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

The College App Jungle is a blog devoted to the increasingly Darwinian world of college applications.  

Look below to find a sample of free contents on college applications, ranging from this year’s prompts to how college applications are evaluated to trends in college app data and a deep archive of posts on the college application scene.   You can sample some posts below or click on the Archives link, which will open up a long column of posts, beginning with  this year’s application prompts and application quirks.  

I offer college application services,  and editing services.  You can visit my business portal at: UniversityGatesAdvising.

Or you can contact me at:


I will generally respond in 24-36 hours.  Serious Inquiries Only, Please.

Note that my low-cost introductory seminars for 2016-2017 are now over.  I do offer advice via Skype and in person in the Bay Area.  Contact me for details.

College App Jungle Contents and Links

I will add links and update periodically. I also recommend scrolling through the archives.

Some content is entirely free; full access to other content is for subscribers or those using my editing or college app services.

College Essay No-No’s

The Secret of College Admissions:  How College Applications Are Evaluated

Common Application and Supplemental Essays

Common Application General Information (Focused on changes to the Common App topics and what to do about them–they have tinkered with some of the prompts since I put this up, so double check before writing.  This is meant to provide some perspective on what they are doing–and not doing.  Think Too Big To Fail here).

The Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompts (These have  been unchanged since 2011)

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:   Prompts for 2015-2016. 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

See my recent posts on data for this year, and click below for some timeless advice.

Advice on the College Application Rat Race

Researching And Selecting Colleges:  Go West, Young Person

College Application Success:  The Seven Rules

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 wordguild@gmail.com to subscribe.

The University of Chicago Supplements for 2016-2017: A Quick Sample on Vestigially

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Brainstorming a College Application Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts, University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2016-2017, Vestigiality Essay on October 21, 2016 at 11:28 pm

Greetings U Chicago Want-To-Be’s. Welcome to a look at the University of Chicago application essays for 2016-2017. Our topic today:

Essay Option 5.

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.

—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

May I begin by pointing out that our ideas about vestigiality are often if not always kind of dumb?  Or ignorant, to be more accurate, and driven by that great concept from Greek tragedy, hubris?  We all suffer from hubris, of course, in the sense that we are all blinded by what we think we know–that’s what’s really going on in, say, Oedipu the King, and that’s what’s going on in a more mundane way here as well, with that appendix example in the prompt.

Tiffany Kim may be a member of the class of 2020, which means that she graduated from high school with the latest and greatest that an uber-achieving youth could learn in AP Anatomy, or whatever, but her question is pretty 20th Century when it comes to her example:  the appendix. For those of us keeping the pulse of the newest and best in science, the appendix does indeed retain an important function, to wit: it appears that it is a refuge for all the good bacteria we need when our guts get disrupted and flushed by illnesses (think Montezuma’s revenge). Metaphorically, it’s like the villas that the characters in the Decameron retreat to to wait out the plague, after which they may safely go out into the world again.  One pictures bacteria telling stories and engaging in libertine pursuits while they wait out whatever ailment is purging one’s guts.  (That’s a Decameron allusion, for those who want to know).

To justify my claims,  I quote one of only many sources for the new view on the appendix, here: Dartmouth says au contraire. And while we can lose the appendix and go on, we can lose a lot of things it would be better to have and go on. Like our legs. I don’t find any of my body parts vestigial, even using my tailbone when I sit.

To me this question says more about our idea that the latest and greatest is the mostest and bestest. To turn this prompt against itself, which is often the best way to approach a UChi prompt, I would use the question t to explore how we define vestigiality. Most interesting of all is how each age has all the answers until the next age comes along to mock it, failing simultaneously to recognize its own blindness.

In keeping with that spirit, let me offer my own short list of vestigial ideas:

Humans uploading their brains into computers

So the computer can think about sex, hamburgers, how to catch the perfect break on a wave and wonder why its ankle itches? Oops. What does it mean to have a human mind without a human body, anyway? And when computers do “think” will it look anything like what we do? (No). Do computers fear? Do they have any emotions? Is human thought in any way separable from emotion? [Hey, turn that last one into a statement and you have a prompt.] That’s just a short list. For more reading, start here: Your Brain is not a Computer and vice-versa.)

