Hamilton High School: College Application Essay Tips
“Telling Your Story: Writing Powerful
College Application Essays: Ten Tips”
Rebecca Joseph, PhD
Iphone/Google App: All College
How Important Are Essays?
What do American colleges look for?
2. Rigor of Coursework, School
3. Test Scores
5. Recommendations-Teacher and/or Counselor
Consistency, development, leadership, and
7. Special skills, culture, connections, talents, and
The Power and Danger of Essays
1. Give me two reasons why admissions officers value
college application essays.
2. Give me two reasons why they often dread reading
the majority of them.
How Much Do College Admissions Essays Matter?
"It's not a substitute for a rigorous curriculum, good grades and
evidence that you're going to do well,”
Still, the essay can make a difference.
The 10% rule: "If you have 18- or 20,000 applicants, for some of
those students, the essay makes a huge difference, both positively
and negatively," says admissions dean at the University of
Virginia, where admissions counselors read every essay looking for
the student's voice.
The first challenge for the writer: picking
Any topic can work — or fail.
The biggest problem for students is
starting with too wide a focus. "By the
time they get to the details, they run out
of space. I'm all for cutting
to the chase."
Tip 1. College essays are fourth in importance
behind grades, test scores, and the rigor of
completed coursework in many admissions office
decisions. Don’t waste this powerful
opportunity to share your voice and express
who you really are to colleges. Great life stories
make you jump off the page and into your match
A New Paradigm
Tip 2. Develop an overall strategic essay writing
plan. College essays should work together to help
you communicate key qualities and stories not
available anywhere else in your application.
The package of essays counts…not just one.
It’s the message that you communicate along with the power of your stories and
It’s your ability to take the reader into, through, and beyond your stories quickly
Tell stories that belong just to you. That’s why a narrow and powerfully, personal
focus is key.
Essays = Opportunity
Take control over the highest ranked non-academic aspect of
Realize the package of essays counts…not just one
Share their voice
Empower students to take ownership of their stories
Express who they really are
Show (not tell) stories that belong only to them and help
them jump off the page
Reflect on their growth and development, including
accomplishments and service
Seek to understand what the admission officer is looking for
What DO Admissions Officers Seek?
Intellectual curiosity, a playful mind, or a sense of humor
Commitment/Depth of Interests
Interaction with and/or perception by others
Special talents and qualities
Four Major Application Types:
1. The Common Application
Many private and some public American use the centralized
Common Application with their own Writing supplements
It will go live August 1. More than 500 colleges use it.
Don’t start writing any essays until you see all the essays required
for your top schools. My app-All College Application Essays has the
1. Common Application Essays
250-650 words –actual limit as you upload it.
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they
believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please
share your story.
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what
lessons did you learn?
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would
you make the same decision again?
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or
experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from
childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
The Common Application leaves room for 10 activities with 150 characters to describe your leadership
The Common Application allows you to add additional information. Accepts up to 650 words.
They range from one line to 500 words. Some schools have one, while other have three. They can overlap.
If it says optional, view it as mandatory.
Common Application Writing Supplements
Some long– U Penn, U Chicago (300-650 words)
Some small— Columbia, Brown
Four Major Application Types:
2. Large Public Universities
Many large and most prominent public universities
have their own applications.
Arizona, California, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Texas, Washi
ngton, and Wisconsin—to name just some
They each have different essay requirements.
They each have your report activities in a different way.
But there are ways to use your other essays here as well.
They have their own essays. You should gather their topics
and look for ways to use your common application essay as one
of your essays for the public colleges, and visa-versa.
Respond to both prompts, using a maximum of 1,000 words total.
You may allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one
prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)-[Outside-In]
Describe the world you come from – for example, your
family, community or school – and tell us how your world
has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Prompt #2 (all applicants) [Inside-Out]
Tell us about a personal
quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience
that is important to you. What about this quality or
accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to
the person you are.
University of Texas Essay Tips
Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear. The university’s essay readers don’t have a perfect essay in mind –
as a matter of fact essays that sound like all the rest of them – the essay that is expected – is more likely to be
Be yourself. Show us what makes you unique, how you’ve dealt with issues and problems, what you think about the
topic at hand. Good writing teachers tell their students to write about what they know. That’s good advice for college
Use a natural voice and style. Although it’s always important to use proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, diction,
etc., don’t write to try to impress anyone. Use words and a style that are appropriate for the topic you’re writing about,
for someone your age, and for someone who’s trying to communicate clearly and logically.
