Article originally published on Forbes.com in December, 2018.
College application deadlines are just around the corner. At this point, high school seniors have already done just about all of the heavy lifting: they’ve worked for the past three and half years to build strong academic transcripts and impressive lists of extracurricular activities, and they’ve taken their standardized tests. Hopefully, they’ve made good progress on their college applications—maybe they’ve even applied early to a school or two.
But there is still time for them to make sure they’re presenting themselves in the best possible light on their applications for regular decision.
Students should ask themselves if their applications present a strong, coherent narrative.
Many different factors contribute to a student’s narrative, but for seniors in mid-December, there are only a few parts of the application over which they still have control. I’ll look first at the college essay, and then provide some tips for general Common App strategy.
Application essay “dos”
There are still a few things that students can do now to improve their essays quickly and solidify the narrative they want their applications to convey.
The college essay is a chance for admissions officers to get to know a student. The essay should tell an applicant’s own unique story. A student should be confident, before submitting his or her essay, that only he or she could have written the piece. Style is not hugely important, but the content should paint a vivid picture of the applicant’s personality.
Admissions officers only spend a few minutes reading college essays. Students should aim to grab their attention with an original and engaging first sentence. Rather than begin with a clichéd introduction like, “My name is Johnny, and I was born on November 6, 2001,” or, “When I was eleven, my cat, Mittens, got run over,” applicants should try to hook their readers with something a little less expected. A first sentence should arouse curiosity (which the rest of the essay should satisfy)—it can be a one-sentence anecdote, or a short dialogue. It must allow the reader to hear the writer’s voice.
Essays should, of course, also have a strong finish, and make a lasting impression. Rather than state a conclusion with a platitude (“And so I learned that together we could accomplish anything we set our minds to”), students should end with a strong example that demonstrates the point they’re trying to make, and concretizes their personal message. If they have succeeded in writing a strong essay that conveys something meaningful about their personality, they will not have to tell the reader what the moral of the story is.
Application essay quick fixes
The quickest and easiest way for students to improve their essays is simply to avoid some basic writing faux pas.
Students should eliminate any clichés in their writing—when applicants use hackneyed expressions such as “actions speak louder than words” or “you can’t judge a book by its cover” to sum up the lessons they learned doing community service, it suggests to admissions officers that they have nothing original to say about their experiences. Students should work on finding ways to describe meaningful events in their own voices.
Students should challenge themselves to write with as few adjectives as possible. Bombast does not make ideas and actions more compelling. Rather than describe a problem as “labyrinthine,” or a talent as “prodigious,” students should demonstrate what they mean with concrete examples using verbs and nouns.
An essay is not a list of achievements. Applicants should illustrate any claims they make about themselves or their experiences with one or two (maximum three) concrete and detailed examples. They should make sure, when talking about their achievements, not to sound braggy—the facts will speak for themselves.
Finally, students should not have their parents or teachers do line-by-line edits. Admissions officers can spot an overly polished student from a mile away (there’s another cliché to avoid!). I’ve read successful Ivy League application essays where students used “whom” as a subject. But students who look packaged generally don’t get into the Ivies. Students can have a friend look at their essays.
These common mistakes all relate to the importance of telling a strong personal story. Clichés say nothing unique about anyone; concrete actions and events say more about who a student is than the fanciest adjectives; a couple of well-developed examples are more meaningful and personal than long lists of accomplishments; and essays that look like they were written by parents will be dismissed as inauthentic.
Other Common App tips
There are a few other strategies students can implement when filling out the Common App to be sure they are conveying a compelling narrative.
Students should keep in mind that having wealthy parents is ultimately a strike against them. The story students want to tell is not that they had everything handed to them. When reporting their parents’ occupations on the Common App, students should be honest, but not exaggerate. It’s even OK to be a little vague. Instead of writing “founding partner at a law firm,” better simply to say “lawyer,” when describing Mom’s job.
The Common App asks applicants to select a career interest in the “Future Plans” section in “Education.” If a student has decided to write his or her personal essay on wanting to become a professor, then selecting “College Teacher” from the dropdown menu is clearly the honest response, and the one that best fits the overall narrative. Students whose accomplishments show their commitment to pursuing a truly noble and unusual career path can select “Other” and manually enter a description.
But most of the choices the Common App provides look rather bland (accountant, business executive, etc.). Students who select these options risk putting themselves in generic boxes, which is clearly antithetical to having a unique narrative. Let’s say a student named Lisa is an entrepreneur who plans on going into business. That’s great, but she shouldn’t let the Common App boil her story down to “aspiring business executive.” Lisa may become the next Sheryl Sandberg (who is more than merely “a business executive”), or she may use her skills to start an impactful nonprofit, or go into politics. Her application can tell this story; an item on a dropdown menu can’t. Many students are better off simply choosing “undecided.”
Finally, a few notes about the activities list. Often, students and their parents assume that a regular old job is not a particularly notable activity. It is! Work experience looks great on an application, especially in the case of students from privileged backgrounds. Students with fancy street addresses, or successful, educated parents, will lose points if they’ve never worked a day in their lives.
Students should report any paid positions they’ve held if they demanded significant time (the “Activity Type” dropdown menu provides a “Work (Paid)” option). Waiting tables part-time shows far more maturity and character than a fancy one-month internship, especially if the admissions committee is going to expect that the student was offered the intern position through his or her parents’ connections. Commitment and responsibility contribute to your narrative.
Finally, students have limited space to describe the roles they’ve played in their various activities. Often this is not a problem. A student who was a quarterback can simply say so—admissions folks know what a quarterback is. But if a student founded a club, or a business, or if he or she engaged in remarkable activism work, it’s a good idea to attach a document under “Additional Information” at the end of the Common App that briefly explains his or her achievement(s). Students should not, however, attach a resume, as this is generally seen as being rather presumptuous by admissions officers.
In the case of community service, students should be sure to make clear when such activities were not required by their high schools. Most high schools have community service requirements. Helping when you’re obligated to is absolutely worthwhile, but it doesn’t reinforce a narrative of initiative.
By now, high school seniors’ grades and test scores are what they are. A vanishingly small number of truly outstanding students will inevitably gain admissions to the Ivies based on their grades and accomplishments alone. But for everyone else, now is the time to give applications a last read, and to be sure they present a strong narrative.
Students have one chance, in very limited space, to present their best selves. In other words, each student is only as strong as the story he or she tells.