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Comparative Ivy League (And Other) Admissions Statistics For This Year And Beyond

In Brown University Admissions, college admissions, College Application Essays, college essay, common application, Common Application Essays, Ivy League Admission Statistics, Ivy League Admissions, Stanford Admissions on May 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm

In my last post, I took a look at trends in admissions–finding, most notably, that admission rates at the most competitive schools are continuing to trend downward in the single digits.  This post will give three year results for all of the Ivy League universities, below, as well as results on other universities that were popular with my clients this year.  (This data changes from early in the year until late spring; I update as I get new numbers but not necessarily immediately.)  Some schools are holding steady, others are seeing decreasing rates of admissions, while  a few saw a slight increase in admits.

I also made some suggestions in the last post about looking outside the usual suspects, i.e, the 12 or so big names that always come up when constructing a college list, something I have been discussing for years.  I will repost and link the relevant posts  in the coming days and weeks.

In addition to broadening your college search and making a longer target list, the supplementary work that you do in applying to college this year will  be even more important for the selective schools.  Essays are always the center of this effort, which is why I spend so much time addressing them in by blog posts, and essay development and editing is central to my business and my work with applicants.  My first recommendation on essays is to get started now.

It’s true that most new prompts will not be up until July or later, but this is a good time to find a small notebook and carry it around so you can jot down ideas when they come to you–I am serious about this; you will need a bit of focus for your thoughts, so have a look at my post on this year’s Common Application Prompts, then get that notebook, carry it with you, and take the time to scribble an idea down when it comes to you.  You will find that good ideas can fade and be lost as quickly as you forget your dreams–if you don’t write them down.  A notebook is best for this because it is really good only for making notes, and so tends to work better for this task than does that most distracting platform called a smart phone.

Check the admissions trends below;   but for a comparison, before you do check our trends in the U. S., here is the most recent data from the University of Edinburgh:

University of Edinburgh

2012-2013 Total Number of Applications: 47,076; 18,155 offers; 5,457 accepted; Offer rate 38.6%.  The offer rate does vary by “programme”.

Note that a single applicant can make multiple applications to the university, to different programs, so the acceptance rate is a bit exaggerated–but still . . . compare this to the Ivy League three-year returns, below:

Three Year Admissions Results, Ivy League (these numbers represent the total percent of applicants who were offered admission)

Brown–2011: 8.70%; 2012: 9.60%; 2013: 9.16%

Columbia– 2011: 6.93%; 2012: 7.42%; 2013:  6.89%

Cornell–2011: 17.95; 2012: 16.2%; 2013: 15.15%

Dartmouth–2011: 10.14%; 2012: 9.79; 2013: 10.05

Harvard– 2011: 6.17%; 2012: 5.92%; 2013: 5.79%

Princeton–2011: 8.39%; 2012:  7.86%; 2013: 7.29%

U Penn–2011:  12.26%; 2012: 12.32; 2013:10.05

Yale–2011: 7.35%; 2012: 6.81%; 2013: 6.72%

Three Year Results, Other Universities

Cal Tech–2011: 12.99; 2012: 11.76; 2013: 10.55%

M. I. T. —2011: 10.07%; 2012: 8.9%; 2013: 10.2% (pending final number)

Georgetown–2011:  16.8%; 2012: 16.5%; 2013: 16.6%

Northwestern– 2011: 18.03%;  2012: 15.27%; 2013: 13.90%

Stanford–2011:  7.10%; 2012: 6.61%; 2013: 5.69%

U. C. Berkeley–2011:  25.54%; 201221.13%; 2013: 20.83%

U. C. L. A.–2011:  25.28%; 2012: 21.27%; 2013: 21.10

University of Chicago–2011: 16.29%; 201213.24%; 2013: 8.81%

As I said in the last post, apply to the university of your dreams, even if your stats make an admit unlikely, but then look around for more fallback and sure thing choices.  And start thinking of yourself as an internationalist as well.  There are many fine anglophone schools, abroad, and not just in Canada.  The University of Edinburgh, for example . . .

College Counselors, College Application Services and Test Prep Companies: An Overview and Evaluation

In Brown University Application Essay, college essay, Common Application Essays, Harvard Application Essay, Princeton Application Essay on June 20, 2012 at 9:16 am

There are four main categories of individuals and businesses currently offering college advising and application essay  services.  I will take them in order to describe what they offer and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The first category is individuals and companies offering themselves as “College Counselors” or “College Application Advisers.”  Many of the individuals running these businesses have degrees in Psychology and credentials in counseling.  In general, their focus is on the application process as a whole and essay development is generally left largely to the applicant, beyond some brainstorming and a generalized response to the final essays.  In some cases this is because the counselor feels that the essay should show the student’s own skill level and thinking without significant editing help; more often, in my opinion, the student is largely on his or her  own because most college counselors don’t have the writing chops to be of serious use.  This doesn’t mean that the overall package offered by your typical college counselor lacks value, but I have worked with many students who already pay a college counselor but who still need more help with their essays.

I include my own services in this first category because I offer college advising and selection services, but I also focus on developing persuasive and superior supplemental materials, particularly in working with supplemental activities and in developing superior essays.  This is partly because of my background, which  is academic and editorial and which gives me a highly pragmatic approach,  and partly because most of the people I work with are Juniors or have completed their Junior year, and  by that point, your GPA has taken shape and so has the trajectory of your coursework. You can’t make a big improvement in your grades other than finishing strong as a Junior and maintaining your GPA as a Senior, but you can still make a big impact through supplemental materials, particularly your essays and any activities associated with the essays.

A second category of service providers is the large test prep companies, such as Kaplan, which focuses on standardized test prep but which has, over the years, developed a college advising package.  The overall quality of the services they offer is decent to very good, but again the essay and supplemental materials side of the application is more an add-on to the services they traditionally offer and you will be in a setting more like a distance learning  or on-site class for most of their services, rather than in a truly individualized setting–unless you want to pay a lot of money, that is.  The quality of instruction varies quite a bit and there is a fairly high rate of turnover as they often hire folks who are recent graduates or may be picking up money while completing an advanced degree.

