How to Write the University of California Personal Insight Essays in 2020-2021

Advice for Writing Successful U. C. Essays, Part II–Personal Insight Prompts 5-8

This is my second installment on writing successful University of California essays for 2020-2021. For the first installment, click here: How to Write the University of California Personal Insight Prompts 1-4.

In this post, we turn to the final four of eight U.C. prompts. Note that you are not required to write 350 words, but if you have a good topic, the 350 word limit will feel too short, and your big problem will be fitting it all in. In a later post, I will look at the art of editing for word count.

Also be sure to give each prompt a try before making your final selections for the four required personal insight essays–if you start with the concrete evidence in terms of experiences you’ve had and actions you’ve taken, you may surprise yourself by findng that a prompt which seems not to apply to you actually does. And as noted in my earlier post, even if you don’t write the final essay for a prompt, the material from brainstorming and scribbling out ideas may be useful elsewhere. Now let’s move on to U.C. Personal Insight Prompts 5-8, and to why this post is worth reading, even if you end up not writing any U.C. essay prompts–my advice on the “Woe is Me” essay.. This kind of narrative has become increasingly common in the college application world. Tread carefully.

U.C. Personal Insight Essay Prompt 5, and How To Write It

Question 5:

Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Here is the guidance that the U.C. offers for this question:

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”

Commentary and Analysis on UC Prompt 5

A specific challenge when it comes to actually writing a response to this prompt is the risk of creating a “Woe is Me” essay. What do I mean? First of all, I am not addressing those of you with learning challenges who have found ways to compensate and overcome them. However, I would add that you do not have to reveal disabilities or learning challenges to a university, though when you arrive on campus after having been admitted, they do have to provide you with necessary support–usually under a student services section or department. When I say the “Woe is Me” essay, what I am really focused on is essays that are meant to promote the trials and tribulations, the difficult life and intense suffering of an applicant to get the sympathy of the application readers. This can be a bad strategy, when it is a strategy and not just a life story.

The Rise of the Woe-is-Me Strategy

Here is why this strategy became popular: At some point around the turn of the century, word got out that the University of California was looking for ways to assess challenges in life that affected students, and that writing an essay about the life challenges you had to overcome was the best way to boost your chances of admission to the University of California system. Tbis approach first becme noticeable in the aftermath of political and legal action against equal opportunity programs in California.

So the essay on a difficult life, known in its extreme and false form as the “Woe is Me” essay became a kind of meme that drove thousands of applicants to concoct Dickensian background stories about poverty, disease, etc. Some of this was real, some was exagarrated, and some essays were totally fabricated. Application readers grew really tired of reading tales of suffering and woe, particularly when they obviously reached for sympathy. I am, of course, speaking of those essays sent in by applicants whose basic situation seemed pretty comfortable.

The worst effect of this meme in my opinion was its effect on students who suddenly felt they needed to have a competition for who had suffered the most or who had the greatest handicap to overcome. This seems to be to bad all around, for several reasons.

Why the Woe is Me Essay Should Usually be Avoided–and Who Can Authentically Use It

In the first place, it’s inauthentic for reasonably comfortable people to create sob stories out of their lives in order to get a benefit. In the second place, this is a bad game for most applicants to be playing–because there is incredible hardship out there in America, but if you are among the majority audience for a website like this, with time, realiable internet, a decent computer, etc, it’s a losing game to try to compete for a championship in hardship. You may end up looking phony. In the third place, it’s bad for young people to pretend to be something they are not in order to get a reward. I know that’s a bit circular, but so is the Nicomachean Ethics, which also offers some arguments on this writing situation, if you are interested.

In order to be more concrete here: I have done work for applicants who were functionally if not legally parentless, these being teenagers who worked jobs, went to school and took care of younger siblings because their own parents were unable or unwilling to do their job or were out of the picture. These things happen in America. Many college applicants come from really challenging backgrounds–but then they don’t have to pump up the suffering in their lives. Just reporting the facts is enough, and the fact that they have doen well enough in those circumstances to apply to college speaks for itself.

You, of course, have to make the call here–I do not know your life. There is great human misery to be found even among the owners of chalets and castles, but as a rule, suffering is distributed unevenly in all societies. But pumping up your suffering to get into a school is not a good thing to do. College app readers will frown mightily on those they feel or discover are manipulating the facts of their lives to get sympathy.

Who Can Write this Topic with that Focus

If you do come from a challenging background, however, it does make sense to choose this topic. The key for my clients who have written this essay is whether the circumstances shaped their lives and so were really a necessary topic for them to discuss, to explain certain aspects of their backgrounds and academic records. But even then, the main point of these essays was the way these students overcame the challenges. With real suffering, as noted above, there is no need to offer a florid description–the deeply personal circumstances speak for themselves in this kind of personal statement.

As a final, concrete example, I have also helped people with college applications after they arrived in this country fleeing war and violence or poverty and starvation or all of the above. So please weigh carefully if you need to respond to this prompt. If you are offering this essay as evidence for your challenges in life, make sure that others will see your problems as challenges significant enough to merit the time of your application reader as they fit together the puzzle of who you are. My most memorable experience working with a student writing about a life experience like this started with floating away from her country of birth on a smallish boat, being interned in camps for displaced persons, seeing other people die along the way, and then coming to the United States where she had to learn a new language, working a job to help support her family, dealing with prejudice about her appearance and assumptions about her religion, and still she excelled in school. Notice how simply stating concrete facts in this case is an example of facts speaking for themselves. Also, this was for a longer essay, back when U.C. allowed two essays of up to 1,000 words combined–she reused her Common Application essay on her background.

No doubt many of you’ve been working as well as taking care of siblings, many of you have learning challenges, and you may have been juggling family challenges, like your own academic challenges and the sudden switch to online classes in last semester of school. Just keep in mind that this was true of pretty much all of your peers and fellow U.C. applicants. Ask for some ourtside opinions of the merits of your personal challenges before going with this approach.

And if you do have dramatic or challenging personal story, state the facts without dramatic, you-are-there stuff and try to focus more on your initiative and problem-solving, and on the impact your efforts had in your success. But do make the cirumstances clear–a basic description of the situation or events will make clear the obstacles you overcame.

U.C. Essay Prompt 6 and How To Write It

Question 6–

Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Here is the U.C. guidance for this question:

Things to consider:  Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

Commentary and Analysis on UC Personal Insight Prompt 6

My main recommendation: if your passion is intellectual, be sure that your passion extends outside of the classroom. You want to show this as a self-motivated activity, as something you pursue for its own sake, not just for grades. And you should think about why you pursue it, on a personal level, but also see if you can show some benefit for those around you–from your community through your school to your society at large and the world. Is there some way in which your interest can make the world a better place? If so, write out some ideas on that–whether it’s already true, or part of your plan for the future, through your education (something you should say–don’t assume the reader can infer the ouctomes of your interest, or their context). Show why you care about this.

And look at how a passion may apply to other areas of interest. One of the more interesting essays on this topic I have seen was by a student who attended an arts-oriented school, who worked on both visual arts and sculpture there, and how the manual skills picked up, and the artist’s sense of shape and design, helped this student come up with a design solution on what I will loosely call a high-tech robotic machine. This student solved a difficult problem involving how to shape and consruct protective cladding.

So I go back again to my advice in my first post on writing the U.C. prompts for 2020-2021–start by writing down experiences and scribbling out some details of description. While you come up with concrete experiences and actions, also look for ways in which your academic passion may have shaped your approach to problem-solving, or how it may be connecting you to knowledge outside of the specific discipline. On addition, look for chances to show how you may have worked with others, innovated and showed some leadership ability. It is nice to overlap (a bit) between essays, like this prompt and the prompt on leadership experiences, prompt 1, showing some leadership again in an essay not explicitly about leadership. The discussion on U.C. prompt 1 is located in my last post on the U.C. personal insight essays–click to see.

U.C. Essay Prompt 7 and How To Write It

Question 7–

What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

My first point on this one: You are free to define your own community here, as shown by the guidance offered by the U.C.–

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

Commentary and Analysis on UC Prompt 7

If you come from an interesting family, your community can start there. And if your family has some traditions and customs that define it and in some sense define you, and those offer a positive insight into you and what you want to do in the world–fantastic. That’s step 1. Now what have you done to help your community? Also, repeating my recent comment, there is an element of leadership here as well, and that overlap of ideas and traints between essays (but not repetition of content).

Social justice is perhaps the most obvious community issue in the United States today, and no doubt many of you are interested in it, and perhaps actively involved in making change happen. However, if that is a recent passion, consider whether you have the record to address it in a college application essay.If you are applying in fall 2020, then June, 2020 is not the time to develop a sudden commitment for justice to your community or to the fight for civil rights for all.

On the other hand, many people have certainly had an awakening in the last month, if not the last six years. Maybe your awakening or commitment is serious, you are committed, and you are doing the work and putting yourself out there (hopefully with mask and sensible precautions.) Then you can write this essay as an important part of defining yourself. Just be wary of appearing to look like a carpettbagger or bandwagon jumper if you’ve been mostly an observer until recently–and just speaking up in class and posting a bit on social media is not really enough to make you an activist for an essay like this.

Also be wary of preaching and oversimplifying. Now is the time to act on principles, so be sure to clarify them, their origins and development in you, and be wary of preaching and oversimplifying. Yes, I know I already said that. History is complicated, and its long arc has bent toward justice, but only slowly, through activism and dramatic moments, but mostly through determined and disciplined work over time. You can already see how long the fight is still likely to be based on the lack of legislative response in Minnesotat this June. So be in it for the long run in life and in this essay, if you write it.

