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Archive for the ‘Harvard Application Essay’ Category

Writing about a Quote for Princeton–Who Needs a Book When You’ve Got an Essay?

In Essay Beginning With a Quote, Harvard Application Essay, Intellectual Experience Essay, Princeton Application Essays, Princeton Application for the Class of 2022, Princeton Quote Essay, Uncategorized, Writing an Essay About a Quote on July 20, 2017 at 12:44 am

Who should read this:  anybody interested in writing a Princeton Application Essay, or the Harvard Application (that book/intellectual interest prompt, still going strong) or the Stanford Interest short essay or . . . you get the picture.

The broad scope of writing an essay about a quote means some aspects of this post will work for prompts other than Princeton, inside and outside of the Ivy League.  So read on if a quote from an essay, or an essay about an essay, or an essay about ideas is a good topic for you.  

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My final word for those needing a quote essay, or an essay about a piece of writing, or even an essay about an intellectual experience is . . . read an essay. Or a bunch of essays, and grab the ones that really draw you in.  Then have a contest, in which you make the rules, to decide which one to write about and why.  See if you can find anything out about the author and/or otherwise find a framing context for how this essay altered your mind, and you are on your way. Some links provided below, to get you started.  More links and specific authors coming soon on my private site, available by subscription and for my college advising clients.  Read on or simply jump to the end of the post for more on that.

In my last post, I discussed writing about a quote from a book for Princeton.  In this post, I am writing for those who are  frustrated that their book essay looks too much like a school essay, and for those who like to write about ideas but have only had time to do the assigned reading in school and know that this will not set them apart (that’s most folks, these days).  Let’s face it, you do not want ot recycle a school essay on To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, or Twilight.  Kidding on that last one.

Or not, maybe–Have a look at this fun post about the Twilight series for an idea about how not to be boring and stuffy while writing about something you like, even if it is despite yourself:  Geeky Feminist Muses on Twilight.

She uses a series of quotes and has a good time.  You could too, though you won’t have space to wander as much or be as open-ended as she is–you need to make a more clear point, and to turn the attention back to yourself, and you have ca. 500-650 words, depending on what your essay is for (Stanford?  250 words), while this post is part of larger conversation that is itself part of an even larger conversation . . . .as you can see if you keep reading her blog.

And speaking of blogs, you might try looking at a few of them–there are all kinds of essays of superb quality in electronic form, with dozens of good to great sites that are online only, while some old-school literary reviews have migrated at least in part online in ways that work for today.  You will find great essays on some of these as well as discussions linked to essays and to ideas and events—with many quotes and googols of ideas:

Links to great lit and idea blogs

Paris Reviews blog and essay site, The Daily.  Caution for the sensitive:  can be rude.

Gotta follow that with a shout-out to Dave Egger’s old hang, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.    I can’t explain, you just have to click and then keep clicking and reading. Can be rude as well.  Super!

Essays on all kinds up in-the-now topics:  The New Inquiry

The book blog for the New Yorker (Never fear, plenty of essays here):  Page Turner

Science or history guys and gals, the Smithsonian is still going strong, online, and what if you did Crash into a Black Hole?  Huh?

The Los Angeles Review of Books (Great essays, great ideas, started on Tumblr):LARB

Mostly about reading books, but not yo Mama’s buddy-duddy book site: Book Riot

And I cannot leave out N+1.  Most of their stuff is protected:  you have to pay for quality work, they claim– what a crazy idea–but maybe this link will still work:  Now Less Than Ever.

Get reading, as you do, copy cool quotes, add a few lines of context, the title, author and place you got the essay, and you are on your way to some material that you might be able to make something out of.

Did  I say I will be writing about this in more depth, with links to authors, on my private blog? (Subscribers and clients only . . . like those N+1 guys, I believe my work has value . . . it ain’t all free, folks.  Contact me for more information).

How to Begin Writing College Application Essays for 2016-2017: The Harvard Supplemental Essay and The University of California Personal Insight Statements

In Common Application Personal Statement 2016-2017, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application for 2016-2017, Harvard Application Supplement, Uncategorized, University of California Application, University of California Application for 2016-2017 on September 16, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Who should read this post: Anybody applying to Harvard; Anybody applying to Harvard and the University of California system; Anybody applying to a Common Application School; Anybody writing more than one application essay.

 So step one this year is not to just sit down and write an essay.  And why not?

Because most of you will write essays for multi-college portals like the University of California system and a slate of colleges through the Common Application or Coalition application. If you are just getting into the app process and thought you could write your Common App essay and be done, sorry: most Common App and Coalition schools also want their own supplemental essays—and when a super elite like Harvard offers even the chance to write an additional essay, you need to do it lest you appear to be a slacker. All things being equal, you are likely to lose out to another applicant who looks like you in terms of data and other material if they wrote the extra essay and you did not.

What this means is clear: too many essays, too little time.