In addition, these are generally for-profit companies, and their college prep packages, even those offered in a class setting, can run into the thousands of dollars.  While they are cheaper than the more pricey college counselors in the most expensive places, like New York, these companies are still an  expensive option and can be unsatisfactory due to varied instructional quality and  those looking for a program which is individually tailored.

In addition to these, you can find plenty of cheesy sites promising an essay “review,” which will amount to about a paragraph offering an overall evaluation and a few suggestions for improvement,  supported by what amounts to some margin notes.  They are not personalized services but are businesses which farm your essays out to low-paid and usually inexperienced editors. If getting a cheap review is your only concern, go ahead, but you will get what you pay for here.   Some of these same sites also offer ghost writing “services,” which is the final category I will discuss.

Ghost writers do have a place in the world, such as when a ghost writer helps an inarticulate celebrity put out a biography, but ghost writing has no place in the writing of college application essays.  The business model of ghost writing sites involves offering essays, often very cheaply, (as little as twenty dollars, in some cases) written by someone else who pretends to be you.  This is, of course, unethical.  While nobody will put you in jail for  this kind of fraud,  you would be kicked out of school if this were ever revealed and your life could be badly damaged if not ruined.  But the main reason you should avoid these people is that it’s just bad for you to fake your way through life, and it’s bad for those around you, too.

Turning back to the legitimate businesses and individuals, my main criticism  is that they give the most help in easiest areas of the college application process and the least help in the most difficult.  Sure, a traditional college counselor  can save time and family strife in walking parents and students through college selection, but they generally treat the application essays as a kind of adjunct project, largely up to the individual inspiration of their clients.  It is my view that your college application essays are too important to be left for the last stage of the application.  You should be developing them no later than the summer prior to your Senior year, and you should seek help in shaping and reshaping them.  They can sway a reader if you are in the gray area created by the rubrics which admissions officers use to judge you–for a detailed explanation, see this link–and as admissions become increasingly competitive,  essays have increasingly become  the deciding factor in whether many are admitted or not.  And if you are put into a classroom setting, be it online or at a physical location, you are another face in the crowd–it’s not a waste of time, but it’s also not optimal.

Don’t forget, the holistic universities (those who require essays)  are intentionally emphasizing subjective factors and human judgement–the gut reaction of your admissions reader does matter.  So don’t settle for a merely decent effort in your essays or for someone who sees their duty as complete after making a few margin notes or giving you a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on your essays.

I will close this post by presenting a simple comparison.  Below I will show you both an example of my editing and compare my package of services to one of my current competitors–Brown University, which has decided to make money off its own college applications process by putting the college application essay into an online class for which it charges a lot of money.  (Is this cynical of Brown?  I don’t know, but it does suggest that they have accepted the reality that most students who apply to Brown use professional editing help, and are using that fact to promote their own general essay writing class to high school Juniors.)

My clients’ essays are always kept confidential, but I offer here an example of how I can edit as I take a long and somewhat convoluted essay by a well-know contemporary author, paring it down and focusing it so it is a 500-word essay suitable for a college application.  Have a look at what is on both links to see how I can reshape a piece of writing into something that fits into the five-hundred word limit imposed for most undergraduate applications.

The editing I will do on your essay will be even more detailed–you will  find considerable commentary along with suggested additions, corrections and deletions.

In order to make a more detailed comparison of what’s on offer and what it will cost you, let’s have a look at Brown university’s online class in preparing for college writing, where they include the college application essay; go here for the tuition and then use the tabs to look at the course description.

This is Brown, so this is a good class, but  they want well over 1,000 dollars for this course  and only one college application essay is included in the curriculum, which is primarily meant to prep you for Freshman English and writing research papers at Brown.   Read the course description closely, using the tab at the top, to see this for yourself.  Keep in mind another important difference from the personalized services I offer:    the instructor will be dealing with the equivalent of a huge lecture hall, so your essays will generally be graded either by a graduate assistant or an adjunct, and the detail and quality of their responses can vary widely.  I edit all of your work personally and communicate with you directly.

And most of you will want to write three to five essays for your college applications, not one, yet you will finish this 1,395 dollar class with only one college essay ready to go.  This is not a terribly efficient or cost-effective way to approach your college essays this summer.

In contrast, if you use my services, you will end up with multiple essays, each of which I have edited line-by-line, with detailed commentary, and each essay edited through three total drafts, ending with a polished final product that is ready to submit; in addition, everything we do is specifically tailored to you.  In fact,  for a little over half what Brown charges you in their online course, I will help you write five application essays to Brown’s single application essay, and I will take you  from your first draft through a third, polished draft.  If you want to write fewer essays and spend less money, I can work with you on a single essay at a time.   I assist you step-by-step, and you can be proud of an excellent final product that really represents you.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am available for personal consultations and assistance, or we can use Skype if you live further afield from me but want a more conversational approach.  Othwerwise, we will use e-mail and phone communication as we develop and exchange drafts until you are satisfied.

Send me a draft of a college or other essay for a free sample edit.  My calendar will fill rapidly from July on, so don’t wait too long.

E-mail to:  wordguild@gmail.com

Early College Admissions Data For 2012: What It Means For You

In college admissions, college application, college essay, university rankings on February 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Who should read this post:  parents and students considering applying to a university in California; parents and students who are beginning to investigate or just jumping into the college applications process; parents and students interested in application trends in California universities; those who want to explode the myth that a good football team is vital to a university; and anybody who wants evidence that Stanford students are bigger tailgaters than Cal students.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

It’s the best of times if you are running one of the elite universities; it’s the worst of times if you are applying to one of these schools.  But never fear, Reader, I will offer you some suggestions for dealing with the rapidly increasing demand for the insufficient supply of seats for qualified applicants.  Let’s begin by looking at some of the numbers that are out for this year.

The early signs are that admissions demand has dropped for the most competitive Ivy League schools, but this is not true for most of the selective schools as a category and is specifically not true for the more popular schools on the Left Coast–Stanford and Cal, for example, saw significant increases in demand  again.    We await word on early admits and anything else from USC as of this writing.  (Note to Tommy Trojan:  The kids are anxious.  Please hurry.)

