Tagged: Common Application

How to Outline Your Personal Essay (and move it to the “yes” pile!)

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This post is brought to you by Greta M., Lead Essay Expert at Admitster!

You’ve spent the last three years learning how to write a five-paragraph essay.  Yet, when sitting down to write a “personal essay” as prompted, you may find yourself among the majority of students that feel at a loss as to how to organize their thoughts. Described below is a tried-and-true method that will showcase your strengths as a student while still providing an effective answer to the prompt (after reading, click here for the template).

In order to explain this, it might help to have an example student, and an example admissions reader.  Let’s call our student Bob, and our admissions reader Laura.  (Both great people.)  Let’s talk about Laura, first of all.

When Laura reads a student’s personal statement, she’s not really interested in what prompt that student responded to.  Behind every essay prompt, admissions readers like Laura are really asking: “Why should I accept THIS student?” Essays that go in the “YES” pile show that the student deserves to be accepted even above other qualified candidates.  Some students have written essays that show they are bright, creative, motivated, and curious people; Laura puts those essays in the “Yes” pile.  Some students have done their research into Laura’s University and make a point to showcase that they are exactly the kind of particular student her University wants; Laura puts those into the “Heck yes” pile.  Other essays fail to show that the student is college-ready.  Those essays go into the “No” pile.

Now let’s talk about Bob.  (What about Bob?)  Bob has decided to respond to the Common App Prompt 2: “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?”  Let’s say Student Bob wants to write about the time he got caught cheating as a freshman and intends to communicate how that moment compelled him to learn with integrity throughout the rest of his high-school career.  As we go over the recommended outline below, keep that in mind.

OPEN WITH A HOOK: Let’s picture our admissions reader, Laura, trying to focus on her 60th essay of the day.  She’s got her third cup of coffee in hand and is thinking about the grocery run she’s got to make after work. “Focus,” she tells herself.  She picks up the next application and squints.  “Student Bob.”  With a sigh, she turns to the essay.

Now: which of the lines below is best to capture Laura’s attention?

Option 1: “When I was a freshman, I experienced a moment of failure that I will write about below.”

Option 2: “My teacher’s eyes locked with mine and narrowed.  Instantly I could tell that she knew.  My face flushed red and I felt sweat prickle all over my scalp.  The paper Mrs. Miley dropped onto my test confirmed it.  See me after class, she’d written in red.”

Which is more interesting?  If you picked Option 2, chances are good that you’ll be graduating in June.  For the sake of the tired admissions readers receiving your essay, you need to provide a hook that will instantly engage them.  Do you want your application to be given the attention it deserves?  Bob sure does.  Then make sure you get your reader to care about your story immediately.  Open with a sensory image, or an attention-getting phrase.  “Slice” directly into the story so that they’re immediately engaged.

EXPAND THE STORY: Now that you’ve got the reader’s attention, help your proverbial Laura understand the whole picture.  What’s the context of this moment?  Let’s return to Student Bob. In his case, he should give us the background that lead him to this moment.  What motivated him to cheat?  What fears were in place that prevented him from doing an assignment honestly?  What were his thoughts when he got caught by his teacher? He’s “sliced” into his story, but now he needs to bring his reader up to speed and answer any initial questions his hook created.

SHOW HOW IT CONNECTS: Continue to expand the story, and help your reader see what other areas of your life this touched.  Give us the whole picture of who you are, and begin to show us how this changed you.  In his third paragraph, Student Bob is going to want to show a fuller picture of his story.  Maybe his parents put a lot of pressure on him to succeed and he doesn’t want to let them down.  Maybe he spends all his time after school playing basketball and didn’t bother to study for the test he cheated on.  By showing other areas of life impacted by this story, we’re beginning to see Bob as a well-rounded person: “Oh, he plays basketball too.  And oh, he has a close relationship with his parents.” Perhaps in this third paragraph, Bob also describes an inspiring conversation he had with his teacher where she addressed some of his fears; maybe after that, he made a resolution to change his cheatin’ ways.  Laura is now thinking, “Oh, he is teachable and willing to listen to advice.  Oh, he is motivated to implement healthy changes.”  This third paragraph should start to bring in your strengths, and turn the essay in a positive direction.

