Exclusive: Application Essay Tips From a Former Admissions Officer (Part 1)

Exclusive: Application Essay Tips From a Former Admissions Officer (Part 1)

If They’re Undecided, the Admissions Essay Will Make All the Difference

“For the applicant where it’s a little bit harder to distinguish the unique value of what they bring, they need something to put them over the edge - that's where the essay is important. If an admissions officer feels ‘I believe in this person,’ after reading their essay, it can absolutely turn a waitlist into an admit. Each kid gets read for 10-15 minutes - people in the middle will go to committee, and that’s where the essay can make all the difference. When I would read applications, my goal would be to get through 50 a day - the essay is the one place you’re really telling a story about the person. It can also help determine how much scholarship money you get.”

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Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to Yale & UPenn

Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to Yale & UPenn

"I have worked hard throughout high school to prepare myself for the application process to get into my dream schools. But when senior year came and the time to start applying to colleges arrived, I didn’t know where to begin with my personal statements. I’ve always heard that you can literally write about anything in your essays and it will be fine. But anything doesn’t always show the best qualities in me.
"That’s where Yelena came and turned things around. Torn between topics, Yelena helped me brainstorm powerful events in my life that helped illuminate my strong characteristics that reveal who I am as a person while also making my statement impactful. She is extremely gifted in noticing significant features about a person just through her writing process. The fact that she actually takes the time to get to know her students before helping us with our work shows her determination to make our essays well written while leaving a great impression on the admission officers. She believes that every person has something amazing to share and she works hard to help us show that. With her help, not only did I come out with an incredible essay but I also learned more about myself and my values. I cannot thank her enough for her tremendous help.
-BA, accepted to Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Williams, UCLA, UC Berkeley & more 

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Why You Should Ignore Word Count (At First)

One of the most common mistakes I see in my student’s essays is fixating too much on word count. What often happens is students start writing, get to the 650 maximum word count, and just stop abruptly (maybe hastily adding a cheesy summary closing line) — even if the story is still unfinished.

Or I get the opposite approach with an essay that’s much shorter than the word count, which is also a mistake because every word is a chance to stand out and show admissions officers who you are and why they should add you to their campus community.

Here’s what most students don’t realize about the writing process: it takes an average of four revisions to get to the perfect final draft (and some students go through seven!). So that means you might end up writing 2,000 words of rough drafts to get to a perfect final draft of 650 words. 

Even professional writers don’t get it right on the first try. And most of the time, half the written work is left on the cutting room floor before publication.

What does that mean for you? Keep writing, no matter how long it gets. And with every draft, keep adding new and better details for every example, keep writing to draw out the storytelling of each anecdote, keep journaling to uncover deeper levels of self-reflection.

Only at the very end (let’s say around draft three or four) do I recommend you start even checking the word count. Then, follow my steps for proofreading to find what to cut. 

The 8 Grammar Mistakes to Watch Out For

The 8 Grammar Mistakes to Watch Out For

These are all a great thing to look out for when you're proofreading your essay. I’ve had so many students make the dangling modifier mistake, in addition to the faulty quotation mark punctuation. But you should find comfort that even published authors make the same mistakes! Everyone needs help with their grammar sometimes, especially since it often takes a new pair of eyes to spot typos, because yours have already gotten habituated to your words.

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Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to Columbia University

Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to Columbia University

"I got into Columbia!!! Thank you so much for helping me with my essays and bringing them to perfection!! I don't think I’ve ever been proud of any piece of writing as my Common App essay... Being a STEM-related student, I've always had trouble with writing. Yelena knew exactly what to do so that I could freely and clearly speak my mind in my essays. She guided me through creative directions so we could find the write one for me. Her knowledge of how the admissions essays work allowed for us to focus on the important aspects of the essay and leave out the fluff. In addition, Yelena made my essays very interesting with bits of (effective) humor and storytelling that made my essays stand out. Overall, Yelena was able to unleash the creative side of my writing and add life to my otherwise monotonous essays. Thank you again!!!”

