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The Abyss: Your guide to college applications


Eleanor Oates

on 26 May 2010

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Transcript of The Abyss: Your guide to college applications

The Common Application The Common Application The UC Application College Supplements The Common Application References and Other Paperwork Applicant information Okay, let's start with the easy stuff.

The first page of the CA is where you put basic info, like your name, social security number, and financial aid info. This brings us back to rule one: never lie. Don't think that by declaring yourself a math major (even though you've never taken an advance math class) you have a better chance at obtaining admission.

Admissions officers, like vultures, can smell dishonesty a mile away

Personal information High School Courses
and Test Scores Awards, Community Service,
and Extra-Curriculars Personal Statements and Essays Personal information Academic History
Awards, Activities,
and Employment Personal statements and essays The Abyss Art supplement School Supplements Teacher Recommendation Letters School report Sally's resume Sally's Letters You have entered the abyss You are about to apply to colleges and you must attack a mountain of paperwork (a.k.a. the dreaded college applications). Yes, I know it's a bit corny, but the abyss is filling out your college applications because they are the most torturous part of the college process

Don't worry though, that's why you're here.

This presentation is designed to help you prepare for your applications so that, by the time you have to fill them out, you will have all of the tools you need to pull together all of your high school experiences to create one, fantastic college application. As we tour through the different applications, you will learn how all the work you did in high school pays off and how your own unique story will emerge on the applications

Rule 1 Never lie Colleges verify the facts in the statements you make. Be honest. That is not to say that you need to volunteer all of your faults or highlight weak areas in your application; you will be your own advocate and cheerleader. However, there are creative ways to promote your accomplishments and experience without being negative. Look at any marketing brochure and you will see that you can sell something and be honest too. Test scores The second half of this page is more important. This is where you put down your test scores (yes the SAT actually is worth something to you).

So, question: how important are test scores?

Honors and Awards This is a tough section for a lot of students. The good news is that the majority of schools don't expect you to have a boat load of honors, but, if your applying to an Ivy League, or a highly competitive school, this section should be full.

It wouldn't hurt in 9th grade to understand what awards or honors you might be able to snag during high school. Schools usually have awards and honors for a wide variety of areas. Notice how this section is only for ACADEMIC awards, so Boy Scouts or charity awards don't qualify.

(Note the drama award on this page works for this section because it was a school sponsored event).

So how import is this section?

It depends on the story you have written for yourself. Are you an overachiever? Are you a strong student who participates in the classroom? Are you looking at competitive colleges? Then you should have managed to achieve a few awards along the way.

Activities Colleges really care about what you do when you are out of the classroom. This is where you can list your skateboarding competitions, your Girl Scout activities, and your school sponsored events. If you can't fit them all on one page, you can add then at the end of the application.

Does this section matter?


More than ever, colleges want students who will fill their choir rooms, play sports, and create an interesting campus. They are also looking for commitment. How long did you stay with each activity? This is extremely important to colleges.

Notice that you have a very small space to describe each activity. This brings us back to Rule 2: every word counts!

Tip: Notice they only ask about activities in high school. Notice in this application, Sally sneaked in that she had danced for 14 years.
Rule 2 Every word counts Your job is to write your entire story on a few lines of paper. Every word counts! Create an outline before you start your application and list adjectives that describe you. Think about the total message and story you want to convey. Never repeat yourself. Work Experience Having a real life work experience really helps your application. Not only can you use your employer as a reference, but an internship or job gives you a great topic to write a small personal statement about. Colleges are looking to see if you can apply your academic learning to a real life experience.

Is this important?

Yes, especially if you’re applying for an Ivy League school.
Why does this application work? This applicant Now would be a good time to introduce our sample applicant: Sally Smith. Sally is a good student who wants to go into chemical engineering. Her passions are theater, animals, the community, and dancing. Sally, like many students, wanted to go to a university that was diverse and would feed her need for academics.

Throughout the rest of this presentation, we will be looking at Sally's application and see why it was successful in getting Sally into her dream college.

