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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

Guide to New Common App Essay Topics (2017-2018)

The Common Application just released the new essay topics/prompts for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle, and I’m putting together a guide to help you write a truly vivid, compelling, and authentic application essay.

NEW COMMON APP ESSAY TOPICS (2017-2018) & TIPS

1. The first Common Application essay topic for 2017-2018 is still: “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.”

Tips on the “background, identity, interest, or talent” essay prompt:

You need to find just the right scope for your application essay.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to share everything about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” in a 650-word essay. If you do try to cover everything, your essay will probably wind up being very superficial, and that’s problematic because admissions officers really want to be taken deep into your experience so that they feel like they’re really getting to know you.

Start by thinking about the most meaningful or intriguing aspect of your “background, identity, interest, or talent.” What you share can be meaningful in all sorts of ways. For instance, you can zoom in on one particular aspect of your background and identity and how it informs the way you look at and approach certain things. Instead of just telling a general story about a meaningful interest, you can concentrate on a specific project or experience related to it.

Remember that you are not just writing a personal essay for yourself. You are writing a college application essay, and you need to be aware of your audience.

Look at the language of the prompt. The Common App is telling you to consider sharing something that is so meaningful that you feel your “application would be incomplete without it.” Why is it important that admissions officers know about this specific “background, identity, interest, or talent”?

Watch my video–“Your Common App Essay: The Most Important Question”– to get more tips on this very important issue. It also includes case studies of my students who earned admission to Stanford and Yale, which will help you get your own creative juices flowing.

2. The second Common App essay topic for 2017-2018 is no longer just about failure. It’s now: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

I love this change!

The old Common Application essay prompt was: “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?” I found that a lot of students wound up coming up with a fairly limited range of failures.

Remember that the Common App gives you creative license. In the instructions, you’re told to use “the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”

Tips on the “lessons we take from obstacles we encounter” topic:

It’s really useful to share anecdotes that shed light on the external and internal details. In other words, you want admissions officers to be able to see the external situation and feel like they’re inside your mind as you’re facing this obstacle.

The process of your experience is very important. You don’t just want to focus on the obstacle, challenge, setback, or failure itself. You also want to connect it to who you are as a person and how this experience has shaped you in some way.

Head over to my post on “Why You Should Write About Failure in Your Application Essay” to learn why colleges value students who are capable of handling obstacles, challenges, setbacks, and even failures and get tips on what to avoid in this kind of application essay.

3. The third Common App essay topic for 2017-2018 is no longer just about challenging a belief. It also now encourages you to provide more insight into your thinking process. This is the new topic: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” 

Tips on the “time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea” prompt:

Check out my post on “The `Challenge a Belief or Idea’ Option” and watch this video.

I was advising my students to take creative license and write about questioning (not just challenging) beliefs or ideas, to help admissions officers understand the thinking process behind their decision, and to describe the outcome even before the Common App changed the wording, so the video is still relevant. Also, I share with you a case study of a student who was accepted to an Ivy League engineering program.

4. The fourth Common Application essay topic for 2017-2018 is still: “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.”

KEEP READING

Common App Essay Instructions & Topics (Revised for 2017 – 2018)

IMPORTANT TIPS ON THE INSTRUCTIONS FOR YOUR COMMON APPLICATION ESSAY

One way to start coming up with interesting ideas for your Common App essay is to check out the instructions. I know this sounds ridiculously simplistic, but I’ve found that many students overlook these directions, and this neglect can lead to problems with your essay.

THE NOT-SO-SURPRISING BUT IMPORTANT FIRST SET OF COMMON APP ESSAY INSTRUCTIONS

  • The first instructions remind you that your application essay is meant to demonstrate “your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic” and emphasize how this essay allows you to “distinguish yourself in your own voice.”

MY TIPS: You’re not writing a traditional academic essay.

Your tone doesn’t need to be formal.

You should definitely make use of contractions, which enhance the flow of your essay.

You don’t need to structure your essay the way you usually do for school essays.

In almost all cases, you should avoid writing a traditional opening paragraph. You can plunge readers right into the middle of an experience or have a opening paragraph that’s just one sentence long.

You can also do away with typical conclusions. Many of my students tuck a concluding sentence into the last main paragraph of their essay, which helps them avoid blah-sounding concluding paragraphs.

  • Then, there’s mention of something that’s really essential to keep in mind as you’re thinking about what you want to write about in your admissions essay.