In fact,  large increases in applications were the rule for California universities, so this post will focus on some numbers for  California schools; in a later post I will give you some analysis for the East Coast universities and we’ll also be looking north at some of the big state schools in Oregon and Washington which are often overlooked outside of the region.  Near the end of the post, when I discuss *Cal Poly, I will look more closely at what the numbers really mean–simply looking at raw numbers such as increases in total applications is a good place to start planning, but it doesn’t tell much of the story beyond what common sense already suggests:  more people than ever are competing for about the same number of seats at popular universities.  Other stats will help you analyze the true probabilities for your own admission.

Keep in mind when viewing the numbers that the universities are also strategizing as  they compete for spots on college rankings, spots that are determined in part by how selective they appear to be.  Many of them try to increase applications by recruiting students in order to turn down a large number, and by doing so appear to be a more selective (and therefore both more rigorous and more desirable) university.   And they all estimate how many students will actually enroll when they come up with an acceptance number–in many cases, a third or less of those accepted will actually enroll and attend classes, even at sought-after universities.

Here is a rundown of some of the numbers for some of California’s more competitive campuses (with a mostly unscientific  analysis on the influence of football teams on college applications, in case you needed another metric.). 

Stanford

Call it Good (Andrew) Luck for Stanford, but this year the Cardinal received a total of 36,744 freshman applications by the  January 1st 2012 deadline.  This is a 7 percent increase from last year and a new record, surpassing last year’s  34,348 applications for the Class of 2015. To put this trend into context, around 32,000 students applied for the Class of 2014 and approximately 30,000 for the Class of 2013.

The Director of Admissions at Stanford, Bob Patterson, had expected a drop this year due to Harvard and Princeton reinstating early admissions.  It was not to be, and Patterson blames–or gives credit, depending on your point of view–to  the Stanford football team going to the Fiesta Bowl and more specifically to Andrew Luck.  For those of you who trash talk college sports, what can I say?  Football is one of our great cultural artifacts.  Historians and archaeologists will one day excavate  the earthquake-broken ruins of the Stanford Stadium and Bear Stadium to research the folk rituals of early-20th Century Americans.  Certainly Patterson believes that this year’s stats suggest that the best and brightest of high school seniors were swayed by heroics on the turf, and he should know, right?

Cautionary note to Stanford admits:  in keeping with the theory that history repeats itself, expect Stanford to revert to football mediocrity  again soon.  See the post-John Elway era if you have any questions.

U.C. Berkeley

Speaking of Bear stadium, Cal saw an even  larger jump in applications, with 61,661 students applied for freshman admission, a record number and big increase from the 52,920 students who applied for 2011-12.  I’ll save you the calculation:  this is a one-year increase of 16.5%.  I’d be interested to see data on whether the Ivies lost a significant ratio of California natives to the U.C. system, given the dip they saw this year.

This is tough news for students wanting to apply to Cal, to be sure, but sports-haters, this one’s for you:  the Cal football team did improve from their losing season the year before, but only to 7-5 in the regular season, followed by a loss in the Holiday Bowl.  An improved record for the football team over last year but not enough to explain the huge jump in applications to Cal.  Clearly this is a triumph for the geeks over the tailgaters.

On the other hand, Cal’s jump was below the rise for the UC  overall, which saw a systemwide average increase of 19 percent with the most popular campus remaining U.C.L.A.  Speaking of which . . .

UCLA

A record high 91,512 students applied for fall 2012 admission to UCLA.  UCLA has had, in fact,  the highest number of applicants to any four-year university in the nation in recent years.

Let’s look a little more closely at the numbers for UCLA:  Overall, applications for fall 2012 admission jumped by 12.7 percent over last year, with an 18.1 percent increase in freshman applications for a total of 72,626.  there was a  4.3 percent decrease in transfer applications, down to 18,886. Freshman applications from California residents rose by 7.5 percent, from 48,578 in 2011 to 52,231 this year, despite the fact that the the state has not projected any increase in the number of students graduating from California’s public high schools. 
Let’s see,  UCLA football in 2011:  6 wins and 7 losses in the regular season.  No correlation with the rise in admits here.
State Universities
If you are depressed by the U.C. numbers, I strongly suggest that you consider applying to schools in the Cal State system.
San Diego State and Cal Poly have been the most selective State University campuses, but with admissions rates around 30%, these are excellent choices as alternatives to the U.C. system, with some of the programs at these schools considered among the best in the country–engineering and architecture at Cal Poly, for example, have national reputations.  Of course, these are also very difficult programs to get into, with far lower admissions rates than  Cal Poly’s less demanding and less in-demand majors. 
The Cal State System overall received 665,860 applications overall during the priority application period,  a 9 percent increase over the previous year’s record fall application cycle, when the CSU received 611,225 applications.  Compare this to the 19% increase for the U.C. system and throw in the fact that you don’t have to write another essay for these folks and you should choose to do some research on Cal State campuses and send in at least a couple of apps if you want to go to school in California.
San Diego State

San Diego State University received 69,225 undergraduate applications for the fall 2012 semester, the most applications ever received by the university.

That is a 15 percent increase over last year at this time,  when SDSU received 60,085 undergraduate applications for fall 2011. The previous record for SDSU was 62,330 undergraduate applications received for fall of 2008.

Among the 69,225 fall undergraduate applications are 50,705 freshmen and 18,181 upper-division transfer students. Freshmen applications are up 14 percent, while upper-division transfer applications are up 19 percent.  And no, the university is not expanding its capacity to absorb the additional applicants.  As a percentage, fewer will be accepted this year, as is true with most selective universities.

SDSU football had an 8 and 4 regular season record in 2011.  Not their best season but not their worst either.  The  verdict is:  no correlation with applications.  Must be a pretty intellectual school.


Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

*For those of you outside California, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo is a popular State University which  has highly reputed engineering and architecture schools, among others.  It is in some ways an even better choice than Cal if you wish to work in Silicon Valley or want to have an  engineering or architectural career in California.
 Cal Poly has issued an early, round number of 45,000 applicants for next fall.  This is up from 41,000 applicants last year.  To give you a comparison,  go back about 20 years and Cal Poly had 13,441 applicants.  Applications have trended upward every year since, and  CPSLO has had over 40,000 applicants annually for several  years running.
But What Do These Numbers Mean?  How Can I Create a Strategy?
The continuing increase in overall applicants to all of these schools is also grim news in terms of the raw numbers with whom you will compete next fall, but fear not, reader, there is hope, especially if you are diligent in your research about colleges and even more so if you have the foundation you need in grades and test scores.
I will be looking more closely at a number of schools in the coming months, but let’s use Cal Poly as our first example for this year, since it is a competitive State school and represents a kind of medium between a place like Harvard and the typical no-name, nonselective school.  Cal Poly also stands out because their administrators have been pretty frank in their public statements about enrollment and budget matters.
As an example, Cal Poly admissions director James Maraviglia estimated earlier this month that there will be 3,860 undergraduate slots actually filled, including transfers, for the fall of 2012.  He added to this that he assumes no further cuts to the budget by then, which is a decent bet since the real cuts will come early in 2013 if governor Brown’s tax increases don’t make it at the ballot box (and even if the tax increases fail next November, those applicants who are enrolled as of September would remain enrolled, though they might spend the better part of a decade getting through all the classes they need after the cuts eliminate any professors below the age of 45. Just kidding on that last stat [I hope]).
Understanding Admission Rates and Enrollment Rates
So what happened to that 30% acceptance rate I quoted earlier? Does this mean that a lowly California State University actually has the admit rate of an upper tier Ivy-League school, at 8.5%?   Nah.  Cal Poly’s admissions rate is around 30%–according to The Princeton Review, it was 33% two years ago–but of course only about a third of those people accepted actually enroll and show up. This is reflected in Maraviglia’s estimate that they will have slots for 3,860 students.  This is down from the number of slots open last year, but the admit rate will still be generous, and if you really want to go there and they admit you, they have to give you a spot, even if they blew it on their estimates and too many Freshmen show up.  If you’ve ever wondered about those news stories in which a university suddenly doesn’t have enough dorm rooms and is putting up Freshman students in fleabag motels, now you know–they had more students who actually enrolled after being accepted than they expected.  Woe to the Director of Admissions.
Compare Cal Poly to UCLA, which the Princeton Review’s most recent stats put at a 23% admit rate, with 37% of those 23% who actually enrolled.  Compare that again to Harvard, which in the Princeton Review’s stats has only a 7% admissions rate and fully 75% of those admitted actually enroll.  Yikes!    Presumably most of the others went off to places which are almost as selective, like Stanford which, in the same year, had a 7% admissions rate with 72% of those enrolling and Princeton, which had a 9% admissions rate with a comparatively lower 57% enrolling.  I guess Princeton is the “safety” backup choice for Harvard and Stanford admits?
The Take Away:
Students applying to California schools face increased competition for admission.  However, as you go about planning for your applications, keep in mind the fact that  no universities enroll every student that they “accept.” So start by distinguishing between the number “admitted”  or “accepted”and the number who actually enroll in order to get a more realistic idea of the school’s exclusivity.  This is something that you should take a close look at for all of the schools on your long list as it will help you create a shorter list.
I advise against applying to more than ten or twelve colleges at the most, and that you look beyond the big-name and nationally known universities; given the number of students admitted, schools like Cal Poly should be on your list, especially, in the case of Cal Poly, if you want to study in a technical area and if you like the idea of a small town in a semi-rural environment with easy access to superb beaches.  Which is another point:  would you really like to live for four (or more likely five or more) years in the places you think you want to go to school.  Be sure to consider geography and also look into specific schools and programs within the universities or better yet, start with programs and let that lead you to universities.
Who does have the best programs in your are of interest?  Where would you like to live, in what kind of setting with what kind of weather?  If you haven’t started listing schools yet, try starting with those questions.
And you definitely need to look at some stats; I would get a copy of the Princeton Review’s The Complete Book of Colleges or, if you want to save some money, go to http://www.collegeray.com, a fairly new but good stat site put up by a former student of mine, among others, and using much of the same data sources as the Review people.  Look at the stats and compare the accepted rate to the next number, which shows the percent who actually enrolled (yield).  You can start to draw your own conclusions about the strategies and goals of the universities you are looking at most closely.
Football Teams and Selectivity
As for the football team and the demand, we have to give the final victory here to Stanford.  In fact, given the correlation this year, it looks like Stanford students are much bigger football fans than students at pretty much anywhere else.  Is this the new Tailgate U?  Let me know what you think.

How To Write About Books II

In college essay, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application Supplement, personal statement, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books on October 26, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Most university application essays or supplements present at least the possibility of writing about books.  Several applications ask directly that you write about a book or a series of books.  If that sounds like you, read on, after you have a look at my last post which opens up the conversation which I will continue below. After you have one or more drafts ready, send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com; I will return a sample edit to you and a bid for the job. You get a risk-free sample of what I can do for you; in return I ask for only serious inquiries. Thanks and enjoy.

For most application prompts which you can or should use books to address, it is either required or advisable to write about more than one book, and it is also wise to refer to or use at least some books which aren’t part of the national high school or junior college curriculum.  You do not want to establish yourself as a person who simply does The Required Reading.  Our universities are not simple technical schools; they represent what is called the liberal tradition of education, which is rooted in a humanistic vision of the world.  If that isn’t making sense, they are looking for the closest thing possible to a Renaissance woman–or man–to admit to their schools.  They want you to have an active curiosity and to be reading about matters that aren’t necessarily part of a class.  They want you to desire learning for its own sake.

Perhaps you don’t.  Perhaps you feel a tad guilty, but the real deal from your point of view  is to get into college to make money.  Fair enough, but in writing this essay, you might just find that buried spark of curiosity and, if not, you can fake intellectual curiosity.  If you fake it long enough, it will become real.

But on to the books themselves, and to writing about them.  One immediate mistake is to assume that this essay can only be about a particular kind of book, such as the novel or the biography.  Nay, my friends!  In fact, I encourage you to consider how different books which you have read because you wanted to might be compared.  You may, in fact, be able to use a book (or two) which you had to read for school but which you also like or love, and relate it to other books you have read outside of school.

I presume that you have read my last post and hopefully clicked the link there to the New York Review of Books and did some reading.  Nobody expects you to write at that level of depth, which of course is not possible given the length requirements of the apps, but the idea and basic structural elements of the NYRB give you a good model.

The way to go about this is to establish some point of comparison between the books beyond the fact that you read them.  This most often occurs to writers as they survey the material and ask themselves how to tie the disparate material together.

