This will be my final update for the 2013-2014 application season. With the early rush over, I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have one or more application essays that you wish to have reviewed and closely edited, splice the following address into an e-mail and contact me with the subject “editing request:” firstname.lastname@example.org.
Include your name, geographical location, and a basic description of what you need. I’ll be asking you to provide me some additional information to help me edit, but all information and work is kept strictly confidential. My prices for a three-round editing package, with the last edit ready to submit, are $100-$150, depending on the essay length and prompt.
As for the Ivies, here we go:
The Ivies are using the Common App and a variety of questions in their supplemental sections; what they share, beyond the Common App essays, is one or more supplemental responses that are best restated by the question “Why do you want to go to school here?” This is a question which you can and should research.
What you should not do is write an autobiographical incident or short essay on some experiment or program you were in–it’s fine and in fact necessary to talk about yourself and your specific academic interests, but you should also be talking about and showing knowledge of the university itself. Don’t just recycle part of a Common App essay.
Things To Research For The “Why Us” Prompt
So let’s start with Brown as an example; their prompt is pretty simple: Why Brown? You probably already knew that, but my advice–again, repeated throughout this post, with some different links and information about each school– is to do some research, specifically in the areas in which you are considering majoring. The essay should be about your experiences and interests, but not just about you. It’s about the school as well, and not just about how the school will be useful to you. How will you be useful in the world? To other people or creatures or the environment? What will your contribution be?
Please think about that. The admissions officer will be looking for it–it doesn’t need to be completely explicit and specific, but they won’t be impressed by an essay with a whole lot of “I’s” and “me’s” in it, or by an essay that is all about how they can do things for you. See the Dartmouth admissions officer, below, and his comments on the self-absorbed.
Look outside yourself. Study the university. Find out about programs, then about professors as well as classes. Know something about the research or work being done at Brown in your field of interest. Follow links and information on the work of specific professors and schools or institutes or centers.
Be able to name drop with knowledge, but not just as a list of names the app reader already knows; this should be shown as something that fits with you and your plans, as something you can use, with a little explanation, in a meaningful way. Be able to explain how Brown can help you achieve whatever it is you want to achieve–which hopefully has something to do with helping other people out in some way, whether through innovation or services. Then write efficiently and without hyperbole.
I recommend reading this article on the changes to Brown’s supplementals for this year : Changes to the Brown Supplement. And don’t forget to have a look at their mission statements, motto, and that kind of thing.
Brown is one of the Ivies that views public service as more than lip service. Don’t forget: Sincerity is a must, but avoid being preachy or a hand-wringer, and don’t come off as self-absorbed. See my links below to how to evade the cliché, et al.
Know What Your Major Entails/Understand the Hierarchies
To repeat: research all things related to your major or to areas you think you may want to major in–you hopefully have already done some research and know the basics, but a quick recap here: Majors are taught within a “division,” “school” “program” and/or “department” and, in recent decades also within “centers” and “institutes.” Some of the latter have different structures than a traditional school or department, but for the most part the name game with centers and institutes is a way to set up funding, often around one or more rock star figures (they are not always professors by trade, but possess advanced degrees and outside experience that applies to the field in question) or around some hot, usually interdisciplinary new “field.” There is a constant turf war for attention and funding which has driven this in recent years and this also reflects developing areas of study and technology–new stuff can create new disciplines.
Back To Brown
One example at Brown is the department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, formed in 2010. How linguistics has joined Cognition and Psychology is a bit convoluted but will illustrate a point I want to make about the contemporary, interdisciplinary approach to education.
Modern linguistics really starts in the early 20th Century, with structuralism, and was a field within philosophy and sociology and later within various language departments. As the early Linguistics departments were founded at universities in the 20th Century, structuralism was superseded by new fields within linguistics, like generative grammar, and today everything from probability and game theory to computer science and brain science plays a role within linguistics (voice recognition software, anybody?).
The result of these developments (as well as politics and funding competition) is this new department at Brown. It’s worth comparing majors and departmental structures at different schools–have a look at the Penn Linguistics Department, for example, which has a much less flashy website and which is embedded in a different structure– but you should also be looking at individual teachers, learning something about research and specialized programs you might be interested in, as well as about particular professors and their work.
There are many other interesting developments over the last ten-fifteen years in “cross curricular” programs–check out the Brown sociology page, where you can see their links to things you would expect, like the Social Science Research Lab, but also their links to the program in Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship.