I have written about how to tackle essays on a problem, on social justice, etc, so you can see a post like the one I link now, and follow the subject tags for more, here–Essay on a Problem. All of the topics I list in this years-old post are still at play, now. Which says something in itself. If you scroll down in that linked post, I specifically address social justice essays.

U.C. Personal InsightEssay Prompt 8 and How To Write It

Question 8

Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Here is the U.C’s guidance on this question:

Things to consider:  If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?

From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.

Commentary and Analysis on UC Prompt 8

Coming up with suggestions for this is a stumper for me, because it’s a personal insight essay–only you as an individual know your unknown topic that will fit here.

But in my experience, this essay tends to develop when a student starts our to write one thing and ends up with an essay that does not classify clearly–so it goes here. It’s a nice place to drop a good essay that does not quite fit anywhere else.

But here is a final, point: this personal insight application essay is not an essay for a high school class. I have made this statement several times in my two-part analysis of the U.C. essays this year, but in this case I mean that an application essay is not like an essay on a history test. There is no one right answer, or even a narrow range of right answers. These are personal essays, about you.

And college application readers are looking for good writing, interesting matrerial, and insight into you. If an essay is a slight reach on what community is (see above), so what? It it’s good and they like it, they like you as a candidate as well. Maybe it goes here, but if it sort of fits community, don’t worry too much: app readers don’t toggle back and forth between the prompts and the essay you wrote and look to deduct points because you did not answer all aspects of the question.

But still, this final prompt is a place to drop a good essay that does not really fit any of the others. And it’s maybe an opportunity for that quirky idea. Just don’t be too cute.

Contact Me for Essay Developing and Editing

Well that’s it for me on analysis for the University of California essays for this year. I do still have some spots for editing and essay development as I write this in the third week of June, 2020, so Contact Me if you need help. (Note; this link takes you to my business portal, which I separate from this free, advice-to-all-applicants website. Not a scam, just to separate the buisness from the public service and journalistic side).

And get writing soon. Four essays is a pretty hefty workload.

How to Write the University of California Personal Insight Essays for 2021

The first thing to know about writing successful University of California application essays involves the serious time commitment they demand. Early in this decade, the U.C. doubled the number of essays required and established a 350-word limit for each essay. Applicants now face four essays, and the relatively short 350 words is a challenging limit for you applicants–more than a blurb, but not much room for a well-developed essay. I think that because these prompts represent a tough challenge, they also seems to be working for the U.C., which is not changing any of the prompts this year and, according to my sources, is not planning real changes in the coming years. However, you still have a lot of competition for a seat at the U.C.. Though the system overall has seen a leveling of application numbers over the last two cycles, there are still well over 80,000 freshman applications and over 100,000 total freshman and transfer students who applied to UCLA in 2019-2020, while Berkeley racked up over 80,000 freshman and transfer applications. Now, that is a lot of applicants. Planning well and looking for solid evidence in your experiences can help separate you from the crowd.

This post is Part 1 of a two-part discussion of the U.C. Personal Insight Questions. You will find my discussion of how to begin writing successful essays for prompts 1-4 below; I will continue with prompts 5-8 in a post to follow within a few days of uploading this.

Requirements for the U.C. Essays

Here are your guidelines for writing the U.C. Personal Statement essays:

You will have 8 questions to choose from. 

You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions. 

–Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.

–Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you. All questions are given equal consideration in the application review process.

Two things to consider as you start–the range represented by the prompts you end up writing about, and how convincing your evidence will be for each.

Concrete material that supports your main ideas is key–your principles and ideals are of great importance, but real experiences are more convincing than broad statements of principle that have never been tested or acted upon. It’s noble to believe in equality for all, for example, but if this principle has mostly been an area of discussion in classes and some posts you put up on social media, your personal insight statement about your belief in equality will be not fully convincing. If you started a club or engaged in constructive activity that aimed at creating equality, or at getting people to work toward it, that would be better at supporting a successful essay. And so on with any statement you want to make to the U.C. about yourself. So we start with the evidence from your life and experiences that you’d use for each topic.

Start By Looking for Concrete Experiences To Use for Each Topic

My advice for starting the process is to brainstorm each topic before you settle on the four you will write about, and as you brainstorm, to focus on concrete evidence, on your actual experiences and on actions you have taken that could relate to the prompt question. Even it it seems like some topics should be dismissed out of hand, it is still worth spending time on every topic to see what experiences you have that fit–in the process, you may change your mind about the topic, or you may find material that will be useful in another essay.

So start by copying all of the prompts into a document and start typing below each, with a focus on what you have done or what you have experienced and how you have reacted in a positive way that could be used as evidence in each essay.

Some of the topics focus on a single experience or period in your life, but you should still look for ways to break the experience down into areas that offer concrete material–of course generalizations are important, and abstract concepts like principles that you live by really matter and will help separate you from other applicants, but if you cannot offer solid evidence for your principles and beliefs or interests, all you have is some lofty rhetoric that may end up sounding empty.

If you are one of those who still likes to scribble a bit and handwrite rough material, or if you have limited access to a computer, just put each prompt on a separate sheet of paper and get started.

To help you further, I offer a discussion of the specific essay prompts below, including the U.C.’s guidance and my own commentary. Throughout, I will also use the opportunity to discuss some basic considerations for college application essays in general–things like your writing situation, audience and purpose.

U.C. Personal Insight Essay Prompt 1, and How to Write It

Question 1:

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

Here our first issue is defining a good topic within the range of options suggested by a prompt, and I will also take a look at your audience and purpose for this special kind of essay.

Here’s the U.C. guidance on the prompt:

A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities? 

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 1

My commentary: You will notice that U.C. discusses activities both inside and outside of school, and ends their suggestions by pointing out that taking care of your family is also a kind of leadership.

Indeed. So consider the family experiences, especially those of you who are caring for younger siblings and/or older relatives as your parents work. Stepping up to take a job and/or help take care of siblings is an informal form of leadership–you are taking on an adult role when you work to support your family or help care for others–and in its broadest sense, what is leadership about if it is not about taking care of others?

If you do choose this kind of topic, however, Just be sure to avoid what I call the “Woe is me” essay. More on this when I discuss prompt 5.

When defining leadership activities in school, in clubs, or in other organizations and informal groups, look for those things you have done that are above and beyond what was required. Being in one of those school leadership classes that organizes events in school is great, but keep in mind that those activities are required for a grade in a course. The same holds in an academic course–just taking charge of badly organized lab groups would be fine as a minor support in an essay on leadership ability, but when I see a student essay on leadership and all of the action in the essay takes place in a class–well, it does meet the topic requirements, but your leadership was in a pretty limited, academic setting. This essay want you to show more about yourself. And in a class in which your lab group went awry, your primary goal would be to save a grade, really. I’d suggest that you want some more significant leadership accomplishment than that. Of course you could throw in that classroom experience as a bonus-along the lines that you continued to apply the lesson you learned from great leadership experience x when your lab group floundered in class y, and you did z to save the situation.

In general it’s more convincing if you acted as a leader in a way that seems self-motivated and imaginative–this could still happen in a school environment, from starting a group or club and running it to, these days, organizing and activism against violence and oppression. If you are an advocate for social justice, though, do avoid preaching to your audience. They are almost certainly on your side, anyhow. And avoid name-calling and oversimplification, while keeping in mind that this essay is not an arguement about proving your side right–it’s about what motivates you and how you act on those motivations.

While all kinds of school-based activities do fit the bill, I do want to mention that in recent years, a whole lot of DECA essays have crossed my screen, and the same is true of your college app readers. So your DECA essay needs something unique to set it apart.

U.C. Personal Insight Essay Prompt 2, and How To Write It

Question 2:

Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Let’s start with the U.C. guidance on this prompt:

What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 2

I start with the U.C guidance for this simple reason: they agree with my approach to the essays. Note the way the U.C. suggestions point you to using specific, concrete evidence.

Also note the way U.C. is framing the range of topics to use on this one–this essay allows you to expand on some academic area in which you excel, but it also opens up an opportunity to move the focus outside of school. The key here is to focus on a creative aspect of yourself that is not defined solely by your GPA and transcript.

If you are an artist or builder, who loves to tinker, this may not be very clear through your coursework, and the creative and personal importance of your art or tinkering is unlikely to appear at all in your formal records, so this is the chance to expand on those less quantifiable aspects of your experiences.

Avoid simply restating activities, but you can take advantage of this prompt to expand on some area that is important to you, showing more about what motivates you, what makes you “tick.”

U.C. Essay Prompt 3 and How to Write It

Question 3-:

What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 3

The creativity prompt in #2 does tend to overlap with the talents and skills focus of prompt 3, so look for the opportunity to augment but not repeat material. This specific focus does have some added challenges–specifically, how can you talk about how talented you are without seeming to brag?

Well, one way, again, is to focus on the concrete. If you can show accomplishments or show yourself expanding your intellectual range because of this talent, that can make the difference. Once you consider your talents, you will realize that discovering a talent usually means you begin to challenge yourself more as you pursue that talent.

As Bear Bryant said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” Just be sure you can offer proof, vividly.

If you have a broad sort of skill that you think applies across several areas, again be sure to use some concrete examples. Or if you feel like you have one dominant talent and are going for that “spike” by emphasizing it, I would also recommend that you look for a way to frame it as a passion. A talent for something is often tied to a passion for that activity, and when we write about what we care about, that changes the way the subject is framed. So talk about what you love in the activity where you pursue your talent. Then you need not fear looking unintentionally arrogant. Also look to tie a talent to another trait, like curiosity- creating a sort of essay equation like this: a talent for x and curiosity led to discoveries like y.