You’re asked to consider what “you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores.”

MY TIPS: This isn’t to say that you can’t write about your courses or something related to your grades and test scores.

You just want to make sure you’re focused on aspects of your academic life that aren’t obvious from your transcript or other parts of your application. Provide insight into your thought process, perspective, and character.  You have to strike a balance between external and internal details.

CLICK HERE (and then scroll down in the post) to learn how you could write an essay about a tense in-class discussion that involved you challenging the belief of one of your classmates.

You could also write about a time when you failed or didn’t live up to your own intellectual standards. CLICK HERE to learn more about my strategies for the “failure” essay topic.

CLICK HERE to get tips on interesting ways of writing about your academic or intellectual experiences in the the “problem you’ve solved or would like to solve” essay.

  • Your Common Application essay must be between 250-650 words. If it’s shorter or longer, the Common Application won’t accept it.

 MY TIPS: It would be so amazing if you could write an illuminating 250-word college application essay, but you   probably can’t. Most of my students’ essays are between 600-650 words. Vivid anecdotes are key to powerful       personal essays.

MOST REVEALING INSTRUCTION FOR YOUR
COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY

The most revealing instruction is hidden in the details.

So what is that important detail? KEEP READING

Making the Most of Your College Visits and Getting Essential Insider Information

College visits are a great way for you to get a really good feel for schools, demonstrate your interest, and even increase your chances of gaining admission to them. . .but only if you make the most of them.

WHY DO COLLEGES CARE
ABOUT YOUR VISITS?

Did you know that many colleges keep track of your visits and contacts with them?

Some schools even use this information at some point in the admissions process.

Brian C. Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College (a top liberal arts school), explains that “a campus visit is the most important sign that an applicant is seriously interested, and there are times when that expression of interest can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. All colleges prefer to admit students who are likely to accept their offers of admission.”

That’s right.

You’re not the only one focused on getting accepted.

Colleges are very concerned about whether their accepted students will accept them.

Why?

According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), “colleges need to know whether you are serious about attending if accepted, because if a college is under- or over-enrolled, there are serious consequences for the college.”  Due to the “large number of applications flooding in, colleges are trying harder to figure out how interested applicants are.”

Demonstrating your interest is becoming increasingly important in the admissions process.

vector colored raised hands presentation for any business

In NACAC’s 2010 Admissions Trends Survey, 23% of schools indicated that a student’s demonstrated interest is of “considerable importance,” 30.9% said it’s of “moderate importance,” 26.6% claimed it’s of “limited importance,” and 19.9% stated it’s of “no importance” in terms of admission.

TIP: Make the most of every part of the admissions process that’s in your control. Demonstrating your interest in a college by visiting campus is one of those elements.

TIP: Sign in when you attend the information sessions and campus tours that are a standard part of college visits. Don’t try to fly under the radar or have your parents write their names.  Put down your name.  Make your visit count.

GET ESSENTIAL INSIDER DETAILS DURING YOUR ADMISSIONS INFORMATION SESSION

Last year, when I visited Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale, I was amazed by how many students and parents in the information sessions were frantically scribbling down the steady stream of facts and statistics that admissions officers were sharing during their presentations. KEEP READING

Common Application “Problem” Essay Topic

The Common Application released the revised and new essay topics for 2017-2018, and the “describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve” prompt remains the same. 

Here’s the exact essay prompt:

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.”

Writing an essay about such a problem is a great option, and I want to share some tips for effective ways of approaching this topic.

WHAT ARE YOU BEING ASKED TO DO?

In some ways, the wording of this application essay topic is really simple, but let’s break it down so that you’re completely clear about the details.

You’re being asked to focus on a problem—either a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.

The Common App doesn’t say this, but you could write a great essay about a problem that you’re in the process of solving and focus on what you’ve figured out and done so far and what the next steps are for you.

You can write about any sort of problem, and the scale of it doesn’t matter. It can be a big or small problem.

You also have to explain why this problem is significant to you and describe your process of identifying a solution to it or the steps you could take to come up with a solution.

Remember that you have creative license in terms of how you approach all of the Common App essay topics.

CLICK HERE to get my tips on the Common App’s general essay instructions (which haven’t changed for 2016-2017).

WHY ARE ADMISSIONS OFFICERS INTERESTED
IN HOW YOU DEAL WITH PROBLEMS?

