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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

How to Get Published in The New York Times

The New York Times Summer Reading Contest provides you with a great opportunity to learn more about issues you find intriguing, discover new areas of interest, and even gain a competitive edge in the college admissions process. 


Basic things you need to know about the contest:

  • For summer 2017, the contest runs from June 16th – August 25th. 
  • You answer two simple questions: “What interested you most in The Times this week? Why?” (These same questions are posted every Friday for the duration of the contest.) Your response can be a maximum of 1,500 characters (around 250-300 words).
  • Every Tuesday, winners from the previous week are announced and their responses published.
  • “Anyone 13 to 19 years old from anywhere in the world” can participate.
  • You’re allowed to focus on anything The New York Times published in 2017, “including videos, graphics, slide shows and podcasts.”
  • You can only submit one response per week.

CLICK HERE to get all the rules and details.


Don’t enter the contest just because you want to win and be able to mention this accomplishment in your college application. Use the contest to advance your knowledge of topics that already interest you or discover new things. This way, even if you don’t win, the experience will be valuable.

Option #1: Use the contest to explore subjects, issues, or questions that you already find intriguing.

In junior high and high school, classes tend to be focused on helping you establish a very broad understanding of subjects. However, I encourage my students to develop more advanced and specific knowledge of things that interest them.

Let’s consider an example.

Lots of high school students tell me that they’re interested in neuroscience and want to study it in college. Some of them have only learned about neuroscience in their science classes while others have also studied it through their involvement in Science Olympiad and Brain Bee. These are great ways to start building up your knowledge base, but they mostly involve absorbing facts.

Often my students will deepen their knowledge by participating in a summer research program (usually in the summer between 11th and 12th grade) like Boston University’s RISE (Research in Science and Engineering) program, where they get to spend six weeks conducting research “under the guidance of a faculty member, postdoctoral fellow, or graduate student mentor” for 40 hours a week. As BU points out, some “research interns submit their work to national science fair contests such as the Siemens Competition and the Intel Science Talent Search.”

But. . . .

What if there aren’t many extracurricular opportunities for you to explore your interests?

What if you can’t participate in one of these summer programs?



I always tell students in this situation to be creative in terms of how they take action on their interests.

Participating in the New York Times Summer Reading Contest is one of these creative approaches. Poke around inside the Times and find pieces that describe interesting work in the field.

Let’s say that right now all you know is that you’re fascinated by the brain. Search “neuroscience” or “the brain” and make sure you limit the search to 2017. In the following image, I show you how to limit your search.

College Admissions New York Times

Start clicking on some of the results.

You don’t have to read things the way you do for school. Just search and skim until you find something that captures your attention. Then dig in and read, look, and/or listen.

Once you start exploring inside the Times, you might find more specific things about neuroscience that interest you.

Maybe you’ll stumble across Jess Bidgood’s “How to Get the Brain to Like Art” and suddenly realize there’s a way for you to bring together your interests in neuroscience and art. Or maybe you’ll discover Caleb Carr’s review of The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms, get intrigued by legal applications of neuroscience, and decide to read the book.

But wait. . .

How can this help you in terms of college admissions?

After all, submitting 250-300 word responses to pieces in the New York Times (see below for tips on how to structure your responses) isn’t the same as participating in an advanced summer research program.

Nevertheless, it counts.

Advancing your knowledge in these ways can make a big difference when you’re writing your supplemental essays for colleges. Let’s consider the University of Pennsylvania’s supplement:

“The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests and goals.”

To write a compelling essay in response to this prompt you have to be able to talk very specifically about your intellectual experiences (your “background” and “interests”) and then connect them to the resources at the University of Pennsylvania. You don’t want to be broad or vague.

In your supplemental essay, you could talk about how you initially got interested in neuroscience and how you advanced that interest through your reading of the New York Times and participation in the Summer Reading Contest. You could even mention which pieces in the Times you read and describe what you wrote about them for the contest. If there are a lack of opportunities in your community, you could refer to this fact and use your description to demonstrate your ingenuity in terms of pursuing your interests. Then, of course, you’d want to link your intellectual path to the opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania.

CLICK HERE to read my article on supplemental essays. CLICK HERE to read my article on how Coursera and edX classes can be useful in the college admissions process. CLICK HERE to read my article on Yale alumni interviewer reports; it will help you understand how important it is to be able to talk about your interests and how you’ve explored them.

Option #2: Use the contest to discover and explore new topics.

Sometimes students come to me with only a fuzzy sense of what interests them.

That’s totally okay.

You don’t actually have to know exactly what you want to study in college. (There are some exceptions to this claim, but I’m not going to get into them here.)

