College Applications

Filling out Impressive College Applications

A building at Harvard UniversityThis astonishing building in the picture is at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many students dream of getting into Harvard. Because there are so many students applying to Harvard and other most competitive schools, many students with straight A s in high school, excellent scores on the SAT and school activities showing impressive leadership skills, still get rejected.

“If this won’t get you in,” many students ask, “what in the world does it take?”

The secret to getting into Harvard or any other school you want to attend, is that you need to write a really IMPRESSIVE College Application.  To be able to do this, you must first be a really IMPRESSIVE person.

If you think you might want to attend a competitive college or university, the first thing you should do is BUY a very important book.  Actually, I’d recommend it for anyone thinking about going to college.

Acing the College Applications: How to Maximize your Chances for Admission to the College of your Choice  by Michele A. Hernandez.  2007.

Dr. Hernandez has also written A is for Admission: The Insiders’ Guide to Getting into the Ivy Leagues and other Top Colleges. 1997. They are very similar, but I prefer the book above.

For books focusing on writing the essays, Dr. Hernandez recommends Writing the College Application by Harry Baud. My suggestion is that you check your school or public libraries and read what they have available. There are many good books and different students might prefer different books. If you find one that seems especially helpful, you might want to buy a copy for yourself.

I would suggest that you read Acing the College Applications your freshman year of high school or earlier, and then read it again every year until you start college. If you apply to graduate school, you might read it again.

I normally suggest that you read a certain book. With this book, you will want to underline or highlight important ideas and make notes in the margins, making this your personal guide to getting accepted in college. If you don’t trust my evaluation of the book, check it out of the library and read it first and then buy the book. (If your library doesn’t have a copy, ask a librarian about borrowing a copy through inter-library loans.)

What do these Colleges look for on the Applications?

As I mentioned earlier, while they do want
1.Students with excellent grades
2. Students that took AP classes or college level classes in high school
3. Students with outstanding scores on the SAT or ACT
4. Students who showed great leaderships skills

These things aren’t enough. When you have many thousands of applicants like this, you need to look for something more.  This something more is what is described in the book by Dr. Hernandez. I will summarize some of this information on this page, mixed in with my own ideas.

Colleges look for students who show initiative and passion.
—  M. Hernandez, p. 5

This initiative and passion could describe an outstanding musician – not just best in the school, but someone who has won state-wide competitions.

It might include outstanding skills in art, athletics, debate, poetry, writing, starting a business, or almost any subject. A student interested in paleontology may have spent several summers on digs, helping look for fossils. A student interested in computer science might have developed several interesting apps. A student interested in special education might have spent free periods all through high school helping in the special education classroom and also helped with Special Olympics. A student interested in being a veterinarian might have volunteered at a local animal shelter and also helped raise thousands of dollars to support the shelter.

The book by Dr. Hernandez includes an example of a student who wanted to learn more languages than those taught in his high school. He took college classes plus spending time in another country. He was obviously passionate about languages and he took the initiative to go beyond his high school offerings to learn what he wanted to learn. These students, even if they didn’t have the highest grades and test scores, would be likely to be accepted wherever they applied.

Most students can talk about doing volunteer work and how good it felt to help others. To be outstanding, students might need to recognize a need, create a plan to deal with the problem, and organize a group of people to work together to put the plan into effect. This would definitely show more initiative than simply joining a group on a project to help people in need.

They would look for students who got a head start in the field they planned as their career. Science students sometimes work with a researcher in the lab and then develop their own personal research. Nobody invited them to do this research. They came up with the topic on their own and found a way to work in a laboratory with the kinds of equipment they might need.

When I was applying to colleges, we were told they wanted well-rounded students, those with the grades, test scores, participation in high school activities, some evidence of leadership, etc. Now, according to Dr. Hernandez, this has changed.

Since roughly the late 1990s, the focus has shifted away from well-rounded students to the idea of a well-rounded freshman class.” p. 7

This means that students don’t need to do a little bit of everything: sports, school activities, music, school play, etc. Instead, they are expected to have impressive talents and experience in some area. Just as colleges like their students to include students of all races and religions and from a wide variety of other countries, now they are trying to create a good mix of outstanding skills and experiences in very different areas.

This still doesn’t guarantee your acceptance. They might get applications from several dozen students who won state awards for playing the saxophone and select one of this group.

Filling out the Application

Do not just start at the top and write your answers. Begin by thinking carefully about exactly what you want them to know about you. Instead of telling them just a little about many of your activities, you should focus on the most important activities and include greater detail. Instead of mentioning that you were class treasurer all through high school, you might explain that this included organizing the Junior Prom, organizing all fundraising for the Senior Trip, and more.

Let’s say that you are an outstanding ice-skater, or you act in a community theater or you spent the past several summers helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity. These things might not be mentioned by teachers writing letters of reference. There might not be an essay question that asks about your activity outside of school.

Once you know what you want them to know about you, look for ways to share it with them. Many applications include space for 2-5 essays with different topics. Read the topics carefully. Compare these with what you want them to know about you. While you’d like your most important information in the longest essay, it might not be related to the question. Choose carefully what information will work best in each essay.

You can usually add an additional letter of reference when you have something special like this – and your ice-skating coach or the theater director can write a letter for you.

With all letters of reference, tell the person writing the letter what you really need them to include. If you have published some of your poetry, ask your English teacher to include this in her letter.  If you did an amazing job with the debate club, ask the teacher who coaches the debate team to focus on this. It really won’t help to have several letters saying what a nice and hard-working student you are.

If you have overcome real obstacles, tell them about it. If you have learning disabilities, describe how you managed to get through school. Explain how this has taught you not to give up. Describe your dream of being a special education teacher so you can help students with similar problems. This essay might convince the college to accept somewhat lower grades and test scores.

They like knowing which students have overcome difficult obstacles to get this far.  If your family lost your home in a tornado or hurricane, and you have been living in a shelter for the last two years but still did well in school and spent time volunteering to help families with worse problems,  if one of your parents died or got very sick and you helped take care of brothers and sisters and managed household chores in addition to your schoolwork, they will understand why your grades dropped a little during that period. They know that students who have struggled with these problems will be determined and hard-working students.

Tell your stories. Let them know who you are.

If you finish filling out the application and think of something very important that hasn’t been mentioned, you can always write one more essay and include that. While most students should not include an additional essay, the admissions staff are happy to read an additional essay from a student with something important to share.

Another way to add important information is to do it in an interview. Dr. Hernandez includes advice for interviews and includes a good list of commonly asked questions. Using these you can plan how to answer their questions and, at the same time, tell them what you want them to know.

The next page is  How can I get financial aid?

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