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And They’re Off: College Essay Season Has Begun

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Cornell University Application Essay, Dartmouth Supplemental Essay, Ivy League Application Essays, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Southern California Supplemental Essay, University of Wisconisn, Yale Application Essay 2018-2019 on July 6, 2018 at 12:28 am

Some of the major super-selective colleges and a range of other solid schools have already released their essay prompts for 2018-2019, and the Common Application and Coalition portals have had their prompts out for months, which means it’s time to get started on those college essays.

(Momentary pause for sinking feeling and/or butterflies).

Not ready to write?  Then how about some sorting?

I do encourage my clients to get writing by giving one of the Common Application prompts a go, but if you are stuck and can’t get that started, or you already have a draft for a main essay like the Common or Coalition Apps well on its way, the next thing you need to do is have a look at a range of target-school essay prompts and start doing some categorizing.

After all, you are likely to apply to ten colleges, in some cases twenty, and one way to save a lot of work is to compare essay prompts, looking for ways to overlap essays and, when possible, to reuse essays.

Yes, essay polygamy is the name of the game if you are doing more than five or six apps, which most of you are, and in this case, polygamy is totally legal.    (Just don’t forget to change the college names if/when you do reuse an essay, by doing search all for the last college’s name and changing it to the current college.  Telling Brown they are your one and only in an essay that you are reusing from Princeton, and in which you forget to swap Princeton out for Brown . . . yes, that is usually a deal breaker.  Think it cannot happen?  Listen to Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech . . . by clicking here.  It will take a few 2.5 minutes to get to Rick himself, and a couple of minutes to get to those who don’t proofread . . . ) .

How the University of Chicago Essay Prompt is Like (Almost) Everybody Else’s Including Yale, Northwestern, Indiana, Tulane, Cornell, Etc, Et Al.

To kick off our research on essays, let’s start with a place that prides itself on its weirdness, at least when it comes to application essays:  The University of Chicago.

Sure, for U Chicago this year, you have many options: you can write an alternate universe/speculative essay in which you are onboard a 13th-Century ship that suddenly sails off the edge of the world, or you can write an essay in which you consider the world from the point of view of a Mantis Shrimp, but the opening question for Chicago, which all applicants must respond to is this:

Question 1 (Required)

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Despite Chicago’s well-cultivated reputation for nonconformity, their Question 1 actually conforms pretty well to  prompts used at hundreds of universities, including, so far this year,  Yale, Dartmouth, Northwestern, U-Texas Austin, Tulane, Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana.  Some ask for an essay on this in longer form, some want a shorter response in the 100 to 250-word range, but this kind of prompt shows up pretty often–call it the “Why Us” question, or the “What are You Planning To Do Here” question, and whether it says this or not, this “Tell Us What You Want to Study Here and What You Want To Do With That Knowledge”  is always a two-part question.

One part is about you.  The other part is about the university.  Many applicants forget that, and either talk at length about themselves, showing no due diligence in researching the college itself, or they talk about the college without showing how they fit in–no school needs you to give it a research paper on itself, and no school that asks what they can offer you wants to hear only about you.

What to do?

Use that wonderful tool of the modern age, the search engine.   That’s Google, to most of you, but even more than Google, it is the web site not just of the university in question, it is also the sites of each school and program within that university in which you might have an interest, and on down into what various departments are within each school, any associated labs, research arms, then on again into what is posted by individual professors, blogs, research projects and so on (nearly) ad infinitum.

What a question like this asks is what you want to learn and what you want to do with what you learn.  Yes, that’s a lot to ask of somebody who, as I write this, has not even started the last year of high school yet, but that’s the point.  And the best place to start on this kind of essay is to pick an important target school, dig in via the internet, dig more, then consider yourself.

After you have done this once, and written an essay, you will have what I call boilerplate–in this case, language about yourself and your interests that relates to the areas you researched in the essay–that you can reuse in other essays, and you will also have some specific reference points about the university.

Exactly what the balance should be between talking about yourself and talking about the university is a variable that depends on you and the exact wording of the prompt, but I usually find that this kind of essay has slightly more to quite a bit more about the student–but the references to and descriptions of the college are all the more important for being limited to some extent.

For  a simple reason:  showing that you know about them shows a degree of seriousness about the school.  To put it in more human terms, you know a lot about the face of your beloved.

Examples of Researching a University for the “What’s Your Major” or “What Makes You a Good Fit” Essay

So let’s start with an excerpt of an essay edit for an elite school, with my editing comments and some specific references-this is still in rough draft form, but you can already see how we are trying to cite specific detail on the school and drop some names:

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. Or, and Peng Chen, who has been applying single-molecule microscopy in a variety of fascinating 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, hmm, a solar shirt that recharges a heart implant . . . my mind is on fire with ideas.