When reading an essay on this particular Common App topic, admissions officers are really looking to see how you grapple with difficulties, questions that are not immediately answerable, things that are perplexing, challenges that cannot be quickly resolved.

Why do they care about how you grapple with these kinds of problems?

KEEP READING

“Time When You Questioned Or Challenged a Belief or Idea” Common Application Essay Prompt

SHOULD YOU WRITE ABOUT “A TIME WHEN YOU QUESTIONED OR CHALLENGED A BELIEF OR IDEA”?

The Common Application gives you the option to write an essay in which you “reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

The original version of this application essay prompt was: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

However, the Common App revised it for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle so that the emphasis is no longer just on challenging a belief. [CLICK HERE to access articles on the other new Common Application essay prompts for 2017-2018.]

You’re now encouraged to consider writing about a time when you questioned a belief or idea.

You’re also asked to shed more light on your thinking (rather than just your action).

In previous years, many of my students immediately dismissed this essay topic.

Some students said they couldn’t write an application essay on this issue because they felt that they’d never challenged a major belief or idea. Others shied away from this topic because they didn’t want to “rock the boat” in their essay.

I understood these reasons.

The wording of the original topic was a bit intimidating. It seemed as though you had to write about challenging something big like someone’s political or religious belief.

You can definitely write about this kind of challenge, but the new version of the topic is more inviting 

CREATIVE WAYS OF RESPONDING TO THE
“TIME WHEN YOU QUESTIONED OR CHALLENGED
A BELIEF OR IDEA”
APPLICATION ESSAY TOPIC

You don’t have to write about political or religious beliefs and ideas.  You can if you want to, but you’re definitely not limited to them.

Let’s consider some other angles.

1. WRITE ABOUT A TIME WHEN YOU INWARDLY QUESTIONED A PERSONAL BELIEF 

Here’s an example to get your creative juices pumping. Maybe you’ve always felt unworthy because you’re overweight, and one day you started realizing how much time you’ve spent feeling bad about yourself and not wanting to draw any attention to yourself. You could write a really compelling essay about how you started questioning the belief that you’re unworthy because of your weight and how your inner and outer world has started shifting because of this initial questioning.

2.  TAKE A CREATIVE APPROACH TO WRITING ABOUT YOUR PROCESS OF QUESTIONING A BELIEF OR IDEA

Check out my video that features a case study of one of my students who wrote about his experience questioning and challenging the decision a judge made at a Science Olympiad event.

Notice that she didn’t take the topic in a limited literal sense. She took advantage of the creative license that the Common App gives you. Remember, you are told to use “the prompt to inspire and structure your response.” Instead of focusing on the kinds of things that might immediately come to mind when thinking of beliefs and ideas, she concentrated on questioning a decision.

Just FYI, this student was accepted to an engineering program at an Ivy League school. (Click here to get my strategies to increase your changes of getting into engineering programs.)

I give a very detailed account of how she structured her essay. You’ll also get my tips for creating a great narrative structure and using anecdotes to illuminate your process of questioning and challenging a belief or idea. Plus, I explain why admissions officers are interested in your response to this essay topic.

3. TAKE ADMISSIONS OFFICERS BEHIND THE SCENES IN YOUR ACADEMIC LIFE

KEEP READING

How to Find a Unique Angle for Your Common Application Essay

The advice I’m about to give on how to find a unique angle for your Common Application essay probably goes against one of the primary rules you’ve learned about writing papers.

DON’T START BY FOCUSING
TOO MUCH ON THE
ESSAY TOPICS THEMSELVES

You should have a general sense of the essay prompts, but you don’t want to be restricted by them.

Why?

Here are three good reasons.

#1 You have creative license in your Common Application essay. The topics are designed to “inspire and structure,” not limit and determine your response. 

That means you don’t have to stick to the topic the way you usually do when writing essays for school.

Take advantage of your freedom.

CLICK HERE to get more of my tips on the instructions related to the Common Application essay.

#2 Approaching essay topics head-on increases the chances that you’ll come up with the same basic ideas as thousands of other students.

The Common App wants to “make sure that every applicant can find a home within the essay prompts,” which means they develop a series of topics that connect with most students’ experiences.

You don’t have to write about a subject that no one else is writing about, but you do need to find an angle that will allow you to distinguish yourself.