The Humanities Don’t Matter

Speaking of A.I., when the robots take all our jobs, the only thing left for humans will be the humanities. And appreciating beauty and food and sex and looking at the stars and telling stories and painting. Oh, wait, that all is or is tied into the humanities. Poetry, anyone?

Tech will save us

It is necessary but not sufficient. Notice how any technology with the power to transform and redeem also has the power to destroy. A supplemental vestigial idea is that all these transformative technologies are totally powerful and totally safe, simultaneously. For an amusing example of this, consult any interview in which Craig Ventner, he of human genome fame, talks about Frankenstein and on doing so shows that he has never read the book,  or  how his bacteria will save the world by creating diesel fuel.  Whole lotta water needed for that project, Craig.  Whole. Lotta. Water. And land.

Mythology is falsehood

Speaking of Frankenstein, all myths convey some kind of truth. I leave it to you do all of the digging on that.

That college is unnecessary for smart kids

Seriously? Peter Thiel with two Stanford degrees advocates against college for smart kids and so creates his own little tech incubator on the cheap via his foundation? Oops, that Thiel foundation does not look so altruistic anymore, does it?  Wait, I wonder if he will sue my little site just like Gawker?

If you want an unbiased and one-stop place to see if college is worth it in the terms most people [Especially those aging hipsters who all went to elite colleges hanging out with young hackers in Mr. Thiel’s little anit-college operation—I really need a word for old parasites feeding on idealistic young tech kids, so somebody help me out here]. Have a look here for more: College and Income from People You Can Trust [The Pew Center].

And here’s my final tip: make your own list then start clicking to find ideas for you to build a case in your essay for U Chicago.

All the Best until my next post on, um,  I’ll get back to you on that. It will probably be U Chicago, but get in touch and let me know—I follow the wisdom of the crowd for some new topics. Vote early and vote often . . .at wordguild@gmail.com.

Also contact me for editing assistance. ASAP actually, as sometime before Thanksgiving my calendar will likely be booked through January 1 (though the occasional spot will open up even then when a client misses a deadline).



The Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts for 2016-2017; Or, How to Write Your Harvard Application Essay, for the Class of 2021

In Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Books, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Supplement, Harvard Honor Code Essay, Harvard Supplement for 2016-2017, Harvard Supplemental Essays, How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essay, Ivy League Application Essays, Uncategorized on September 22, 2016 at 2:31 pm


So first things first: How long is the 500 kb limit imposed on the “optional” Harvard supplemental essay? Answer—Really, really long. Much longer than any essay you would want to write by a factor of magnitude; see here for more on just how long a 500 kb document would be: Discussion of 500kb.

I would suggest that you write an essay of 1-2 pages, or in word count, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words. If in doubt: Write 1 page. Keep in mind your app reader or admissions officer—they have too much to do and too little time.  To use the full two pages, you really need to be saying something important on this “optional” Harvard supplemental essay.

Your takeaway:  Don’t abuse the app officer with a long essay and don’t repeat things they already know.

But do write the essay, unless you already have an offer to attend (Really, some people, most of them athletes, already know they can go if they want to.  Feel that’s unfair? Consider how much money such a person brings to a university via happy alumni at football tailgating parties, etc, etc.  It is as fair as life in general is . . . ).

Also remember that whatever you do in your essay, you do it in the spirit of sharing not of lecturing as you offer real insight into yourself, your goals, your values and your interests.

An interesting thought experiment to try before you write any of your college application essays is to consider how your college education might serve others, and how you might become more beneficial to society.  As cynical as the colleges may seem at times as they compete for status, I do believe most of them still have that central mission in mind, and are trying to pick students who will go on to change the world for the better.  Like the rest of us, colleges do have to earn a living and engage in somewhat less lofty behavior as they do, but still:  creating well-rounded citizens is in the DNA of the American university system.

Enough about that.  Let’s look at the Harvard prompts for this year.