As we explore Sally's application, pay attention to the way she is able to tell a coherent story. Throughout the application, Sally consistently shows the reader that she is indeed a unique individual by inserting all of the passions mentioned above into her application.

Also, Sally researched her audience before she started. Before filling out this application, Sally identified which schools met her own interests by checking out the websites for the colleges. Since these schools met her interests, she wanted to make sure that she showed the schools that she would be a good fit. Sally followed Rule 4 at this point: she created a message in her application. The message she wanted to get across is that she was passionate, intelligent, community minded, a leader, and a performer.

But enough about Sally for now, let's look at this page of the CA.

So why does this application Work?
These are very good test scores.

Sally took challenging AP classes and got A's in most of her classes. Because Sally has a good GPA, her test scores are consistent with her work ethic, so her test scores add credibility to her storyline that she is an academic.

Although her SAT scores are in the mid-range for the top Ivy League schools, her GPA shows that she is a student who is willing to work (this sample application does not list Sally’s recent SAT test scores. She ended up getting a 700 in math, 730 in Writing, and 760 in Critical Reading).

Her strong SAT II scores also show a mastery of her subjects and displays that she can succeed in college classes.

Also notice her ACT scores. Although these were on the low end for some of the Ivy League schools she was applying to, they showed that she worked to improve her scores because there is an increase.

As a matter of fact, Sally was a very BAD test taker. She worked with a tutor for two years to bring her SAT scores up from the 500s. She knew what scores she needed to compete for an Ivy League, and she eventually was accepted at an Ivy League.

www.collegeboard.com has a great website where you can find out what type of GPA and test scores each college is looking for.
Sally succeeded in supporting her story with concrete examples of awards, extracurriculars, and an internship, that all supported her storyline.

As an academic, she has won awards. She demonstrates her commitment, leadership, and passion with a series of long-term activities and community service. Her internship makes sense; she is interested in chemical engineering, so she does an internship in a science-based field that involves engineering and some chemistry.

Make sure to check out the website toolkit for information on internships.

Okay so now we traverse to the hardest section of the CA.... THE ESSAY SECTION (More dramatic music in the background)
Short Answer Don't let the name fool you; this is a tough answer to write. In this tiny space you need to discuss something that is really important to you and which communicates something fundamental about you.

Notice in Sally's response several things are discussed:
1. Her successful fundraiser (leadership and self motivation)
2. She gives her website address in case the college wants to check it out (they did and loved it!).
3. She talks about her community and her desire to help other teens (community spirit).

In 11th grade, you should identify several key subjects you could write about.
Personal essay This is the killer! The CA gives you a choice of several topics; any of them are fine to choose.

Does the essay matter?

For Ivy leagues, the essay is essential. For less competitive schools, the essay is less important. But the essay is where you can make up for a weaker GPA or lower test scores. If it comes down to you and another applicant, your essay will break the tie.
Rule 3 Be true to yourself Never let someone else write your essay or tell you what to write, it will really reduce your chances of being admitted to the college of your dreams. Colleges want to hear your voice and can tell if an essay is sincere. You can't fake passion. Figure out what you care about and write from the heart. However, you should always be open to suggestions, especially if your college counselor tells you that you need to change something. But never let anyone tell you what to write. As you read Sally's essays, note the following:

1. She selected a topic that would be consistent with her story; the essay was about chemistry.

2. She included specific examples on how this person impacted her life.

3. She mentioned obstacles that she had faced AND how she overcame them. This shows she can overcome adversity.

4. She was truly inspired by this person, or the essay would not have worked.

5. She has removed emotional words like "I love" or anything overly emotional

(Note for women in science: colleges tend to not take women scientists as seriously if they write with too many emotional words. Sound professional yet passionate)

6. Her spelling and grammar are perfect. Sally had over 8 people check her essay for grammar, content, and spelling.

7. The essay sounds unique and different. You get an image of the writer and how she views the world.

Note: This essay was rewritten almost 20 times and hours of editing produced the final version. Every word counts!