-AK, accepted to Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)

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Your Summer Admissions Essay Checklist

Your Summer Admissions Essay Checklist

1) Start a Journal
The hardest thing about a personal essay is finding your voice—most high schools focus on the academic essay, which is more stiff and formulaic than the admissions essay. An easy way to discover what you sound like when you're not citing academic sources or analyzing text is to start a journal. Every night before bed, take a few minutes to write about your day or what's worrying you or even try some of the prompts in the Common App. The relaxing background should let you tap into your personal voice without the pressure of sounding academic. At the very least, you'll have some snippets saved away for the draft writing stage.

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4 Admissions Essays That Worked—And Why

4 Admissions Essays That Worked—And Why

TOPIC 1: Redefining The Idea of Masculinity While Growing Up With Two Moms
SUCCESS RATE:
Accepted to all 10 schools he applied to, including Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Yale University, Princeton University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 
WHY IT WORKED: Colleges want to see exceptional students who overcome adversity because it shows strength and students are not afraid to challenge societal norms, because that takes risk. This essay manages to convey both at once.

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Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to Cornell University

Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to Cornell University

"I sought out Yelena's help just one week before my application was due. Although I considered myself a proficient writer, I was having difficulty tailoring my writing to express my personal identity and my interest for Cornell University. Yelena worked with me over the phone and inspired me to consider the bigger picture and to incorporate a more creative narrative for my essay. She also kept me motivated and focused, providing a timeline of due dates. In just a couple of days, my essays went from bland mediocrity to a vivacious and impactful assortment of words. Yelena helped me eliminate extraneous phrases and wording that didn’t aid the overall momentum and suggested the practice of nighttime journaling to spur creativity and insight. She also helped me incorporate shorthand (like "Cornellian" and "A&S") to give my supplement an additional level of authenticity. Although my stats were competitive for Cornell University, I’m convinced that Yelena's input and editing are the main reason I was admitted."-JT, accepted to Cornell University

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HIDE THAT FINSTA & More Admissions News You Should Know

HIDE THAT FINSTA & More Admissions News You Should Know

TIME TO SCRUB YOUR INSTA...."The majority of US admissions officers and prospective students think that it is “fair game” for universities to visit applicants’ social media profiles when deciding who to admit to their institution, according to two recent studies. A survey of 388 US admissions officers found that 68 per cent thought that they could visit sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to help them decide who to offer a university place to, despite the fact that less than a third (29 per cent) said that they actually engaged in the practice, a decline from 35 per cent since last year." [Times Higher Education]

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What Admissions Officers Are Looking For In Your Personal Essays

What Admissions Officers Are Looking For In Your Personal Essays

"As an admissions officer, I analyzed students' personalities. If I read an admissions essay, and the student came off as arrogant, entitled, mean, selfish, or, on the flip side, funny, charming, generous, witty, I wrote that exact trait in my notes. It's not enough just to be smart at top schools. Students must also show that they'll be good classmates and community builders."—Angela Dunnham, Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Dartmouth College [Business Insider]

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Admissions Officers Spend 12 Minutes On Your Application & More News You Need to Know

Admissions Officers Spend 12 Minutes On Your Application & More News You Need to Know
  • Admissions officers spend 12 minutes reading your entire application. Make them count. [Business Insider]
  • How to prepare for the dreaded admissions interview. #1 tip: Don't forget to prepare thoughtful questions to ask them whose answers can't be found on the internet. [US News]
  • 20 insider do's & don'ts for getting into your dream college, from University of Rochester admissions officers themselves. Parents, no scrapbooking (!) or overbearing phone calls. Students, no rudeness or worn-out jeans in interviews. [Rochester.edu]
  • Student groups are protesting legacy admissions, which give a boost in accepting relatives of alumni—a practice that happens to about 75% of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 universities.  [The Atlantic]
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Testimonial Tuesday: High School Admissions Essay Workshop