Or you could approach a selection of books with a preexisting assumption or overarching argument and ascertain which of them could be used in relation to your argument.

Here is an example of such an assumption:  We Live in the Age of Unintended Consequences.   I know, I know:  all the ages of man are ages of unintended consequences.  Yet in making this statement,  you would be suggesting that this is the hallmark of our age above all others, and that this is clear in everything from financial markets to looming environmental catastrophe to wars and interventions which breed only more wars and interventions.  As an arguable point which you will use your readings to demonstrate, such a broad thematic statement is just fine.  Not only that, this rather classic theme of literature and history is widely applicable.  Ask yourself what you have read that in some way reflects the truth contained by the thesis that We Live in the Age of Unintended Consequences.  I would argue that most books deal with this in some way.

Most books on the common Required Reading lists qualify.   The Great Gatsby, check. It’s not like Jay is floating around waiting to be shot.  Grapes of Wrath?  With an interpretive slant, check (picture an army of radicalized Tom Joads ghosting through the land, intent on overthrowing the Powers That Be who, in the end, created him themselves, or created his righteous anger, which comes to the same thing).  Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Beowulf, check, check and check.  As for your history textbooks, check on pretty much every event.  Not that you want to write about your high school history textbooks, though if your teacher happened to use a wonderful stand-alone, such as Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (speaking of Tom Joad) or Egan’s other great book on 20th Century America,  The Big Burn, or Tom Holland’s Rubicon, a wonderful survey of Rome at the end of the Republic, well, you should definitely avail yourself of their contents for your essay.

Once you establish a broad theme, the next step is  how to conceptualize it, how to create a heirarchy and definitions.  What do I mean?  If we are looking at unintended consequences as our basic claim, we can define our own boundaries.  Perhaps we use the term Modernity to focus what we mean by the Age of Unintended Consequences; in other words, we may be claiming that The Modern Age is an Age of Unintended Consequences.  Now we’ll have to explain further, and as we do,  conceptualize and define in such a way that we establish the structural principles for the essay.  If this seems like a lot of work, I would point out  that this might become the introduction to your essay.

In the spirit of showing rather than telling,   an introduction to an essay about  books based on the premise outlined above  might look something like this:

“If I were to draw a single conclusion from all of the reading I have done in my free time, it is this:  that the Modern Age is an Age of Unintended Consequences.  I read widely, in many different genres.  I have found that in all genres, from popular novels such as the the science fiction trilogy The Hunger Games, to contemporary histories on our recent wars, such as Dexter Filkins’ account of the War on Terror in The Forever War to  the clutch of books recounting the roots and consequences of our financial crisis, like Michael Lewis’ Big Short or his more recent Boomerangour historians, journalists and novelists are preoccupied with our own failure to foresee the consequences of our actions.”

You would then go on to discuss these works in whatever structure suits you–you might work through them one at a time, with each book composing a subtopic of your essay, or you might discuss similar elements or themes in each, with the themes being subtopics.  You could create a very convincing essay using only  three “nonrequired” works like those I use in my example, but any good selection of books which you tie together clearly and convincingly will do.

Notice how you can bend a broad idea like the one I discuss above, reshaping and redefining it so that it fits a set of books; you can expand or contract the era you want to discuss; you can pick parts of works to highlight while downplaying or ignoring other parts; you can compare science fiction to contemporary history to biography.  You just need to establish the right categories and conceptual framework in your introduction.

Start by listing some “big ideas’ which might link a group of books, allowing what seems disparate to be comparable; then list books you have read and liked according to these ideas–look for common ground and make lists of books which have common ideas, problems, themes, outcomes, what have you.  At this point, you are on your way.

In the near future, I will be writing posts on both how to conclude an essay and on the Five Paragraph Essay which is so favored on high school campuses and so hated on college campuses.  In the meantime, Good Luck and Godspeed, and don’t forget, I offer editing services–though you’ll have to hurry if you want to use them. My calendar is filling rapidly as the deadlines approach, so you need to contact me soon if you wish to use my services.  See my introductory post and the About section of this blog for my contact information.

Nota Bene:
My blog is searchable and will show up on sites like turnitin.com as well as on the similar programs used by many universities to spot plagiarists.  Your essays should reflect original thought; while I believe that, if you tweak the idea I presented here to suit yourself,  you are doing original thinking,  you do need to rework the  idea for yourself and write the essay using books you know well.  Better yet, come up with a different idea about our times and learn from my presentation of how to approach the conceptual challenge without using my idea at all.  Remember:  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but copying is plagiarism.

The Stanford Supplement Essays For 2011-2012

In Autobiographical Essay, college essay, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Stanford Application, Stanford Essay on October 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Stanford uses both the Common Application essays and what it calls The Stanford Supplement. If you are reading this, you probably already knew that. Bear with me while I establish the basic rules of the Stanford game for this year.  I will then expand  by analyzing the specifics of the prompts. When you have one or more drafts ready for feedback, you can send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com for a sample edit; this is risk-free for you; in return I ask for only serious inquiries, please. Your work and information remain confidential.

Update as of July 8th, 2015–Stanford has been using the same three short answer prompts since 2011, but this is no absolute guarantee that they will not change one or more of them this year.  Feel free to read my posts on Stanford, but remember that until they go live officially ca. August 1st, with the opening of the Common App website for 2015-2016.   Until then, or until I can confirm and post this year’s prompts separately, you should tread carefully.  The Common App and other current prompts offer enough to do without risking wasted time in the event that, say, the Cardinal drops its letter to a roomate prompt.  Okay, you have been warned–read on and click away to your heart’s content.

Here are the prompts that Stanford adds to the Common App:

The Stanford Supplement Short Essays

Candidates respond to all three essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided.

  1. Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  2. Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
  3. What matters to you, and why?

Let’s compare these to the Common App prompts Notethese are no longer the Common App prompts, but what I wrote about these and the Stanford prompts will still apply for the 2013-2014 app season; you will find, however, a some anachronisms along with my nuggets of wisdom.  Read carefully, Thx.)

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4.Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of your choice.

If you are thinking that there is a considerable overlap between Stanford’s prompts and the (old) Common App prompts, I agree.  This is amplified by the fact that such a large percentage of young people share both the archetypal experiences of high school and a certain homogeneity that comes from growing up in suburbs and bedroom communities.  This may not apply to you, but the majority of my clients are technically or effectively suburbanites.