U.C. Essay Prompt 4 and How to Write It

Question 4:

Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

This is the last prompt I will discuss for this post on the University of California Application Essays for 2020-2021. As noted above, I will post on the remaining prompts in a few days. But I’d like to close this discussion with a look at a big issue we have not yet addressed: your application reader.

First, though, here is the guidance U.C. offers on this essay topic:

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few. 

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

Commentary and Suggestions for Responding to Prompt 4

As you start working on ideas for this prompt, keep in mind the writing situation in general, and the purpose of a college application essay. This is much different from anything that you have written for high school. The purpose of any college application essay is not a baring of your soul. The point of a college application essay is to gain admission to the college of your dreams or desires. That’s it. So any deep confessions should be in the service of college admissions. That means choosing carefully what to discuss.

Possibly this seems too obvious to say, but I see many application essays that are more suitable for an English teacher at a high school than they are for a college application reader. In a college application, you become a kind of holograph, a doppelganger of yourself created by your GPA, your transcript, some test scores (though many colleges are dropping those requirements this year) and your essays.

Who you are in a college application comes down to some numbers and the words you put into four essays. And all of your Personal Insight essays are in the deepest sense arguments. Regardless of the autobiographical form, each essay is an attempt to persuade an unknown adult to admit you to a college.

This is unlike anything you have done for a teacher. Your teacher has already seen you in class, has or is developing a feeling for you as a person, and is in a relationaship of growth. A college app reader is more like a bouncer.

I am discussing the college application reader now because of the writing situation and this prompt. We have all had educational barriers and obstacles. Quite often this involves a conflict with a teacher. If you were writing this essay for a high school teacher, they might know who you were talking about and sympathize. But even if you were writing this for a high school teacher, they also might be offended at a perceived attack on another teacher or on the institution, or they might feel you were not accepting responsibility. Tbis is all the more true for a college application reader who only knows you through the material you put in yoru application. So if you had a really bad experience with a teacher, weigh carefully the benefit of talking about that as an educational barrier. Then consider another topic.

After all, an app reader is a school official, too. And the app reader may view the situation in a different way, may see you as blame shifting or complaining, may think you should just deal with it. An app reader is likely to see an essay on a problem teacher in a negative light.

Get Feedback Early on the Optics for Educational Obstacles

So this “academic challenges approach” is a topic focus that I encourage you to get some early feedback on. After you have brainstormed, ask a few other people for their opinion on the material and focus you propose. If you plan to write about a barrier you have overcome, how will that barrier and your material look to an application reader–will it look like you are complaining or trying to pump up your level of hardship to manipulate your reader?

More specifically, if the hardship involves something like a learning difference, is it really necessary to write about? If you have some kind of disability, you do not need to tell any college about it, but when you arrive on campus, they are required to provide you support–so ask yourself if you really need to talk about that specific obstacle.

(I will discuss the risks and benefits of writing about a significant challenge in more depth for prompt 5, in my next post on the U.C., but I raise these issues now because I see essays like these every year.)

Writing About an Educational Opportunity

In contrast to the educational challenges focus, the more obviously positive of the option alternatives is the educational opportunity you took advantage of (or better yet found for yourself or applied for). This could be in school or outside of it and oviously opens up the chance to expand on things like internships and research outside of the classroom–just be sure to add detail that conveys your intrinsic motivation and curiosity, and don’t repeat your activities descriptions directly–this is a chance to expand on an experience you put in your activities, but the point is to show more about yourself, exploring your motivations and goals.

And again, the educational opportunities that work best for this kind of essay are opportunities that were in some way earned–if your parents paid to put you on an international flight to work on an archeological dig, let’s just say that looks like an affluent student’s family looking for ways to pad the resume. (For those of you who are confused by this: Yes, that’s a thing I have seen done by families who can afford it and who are pushing college activities, and application readers are also aware of the college application activities industry. Some internships are in a gray area where this is involved.

I will be turning to U.C. prompts 5-8 in my next post. Contact me if you are seeking world-class essay development and editing.

How to Write a Successful Cornell University Essay for 2020-2021

Ivy League Breaking News: Cornell’s 2021 Application essays are up and ready to write as of June, 2020. To write a successful Cornell University application essay in 2020-2021, you need to show that you know your area of interest at Cornell. Here’s how.

The Cornell University application essay is particularly demanding in its focus on your knowledge of yourself and even more on your knowledge of an area of interest–or two areas–at Cornell. As a result, to write a successful Cornell University essay, you need to learn how to do research on the university, and on the department(s) involved in your chosen area of study, going into as much detail as you can manage. This is not a true research essay, of course–no MLA citations, please– but it does blend you and your background with what you want to do at Cornell–and why you want to go to Cornell.

I will give you a quick example of the outcome of this kind of research in an essay excerpt in a moment, but first let’s take a look at the prompts themselves:

Cornell University Application Essay Prompts for 2020-2021

REQUIREMENTS: In the online Common Application Writing Supplement, please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 650 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college or school to which you are applying.

College Interest Essays for Fall 2021 Applicants

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals?

College of Architecture, Art, and Planning: What is your “thing”? What energizes you or engages you so deeply that you lose track of time? Everyone has different passions, obsessions, quirks, inspirations. What are yours?

College of Arts and Sciences: Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person…any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.

Cornell SC Johnson College of Business: What kind of a business student are you? The Cornell SC Johnson College of Business offers two distinct business programs, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the School of Hotel Administration. Please describe how your interests and ambitions can be met through one or both of the Schools within the College.

College of Engineering: Tell us about what excites you most about Cornell Engineering and/or studying engineering at Cornell University. How do you see yourself becoming a part of the Cornell Engineering community?

College of Human Ecology: How has your decision to apply to the College of Human Ecology been influenced by your related experiences? How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future?

School of Industrial and Labor Relations: Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you. Your response should show us that your interests align with the ILR School.

To Start the Cornell University Essay: Demonstrate Interest through Research, Research, Research

Why research? Well, aside from having a better essay, you will also create what is commonly called “Demonstrated Interest.” Colleges like Cornell field tens of thousands of applications, and they look for those applicants who show evidence of real knowledge and commitment to the university–that is, demonstrated interest. Before we get to my example, you might need to learn a bit about college majors (or concentrations) and the way universities are broken up into schools as well as majors–for information on that, click to see my post exploring schools and majors, from a few years back–after you click, scroll past the intro section until you get to the subheading Majors and Colleges, where I explain the way things are organized, focusing on Cornell, specifically.

Now take a look at an example of doing specific research for an academic focus at Cornell.

An Example of Researching a University for the “What’s Your Major” or “What Makes You a Good Fit” Essay Like the Cornell Supplemental Essay

So let’s start with an excerpt of an essay body paragraph from an application essay for Cornell University that I edited, with some specific references in bold print that were added. These bold-font concrete details were put in place by the author after my suggestion that this writer research more specific evidence and information at Cornell-I explained how she could click down through the layers in her specific school and into research units and professors. She found two specific researchers at Cornelll working in her areas of interest:

I hope to  interact with professors who have a passion for research and chemistry, such as Geoffrey Coates, whose research on catalysts includes new, biodegradable polymers that might be used in biomedical devices—bringing my interests in surgery and chemistry together. I am also fascinatd by the work of Peng Chen, who has been applying single-molecule microscopy in a variety of innovative ways, with applications that may range from  solar power to medicine, the kind of thing that makes me wonder about powering medical implants with solar technology–like, a solar shirt that recharges a heart implant. As I research my options at Cornell . . . . my mind is on fire with ideas.

Keep in mind that concrete evidence is better than broad proclamations in most kinds of writing, and in an application essay, concrete details like those above show a fine-grained knowledge that also suggests your true commitment to Cornell, and thus boost your application’s chances.

This excerpt is still in rough draft form, but you can already see how this writer is trying to cite specific detail on the school and drop some names, to show a deep understanding as well as commitment.

Some Thoughts on Essay Content and Structure

This section of the essay I excerpt above followed the introductory section of the essay. The essay introduction started with a nice hook, after which the author reviewed her own life and interests, and how in a second paragraph, explained how those interests developed and grew. In the excerpt above, from paragraph three, she pivoted to specific things going on at Cornell University that connect with her story and her academic interests. 

If you use this kind of approach, the app reader learns a bit more about you in general, but you also provide some bona fides by showing that you know a lot about the school–or at least that you have specifics on why you want to go there.

The result: talk about your Demonstrated Interest. That rough draft, above, became a final draft that helped this particular student get admitted to Cornell university–after that research, and several more drafts, to refine her focus.    To see one of the sources this author used in her essay, click to see what Geoffrey Coates is up to, here:  Coates Research

In this kind of research, persistence pays off. For example, for her references to Peng Chen, you would have to find his main page, here–Chen Research–do some reading, and click through two more layers to find out how his work relates to solar energy, here:  Chen Solar.  It’s the kind of reading and clicking that gets you to these details that will convince your app reader that you are serious about their school.

Yes, all of this may be just to name-drop twice in a single paragraph in a single application essay.  But in an application game that is all about nuance and margins, paying attention to the details makes a lot of the difference. 

It’s a lot of work, yes. But through this kind of process, many of my clients stumble upon the specific area of interest that they will puruse in college, and some find their mission in life as they did this kind of research.

Contact Me for an Essay Coaching and Editing Package

I offer detailed essay coaching and editing, from a single essay through all applications essays and on to essays for tuition scholarships and grants. Contact Me for more information.

How to Write the 2021 University of Texas Application Essays Part 1

My hook for this post is the University of Texas application for 2020-2021, but I am also going to take a look at reusing essays selectively in your other applications, which can save a lot of time and work. There are a couple of venues for applying to the University of Texas, and in discussing these I will introduce (briefly) and compare several important application portals used in Texas, but also nationally. Lesson one: to write a great University of Texas essay, you actually start by taking a look at the alternative of using either the Texas application site or the Coalition Application site.

