College Application Short Essays: 5 Steps to Writing a Great One
College Application Short Essays: 5 Steps to Writing a Great One
The key: Be sincere, succinct, and specific.
When your college application requires a response limited to 100 words or fewer, you may think it requires little effort—but an admissions officer can immediately spot a half-hearted response in such a short piece. If you are seriously interested in admission to that college, take the time to write an essay that is sincere, succinct, and specific so it will strengthen your application. Here’s how.
Follow these 5 steps to writing a great short-answer or short essay response:
- Answer the question as directly as you can, in your own voice. Be thoughtful and sincere, but get right to the point.
- Forget about an introduction, a conclusion, or metaphors; jump right into your response.
- Use words that reveal your own feeling about the experience. Admission officers have likely heard similar stories before; it is your perspective that will make your story unique.
- Simplify language to reduce word count, especially if you’ve written too much, or if you are adapting a longer essay for the response.
- Be sure to include specific details, but stick to the details most relevant to the prompt and go deep on those. Be open to cutting entire passages, even some that you really like.
Remember that short essays are intended to help the admissions officers get a feel for the degree of your interest in the college and who you are. If you approach the question seriously and follow these 5 steps, your response will support a favorable reply to your application.
Boost Your College Applications
No matter whether a student is earning straight “As” while taking rigorous AP/IB courses or hovering nearer a B average in general high school classes, participating in the right extracurricular activities can boost their college applications.
High school freshmen and sophomores should explore a variety of clubs and organizations to discover which ones are a good fit for their strengths, abilities and interest areas, and then commit to two or three to expand their knowledge, gain leadership skills, and achieve a specific goal during the remainder of their high school years. While juniors do not have the luxury of sampling a variety of options, they can still enhance their opportunities by purposefully engaging in extracurricular activities. For students interested in business, for example, joining Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) is one way to learn more about business; to improve communication, presentation, and teamwork skills; and to network with other students and business professionals through state, regional, and national competitions and conferences.
Participating in strategically-chosen clubs and volunteering regularly within the community can help students learn more about themselves and their intended fields of study. Such involvements also offer personal growth opportunity and memorable experiences to write college essays about that are authentic and insightful – essays that will add value to their college applications.
It is with those goals in mind that CPSi develops a strategic plan and recommends specific involvements for each of our students.
Photo credit: NASA Johnson Space Center
Upgrade Your Reading!
While the year is still new, step up your reading plan to make a habit of reading regularly beyond what is required. As you’ve heard, reading regularly helps:
- Expand your vocabulary;
- Improve standardized test scores; and
- Strengthen your writing skills and proficiency.
If you haven’t been a reader, start small; reserve 20-30 minutes daily to read, and go for it! Here are some ideas for what to read, just to get you started:
- Try a book that helps you explore ideas or interests in various fields, like one of these:
- Delve into The Economics Bible: The Definitive Guide to the Science of Wealth, Money and World Finance, by Tejvan Pettinger for a detailed introduction to a wide array of economic concepts. If you’re new to learning about economics or even if you’ve finished taking AP Economics, this book is filled with concise explanations of concepts and theories to answer your questions.
- As scientists learn more about changes in the climate, engineers are developing solutions to address issues. Learn about the developments in this field in Geoengineering Earth’s Climate: Resetting the Thermostat, by Jennifer Swanson.
- If you’re curious about the role of STEM fields in developing solutions to the world’s obstacles, check out Adapt: How Humans are Tapping into Nature’s Secrets to Design and Build a Better Future, by Amina Khan.
- Learn about the technological progress behind artificial intelligence and what might be next in Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence–and Where It’s Taking Us Next, by Luke Dormehl. The book explores the history of artificial intelligence, from World’s Fair predictions about the future to our present-day smartphone technology.
- If you’re considering a psychology major, check out The Skeleton Cupboard: The Making of a Clinical Psychologist, by Tanya Byron, for a look at how a clinical psychologist approaches mental ailments.
- In Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, dive into what makes ideas incredibly interesting to people and how to develop concepts that “stick” with audiences. These concepts apply naturally in business, marketing, communications, and any other field involving people.
- Remember to read some fiction, too, to encourage thinking about things in complex ways, considering human factors and philosophical ideas as well as straight-line logic. These books are all highly recommended by the American Library Association:
- The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge
- On the Edge of Gone, by Eric Lindstrom
- The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner
- The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
- Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
- American Street, by Ibi Zoboi
CPSi recommends titles specifically chosen for each student to help them achieve their reading and personal growth goals in the college preparation process. This is just a glimpse, and there are many more where these came from!
