Welcome to the Jungle

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement, university application information on August 30, 2011 at 10:29 pm

College Advising and Essay Development for the Class of 2023, from Singapore to Palo Alto.

The College App Jungle is my blog devoted to the  world of college applications.  The pursuit of college admissions can seem increasingly Darwinian, but my hope is that this blog will provide you with the context and means to have a fulfilling and successful transition into college.  In that spirit, you can scroll through my archives to find over 100 posts covering all aspects of the college search–a clickable table of contents for a selection of popular topics can be found below.

I work with clients from as close as the high school down the road from me and as far away as international schools in Singapore and Europe.  Last year, my clients were admitted to all top Ivies, Stanford, the University of California, U Texas, Johns Hopkins, CMU, NYU and many more, with all of my college advising clients receiving multiple admissions.    Read on for detailed information on college applications, data, and how to write your essays.

You can also visit my business portal at: UniversityGatesAdvising to quickly review some basic information on the college application scene (like the sometimes odd terminology used in admissions) and to see client testimonials.  Contact Me for advising and Editing–my essay development and editing is the best in the business.

College App Jungle Contents and Links

The Secret of College Admissions:  How College Applications Are Evaluated

Common Application and Common Application Essays

Common Application Essay Prompts for 2018-2019

(Warning:  do not set up your Common App account before it shuts down and reopens on or about August 1. Any data entered before they roll out this year’s portal will be deleted.)

Ivy League Essays

Yale for 2018-2019

U Penn for 2018-2019

Dartmouth for 2018-2019

Harvard, Princeton, et al are still pending as of mid July 2018. I will update those in the coming weeks.


The Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompts (These have  been relatively unchanged for years and most of this post still applies)

More on the Stanford Supplement Prompts

University of Chicago

I have a soft spot for The University of Chicago Essay Prompts, because they are often so brazenly weird and even when they seem a little too-cute pretentious, they are interesting.  Because  U Chi allows applicants to choose and write an essay addressing any of their old prompts, I keep all of my old posts on them up–for example, have a look at:   Chicago Prompts for 2018-2019, and The Chicago Application Essay Quote Prompts for 2018-2019. Or just click below for old prompts that you may still write about:

The Mantis Shrimp Prompt:  How to Write About It

The Chicago History Prompt:  There’s More To It Than Meets The Eye

Those Chuckleheads:  The Chicago Joke Prompt–How to Write About It

Writing About Books- Part 2 (2011)

How to Persuade: The Rhetorical Situation

College Application Trends, Statistics and Advice

Ivy League Admissions Data for 2018-2019–See the most recent data available on admissions and how early applications impacts admissions chances

Advice on the College Application Rat Race

Researching And Selecting Colleges:  Go West, Young Person–an old post, but still so true, for those looking to get great bang for their tuition buck, particularly if you live in the Western United States.

College Application Success:  The Seven Rules–timeless advice on how the system works


The above is not a comprehensive list of posts but gives you a representative sample.  You may browse further using the Archive link.  

In the twenty years that I have been helping students navigate the application and essay process, the essay itself has become much more important. The reasons are clear. Over the last decade, we have seen increasing numbers of qualified high school students face decreasing numbers of seats available in our universities.

The facts are stark–educators across the country have faced funding cuts that predate the Great Recession, and the ivied walls of academia are no longer impregnable to assault.  Pair that with the awareness that an education at a good college is increasingly a bottom line item for a decent job and quality of life, and you have a supply and demand problem:  If you present a 4.0 GPA to most competitive universities, you are essentially in the middle of the pack.  The result:  your application essays can be vital to your chance of being admitted.  But I have to add something here: it is as bad as it looks if you apply to the same 12-15 colleges that everybody else applies to, but once you widen your list a bit, it looks much better.  See below for links related to statistics and to finding more options than the Ivies, Stanford, Cal and whatever two or three regional favorites dominate the application lists in your area.

The information available on this blog is for the free use of college applicants and essay writers.  Use it to help you get started before you send your work to me.  Topics range from general discussions about the craft of writing to specific discussion of college essay topics and the changing world of college applications. I also review trends in admissions and changes occurring in the world of academia.

The contents of this blog are intended for the use of college applicants and their parents to assist them in the college application process and in developing quality application essays. Please refrain from using this blog for your own commercial purposes. If you wish to duplicate any of this information, please contact me to explain and request the right to do so.  Full access to sample content is available via a subscription.  Contact me to subscribe.