#3 The first essay topic about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” basically allows you to write about anything you want. One of the new topics for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle is basically the same as the first prompt except you’re told to “share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

**During the 2015-2016 admissions season, 47 percent of students selected this prompt. Just FYI, 22 percent wrote “about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.”**

HOW TO FIND A UNIQUE ANGLE FOR
YOUR COMMON APPLICATION ESSAY

Now let’s explore the option of looking elsewhere for inspiration in coming up with an angle.

A few weeks ago, I was reading the essay that one of my students was about to submit to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Achievement Awards in Writing. Students are required to submit an example of what they consider their best work as well as a piece of themed writing. KEEP READING

What Harvard & UPenn Value About Your Extracurricular Activities

Everyone knows that participating in extracurricular activities is important in terms of college admissions. 

If you’re applying to schools that use the Common Application, you’ll have room to briefly highlight 10 of your extracurricular activities in their order of importance to you, and you can use the Additional Information section of the application to share even more details about your experiences (up to 650 words).

In your college application package, you need to do everything in your power to create a vivid, compelling image of yourself.

Obviously, your application essay plays an important role in helping admissions officers get to know you, but your descriptions of your extracurricular activities are also essential.

ONE REASON A STUDENT GOT REJECTED
FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA

When I visited the University of Pennsylvania, the admissions officer leading the information session shared the following story.

A faculty member’s son was rejected from Penn, and the father arranged a meeting with one of the admissions officers to make sense of the situation.  As it turns out, one of the problems was that his son didn’t create a sufficiently developed description of the significance of his extracurricular activities.

two, illustration of number with blue chrome effects on white backgroundShe pointed out that he put down “Translation” as his second extracurricular activity, but he didn’t say much about it in his blurb and didn’t mention it anywhere else in his application.  She explained that if this activity was important enough to rank it second in order of importance, he should have described why it was such a meaningful experience. The father explained why this extracurricular activity was truly impressive and valuable.  His son was one of just five students selected to be part of a translation team for Olympians from Beijing.

How you present your participation in extracurricular activities matters.  It can matter a great deal in your college application package and in your alumni interviews. (CLICK HERE to learn more about how the inability to describe your experiences and interests can adversely affect you in the college admissions process.)

HARVARD’S DEAN OF ADMISSIONS
SHARES HIS PERSPECTIVE ON WHAT MATTERS
IN THE ADMISSIONS PROCESS

In his recent interview with the Harvard Gazette, William Fitzsimmons points out:

“We are always very interested in evidence of unusual achievements, academic or extracurricular. If you’re a great poet, we’d love to have you send your poetry along.  You could send your short stories or mathematical solutions or computer programs or your life sciences research.  Whatever it is you have done, we want to get that information to make the best possible case for your admission.”

He goes on to explain:

“With 35,000 people applying, you can see that standardized test scores are relatively unimportant in the end, because most of the people who apply have strong scores and grades and are fully qualified to be here.  So the real question is to try to get beyond the test scores and grades.  Examples of applicants’ accomplishments in math or music, to name just a couple of areas, help us do that. The people who have the energy, the drive, and commitment to do something unusual in math, music, athletics, theater, or any activity have transferable sets of skills.  It’s human potential that now happens to be directed, say, at women’s rugby, but could also be directed at any other kind of activity during college and later.”

AN UNUSUAL ACHIEVEMENT

In this post, I’m focusing on unusual achievements in relation to extracurricular activities rather than on academics.

I want to let you in on a secret. KEEP READING

How to Write Great Supplemental College Application Essays

WRITE GREAT SUPPLEMENTAL
COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAYS

Supplemental college application essays are just as important as your main Common Application essay.

These supplemental essays—especially ones that ask you to describe why you are drawn to the particular college—are often the only place where you can explicitly tailor your application to the school.

You probably already know that you need to get beyond the superficial details on college websites and avoid the clichéd things that thousands of other students will be writing about. But knowing that you need to get far more specific and avoid saying what everyone else is saying is one thing.

Figuring out how to create a truly compelling “Why us?” essay is a different story.

In this post, you’ll. . .

  • Get strategies for the “Why us?” supplemental essay topics for Brown, Caltech, Columbia, Cornell, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Learn how to avoid clichés and vagueness to create a vivid, authentic, and distinctive supplemental essay.

The tips I’m sharing can work for a wide range of other schools and can even help you prepare for your alumni interviews.

A FEW VARIETIES OF
THE “WHY US? TOPIC

Let’s start by considering how schools phrase their “Why us?” supplemental essay topics. These are the topics for the 2015-2016 admissions cycle.