So assuming you have ten to sixteen essays to write, too much schoolwork and not enough time: what should you do? The answer is also pretty simple, but does take a bit more time up front: find a double or triple use for essays when you can. Sure, you thought of that, but have you done it yet? If not, read on. Actually, read on either way, as I will do some prompt analysis for Harvard and the University of California, along with a shout-out to Stanford, with a bonus of some helpful links.

How to Start Your College Application Essay

Back to step one, which is now to print out the prompts for your top target schools and set them side-by-side, along with a few safety schools, and engage in a comparison/contrast exercise. The more times you can reuse an essay as is, or do a bit of editing and reuse it, the better. Of course, you do have to avoid stretching too much when you try to make one essay work for another prompt, and you should definitely do a close read to make sure you did not leave in the name of  college x in your essay to college y  (Seriously: people really do miss details and end up sending an essay addressed to one school to another. For an amusing example of this and some other major boo-boos, listen to the introduction to this episode of This American Life: How I Got Into College.  It only takes a couple of minutes and is good for a laugh, at least.

Getting back to getting started,  if you are entirely new to this game, please dive in and start selecting your schools of interest in the Common App or Coalition portal (or Naviance, if you are using it). You will find that most Common App schools also want some kind of supplemental essay, or essays, or at least some quick responses about yourself. To learn more, get registered, select schools and  then click on the supplementals and essays.  Copy all prompts of interest into a document.  Then come back here  for a lesson on doubling up on essays and so not going crazy (completely) or burning out (utterly) by Thanksgiving.

 

The Harvard Optional Essay and the University of California Personal Insight Prompts:  A comparison

Many students will apply to some University of California campuses as an alternate or backup for one or more Ivy League applications, so let’s look at a comparison of the U.C. essay prompts and Harvard.

Here’s the University of California Prompts, bare-bones version (on the U.C. site, they append quite a bit of commentary to the basic prompts):

  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.  
    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.
    3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
    4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
    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?
    6.  Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
    7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
    8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

 You choose four of these eight prompts and write them (Caveat to junior college and other transfers—you have a required essay and choose three of these four prompts; here’s a link to the required transfer essay: U.C. Transfer essay).

And now we turn to the Harvard prompts, comparing each to the University of California personal insight prompts, with Stanford’s roommate letter thrown in for fun:

Harvard College Application Essay Prompts for 2016-2017

Essay optional (Hint, hint:  Optional only for those with a scholarship in hand.)

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

  • Unusual circumstances in your life—Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could pair with the University of California’s prompt 8 (UC 8: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates if that thing is some unusual circumstance in your life.
  • Travel or living experiences in other countries— Analysis and comparison: This prompt overlaps with the UC prompt 8 as well, if your unusual circumstance is living abroad. Of course just attending an international school does not make you all that unusual—thousands of American students in international schools, as well as thousands of foreign students apply to Harvard and the U.C.’s. But if you start by visualizing how your life is abroad is different from a suburban American teen (your major competition overall) and then think about how you have some unique view of experience within your living abroad experience, then that is your angle.
    • Oh, and a caveat: In all cases, whether writing for U.C. or for Harvard, please avoid the clichéd essay on a trip. Have a look at this link for some advice on how to write (or not write) the trip essay for either U.C. or Harvard (or anywhere else): Evading the Cliché Step 2.
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you. Analysis and comparison: Well this does not actually line up perfectly with any U.C. prompts—but it does overlap nicely with the Stanford letter to a roommate and hey—if you are applying to Harvard (with its 5.39% admit rate), why not apply to Stanford (with its 4.96% admit rate) as well—so let’s digress here to Stanford, which is still using its “letter to your roommate” prompt. You wouldn’t want your Harvard essay to look too much like a Stanford letter, but the usually more cheeky or informal tone of a letter might work for Harvard as well. Here’s a link to the Stanford prompts: Stanford Short Essays.

Okay, Back to the U.C. . . . . and Harvard:

  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you. Analysis and comparison: This lines up best with the U.C. prompt 6 ( . . . favorite academic subject and its influence on you) as long as you frame it with a specific focus on a book, project, research topic, etc. It might also work for the U.C. prompt 4 (Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity).
  • How you hope to use your college education. Analysis and comparison: This does not line up well with any U.C. prompts. A number of Ivies have this kind of question (Cornell, et al) but the problem with doubling up this prompt is your need to show some knowledge of the school. So you could write about your ambitions and show why you have them, then do some reading and clicking on specific programs, professors and research, etc., at Harvard, and then write this one. Then cut off the specifics about Harvard as you use it for other schools, swapping in research on their programs, etc.
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months. Analysis and comparison: This is, again, a question with no overlap for the University of California prompts; it is also not really an essay prompt. On the other hand, I would not just list books here. No, I would present an annotated list, with a brief reaction to each book—a few sentences at most.
  • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty. Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could be a leadership issue if you took some kind of initiative in relationship to integrity or honesty—which is, of course, prompt 1 for the University of California. But handle this one with caution. If you waded into the morass of plagiarism or cheating, you have to figure out if you can get into that without hurting yourself by talking about it. You don’t want to present as a cheater, nor do you want to present as a snitch. If it was a big deal, possibly you have to, however, since if it was a big problem, it likely has a presence on social media. The last time I looked at a study, over 40% of application officers look at social media, and any serious stuff about you online will require some damage control.
  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission? Analysis and comparison: If you wrote an essay for the University of California’s prompt 7 (What have you done to make your school or your community a better place), that could work as the basis for this essay. Notice that they want to know what you will do at Harvard, which means what you will do in the future, but what you will do in the future won’t be very convincing if you have not done something in the past. So as I said, you might be able to use your UC 7 essay and add to it here to show how you will continue your commitment to world peace or whatever. But do some research on what is already in place at Harvard (and your fav U.C. campuses).  Why?  Because saying you want to start a World Peace Club at Harvard won’t be very convincing if they already have one. It would just show that you did not do much research, which suggests a lack of interest. Oops.

Some tips on Editing

Keeping in mind that to cut a 650 word essay down to 500 words, or a 500 word essay down to 350 words is actually to create a different essay, try to match up prompts, and when possible, match up prompts in a similar wordcount range.

To see what I mean, use my link below, and then read down into the post and you will see a very simple but very useful editing exercise I do on a brilliant essay by Titi Nguyen that will show you how you can cut a much longer essay and have a very good (if very different and much shorter) essay: How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples. After clicking the link, save time by searching the post for this:  My Wonder Years.

If you can use a technique like this to cut a Common App essay down to a U.C. 350-word essay, you can save some time. In addition to the editing trick, which would require only some work with transitions to make a great, new essay out of Nguyen’s long essay, notice the topic: television shows, and from what I would call a lost decade in terms of culture.  Nguyen’s use of what should be not just a mundane but a mindless topic allows her to get at the meaning of her life and to show her unique experience.

Hey, how has media shaped your life? Or how does it offer a lens into your life? Follow her lead and something good may happen (just don’t copy her. Inspiration is okay, plagiarism not so much.  You should go with things that are important to you.  Maybe it’s food, or shoes or something else nobody else would think of as a serious topic).

So that’s it; that’s how I would go about doing a comparison of U.C. to Harvard prompts and thus look to save time and verbiage (Yep, that’s both a thesis and a summary).

My next post will do a similar comparison for the University of Oregon, a good, large state university that has become a fallback school for many California applicants—with an app data profile similar to U.C. Riverside. Call it a safety comparison if you will, or just call it a look at a solid university to double up with the U.C. (or some other fine institution).   See you soon. (Oh, and yes, I will be doing more Ivy League analysis, as well as having a look at U Chicago and other elites, later in the month of September on into early October, as time allows.  Editing on client essays has to come first, but Stay tuned for more).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harvard Application Essay for 2013-2014: Back to the Future

In Harvard Application 2013-2014, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Supplement, Harvard Supplemental Essays, Intellectual Experience Essay, Ivy League Application Essays on December 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Or to the past, because Harvard’s prompts are a blast from the past, especially if the past is the old Common Application Prompts.

The prompts that Harvard has up this year are a mix of old Harvard prompts and the prompts that your older friends or siblings wrote for the Common Application if they applied in recent years.   I’ll analyze the prompts separately, in order, right after this message:

Editing Update, 12/26/13:  I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have 1-3 essays that need editing for a final app, contact me by splicing this address into an e-mail, with the heading “editing request” and a brief description of what you need:  wordguild@gmail.com

Final requests taken on Sunday, 12/29/13.  

And now, here is my Harvard analysis: 

1. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (Required, 150 word max, Paste in).

150 words is not much space, which reinforces that this “essay” prompt is meant as a chance either to elaborate on material you (hopefully) already listed for them, or to describe an interesting aspect of your life that merited essentially a footnote in your application or that is not visible at all.  Choose wisely, by which I mean, look first for ways to offset weaknesses and next for ways to play up strengths that may be apparent in your application, and choose a topic  that shows a person who truly  is curious instead of a person who is merely trying to look as if he or she is curious .

If you appear to be a stereotypical asocial math and computer whiz, try to find a way to talk about something else–your stats and classes should already show your prowess in these fields, supported by your transcript, so maybe you should talk about your love of windsurfing or (harmless) flash mob organizing.  If you are weaker in math, find a way to offset that–your love of philosophy and logic, through your sideline, studying Zeno’s paradoxes, or perhaps your organizing skills or ability to find your way in the dark without a compass.  Be creative.

It’s fine to repeat things that are prominent on your “resume” so long as you are truly and deeply enthusiastic about the topic you choose.  You can sneak in some other things by showing, for example, how your interest in Topic A lead you to Topic B, the subject of your essay here (or paragraph, probably).