The prompts themselves further heighten the chances that students will write  similar essays. Take a look at prompt 1 of the Common App–Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. Given that so much of a young person’s intellectual development takes place at a school or in a relationship with a teacher figure outside of school, certain essay topics, such as how Coach Smith changed my life, or how my piano teacher inspired me, appear again and again.

What to do.  One approach is not to worry about it.  If you care about your topic, it will show in your essay, so write about what you are passionate about, then polish, polish, polish.

If your passions are very focused–on a particular intellectual pursuit, or on a sport, for example–consider how to write some related essays but have them touch edges, so to speak, rather than overlap.  You could, for example, write about an English teacher who inspired you as you address either Common App prompt 3 or Stanford App prompt 1–the teacher would be the person who influenced you for the Common App, while in the Stanford prompt, the class is the intellectual experience.  You could then, in a second essay, write about a character in a novel–say Tom Joad or Scout Finch–and turn the focus to a specific novel and individual in that novel, without mentioning the teacher.  Or a novel  could have inspired you to care about social issues (Stanford Prompt 3) and of course Common App Prompt 4 asks directly that you write about a fictional character or work of art (Keep in mind that a novel is a work of art).

There are other ways the topics suggested by the different application prompts can overlap–in telling your roommate about yourself, for example, you might be discussing issues of local, national or international significance which you are passionate about.  Most engaged and curious applicants to a place like Stanford are interested in politics and world events.

So my most important advice to you is this:  write what you know and care about.  Try to write multiple essays for some of the prompts.  Then choose the best from these; if they overlap, work on revising them to separate them as much as possible.  If you are going to Stanford and you want to major in science,  and you write one essay about scientific thinking as the thing that matters to you and you write a second essay  on a specific science project as a significant experience . . . and its impact on you, the similarities of the essays may help you more than hinder you.

How much you care and how hard you work at the essays will be more important than their similarities.

I will be writing again to address issues raised by the Stanford App this year, but will end this post now by pointing out a specific problem with Stanford Supplemental Prompt 2:  you are writing a note, not an e-mail or a tweet.  The fact that this old-fashioned mode of communication–WTH?  Paper?– is your model should caution you to avoid too many colloquialisms and–OMG!–watch the use of abbreviations and acronyms.  You might work some in for humor, but use caution and consider your audience.  We old geezers may not get it.

Remember:  always consider your audience and purpose.  Your roommate is not the real audience for this essay/letter.  An admissions officer is.  See my Welcome to the Jungle post for links to general posts on addressing audience.

Welcome to the Jungle

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

College Advising and Essay Development, from Singapore to San Francisco.

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

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

This site is an old-school informational service, short on gauzy pictures and long on detailed and dense analysis and information.  In addition to maintaining this blog as a public service, I offer a full slate of  college advising and application services, ranging from self-assessment and college selection to the best essay development and editing service in the field.

Upcoming Events and News

College Application Essay and College Advising

Contact me for personal essay coaching and college advising appointments in June and July.  I work one-one-one, in person and via Skype, to help you begin your college essays, and if you need college advising and target school help, the sooner you get started, the better.  The Common Application Prompts have already been released, and early applications are in full swing by early November.   You don’t want to be working out where to apply and what essays are required as you also juggle  new projects, classwork and school essays as the new school year begins.  Enjoy your senior year more by starting the application process early. To inquire about my college application and editing services,  you can reach me directly via e-mail here:  Contact Me.

(One Warning--while the 2017-2018 Common App prompts were released this spring, so that you can choose and write your single Common App essay as of now, please do not set up your Common App account yet–all existing accounts will be deleted in late July, 2017,  when the portal goes offline before reopening for the  2017-2018 application year.  This has happened in previous years in the last half of July, with the portal reopening  between July 31 and August 1st, as a rule.  In addition, individual colleges will be making any official changes to their essays and other requirements at that time, so check with me on this site and with university websites for additional changes for this year–and don’t be alarmed if your college of choice does not have its essay prompts ready when the Common App does go live.  Some of the most elite schools have been late to the game in recent years.  Harvard, for example, posted their essay prompts in mid-August last year.)

You can also visit my business portal at: UniversityGatesAdvising to quickly review some basic information on the college application scene (like the sometimes odd terminology used in admissions) and to see client testimonials.

College App Jungle Contents and Links

The Secret of College Admissions:  How College Applications Are Evaluated

Common Application and Common Application Essays

Common Application Update 

College Application Trends, Statistics and Advice

Ivy League Admissions Data for 2016-2017–See the most recent data available on admissions

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.

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

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

More on the Stanford Supplement Prompts

University of Chicago

I have a soft spot for The University of Chicago Essay Prompts, because they are often so brazenly weird and even when they seem a little too-cute pretentious, they are interesting.  Because  U Chi allows applicants to choose and write an essay addressing any of their old prompts, I keep all of my old posts on them up–for example, have a look at:   Prompts for 2015-2016. Or just click below for old prompts that you may still write about.

The Mantis Shrimp Prompt:  How to Write About It

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

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

Writing About Books- Part 2 (2011)

How to Persuade: The Rhetorical Situation

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

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

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

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

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

College Application Essay No-No’s

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm

This post is a Golden Oldy, but based on some essays I have looked at recently, I am putting it back up front.

Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.

Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates,  he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.

So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”

Let me qualify Mr. Bauld’s dire metaphor by pointing out that the college essay is not likely to be a deathlike–or even a near death–experience. It will, however, be the first piece of writing that actually affects the lives of most students. So attention must be paid, and we should begin with what should not be done.

Harry has some essay types which he thinks will be duds at best or laughable failures at worst. First among Bauld’s targets is the kind of autobiographical essay which is basically a list of achievements meant to show how unique and appealing the writer is. I will add my view that the immediate problem with an autobiographical essay of this kind has to do with the competition. All high school students share certain experiences, and if they are candidates for college, they also share particular traits and have, for the most part, pursued similar activities designed to plump out the resume which they need these days to be competitive applicants. In other words, you are unique, just like all the other kids writing the same essay, but the result of the typical application process is that you engage in very similar activities and have very similar grades to your competitors. The process itself pushes most students toward the center, and, as Bauld notes, if you are part of the drab middle, you won’t stand out to the poor essay reader who is flipping through essay after essay after essay . . . .

