By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop
High school juniors, as you begin your college searches in earnest this spring, it’s important to know what to expect along the journey. Here are answers to the Top 3 questions Wow gets from students and parents about the college application process:
1) How do admission counselors rank the different application elements, like GPA, test scores, essay, and recommendations?
No matter what we read, or which expert we ask, the answer is always the same: High school grades are the No. 1 factor in any admission decision.
Colleges look first at college prep course grades, then strength of curriculum, test scores and college application essays. The National Association for College Admission Counseling surveys its member colleges each year; they found that colleges do not choose students based solely on highest grades and test scores. Rather, they use many other factors to add depth to the numbers so they can build a diverse class that fits a college’s mission.
Smaller colleges and the more selective institutions are more holistic in their admissions approach. In a holistic admissions process, the essay helps colleges:
- Determine whether you will fit in
- Know if you can write
- Get a glimpse into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.
As college becomes increasingly competitive, the essay becomes more and more important. It will not save you if you are not qualified academically for a college, but if you are qualified, and there are just a few select spots at your chosen school, the essay can push you to the top of the pile.
Think of every essay question, mandatory or optional, as an opportunity to stand out!
2) What are some of the cornerstones of a good application essay?
A good college essay can help you get in, and a bad one can sometimes keep you from being noticed. That’s why it’s important to do it well. A good college application essay will always answer this question, no matter what the prompt: “What do I want this college to know about me beyond my grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?”
To stand out, college essays must:
- Feature YOU as the subject; the topic is secondary.
- Feature meaningful stories that are focused, not broad.
- Focus on what you learned from your experiences, not on what you accomplished.
- Sound like you – a smart high school student who is ready for college!
3) Who can help me write my application essay?
Writing is not a group activity, and you should always write your college application essays on your own. You can get guidance, but make sure you seek out the right kind of help. There is a fine line between getting assistance and having someone write an essay for you. Calvin Wise, Johns Hopkins University Senior Associate Director of Admissions (and every admissions officer we’ve ever asked) says he can always tell when essays are over-edited or written by someone else.
“They don’t shine through the process as well because we’re not hearing their voice,” Wise said. “The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office, and we want to hear a 17-year-old’s voice.”
Many colleges that require essays will scrutinize those that they believe have been forged, borrowed, heavily edited or influenced by someone other than the applicant. Some colleges have instituted their own verification processes, while others have contracted with businesses that double check essays for plagiarism. You may be denied admission if this is suspected, and you may never know the reason.
Do you want to stand out?
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