Who benefits from applying REA, ED, or EA?
Despite popular belief, applying to colleges Early Decision (ED), Restricted Early Action (REA) – also known as “Single Choice Early Action” – or Early Action (EA) is not always advantageous. I wrote about this two years ago; here is a bit more focused information.
How to make REA, ED, or EA decision requires an understanding of admission types as well as the student’s academic standing and depth of extracurricular activities. Below is a discussion of what each option means and when it can be an advantage.
REA (Restricted Early Action)
- What is it? REA means the student signs an agreement promising, in exchange for an early answer from the college, not to apply Early Action or Early Decision to another school. The typical REA application deadline is November 1.
- How does it work? If a student applies REA, they will receive an answer by mid-December.
Admission via an REA application is non-binding; the student can still accept admission to another college, or wait until May 1 to accept the REA admission offer. Approximately 10 colleges offer the REA option, the most elite of the elite colleges. Those colleges are confident that a student admitted REA will attend, even if they have other admission offers later or wait until May 1 to commit.
- Who will benefit from applying REA? Applying REA benefits the college, not the student, because the college will admit only the VERY BEST QUALIFIED of the BEST STUDENTS. A student who is not among the very best qualified is unlikely to be admitted. In fact, applying REA is a disadvantage to the student, since the student foregoes opportunities to apply Early Decision or Early Action to other colleges.
ED (Early Decision):
- What is it? ED (Early Decision) means the student signs an agreement promising, in exchange for an early answer from the college, that if admitted to the college, they will attend. It is a binding agreement, one that requires the parents and the school counselor to also sign an affidavit saying the students understands the agreement. The typical ED deadline is 11/1. A few colleges also offer an “ED 2” option in December or January.
- How does it work? When a student applies ED, they will typically receive an answer by mid-December (or within 30-45 days for ED 2 applications). A student can only apply to one college ED (and an REA application is not allowed). If admitted via an ED application, the student must respond to accept the offer, typically within 2 weeks, and place a deposit soon after. Per the ED agreement, the student is then required to withdraw all other college applications. A few hundred colleges offer the ED option.
- Who will benefit from applying ED? For the right student, this option can increase the chance of admission by up to 2%.
EA (Early Action)
- What is it? EA (Early Action) means the student submits the application and all supporting documents by a college’s EA deadline (ranging from 10/15 to 12/15) in exchange for an early answer from the college. A student can apply to multiple colleges EA, in addition to an ED application if they wish. The EA option is offered by several moderately to less selective colleges.
- How does it work? If a student applies EA, they will receive an answer within 30 to 45 days after the EA deadline. An EA admission is non-binding; the student can wait and decide by May 1.
- Who will benefit from applying EA? For the right student, EA applications offer a chance to complete the process early and then have peace of mind. Knowing they will have good college options allows them to calmly wait for answers to their college applications AND focus on making their senior year successful and memorable. For other students, however, an EA application is a disadvantage.
Senior students and parents, this is what we have been discussing in your meetings at CPSi about the REA, ED, or EA decision and which application method is best for you
For other students and parents who want to learn how to become the “right student” who would benefit from an REA, ED, or EA application, connect with CPSi. We’ll tell you the facts about the most compatible steps to improve the chance of getting into the quality colleges you most deserve.
Are Foreign Language Classes Worth it? Why you may need more than 2 years of language
Students – Do you wonder if you need another year of Spanish, French, Chinese, or other World Language?
The Yale office of admission provides this advice:
… try to take courses each year in English, science, math, the social sciences, and foreign language. We encourage you to pursue your intellectual interests, so long as it is not at the expense of your program’s overall rigor or your preparedness for college. Be honest with yourself when you are deciding between different courses. Are you choosing a particular course because you are truly excited about it and the challenge it presents, or are you also motivated by a desire to avoid a different academic subject?
Rather than simply thinking about meeting graduation or college admission requirements, consider these benefits of learning another language:
- Enhanced listening skills and memory;
- Improved analytical skills;
- Increased creativity;
- Improved scores on standardized tests;
- Increased appreciation for cultural diversity (something you will likely be required to write about on a few of your college application essays); and finally,
- Increased job opportunities post-college graduation.
Still aren’t sure whether continuing your language studies is the best decision for you? Before you choosing classes for next term, contact CPSi to help you decide the best option for achieving your education goals.