Like the University of California, Texas runs its own college application portal. But in addition to the Coalition and UT/Apply Texas portals, the good news is that you can write a great University of Texas essay and turn around to reuse it for some of the 800-plus colleges using the Common Application portal, with little or no reediting–if you watch your word counts and choose your prompts wisely.

Different Application Portals: Apply Texas

Goal #1 for applying to college in 2020-2021 is to look for ways to reuse essays. Which brings us to those application portals.

Apply Texas is the foundation of all Texas applications, but universities determine which prompts to use. Assuming you are applying to the University of Texas, you could go directly to the UT website, which shows a single prompt fo the longer personal essay. This prompt is also up as the “A” prompt on the Apply Texas portal, and it is the Apply Texas system that handles all the data and that stands behind the various Texas public university applications–it’s a bit like the way the University of California is set up as a single portal, but there is more variation in the application requirements for Texas. Technical and state colleges are included in Apply Texas, whereas in California, the Cal State university system has a portal that is entirely separate from the University of California system.

For an example of how the Apply Texas requirements can vary from school to school, UT Austin requires a full set of the Texas application essays, including using option A for that longer essay and several shorter essays of about 250 words. In contrast, Texas Tech “strongly suggests” that you write at least one of the required essays but does not require it.

Of course, if you are a serious applicant to Texas Tech: write all of the essays. When offered the chance to do more, you want to do more. It demonstrates commitment.

And this year, in particular: if you did not take the SAT or ACT before the Covid rules came into play, or want to retake because your scores are below the mnidle 50%, but don’t end up getting one of the limited seats available before apps are submitted (or you just don’t want to risk your own or your family’s health for another test) you will want as much positive material for that holistic application evaluation as possible, to make up for missing data from standardized tests.

The Next Portal: The Coalition Application

Next portal: That longer essay prompt for UT Austin, which is Prompt A for Apply Texas is actually shared with the Coalition Application. “Coalition” is the short name for The Coalition for College Access.This might seem odd until you look at the UT Austin site, where it tells you that you can use the Coalition portal to apply, and skip the UT/Apply Texas portal.

To clarify: you only use one portal to apply–you will apply either through the UT portal, which is supported by Apply Texas or you will apply to UT through the Coalition App portal, which also allows you to apply to other schools listed on the Coalition portal, both inside and outside of Texas. So the Coalition is accepted by UT but is not limited to Texas schools. The question then, is whether it covers all or most of the colleges you want to apply to.

How to choose? See if all the colleges you want are among those listed on the Coalition App–if they are, you will save a lot of time by filling out all that basic data from name and personal information through activities only once, instead of using diferent sites and pasting in and tinkering with the same basic information, data and short responses over, and over. Using a more national portal like the Coalition Application offers efficiency. But the Coalition Application itself is not the biggest of the portals available.

A Comparison to the Common Application

A big drawback of the Coalition App is its relatively short list of participating colleges. The Coalition has 151 schools participating for 2020-2021. Compare this to the Common Application, which will be used by 884 universites. Sadly, the Common Application is not accepted by UT, among many others, but the Common App’s reach does make it a portal you are likely to use at some point this year.

To be very clear: though the Common Application is indeed the most commonly used app portal of all, its not an option for Texas public colleges (e.g. Texas Tech, UT Austin, et al). Outside of the University of California system, however, most of the big-name colleges that might come to mind do use the Common Application.

This is why you want to look at it now, and another reason: the Common Aplication essay prompts are up, so you can compare them, to the UT main essay. And there are other good schools in Texas among the Common App’s 800-plus clients, including Baylor, Rice, and TCU, not to mention those dozens of schools you have heard of and likely want to apply to outside of Texas.

So our focus on the Common App in this post is aimed at the possibility of reusing an essay on two or more portals.

Why You Should Look at Reusing Essays

The typical person applying to 10 colleges will generally use at least one main, longer essay of 550-650 words, and a series of supplementals. This means that you could easily write 20 essays for 10 apps–or 30. Most of these supplemental essays will be shorter than the 550-650 word main essays, but still–the more chance you have to reuse material, the more efficiently you can move through the work. And the workload, once school starts, can be quite extreme. With all the variables up in the air for this year, saving some labor on essays is a good idea.

I want to add before you go on to the rest of this post, and taking a look at the essay prompts, that there is one caveat–the various essay checking software programs, like Turnitin, will flag repeat uses of essays, and the use of such software is becoming more widespread–either through the adoption of Turnitin or other options, like in-house algorithms at some schools. Noting that it’s not really possible to plagiarize yourself, the focus here is on being sincere in your appeal to your target schools, and crafting the majority of supplemental essays carefully to suit your targets. But you need to balance this with the knowledge that, in the contemporary application scene, most students applying to selective and super selective colleges apply to ten or more universities, and they almost all reuse some degree of material. I will discuss fine tuning strategy on this in a later post.

Pay Attention to Word Count Limits in Essays

In addition to looking at the essay prompts, you should note that there are some differences in the word counts allowed–if you use the Coalition site, they suggest no more than 550 words; the Common Application allows no more than 650 words, and that is a firm limit; and for U Texas, I suggest 550 to no more than 650 words. (I’ve seen essays of up to 700 plus words accepted through the UT section of the Apply Texas application portal in the past, but suggest shooting for 550 as your max in your Texas main, which of course is the max word count suggested on the Coalition App.)

Many Application Essay Prompts Will Be The Same As Last Year

Whether they have reached perfection or just can’t get a revision done in this Covid-disrupted year, all three of the portals we have discussed will be using the essay prompts they had up last year. Please don’t take this as a green light to imitate your older sibling’s essays from last year, however–that essay scanning software I discussed is one reason. Being yourself and doing your own thing is another.

Let’s take a look at Texas first, then I will compare Texas prompt A to the current Common Application prompts to show you how to save a lot of work by reusing an essay or two–

2020 through Spring 2021: University of Texas Essay Prompt A

ApplyTexas Essay Prompt A

Guidelines for Essay Topic A—350-ca. 750 words, recommend aiming for 550 words.

Texas Essay Topic A (For U.S., applicants, as well as Transient, Readmit, and Transfer International applicants): Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

This is the definition of a “personal” essay question, and it overlaps with a range of essay prompts required by other universities. It also overlaps with most of the Common Application prompts, depending on the angle you take–and when you can use one essay for two applications, that is a must-do opportunity. Just take a look at the Common Application prompts, which in the main define a more specific angle on the same broad prompt for how your experience has shaped who you are.

You just want to be sure your focus is on the last few years/high school, but keeping the focus on ongoing and recent experience is a rule of thumb in college essays anyhow–as opposed to writing about that deeply felt experience in elementary school. Generally skip those, unless they initiated or motivated activities that are still ongoing in high school, particularly if they continue today.

A Few Words About Social Justice Topics

One specific comment on topics at this point: Most college counselors advise against putting controversial, editorial-page topics at the center of college essays, but in my opinion, this year is different. Social justice, a perennial but undervalued subplot in American life, has come to the fore as the main focuses in recent months for most of you, for reasons I do not need to review here.

If you are genuinely engaged in the movement for equality and social change, this could be a good topic. Just be sure this is a real commitment for you personally, with some roots, as no doubt quite a few people will choose to write about this as the challenge or experience they faced, or the belief (system) they challenged in college essays in 2020-21. This is a challenging topic, and you need to avoid preaching to the converted (as well as the unconverted) and you really want to be wary of name calling and oversimplification, particularly of solutions. And of course, eschew cynicism. Click my tag for Social Justice at either the top of bottom of this post to see some other discussions of social justice topics over the years.

Now let’s take a look at how closely the Common Application overlaps with the focus of the Texas main essay.

Comparing the University of Texas and Common Application Essay Prompts

In addition to the quick comparison of prompts below, I have recently posted on how to brainstorm/start the Common Application Prompts for 2020-2021. I have also looked compared the Common Application Prompts to the Coalition Application, here: Coalition App Versus Common App Essays.

Common Application Prompts for 2020/2021–compare these with the U Texas Essay A–

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Note that you would put the majority of the focus on your high school experience, with some background or lead-in, and this prompt is a match for the UT application essay A.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? If your high school experience included a challenge or setback you had to overcome, bingo. Also a match for the Texas application essay, option A.

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? If this challenge occurred during your high school years, even it it did not happen on campus, just connect it the the person you are or have become and link it to some reference to your high school experience, and you are set.

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. Notice that this offers you an opportunity to look at the past or the future. For UT you’d need to background the essay in the past, but then you could always turn from that past experiene to the future, to how your education will be shaped by this and what you plan to do with that education–which is a nice way to wrap up an essay–you never want to repeat or restate your introduction in the conclusoin of a college essay–that is formulaic writing, and frowned on. Not to mention that it does not fit in a pesonal essay format.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. This overlaps not only with some of the other Common Application prompts, it also matches UT’s prompt A, again if you focus on this occuring during your high school years.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? Again, if you discovered a passion in high school, or discuss one that grew during high school (usually academic, and tied to whatever you want to major in or focus on in college, for the best effect), this also ties in well with the University of Texas essay.

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. Since anything goes here, any Texas essay should also fit.

Contact Me for Editing and Essay Development

Texas has three additional, short essay responses required, and there is some variation in these (e.g. a prompt for Art and Architecture majors) and I will come back to these in the next week or two. Let me know if it was useful for you to look at comparing and reusing essays–I may look at the UT system short essays in comparison to those used by other systems if y’all hare enthusiastic about this approach. You can leave a comment, or if you are looking for essay development and essay editing, and you want the best, hands-on assistance, Contact Me. This link takes you to my business portal.

