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©2010 Ted Cleary - College Essay Doctor

1.     Answer the question accurately
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It seems an absurdly obvious thing to say—and it is—but it’s amazing how many supplemental essays are off topic—even wildly off topic.  And it is not as if these essay questions are terribly tricky—they are not: they are usually fairly straightforward questions such as these:

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● Why are you applying to X University?
● What are your academic and personal interests and how do you intend to pursue them at X University?
● What qualities of X University appeal to you?
● How will you stand out among the diverse student body at X University?
● Describe the evolution of your intellectual interests and their importance to you.
● How will you contribute to the vibrant and diverse campus community at University?  What do you hope to gain from your classmates?
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These are not hard questions.  But they are quite similar to each other, so what can happen is that students—bored, tired, careless, or punch-drunk from too much cutting and pasting—may think that they have answered the question when in fact they have not. 
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What commonly happens is that a student might answer part of the question but neglect to answer all of it.  For instance, in the second bullet point above, a student might address some academic interests but fail to mention either personal interests or how he or she will pursue them at X University.  In the last bullet point above, a student might write about his or her potential contributions to campus but forget to mention anything about the classmates.
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  Analyze the questions carefully and answer every single part.  Leave nothing unanswered.

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2.     Avoid vague, generic responses – provide precise facts, details
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A common failing of supplemental essays is their extremely vague and detail-deficient lameness.  Once again, this weakness can often be attributed to fatigue, laziness, or too much cutting and pasting.  If students try to reuse the same essay over and over, it becomes stripped of all identifying details and becomes as bland and featureless as oatmeal.  If a supplemental asks what attracts you to X University, you have to provide specific knowledge of programs, classes, professors, facilities. 
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You have to name names and state facts.  For instance you need to say something like: “Because I am interested in memoir, journalism and creative writing, I wish to study with short story writer Professor Richard Dragan in his Creative Nonfiction Seminar.” It is not enough to maunder vaguely about “the first rate education” or “the beautiful campus where I can grow into a well-rounded individual.”

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   Do your homework: name names, professors, programs; prove you have burrowed deep into their website
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3.     No clichéd brochure language please
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This point is connected to the previous one.  All too often, when some students are short of specific facts, they fall back on the rather artificial and slick sales language of the college’s own brochures.  At these times, all the hackneyed phrases of the glossy pamphlets and web pages come fluttering out like witless butterflies: “state of the art facilities,” “an international reputation second to none,” “the stately and time-hallowed campus,” “the distinguished and brilliant faculty,” “vibrant and diverse student body,” “an ardent thirst for learning,” “the perfect place to realize my full all-around potential,” etc.  Although colleges show a lack of imagination in trotting out the same weary clichés year after year, that doesn’t mean that you are entitled to trot those same collapsing clichés right back at them. 
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Bear in mind that the cliché-marinated ad men who prepare the university’s advertising are not usually the same sensitive folks who sit in the admissions office reading the same old applications year after year.  Admissions officers tend to be sensitive to language, and indeed highly sensitive—even allergic—to clichés, having been overexposed to them for so long.  They will appreciate some originality.
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      Save a life (including your own): write simply and plainly, with no clichés.

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4.    Refrain from using “prestige,” “prestigious,” or “high class”

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While these are not curse words or inherently offensive, they are vaguely embarrassing to the reader.  Prestige is one of those things, like “class,” that are never publicly spoken about by the people or institutions that are perceived by outsiders to be “prestigious” or “classy.”  “We don’t speak about those things,” sniffs the queen.  As Jane Austen observed, to visibly covet prestige or class is to disqualify oneself from its attainment.

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If a college is in fact “prestigious,” it will know it and not need to be reminded of it; if a college is not particularly prestigious, it will also know it, and perhaps not want to be reminded of it.  When confronted with an applicant who is liberally dropping the word, officers in a more modest or unremarkable school might wonder whether an applicant is a flatterer or a boob.  It almost never helps a candidate to speak about prestige.

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   Use modest unpretentious language; appear to seek an education, not “prestige”

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5.     Don’t speak—or even hint—of how much money you want to make upon graduation

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This point is similar to the one immediately above about class.  While it is true that college graduates tend to earn more than high school graduates, and while it is true that people often pursue degrees to increase their earning potential, it is more than a little crass and embarrassing to flat out say that one wants to go to X University to get rich.  Universities—and especially liberal arts colleges—do still wish to believe (and I hope do in fact believe) that their mission is to educate, foster learning, and spread enlightenment. 

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Education is a business, too, it is true, but it is still education, a traditional humanistic ideal, that they are offering—and not just hair gel, bathroom tiles, or toxic mortgage securities.  Socrates did not drink the hemlock so his pupils could become hedge fund managers.  There is something more valuable at stake here.

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Breathe no word of Mammon.  It is better to seek a mind and character-enhancing education, attain it, and trust that one’s livelihood will take care of itself.

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6.     If you need more answers, do the unimaginable: call the school!

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University websites are often replete with information, but there are almost always a few questions you have that will remain unanswered even after the most diligent search.  The internet does not have all the answers—and certainly not all the correct answers.  Many students, upon reaching an impasse in their research, simply shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know the answer to that one—it doesn’t say on the website.”  They will often apply to schools about which they don’t know critical information necessary to make an intelligent application decision given their interests—such as, say, if the school would permit a dual degree in business administration and studio art, even when those degrees are administered by different schools within the university.

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In a situation like this, when a student has an important unanswered question, there is a simple and effective solution that many applicants don’t dream of doing: calling the school.  Perhaps it’s shyness, perhaps it’s youth, perhaps it’s twelve years of having inflexible rules handed down from on high—rules that the students have had to obey without questioning—but many students are curiously passive when it comes to finding out all the details of their prospective (expensive) educations. 

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But if you have a question, call.  If you call, someone will pick up.  An admissions officer or secretary is much easier to get hold of than is the President of the United States.  Recall that it is the job of the admissions office to recruit interested students, so if you call with a question, someone will find the answers for you. 

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Besides getting an answer, an added benefit to calling the school with detailed and nuanced questions (assuming that the questions are legitimate) is that you can possibly refer to your conversation in your supplemental—if such reference is relevant.  Officers may interpret your calling as evidence of serious interest, and the person to whom you spoke may favorably remember your conversation.

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Pick up the phone if you have an important question that has not been answered by thorough research.  Make personal contact.

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7.     If recycling the same essay many times, double and triple check all the names

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It is no secret that students adapt and recycle the same essays and send slightly different versions to all the different colleges.  The colleges know and expect it, but what they don’t want to see is sloppy cut-and-pasting and careless proofreading.  In the sometimes joyless and wearying world of college admissions, some of the biggest laughs come from such boneheaded gaffes such as, say, “And it is for the intellectual climate and clam chowder of Boston that I am applying to the University of Chicago.”  That’s the kind of goofy line that gets xeroxed and taped up on the walls of the office. While it is good to make people laugh, it is not good when the joke is on you.  It’s sometimes hard to take an applicant seriously after a few blunders like that.

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   Make sure you get all the college names and identifying details right.

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