I started my work on Harvard this year by comparing the Harvard prompts to the University of California Personal Insight Questions (the new name for the application essays for the U.C. system). If you have not seen that earlier post, here it is: U.C. Personal Insight vs. Harvard Supplemental.  It would be a good idea to compare prompts across a range of our application targets to see where you can double up,as I do in this post–unless writing 20 or more essays and polishing them in the next three months, on top of your classwork, sounds like fun.

So let’s look at the Harvard prompts for 2016-2017 and then I will link you to my discussion on the traditional prompts:

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

– Unusual circumstances in your life

– Travel or living experiences in other countries

– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

– An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

– How you hope to use your college education

– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

– The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

– The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

Please note: If you do not intend to provide a response to this optional question, you do not need to submit the writing supplement. If you encounter any problems submitting your application, please upload a document that says “Not Applicable” and hit submit.

Hint: File should be under 500 KB and one of these types: .pdf .doc .docx .rtf .txt.

 The most interesting thing about these Harvard Supplemental Essay prompts is this:  with two exceptions, they have not changed since 2013.  I will discuss those exceptions at more length in a moment.  

For the first six prompts, which are holdovers from the last couple of application years, please click here to get extensive commentary and links on the prompts: Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts. Scroll down to #2 in this linked post, and start reading there.  Bonus for Princeton applicants:  this post also has a discussion of how to write about books, which you need . . . or might need, if you choose the book prompt for Princeton.  


Now let’s turn to the two more recent adds to the Harvard supplemental essay prompt list:   the Harvard Honor Code Prompt and the the Harvard Mission Prompt. I will reverse the order as I address them.

There is an overlap between the Honor Prompt  and the Mission Prompt in terms of intent, which I explain below when I discuss the drone student, below, but I think you can also see the connection between Harvard’s Mission prompt and the Princeton essay on Service, so let’s start there.

The Princeton Service essay has been around for a long time.    Harvard wants to create changemakers, too–why should they leave saving humanity to Princeton.  So they are getting into that game with Princeton, seeking the student on a mission to do something for humanity.

This could start in your neighborhood, by the way, so don’t feel the need to be grandiose  if this prompt calls to you, and have a look at my much more lengthy discussion on writing a service essay in my very long post on Princeton’s supplements–just use your browser to search for the word Service and you can skip the long intro to Princeton by clicking three times, down to Princeton’s prompt on service.  What I say there, outside of the stuff on Woodrow Wilson, also applies to Harvard’s prompt.

Warning:  if you are not at all interested in serving humanity, or just know that this prompt will turn you into a cliché machine, move on.  But have a look at my discussion on Princeton’s prompt on service first.  Maybe this will help you find your mission.

Enough on the mission:  Let’s have a look at . . . the Harvard Honor Code prompt: to write it or not to write it.  

First let’s look at why this prompt exists, in my opinion:  Bad P.R. and Too Many Drones Applying.  By drones, I mean that sleek, deadly airborne vehicle that can operate remotely but that is controlled from afar, a vehicle that can do all kinds of things, really, but cannot do anything outside of its programming or what its operators want it to do.  Of course what I really mean to discuss is the student that the drone analogy refers to: super high-achieving and sleek packaged, controlled at a distance by parents, and not really thinking for or examining themselves.  And doing whatever it takes to get to their target (schools).

And speaking of that bad P.R. doing whatever it takes seems to include cheating, on the way to the Ivy League ( or other elite schools) and apparently continuing to cheat or take the shortcut once there–and this has been a very specific problem at Harvard–take a look:  Harvard Cheating Scandal.  This has long been a problem that all schools struggle with, but it does seem to be becoming a bigger problem as everybody focuses on some kind of quantifiable outcome in education, like grades to get to the next level, or the diploma that will get you a job, or the job that leads to the next job and the next and . . . so on.