This section of the essay followed the introductory portion of the essay, where the writer reviewed her own life and interests, and how they developed and grew, until we reach a point where we pivot to specific things going on at that specific university.  The app reader learns a bit more about you in general, but you also provide some bona fides by showing–or appearing to show–that you know a lot about the school.

Talk about your Demonstrated Interest:  You, too, can click to see what Geoffrey Coates is up to, here:  Coates Research.  For 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.  And that rough-draft, above, became a final draft that helped this particular student get admitted to that Ivy-League university.  Not only that, some people I have worked with have, in fact, found their mission in life as they did this kind of research.

Researching the University of Southern California Supplemental Essays and Responses

Sounds like a lot of work, and it is, which is why you want to start working on college essays early because, yes, they are actually research essays, in their own way.  But let’s look at one more example, in which we just start clicking:  U.S.C., and specifically the Viterbi School of Engineering.  I am skipping U Chicago for the moment because I plan to revisit them again, in a separate post.  You might want to follow my blog to get notice when I do.

So how to research an app essay for a potential engineering student at U.S.C.: Let’s say you just have an interest in engineering, but it is not, at sixteen or seventeen years of age, completely in focus.  That’s okay.  This exercise itself may help you get a focus, and if not, well, fake it ’til you make it.

So let’s start with the main page for Viterbi, which you can go ahead and click on, then have a look around, clicking and reading on whatever interests you, here:  Viterbi Main.

Possibly you will find some stuff that interests you right away, in which case, click away. But in the case of my next example, knowing some of my client’s interests, I was able to suggest going to this page to  search for manmade retina–I will have a specific link to a specific page below, but just type in ‘manmade retina’ here to see what happens:

Search: Manmade Retina

Here is where this student settled in to do some reading:  Artificial Retina.

And here is how some of those references appear in a mid-stage essay draft on why this student wanted to go to U.S.C. and specifically the Viterbi School:

When I flew out from Georgia to visit  USC last May, I loved the campus and diverse disciplines, like the school of gerontology an unusual but absorbing subject for a young engineer who hopes to reverse the effects of aging–but the research being done at Viterbi particularly fascinated me. I will pursue experiences like learning under a former NASA employee and in an internship with real world applications.  From perfecting the 3-D printing process using the MIP-SL technique to creating a manmade retina, Viterbi is at the forefront of innovation, which is exactly where I want to be in my own future.

This is part of an essay that was part of a successful application package for ‘S.C.  The essay as a whole is just under the 250-word limit, and it begins on a personal note about how the applicants engineering interests started with a model rocket, then to a self-built telescope, then after the illness of a relative, the focus turned to more terrestrial concerns, which you can see manifested in that paragraph, above.  In the essay as a whole, you have fewer than 100 words that reference truly specific information about the Viterbi School, but those words have impact because of their specificity and the way they fit into the context established by the personal focus of the introduction.  Returning to my earlier point, the best essays of this sort offer insight into you, the applicant, and show that you have knowledge of, and insight into, the university–even if you just got it last night off the internet.  Good internet research is good material for an essay.

Where to go from here?  If you are interested in engineering at U.S.C., let’s just continue with that example.  You are looking for specific areas of interest to you, and if you are not sure, see what does draw your interest, and your purpose is to get just a few examples and references to drop into your essay.  Of course if you do happen to stumble upon your true mission in life–this does happen–as you click around, super.  Don’t forget to mention my blog for getting you started when you collect your Nobel.

So let’s start by looking at the About page for Viterbi, and be sure to scroll down to see what lies below the banner and P.R. stuff at the top of the page:  About Viterbi. Read and click on anything interesting.

Next, be sure to visit the Research and Innovation page, which also gives you a handy breakdown of divisions within the School of Engineering: Research and Innovation at Viterbi.  Notice how you can use this to get an overview, as I just mentioned, but also to chase specific and intriguing ideas and areas–take a look, for example, at Research Centers.  And maybe you had a biology or earth science teacher who introduced you to Climate Change, but maybe you turned aside, because, well, how depressing, not to mention Tech pays way better and an education at U.S.C. is expensive, (Or maybe not; more on that in another post, soon), but then you see this, while clicking on the Research Centers:  Arid Climates and Water Research Center.  And then within that, you keep clicking until you find a page on the people involved, like this:  Watercenter About.

Then you click on a specific professor for the heck of it and find robots: Nora Ayanian. Then you start to think about what the heck robots have to do with water, which takes you back to their research page, which talks about robotics for monitoring water and suddenly you see where to go with your engineering career.

Or maybe not, but you’ve got some specific stuff to reference for your application essay.  At the least.

So there you go.  Notice what attracts you as you do some research, and start coming up with some language about things you’ve done and what inspires you to start the essay.  Then get to where you name-drop learning from people like Assistant Professor Nora Ayanian, whose robots are probing the changing chemistry of the oceans even as I write these lines . . .

Good luck, and come back soon for more posts on this year’s application essays, data, and the scene as a whole.

 

 

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