Don’t be overly informal either. Your essay will be read by an adult professional. In almost all cases, you should
avoid using words or phrases that you might use when texting someone or on a social networking site.
Develop your ideas. Although the length of your essay alone technically doesn’t matter, developing your ideas
completely does matter. If you can do that in a single page of text, that’s good; but if it takes you three pages or so, that’s
alright, too (as long as you’re not just adding words to make your essay longer). It’s not realistic to assume that you can
clearly communicate your unique perspective about anything in a short paragraph or two.
Organize your thoughts. All good writing has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That doesn’t mean you should be
formulaic in your writing (this isn’t a high school exit exam), but you should introduce your idea, provide interesting
examples and details in support of your idea, and come to some sort of conclusion at the end.
Don’t respond to the prompt as though you’re answering a question. Again, we don’t have a perfect essay in
mind. The prompt is supposed to get your mind churning, to make you want to tell us what you think about something
that’s important to you. Your essay is your opportunity to do that.
Four Major Application Types:
3. Private college specific applications
Fewer and fewer major private universities are not on the
But there are still holdouts.
Georgetown and MIT to name a view.
Make sure you don’t write unnecessary essays as
Georgetown essays are like The Common Application.
Four Major Application Types:
4. Other systems
Some large public systems have their own
applications which do not require long, if any essays.
Yet their applications for financial aid or academic
support programs add in those requirements.
Washington State, for example, several short essays
which they share with other state systems.
The Universal Application is another system. It has
fewer colleges on it than The Common Application.
Develop A Master Chart
Tip 3. Keep a chart of all essays required by each
college, including short responses and optional
essays. View each essay or short response as a chance
to tell a new story and to share your core qualities.
I recommend three sheets.
1. Major deadlines and needs. Break it down by the four
2. Core essays-Color code all the similar or overlapping essays.
3. Supplemental essays. Each college has extra requirements
on the common application. Again color code similar types:
Why are you a good match for us? How will you add to the
diversity of our campus?
Write the Fewest
Yet Most Effective Essays…
Tip 4. Look for patterns between colleges essay
requirements so that you can find ways to use essays
more than once. This holds true for scholarship
Where to Begin: Brainstorm
Tip 5. Plan to share positive messages and powerful outcomes. You can start with
life or family challenges. You can describe obstacles you have overcome. You
can reflect on your growth and development, including accomplishments and
service. College admissions officers do not read minds, so tell them your
powerful life stories. Some states can use only socio-economic status, but not
race, in admissions, but in your essays, your voice and background can emerge.
Added Music Magnet
Test scores Above
Eddie’s Two UC Essays
Opposite ends of a magnet, my sister and I are experienced masters in
our own worlds. While my sister is an exceptional writer and test
buster, I am the exceptional musician. While she prepares for a
calculus exam, I write down notes for a song idea. While she rehearses
a debate argument, I practice a violin concerto for an upcoming
concert. Our talents complement and benefit the other. Sometimes she
would tutor me in my mathematics course, and I would decipher and
transcribe a piece of music perfect for one of her history presentations.
Despite our different interests, we united as a family more than ever in
March of 2006 when my sister was diagnosed with lymphoma shortly
after my mother, while examining my Sandra’s senior portrait, noticed
an unusual lump on the side of her neck. She had just received her
admittance to Yale, and our family couldn’t be any happier. Now, our
family was in a state of crisis as Sandra faced months of radiation and
chemotherapy and at least a year deferral to Yale.
My sister's recovery changed me more than I could realize. Through
Sandra's year of healing, I saw a completely different person emerge. She no
longer resembled the frail and quiet sibling I once knew but was rather now
a soldier and survivor, silent in her strength. She had endlessly devoted her
life to the excellence of all aspects of her academic life, and at the end of it all
had been cheated out of her own senior year as well as a year of her studies
at Yale. In her resilience to overcome her treatment, I saw her steadfast
defiance towards sickness and the faith in her own strength.
Only shortly after her recovery did I see these same qualities in myself.
Sandra's illness motivated me give more to my school and to my music. I
became motivated in a way I would never have expected. School work now
subconsciously became even more of a priority. I strived for the perfection
she had trademarked. Something clicked in my head and with it my
perception of school. English papers became crossword puzzles, pre-calculus
problems morphed into Rubik’s cubes, and physics turned into visits to the
local museum. Sandra gave me a new level of focus in my musical ability.