Tip: Always download a PDF of your online application before you send it. Sometimes the website cuts things off in the final version and you need to correct it.
Disciplinary history For you 9th graders: it pays to stay clean. Needless to say, if you have been suspended or expelled while in high school, you have some explaining to do.

Does it matter?

I would say yes! Additional information This is where you can put all the stuff you couldn't fit elsewhere. If you had more activities to list, a special camp you attended, or other special circumstances, this is the place to add it.

When you read this applicant's information, notice how she also uses it to address a weakness in her application and turns it into a strength.

Hint: The best way to do this section is to write the essay on a Word document and then upload a pdf onto the Common Application website. You get more space that way. Never give more than one page of information and never repeat information.
Sally's personal essay supports her story of having a passion for science. It also demonstrates that she can use her intellect in real life settings.

Notice how she mentions a few key technical terms but kept the explanation simple so the reader could understand it.

Sally also included a reference letter from her employer (we will talk about references in a few minutes).
This is why studying for the PSAT pays off! Sally's award might only be a commendation, but it was nice for her to have an award. Also, note how she used the Additional Information spot to add this extra award. Tricky! Today, many students travel abroad to do community service. Sally really didn't do any community service of that kind, and she knew that this fact was a weakness in her application. Therefore, she wanted to address it.

Listing medical problems or educational challenges is always risky, but notice how Sally writes about it as a positive and she discusses how her problem has empowered her to deal with other issues.
Hard working Proud of my heritage The University of California Application The first thing you need to know about the UC application is that it uses an entirely different application format. While it does require test scores and essays, it does not allow you to give teacher references.

The UC's also have different application deadlines and use a different criteria to select students. They look for diversity and they depend on a formula that takes GPA, SAT /ACT, and SAT II scores into account. The UC's literally use a formula and your scores and essays all add up to a numeric value that the UC's calculate.

You can find the formula the UC's use on line. Grade point and test scores definitely dictate what UC you will be admitted to.

You thought you were done didn't you?

No way!

You now have to start on your college supplements.

There are several different types of supplements. Below is a list of the different types of supplements:

• Many colleges require you to fill out supplements. Theses supplements can be as simple as a few short questions or as complex as ten short questions and a full essay. When you fill out your Common Application online, you will be prompted by the site to fill in any additional needed supplements. You can also check the college’s website to verify what supplemental forms they require.
• Sometimes, colleges will require you to write an additional essay depending on your major. Check the college’s website to see if you are required to write any additional essays.
• The Common Application also offers the Art Supplement for those students who have talents in the arts. Some schools only desire the Art Supplement if the student is intending to pursue an art or performing arts major. Other schools allow a student to submit their artistic works just to see the student’s versatility. If you’re thinking of doing an art supplement, it is often best to call the college and ask them what their policy is. Many times they will give you valuable insight as to what they look for and what they want.

Warning!!!!! Supplements have different deadlines than the Common Application and often require a different deposit.!
This is the art supplement form. You really need to read up on this form if you want to submit it. Notice that you need a resume of your art shows, theatrical productions, or concerts. Many colleges require students, who submit a form, to provide certain types of audition material, or to perform a live audition. Many schools also have certain requirements on the type of media they will evaluate. Again, check out the school's admission website or give them a call if you want more information. The following is the Stanford University supplement. This is one of the more difficult supplements since it is long and asks for several short answers. Notice how the questions are designed to give the admission officer a different view of the applicant. The questions give you a chance to explore different areas and really express yourself.

This applicant spent many hours on this application and rewrote the essays at least 7 times. For a school as competitive as Stanford, you need to be on your best game. Notice how the application answers every question in a positive way and shows all of their talents and interests...
Or maybe I should say I'm sorry....
Story Time! What people don't tell you is that, when you're filling out your applications, you aren't just filing out a sheet of paper; you are writing your biography, or your personal heroic adventure through life

They also don't tell you that there is the trick with college admissions: college admissions officers are looking for the students with the most intriguing stories. It sort of makes sense. Think about it, if you're at the bookstore and you are deciding between two books, how do you choose which one to buy?

