Preparing a good college application is like cooking a great dish. You have main ingredients, but you can combine them in creative and personal ways. The quality of your ingredients also makes a big difference. It’s hard to cook a great dish with sad wilted vegetables or proteins that aren’t fresh. And timing is everything.
1 Fresh Personal Essay
1 Ripe Common App
3 kg of Supplemental Essays
3 Letters of Recommendation finely chopped
2 Teaspoons of Activities
3 Tablespoons of Additional Information
But before you start cooking your dishes, it’s important to know who you’re cooking for. Think of colleges like your customers or even food critics because you can bet that they’ll be extremely picky. All great chefs cook with a specific kind of customer in mind, like someone who likes fancy high-end French food, or prefers hearty home-style Italian food, or enjoys spicy fragrant Chinese food. At the end of the day, all of these customers have a generally shared sense of high quality food, but each still has their own unique tastes and preferences. Colleges are no different. Every admissions office will have generally things they’ll look for, but each college also has its own preference when it comes to types of students.
So before you begin cooking, you’ll need to know who you’re cooking for. Over the course of high school, you’ll want to slowly narrow down your list until you’re left with roughly seven to nine colleges you’ll actually apply to. You don’t want too many because each application takes quite a bit of time, but you also don’t want too few because you limit your choices later on. You’ll need to pick this list before you start anything else because without a great college list selected and finalized, all of the other parts of the application will be shifting and moving around. It’s important to pick the right colleges. Four years is a long time to be in a place that doesn’t fit you well. Check out part one and part two of how to pick the right college list.
We encourage our students to start looking into colleges starting in 10th grade. This means researching their various programs and what each school uniquely has to offer. Knowing a lot about a college is not only good for deciding on which college to attend, but will also come in handy when writing the supplements (see more below).
When it comes to understanding a college, there’s almost no substitute for a visit. Of course there are time and budgetary constraints, but you should do whatever you can to actually physically interact with a college. You’ll get a much better feel for the culture of the school as you imagine what it will be like to enroll there as a student.
The Personal Essay
The personal essay is often seen as the main ingredient of the application. Indeed, it’s one of the only places where your voice is able to truly come through and the college can see you as a real person. This is no easy feat, but the good news is that there are also a lot of ways to establish voice. One way is to go for depth and not breadth. Focus on one story or theme, use lots of detail and description, and clearly express one meaningful underlying message. Just as each element of a recipe contributes to the overall flavor of the dish, your personal essay contributes your personality, character, and “flavor” to the application.
Tip: Personal essays are best when they’re fresh. That means you should try to avoid overused themes and conventions. Of course, this is easier said than done. A great way to achieve this is to go deeper and address your unique experience with this theme or your own unexpected perspective. For example, if you’re writing about overcoming a challenge (a very classic topic), maybe focus on the uniqueness of the challenge (ie. you developed type 2 diabetes as a kid) or you can pose a very unexpected lesson learned (ie. we should all aspire to be more stubborn, not less). Taking a predictable approach to a cliche topic can ruin your dish and make it taste like every other dish.
We encourage students to start writing their personal essays over the summer before their senior year of high school. But the best way to prepare for this task is to develop yourself as a strong writer with a clear and distinct voice. We always recommend younger students to deliberately practice their writing even outside of their normal school curriculum. Another great way to get better at writing is to read more (great books ideally). Reading exposes you to great writing and shows off different ways to convey complex ideas. There’s no substitute for solid writing skills when it comes to the personal essay, so be sure to practice. The personal essay is particularly difficult because of the complexity and nuances of so many abstract ideas being layered on all at once.
The Common App
The Common App forms the foundation for your dish, like rice or pasta, so it’s essential you get this right. As the foundation, it binds the whole application together. In addition to collecting your personal demographic information, it also collects every other part of your application outlined in this blog post.
We refer to the Common App here because it’s the most ubiquitous, but the reality is that there are a dozen or so different application platforms. For example, the UC (University of California) system has its own. The UI (University of Illinois) network has its own. MIT has its own.