DEMONSTRATE IMPACT OR CHANGE: This is the place to really showcase your strengths.   Using the story you’ve been telling, show us how you matured, strengthened, and developed as a result.  Sometimes, it can be hard to really play up your strengths without sounding arrogant.  But Bob doesn’t have to worry about that. Why?  Because he started off his essay being candid about how he failed; that means, when he starts to describe his successes, he looks like the come-back kid, and we’re rooting for him to succeed!  In this paragraph, Bob is going to want to use tons of evidence to prove he changed.  First he’s going to describe his new study methods, and time management strategies.  Then, he’s going to mention specific classes he started getting better grades in, like Biology.  THEN (this is the part that moves Laura’s hand towards the “YES” pile), he writes about how his new focus in Biology made him so interested in the subject that he started researching Biology concepts like Immunotherapy outside of class.  (Admissions readers like Laura LOVE hearing that you did research outside of class.)  From there, Bob discusses an internship he found doing DNA research and talks about the tutoring club he started after school for other would-be cheaters like himself.

CONCLUDE: Tie up the essay by looking towards your future.  How has this experience prepared you for success in college?  Student Bob returns to his original narrative and reflects on how much he’s changed since Freshman year.  He mentions some of the specific lessons he’s learned that have prepared him for higher learning.  Bob ends in an artful way, bringing up an image from his hook: “I recently collected a letter of recommendation from the same teacher who caught me cheating in 9th grade.  She’d paper-clipped a note to the envelope with a new red-inked message.  I’m proud of you, she wrote.  I’m so glad I’ve learned enough in four years to change those words in red.”  As Admissions Reader Laura finishes the essay, she tears up, grabs a tissue, and slaps Bob’s essay in the “Heck Yes” pile.

Let’s review what’s essential:

Behind every essay prompt, the admissions readers are really asking: “Why should I accept THIS student?” You need to show them in your essay that you have the qualities they are looking for– and if you don’t already know what those are, research the school to find out what kind of character qualities they value in students.

This outline is here to help you get started. However, we know that a great college essay will require many drafts! If you want some help with getting started, revising, or putting the finishing touches on your essay, definitely check out Admitster’s Wicked Smart College Essay Review service!


Personal Essay Outline Template

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This outline, developed by our Admitster Writing Experts, helps provide a structure your personal essay, and can be applied to any prompt on the Common Application. Keep in mind, while writing that these are sections, not necessarily paragraphs. Use it as a road map to make sure that you are both telling your story and answering the prompt.

Also, don’t forget word count! The Common App Essay is 650 words. You can edit later, but if it takes you two pages to write the first two sections, you’re writing too much!


HOOK: Open with a sensory image, or an attention-getting phrase.  Admissions officers read tons of these essays, so you need to make sure yours gets them interested right away.  “Slice” directly into the story so that they’re immediately engaged.



EXPAND THE STORY: Now that you’ve got their attention, help us understand the whole picture.  What’s the context of this moment?



WHAT IT ELSE THIS AFFECTS: Continue to expand the story, and help us see what other areas of your life this touched or how it connects.  Give us the whole picture of who you are, and begin to show us how this impacted, or even changed you.



HOW THIS CHANGED YOU: This is the place to showcase your strengths.  Using the story you’ve been telling, show us how you matured, strengthened, and developed as a result.  Make sure to provide evidence and specific details so that your changes are verified with facts.



CONCLUDE: Tie up the essay by looking towards your future.  How has this experience prepared you for success at college?



If you want more help with your essay, you have choices!

Welcome to Your 2016-2017 Common Application!

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For those of you anxiously waiting, the Common Application is officially open and ready to use for this year’s college applications! Over the coming months, you will meticulously enter and review with a fine-tooth comb your personal, academic, and activities information. However, we want to focus on the section that just became available with the August 1st launch: Your Colleges!

It’s time to put your Admitster College List to Work!

