Freshman Application Review – The Nuts and Bolts (part 2 of 2)

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, returns to complete her two-part series. Welcome back, Mary Tipton!

In part two of our file review series, I’ll focus on how we’re preparing for review this year, especially in light of the changes we are making to our approach. To recap from last week, seeking greater accountability, efficiency, norming and prioritization of staff time, we moved to a new model for file review known as Committee Based Evaluation (CBE). In this model, an admission staff member, the driver, will be paired with a seasonal staff member, the passenger, to review applications.Admission Team

Training for file review every year is a big undertaking, but especially when we are implementing a new model. I am only the encourager and the voice of this implementation in our office, but I can’t take credit for figuring out the schedule for CBE (more on that later) and training staff on the change. I must acknowledge the staff member in our office who has coordinated logistics, worked with seasoned staff members on implementation and ensured all permanent and seasonal staff are trained and ready for reading this week. She has been a superhero in this effort!

Preparing for CBE

To prepare for CBE, we first had to figure out how many teams we could have reading at one time, what schedule worked best for staff, how to cover other office duties (daily visits, phones, emails, visit events, etc.) and where (as in the physical location) we could read. The location piece is more challenging that you may think, given 10 of our staff work in an open, collaborative space we affectionately call the “collabora-dome.” With 12 full-time readers available, we settled on a daily schedule of 8:30a-2:30p in CBE. This schedule ensures we can most effectively utilize our seasonal staff who don’t work a full work day and prevent reader fatigue for everyone. Maintaining this schedule requires knowledge of 42 different calendars and an understanding of each reader’s inherent biases and reading tendencies. In other words, it’s important we pair people who will complement each other and not engage in group think. The result is the color coded spreadsheet you see below!

In two days of “live” CBE and without a full staff (some are still on the road!), we completed over 250 application reviews all the way to a recommended decision stage. That’s compared to less than 200 that had only been first reviewed last year on October 10. These are obviously early returns, but I am beyond pleased with the efficiency gains we are seeing! Once we hit peak reading, we are expecting pairs to read 50 applications in a day for a total of 3,000 per week inclusive of all teams.

Of course, we didn’t just undertake this change for efficiency sake; we wanted to ensure staff felt more confident in their review of a student and their recommended decision because they were discussing the application with a colleague. First, we had to ensure that all staff are normed within a reasonable range of each other (norming means all staff are evaluating the strength of a student’s contribution, fit to Georgia Tech, etc., in the same way). We did this by reading groups of 2017 applications from in- and out-of-state and international. We then discussed their academic and out of class strengths and weaknesses to ensure we were considering items similarly. We got tripped up on a transcript with a strange math class name and a US Citizen in an international high school, but, all in all, we were recognizing and evaluating the nuances necessary to make decisions in a competitive admission environment.

What Does it Mean for You?

Now that you know a little more about how we prepared and implemented CBE, here is what this change means for you. Truthfully, I could stop typing here and say that nothing has changed, but I was told this blog should be no less than 1.5 pages. In all seriousness, let me explain what I mean. There’s been a lot of talk and some consternation about the speed in which applications are read in CBE. As explained last week, the person time on an application has actually increased. Having to only read one portion of an application has allowed us to dive more deeply into school profiles, letters of recommendation and other parts of the application where necessary.

However, there’s a few common sense things I think students and counselors alike should consider, whether the school to which they are applying is utilizing CBE or a traditional application review model.

Fronting Your Application

My biggest piece of advice is to “front” your application (or, for counselors and teachers, the recommendation letter). What do I mean by fronting? It’s a retail term my husband introduced me to from his background working in his dad’s store as a kid. When we first moved in together, I noticed he would go into the cabinets periodically and move all the canned goods and containers to the front of a shelf. I couldn’t understand why he was wasting perfectly good space behind the can of black beans, but he explained to me that it was good merchandising. As I didn’t understand the need to merchandise our cabinets, this was one of the many things we didn’t see eye to eye on when we first moved in together! As an aside, you won’t be surprised to learn that 17 years and a child later, he could care less where the canned goods go in the pantry!

Back to fronting and what it means for you…

Students, front your activities. List your most significant activities first, then put the remainder in descending order of importance to you. It could be descending order of time spent, or significance of impact – you know best what will work for you. We discussed the review of activities in our staff training, emphasizing the importance of looking at both pages of activities in our review, but we all confessed we’d missed significant activities because they were at the end of the list. The same advice goes for the long essay. Just like a book or article, you should work to hook us in the first paragraph. We really do read all essays, but if we aren’t hooked early, we might miss something important in a later paragraph because we are reading quickly.