The message is that there is no time like the present to start defining a course of study for yourself, and these newer institutions do offer many opportunities to craft your own program and not to be stuck in a narrow field of study–this may also help you get a job. On the other hand, I always argue that you should study what you love, and research the major that is in the area that most interests you, then look for ways to make it “practical,” if you do not want to stay in academia. An English major who can search databases with his own algorithms, for example, would be very employable; you could get there with a major in English and a minor in a computer discipline, or a minor in psychology, or sociology, or philosophy, with computer classes added to learn how to construct databases and mine data. I’ll come back to that later. For more at Brown, start here:
Brown Majors, Departments and Programs
For more ideas on things to research and write about on the “Why Us” prompt, read on.
Penn wants basically the same thing as Brown; here is the prompt:
“The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests, and goals.” 400-650 words
As with the Penn or any “Why Go To Our School” prompt, you want to drill down to find specific information–and maybe to find out what you want to do, as well. Here is Penn’s Majors page: List of College Majors. In one example, if you are interested in both business and international relations, you’d want to check out the Huntsman program (listed on the Penn Majors page) and start following links on the Huntsman home page: Huntsman. The point is to become informed and follow information that interests you.
Columbia has three prompts that roughly translate to “Why Us,” or why you fit them. Here they are:
- Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why.
- If you are applying to Columbia College, tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time.
- If you are applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.
As with all of these questions, this prompt is a good place to mention a campus visit. The people, both students and faculty, and physical setting of the school are, hopefully, something that has influenced your decision, and this is the time to express your enthusiasm. Specifics help, but don’t get carried away in your descriptions of the ivied walls and eager scholars.
Back in the day, research was the purview of grad students, but these days undergrads are often involved in the cutting edge stuff– as I pointed out above, “even” an English major might be doing research, and the cutting edge there might be looking at evolving responses to a work of literature over time, Huckleberry Finn, for example, using those databases of, say newspapers and periodicals I mentioned and writing algorithms to define searches that reveal how attitudes toward Twain’s magnum opus have changed, or looking at the incidence of a word and how its meaning has changed, and thus engaging in a kind of English-department driven sociology. This is quite a bit like market research, by the way, and the same basic skills can be used on other databases, looking at health in various human populations, for example.
So what I am saying is, you could use this required app essay to start thinking in an innovative way about your own future, and you might even find a way to convince your parents that the apparently impractical subject that you love could actually be practical, after all. With a little tinkering.
Have a look at the research opportunities in the school of psychology at Columbia, here, and start clicking for some examples of the interdisciplinary possibilities offered in one field:
Or go to the general research page, which has links to various fields and institutions within the university and find the sites that you need:
As you probably know, Dartmouth uses the Common App and a College/Major specific essay. So everything I said above about Brown, et al, still applies, but I’ll add a bonus:
an excerpt of some quotes from an interview with a Dartmouth admissions officer, published on Business Insider; the “insider” tips offered by BI are not really anything new, and officials who are quoted as unnamed sources always have some kind of ax to grind–this guy sure offers some complaints as well as reveals some of his own biases– but his statements on the admissions essay itself are worth perusing; here they are:
“The essay is very important. It’s when you get a sense of what the kids about. We’re looking for creativity, self-awareness. The biggest mistake is when they aren’t very self-aware and write standard sports essay where they talk about the big game and that hurts them in the end. Not standing out is a big mistake for kids who are from demographic groups that are historically well represented.“
But even an amazing essay can’t save a bad application.
“It’s difficult to see an app like that because every aspect of the application needs to be pretty strong, especially in the numbers driven game, it’s hard for a kid to stand out if not strong academically even if he writes this amazing essay. It’s a question of the marginal case.”
“Many kids write adversity essays. Some cases are more contrived than others. I remember one essay about a girl who struggled with a broken family in the ghetto, who lacked nuclear family structure at home. It was well-written, not case of pitying herself, but written matter of factly, very powerful.”