We hope you’ve been using our College List Tool to research and create your personalized short-list of colleges and universities! Now, you get to take this list and put it into action! The first thing you will have to do is log into www.commonapp.org and create and store your username and password somewhere safe.

Then, you will want to click on “College Search”, where you can simply search for each school by name and add them to your list.  Once you have added all of the colleges you like (you can add as many as 20), click Dashboard and you will see your college list– it’ll be called “My Colleges”.

For each college, you will see four things: Questions, Assign Recommenders, Submission, and Writing Supplement (obviously, submitting is the last thing you want to do!). In order to understand the requirements of each college on your list, you will need to click on each college, and do the following:

Start with the “Questions”:  You want to carefully look at the Questions for each school. Here’s where you’ll see all the school-specific short answer questions, as well as prompts to enter things like your desired major or program. Oftentimes, entering a specific program (for example in engineering or the arts) will “trigger” some additional required questions and information. So it’s wise to enter in your major for each school (and maybe play with a few alternatives) so you can see you how a choice might impact what’s being asked of you in any given application.

Watch out for the “Other” Section: In many of the college’s Question section, you see something called “Other.”  I’ve seen this section contain straightforward questions, such as an honor code. I’ve also seen it be a somewhat hidden repository for longer supplementary essays. Some unfortunate students have not noticed these until they go to submit applications. Therefore, you should click through every single section, no matter how small it seems, making sure you don’t miss a thing!

Preview each Writing Supplement: Most of the time, this section includes the supplementary short essay questions. For example, you might be asked to elaborate on an extra-curricular activity, or explain your interest in the school. For strategies on crafting your responses, read this blog post.

However, oftentimes, colleges might have more extensive essays that are just as long as your college essay! You’ll be wanting to get to work on these quickly, as it may impact your topic selection for your Common App essay (as you generally should not write about the same topic in two essays).

Don’t over-rely on the Dashboard View: This is a helpful tool, for sure. It’ll have a symbol for each school that requires a writing supplement. As we’ve learned, since these supplements sometimes appear in the Questions section,  the Dashboard might inaccurately not list a writing supplement for each school. Again, this is why you need to carefully go through every section!

While the Dashboard presents application deadlines for each college, these are for regular decision admissions only. You will be responsible for tracking any earlier deadlines, such as Early Action, Early Decision, and Merit Aid scholarships.

Know when to work off-line: For any written content beyond the essentials, I’d highly suggest moving off the website and onto a separate document. You don’t want to accidentally submit rough drafts or lose work during a crash!

Word Count and Character Count: As you manage these written components, pay careful attention to the directions on each prompt.  Most questions will have a clear word count (very rarely is it unlimited). However, many short responses will often have a character count, or even a line-count. This implies that they are looking for precise responses (I’ve helped more than a handful of students edit an eloquent 250 word short essay to a pithy 250 character statement.)

So, now that you’re in this year’s application- have some fun, poke around, and most importantly, get organized. If you start to feel overwhelmed, we are here to help you succeed! Our college advisers have expert knowledge of each school and their requirements, and can give you the extra support you need to submit impressive applications to each school on your list!  Remember, we offer a free consultation to any new client (rising seniors- we’re looking at you!). 

The Scholar Snapp Solution

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There has been so much going on in the world of college admissions lately (the College ScorecardFAFSA changes, the test-optional movement, the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, and new college ranking systems, to name but a few examples) that it’s easy for some news to quietly pass by largely unnoticed. One example of such news is a recent collaboration between The Common Application and Scholar Snapp, which was developed by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation back in 2008. The purpose of the Scholar Snapp solution is, in a nutshell, to increase access to college scholarship funds. How is this accomplished? Well, as is stated on their website, “The Scholar Snapp solution will help you complete applications faster by pre-populating basic information requested in all scholarship applications and will help you find money for college by matching your data with the qualifications of various scholarship providers.” In other words, the Scholar Snapp solution provides users with the tools and resources needed to both find scholarships and make it easier to apply for them – nice!



