Lions and Tigers and Bears . . . Oh My!


School starts this month for most of my seniors and with it comes the big push in college application season. The two biggies my students are worried about are the college list and the Common App essay.

But with only so many hours in the day, which one to do first?

As with everything else in college admissions, it depends.

Do you like research? Do you like numbers? Do you like taking a lot of information and synthesizing it? Then start with your college list.

Talk to people you know. Ask them where they went to college, but more importantly ask them what CHARACTERISTICS they liked about that college. Say someone is crazy about Occidental College just outside of LA. Do they love that it’s a small liberal arts college? That can describe hundreds of other schools too. Or do they love its strong political science and diplomacy focus? That can probably describe dozens of other schools. Maybe someone loves the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Do they love the amazing anthropology/sociology program? If you’re looking at these majors, you might also consider tiny Beloit College, also in Wisconsin. But if you’re assuming they love UW-Madison because it’s a Big Ten school and you look at Illinois and Michigan because of this, you might miss out on other strong programs. See where I’m going?

At the early stage of forming your college list, try not to focus on one specific school. Instead, define what you like about a certain school (size, majors, location, personality, etc.) and see if those characteristics can be found in other schools too.

Do you love to write? Do you like thinking about what makes you unique? Then start with your Common App essay.

This year, like other years, there are five topics to choose from and a 650-word limit. It doesn’t matter which topic you pick; it matters how you deal with it. In general, admissions officers are looking for essays that tell them something about you that they can’t see from the rest of your application. In a way, the essay is the most valuable piece of real estate in your entire application. Anyone might have the same GPA or test scores as you, but only you can tell the story of who you are and what you might bring to a college community.

One of the most common mistakes students make with their essays is to tell their entire autobiography. Stronger essays take a SMALL MOMENT and show admissions officers how it represents something fundamental about you. Say you want to write about your high school swimming years. Instead of describing that time you won the big race (a pretty obvious, overdone, and tired subject), describe a small moment that illustrates how it felt to be in the pool. What did the water feel like when you accidentally got a nose full of chlorine? When you were swimming lap after lap and staring at the line on the bottom of the pool, did your mind wander? How did it feel when your arms were burning and you wanted to pull yourself along in practice by pulling on the lane lines? Details like this go a long way in showing an admissions officer who you are.

So whether you start on the “lion” of the essay or the “tiger” of the college list, it’s time to mark off some specific slots in your schedule devoted to your college apps. You’ll thank yourself later in the semester when school starts to kick into high gear. An early start on your essay and list will help you “bear” the other stresses of the fall semester. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

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