“Most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays. There’s a way to do that and still be tasteful. You don’t want to highlight a negative personality trait. Like if you’re a complete narcissist, if that comes across in tone even though the essay is creative it will put off admissions officer. I do think kids need to think more about what they want to present.” (My addendum to this: use good judgement if you want to be daring. Many “risky” essays actuall do come across as self-absorbed or in poor taste. So be wary of what I would call stunt essays. Notice also that the app officer specifically liked the simply factual essay by the girl from the broken family in the ghetto. Notice in addition that he uses the word ghetto, which sounds quaintly like what those suburban middle class kids, whom he seems to both pity and sneer at in the article, might say. Instead of ‘hood, for example. It’s additionally interesting, because these days the “ghetto” is more a pocket neighborhood than the vast and largely, to the middle class and upward, unknown area of a city where poor people and immigrants live. We often have urban professionals and hipsters on the same block or a block away from what this app officer would think is a “ghetto” neighborhood. So, he sounds a lot like an older version of the kids he seems to address most directly here. I’m just sayin’).
You can read more at the link below, though I hasten to add that some of this unnamed admissions officer’s complaints deserve a response from somebody, and a good journalist would have gone and asked other Dartmouth officials, on the record, for responses. A really good journalist would probably capitalize the personal pronoun “I” as well, even in a blog format article. Having offered those qualifications, here’s the link: http://www.businessinsider.com/secrets-of-dartmouth-admissions-office-2012-10#ixzz2nwiWxswn
I like Amherst’s supplementals the best of this bunch, so I saved them for last. I won’t discuss all of them, but there are a couple that I think are worth looking at; here they are, so you don’t have to go back and open another page up:
1) “Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight—insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments.”
Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College
This prompt is interesting on a number of levels in its definition of what a good physical scientist is like–that’s what it is, in essence. And since the topicc is about the workings of the world, human artifacts and ideas like ethics can also be featured in this essay. I think the best source of inspiration for this prompt that I can give you this late in the game is a podcast from a wonderful radio program, Radiolab–listen to this episode, about the scientist Fritz Haber, who was brilliant, made amazing discoveries, but who also . . . caused great harm. Showed a certain lack of foresight, of some degree of common sense and personal responsibility. Here it is: Fritz Haber.
In all of the Ivies, there has been some soul-searching due to things like the financial crisis and recent Great Recession–most of the major players in finance responsible for this fiasco came out of the Ivies, the best and the brightest, as it were, and while Professor Jagannathan seems to intend a more specific emphasis on empirical common sense, ethics itself, forseeing the potential outcomes of scientific work, in every sense, is also important. As the Haber episode I linked shows. So don’t write an essay focused entirely on some experiment you did; try to have a wider view into which your experiment might fit, a view of how your work might be of wider benefit, of an ethical dimension as well as a practical dimension.
2) “Literature is the best way to overcome death. My father, as I said, is an actor. He’s the happiest man on earth when he’s performing, but when the show is over, he’s sad and troubled. I wish he could live in the eternal present, because in the theater everything remains in memories and photographs. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to live in the present and to remain in the pantheon of the future. Literature is a way to say, I was here, this is what I thought, this is what I perceived. This is my signature, this is my name.”
Ilán Stavans, Professor of Spanish, Amherst College. From “The Writer in Exile: an interview with Ilán Stavans” by Saideh Pakravan for the Fall 1993 issue of The Literary Review.
Well, there’s nothing like reading the interview as a whole to prepare for this question; here it is: Ilan Stavans Talks.
Then you might read my posts on writing about books, some of which are linked in my previous post, on the Princeton prompt.
As for the third prompt for Amherst, I think you could also look at my post on the Princeton prompts for insight–here is the Amherst prompt: 3) “It seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools’ graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest…unless the graduates of this college…are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion… then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”
John F. Kennedy, at the ground breaking for the Amherst College Frost Library, October 26, 1963
And, to conclude, If you have a Social Justice class, or personal experience with stereotypes and overcoming obstacles, prompts four and five might work for you–notice my excerpt from the interview with the Dartmouth admissions officer, above; he seems to be advising you just to tell your story, if you do have one, without all those autobiographical narrative tricks designed to pump up the suspense and excitement (starting with a dramatic quote or scene, for example). Straightforward is probably better for those with real drama in their essays. You might also want to visit some posts I wrote long ago about ways to get prompts like these wrong. I’ll put those links below the final Amherst prompts; here they are:
4) “Stereotyped beliefs have the power to become self-fulfilling prophesies for behavior.”
Elizabeth Aries, Professor of Psychology, Amherst College. From her book, Men and Women in Interaction: Reconsidering the Difference.
5) “Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”
Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals
General Advice/How Not To Blow It On Your College Application Essay
How to Evade the Cliche In Your Application Essay
Evade the Cliche Step 2
How College Applications Are Evaluated
Seven Rules For College Application Success (They Aren’t Really Secrets)