This kind of strategic climbing is not just understandable, it is necessary (to a degree,  pun intended), but on the other hand, the most important thing for income is getting a college education and degree–from any of the 500-800 really good four-year colleges in America.   The degree itself is, still, the most important thing.  Recent studies show that where you go does not matter that much for the income of many majors, especially the technical ones (and in this case, especially for women with technical majors).  I have demonstrated this in other posts, if you like, you know, data and empiricism as a proof.  I do find that the bright, shiny objects in the Ivy League tend to blind people, though, and make them unable to process the possibility of going elsewhere, so I resist the temptation to add a link here.

If you want to be a general business major, sure, having a  Harvard Business diploma is very useful, but after your first job, what matters most is what you did at your first job, and what matters most for pay is performance on the job and your network of support in your professional life–not your college dorm network, though yes, your best friends are likely to come from college.  And yes, at some point a college friend or connection could prove useful to your career–but that depends on what they do with their lives as well, doesn’t it?

If I sound preachy to you, go look at this  newest Harvard prompt again:

The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

This could be a dangerous prompt.  That might be why you would write about it.  If you think you will, then you should read closely the  Harvard Cheating Scandal article,  and see some of its impact–this is, after all, the clear sponsor for the Harvard Honor prompt.  How could they not address the problem?  Here’s more of the story:  Harvard students expelled for cheating.   More recently, Harvard students have been taking a pledge not to cheat–check it out:  Honor Pledge.

So now you know what Harvard is up to:  they want to change their culture.  Of course, the difficulty of getting into Harvard, and the very high value people place on that Harvard degree work against that new culture–you have to have the numbers to get in, don’t you?  And getting the best results can require a few corners to be cut, right?  Talk about a feedback loop.

How could you write this essay?  If you have experience with the problem.  The downside: looking like a cheater in the event you were involved, or looking to self-righteous or preachy or just writing a very predictable, clichéd essay.

How to solve the problem:  Think about your own experience and what kinds of pressures there are in your community.  Build from that picture.  You are almost certainly feeling some kind of pressure to excel in order to get ahead, or you would not be here.  And this can take extreme forms, going beyond cheating to things like the suicide cluster in Palo Alto California–see this article for a good discussion of that:  The Silicon Valley Suicides.   The evidence suggests that the pressure you see in this article is the same thing that drives students to cheat, at least in many cases.

The depressing thing is how this pressurized system has created young people who see nothing wrong with it.  In some cases you will no doubt find some extreme psychologies in these people–hey, every population has some sociopaths and psychopaths in it–but more of more concern is the kind of “so what” cynicism shown by many of the Harvard students who were caught–it was not cheating because everybody does it, it was not cheating, we were collaborating, it was not cheating, we were consulting other sources.  Personally, I have a problem with that. So does Harvard.  How could you address each of those three attitudes and examine the wider reasons they exist, as part of an essay built on your experience?  That is your challenge.

And a good essay about honor would likely use some specific example, or list of examples, from the author’s own experience.  I hasten to add, however, that if you were at the center of a cheating incident, you would have to really be able to show a change for this essay to work.  I would, in fact, advise you not to write this essay–unless the cheating incident was  prominent enough to register on social media.  In that case, you probably have to write this essay.

Whatever the case, I think a good essay on this starts with your experience of or observation of cheating around you, but it must pull back to look at the problem as part of a larger problem.  Sure, the irony is clear–you are also using this essay as leverage to get into one of the three or four most selective universities in the world.  But if it comes from the heart as well as the head, so be it:  you will write a good essay and hopefully bring that attitude to Harvard.  Use your personal experience, connect the cheating to pressure, connect that pressure to wider social problems–shrinking middle class, pressure on students to succeed, etc–and then show how you will act in an ethical way.  Without being preachy.  A tough task, but a worthy one.  If you touch the reader with your detail and authenticity, you will go far.


But wait, you ask–you are offering to edit my essay, for a fee:  is that not cheating?

No.  I do offer close advice, but you have to write it.  I am your guide, but yours are the feet walking down the path.  So to speak.  For sure I will give you detailed advice on how to write in general and specifically on this essay, and you will become a better writer after working with me.

If that doesn’t work for you, I will just close this way:  the moral world is full of gray with black and white on either side.  I would say that I am off-white.

Come back soon for more posts on writing your college essay.