As for essays on work, I wouldn’t necessarily say not to write about your job flipping burgers, but you might want to give it some heft.  Try reading or at least perusing Barbara Erenreich’s Nickled and Dimed for some ideas on how to add depth to an essay on your fast-food/entry-level side job.  Internships will hopefully also provide fodder for an intellectual experience essay.

Now let’s look at the remaining prompts as a group, with links to topics that can be used to address the prompts:

2. You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics (Optional, 1300 word Max, Paste In) 

Unusual circumstances in your life
– Travel or living experiences in other countries
– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
– An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
– How you hope to use your college education
– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months


My first advice is this:  You should, of course, write this extra, “suggested” essay.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard  has for the most part just  rearranged some words  from last year’s  prompts.  The prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate was introduced last year, and is either borrowed from recent Stanford supplements or great minds really do think alike.

This year’s prompt on an intellectual experience was added as a word change to a similar, earlier prompt and  is  much broader than that earlier prompt  on an academic experience, which it replaced in 2012.  Academic limits you to school and maybe that internship or research project you did.  Intellectual does not limit your topics as much. Music, film, rock climbing, almost any serious human endeavor or experience can have an intellectual aspect to it, if you look at it the right way.  Books, of course,  are an ancient source of intellectual experiences and these will be a specific focus in this post.

I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013 that relate to or could be topics for this years prompts.  These posts will help get you started as you generate ideas.

I  address the list of books essay  in a separate post–this essay can take various forms, but avoid just making it a list of book blurbs; find a way to tie the books together, based on some sort of shared idea or other connection.  The posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

My main warning is to avoid the stereotypical “My Trip” essay, which takes three forms:  1) shallow travelogue 2) travel experience with a “life’s lesson” forced upon it 3) Patronizing description of people with odd habits living in an exotic place/poor people living in an exotic place.   It’s incredibly easy to sound patronizing when writing about other countries and peoples and you should never forget that, in writing about another place, the subject of an application essay is still you.  Be aware of what you are revealing about yourself.

How to Write About  a Trip While Not Tripping Over Stereotypes:  Evading the Cliche II

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

Consider Your Audience Before Writing Anything:  So You Want to Write a College Essay

Stanford Essay 2011, including brief advice on Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

My full-package college application clients are all done with their apps, so I will have some space for new editing work from today on through the 28th of December, 2013.  You can e-mail me at wordguild@gmail.com to inquire.  Good luck and Good Writing.

Yale and Harvard Application Essays for 2012-2013: The Coquette and the Copycat

In Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application Supplement, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books on August 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Note to readers:  First of all, if you are reading this in December of 2013, this was written for last year’s apps; on the other hand, much of what I say still applies to Harvard as well as to other colleges that want you to write about a book or intellectual experience this year, so in those cases you should have  a look, but keep in mind that some of the information linked below is protected and available in full only to clients or subscribers.  You may e-mail me to get a subscription, which is normally only $15 dollars for the  application season, thoug if you use my editing or college advising services, the subscription fee is deducted from your first editing job or I will give you access to the private blog as soon as you pay for your first edit.  I do give a free editing sample on a single college application essay–serious inquires only to:  wordguild@gmail.com. You’ll need to provide some additional information and your bona fides before I do a free sample edit, though.

Where is the Yale supplement? As of 8/1/12 at 3:15 PM Eastern Time, this was the only information available:

Yale University Supplement:
Yale University allows this supplement to be submitted Online.
This supplement is not yet available.

Go Bulldogs!

What can we make of this strange absence?  Perhaps that Yale is so cool they can ignore Common App deadlines?  Either that or their I.T.  people are out to lunch, in the colloquial sense, which seems impossible.  I mean, it’s Yale, right?  They would know what they are doing?  Or is it a secret plan to have no competition when they put up their supplement?  Like a debutante arriving late for the dance?   While we await a solution to the mystery of the Yale supplement, let’s look at Harvard.

Harvard

So Harvard has put up their prompts in a prompt fashion.  But aside from being on time, this year Harvard reminds me of a kid trying to fob off a Junior English essay in his Senior English class.  What do I mean?  Well, look below at this year’s prompts and then have a look at last year’s prompts (the underlining and bold print is mine):

Harvard Additional Essays 2012-2013 

Occasionally, students feel that college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about themselves or their accomplishments. If you wish to include an additional essay, you may do so.

Possible Topics: 

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• A letter to your future college roommate

• An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

• How you hope to use your college education

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

Harvard Prompts 2011-2012 

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• Books that have most affected you

• An academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

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

My first hint is this:  most people write the extra essay, even if it is just suggested.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use, of course.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard now has six total prompts as opposed to last year’s five, with two new prompts and  the other four prompts essentially unchanged, aside from rearranging some words and a slight broadening of one prompt.  And of these two new additions, the prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate is a rerun from recent Stanford supplements.  Perhaps a former Stanford admissions officer took a new position at Harvard and  it really is a small world, after all.    This year’s  prompt on an intellectual experience is a bit broader than last year’s prompt on an academic experience, but then it also overlaps with the Common Application’s own essay prompts.