You pick the book with the most interesting story of course!

So the moral of this long digression is that you need to tell your own unique story to colleges. How do you do that? Well, the colleges are very clever with their applications; each question they ask is an opportunity for you to tell your story. As we look at each part of the application we will discuss certain hints, which are vital to your success.

Okay, now that you understand what this presentation is trying to teach you, let's go over some basic rules when it comes to filling out applications

Caring Hardworking Smart Funny Okay, so now that we've gone over the basic rules of the college journey, let's tackle the most difficult application that you will have to fill out....

The Common Application!!!!!! (dramatic music in the background)

Note: From now on, when I refer to the Common Application, I will write CA.
Page 1 and 2 Page 3 School Information The first half of this page is pretty straightforward. Here, the CA wants you to tell it what school you are attending, what the name of your school counselor is, where you live, etc. The first half of the page is basically an extension of the personal information pages.

The only thing to point out is that the CA wants you to provide your school's code. To get this code, talk to your college counselor.
Answer: VERY IMPORTANT!! Well, let's look at Sally's test scores... Rule 4 Page 4 Pages 5,6, and 7 Now read through Sally's essays and we'll discuss them more later Sally's Extra Awards Sally's Personal Essay Sally's Additional Information Don't Hyperventilate!!! Before we go any farther, I need to tell you that, no matter what, you will get into a fantastic university.

The application we are looking at was targeted for a very competitive Ivy League school, and you should not try to copy this application; your application will be unique and wonderful in its own way.

You should NOT look at this application and say OMG! I can't do this; you SHOULD look at this application and see how this person was able to take events in her life and weave them into a successful story that colleges would like.

This application shows you how to make the most out of the test scores and the activities that you have. When you go to look for colleges, you are going to understand your limitations and strengths, and will therefore target schools accordingly. By being clever in your application, you have a better chance of getting into your "reach" schools.
Personal Information Just like the CA, you need to give the UC's basic information about your family and personal facts. Personal Info and Campus Choice Now things get different.

The UC's require you to pick which campuses you would be interested in attending. The UC's have great catalogs you can send for or download. They give great information about the campuses, the majors, the dorm life, and what each university specializes in. For example, UCSD has some special divisions in their college system.

How do you know which UC will choose you?

Your test scores and GPA will dictate a lot. The UC's, in their catalogue, let you know what test scores and grades you typically need to get into each university.

Also, be aware that you can choose as many campuses as you like, but there is a fee involved for each campus AND you need to send your test scores to each campus individually, so it can get costly.

You also need to check to see if the major you are interested in is open at a particular campus. Many UC's close a major when they have too many students in that area.
This is the same stuff that you see on the CA Even More Personal Information High School Academic History I personally believe that the UC's have a real mean streak and have intentionally designed an application to destroy the mind of any student applying!

Part of the application requires you to enter in every HS class you have ever taken with its grade. Notice that they don't care whether the grade has a minus or a plus.

Sound easy? Wait...there's more.

You also need to understand which classes are APPROVED by the UC system because you can ONLY include classes on this sheet that are UC approved, so things can get very tricky if your at a private school. You need to get a list of UC approved classes from the HS counselor. In Sally's case, several of her theology classes were not approved and therefore she could not write them down on her application.
Academic History Page 2 Academic History and Test Scores Yes, the UC's want your test scores!

As we have already said , they use a formula to give you a numeric number based on your GPA and test scores.

For those of you with a warped sense of fun, you can look on the UC website, you can find this formula, and calulate your number. Personal Statements Pages 1 &2 Test scores continued and awards and honors Just like the CA, this section is for academic awards and school honors. Notice that Sally really thinks about how she can explain each award and indicate its significance. Activities and Community Service The UC's really care about your activities. They are increasely concerned about admitting students who will bring interests and passion to their campus. Notice how Sally uses ALL the space provided to give as much information as possible. Community service is always important and the UC's really value it. This is where everyone can shine. Again, Sally rewrote this section several times trying to get the most information in a tight space.