I do all the editing and coaching myself, so if you do want to create your best possible essays, contact me soon, while I still have some space available.

The Eyes of Texas

Oh, and of course, here is your bonus for this post, the University of Texas, fight song:

“The Eyes of Texas”

I once did know a president

A-way down South, in Texas.

And, always, everywhere he went,

He saw the Eyes of Texas.

The Eyes of Texas are upon you,

All the livelong day.

The Eyes of Texas are upon you,

You cannot get away.

Do not think you can escape them

At night or early in the morn —

The Eyes of Texas are upon you

’Til Gabriel blows his horn.

Sing me a song of Prexy,*

Of days long since gone by.

Again I seek to greet him,

And hear his kind reply.

Smiles of gracious welcome

Before my memory rise,

Again I hear him say to me,

“Remember Texas’ Eyes.”

*“Prexy” refers to a President, particularly a college president, and dates back to the early 19th Century, so yes, it does predate UT Austin and in fact predates the state of Texas.

(To be sung at UT football games and after a few too many fermented beverages on sundry occasions. Of course, that won’t likely happen this year, but we can hope for the 2021 season, when you will likely be arriving on campus.)

Tips for Writing a 2020-2021 Common Application Essay

This Year the Common Application Essay Prompts are the Same but the World is Different

The Common Application Prompts for 2020-2021 take a page from Yogi Berra: It’s Deja Vu all over again. But it’s only deja vu when it comes to repeating last year’s essay prompts. When it comes to actually writing the 2021 Common Application essay to reflect the world around you (and your application reader), we are truly living in a different world than we were in the fall of 2019.

How to brainstorm ideas and start a winning Common Application Essay for 2020-2021, creating an essay that gets you accepted by reflecting who you are–

In this radically changed world, you need to make your essays reflect who you are as an individual. But if we are all in this together, as the advertisements and public announcements say, you will also want your essay to reflect what you have to offer to the “we,” to the society and world around you. Any college application that requires an essay is evaluating you holistically, so your essay should have a holistic approach to you and to how your education and goals fit into a big-picture future.

The Common App folks may not be changing their prompts this year, but to write a successful Common Application essay in 2021, your approach to the prompts should in some way take into account this historical moment, and how you see yourself playing a role in making a future that is better.

For more on how application essays are evaluted, see my classic postThe Secret of College Admissions.

Start Your Essay with Yourself

My first tip on writing a successful 2021 Common application essay: in order to talk about what you have to offer, you need to start with yourself, and where you want to go through your education. As long as all of that connects to the greater good. Hey, it’s 2020, not 2019.

Continuing from that point, as you turn to writing your essays, don’t think of the process as being simply about trying to get to some destination, from some point A to point Z. Instead, think of it more as a trial-and-error process. If art is your thing, it’s like making a sculpture out of clay–add stuff, tear stuff off, smash the whole thing flat and start again. Make a few trials to compare. One of them will finally “go.”

If you are a tech person or a builder, its like trying to create a complex device from scratch–a robotic car, or submarine, for example. An essay is a bit like a machine, with parts to build and integrate– an introduction, body and conclusion–and a purpose. There are certain things that need to happen at each stage, but you have to design the parts around your own experience. And just as you could come up with a chassis first, or develop a propulsions system first, then design the chassis, or hull, you don’t necessarily need to come up with your introduction as your first item. In fact, it’s often better to start with your concrete experiences. And if a design does not work, take it apart and try another design.

Begin the Thought Process by Picturing Yourself Ten Years from Now. Then Start Writing Down Concrete Experiences, Ideas, Values.

Only you can determine the specific interests and experiences that deal with your twin topics in this essay–who you are and who you want to become. But here’s an assist in writing that successful Common Application essay: keeping in mind that common good ideal, stop and think about where you see yourself in ten years. More specifically, how could your interests, your education, and the kind of work you might do be of value to others ten years from now? You are not just angling to make a six-figure income in a successful college application essay, though that’s a nice thing to have; you are trying to change the world for the better, even if incrementally.

After thinking about that, take a look at the Common Application Essay Prompts for 2020-2021, below, and put each at the top of a single page; then start writing ib response to one prompt at a time. You can brainstorm big ideas, but focus on scribbling down or typing out descriptions of any of your experiences and concrete ideas and values that come to mind that fit under a prompt.

The great idea for a hook to start your essay is always important, but it’s the rest of the essay that is hard to do. That long blank after your hook is where most of your work lies, and to fill in that space effectively, you need concrete material. That’s why it’s a good idea to see what you have in your real-world experiences and ideas, before launching a full essay draft.

To Start an Essay, Go to your Concrete Experiences

List and describe concrete examples of things you have done, experiences you have had, and even ideas and values that are important to you that seem to fit each prompt, quickly, without sweating about the paragraph form or grammar or spelling. Just get some stuff on the page under each prompt. When you run out of things to say, set the page off to the side and move on to the next prompt.

Eventually you will find that one of the Common App prompts allows you to write more. It just comes more easily. And if it feels lively, and it seems like it will allow you to show who you are and how you will use your (future) education to make a contribution, that is probably the one for you. Go ahead and write an essay draft. Figure out a hook to get the reader started, and you are on your way to a full draft. (If you have problems with hooks and getting started, I will be following up later with a general discussion of hooks and essay structure. Click to Follow my site to get updates when I post. )

Here They Are: The 2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

But do get started now.* Whether you apply to the Ivy League or hundreds of western, land-grant colleges, or hundreds more small, liberal-arts colleges, your Common Application essay is the lead essay for your application. Start early and be willing to try multiple essays and approaches.

I will be writing more about the Common App Essays soon, so come on back for more. Follow my site to get updates when I post.

*Write Your Essay Now, But Don’t Create a Common App Account Before August

A warning: start writing your essays now, but do not create an account or upload information on the Common Application itself. Yet. While the prompts I list above are live for 2020-2021, the Common App site is not.

Any information that is uploaded before the offical 2020-2021 application rollout in early August, 2020 will be deleted. All accounts and information currently on the Common Application site are linked to last year’s applications. In the last days of July the Common Application will go offline and then will reappear in its 2020-2021 version on or around August 1st. At that point you can go online to select colleges and begin uploading essays and answering questions.

Contact Me for Essay Development and Detailed Editing Help

If you need help developing and editing your Common Application Essay, contact me.

Activities To Create Great College Application Essays

No doubt many of you find youselves unexpectedly trapped in and around your house, your plans for internships, work and personal growth put on ice by the Covid pandemic. What to do? You could sit home and play videogames, chat online and read some books–the latter activity has promise, at least, for college applications as well as that personal, intellectual growth. Or you could also come up with some new activities to create great college application essays.

(If you are not clear on why activities are important, please read my classic post on how college applications are evaluated: The Secret of College Admissions.)

And here is an idea for an activity you can quickly organize and move on, as well as scale up: harvesting food that is going unpicked.

Harvesting Excess Fruit in Suburbs and Cities–for Community Service and Great College Essay Potential

If you live in a suburb that is more than a decade old, as well as in the lower-rise areas of most cities, you will find a source of food waste that is often overlooked: fruit that goes unpicked on trees in private yards. There are also many people with gardens producing more than they can consume.

To create a great exracurricular activity for college application essays and filling in your personal profile: simply find excess fruit (and vegetables, when possible) and connect that fruit with food banks and other organizations. Your equipment as simple as a pole harvester for fruit and possibly a good-quality ladder or two (this latter element, pun intended, does introduce a risk of falling. Please take note).

This is not an original idea on my part–there are dozens of groups, some highly organized, that already exist–just a simple search can show you this: gleaning on DuckDuckGo. And you can find a short list of well-known gleaning groups here: Harvesting/Gleaning Organization Directory.

But my pitch is this, even if you live near one of these groups: start your own.

Show Leadership and Initiative by Creating Your Own Organization

Creating an organization could be as simple as a single friend or a group of friends to pick this fruit, or it could involve you getting a group organized, creating a nonprofit with a website, and expanding your organization–particularly if you are, say, a rising sophomore–time is on your side. But even if you are a rising senior, imagine the value of being able to write your college application essay on a summer spent helping neighbors who can’t pick fruit and helping those who are hungy. Call that a win-win-win.

Your tools can be as simple as making or buying a few pole harvesters and (possibly) one or two good-quality ladders of no more than six-eight feet. Add some boxes and bags, and gloves and sturdy hats might also be helpful–you will find out why the first time you pick off a thorny lemon tree.

Spiky lemon trees aside, your only real risk from this operation, provided you keep a sensible distance while harvesting and stay out of people’s houses, is from heat/ a sunburn or a fall off a ladder. Make sure you train everybody on ladder safety as well as dealing with Covid safety.

Why you should to this: self interest. You need Covid-safe activities to crate college essays. And this will get you outdoors, will allow you to “hang” (literally) with your friends, again in a safe way.

Community Service is In

And more importantly, you will be giving to your community. As an aside, while I was growing up, I watched a more communal ethose in my hometown, state and the USA in general recede into a focus on self interest. I think that may be changing. And the nice thing is, in giving you to your community you are doing something that shows leadership, initiative and a community spirit. You can scale it up as much as you like, set up a website, form a 501 nonprofit. How far you take something like this is up to you.

And before you even get a few pieces of equipment, finding trees is as simple as looking around your area, then knocking on likely doors, taking three or four steps back and cheerfully explaining, through your mask, that you are launching a neighborhood harvest of excess fruit to send to food banks (et al). Network with your local food banks, and you could be harvesting and transporting within days.

You can help your pitch by kicking some fruit back to the tree owner.