Counselors, put the most important things we need to know about a student at the beginning of your letter. We don’t need a lead in paragraph—we  need to be directed to the things that are most important for us to understand about a student. More importantly, these should be things the student didn’t tell us, or at least given from a perspective the student does not have about themselves. Many of you are considering using bullet points in your letters. I applaud this move, and it’s really helpful for us to hone in on the information you want to highlight. However, a paragraph with a dot in front of it is not a bullet point! It’s still a narrative. Either format is fine, but put the most significant things early in the letter or at least draw our attention to them with highlighting, italics or the like. The example below is consensus for one of the best formats we’ve seen!

Counselor Recommendations

Above all else, know that we are enjoying reading applications again. Admission is a seasonal profession, and that’s something we all love about it. With this change of season and, more importantly, the change in model, I see a re-energized staff enjoying application review. Reading with a colleague is fun, and the whole process seems less daunting than ever before. I’m excited about the year ahead and look forward to reporting more as the year progresses!

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

Own It!

My kids (ages nine and six) take FOREVER to get ready in the morning. I’ve tried setting an earlier alarm, flipping the lights on and off, writing step by step instructions on the chalk board, threats, setting timers at breakfast, and even more threats.

But inevitably when I send my daughter outside to put on her shoes, two minutes will go by with no return. Glancing out the window I’ll find her spinning a stick on the porch or throwing rocks into the yard. Even the way she kills time is unproductive—it’s not like she’s reading or practicing Taekwondo.

My son is worse. “Go brush your teeth.” Four minutes later I hear him upstairs playing with a robot or Legos.

Last week I walked in to wake up my daughter only to find her completely buried under two blankets, a few pillows, and a preposterous number of stuffed animals. “Did your alarm go on?” Yes. “Did you turn it off?” Yeah… That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?

Throwing my head back and contemplating leaping out of the second floor window I said (loudly) while leaving the room, “I know. But then you STAY UP!!”

It reached an all-time low a few days ago when my son actually said, while eating his cereal, “Raise your hand if you like staring blankly off into the air.” Dear Lord, please provide me patience.

FridayI see other families at school, church, and soccer where kids are early, combed, fully dressed, and basically singing family songs as they walk hand in hand. I hate those people.

The one day they like is Friday. Embarrassingly, this is largely because I wake them up by playing (and dancing to) Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and feeding them cinnamon rolls. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So if anyone knows Rebecca, see if she can make a Monday song, because The Bangles and Jimmy Buffett aren’t cutting it.

Please get to your point…

Fine. Our family started this week with a new strategy: the kids “own” breakfast. I’ll make lunches and ensure the bags have all homework/folders set, but they need to get their own food. Car leaves at 7:40 a.m. Hungry? Still eating? Bar in hand? Whatever. No excuses. No take-backs. YOU OWN breakfast.

Similarly, we want you to “own” your college application and admission process. I won’t preach about all the lessons to be learned from owning your application/admission process and how it will prepare you for the college experience. Nope. I’ll save those messages for basically every admission rep you hear talk at your high school or on their campus. I’m here to prove it matters.

Look at the Common Application’s essay prompts. Number two, and I’d assert numbers three and five, center on growth through learning (or loosely translated “owning” something); a mistake, a realization, a problem solved—whatever it is, you recognized it and stuck with it. The Coalition Application questions one, and arguably two and three, are all within the same theme.

Writing about owning something requires you first to recognize its significance; to genuinely care, and to give evidence of how you’ve tangibly progressed since the experience. You want to go to a “good school?” Well, good schools (who you’ll be writing essays for) are reading these essays with their institution in mind. That’s right. It’s your essay, but they have their institution in mind.

What We Mean by “Fit”

You often hear the word “fit” thrown around. What does fit actually mean? In the rubrics readers use, as well as the conversations they have about your application in committee, counselors ask questions like:

  • When you come to campus and the academics and professors push and stretch you, how will you respond?
  • When you have a decision to make about how you’ll treat others in the classroom or in your residence hall, what evidence do we have to show your choice will be made with integrity and maturity?
  • When you are given opportunities to represent the college or university as a student or an alum, will we be confident in you?

Responses to those essay prompts are a significant opportunity to demonstrate in a concrete (read: not theoretical or philosophical) way you are someone who has grown already; someone who has been challenged; or someone who has, through either major or sometimes mundane life experiences, recognized a need for change and progress and taken those steps.