Warning!!! ALWAYS print out your application in PDF form to see if sections get cut off. The UC website can do strange things to your application and your mind! Community service continued and work experience I told you so... they want you to have a summer experience.

Does this section count?

Yes, especially for the more competitive UC's.

Notice the tricky little question at the bottom of the document about how you spent your job money. They check to see if your telling the truth...really. We will now read Sally's personal statements.

The first question was: Write about the world you come from.

The second question: Write about an accomplishment you are proud of. Sally did a tricky thing. She reused her CA essay and tailored it for the UC application.

She did this a lot when filling out applications and you will too. Once you have a few essays written, you will find you can reuse the information.

Notice how she weaved into the story that her parents were involved in her education. This is a powerful image. She wanted to send the message that she was strongly interested in chemistry since she was seeking admission to the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry.

Sally combines her story of fundraising with her continuing love of animals. This again paints a powerful picture for the admissions officer to see. Notice again how this is another essay she used on the CA but that she tailored here. Additional information time!

Since the UC's didn't give her a chance to fully explain her internship, she took the chance to explain it here. When you fill out the CA, it automatically generates forms for your school and teachers to fill out. You will be instructed by your school counselor who to give these forms to. Many counselors request that you bring in self-addressed envelopes to the colleges that they need to send the references to. The class info is generated by the website, so there is nothing for you to do here except hand these forms to your counselor. This is where good behavior pays off and bad behavior...well...is really bad for you.

For you 9th graders, look closely at this report. Your counselor writes this section, so it pays to know your counselor well so you can get a good reference.

Sally knew her school counselor very well, but she took no chances. When it was reference time she presented the counselor with her resume and a short note about what she would like to see included in her report (remember what I said earlier about controlling the message? This is where controlling the message helps). She made sure she was early in the process so her counselor would be fresh and have lots of time to fill out her information. In the letter and resume, Sally also included a chapter of a small fundraising guide she had written in her sophomore summer.

It's good Sally went in early and wrote a letter. Her counselor was a huge help. Her counselor not only wrote a fantastic letter about Sally (because the counselor had the resume and could write directly about Sally's activities) but she also included a chapter of Sally's fundraising handbook.

Wow! Helping her counselor out with a well thought out package of information paid off. Sally's package strengthened her overall reference and made everyone's life easier.

Check out the toolkit to see a sample resume.
This is what you give to your teachers when they fill out their recommendation letter. Normally, teachers, when you ask them, will write a one-page reference letter.

When Sally needed reference letters, she prepared a resume and reference request letter for each teacher she asked. In her reference request letter, she included brainstorming ideas for her teachers to write about. For example, Sally felt that her leadership skills at school were her weak spot. She pointed out some things that her teachers might include in her reference such as her class participation and any leadership skills they had observed. Because Sally took this initiative to control the message, the teachers ended up mentioning her leadership in class.

Again, be prepared...control the message...it pays of.
As you already know, Sally wrote each of her teachers a letter when asking them to write her reference.

Here are Sally's letters to the teachers requesting a reference. Notice the way she points out what areas she would like the references to concentrate on.
Here is Sally's resume. She used this when she interviewed for her internships and when she filled out job applications. You can find a template in the toolkit. Sally's Brag Sheet This is an example of the brag sheet that I've been talking about. This is Sally's brag sheet that she constantly updated throughout high school.

This sheet was a huge help to Sally when filling out college applications because she was able to copy all of the information on the brag sheet directly onto her application.

She also gave this brag sheet to her teachers and counselor when she requested a reference. Sally's teachers were really surprised by everything she had accomplished and it helped them write the best possible reference.

This is an invaluable tool that tracks all your accomplishments in a concise way. You can find a template for this brag sheet in the toolkit section.
How do you want to present yourself to college admission officers?