Janet Lavin Rapelye, the dean of admission at Princeton, points out that “about 70 percent of our students graduate in a major different from the one they indicated on their admission application. We think this is exactly the right approach. We expect that students will explore their intellectual interests, and we want them to follow their passions, wherever they may lead them.”

What is important is that you are an explorer.

You’re not going to discover your intellectual interests by just sitting around. Ideas aren’t going to magically drop into your mind. 🙂

The New York Times Summer Reading Contest can help you start your exploration.

Go to the home page and click on “Sections” and the little arrows to see more specific options within each section. Just start poking around and exploring whatever it is that seems intriguing to you.You don’t have to choose something serious or academic.

You might want to check out The Daily 360 (short videos), The Daily (short podcasts featuring the story behind the stories), Times Documentaries, the Arts section, or the Science section.

Even if you’re applying “undecided” to schools, I recommend talking about a few subjects or issues that excite you and how you’ve explored them. Your process of reading, listening to, watching The Times and contributing to the Summer Reading Contest is definitely something you can write about in your essays and talk about in your alumni interviews.


The Learning Network points out that “the best pieces year after year make both personal connections to the news and go beyond the personal to discuss broader questions and ideas that a piece raises.”

One thing that I really love about this contest is that it encourages you to enter into dialogue with authors and the issues they address. You’re not just writing an academic essay where you have to quote experts. Your voice and your personal connection to the issues raised in the piece are just as important. Plus, you’re challenged to connect your own perspective and the author’s to a broader context.

My #1 piece of advice is to read the entries of previous winners.

Study how they structured their responses.

  • Do they ever write things like this: “What I found most interesting in The Times this week is_______”?
  • How do they convey their interest?
  • How do they situate their specific ideas within a broader context?
  • What do you like about their writing style?

You might want to read Claire McClannan’s entry on “The World’s Disappearing Sand.” I love the tone of her contribution as well as her introduction: “Sand. The most boring thing you never thought about. But as it turns out, our cities depend on it, and we’re running out.” Just FYI, you can definitely start your Common Application essay in this kind of terse, surprising way. This type of introduction is much more compelling than the traditional opening paragraphs you have to write for your academic essays.

Gabe S.’s entry on “How the Government Supports Your Junk Food Habit” also has a great introduction: “Enter the twenty-first century: Greek yogurt, quinoa, juice cleanses, and Fitbits. Eating healthier and making the right choices at mealtime have gained popularity. And food companies have evolved to meet the demands of the customers who want all-natural, organic, GMO-free products.” I also like how he describes the way the article opened his eyes to how “agricultural policies had grown so out of line with the health-related needs of the country.”


I hope you take advantage of this opportunity. If you do, let me know. I love cheering on my students and readers!

The Learning Network emphasizes that it doesn’t matter “what you choose or whether you loved or hated it.” What they care “about is what you have to say about why you picked it.”


Click here to learn how to schedule a private consultation with Dr. Bernstein.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Bernstein’s ongoing private college preparation and college admissions support.

Click here to learn about the online Get Yourself Into College® program.


How Can Harvard Help You Write Amazing Common Application Essays?

Harvard offers an excellent free resource that can help you write a stunning, truly memorable Common Application essay.

This same resource can support you in crafting extraordinary personal narratives for the University of California’s “personal insight questions,” the Coalition Application prompts, and topics required by other non-Common App schools.


One of my new students is a high school junior who believed participating in Harvard’s Summer School program would be the major distinguishing factor in his application package.

After all, it was Harvard, and he’d earn college credit for the classes.

In fact, Harvard publicizes how the Secondary School Program “will strengthen your application to any college or university” and provide you with “many opportunities designed to help you navigate the college-application process, gain admission to the college of your choice, and enhance your performance in a college setting.”

I’m not sure I agree with all of those claims, especially the first one.

However, some of my students have attended the Secondary School Program and enjoyed taking more advanced courses related to their interests. One of these students is now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she’s a Vagelos Scholar in Molecular Life Sciences.

Did participating in the summer program at Harvard make any true difference with her applications? 

I don’t think so.

Her substantial extracurricular experience related to her scientific interests–especially her independent hands-on research projects, experience working in a local professor’s lab, leadership of a Science Olympiad team, and long-term community service (which was connected to her passion for public health)–combined with her stellar grades, challenging classes at school, exceptional standardized test scores, and fascinating application essays definitely seemed more impressive than the fact that she took classes at Harvard.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not trying to put down Harvard’s Summer Program because it can be a really good option depending on your unique situation.

But it is definitely NOT necessary to participate in a summer program–even one at Harvard–that, on average, costs $11,900 (for tuition and room and board).

No one on an admissions committee is going to say, “Oh, wow. Look at this. John took summer classes at Harvard. Admit him.”

