Archive | October, 2016

Use the Common App for private schools

31 Oct

The perennial #1 liberal arts college, Williams College, uses the Common Application.

A former student of mine recently graduated from the perennial #1 liberal arts college, Williams College (Williamstown, MA). 

Now that you have probably finished your state school college applications, you most likely are now focused on getting applications done for the private colleges on your list. These are often due by the end of December–but check the deadlines and calendar them diligently!

You may have already discovered that most private colleges use The Common Application; in fact, almost 700 colleges utilize this form of application. Go to

You will find that you are able to complete just this one application for several different colleges, with the possibility, though, that one college’s essay requirement may be different than another’s.

In regard to the personal essay, you will write no more than 650 words on one of the following five topics:


  • A background, identity, interest or talent that is meaningful to you.
  • Lesson from a failure.
  • A time you challenged a belief or idea.
  • A problem you’ve solved.
  • An accomplished that signified your transition from childhood to adulthood.

Your high school will be notified to send a counselor’s report and grades — but you will want to stay tuned in to make sure they are submitted on a timely basis. Additionally, letters of recommendation may be required by your colleges. Request those early in the process, as it takes up to an hour to prepare a good one.

If you have questions, Common App technical support personnel are available 24/7.


How to win more scholarships

28 Oct


You increase your chances of winning a scholarship significantly if you understand the organization that sponsors the scholarship and the kind of student that organization would choose to reward with a scholarship.

Before you start filling out the scholarship application, do some research:

  • Read all of the materials that accompany the scholarship application. Often the organization will give some history about the group and/or the scholarship.
  • Go to the organization’s website and read all about the organization.
  • Ask your school counselor or other adults about the organization.

Then, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are these people?
  • Why do they give scholarships?
  • For what kind of student are they looking?
  • What kinds of qualities do they want to see in the scholarship winner?

For example, your local Rotary Club is part of an international organization made up of business leaders in communities. Rotary members focus on fund-raising so as to sponsor various community-service projects, which often include scholarships for local high school students.

You can imagine, then, that Rotary Club members may be looking for students who represent the best of their own qualities, especially leadership and a mindset that community service is important.

Because my daughter had done a lot of community service for her school — organizing a school-wide effort to paint student murals on exterior walls and to spruce up the girls’ bathroom — she was a natural for a  great scholarship from Lowe’s, the home improvement store.

As you work on your scholarship application for an organization, think about those qualities that you have and those activities you have completed that would appeal most to your audience — that organization’s scholarship review committee.

CAUTION: NEVER misrepresent who you are to a scholarship organization. However, you do want to relate on that application the best of who you are that will dovetail with that organization.

And remember . . . always complete every application for which you are qualified. You won’t win every single scholarship for which you apply, but you also will not win any scholarship for which you don’t apply.


Making your essay rise to the top

25 Oct

Your admissions essay should convey your unique voice.

Your admissions essay should convey your unique voice.

Many college admissions applications require one or more personal essays. Each essay should convey your writing strength, personality, leadership, unique talent/experience/perspective, humor, and insight. This is not a boring English class essay that you bang out in a half hour. It should “sing,” so that the admissions officer who reads it sings your praises.

The University of California has gone from the personal statement to personal insight questions; freshman applicants now choose four of eight prompts and write no more than 350 words each. (For more info see

The Common Application, used by 619 colleges, mostly private and many of them exclusive, requires one essay on one of the following (see also

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Some of those Common Application schools may require one or more additional essays; it is your responsibility to read the application carefully, so as to make sure of all the requirements for admission.

So, how would you approach one of these topics? Let me first mention what you should NOT do:

  • Do not just list a resume of accomplishments.
  • Do not create a fictional self and write what you think the reader would want to hear.
  • Do not write an unfocused mess.
  • Do not speak in vague generalities.
  • Do not try to include all your memorized SAT words.
  • Do not turn in an essay that has not been carefully reviewed, edited, and proofread.

Instead, follow these guidelines:

  • Focus your essay. If it’s too broad and all-inclusive, it will sound like a list.
  • Prove your overall thesis with evidence, such as detailed events, examples, facts, quotations. Convey your personality by giving your reader some insight about what your world and experience have been.
  • Be specific with this evidence. Don’t just keep saying vague generalities, such as “I am a leader, because I know how to lead people . . . blah, blah, blah . . . .” Instead, here’s a great example that got one girl into UC Berkeley: “Over the last two years as S Club president, I learned that leadership responsibilities include making others accountable. When several members who had committed to the Relay for Life said they couldn’t attend the Relay, I told them, ‘That’s okay, but you will have to get someone to take your place instead.’ That was the year our team expanded from eight members to fourteen, and we raised over $1,500 to donate to the American Cancer Society.” Notice how she used details to develop her claim about leadership.
  • Follow all instructions.
  • Allow the prompt itself to be a mini-outline. Include all the parts requested in the prompt.
  • Be yourself, but be the best of yourself there is. Show your humor. Use imagery and creative language.
  • Be accurate. If you don’t fully remember details about a historical figure or fictional character, do research before you write. This is NOT first draft writing — the reader will expect time and care put into this essay.
  • VERY IMPORTANT: Convey your own distinctive VOICE. Writer’s Digest suggests you think about your own distinct perspective and language and then speak from your heart.

Should Mom or your English teacher read this essay? Definitely! And in this case, I’d suggest you ask the English teacher, not your counselor, to review it for you. Your counselor probably does not have a background in writing instruction. Reserve a day to work on your essay(s), set it aside, and then review it later for a fresh perspective.

What college admissions essay topic are you working on?