Are you a scientist? An artist? A person who is not really sure but has a lot of interests and passions?

When writing your college applications, you need to decide, before you begin writing them, who you are and then fill out your applications with that person in mind.

For example, if you are an artist, then you should highlight things you've done, such as artwork or volunteer jobs that involved artwork, that support your claim to being an artist.

Know your message But Wait! There's More... What is this? For Non-Art Majors... Again, the art supplement is another way to show colleges who you are as a person.

Are you not an art major but still enjoy dancing, singing, painting, etc?

Then submit an art supplement!

By doing so, you show the colleges that you are a diverse and interesting individual, and even though you may not major in art, colleges want to have individuals at their colleges who will fill up their choirs and fun art classes.

It never hurts to send in an art supplement just to show the colleges who you are!
For Art Majors.... This is an extremely important document!!!!!

If you are thinking of going into art or the performing arts, you better be ready to turn in this supplement.

I'm telling you artists about this application now so that, during your four years of high school, you can build up an artistic resume.

Are you a performer? Then start doing those concerts and plays! The more you do, the longer and more impressive your resume is. Also, the more you act/perform, the better you are and the more performing arts colleges will want you!!

Are you an artist? Then get painting, sculpting, drawing, etc. DON’T START YOUR PORTFOLIO IN JUNIOR YEAR!!!!!!! In order to get into a good art college you need to show your long term commitment to art.
College Supplements!!!!! An example of a college supplement Remember... ...college applications are designed to give admission officers a view of the applicant as a person. Your application is supposed to show who you are!

So, when completing supplements, try, with every question, to show the admission officers a different side of you; don't repeat information about yourself that you've already given.

Always remember that these applications are designed to show college admission officers who YOU really are, so show them passion!
The Common Application References and Other Paperwork... Why So Serious? You really thought you were done again didn't you?

Well like the Joker in the Batman comics, this application process just keeps coming back to haunt you.

Fortunately, this is the last information I'll be giving to you concerning the CA, so let's get this finished!
Not So Fast What is This? Controlling the message Teacher Recs The Right Way to Ask Sally followed some basic rules of etiquette when asking her teachers to write her letters. For example, Sally made her requests early, since some teachers only wrote a certain number of references per year and she was polite, appreciative, and very grateful if a teacher agreed to write the letter. Teachers are always more inclined to help students who are appreciative. Controlling your Message Why this document is important Another cool sheet of paper Yeah! Phew! You're finally done reviewing the CA!

I know that's a lot of information to digest, so please feel free to go back through the presentaion and review the sections. Or, you can search around the rest of the website for more details as well.

The last stop we're going to make in the Abyss is the UC application (dramatic music in the background)! Congratulations! You have made it through the abyss!

Now you are ready to fill out your own college applications. Believe me, it won't be an easy process, and sometimes you'll just want to bang your head against the wall, but if you just try your best to show the colleges who you really are in these applications, you will do great!

Good luck!

There is no other way to put it. Unless you have a huge talent in some other area (like your Einstein's reincarnation), your test scores are second only to GPA in determining what college you are accepted to.

GPA and test scores work together to show admission officers who you are, how hard you work, and if your classes are truly rigorous. (Some schools grade harder than other schools).

If you have a really low GPA, but high test scores, the college will take that to mean that you are really smart, but don't put much effort into the classroom. If you have a high GPA, but low-test scores, that means that you work hard in school, assuming the classes you are taking are challenging, but you just aren't a good tester.

You can get a sense of what test scores schools are looking for in any of the college admissions books, like The Princeton Review, The Complete Book of Colleges, or on www.collegeboard.com.

Note: SAT II scores REALLY MATTER! They matter more than the AP scores in some ways. Pay special attention when we discuss the UC Application and SAT II scores.

In the toolkit section of this website, there are some suggestions of ways to boost your test scores. This section also discusses the different kinds of tests and when you might start taking the tests.
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