Since Harvard is not adding a lot of new material here, I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013.  I will be discussing the list of books essay in a separate post soon, with new examples, but these posts will get you started as you generate ideas.

 In my posts for Harvard last year,  I focused on the book prompts.  Some of this material, especially when it relates to establishing genres or categories for different books, would be useful in a “list of books” essay.  I will address the list of books essay soon in a separate post, with some examples, but the posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

My main warning is to avoid the stereotypical “My Trip” essay, which takes three forms:  1) shallow travelogue 2) travel experience with a “life’s lesson” forced upon it 3) Patronizing description of people with odd habits living in an exotic place/poor people living in an exotic place.   It’s incredibly easy to sound patronizing when writing about other countries and peoples and you should never forget that, in writing about another place, the subject of an application essay is still you.  Be aware of what you are revealing about yourself.

How to Write About  a Trip While Not Tripping Over Stereotypes:  Evading the Cliche II

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

Consider Your Audience Before Writing Anything:  So You Want to Write a College Essay

Stanford Essay 2011, including brief advice on Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

I will be addressing the Harvard prompts for 2012-2013 again soon, starting with those I haven’t addressed yet and updating for some of the prompts I discuss above.  Stay tuned.  Hopefully Yale will give us something in the meantime.

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

How To Write A 500 Word College Application Essay–An Exercise In Editing

In Common Application Essays, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Princeton Application Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay, Yale Supplemental Essay on May 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

One of the greatest challenges in writing an application essay is the length demanded by the Common App and most universities:  500 words  (or less).  For many applicants, this is akin to writing a perfect Italian sonnet about their lives–or boiling their lives down to a haiku.  But if your initial essay has “good bones,” meaning a good central narrative or description and good structure, you should be able to  pare down your language to come up with an excellent final draft.

The 500 word limit is not like a deadly force field, of course–your essay won’t be obliterated or cast aside if you are a few words over –but the fundamental rule is clear: the more words over the limit, the more you risk irritating the reader and the more they will expect from the essay.  As one app officer has said, it really “raises the bar” if the essay is too long, and the longer it is, the higher the leap, so to speak.

So don’t get hung up on every word as if there were only one possible version of your essay in the entire universe.  If you start your essays early, you will have plenty of time to play with them.  Once you have a good draft, good editing is paramount.  You want to create clean sentences, use the most precise vocabulary possible and cut out repetition.  One well-chose word can replace a phrase or even a sentence.

To show you what I mean, I will edit and vastly cut down the much longer essay we discussed in my last post.  It will be helpful to see the last post and read the essay before continuing.

To continue,  I will take that (very) long and brilliant essay linked and discussed in the last post and distill from it a small excerpt; this excerpt will be a mini-version of the original, but will still be hundreds of words too long (874 words, to be precise) so I will edit it again, showing my editing marks, and then end with a third version of 500 words.  This final essay could be used equally as well for an intellectual experience essay or a personal influence essay.

Tearing down and rebuilding a long and brilliant essay by a real pro may seem like a kind of party trick, but in reality this is what good editors do all the time for journalists,  essayists and novelists.

Version 1, below, is an excerpt from the original, longer essay; version 2 is the edited example of that excerpt; and version 3 is the result, in which the excerpt has been editing down to become a 500 word application essay.

Version 1

An excerpt from a much longer essay on the comic book superhero

This is a cut-down version of the original,  with no other editing changes.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by the telling of lies. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our moral failings for granted and, perhaps as a result, favored lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics. All nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us—at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic book was fantasy, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies, the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house.

These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, what struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof. For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comic books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, the tights, the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart.

I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty Thor. I had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.

It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation.

Version 2

An Edited Version–You can see the version above under the editing marks, and you can see the 500-word version emerging.  

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by of the telling of lies lying. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our took our moral failings for grantedand, perhaps as a result, favored favoring lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethicsfor all nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, he tied  with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been   —at least one verifiable such a boy,boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic books was were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies., the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, and your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, What struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof:  . For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, Of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, or the tights  the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave allowed Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage, like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty ThorI had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation through imagination.

Version 3:  A 500-Word Intellectual Experience or Personal Influence essay.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we read a kind of modern parable and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm of lying. Mr. Spector took our moral failings for granted, favoring lively argument over condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. None of that seemed to have anything to do with the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics, for all nine-year-olds are sophists.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was such a boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that comic books were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies.  Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you  and your dreams. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality——but if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). What struck me was a profound recognition of the implicit premise of  the boy on the roof:   that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics which after all were only paper, staples, and ink. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

Of course, it was not the red cape any more than the boots or the tights  that allowed Superman to fly. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, and felt magically alone. I had imagined the streak of my passage, a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector: it was about personal transformation through imagination.

