance with the letters that they’ll write on your behalf. 

Remind teachers of your demonstrated intellectual curiosity, social engagement and academic skills in the classroom, with specific examples, perhaps outlined in bullet form on a supplemental piece of paper (in addition to any school-related forms). Remind them how you researched that big paper, asked insightful questions, took a leadership role on a group project, or brought doughnuts for the 8 A.M. class, Taylor suggests. Teachers work with hundreds of students over the course of the year, and most will appreciate a reminder of your performance in class.

For counselors, point out your role in the classroom, but also your extracurricular activities – your service hours, how you kept up a demanding sports schedule while maintaining great grades. A counselor’s one-an-one time with a student in a public high school is typically limited, so offer him or her as much personal and contextual academic information as possible. Without such assistance from you, it can be difficult to get a great recommendation, says Gael Casner, president of the Higher Education

Consultants Association (HECA), and an independent higher-ed consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Take charge of getting recommendations tailored to your academic and personal achievements and contributions, Taylor says. “Too many teachers and counselors write generic letters,” she says, noting that sometimes the use of form letters and “search and replace” functions means Tali’s name ends up in Sam’s letter. 

“That doesn’t help a student’s case,” Taylor says, noting that while you’re not truly responsible for an overworked teacher’s slip up, such mistakes could make a difference in a competitive admissions situation.

Your Application Essay: Tips from Sarah Myers McGinty. author of The College Application Essay

Four key points about the application essay:

Five myths about application essays:


Demonstrate your fit for a particular university by spotlighting your participation in sports, arts, service and other extracurricular choices. In doing so, think big, Jager-Hyman recommends, noting you don’t necessarily have to be the president of a well-known existing club; you may have started one of your own.

If you spent the summer delving into books on Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture or working with a mentor to study the engineering behind roller coasters, include it, she says, especially if it’s a solid match for what you plan to study in college or it shows off your independent study skills.

Don’t just list a hodgepodge of activities that includes a few hours at a food pantry and a role on a soccer team, Murphy says. “The activities need to paint a strong picture of your passions and what kind of student you will be in their community.”

So if soccer is your passion, make sure you also offered your soccer skills as a volunteer coach or referee, or started a drive to donate equipment and cleats to a local youth soccer organization. “You’re showing a long-term, consistent commitment to your interests,” she says.

The Interview

An interview isn’t necessarily required in the application process; sometimes you have to request an interview, or accept an offer to one. An interview allows the school to meet you as a human being, a solid fit for their college or university.

“It’s a way to show your interest,” Casner says. “It’s a great life skill to learn how to interview, and it’s your chance to ask questions,” perhaps to learn more about the department you’re interested in.

Before you go: Practice, practice, practice. Even if you have great grades and test scores, it doesn’t mean you’ll ace the inperson section. You need to be able to think fast for questions such as, “Which clubs do you think you’ll join at our school?” and to exhibit your knowledge of the college’s academics and everyday life. If the school asks, “Tell me about yourself,” they’re not asking for your demographic information, but your background, interests and unique passions so they can imagine you in their college culture, Taylor observes.

Explanations and Supplements

Applications may offer a section for explaining variations in your background, from school discipline to educational challenges. This is where you might explain why your grades dropped for a quarter due to an illness, or why math has always been difficult due to a diagnosed learning disability. Or perhaps why your grades consistently hit the low C range until you experienced a turning point, and then your report card star ted to display A’s.

Use the opportunity to reasonably weigh the event against a positive result, rather than use it to make an excuse, Taylor says. 

On the Common App, institutions may ask for an additional short answer or essay response. Here’s where you need to get into the details of your visit or research. ” Prove to them you’ve dug into what the school represents,” Casner says. “It helps the admissions staff to imagine you at the school.”

For example, a question might ask why you wish to attend, and you can point out that as a future engineering student, you noticed the school partners with specific firms and projects. At a school that emphasizes balanced, well-rounded learning, point out your interest in the core curriculum and your desire to join the outdoors dub, which offers a rock-climbing trip every spring. Read the school’s mission statement and see what they’re looking for and what they value. Casner suggests, and tweak your language so this portion echoes their institutional values.

Some schools also offer students the chance to attach additional information of any sort. If you can make a DVD of your voice competitions or a copy of that research paper on your roller coaster engineering project, include it.

When it came to telling her story, Madeleine Colvin successfully marketed herself as a perfect fit for her college of choice. The 19-year-old college sophomore studies international relations at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Freelance writer Lora Shinn lives in Seattle.



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