Scholar Snapp’s collaboration with The Common App is currently a pilot program, one through which The Common App shows evidence of its support of and commitment to both access and opportunity.  As the CEO of The Common Application has said, “The Common Application is deeply committed to increasing college access and to us that means not only connecting our colleges and universities with the talented students across the country, but also finding ways to help students and families to finance education.” I have high hopes that this pilot program will prove to be a success!

And how, exactly, does it work? You see, when a Common App user opts-in to Scholar Snapp, they then receive information directly from scholarship providers and, should they decide to then apply for those scholarships, it’s an expedited process using their Scholar Snapp file. Remember, one of the cool things about Scholar Snapp is that “once a student enters data for the first time, a scholarship application will allow a student to download their basic data and then upload it again to another application” – click here to learn more about this “Common App for scholarships”!

A few more things to keep in mind:

  • Students who opt-in to Scholar Snapp will not receive information about college-specific scholarships, so they should still plan to delve into college websites to search for college-specific funding opportunities.
  • The Common App is a great place to create a Scholar Snapp file, but know that it’s also possible to create a file via the Scholar Snapp website or using any scholarship application on which there is a Scholar Snapp logo.
  • As is the case with using Admitster’s online college admissions tools (simply take 30 seconds to register an account with us), using the Scholar Snapp solution is absolutely free!

To sum up (and surely you’ve seen this coming), using Scholar Snapp is a snap! It’s a great way to both save time and find scholarship money – funding opportunities await!

Wear Orange…

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…because hunting season is now open!


College hunting season, that is.  And what marks the start of this new season?  Why, it’s the fact that the 2015-2016 Common Application has officially gone live, of course!   Don’t cringe – these are exciting times!  New essay prompts!  New possibilities!  And a great wide world of opportunity out there, just waiting for you to arrive.  Along these lines, did you know that over 60 new colleges and universities have become Common Application members for the 2015-2016 admissions season? Click here for the complete list of new members.

More importantly, you can click here to log in to The Common Application website.

It was Mary Poppins who said, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.  You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game!”  You may not consider completing your college applications as a fun game – fair enough.  But in the midst of this process, which will sometimes be stressful, you will also experience moments of quiet self-reflection, small and great milestones to be celebrated, relief as your task list becomes ever-shorter, and elation when the time and effort invested pays off.  As is written on The Common Application’s website, “Learn. Explore. Grow. Focus. Apply.”  In other words, put on your orange (even if only figuratively) and embrace the college hunting season!

On another note, an important date for your college calendar:  

If you intend to take the ACT on September 12th, the registration deadline is August 7th.  A late registration (August 8th – August 21st) means that you’ll have to pay a late fee, so ACT quickly to meet the upcoming deadline – just click here!

Ruh Roh!

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OopsMonday morning and it’s the start of another busy week – school, work, commitments to family and friends, errands to run, things to do!  If you’re anything like me, you’ve poured your morning coffee or orange juice down your throat, grabbed your toast on the way out the door, and have hit the ground running.  What you probably haven’t scheduled in is time for quiet reflection and, in particular, time to dwell on those moments from your past that you may not be too proud of. We’ve all done a thing or two that we regret, but most of these regrets live on only in our minds, on a personal level.  In some cases, however, our regrets may live on in the form of a permanent record, in either a school disciplinary and/or police report.  Regarding the former, your school counselor will be asked to submit a Secondary School Report to your prospective colleges, including information on whether you’ve had disciplinary issues in school and whether you have any criminal history of which they’re aware.  Your school counselor will also be asked to submit a final report to the college you’ve chosen to attend, and that report will include your final grades, GPA and class rank, and also these questions (if you’re submitting The Common Application Final Report):

June 8th

Three things:

  • If you do have any history of disciplinary issues, be honest about them on your college applications – and take the chance to put down in words what happened, why it happened, and what you learned from it!  That black mark on your record could be an opportunity to explain to admissions officers what good came out of a bad situation, what you took away from it.
  • To help Admitster make the most accurate predictions for you, be sure to click on the “My Mistakes” tab (under “My Profile”) and make mention of your disciplinary history there, if applicable.
  • Don’t forget about the above-mentioned final report.  In other words, don’t slack off once you get that college acceptance letter-hand.  Finish strong!