Tips and Links for Setting up a Fruit Harvesting Extracurricular Activity

Here’s a few more tips on everyting from creating a cheap and safe pole harvester to organizing a 501c3 cheaply, without hiring a lawyer:

Making a pole harvester, youtube lesson

You will find a series of related videos on making picking tools and harvesting fruit as you scroll down from that Youtube link. Like this one:

Pole harvester, with a Brit Accent

And if you want to have a telescoping pole on which to mount your harvester, just repurpse a painting pole, e.g. these examples:

Telescoping painter’s poles

And if you have or plan to buy a ladder, be sure to study ladder safety–most orchards use a tripod ladder, for ease of setup, as shown in this link:

Ladder safety, OSHA

Early Application Advantage Continues: 2019-2020 Application Data

Early Application advantage continues for the Ivy leage and for elite private schools. The big trend for admissions to the class of 2024 for Ivy and Ivy League proxies: a drop in total applications and an increase in admissions rates. This was a marginal dip rather than a sea change, but with increases in applications and a decrease in admissions rates over most years in the last two decades, this is good news for you applicants to the Big Name Elite Colleges.

I include a table with all Ivy League results below, compared to two popular options for many Ivy League applicants–M.I.T. for you tech folks (yes, I know, they do more than STEM. But still). I also include Duke, and a look at Stanford last year-though I deal with Stanford after the data table, looking at the data we do have at this point.

This year, college application results remain a tale of data in flux even in June, as colleges respond to the C-Factor (the Covid epidemic). Covid appears to be boosting acceptance rates as colleges face more deferrals (gap year) and more students who decided to stay closer to home. Many families and students seem to be having second thoughts about paying Ivy-league level tuition for what may be a virtual or hybrid education in 2020-21.

The data I use below is mainly from mid-March, 2020 on. In addition to looking at data, you’d be wise to also know a bit about how college applications are actually evaluated. To do so, see my classic post, The Secret of College Admissions: How College Applications are Evaluated. I will be updating this for 2020 in the coming weeks, due to the major changes in use of SAT/ACT tests–I posted on this recently, and add that the University of Southern California has not also joined those schools making tests optional. This makes essays and exracurricularls even more important. See here for more on that: More Colleges Will Be Dropping the SAT Requirement.

Early vs. Regular Application Data for the Class of 2024

SchoolEarly App Accept RateRegular App Accept RateOverall Accept RateEarly Application Total/AcceptedRegular Application Total/AcceptedTotal Apps
Brown (ED)17.5%5.3%6.8%4,562/80032,232/1,73336,794
Columbia*
(ED)
N/A–N/A5%
(2019)
N/A42,569/2,245
(2019)
Cornell (ED)23.8%2020: N/A
(2019:
2020: N/A
2019:
6,615/1,5762020: N/A
2019:
Dartmouth (ED)25.4%6.8%8.8%2,069/526
(547 w QBR*)
19,865/1355
Harvard
(R EA)
13.9%3.2%4.9%6,424/89533,824/1,085
U Penn (ED)19%5.9%8%6,543/1,26935,662/2135
Princeton
(EA/SC)
N/AN/A5.55%N/A/791N/A/1,032
Ttl all apps: 32,836
Yale (EA)13.7%5.1%6.54%5,777/794
(881 w QBR*)
29,443/1,510
(/1,597 w/ early QBR; ca. 200 QBR ttl)
M.I.T. (EA)7.4%7.1%7.25%9,291/68710,784/770
Duke (ED)20.9%5.9%7.7%3,531/74136,252/2170
Early Application advantage continues

*QBR is my abbreviation for Questbridge, a national admissions program for financially disadvantaged students; some schools aggregate QBR data in their numbers; others, like Dartmouth, separate Questbridge apps. This can skew data slightly but not enough to change your basic takeaway, and where there is Questbridge data that is not aggregated, I show that, above.

Also, as noted, more schools than usual are not releasing a full data set (yet). Some are typically unforthcoming when it comes to data; as an example, Columbia is consistently chary with data (e.g. they tend not to release early application data). As for others–Cornell released early application but will not release full data until fall

Your Takeaway #1: Early Application offers an Increased Chance of Admission

When it comes to the data on applications, the lesson is consistent for years: that early application advantage continues. On average, the percentage of people admitted through early admissions is more than double that of regular admissions, in a number of cases nearly tripling the chance of admissions. Of course, this most often comes with Early Decision admits, which means you have to accept whatever financial package you are offered. This can be a big disadvantage for those of you from solidly middle class and working class backgrounds.

If you are not clear on the different early application options, please have a look at this link to my business portal: Application Jargon and What It Means

Stanford Data and Final Thoughts on the Data and on Early Admissions

Want to compare Stanford data? Good luck! Several years ago, Stanford stopped publishing early application data, at all, and delayed publishing data on the overall application results until after the full cycle was over–in other words, roughly around the holidays, months after those admitted showed up on campus. For the record. Stanford’s Common Data set shows a 4.34% overall admissions rate for fall of 2019, with 2,062 offered a seat out of 47,498 applications.

I notice that my data differs signifcantly from that provided by some of my peers/competitors. Some of this is due to dat in flux due to Covid and other factors. Numbers are changing and will be changing marginally into the fall, as all of the schools discussed in this post are busy extending additional offers from their wait lists due to deferals and declines. In one example, Brown’s regular acceptance rate was 6.8%, which I published in my chart, above, but a new number out as of June states at 6.9%. This is marginal, but that tenth of a percent means a big life change for some students who suddenly found themselves admitted. Nevertheless, when I pinged Brown for information, I could not get raw numbers, so while they may be trending upward due to as yet unquantified new admits, I am keeping the data as is in my chart.

The real questions for you are clear in the existing data, and the biggest question is whether you are interested enough in one of these private colleges to put your chips on an early application. Note that this requires a broader strategy, as a few schools allow multiple earlies, e.g., you could apply to M.I.T. and to Cal Tech as early apps. But most earlies are restricted, with the ED the most restricted of all . . .

Forunately, you have months to think about it.

College Board Drops Plan For At-Home SAT Tests, Lacks Space for Needed Tests

The college board is throwing in the towel on at-home SAT tests, after a hit-and-miss experience with this spring’s A.P. tests–up to 20% of students on some early tests experienced trouble with the testing site and uploading responses for their AP exams.

More Colleges Will Be Dropping the SAT Requirement

Only yesterday, I posted on the responses of different universities and systems to the problems posed for students trying to boost SAT scores going into late admissions decisions, and for this fall’s college applications. Some important colleges and systems are dropping the SAT and the ACT already, most notably the University of California, which is dropping both tests going forward at least five years. They plan to look at developing their own test during that suspension of the current standardized tests, as I discussed in the post linked above.

The testing-industrial industry is still doing SAT/ACT test prep, of course, and promoting the tests, no doubt adding strategies for getting one of the limited seats that will be available. But there is alos no doubt that they are also in preliminary discussions on how to pivot to prepping for whatever new test the U.C. may come up with, should they come up with one. But that is not your problem, unless you are in 8th grade, as you read this.

The tests proceed, but who will require them?

Hours after posting on the evolving testing situation (linked above), I received a notification that the SAT was dropping its plans to attempt an at-home SAT. This is a good decision, given the impossible challenge of preventing cheating, which is another way to say, the challenges of creating a level playing field. (Add: the A.P. tests were open-book. Hard to control the effects of open books on the SAT.) But of course, since their business is giving tests, The College Board is still trying to proceed–but they do not have enough testing sites, or to put it more specifically, the College Board is never going to find enough space to safely separate the number of students needing to take the test. The results are predictable, with the College Board stating today that they are experiencing a test registration overload–scroll down and you can see that they admit lacking capacity, and suggest you look at alternate dates and alternate test sites–driving to Elko soon, anybody?

So expect this outcome: more colleges will drop their SAT requirement, and in doing that, they will almost certainly drop the ACT as well–it faces the same challenges. As smaller organization, not offering the massive suite of tests and “services” that the College Board incorporates, the ACT has fewer problems, but it does have that one huge problem everybody has: ACT will also find it difficult to impossible to find enough space, and I see no way they can guarantee a safe testing environment.

Given that it’s a legal requirement for schools to offer a safe environment for learning, no doubt even the Ivy League is going to have to start reconsidering its test-positive stance. I reported on the continuation of test polices of Harvard and Princeton in my last post. I will be suprised if they do not revisit this policy soon. Stay tuned for more.

College Application Essays for 2020-2021

Final note–I see that many of my current readers are looking at my posts on how to write a range of college essays, from the U.C. through the Ivy League. Please do note that my posts so far are from last year. Many of the essay prompts will stay the same this year, but please be aware that some will change or be tinkered with.

I will be starting to post on the 2020-2021 essay prompts next week, as I make some calls and check websites and sources to confirm which prompts are ready to go.

Y’all come on back soon.

Applying to College in 2020-2021–It’s All About the Extracurriculars

Many top colleges are dropping the SAT and ACT this year. Before we discuss the details, take a look at how applications were traditionally evaluated, please see my classic post: The Secret to College Admissions. Then read on, below.

Changes for 2020-2021–The SAT and ACT in Retreat

There are big changes everywhere in higher education. Some of these, like whether classes will be online or in-person, or a hybrid, will be relatively minor concerns by the time this year’s rising seniors go to college in the fall of 2021, but the changes coming for college applications this year are definitely worth looking at, now. Particularly where the SAT and ACT tests are being dropped or made optional.

How to Apply  to the University of California Without Using Test Scores
Sather Gate, University of California Berkeley

Foremost among them is a sea change in the importance of standardized test scores. Yes our friends at the SAT and ACT or getting the boot at many college application portals–like the University of California system. This is huge.