Brown: Why Brown? (100 word limit)

Thousands of students applying to Brown are drawn to the school because of its Open Curriculum. I don’t think I’ve ever read a first draft of a Brown supplement that didn’t focus on this aspect of the school.

Many students will write something along these lines:

“One of the most attractive elements of Brown is its open curriculum. Coming from a school with rigid class requirements, Brown’s free curriculum and enormous variety of classes will give me the freedom I need.”

What can you do to avoid saying the same old thing? How can you stand out?

KEEP READING

Writing About a Challenge, Setback, or Failure in Your College Application Essay

UPDATE: The Common Application released a revised version of the prompt on failure for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle.

The revised topic is: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

The older failure prompt was: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

IMPORTANT THINGS TO NOTE ABOUT THE
NEW WORDING OF THE ESSAY PROMPT
 

1. The primary stress is no longer just on failure. You’re also invited to write about obstacles, challenges, and setbacks. Many students used to fall into the trap of writing about the same banal, limited, and traditional range of failures.

2. The main emphasis is no longer just on the “time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure.” Notice how that experience is framed with language about “the lessons” we learn, the connection to “later success,” and how it influenced you in other ways. Don’t worry if you can’t connect your experience to “later success.” Remember that you have creative license with your essay. You are encouraged to use the essay “prompt to inspire and structure your response.” CLICK HERE to learn more about the directions for your Common App essay.

WHY ARE COLLEGES INTERESTED IN YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH OBSTACLES, CHALLENGES, SETBACKS, AND FAILURES?

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of students who’ve had life-changing experiences with obstacles, challenges, setbacks, and failures, but they’ve often felt very nervous about writing about them.

I understand this fear.

Given the highly competitive nature of undergraduate college admissions, it’s natural to feel you should showcase your strengths and hide any weaknesses or mistakes.

However, colleges are very interested in students who know how to handle failure and who’ve experienced setbacks that have changed the way they think and act. In fact, the teachers writing your letters of recommendation are actually asked to rank you in terms of your ability to respond to setbacks.

Listen to what the MIT admissions team has to say in “The Match Between You and MIT”:

MIT wants to admit people who are not only planning to succeed, but who are not afraid to fail.  When people take risks in life, they learn resilience as a result–because risk leads to failure as often as it leads to success. The most creative and successful people–and MIT is loaded with them–know that failure is part of life and that if you stay focused and don’t give, goals are ultimately realized.”

In college, you’re going to face new and more complex situations that are designed to stimulate your intellectual and personal growth. If you’re not capable of handling setbacks–minor or major–you’re going to have a very hard time succeeding in college. You need to be resilient. You need to have strategies for bouncing back from things that don’t go exactly as planned. You need to know how to fine-tune your course of action. . .your ways of thinking.

As a former English professor who has worked with thousands of college freshmen, I can tell you that one of the reasons why some students struggle during their first year is because they haven’t learned these underlying life skills.  It’s not just that college is harder or that there’s more work. It’s that you need these underlying skills to navigate your experience.

As the quote from the MIT team reveals, success often involves taking risks.  But don’t just take it from MIT.

Consider what JK Rowling declared in her 2008 Harvard Commencement Address, which she titled:  “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and The Importance of Imagination”:

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”

So application essays that shed light on your experience grappling with an obstacle, challenge, setback, or failure can be a way of demonstrating that you possess these essential character traits and skills. What was once a weakness can now be a strength!

CASE STUDY OF A CREATIVE ANGLE ON THE OBSTACLE/CHALLENGE/SETBACK/FAILURE ESSAY

I want to share with you a case study of a former student who earned a full-tuition scholarship to a Top 50 school.

In her college application essay, this student focused on failing to live up to her parents’ expectations. This student excelled in school and on standardized tests, but there was a part of her that always felt like a failure because she couldn’t live up to her parents’ desire for her to be more outgoing. She felt pressure to change, and she tried to change, but she could never really become more extroverted.

In her essay, she described this challenge and how Susan Cain’s TED talk and book (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) helped her realize that as an introvert she actually had many positive qualities. She detailed this inner transformation and how she gradually stopped trying to live up to her family’s expectations. Towards the end of her essay, she shared anecdotes that revealed how she’d started embracing her good qualities and became more confident, which, in turn, enabled her to make more positive contributions in school and in other aspects of her life.