How to Write the University of Pennsylania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019: Part 1 of a 2-Part Brief

In 5 I's and 4 C's, How to Write About Penn's 5 I's and 4 C's, Ivy League Application Essays, Penn Application Essay, Penn Supplemental Essay, Uncategorized, University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019 on July 20, 2018 at 10:06 am

Back in Blue (and Red): The U Penn prompts are out. Of all the Ivy League applications, UPenn has the most elaborate contextualizing, and their prompts explicitly demand a level of research and personal introspection that is unique, even in the Ivy League.

Yes, Cornell asks you to explore your major and puts up an annotated list for you to study and then do research from, (please note the date and look for this year’s update on these Cornell prompts) and other schools throw up quotes and context that you really should research (Princeton, Harvard, Yale) but Dean Furda, at Penn, has always done more–and asked for more.

This also means that Penn expects more in terms of time and school-specific knowledge. Furda was one of the first college admissions leaders to set up a blog, and he has continued to use it vigorously. The current iteration of Furda’s admission blog is a full-on multi-page website that bears the name Page 217, a title taken from a well-known app essay prompt in which you had to write page 217 of your 300-page biography.

They don’t use that Page 217 prompt anymore, but it does reveal the philosophy of their approach— to think of a biography  required you to think about the direction of yor own life, as well as to fit in something that indicated how Penn would fit in that biography. This Page 217 prompt demanded a sense of where your life was going and implied that you should have a sense of what Penn offers that would help you get to page 217.  This is still the spirit of their essay prompts.

So there needs to be a sense of your past, as well as of your vision for your future, along with a good  understanding of Penn, all rolled into one essay. But today,  Furda has gone way past the creative riffing of the original  Page 217 prompt. He has come up with a framework of things that he wants you to think about as you write an application essay.

This framework starts with his “5 I’s and 4 C’s.” Yep, nine  things to look at right away, involving both introspection (the I’s) and research on Penn (the C’s.)

This is all about Demonstrated Interest, (also known lately by the more scientific-sounding “Interest Quotient”).  Furda has found a way to roll D.I. into application essays. He wants it to be hard to reuse some boilerplate from other essays for the Penn app.  Demonstrated Interest is increasingly important to elite schools, because they have to find a way to choose among the thousands of similar looking 3.9-4.3 GPA students with high SAT/ACT scores, two pages of activities, and who swear their devotion to  . . . . fifteen different schools.  Or more.  If they offer you a seat, they want to have some certainty that you will accept the offer.

To meet their needs and to write a good Penn application for yourself, your essays have to show something about you personally, but also have to show your interest in Penn by dealing with Furda’s uniquely complex framework for writing.  So let’s take a look at it:

The 5 I’s

A very cute idea, the 5 I’s are focused on you.  Yes, in  the country that has made defining yourself a lifelong project, Penn wants you to define yourself now.  I list each of the I’s below, highlight the important buzzwords and phrases and discuss what the prompts are telegraphing in terms of content and focus.   Notice this as you read the explanation by Penn (and my commentary):  in their explanations, the good people at Penn are quite literally suggesting some areas–topics or subtopics–that an essay could focus on.  But before I look at the “I’s” individually, let’s look at the actual essay prompt that the “5 I’s” address:

University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019:

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). The essay should be between 400-650 words.

Basically, the 5 I’s are the focus of the first sentence in this Keeping that prompt in mind, let’s take the 5 I’s one at a time; here they are, with Penn’s explanation, followed by my commentary and analysis; the bold font is mine, to identify key phrases and words:

Identity–To figure out this piece, you must ask yourself who you are as an individual. How do you see yourself and how do you think that others see you? How do you drill into–essentially, unpack–the definition you create for yourself? Forget putting a name to a college now–don’t say I have to get into Penn or any other school. That comes later. Think about who you are without connecting yourself to anything external, such as brands, people, grades, etc. Think about who you are at your core.

The explanation on this one is not super helpful. How can you know yourself  without connecting to anything external?  Of course, their point is that they don’t want you listing accomplishments, etc, but we all define who we are in a relative way by comparison to who and what is around us.    My suggestion:  shrug and return to this one after doing some work on the other I’s, below.  So let’s do that.

Intellect–How Do You Think and Approach the Acquisition of Knowledge?  The explanation here is a bit more helpful.  Again, I highlight the key phrases:

Part of your identity is your intellect. How do you think and how do you take in information? We want to know about your mind. Pretty simple, right? As educators, we know that all students have a unique intellect with different strengths and learning styles. Recognize that your intellect comes into play in a range of activities, not only while you are in class or doing homework. The problem solving skills that you utilize during club meeting, your perseverance during track practice, and the public speaking ability you employ while running for leadership positions are all positive manifestations of an intellect that is alive and growing.