We recommend students to create a Common App account after they finish 11th grade. Even if you don’t immediately start filling it out, you should at least familiarize yourself with all of the twists, turns, and sheer volume.
Sometimes called Extended Essays, almost every college has its own set of these. This is where things start to get spicy and complex and you’re able to really show off something different for each school. Where your personal essay goes out to all of the schools you apply to, supplements are targeted and only go to a single school. This is why we recommend students to avoid applying to too many colleges because the Supplemental Essays add up very quickly. However, even though this means you have a lot more writing ahead of you, the good news is that supplements are usually shorter. The bad news is that sometimes they can be quite strange. For example, here’s a prompt from the University of Chicago this year:
Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts
Pro tip: These essays are actually all looking for the same thing: they want to hear you explain why you want to go to their school. So, regardless of the prompt, you’ll need to answer this fundamental question. You’ll want to show off that you have knowledge about their programs and campus and make a case for how you connect with them.
In general, supplemental essays can be classified into two main categories: the “why us” and the “why you.” However, just as the tip suggests, you should always be answering the question of why you want to go to that school. A good supplement shows off why you as a candidate are uniquely suited for the college and also shows off why the college is uniquely suited for you. If you have a special understanding of the college and its culture or programs, this would be a great opportunity to express that.
Letters of Recommendation
The flavor notes that these letters strike must be strong and distinct. Colleges want students who aren’t only great but are also seen as great by others. Letters of recommendation are basically a college’s way to validate that you are as good as you say you are. In particular, colleges will consider your recommender (who else he or she has recommended in the past to that school and how successful those applicants have been), and how unequivocally they endorse you (you are the BEST).
We encourage our students to start nurturing these relationships as early as possible. Then at the end of 11th grade or the start of 12th grade, you’ll need to provide your recommenders with information about what they should be writing about. Even if it’s a teacher who knows you very well, this is still a helpful approach because it both makes it easier for the teacher and better ensures that you will get a strong letter of recommendation. You also never know which teacher will come back into your life and it’s always hard to make a first impression twice. This doesn’t only mean performing at a very high level in the class, but also contributing to the community in a meaningful way.
Activities are often forgotten or treated casually because the section is so short. However, it’s because this section is so short that you need to be extra careful and extra expressive.
What defines an activity? Anything that you’re actively involved in, which includes jobs or taking care of a sick family member. Although it might be tempting to show off all of your shiny accolades here, you should not try to include everything you possibly can. Common App allows you to list up to ten, but don’t feel like you need to fill up all ten spots. Admissions prefers fewer activities that you have real involvement in because there’s less “noise” and it helps them discern what really matters to you.
It’s never too early to start preparing for the Activities section of the application. In particular, you want to be spending your time in a more focused way as early as 9th grade. The more impact and personal significance you can demonstrate with an activity, the more meaningful it will be for an admissions officer. This is why at The Spike Lab, we push our students to do a Spike, which demonstrates both personal significance and impact. But which activities should you pick? This is just one of the reasons why we recommend students to start thinking about this question as early as possible. For reference, check out this post about which clubs to avoid.
The Additional Information is often neglected, but we think it’s your secret ingredient. It’s what adds that final special flavor to your dish that makes it truly unique. This is where our students talk a lot about their Spike and other unique achievements that are difficult to include elsewhere. Check out Lloyd’s article this month for a much deeper dive into this special section.
When it comes to applying for college, all of these ingredients are best if prepared ahead of time. Most master chefs will devote their whole day to “prep” and only open their restaurants at night for dinner. Amateur chefs will prepare their ingredients in the middle of cooking and frantically switch from stirring a sauce to chopping some vegetables to grilling some fish. It’s obvious which kind of chef is going to more successful and it should also be obvious what kind of student will be more successful at applying to college. At The Spike Lab, we recommend students start early and work deliberately.