College Application Success: The Seven Rules

In college admissions, college application, common application, Common Application Essays, Harvard Application Essay, Researching Colleges, Stanford Application, UC Santa Cruz Application, University of California Application, university rankings on March 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

College App Jungle’s  Rules of College Admissions:

1. There are no secrets to admissions though each university does have priorities which shape admissions. Beyond looking at the information colleges provide about how they evaluate applications, spending time trying to figure out if there is a “secret handshake” which will give you admittance is a waste of time.

This doesn’t mean that all things are equal and no strategy is necessary.  I strongly recommend that you carefully research universities and craft your application to match the schools which you want to attend–more about this below.  But those who spend hour after hour on the chat threads on College Confidential, hoping to find something guaranteeing them an acceptance letter from their favorite school,  should instead spend the time working on their essays.

Maybe you know a guy who knows a guy who knows that U.C. Berkeley is looking for engineering students who are the first in their families to go to college, but . . . so what?   Even if this is true (and it was recently) this kind of “fact” changes each year. Every university has dozens of priorities for admissions, priorities which are revised both before and during the admissions process each year; as students are admitted and categories fill, numbers  like the SAT average and ethnicity  for applications and admits also change.  Early on, the college may be looking for students who fit a particular profile, but once that fills or starts to fill, they can shift the priority to a different category .

Why?  The universities have one eye on you and another eye on things like their ranking in the U.S. News and World Report.  The take away is that you can’t spend time worrying about things which will change even as apps arrive at the college.

As an example of an admissions priority which is changing, San Jose State is currently embroiled in a controversy over giving preference to students coming from Santa Clara County, where the university is located.  For this year, they have backed off from eliminating this preference, but facing 60 million dollars in budget cuts right now, they are likely, within another year or so, to eliminate it.  Why? You could say that,  to be fair to all applicants in a statewide university system,  they can’t act like a local school, but more realistically  this move seems designed to allow more space for students who will pay more–foreign and out-of-state students, for example.  This will also increase their selectivity and so tend to improve their national ranking.

And this is only one of many preferences facing evaluation and possible revision this year for San Jose State alone, which like the rest of the Cal State schools  uses the supposedly simple objective admissions process; add to this the priorities assigned to various schools and majors within the university,  and you have some idea of how complex the calculus is for every school.  Do the same for a holistic admissions university and it’s even more complex.

See my last post for more information on how universities assess applications and what a holistic versus objective evaluation entails, and look below for my link to the U.C. Santa Cruz evaluation to see a detailed list of factors considered–keep in mind that these vary to some degree from school to school, even within the U.C. system.

2. Grades and test scores are the most important factors in evaluations of college applicants.

You can count on grades and scores to be the first but not only consideration as your application is evaluated.   If you are a top student in a good school, if you have excellent SAT/ACT scores, a broad set of activities and a clear area of specific excellence  and passion, you will be admitted to most schools you apply to.  If you do not fit this description, you may have fewer options, but fear not:  there is a college with a spot for every student in the country with decent grades and test scores.  You may have to go further afield, of course, but you are not forever doomed by a few C’s and B’s.  As for GPA, it’s your unweighted average that is directly compared and which is used in the averages the universities publish with their profiles of admitted students; your weighted average does matter as it establishes your class rank, and can be used as an additional factor in direct comparisons, but the unweighted GPA is the first thing assessed, along with SAT/ACT test scores.

3. Some things do trump grades and test scores, but these tend to be very specific and very obvious exceptions.

Your favorite university is, in fact, looking for you if  you show a clear ability or potential to excel at something of value to the institution– if you are a recognized musical talent with decent grades or a mathematical prodigy or a 6’4″ All-CIF high school linebacker running a 4.5 second 40 yard dash and bench pressing 350 lbs, for example.  But even with exceptional skills in some area, such as tackling other large, fast people, you must still show that you have the academic chops to survive as a student at the specific school, though some entities, like athletic departments, may supply assistance in the form of tutoring.

If you want this quantified further, a 2008 study showed that players on top 25 football and basketball teams had SAT scores 220 points below the average for the rest of the student body at these schools.  Obviously elite athletic programs get priority at many schools.

Unfair, you say?  Not from the institution’s point of view.  It has its own priorities, with money and reputation near or at the top of the list, and sports are important both to boosters and to most students.   So are many other talents.  If you doubt my claims, see my entry about admissions stats for early 2012 and scroll down to my discussion of Stanford for further details on the importance of athletics.  It seems that the football team is important even at an intellectual paragon like Stanford.

The next rule is for the vast majority who  do not fit the exceptional niches that most universities set aside and who do not have a perfect academic record.