Summer Programs and Activities? An Opportunity Too Good to Miss
Summertime may still feel like an eternity away – but don’t let that stop you from starting to plan and think about how you can utilize the upcoming summer months to set yourself apart from other students in today’s competitive college admissions market. Colleges aren’t just looking at your GPA or SAT scores anymore – they’re looking for students with motivation and demonstrated interest and experience in the subjects and activities they’re passionate about. Even more, the right summer involvement improves your college admission opportunities.
Need some ideas? Check with CPSi about which options are right for you. Here are just a few examples of the categories their specific recommendations for you may fall into:
This is an easy and productive way to gain experience in a field that interests you. Since there are so many volunteering opportunities to choose from (usually with little or no “competition” or application process), find one that correlates most closely with one of your primary interests and then stick with it throughout the summer. Nothing shows an admissions office your passion for a given subject area or activity like committing and donating your own time.
2) Summer Programs
Many local colleges and organizations offer high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to attend pre-college summer programs. These types of programs can run from 1 week to 2 months, depending on the intensity of the curriculum. Again, try to look for program subjects that will add to your knowledge and experience in one of your primary interests. If you’re unsure what to look for or where to start, it’s never a bad idea to get some ideas by simply scrolling through the summer programs being offered by the colleges at the top of your preliminary best-fit colleges list.
This one may seem obvious, but obtaining a full or part-time summer job (especially if you can secure something related to one of your primary interests) will impress admissions with your work ethic, and is also a great way to save up some much needed cash for impending college expenses. It may seem early, but start researching and applying for positions now – the best summer jobs tend to go very quickly. This goes for summer internships opportunities too. An alternative employment option, that can often show even more initiative to colleges, is to start your own business. Don’t worry about starting out simple – even small painting projects or babysitting will demonstrate resourcefulness to potential schools.
4) Maintaining Your Online Presence
Don’t get too excited here – we’re not talking about spending more time on Instagram or Twitter! Rather, spend time creating a significant online presence that you can use to showcase your professional and educational interests to potential colleges. Consider crafting a blog or website relating to a subject or activity that you’re passionate about, and then post often and consistently. If you haven’t already, create a thorough LinkedIn account that shows off your biggest educational and extracurricular accomplishments, as well as any employment, intern, or volunteering experience. Since we all know that admissions officers can now easily conduct online searches of applicants they’re interested in, make sure to also give your recreational social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) a good look-through and clean-up to make sure that colleges are seeing the best version of yourself.
Whatever combination of activities you decide to participate in, just remember not to waste your summer by thinking of these upcoming few months as “time off.” Some rest and relaxation is definitely important in moderation, but the opportunity to use this extra time to make yourself a more hard-working, interesting, and balanced admissions candidate is just too good to pass up!
Should I register for AP Capstone?
AP Capstone is a recent addition to the AP Course offerings. Together with other requirements to earn an AP Capstone Diploma, the course is to help students build skills important for success in college classes.
This program offers an opportunity for recognition of achievement in AP classes, for the development of skills important to college success, and for building content knowledge in core subject areas, there are some potential disadvantages – but there are also potential disadvantages. These include less flexibility in your course choices, and possibly missing an opportunity to explore academic or career areas that fall outside of the AP course options (such as marketing, nanotechnology, or business law).
How do I know if AP Capstone is right for me?
If the AP Capstone is offered at your school (see the list here), consider these questions as you decide if it is a program you should pursue:
- Do I have room for it in my schedule without sacrificing advanced classes in other core subject areas?
- Do my educational goals include high levels of research and/or presentation?
- Am I excited and motivated by the thought of applying content I have learned in other classes to finding solutions to real-world problems?
Much like the recommendations in our AP or IB – Which Do Colleges Prefer? post, whether or not the program is the best course of action will depend on the each student’s individual qualities and goals. To learn more about how curriculum and other factors affect college selection and admission, initiate a discussion with your CPSi consultant at your next meeting. If you are new to the college planning process, learn more at a free CPSi College Planning Seminar (register here).
College Visits in the Age of Online Shopping
You’ve scoured the school websites for detailed information and statistics. You’ve read though the printed flyers and magazines that have started to fill up your mailbox on an almost daily basis. As important and helpful as these college research tactics can be, there is nothing quite as eye-opening as stepping foot on a physical college campus as you attempt to discover your best-fit school.
In our current “online shopping age,” there’s a common feeling that we can now research and buy what we want without having to actually see it in person. While this may work for toasters or televisions, narrowing down your top college choices often needs a little something more in order to boost one school to the very top of your list. Many students are surprised to find that different campuses really do have a distinct feel and atmosphere to them, and that’s something that you’ll need to be there to experience. Even a short, candid conversation with a campus tour guide or some passing students can frequently produce stronger feelings or opinions on a school than anything posted on their website.