I realize there is a debate about grade inflation, and particularly with the spring semester of 2020 being something of a cypher in terms of interpreting grades, many have concerns about this. Me: not so much. Other than dropping the SAT/ACT does put pressure on you applicants to step it up in the areas outside of your required reading and testing. More on that in a moment.

Major Colleges Dropping or Suspending ACT/SAT Testing Requirements

First, a quick look at some of the names that are suspending or dropping the SAT and ACT. Suspending the tests: Williams, Amherst, Haverford, Davidson, Pomona, Rhodes, Scripps and Vassar colleges. Some colleges are exploring permanent changes. For example, Davidson, Rhodes and Williams (which often ranks as No. 1 in national liberal arts colleges on U.S. News & World Report rankings), are launching three-year pilot programs to test whether the tests are necessary at all. Vassar is planning to review their testing policy next year to see whether to extend the suspension of testing. So is Trinity University, a well-known liberal arts college in Texas. Tufts University plans a three-year pilot program (meaning a three-year suspension) of testing.

On top of that, 45 schools have temporarily waived testing requirements for high school seniors applying to begin college this summer or fall.

The Ivy League Sticks to the Tests–For the Most Part

In contrast, Ivy League and many other elite schools are not making any significant changes at the moment. Harvard claims that it’s not particularly useful to take the test multiple times (I disagree: in a game of margins, more than a few of my clients have benefited a lot by taking the test multiple times: so, whatever, Harvard). Princeton just adds that they know many students will not have the opportunity to repeat the test.

Harvard seems to be prety much just plowing ahead, while Princeton, at least, means to suggest that they are sensitive to differences in opportunity and will look all the more closely at the full picture. This is possible to do in the aggregate by data on the school you come from–public inner city with limited resources vs. well-endowed suburban high school is relatively simple to factor in, and they have the data to do that. Of course, that does not mean that any college can easily account for individual differences in access and opportunity. Like that kid living in a trailer park with spotty internet and a ten-year-old notebook to use, located on the edge of an upper-middle-class suburb.

The University of California Suspends Testing

There will be a lot of huffing and puffing about the schools that are suspending or dropping the test requirement–a quick survey of comments on the UC announcement has more than a few end-of-the-UC prophecies. But I am not really worried about that scenario. Likely some who would not have gotten in with the SAT/ACT in place will get a seat under the no-test policy, but the world won’t end, nor will the UC become a low-achievers’ paradise. Back in the day, UC gave a seat to any student in the top 10% in their high school class, which how is reduced by a double 9%–top 9% of students in California on a ranked index of all students, and top 9% at your school. That policy has not changed and clearly will shape who gets admissions.

UC is also discussing coming up with its own test vehicle to replace the ACT and SAT, which makes sense financially as well. Frankly, it’s about time some of the bigger universities started reducing the size and influence of the testing industrial complex, and the SAT and ACT have problems that have been the subject of discussion for years, like how they reward those with the dollars for extensive test prep, not to mention being able to afford homes in the better school district population areas–for those of you familiar with the debate here in the U.S., it’s also been a topic in the UK, as here: SAT favors middle class. I add here that the Telegraph, which I link here, is considered a right-of-center paper. Not the kind of paper to find a lot of liberal bias for equal opportunity.

Your Takeway: Get Going On Extracurriculars

Your takeaway is pretty clear, if you are a rising sophomore, junior or senior who will apply to college in the next three cycles: in addition to nailing grades, it’s time to put even more focus on extracurricular activites. And I always suggest picking extracurriculars that have intrinisic meaning, to you.

But How?

But now we have the Covid paradox: most extracurriculars are closed down, from internships to camps and a range of group activities. And where they are open, you have to weigh the risk of doing an extracurricular against the risk of getting sick and/or infecting those you care about. And taking that risk mainly or solely to boost your college applications.

Rather than taking extra health risks, I suggest taking another tack: find a way to pursue and develop your interests independently. This means more time online, of course, but rather than filling in blanks and uploading assignments into Google classroom, you have to choose your own path.

Suggestion one: Find a way to pursue you interests through a website. An easy way to do this is to go to a service like WordPress.com, where you found the post you are reading now, and build a website. You can figure it out and get a site up in an afternoon, includig picking a free theme.

Suggestion two: Try to find a way to help others, whether through information or through networking. Possibly use a website you set up.

I will be more specific with ideas in my next post, but with up to 20% unemployment in many areas, food security has become a big issue. Brainstorm for a bit and you might find a way to use a website to link up those needing food with excess food, particularly if you happen to live in one of those suburbs where there is an excess of fruit trees that tend to go unpicked.

Suggestion three–find some other way to organize people to do good, using a website and social media, or to create a community with shared interests.

I will let you ponder those ideas and brainstorm for yourself. I will post on extracurriculars again soon, with more specific suggestions. And of course I will be starting my annual analysis of application data soon, as well. So come back early and often, or click to follow this website, so you get regular updates.

Ladies and Gentleman: Start Your Essays. The Prompts for 2019-2020 are Rolling Out.

Below is a list of Prompts Available Now. The Common Application has just opened as I write this; I have been posting for weeks on prompts as they appeared in various locations from admissions blogs to the Coalition Application, which tends to post prompts earlier. All of the prompts below are ready to write, right now, and if you click on my links, I have written detailed analysis on most of the prompts below. Read on, and for World Class Essay Development and Editing Support: Contact Me.

And now, here they are:

2019-2020 College Application Essay Prompts: Ready to Write, Right Now

Stanford University–Same prompts as last year. It’s been a decade since Stanford did any serious tinkering with their supplemental essays. The short answers they do tinker with year-to-year.

Click here for your Stanford Supplementals for 2019-2020

And Here is A Discussion of The Stanford Roommate Essay

Also see my next post, Welcome to the Jungle, for more on the Stanford essays.

Princeton University–I have broken my discussion of the Princeton Supplemental Essays into two parts–click the link you need for the discussion you want:

Part 1–How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020

Part 2–How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Engineering Essay for 2019-2020

How to Write the Yale University Essays:

Click here for Part 1 of 3 Parts: The Yale Short Responses, and the Application Portals, Explained.

How to Write the Harvard “Additional” Application Essays:

Harvard Supplement for 2019-2020

How to Write the Brown University Essays for 2019-2020–Click Here:

Brown Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020

Tips and Links for Writing the Dartmouth University Essays for 2019-2020: Click Here:

Dartmouth Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020

The University of Texas, Austin–definitely some changes from last year, the new prompts confirmed by a posting for counselors. UT uses its own Texas portal.

Prompts for 2019-2020 U Texas linked Here. More discussion and analysis on these coming soon, so y’all come on back in a week or two.

Boston College Essay Prompts–and How to Write Them–Linked Here:

BC 2020. This includes an extended discussion on writing about a book or work of art, as well as themes for Catholic and specifically Jesuit universities like B.C. and Georgetown.

The University of Virginia–up on their website as “they turn their attention” from those who have accepted to “current juniors,” known at this point as rising seniors. Congratulations, by the way, Rising Seniors. Uses the Common Application Portal. Click to check it out:

UV prompts for 2019-2020 linked Here.

The University of Chicago--continues to offer a menu of wild and whacky essay prompts for your second essay; the first essay is a pretty standard-issue why you want to go to school x essay. Uses the Common Application Portal. I analyze their two supplemental essays in separate links:

Click here for: University of Chicago Prompt 1, 2019-2020

Click here for: University of Chicago Prompt 2, 2019-2020

The University of California–confirmed in their admissions packet for counselors for 2019-2020. Uses its own UC portal, accessing all 8 UC campuses with one application.

UC Prompts linked Here.

Harvey Mudd College– Uses the Common Application portal as well as the Coalition Application.

HMC Prompts Linked Here.

Georgia Tech--Uses the Common Application portal. I start my analysis of GT’s prompts featuring an interview with G.T.’s excellent Dean of Admissions, Rick Scott.

GT Prompts and Rick Scott interview linked Here.

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign–confirmed by two counseling contacts at U-C. University of Illinois campuses uses its own application portal.

Urbana-Champaign Prompts linked Here.

The Common Application Essay Prompts are unchanged for 2019-2020.

Again, see my Welcome to the Jungle Post for links to the Common App and its Prompts

2019-2020 Coalition Application Essay Prompts–If you are not familiar with the Coalition Application, it is a competitor to the Common Application. Universities tend to offer both when they do use the Coalition Application portal, so it is worth looking at the Coalition essay prompts to see if they allow you to better leverage your topic ideas (usually looking for less overlap between essays).

The Coalition Essay Prompts are linked Here, along with a comparison of the two sites.

Go to the next post for more links-Welcome to the Jungle.

And Contact Me for World-Class Application Essay Development and Editing and Focused, Results-Oriented College Application Advising:

Contact Me.

Welcome to the Jungle

College Advising and Essay Development for the College Class of 2024, 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. Below you will find links to a range of application and essay-writing topics.   

Contact Me for college advising and help with application essays–my essay development and editing service is the best in the business.

Links to Key Contents and Application Success:

The Secret of College Admissions:  How College Applications Are Evaluated

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. Chicago requires two supplemental essays. 

Click to learn:

How to Write the Chicago Supplemental Essay One for 2019-2020 

How to Write the University of Chicago Essay Two (the interesting prompt) for 2019-2020

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:

Some other topics of interest for Chicago and others:

Writing About Books- Part 2 (2011)

How to Persuade: The Rhetorical Situation

College Application Trends, Statistics and Advice

Ivy League Admissions Data for 2019-2020–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, or see the 2019-2020 essay prompts that I have analyzed and posted on so far: 2019-2020 prompts.  