4. It’s okay to be human.  A few B’s and a  C will not kill your chances of admission to any but the most competitive universities, especially if you show a desire to push your limits by taking challenging classes in which you are not always perfect.  As you create your application portfolio, your  essays and extracurriculars can  reveal important and valuable aspects of you that can offset relative weaknesses in your grades or test scores.  Good recommendations are also important.  For an example of a the kinds of additional factors, see the U.C. Santa Cruz website, where they list fourteen factors used in making evaluations–they are, for example, giving  California residents preference (at least as of this year’s applicants), something that other U.C.’s  are moving away from (as I pointed out above, they get more money from a nonresident. . . )

My advice:  Try to keep things in perspective as you prepare for college.  I have known a few Valedictorians who were really living miserable lives in order to “win” academic honors.  I think it’s better to be less than perfect and to enjoy your life rather than to live in torment over every grade point.  There are many schools you have not heard of where you could be perfectly happy and be well educated.  If you are a resident of a western state, see my post here for more information on finding a good university in the West and potentially saving a lot of money as an extra boon.

5. The college application process starts early.  In fact, it should begin no later than the Sophomore year in high school.  Even the Freshman year in high school is increasingly important, if not as part of your GPA, then as part of your overall academic trajectory (they want to see increasing difficulty and challenge in your class selection from year to year). I think this is unfair and unwise–many people struggle to adjust in the first year or two of high school, and there are myriad examples of successful people who did not excel early–but this is the way things are going as competition for admission to selective universities increases.

On the other hand . . . a student who stumbled early should not give up.  The holistic schools will look at other aspects of your application that may explain or offset some academic    shortcomings.

You should make a serious effort to establish relationships with counselors and cultivate relationships with teachers, for you will need recommendations.  Try to develop these relationships early and in a sincere way, which requires something from you as well as from them.  When dealing with teachers, show interest and be helpful when possible–and show an interest in the academic subject of the teacher,  not just in yourself and your opinions.

By your Junior year, you want your counselor to know your face, your name and your important interests.  If you are a Junior and haven’t talked to your counselor, there is no time like the present.

Be straightforward about your desire to work with your counselor as part of your application process.  Ask them for their advice–they are usually knowledgeable  if not expert, and people like to share what they know, so let your counselor talk.  If your counselor seems less than eager, on the other hand, it might have to do with budget cuts that have loaded them with 500–or more–students.  Be polite and persistent.

6. Essays are Important and can separate you from your competitors.  And in the essays, as in your activities, authenticity matters.  Your application self and your real self need to have a clear relationship.  If your verbal score on the SAT was 550 but your essays read like Zadie Smith wrote them,  your app will not do well, even if your SAT math score was perfect.  Most experienced admissions readers can predict your SAT verbal from reading your essays, and if you farmed your essays out to one of the ghost writers offering their services on the internet, you are most likely doomed,  not just for a lack of academic skill, but more importantly because you lack integrity.  Getting editing help and reader input on your essay is fine; faking it is not.

This can be a gray area when you seek editing–as an example, I do detailed, line-by-line editing and suggest better phrasing as well as offering more holistic evaluations of essays, but ultimately my client’s essays are theirs.  My job as an editor is to give them ways to reshape the clay that they provide, but the essays are and must be student material.  Any editing help provided must be both sensible and sensitive as well as honest.

For a holistic school, like all of the Common Application schools, authenticity means more than your test scores and class rank.  In general, the admissions readers genuinely try to construct a full picture of you from your materials, from grades through essays.  Many students try to create a false self in their essays, just as these same students may be dabbling in many activities just to get them on the “resume.” Find a way to say something authentic in your essays–this can take time and will involve reading for some of the recent prompts for supplemental essays.

7. Activities are important, especially those that show a long-term interest and commitment, but for authentic intellectual development, reading widely is the best approach.     Reading is one of the best ways to add authentically to your general knowledge and to deepen your understanding of the world, and many college applications recognize this in their essay prompts, which either ask for or allow books as topics.  This does not mean that you should start reading the most serious possible literature immediately.  In fact,  I link you here to an excellent essay by Michael Chabon, one of our best contemporary writers,  on his love for comic books, with a vigorous defense of their value. Yes, reading comic books is –oh, excuse me, I mean reading graphic novels– is intellectually respectable, or at least it can be.    So go ahead and start with the supposedly lightweight, but be sure to move onward and outward from there.  You might try going from comics to Chabon’s The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, for example, or from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels to his, well, novels, like American Gods.

In addition to being generally useful, a good reading program will pay off in the application essays.  Your life will most likely have a few important episodes that might work in an autobiographical essay, but the number of experiences available to you through books is relatively limitless.  With the Common App and most holistic universities using essay prompts which directly address books or for which books are a good topic, reading is a good place to put in some time.

I have previously discussed writing about books, and will be addressing this again in future posts, but you can’t do a good job writing about books if you do not start reading early.

If you are already a Junior, and don’t read  beyond what is assigned in school, it’s a bit late but not too late.  I will have some suggestions for reading programs over the summer for all types of students in a later post.

Those are my rules, or guidelines, if you will.  Look for more posts in the near future on writing about books and other application matters.