This prompt seems to suggest that one of the more hackneyed topics, student government, could actually work here, but I think something else is better, as the typical high school leadership thing is now just a class, rather than being something you ran for and won.  Something like taking the lead in the robotics club as you redesign your submersible, troubleshooting the design through reading in theory while tweaking various paremeters, persevering as it sinks, malfunctions and swims in circles,  and almost drowns a teammate in the pool with it, and then, after an all-nighter of hands on problem-solving, fixing a leak and tracking down an electrical short while improvising with a butter knife due to   the fact that a teammate left all the philips head screwdrivers at the airport, and delivering your personal Saint Crispin’s Day Speech, at three a.m., as your team was ready to quit,  then winning that Navy competition (or placing third, or even competing at all–hey, it was a miracle your ‘bot even made it into the pool) –that might be better essay. subject.   

My message here is to look at everything you are doing for inspiraiton. It is not just okay to have a bit of overlap with your activities; if an activity is your passion, you actually need more space to talk about it.  Just don’t make your essay a pure recap or list of actities and accomplisments. The example above is probably for a person with engineering in mind, of course.

Note that my summary of a particularly interesting activity, focused on an example, shows a range of things, with hands-on learning, problem-solving skills and leadership. Also notice that if you put it in first person, you would have an essay subtopic of about 185 words, leaving hundreds more available in this Penn essay.

Ideas–We want to know what you think about and why. When you have time to hang out, what are your ideas? What do you think about big issues like global warming? What do you think about local issues right here in your backyard? What are your ideas and what has informed those ideas? Ideas are what make college communities really interesting. When diverse students with unique intellectual paths share their thoughts with one another, it results in a great synergy. Students who work together, crossing traditional academic boundaries, have the potential to make waves in their community and world. So yes, your ideas, even if at this point they don’t seem realistic, can help you get into college. We are interested in the intellectual innovation you will bring to campus. We are interested in your spark.

So this is great: what a wide field of ideas!   But my warning is to beware of the “Beauty Queen” essay, or the “Dude, have you every thought that the entire universe might be, like, an atom on the fingernail of a God” ramble.  Read my link on the Beauty Queen and click around to read more of my posts on the problem essay–the subjects may have changed, but the basic ideas are the same.  Warning:  be sure that these big ideas are things you have connected with at a deeper level than Pinto, in my link above.  The best ideas to discuss are ones that you have not just thought about in your spare time but that you have also done something about in your spare time, even if that just means chasing down more information on the idea.  Assuming you have spare time, of course.

Interests: What do you like to do? What do you like to do when someone is not telling you to do it? What are your hobbies? This is one way that I think about interests: If you could pick up three books or three magazines, what would they be? Sometimes we need to pick books or magazines up because they feed into the courses that we are taking; other times it is a reflection of our natural acclimations*  and interests. You can do the same exercise with films, or museums. When you walk into a museum, what is the first section that you go to? All these things are going to be interesting to you and they’re going to interesting to the community that you are looking to be part of in college. *(I think they meant to say inclinations here.  Hey, it’s a blog, not a dictionary . . . I guess.)

Quite a few schools ask you to write about things you read, mentioning books more often than magazines. However, when you write about books, you may feel you have to fall back on the literary analysis or argument format that you were taught to use in your English class.  This is more a first-person interest essay.  There are ways to work in some level of analysis however, and I have posted advice and analysis on writing about books a number of times–have a look at this as an example: How to Write about Books.   As always, the purpose in writing about books is to show what you are like, not to interpret what the river means in Huckelberry Finn.  So this is a bit like that old-fashioned art of choosing which books to put on the bookshelf in your living room, so that they make a statement about you.

Haven’t had time to do anything but the “required reading?  No time to start like the present, and since you are likely a super-connected post-millenial person, why limit yourself to paper?  There is such a thing as an online magazine or journal.  In the areas of literature, the arts and politics, you  could take a look as sites like n + 1 magazine (comes in printed form as well), or for a more purely literary slant, Tin House. There are, of course, still the old-school but excellent mags on culture, politics and art from the days of paper, like The New Yorker,  Harpers and The Atlantic, or for more political slant, the liberal Mother Jones, which also does quite a bit of investigative journalism, or The National Review for you young (but traditional) Republicans out there.  Breitbart–give it a  pass for this one, unless you are showing how you like to see what the lunatic fringe is thinking.  A couple of hourse of reading and looking around while taking notes can set your foundation as a budding intellectual–no time to start on that like the present.