Music became even more of a medium for me to express myself. And
through my new exploration of music, I truly realized how much simple
melodies can affect the emotions. I used this newly acquired understanding
to write pieces of vocal and electronic works that captured the resistance and
resilience of emotion.
I had always known Sandra as my fragile and soft-spoken sister with not
much courage. I learned through her ordeal that she was nothing like what I
had always envisioned her to be. I saw the same potential for breaking all
odds and self reliance in her that I now saw in myself and because of
this, my outlook for my future dreams and aspirations has also taken a new
perspective. My musical life has always been somewhat of an
experiment, but now I have complete confidence on how much I have
accomplished because I have learned not to doubt my abilities just as my
sister refused to be taken over by her illness. She was the strongest I had
ever seen her at a time when she was the weakest, and now I have learned
through her hardships how I can prosper even at the worst of times.
Eddie’s UC 2
Playing violin first sparked my passion for music fourteen years ago. Every line,
phrase, bar, and note possessed an opportunity for me to speak out and even in
the same piece, I could evince all the emotions I felt at the time, making each
performance of the same musical work unique and specialized to my ever
fleeting sentiments. However, in my seventh grade, I found another type of
instrument, the guitar, and began to learn on my own. With the guitar, I could
strum and pick mainstream rock and pop tunes yet still be able to play many of
my favorite classical pieces. My backgrounds in violin and guitar then beget my
first compositions, which started off as classical pieces for violin, guitar, and
Three years ago when I first heard DJ Tiesto's electronic masterpiece, Loves
Comes Again, I experienced a kind of energy and life that I had not felt
through classical music. From that moment, I began learning as much about
electronic music as I could, from equipment and production to composition
and to working as a disc jockey. I began to create new compositions that
attempted to move beyond algorithms and calculations and to create genuine
music that exposed human emotions.
My passion for learning about electronic music took a new turn during my sophomore year
when I began DJ'ing, which turned my electronic compositions into live performances that
combined original and professional works of music. As I threw myself deeper into this new
passion, I learned more about vinyl technique and mixing while also performing for many
school events and private occasions. For every event I spun records for, I gradually
developed a sixth sense for "reading the crowd" to know exactly which track to mix in next
and my mixing technique only improved as the transitions between songs were practically
flawless and unnoticeable. However, I wanted to do more. Between events, I read all the
music charts and album releases to be certain I had an updated music library available for
upcoming performances, and I practiced at home rigorously to find new ways to transition
songs, train my ear to match the tempos of these tracks faster and more accurately, and
eventually, develop my own style as a DJ.
My varied musical interests have allowed me to express my emotions, create my own reality,
and share my passion for music with others. From playing solo violin as well as orchestra
to guitar to music production and later into DJ'ing, I have learned about the meticulous
labor and genuine concern required to create even simple melodies; and so my music
experience so far has also trained me to listen with a kind ear. The more I compose and
DJ the more I see communities as unified through dancing, communication, and
feelings. I want to go to college to continue learning about how music is created, as well
as expand my knowledge about the industry so that I can better understand how my
ideas can contribute to the world.
Tip 5. Plan to share positive messages and powerful
outcomes. You can start with life or family challenges. You
can describe obstacles you have overcome. You can reflect on
your growth and development, including accomplishments
and service. College admissions officers do not read minds, so
tell them your powerful life stories. Some states can use only
socio-economic status, but not race, in admissions, but in
your essays, your voice and background can emerge.
1. Read through Dr. Joseph’s tips for brainstorming. They
1. Starting by writing three short activity statements
2. Reading model essays from actual college websites
3. Looking at other college’s essay prompts-U
4. Writing a “Where I’m From” piece
5. Creating a letter to future roommate or an amazing list
of what makes you you.
6. Looking at 5 top FB and Instagram Pictures
7. Reading models from other students
1st person only.
Tip 6. Always write in the first person. Remember,
these are autobiographical essays, even when you
talk about other people. Remember the colleges are
looking to accept you, not your relatives. So use the
one third and two thirds rule. If you choose to write
about someone or something else, you must show
how it affected you for the majority of the essay. Your
essays show colleges why you belong on college
campuses and share how you will enrich diverse
Into, Through, and Beyond Essay Approach
Tip 7. Follow Dr. Joseph’s Into, Through, and Beyond approach.