I loved the twists in her essay. In the beginning, it seemed like her essay was about failing to live up to her parents’ expectations, but she revealed that the real failure was in not being true to who she is. This particular twist added depth to her essay.

What kind of interesting angle can you develop in relation to this Common App essay topic?

How can you use anecdotes to shed light on your character and underlying skills?

WATCH THIS VIDEO TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT YOU SHOULD & SHOULD NOT DO WHEN WRITING ABOUT AN OBSTACLE, CHALLENGE, SETBACK, OR FAILURE

I created this video before the Common App revised the language of the essay prompt, but my advice should still prove useful because I provide you with some strategies for structuring your essay.


This is a video that features many of the ideas I discussed in this blog post.

NEED MORE HELP?

CLICK HERE to learn about my one-hour consultations.

 

Will Summer Programs Help You Get Into College?

Students are always asking me if summer programs can help you get into college.

MOST IMPORTANT FACT

You shouldn’t be focused on doing things just because you think they’ll look good on your college applications.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t act strategically.

However, it’s easy for admissions officers to spot which students are genuinely excited about the path they’ve been creating for themselves throughout high school and those who lack true passion about their experiences.

MIT ADMISSIONS & THE STUDENT WITH A BORING APPLICATION ESSAY

Consider what MIT’s Office of Admissions has to say:

“It’s who you are that really matters. It’s how you embrace life. It’s how you treat other people. It’s passion. And yes, that stuff really does drip off the page in the best of our applications. It’s not anything I can explain—you just know when you read an application. . .”

A few years ago, a student came to me at the beginning of her senior year because her essays all seemed flat and dry.

During our consultation, she described how she’d spent so many hours grinding away at what her family thought were the “right things.”

She’d taken the most rigorous classes, earned excellent grades, aced both the SAT and ACT, participated in plenty of extracurricular activities (e.g., Science Olympiad, Model United Nations, and Mock Trial), and spent a summer at Cornell’s Summer College for high school students (which currently costs around $13,000).

Now it’s true that college admissions officers are very interested in the rigorousness of your course load, your GPA, your performance on standardized tests, and your engagement in extracurricular activities.

However, that’s not enough.

Let’s look at what MIT has to say in “There Is No Formula” because it holds true for almost all other very competitive colleges:

“Of course you need good scores and good grades to get into MIT. But most people who apply to MIT have good grades and scores. Having bad grades or scores will certainly hurt you, but I’m sorry to say that having great grades and scores doesn’t really help you – it just means that you’re competitive with most of the rest of our applicants. MIT is very self-selecting in that regard.”

My student met all the basic technical requirements, but that wasn’t enough.

Anyone reading her essays could tell that she lacked the exuberance that comes from engaging in truly meaningful experiences and projects.

What dripped off the page of her application essays was “blahness.”

HOW MY STUDENT TRANSFORMED HER COMMON APP ESSAY

However, it turns out that there was a spark of enthusiasm within her.

She loved the community service that she offered and wished she’d allowed herself to do more of it. However, she reduced her most meaningful experience to a mere 150-character description in her list of activities for the Common Application.

In the rest of our session, we had a discussion that empowered her to map out a poignant, memorable, and authentic Common Application essay on her failure to trust her instincts about following the path of service. This approach allowed her to share vivid anecdotes about the experiences she had with her volunteer work and her perspective on the problem of conforming to what other people felt was right for her.

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT ABOUT SUMMER PROGRAMS & COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

My point is that you don’t necessarily need to participate in a summer program.

The student I was just describing gained no advantage from taking a psychology class at Cornell.

The mere fact that you’ve taken rigorous college-level summer classes at Ivy League schools or attended a program like Yale Young Global Scholars isn’t going to give you a competitive edge when it comes to college admissions.

You should know this fact when you’re considering a program, especially an expensive one.

(Just FYI: A summer program like Harvard’s Secondary School Program costs around $12,000. The cost “includes tuition for two 4-credit courses or one 8-credit course, room and board fees, and a health insurance fee.”)

CAN SPECIAL SUMMER PROGRAMS BENEFIT YOU?

That’s a better question to ask.

Summer programs can give you the opportunity to explore things you’re curious about in ways that you can’t in school or even through extracurricular activities during the academic year. They can also help you take your work in an area to the next level and clarify your specific areas of interest.

The transformations you experience through participation in a program can give you an edge, especially if you describe your turning point somewhere in your application package.

In other words, it’s not the mere fact of participating that matters.