As for visiting museums, well let’s just say that this really telegraphs more about the person who wrote the prompt than anything else, and conveys the assumption that you live in an urban core with parents who encourage museum-going, or that you are in an upper-middle class suburb, with access to a city, and ditto the parents.  Of course if you do like to visit museums–I have clients who are artists, or into paleontology, or like to visit the Tech Museum, etc, etc–go for it.

Next (and last up for this post):

Inspiration-What really motivates and inspires you? We can sit down for forty-five minutes and you might not be sure how you want to answer this question or you might be thinking too hard about it. But then, there is this point in the conversation where I ask you something and your eyes light up and your arms start to move about. You are inspired; something really moves you. Tap into this power source and build on it.

When in doubt, look at your responses to the I’s above.  If you have not talked about ideas and activities that inspire you above, then you need a do-over on those.  And any discussion of your passion needs to have some concrete stuff that you do to show it.  

As for who you are at the core, same thing:  your passions should tell you that, as should all the other “I’s.”.  But some broad questions may help–are you a thinker?  A doer?  Political or not?  Do you analyze and break down or does your mind leap to an answer?  Do you learn through the physical world or navigate the e-realm more?

Come back soon; I will post again about Penn, this time looking at The Four C’s, which means researching Penn in more detail

Demonstrated Interest, indeed.

You can follow my blog to see when I post on this again, or just contact me for help with college essays.  My editing and essay development is the best in the business.




How to Write a College Application Essay About a Quote in 2018-2019: Part 2

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Miles Davis Essay, Mind that Won't Stick Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, Zen Master Shoitsu on July 12, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Also known as How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay:  Part 2

I ended my last post by looking at U Chicago, so let’s return to that now.  Here are two of the numerous prompts from Chicago that use a quote:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves

“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Let me begin by saying that Master of Jazz Miles Davis is being pretty zen in his quote here.  In fact, Davis is basically presenting a koan to “explain” his art.   But Zen Master Shoitsu is being pretty jazzy–he is, in fact, suggesting  what it takes to be Miles Davis improvising on his horn. (Note:  I know Mr. Davis played the trumpet.  See this if you have any questions:  The Man With the Horn.)

In a recent post, I talked about looking into the background of prompts.  My statements here  relate to the deeper story that each quote tells–to their background.  Knowing about both of them–about something the Tao of Davis and the Way of Shoitsu–allowed me to connect them. Your essay does not need to connect them, of course, though Chicago does like a little improv, and they do offer you the opportunity to make up your own prompt, which could involve combining these two.  But to do that, you would have to know some things.

Of course, you could just riff on either quote without even knowing, for example,  what instrument Miles Davis played, or even what jazz is, and if the essay is good, who needs background?  Whatever great thing rises up without the interference of the stuck mind is fine with the University of Chicago, and with the universe as well.

But here is the thing:  that is hard to do.  It’s hard to improvise without knowing  what you are improvising  from or about or for.  And while you need and are searching for a starting point for a college application essay, your mind is already stuck, and filled with noise, due to your desire to get into college, but also due to what you have been taught an essay is and should do, by all the essays you have written for school, which have done little to help you deal with these two prompts.

It’s kind of a zen experiment in itself:   The fact that you are writing to an elite and highly selective college suggests that you are already  in a race for achievement. You are trapped by the past and by your fears of the future. Which creates a Mind that Sticks.

The purpose of the college application essay makes students get stuck in trying to write about not being stuck as they show off how flexible and yet full their minds are.  These students talk about how they were studying or working on A, then started reading B, then lost themselves in C.  They go on to list all the great things they have learned by being an autodidact or by simply being constantly distracted by curiosity, claiming that this is what it means to have an unstuck mind.  But they end up with a blatant list of activities and things they have likely not really read all of, or read at all.    Trying to separate themselves from the crowd by showing how much they know, how far they’ll go.

It’s almost a koan:  Bragging while not bragging about it!  Very Zen!

Not.  This is a stuck mind.  And a laundry list of activities doth not make a good essay on Mind that Does not Stick.  Mind that does not stick is relaxed and flowing, not worried about outcomes.

What to do?  Think about what makes you flow.  Look at the two prompts I selected.  Ask this:  what is Miles Davis thinking  when he is playing?  He is thinking, but he is also . . . in the music, moving with it while shaping it.  Not thinking in the normal sense of wondering what will be for dinner (or breakfast–late nights for musicians and all).  He is not wondering if he left his oven on.  He is not checking the clock to see if class is over.

No, he would mess up his playing if he started thinking in that sense.  So would you.  One way to hear what is not there is by not being trapped by thought and expectation.  In this case, what should be played next is not what Miles Davis played.  But once he played the next note, it was right (Okay not all the time, but most of the time).  He was absorbed in the moment, one with the music.