The surrounding area and home city of the campus can also make a huge difference. Are you hoping to experience the busy, social environment of a university set in New York City, or would a peaceful, countryside college setting be more your speed? Visiting local shops, cafes, restaurants, etc., to get a better feel for the area can also be a great way to discover if the school’s location would be a good fit for you.
How many different colleges should I tour? When should I start arranging these tours? How do I fully prepare for in-person college interviews? Your CPSi consultants can answer these common questions and many more, and will help you make the most of your college touring experience.
The answer varies
Do college admission committees prefer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs?
Students, that’s the wrong question. A better question is, “Which of these rigorous programs will best serve me?” And the answer is not the same for everyone. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) are structured differently with different objectives for student learning.
Here are just a few key differences to consider:
AP classes and exams are widely accessible. High schools around the country and internationally offer AP classes (and often quite a number of them), and anyone is eligible to register and take the AP exams offered each May, regardless of whether they have taken the class. An AP class focuses on a single subject, which allows students to take these college-level classes in the areas of their ability and interest. A high school student interested in STEM, for example, could take up to 3 math AP courses and as many as 4 or 5 science AP courses. This would be one way to demonstrate ability and achievement in math and science on an application to a college engineering program.
The IB program is less known but becoming more common in U.S. high schools. An interdisciplinary program structured to develop knowledge across disciplines, IB also places learning in global context. Students focus on five of six areas of learning: language & literature, language acquisition, individuals & societies, mathematics, sciences, and the arts. To earn the IB diploma, students must also complete a project in the community and write an extended essay on a topic of their choosing. This is a structured program that does not allow for much class choice or electives, but provides a rigorous, yet holistic education to students in the program.
Choosing if you have both options. If you have the option to choose between AP and IB, choose the one in which you can succeed while also exploring your interests and passions outside of the classroom, allowing you to create the strongest profile for your college applications. To make your decision, consider these questions:
- Where do my strengths lie?
- What is my learning style?
- What level of rigor can I handle while still making time for meaningful involvement in extracurricular pursuits?
AP and IB courses are not right for every college-bound student. For others, one program is a better opportunity than the other. CPSi guides students and families in making choices such as this one to help enhance their learning now and improve their college opportunities in the future.
What’s the AP Capstone?
Look for a discussion of that topic in a future post.
5 Questions to Help You Choose
Fall and the November Early Decision (ED), Restrictive Early Action (REA), and Early Action (EA) deadlines are looming for thousands of college applicants. The complexity of choosing the application option cannot be overstated. Definitions are easy to find, but definitions alone do not give you the student (or your parents) the expertise to choose the option that will best help you:
- Get in – Improving the admission odds for you to get admitted to the college you most desire; and
- Know whether a school is your best-fit option before applying. It’s too late to consider the question once you receive an Early Decision offer, and applying REA is wasting an opportunity if another school is a better fit.
So what is the best approach to deciding whether to choose one of the restrictive application options, ED or REA? To arrive at your decision, answer the following 5 questions:
- Is the college the right environment for you; i.e., are you likely to succeed among the other students who typically thrive there?
- If not and you are admitted, you are at risk of plummeting self-confidence, severe loneliness, even depression.
- Are your academic credentials above the college’s median point in their published range for admitted students?
- If not and you are admitted, you will see yourself beneath other students with better credentials. No one deserves four years of that.
- What about your test scores; are they above the median point in the college’s published range for admitted students?
- You should have 100 points above the SAT median, 40 points above for SAT Subject Tests, and/or a score of 35 or 36 on the ACT by the application deadline.
- Do you have a genuine, demonstrated capability that sets you apart from other students who can answer “yes” to 1, 2, and 3 above?
- Demonstrated is the key. Making things up and writing about something you heard because it is interesting is not the same as a demonstrated capability. Something made up lacks supporting details, is inconsistent with other parts of the application (including recommendations), and is easily identified as false.
- Have you prepared an outstanding essay with a high degree of integrity, one that vividly reveals your aptitude for independent critical thinking?
- A winning essay is full of energy, written clearly with simple words, and has a young and innocent tone in an authentic voice that doesn’t mimic an adult.
If the answer to at least 4 of the 5 questions above is YES, then you should select the ED (or REA) application option for that specific college.
IF NOT, then applying ED or REA could mean that you miss out on applying ED or REA to another college where you would be more likely to achieve college and career success beyond your imagination!