This  is the challenge: how to stand out without offending.

Bauld goes on to list five more types of essays which should be avoided at all costs.

The first he calls the “My Favorite Things” essay. In this type of essay, the writer presents a series of things she is passionate about–or in favor of–and often juxtaposes this with a list of things she does not favor. The structure says it all: it’s much like the top or bottom ten lists offered by certain comedians and media personalities. This has become a pretty tired trope and tends to provoke vague generalizations and inarguable claims (e. g, I am opposed to nuclear proliferation, pollution is bad for the planet, etc).

Bauld next identifies an essay he calls “The trip essay.” You go on a trip, tell the reader about it, and manufacture some important “life lesson” to attach to your sojourn in order to show how broadly experienced and thoughtful you are. Unfortunately, “manufacture” and “Life Lesson” say it all. Any time you impose a moral on an autobiographical tale, you are in dangerous territory. At the least, you are probably taking yourself too seriously, and you are also more than likely imposing some interpretation on your story after the fact and might even be making some things up to make it convincing. Either tactic is inauthentic, at best.

The third type is “the three D essay.” Bauld describes this as the kind of essay in which the applicant argues for his own Determination, Drive and Discipline. Bauld finds this kind of essay dull. I agree, not because determination, drive and discipline are bad things, nor because your reader can say that you don’t possess these qualities (unless your GPA and other information give you the lie, in which case it wouldn’t matter anyway). The problem is that this is a kind of bland, formulaic writing which offers no complexity and which requires no insight into the self. A comic-book hero from the 1950’s might write an essay like this.   Hi, my name is Clark Kent, aka Superman, and I am a clean-cut and disciplined fellow who always does the right thing . . .

The fourth type of essay Bauld calls “The Miss America Essay.” He refers here to the moment in the Miss America contest when the would-be’s step up to a mic and offer their insights into world affairs and the important challenges facing the world. While still looking great in a swim suit. Need I say more?

Finally, Bauld offers what he calls the “Jock Essay.” In this, a high school athlete offers an account of lessons learned from sports, or how sports taught him to have the discipline, et al, necessary for success. This sounds suspiciously like the third kind of essay, in my opinion, but Bauld, as a longtime reader of college app essays, may feel that this needs to be a separate category because so many people create this kind of essay.

Bauld goes on at great length and offers good examples in his book, which is still one of the best on offer. Have a look at your local bookseller, or if you must, on Amazon. Buy it if you wish, but my suggestion is to start writing immediately. I will add to this that I don’t think that you necessarily have to avoid writing about a trip which was an authentically powerful experience for you, nor should you eschew the topic of athletics if you are an athlete, and if you are passionate about some world problem or political topic, by all means, write about it.

Just be sure to write from an authentic place and don’t create some sort of stereotypical narrative with a predictable outcome. Life isn’t terribly predictable, even if your life so far seems to be.

In an upcoming post, I will address Bauld’s categories at more length and show you how you might approach one or more of these essay types which Bauld so heartily condemns. As he says himself, the most important thing is that you “come alive on the page.”

Writing The Essay On An Influence: The Demons Are In The Details

In college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm

My last post introduced the essay on a personal influence, which was the focus of Prompt Three and Prompt Four of the Common Application in recent years, and I suggested some exercises to get you started. This post assumes that you have some material ready to work with. If you don’t, have a look at my last post. If you do, carry on!

In the post that follows, I will examine an essay about an influential father and his flower stand, which is one of a dozen essays I have seen already this year that use a parent as an influential figure. The fact that many people use this subject does not make this a bad topic choice–in fact, this shows what a great topic this is, if it is handled well.

The two most common truisms of writing are these: Write what you know and Show, don’t tell. This post will focus on the second of these as I examine the use of detail in narrative essays. Let’s start with the example of a father as an influence, which was the topic of a Prompt Three essay which I recently edited. The author agreed to let me use his essay, though I limit the amount of detail I provide to curtail copycat efforts.

The author of this essay told the reader his father had a floral business at which he worked very long hours, that a national chain had opened up a similar business several blocks away, and that his father had responded by working even harder and so had succeeded. The honesty, hard work and skill of the father had trumped the brand recognition and franchised power of the other store. As a result of watching this unfold, the author of the essay, who was struggling to balance football and a heavy school load (demanding sports and academic schedules are de rigueur these days), had learned to be more organized and to get things done in a timely manner. Problem solved

But a big problem for this essay remains:

This post continues with a  discussion of this specific essay and an explanation of how to improve this kind of essay in general, including what kind of detail to include and where to include it.

To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing, put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.

Consider This: The Problem Essay (Common Application Prompt 2)

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

This post was originally written in the summer of 2011, but developments over the last year simply reinforce  my message about thinking critically and avoiding simplistic, bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems in this kind of essay.  

In this post, I will briefly discuss a couple of potential topics which address prompt two of the Common Application. Let’s start by restating the prompt: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

In my previous post, I discussed this topic in depth and distinguished between the prompt and choosing a good topic which addresses the prompt. I used an environmental problem/solution as my main focus in that blog post, with the electric car being the specific topic.

Our focus in this post will be on a pair of national and international topics and some things you should consider with each topic. For a broader discussion of the hazards and advantages of Prompt Two, please see my previous post. This prompt creates a particular problem that you will sound like a “beauty queen” if you don’t do your homework and think critically.

The topics I discuss below for Prompt Two will include: Sudan and specifically Darfur as an example of a topic on international conflict; and the problem of fresh water, both in a specific region of the United States and as an international concern. Despite the fact that my discussion will focus on these fairly narrow topics, the larger issue we are exploring is creating a good college essay; the questions I ask of and the approach I take to each topic are similar to those I would use with many topics. I hope to illustrate a way of thinking which will help you write better. If you share that goal, please read on.

This post goes on to describe in detail two topics for this essay, including background and reference links.  The next post will continue this discussion.  To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing, put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.