Testimonial Tuesday: High School Admissions Essay Workshop

"Yelena was so engaging and insightful! She visited my students during the Fall at the High School for Environmental Studies, as they were preparing for the college admissions process. The process can be so daunting for kids, and she really helped to ease their concerns about what to include and what not to include in their personal statements.  My seniors were so grateful to have her come in! She provided them with so much useful, valuable advice as to how to individualize their college essays.  She answered all of their questions as clearly as she could, as they vigorously jotted down notes and ideas while Yelena spoke. I am happy to say that many of those very same students, especially those who went for early acceptance, have been accepted to so many great colleges and universities. Thanks so much Yelena for all of your help! And we look to having our students work with you again next year!" —Erika Brooks, Social Studies Teacher, The High School for Environmental Studies

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Your Last-Minute Admissions Essay Checklist

Your Last-Minute Admissions Essay Checklist

Overusing adverbs (basically, essentially, actually) means that your verbs are not strong enough on their own. Wordy phrases and fragments slow down your narrative. Pedantic words like “myriad” and “plethora” should only be used if you know what they mean - otherwise you come across as someone disingenuous who used athesaurus to sound smarter (something admissions officers can easily see through.)

Inspired by Karyn, here are a few more things I would add to your admissions essay checklist for before you submit:

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Your Admissions Essay Winter Break Reading List

Calling all juniors (and precocious sophomores)! Now that you’re done with class and homework and finals and extracurriculars, this weeklong break is your perfect opportunity to prep for your admissions essay. The personal statement is incredibly difficult to master, especially since most schools don’t emphasize creative writing in their curriculums. The best way for you to learn a brand new way of writing is to read the best examples of that writing. Consider the below your personal essay master class.

 1) Bossypants by Tina Fey

If memoirs aren’t really your thing, try a humor memoir. This New York Times bestseller by the former Saturday Night Live head writer is one of my all time faves! Other hilarious humor essayists to check out are Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Jess Klein, and more. If your friends would describe you as funny, you should try a draft that takes a humorous approach. Even one self-deprecating line can do a lot in making you seem more approachable and likable, which is personal essay gold.

2) The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

After discovering your inner humorist, you should take a look at the classic memoir genre. One of the most important aspects of a personal essay is the self-reflection and that’s what a memoir is all about. If you’re not sure what you like, go to your local bookstore and check out the memoir section and browse until you find something interesting. The New York Times bestseller list is a great place to discover those too. 

3) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

This is both a beautiful memoir and a great intro to writing that professional writers swear by. This book is a go-to for when you’re stuck with writer’s block. It is one of the most quotable and memorable books for a reason! 

4) On Writing The College Application Essay by Harry Bauld 

My English teacher introduced this gem to me in high school and it was a game changer. Written by a former admissions officer and English teacher, this book is what gave me the writing mantra I still swear by today. Full of great example essays, the book also breaks down the all the elements of a standout essay. I swear by this! If you do one thing, get this book.

December Admission News You Need To Know

December Admission News You Need To Know

LSATs no longer required for top law schools! Harvard, Georgetown, Columbia, Northwestern and more law schools will now accept the GRE as an alternative admissions test in order to boost diversity in their applicants. [Fortune]

How to explain (and not just excuse) your lower GPA. [US News]

Some admissions consultants can cost you a pretty penny— or $28K of them. [SF Gate]

Parents, step away from your kid's admissions essay and no one will get hurt. [Washington Post]

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4 Easy Hacks to Answering the "Why This College” Essay

When writing your college supplements, you will almost certainly come across the “Why this college?” essay in many forms. For example, Stanford asks you to “Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford” in 50 words, while Columbia asks “Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why” in 300 words.