It’s the effect the program has on you.

My students have had transformational experiences taking classes at Cornell, Harvard, and even community colleges, so there’s no simple right or wrong answer about the value of college-level summer classes.

HOW A SUMMER PROGRAM IN THE HUMANITIES CHANGED MY STUDENT’S LIFE

One of my former students participated in a special interdisciplinary summer seminar.

This student was genuinely interested in many fields and by junior year was feeling pulled in too many directions.The summer program introduced her to interdisciplinary studies (something that was not part of her high school education), which helped her realize that she didn’t have to limit herself to just one or two fields.

This experience revolutionized her intellectual life and sparked her process of figuring out ways to bring together her interests to create an exciting and innovative path for herself. After leaving the program, she continued to build on the experience in the summer program.

In her Common Application essay, she focused on her problem (having too many interests and feeling pulled in too many directions) and her process of overcoming it. Her essay featured a paragraph with vivid anecdotes about how the group project she worked on during the program figured into this process. (Just FYI, this was before the addition of the “problem” essay topic. She made her narrative fit in relation to the first essay prompt.)

She was accepted to multiple Ivy League schools.

SUMMER PROGRAMS FOR STUDENTS IN STEM FIELDS

Students who are interested in STEM fields often find that research-oriented programs like the Summer Science Program, Clark Scholars Program, and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Academy give them their first real opportunity to engage in intensive, high-level research projects, to gain access to labs and other research facilities, and receive mentoring from experts in their fields.

Just FYI, some of the best summer programs PAY YOU, are inexpensive, or have substantial scholarship funding.

For instance, the Clark Scholars Program provides accepted students with a “$750 tax-free stipend and room and board.” The Summer Science Program costs $5,450, but their “admission decisions are need-blind,” and they “award generous financial aid up to the full program fee plus $500 airfare.”

HOW SUMMER PROGRAMS CAN HELP STEM STUDENTS IN RELATION TO COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

Colleges like the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell ask you to write 650-word supplemental essays describing your interests, how you’ve taken action on them, and how you plan to pursue them at their institution.

CLICK HERE to read my article on how to write great supplemental application essays.

A lot of STEM students will talk about what they’re interested in studying, but there’s often a big gap between where they are now and what they hope to be doing in college. High-quality summer programs can help you fill that gap, and make it easier for you to show admissions committees that their program really is the next logical step for you.

ARE THERE THINGS YOU SHOULD BE WARY OF IN TERMS OF SUMMER PROGRAMS?

Absolutely!

“Congratulations! You Are Nominated. It’s an Honor. (It’s a Sales Pitch.)” is an older article (2009) that focuses on programs with “leadership” in the title, but it’s still worth reading.

However, I want to point out that some of my younger students have had really positive experiences with the Brown Leadership Institute.

One of my international students, for instance, got to experience what it’s like to live on a college campus and learned how to take more initiative in terms of exploring her intellectual interests.

Another one of my students participated in the Brown program during the summer between her sophomore and junior years and benefited immensely from learning how to create an action plan. She took what she learned in the program and applied it to many other self-directed projects.

WHAT IF SUMMER PROGRAMS AREN’T AN OPTION FOR YOU?

A number of students and families get in touch with me because they feel stressed out due to the fact that participating in a formal summer program just isn’t an option for them.

One student is a nationally ranked athlete who devotes a large part of the summer to training. She set up a consultation with me because she was worried about not being able to participate in a program related to her academic interests.

During her consultation, we mapped out an independent research project related to an issue that fascinates her, created a reading list, identified some teachers and professors she can contact to get feedback and content-related expertise, and figured out some possible outlets for publishing her work.

She left the session feeling surprised and relieved to have a project she can easily integrate into her demanding summer training schedule. I left the session feeling thrilled for her.

CLICK HERE to get tips on how to create your own projects. (Scroll down to the “unusual achievements” section of the article.)

CLICK HERE to read “Do Coursera and edX Classes Matter in College Admissions?” 

CLICK HERE to read “Can Summer Reading Lists Make a Difference With College Admissions?”

REMEMBER: The most important thing is that you cultivate your authentic interests (even if it seems like there’s no way they could help you earn admission to college). My students who focus on what truly matters to them are always the ones who are most successful in the admissions process.

WANT MORE HELP?

If you need help mapping out great summer options for yourself, consider registering for a one-time consultation with me. You’ll be amazed at what we can accomplish in an hour.