My student realized that taking yet another class wasn’t what he needed to pursue his fascination with a certain historical issue. Instead, I helped him design his own independent research project, connect with two professors whose work he admires and who agreed to review his work, integrate relevant community service into his work, and identify two journals where he might submit his essay.

In the end, this project is going to make the biggest difference for my student–as an individual and as an applicant.

However. . .

Harvard does have a resource he desperately needs, one that will help him distinguish himself from thousands of other students.


So what’s this resource?

It’s the Lowell House Speeches Project.

Harvard students in this undergraduate House have the opportunity to give “five-minute speeches on topics of personal significance.”

These aren’t college application essays, but you should listen to at least five of them.

Here are some questions to consider. . . .

  • What do you like about the way the narrative is structured? Is there something intriguing about where the student started or ended? 
  • What do you notice about the scope of the student’s talk? Does it cover a long period of time? If so, how does the student integrate a series of anecdotes that make you feel like you’ve really gotten to know him? Does the speaker have a super narrow scope? What advantage does a narrow scope give you?
  • What do you enjoy about the anecdotes? How does the writer strike just the right balance between internal and external details. . .between showing and telling?
  • Are there particular words, phrases, images, and sentences that you find beautiful, poignant, or memorable? What gives them these qualities? 
  • What do you think of the title? Is it necessary? Why? Why not?
  • Some of the talks are accompanied by transcripts. How does the speaker vary the length of her paragraphs and use dialogue?
  • What makes the talk memorable?

You don’t have to listen for all these things.


Zoom in on what attracts or repels you.

Consider how you might use similar devices or strategies in your own writing.

You don’t want to walk away just thinking: “Sophie’s talk was about x, y, and z, and it was great because. . . .”

You want to walk away thinking like this: “Wow, I never thought about how I could start my application essay with just one sentence, but Mark’s talk gave me a great idea for how to . . . .” 


There are almost 300 Lowell House Speeches you can listen to/watch.

I want to share with you some of my favorites. 

Dillon Cruz’s “Goose Creek” (2016) is a riveting, memorable, and elegant inter-generational narrative about “thirty years of promises and choices and sacrifices.” On the surface, it seems like the narrative is mainly about his father, grandfather, and mother, but as you’ll notice at the end, it’s ultimately about Dillon. He points out that these “stories are more than just stories” to him; they are “central to who” he is becoming. His showing is the most powerful telling.

Meghan Cleary’s “Dad’s Girlfriend” (2011) “brought the crowded Lowell House dining hall. . .to stunned silence and then catharsis.” Hmmm….Wouldn’t you love to have this kind of effect on the admissions officers reading your application? Are there any underlying strategies that you could borrow?

The twists and turns in Delfina Martinez-Pandiani’s “Exposed” (2017) are hauntingly poignant and memorable. I love how the whole talk emerges out of a haircut, people’s reactions to it, and how the act and reactions have shifted her perspectives on herself.

These three talks could work for the first Common App essay topic (“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it”), the fifth topic (“an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others”), or the seventh topic (“Share an essay on any topic of your choice”). CLICK HERE to learn more about the Common App essay topics.


The Harvard students’ talks should help you get your creative juices pumping.

If you want to transform your college preparation and application process into an “intense, whimsical, surprising, and transformative” experience that also helps you stand out from the thousands of other applicants, book a private consultation or learn about how you can get more comprehensive support from me.

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.


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.”


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


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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?


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


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. Now you’re encouraged to consider writing about a time when you questioned a belief or idea, asked to shed more light on your thinking (rather than just your action).

CLICK HERE to access articles on the other new Common Application essay prompts for 2017-2018.


Many of my students used to immediately dismiss the “challenge” essay topic. The Common App revealed that during the 2015-2016 cycle, only 4% of applicants selected this prompt.

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.

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

Also, it makes sense to consider whether or not you’re likely to alienate readers by focusing on something controversial. Notice that I’m not saying you shouldn’t write about something risky. Sometimes “rocking the boat” is exactly what you want or need to do. You just have to make an informed decision.

Let’s say that you are Jewish, and in 10th grade you noticed that your school district’s calendar featured Jewish and Christian holidays but left out holidays related to other religions. Maybe this situation inspired you to talk with one of your Muslim friends to get her perspectives and eventually led the two of you to research school policies related to religious holidays and to create a student forum for discussing these issues. Then, in 11th grade, you met with the principal, superintendent, and school board to present a proposal that challenged the structure of the calendar, which resulted in the district agreeing to include a wider range of holidays in the calendar.

The most interesting details in this essay would be your collaboration with your peers, the way you created spaces for open-minded dialogues about complex issues, and how the experience changed the way you think about inclusiveness.

You can still write about seemingly “BIGGER” challenges, but the new version of the topic is more inviting.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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


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.”**


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.


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.)


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.”


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


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.


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?