Colleges ask this questions for two reasons. First, to find out your demonstrated interest, because the more students that enroll after being accepted, the better the college looks. Second, it’s an easy way to weed out unserious candidates. The biggest mistake you can make is copying and pasting the same essay for each college. If you think it’s as easy as substituting College Name 1 with College Name 2, you’re doing it wrong.

The “Why this college?” supplement is one of the hardest essays to answer. Ideally, you would’ve visited the campus, researched the school, and spoken to former alums to really know the answer. But not everyone has the privilege (or money) to travel to see schools, Luckily, I have some shortcuts for you, right this way.

1) The Campus Visit

The college tour is the golden standard to reference in these supplements. It shows the most demonstrated interest (link) and also gives you the best reference if this college is the right fit for you. It might even help you narrow your list - sometimes stepping foot on campus right out of the car is all you need to know to feel nope, not for me. When you’re there, be sure to take notes on everything you see and hear and get business cards too just in case. These notes will be crucial in helping you come up with a more unique answer than just something you’d find on the website. (For more tips on nailing the campus visit, click here.)

2) Speak to Former Alums

Getting the perspective of current or former alums is worth more than any brochure. Maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask your real questions at the campus visit or you think the answer wasn’t real enough. An alum not connected to the admissions team has no reason to lie to you. Ask your counselor to connect you with anyone who went there recently. If that doesn’t work, reach out to your network. Facebook and LinkedIn make this super easy. Or search to see if any reps will be coming to a campus fair near you. 

3) Research The School

Find out the majors, extracurriculars, professors, etc that would excite you about the school and reference them by name, so you’re not just spouting off generic stats. Saying you have the greatest professors is not as meaningful as saying you can’t wait to study Russian literature with Professor Stanton, for example.

4) Stalk The College’s Social Media 

This is key. Remember that each campus has a brand and you need to figure out a way that you fit into that brand. The college’s social media presence is a great way to discover how the college speaks about itself, what it prides about itself to boast on Facebook, and most importantly, the insider slang it uses to refer to itself or its students. Cornell students are Cornellians. Columbia is known for its Core.  University of Michigan students are proud Wolverines. You get the idea!

5 Shocking Facts You Don't Know About College Admissions

5 Shocking Facts You Don't Know About College Admissions

A recent New York Times feature has been making the rounds. I read it so you don’t have to. Here's what you need to know: 

1) Most Schools Accept Over 50% Of Applicants
As everyone is collectively freaking out about getting into top tier schools, it’s important to remember that only 13 percent of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants.

2) Some Colleges Do Factor Your Ability to Pay Into Their Decisions
According to the Times write-up, about half of institutions said an applicant’s “ability to pay” was of at least “some importance” in admissions decisions, according to a recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to American University, SUNY Binghamton University & more!

Testimonial Tuesday: Accepted to American University, SUNY Binghamton University & more!

"I'm attending Binghamton University right now, planning on majoring in Biochemistry. I can't thank you enough for your help, I think my essay really stood out because I had plenty of great options to choose from despite my lacking high school GPA and the competitive pool I was put against. I learned a ton from working with you." -Adam

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The One Thing Most Students Forget Before Submitting Their Admissions Essay

The One Thing Most Students Forget Before Submitting Their Admissions Essay

You spent months perfecting your essay, going through multiple revisions and edits. You've cut the cliches and got it down to word count. You've finessed the opening and closing lines to eye-catching perfection. Everyone from your counselor to your mom's cousin twice removed has proofread it and given it their seal of approval. Maybe you've even hired a guru or two to give it the professional once (or twice) over.

Now all you have to do is click submit, right? And then you'll breathe the sweet victory of completion.

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Admission News You Might Have Missed

Admission News You Might Have Missed

Deep breaths...Getting admitted to a top public college is becoming tougher, as applicant pools grow and average acceptance rates fall. BUT that's largely because more students are applying to more schools, thanks to the ease of the Common App. [US News

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