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. Essays and supplementals are key to distinguishing your application from the 100,000 plus that will go to the top two UC’s this year, and the tens of thousands to each of the Ivy League schools.

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.

More Ivy League Schools Drop SAT/ACT Requirement; Princeton Drops Early Admissions

Big Changes Are Happening In College Admissions

I will be updating this post periodically as many universities are making midstream changes to their application process even as application materials for the Covid year are starting to appear–like the Cornell application essays, which are up now and ready to write for this fall’s applications. Big changes have already occurred in Ivy League admissions, and more seem to be on the way.

How to Think About Optional SAT/ACT Tests

At this point, the ACT/SAT tests are optional for fall 2020 applicants to Ivy League universities. However, if you have good scores you should absolutely send them, because the bottom line is that a good number will help you get admitted. And while the language used by the schools shows that they will be looking more intensely at other parts of your record and essays to determine your academic merit, that means they have to come up with a qualitative way to match a non-test applicant against an applicant with a quantitative test score.

By default, I still have to say that gives an initial advantage to a person with a great SAT score, going head to head with a person who does not have a great SAT score. But if you have a good set of classes on your transcript and good extracurriculars, you can still compete without that test number–but it means that you need to create a winning picture on the written side of your application, in your activities descriptions and in your essays. Think great essays rather than simply good essays.

Here’s the latest update on changes in Ivy League application requirements for 2020-2021

Princeton Admissions Changes for 2020-2021

Princeton has made the biggest move in admissions among Ivy League schools as of the third week of June.

Among their changes are the expected–Princeton has announced that SAT/ACT tests are optional, which was not a big surprise–and the unexpected: Old Nassau is also dropping its early admissions option. Why?

The answer is pretty simple–it takes pressure off of both sides of the application process: high school seniors trying to juggle hybrid/online school with college admissions now have more time to deal with their application, and Princeton’s admissions people have time to organize how they will process applications while keeping their admissions people safe during the Covid pandemic.

That, and the Ivy League schools are in a slow dance, adjusting their application policies to each other–look directly below to see how universities that currently offer an early application option are beginning to hedge.

So as with the dropping of the SAT test requirement, expect more Ivies to follow Princeton’s lead by moving to a single, regular application date. This is not just herd behavior–it’s about impacts to applications: if only one school ends up keeping a particular kind of admissions policy, e.g. early action admissions, well . . . let’s just say that school will have many early admissions applications to deal with. Princeton was slow to suspend the tests for this year’s application, but now they’ve upped the ante by dropping early applications entirely for this year. That’s why I expect some of those who currently confirm at least EA apps to drop the early application in the coming weeks. I will update this post when they do.

Here is the language from Princeton:

The University will move to one application deadline of Jan. 1, 2021 for this first-year admission cycle. All applicants will apply using either the Coalition Application or Common Application through the Regular Decision process and will receive decisions on their applications by April 1, 2021. Princeton will continue to partner with QuestBridge and participate in the National College Match in December.

Harvard Admissions Changes

Speaking of schools hedging their early application language: Harvard has dropped the test requirement, and they continue to offer Early Action, but I believe they are moving toward dropping it, so be prepared. Here’s the language:

Our early action deadline remains November 1 for now. If students wish to submit standardized tests, the November tests will arrive in time for early action consideration. Because of COVID-19, we expect that fewer students will apply early this year and students should not rush to apply early if they feel they are not ready. As always, there is no advantage to applying early versus regular. (note that the bold font was added by me, for emphasis).

My main comment on that last bit, about no advantage for early application: Hahaha.

On average, the admit data shows that an early application at least doubles the rate of admissions over a regular application. Some of this has to do with the larger pool in regular admissions, but the evidence still favors early applications. Among other things, you really show that demonstrated interest by using up your early app opportunity on a school–that confirms a higher level of commitment. To see what I mean about the data, have a look at my comparison of early vs. regular admissions for last year’s application cycle: Ivy League Application Data

Yale Admissions Changes

Yale, too has dropped its SAT/ACT requirement, and has similar language to the others about not advantaging students who can supply scores. As with the other schools, I am sure they will try to read your information to accomodate the lack of test data, but I add this consideration in my comments on Yale–and this applies to all of the other Ivy League universities: when you have tens of thousands of applicants, and out of that, let’s say ten thousand of them have close to perfect GPA and great transcripts, how do you decide whom to admit? Clearly, test scores are an advantage, just because they are easy to compare.

However, do not despair; creating an exceptionally strong written side of your application will help.

Speaking of which: Yale’s application essay and supplemental writing for this year are up; I will write a post on their supplemental writing pretty soon, but in the meantime, here is the link to the prompts for 2020-2021: Yale Application Essays and Supplemental Writing.

Brown University Admissions Changes

So far Brown is keeping their early admissions, but they, too, are test-optional. Here is a key quote that adds something to consider for all of the Ivy League applications you might do:

We want to see what you have accomplished with the resources and opportunities available to you in high school, as well as evaluate your potential to thrive within the unique offerings of Brown University.

I would advise that this look at what you did with the resources and opportunitiies available to you in high school is key to all Ivy League applications this year, as they are all adjusting to the new environment, but I would add that a close reader sees that phrase “evaluate your potential to thrive . . . at Brown. They can look at how well you”thrived” in the last semester of your junior year, and over this summer, to see whether you took the initiative to get some activities going on your own, or by organizing with others, particularly in an ad hoc fashion. I mean, did you stay home and applaud protesters for peace and justice, or did you show to march or to supply water bottles or get involved in some other way? ‘Nuff said.

Cornell University Application Changes

Same story–no test requirement for 2020-2021. They are keeping their Early Decision in place, and of the Ivies, they will be among the last to drop that–if they do. They admit a large percentage under E.D. and it’s a big part of their admissions philosophy, as they seek the truly committed.

As noted in my intro to this post, they also have their supplement up and ready to go. If you did not check my analysis on that, see it here: Cornell Supplement Class of 2025.

Columbia Application Changes for 2020-2021

Columbia has also adopted a test-optional policy for this year only.

No new language has been adopted for their Early Decision applications, with the November 1 E.D. deadline still in place.

University of Pennsylvania Application Changes for 2020-2021

Same-same: SAT/ACT are optional for UPenn this year. Early Decision is still in place, and I would expect Penn to resist dropping it. E.D. is a different animal than E.A. in a number of ways. For E.D. schools, early applications play a more important, and fixed, part of the application process.

Dartmouth Application Changes for 2020-2021

And of course, Dartmouth is also test-optional in 2020-2021. Have a look at Dean Coffin’s blog–scroll down from the header photo and bio of the Dean to see his explanation and his view of the tests and the application evaluation process: Dean Coffin’s blog.

(No doubt the Dean’s surname name will inspire jokes about Dartmouth being the place that applications go to die, but of course that is actually Stanford (sub-5% admit rate, folks). The Dean seems like a pretty great guy, actually).

More Colleges Drop ACT/SAT; Activities, Essays More Important than Ever

I recently posted on the increased importance of activities and on application essays for the class of 2021, and in the two weeks since I wrote that, most of the Ivy League has now formally dropped the test score requirements. Only Harvard and Princeton have not made a formal announcement, and as the quote below shows, they may be moving that way–with Harvard hedging, bet that Princeton will not want to stand alone as the only Ivy holding students responsible for a test they cannot or perhaps should not, for health reasons,* be taking this year. Here’s the live quote:

“As of Friday afternoon, [June 12] Harvard and Princeton universities were the lone Ivy holdouts. But even Harvard appeared to be inching toward flexibility. “If students are prevented from taking tests in any form due to COVID-19, we will still review their applications as we have in the past in other exceptional circumstances,” Harvard said in a statement. Stanford University’s dean of admission and financial aid, Richard Shaw, said his school’s approach will be similar to Harvard’s.”

Optional Testing Raises the Bar on Essays and Activities

Please see my earlier post on how this reduction in testing information will boost the importance of your activities. Just as much, this will boost the importance of your essays. Essays in part shape the presentation of your activities, but your essays also offer a look that is wider than what college activities or data can offer–you show your passions and motivations as well as your accomplishments in essays.

And with the only data being GPA for most of the Ivies this year, your written material and activities have become the only way to separate yourself from the crowd.

This is a huge change, one that is hard to overstate, in a game of margins. Faced with identical GPA’s, transcripts and range of classes that are relatively interchangeable, and a slate of winning essays, marginal differences in test scores do make a difference. Or did make a difference.

Now you need to focus even more on developing those supposedly “softer” measurements for you holistic application evaluations. You also need to ramp up ideas for summer activities now, to replace anything you might have dropped, or that may have been canceled, due to COVID. In a post earlier this summer, I offered some suggestions for community service-based activities that you could get off the ground literally in a couple of days, so please see my recent discussion on getting activities going–boosting your activities and essays for 2020-2021.

Launch a New Activity Now and Review Existing Essay Prompts

No need to panic–just start doing some constructive work, that helps others, and think about how you could write about your activities. Possibly this feels a bit phony or hypocritical to you–but is this not the point of your education both now and in college? To learn, then to apply your new skills to solve problems, helping others and the world around you? If you go out and start a new activity that helps others, you are showing what kind of person you would be in a campus community–which is a fundemental part of a holistic evaluation of a college application. This is really an exercise in “real life” flexibility, innovation and leadership. Have at it.

Also take a look at my recent posts on the major essay prompts that are up–

Starting Common Application Essays in 2020-2021

Starting your Texas application essays in 2020-2021 (and doubling up main essays to save time and work).

I will be posting on other major essay prompts as they continue to roll out between now and August. Come back soon.

For Essay Development and Editing, Contact Me

I still have some space available for new essay development and editing clients this summer. Contact me to get started.