Lead the reader INTO your story with a powerful beginning—a
story, an experience. Take them THROUGH your story with the
context and keys parts of your story. Make sure the reader
understands your initiative, leadership, development, and
continuity. End with the BEYOND message about how this
story has affected who you are now and who you want to be in
college and potentially after college. The beyond can be implied
in many pieces that are so strong that moralizing at the end if
It is not just the story that counts.
It’s the choice of qualities a student wants the college to know
It’s the way the reader can lead the reader into the piece—images, examples, context.
The 1,200-degree scorching coals surprisingly left no imprint upon my soles. There were just the
hundreds of tiny embers glowing on the ground and the fire department on alert at the opposite end. I
had just walked on fire.
I was weak and exhausted. During the day we would protest across from the Armenian Embassy in
Glendale. We would hold up signs, posters, and banners. We passed out fliers to oncoming traffic.
Twenty seven fellow protesters and I chained ourselves together and put tape over our mouths to
symbolize our hunger, our deep hunger for change, and yes, for food. We slept outside on wet grass
having sprinklers turn on us every night at 2:30 a.m. Every morning, we cleaned up in a restaurant,
and the smell and sight of the food tested me. But when I felt doubts arise, I would remember my
great-grandfather who barely survived the Armenian genocide. For months, he had little food or water
and had to go on a death march which few survived. If he could make it through those conditions, I
knew I could make it through this week. And I did.
“We have great crack.” Four short words that forever changed the way I viewed public speaking.
What happened…quickly…yet clearly with weaving of story and personal analysis
Make sure we see your leadership, initiative, development, and initiative
Specific focus on the student
Great summarizing, details, and images at same time
Last year, I volunteered as a Confirmation leader at St. Raphael’s Church in South Los Angeles . St. Raphael’s is like a
home to me and I basically grew up in those old, moldy pews. Brian proved to be the biggest challenge I faced that year.
We had a long history together. We were in the same class at grade school until sixth grade when he was held back. I
hadn’t seen him since I graduated 8th grade and went to an all girls’ school, and now here we are sitting in class every
Sunday morning, me as a teacher and him as my favorite student. Throughout the year, dare after dare, he tried
everything he could to push my buttons. He sought out fights, cursed, and even called me a n****r but I didn’t give up. I
quietly disregarded his statements and moved on. I would not let Brian and his derogatory comments break me. His
dreadful behavior lasted until after our retreat.
As a child, I viewed my lack of understanding of the English language as temporary obstacle; as an adult, my mom’s
grasp of the English language was a limitation—impaired communication was knowing what you wanted to say but
being unable to articulate it. As my grasp of the English language grew to surpass my mom’s, I would often receive
phone calls from her at work in which she would ask me the meaning of an English word or ask me to translate a word
from Spanish to English so she could use it. My mom taught me not only to appreciate and take advantage of every
opportunity presented, but also to use my skills to help others. At the time a seemingly insignificant moment, when a
non-English-speaking man at Barnes and Noble wanted to put a book on hold but did not know how to tell the cashier, I
translated for him; it is because of my mom that I discovered the joy of helping others.
Ending that evokes key characteristics
If the friendships found in mixed cultures can be so strong, so influencing as
to, say, bring success in a most challenging class, or make memorable nights
with a best friend, why not overlook the differences in details and embrace
them? There is great power in bringing people together; I’d like to make it
happen and, from there, see it blossom into something powerful.
All five of us completed the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon on the rainiest and
coldest day we ever experienced. My greatest accomplishment was to help
students achieve the goals they thought impossible to complete. I learned that I
have the strength and character to accomplish and succeed, and that though
the road may not be easy, it is possible.
Take the Time With These Essays
Tip 8. Use active writing: avoid passive sentences and
incorporate power verbs. Show when possible; tell
Tip 9. Have trusted inside and impartial outside
readers read your essays. Make sure you have no
spelling or grammatical errors.
Thinking of how Eddie started his essays. Think
of a way to begin one with one of your activities or
Tip 10. Most importantly, make yourself come alive
throughout this process. Write about yourself as
passionately and powerfully as possible. Be proud of your
life and accomplishments. Sell yourself!!!
Students often need weeks not days to write effective essays. You need to push
You must ultimately submit what pleases you.
Essays cannot be manufactured. They convey truth, unique stories, and writing
Admissions officers can smell “enhanced” essays.
Students have two to five minutes to grab the attention of a essay reader.
You can find many great websites and examples but each student is different.
Admissions officers often say essays make or break an ultimate decision for
students applying to “match colleges.”
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