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 Harvard Supplement: Or, How to Write About Books Part 1

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Influential Experience Essay on October 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

This post specifically addresses a Harvard application essay about a book, but this discussion is on writing about books in general.   The advice here is also good for the 2015-2016 Princeton prompt on books and for other colleges asking you to write about a book in some way. I continue this thread for several subsequent posts, and cover everything from writing about a quote to step-by-step suggestions for how to write about multiple books in a single essay.  If you intend to write about books that have influenced you, these and a set of new posts coming out later in 2015 will be very helpful to you.  

Books are a perennial favorite for college app prompts and even when the prompt does not directly ask you to address books, prompts directed at intellectual experiences or influences or ideas that shaped you can be addressed through an essay on books.

For the 2011 application season Harvard took an approach similar to that of Stanford.  They suggested that, while they have more than enough information to evaluate you already based on other parts of the application, you might just want to consider adding a wee bit more to your application file by submitting some groundbreaking art or your Great American Novel or, what the heck, writing just one more essay.  Here are the topics suggested for their supplemental essay that year:

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• Books that have most affected you

• An academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

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

Like you, I noticed that the book thing comes up twice in a fairly short list, so let’s start there.  It appears that Harvard is hopeful that its applicants have vibrant intellectual lives and read avidly.  It’s also  likely that you only have time to do assigned reading, what with all those A.P. classes you need to take in order to be considered for an Ivy League school, but even if your reading has only been for classes, you must have read a couple of  intellectually stimulating and interesting books in the past twelve months, and you certainly should be able to bring some books to mind that have affected you–if you can’t think of any, what Harvard  may be saying to you is that you aren’t the kind of gal or guy they are looking for. They want masters of the universe who are well read if not downright bookish.

If that bums you out, no time like the present to start reading–a journey of a thousand books starts with the first.

But let’s assume that you  have read some books which have had an impact on you.  The first thing to notice is that either of the suggested book essays will require you to write about multiple books–and, therefore, Harvard is challenging you to do something which you probably have not done before or which you have not done often, for few contemporary English classes in American high schools asks students to evaluate or compare works of literature which they have read.  Most of the time high school students write about their personal response to a book or they do an analysis of some particular kind of theme–the river as a representation of nature,  in opposition to the corruption of civilization which is represented by the towns and people on the river banks in Huckleberry Finn, for example.  This kind of cycloptic essay is not what you want.   Yes, I did just coin that word to capture the narrow focus of these essays.  Single eyed, if you will, as opposed to the broad view you need for this Harvard essay.

In a way, this supplemental essay  will make an unstated argument of a narrow sort, which I may sum up thus:  What an interesting mind I have and what a well-read person I am!  You should admit me to Harvard!  Yet in order to succeed in this unstated argument, you must convey the capaciousness of your thought and the variety of your interests by writing an essay which makes some sort of sophisticated primary argument about a selection of books.

So let’s look for some aid.  To start with, you need to read some examples.  You need to find a publication which frequently features articles on not one, not two, but three or more novels or nonfiction works–yes, they said only books, not just novels.   You need . . . the New York Review of Books.  Like many publications, the NYRB is increasingly protecting their content–meaning that they put up a firewall and you have to pay to get at it–but in the issue online as I write this post, the NYRB has articles on energy and Alexander the Great which both reference, discuss and analyze multiple  works on their respective topics.  It’s a fine lesson in How To Do It.

If you follow my link to the NYRB and it seems a bit too high-falutin and stuffy for you, may I suggest that you check out their recent article on Stieg Larsson?  With the caveat that his would be a daring choice of books to write about, but one could do worse, as this article shows.  Just don’t plagiarize this or any other article, first on ethical grounds and second as there is an above-average chance that your Harvard Admissions officer also reads the NYRB.  It’s de rigueur for all us folks with intellectual pretensions or accomplishments, and for good reason.

Another place to look for examples is the New York Times Book Review (whole different crowd, confusingly similar titles).  Go to the nytimes site using my link and you can find some of this week’s articles there–scroll down.  You might want to see if you can access a review of a bushel of mysteries–this would provide a valuable contrast to the kind of extended comparison and analysis you find in the NYRB–these thumbnail reviews are fun and useful, but are probably not what you want your Harvard Supplement book essay to be.  They wittily summarize and evaluate a pack of recent mystery or crime novels, but are not very worried about linking the discussion into a coherent argument.  These are user’s guides for mystery and crime fans. Have a look at this recent example.

While you do get a strong sense of the author’s voice in the roundup of recent mysteries I link above, the purpose of this article is different than the purpose of your Supplement essay. You want to use a selection of books to make some sort of argument, as the NYRB articles do.  This could mean that you use fiction–a set of novels, for example–or nonfiction to develop an argument or to explain the effect the books have had on you. I leave it up to you to do some homework now to prepare for this topic, to which I will return soon.