The Issue Of Concern Essay; Also Known As The Problem Solution Essay

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm

2013-2014 update: A common approach on application essays is the Problem question, which asks you to discuss some issue of importance.  Because it sets up a discussion of a problem it also begs for a solution.  Here is how it was worded in recent years in the Common Application, Prompt Two: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.  The Common App has now dropped this prompt, but it lives on in the Stanford Supplemental essays–one problem there will be the length: Stanford has a 250 word suggested length, but in recent years has cut you off  a bit under 300 words, so you need to write very efficiently to hit your marks on this.  Read on for my general suggestions for writing about a problem.

One of the important risks of this otherwise excellent prompt is its tendency to elicit what essay guru Harry Bauld calls “The Miss America” essay. While Miss America competitors are most often fine people and many have superb academic credentials, you do not want your essay to sound like something written by a person in a beauty contest who is pontificating while modeling a revealing gown. This is particularly true if you choose to write about issues of national or international concern, which is what this blog post will address.

If you aren’t sure whether to give an essay on a national or international problem a go, consider the phrase at the end: “its importance to you.” Now is not the time to discover a previously nonexistent passion for international affairs and world problems. If you are not a follower of world events and have never looked into international conflict or social and environmental problems, choose another topic. You should already have a level of awareness and an interest in the topic you choose for your personal statement.

Perhaps you feel like you pay attention to world events and care, but you aren’t sure where you rank on the scale of awareness and commitment. These things are hard to judge. Do you need to donate all your money to causes and work weekends and evenings for social justice to be able to write an authentic essay addressing topic two? Nah.

On the other hand, if your level of commitment extends only to something your history or science teacher said, or to a unit you enjoyed in a class, that may not be enough.

Consider this: the topics available to this kind of Big Problem essay should be based on fact. In a general sense, you might be starting with the facts that resources are under pressure–as everything from fuel and food prices to rare earth minerals attest–and the ecology which sustains us is under assault in areas from overfishing to pollution from agricultural and industrial production to decreasing supplies of clean fresh water at a time when demand is rising. We can all agree that these are large problems, even if there still seems to be a debate in this country about related topics, such as climate change. This is, therefore, a potentially rich subject area.

If we assume again that you have an ongoing interest in one or more of these matters and that you have, therefore, a working acquaintance with the basics of a topic such as overfishing or water pollution, we might also assume that you have done formal research in one or more of your classes and have produced a research paper, or that you have had a unit on and discussed one of these areas at length. This would all be a great place to start a college application essay on this subject area. Just don’t stop with your last research paper or your class unit.

Why is that? Because most of the competent essays which I receive in this area are still overly simplistic and many read like a somewhat to very dry analysis. An essay your wrote for a class last year is really a first attempt to grapple seriously with a big problem. The results, even in a competent effort, will be somewhat limited.

I strongly encourage my students and clients to use concrete detail and examples–to show more than tell–so let’s move on to an example. I will focus the rest of this post pretty narrowly, but even if you have no intention of writing on the topics I discuss below, you may get some ideas about creating a more comprehensive and persuasive essay in general by reading on.

I begin with pollution as a general topic and air pollution as a more specific topic. As I’m sure you know, air pollution takes many forms, from the “acid rain” resulting from sulfates produced by burning coal, in particular, to the carbon dioxide emitted by all fossil fuel consumption (I add here that acid rain, while still a major problem, is no longer as popular as an essay topic as carbon dioxide and global warming are these days).

Let’s say you take an approach which is pretty common here: you identify a problem, explain the cause of the problem and suggest, at least in a general way, a solution. For example, you might observe that transportation, specifically cars and trucks, is a major source of air pollution. You might then discuss this lucidly and provide empirical support for your analysis; then you might propose a solution: the electric car.

I have seen at least a dozen of these essays in the last year. They all fit prompt two well–do we all not breathe from the same atmosphere and does it not provide all of use with our rain and the temperate regions in which we grow our food? A few of the essays were superb. Some were too simplistic, most often in the solution they proposed, which usually ran to having everyone use an electric car: batteries produce no carbon emissions, so problem solved.

Except it isn’t that simple. Batteries don’t produce carbon emissions themselves, but all batteries require a charge, that charge requires electricity, the vast majority of electricity produced in the United States today comes from fossil fuels and the single largest source of fossil fuel energy is coal.

If you only propose plugging our cars in instead of filling them up, you are not really addressing the larger problem of pollution. Coal is a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel–sorry “clean coal” folks, but no coal is clean and the technology to “clean” coal emissions by capturing and reinjecting them into the ground is currently speculative and, even if it works, may not be effective in the geology under many plants. Like all big problems–and solutions–this one is complicated.

In simply advocating the electric car as a solution to our carbon emissions or other air pollution problems, you may be saying many true and fine things, but in not dealing with the bigger picture you are not really dealing with the problem in a realistic way. The resulting essay will seem simplistic or glib. Given the current buzz around technologies such as the electric vehicle, you can count on your essay readers seeing complex and thorough essays on this very topic this year.

To compete with the best essays on this topic, you will have to consider a number of questions. Can you foresee other sources of electricity for the electric car? Could a solar charging system be sold with each electric car? Could the government give a tax credit for this as it has for other solar installations? If your essay incorporated proposals like these, you would be thinking more thoroughly and innovatively, which is something universities like to see.

There are, of course, many other considerations to be dealt with in a good electric car essay–the batteries, for example, rely on lithium, which is a finite resource concentrated currently in a few countries who have serious supplies or who potentially could develop significant sources. How would infrastructure have to change to enable electric vehicles to be more practical? You can’t charge up everywhere in the same way you can fill up a car with gas or diesel nearly everywhere.

You don’t need to exhaustively study all the details, but if you show awareness of the complexity of your topic by at least accounting for related factors, you show good critical thinking skills and have a good essay strategy which are, again, things universities are looking for.

My message here is this: the more personal interest and awareness you bring to your subject initially and the more you learn as you write, the better your essay will be if you are working with prompt two. And if you can write a good, reasoned argument, this kind of essay–even this specific essay topic–will be a good one for you.  Keep in mind that the real point of the essay is your mind and voice–the reader wants to see you engaged in the problem and you might want to start the essay by explaining how you came to be involved or interested in it.  Hopefully this shows a real interest, not just a passing fancy or sudden fascination provoked by the need to write a college essay.

Note well:  if you are a better storyteller than analyst or if you have no strong interests in broad problems like pollution or social justice, you might want to move on to another essay prompt.