Likely you have had similar experiences, in which you lose track of time, are one with your activity.  Which means that you, too, have experienced an aspect of unstuck mind.  Maybe that is your topic.  What makes you lose yourself.  What makes you lose expectations to hear what others do not hear. Very . . . Zen

Speaking of Zen, let’s take a look at it and at Zen master, Shoitsu.  (Warning:  This is dangerous.  Many people talk about Zen, but almost nobody knows what they are talking about.  Because, first of all, you cannot really talk about it to get it.  You have to experience it. Which is obviously a problem for anybody, but especially for you, because, well, you are just trying to write a college essay and that has a deadline that is in a few months, unlike enlightenment.  But this prompt caught your eye.  So we will try).

Here goes:  It is common to oversimplify so-called Asian philosophy and religion, particularly in making broad generalizations that stand in contrast to what is supposedly the Western style of thinking.  But there are some aspects of Zen which are broadly shared with other traditions, and knowing something about them  can help you understand where Master Shoitsu is coming from.

In Zen, and in aspects of other eastern meditative traditions, like Taoism, the thinking mind is not really the thing.  In fact, it is fundamentally an illusion.  Here is why: We look out at the world from a particular perspective, shaped by experience and by desire, but most of what we do is: not see.   This is true for a range of reasons, mostly involved with wanting things and suffering–and we suffer mostly because we want things we cannot have or do not have at the moment.  And in this process, as we think, we constantly judge what we see in order to try to avoid what we do not like or want and to get what we do like or want.  Desire, then, drives us and blinds us.

That’s pretty much it.  But this is also pretty hard to know.  You just read what I wrote above, but you cannot know without experiencing the loss of that thinking or ego self.  Which is where the meditative tradition of a guy like Master Shoitsu comes in.  These

Zen guys were and are hard core–sit there and breathe (and do a bunch of other work with total concentration and other stuff, like giving up things you do not need, etc, et al) and eventually insight and maybe even enlightenment might happen.  Through a full-on confrontation with the ego over a long time.  Check out Bodhidharma, for how hard-core zen practice is.  (Note:  one story has Bodhidharma staring a hole in the side of the cave during that nine [or ten] year meditation described in the linked page).

So Zen Master Shoitsu is  pointing out that your mind is basically a kind of construct, a filter gone rigid over time as it sorts events into categories such as like and dislike to the point that it is always stuck (Yes, that subtext is aimed at social media categorizing.  Wait, Zen Mind vs. Social media?  A topic?  Could be . . . ).  The mind is not really seeing reality because it is too busy processing, seeking advantage, driven by emotions like anger that are the product of habit–notice when you have “knee jerk” reactions of anger due to old experiences.  That, my friends is stuck.

Yes it is also a deep part of the mechanisms that keep you alive, but there you are: wanting.

Wow, that went deep, fast.  For more background on Master Shoitsu and Zen emptiness, check these links out:

What do Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness?

Instructions of Master Shoitsu

For Miles Davis hearing what others do not, try this: Miles Beyond

And for your essay, if nothing else works , but you like these quotes, and you want to go with the spirit of either quote, you want to think about what absorbs you utterly, what makes you flow with whatever you are doing.

Or just riff on one.  Have fun and ignore all my advice on using background.  Give it a whirl, as I did here, just goofing  an introduction to see what would happen–

Zen Master Shoitsu’s words on being unstuck fascinate me as a physics problem.  In a similar way, some time back, I was trying to work out the problem posed by that famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

I embarked on a series of physical experiments to explore this question, but all I ended up doing was getting cramps from squeezing my hand a lot–though at one point I did slap myself as well.  That definitely made a sound, but my findings on clapping one hand were inconclusive. 

However, this is the spirit I try to bring to every question that  me:  rigorous but joyous experimentation.  Full on engagement.

This started at a young age as I attempted to build Leonardo’s Flying Machine in my garage, but was apprehended by my dad as I tried to haul it up the ladder to the roof.  It has continued as I  . . . . . etc etc etc.  Etc.  

Notice the way I use an interesting intro to set up a discussion that would follow the etc etc to show things about you that need emphasis.  Notice also that humor is a good thing, or it can be if it us handled well.  And since U Chicago wants edgy,  feed that desire . . .

Time to wrap this post up.  If you were looking for a lot more clear explanation about what to put and where to put it in an essay, you are kind of missing the point of both quotes.  Try some essay experiments, without being attached to them, and see what happens.

And follow my blog as I continue to post on essay prompts and related topics . . . Or if you need help from a Zen Master of Editing, Contact Me.