Real Life Examples

Pretend for a moment you are an admission reader (cue dream sequence). You are reading the discipline section of an application. Which one shows more maturity and growth? Note: these scenarios are real, yet slightly altered for the protection of the…well, guilty. 

  • “Last year two of my friends and I spray painted the school building and were caught, suspended, and had to do community service. I did not want to participate but they were driving that night and I had no other way home. So, even though I did tell them we should not do it….”
  • “I have been charged with theft of jewelry from my friend’s parents. We were at a party and a few us went into their bedroom. We took bracelets, necklaces, and rings valued in the five-figure range.” (Needless to say, our staff made a phone call about this one. “So why did you do it?” “I wanted those girls to like me.”)

So which one shows more maturity and growth? The answer is neither. Yes, it was a trick question—I’m just keeping you on your toes. I’m not sure about you, but with the first one I’ve got two thoughts running through my head: 1) the student is lying, and 2) even if they’re not, it sounds super weak. Call Uber, walk, tell them to drop you off first. And bonus- actually tell them you’re not going to do it!Own it

I’d call the second example a laptop closing moment. One of those times when you so completely abandon your hope in humanity that it leads you to simply close your laptop, throw your head back, close your eyes and take an immensely deep breath. But I’d love to know what’s going on in your head here.  Hopefully, it isn’t, “Yeah. I get that…” Hopefully you still have your reader hat on. If so, you should be asking, “So what happens when you are on campus and some friends want to hack into a professor’s account?” To be honest, my head goes to some far more nefarious and harmful places beyond hacking, but I’m keeping things relatively clean. Either way, you see my point, right? Own it!

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the Additional Information section:

  • “In my sophomore year, I got mono (side note: we commonly see concussions listed here, as well as a variety of lesser known but highly Google-able ailments). I missed several weeks of school and spent most of the fall semester extremely tired. My AP World History teacher refused to make my assignments available online or provide extensions, which is why I received a C in that class.” (Only problem is you also made C in the spring semester. So what do we do now?)
  • “I had intended to take French 4 last year, however my dad insisted I take Environmental Science. I now regret that I listened to him, not just because I did not do as well as I’d hoped in ES, but also because I really do love French and hope to study International Affairs next year at Tech.”

On number two, I’m getting the distinct image of my daughter out on the back porch throwing rocks and staring at the birds on the neighbor’s roof. Double deduction if your dad writes or calls in to say he should not have put pressure on you. No, padre. Start the car and slowly roll out of the driveway at 7:40 a.m.

The problems here are two-fold. First, these both come off sounding like excuses. Actually, scratch that. They are excuses. Look back at those essay prompts. What are they essentially asking you to show? Growth, right? Maturity, evolution, a recognized misstep which will make you a better college student, peer, friend, roommate, influencer, or simply humble and confident person. The antithesis are statements like: “He made me do it” and claims of “would of/should of/could of.”

Secondly, you are not submitting your application in a bubble. Other students (some we may have read that very same day) are giving strong evidence showing they have progressed. That’s right–you are not the only one who drank and got caught or had to shake a medical situation, divorce, or family death during high school. I realize it may sound callous, but at any school receiving thousands of applications and reading 30-50 essays a day, this is the reality.

No Excuses—Own It!

Colleges want students who come to their campus prepared. Most of the time people are focused on the academic side of the equation (i.e. who is more qualified based on rigor of curriculum or test scores, etc.). But the truth is at selective schools, most applicants “look the same” from an academic standpoint. They are prepared and able to do the work. The bigger questions are: How will they do the work? And who will they be on campus? When they get here, how will they respond when they fail a test, have to balance social pressures, academics, internship, and the family drama happening 500 miles away?

This is why so many of the essay prompts focus on a demonstration of tenacity and perseverance. We are looking for ownership, not excuses. So own it.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page or enter your email address. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

Don’t Procrastinate… Get Started!

“Man. It really smells like pee in here!” I said scrunching my nose, cocking my head downward and to the left, and painfully closing my eyes. My son, who at the time was five, looked up from playing with his Transformers with a look of absolute bemusement.

“AJ, any idea why?” He shrugged his shoulders and quickly went back to insuring that Megatron (not Calvin Johnson… he loves him!) and his cronies were defeated by the Autobots. I proceeded to look through every sheet, drawer, and cubby in his room. Nothing. No soiled item or area. No article of clothing stuffed into a pillow case or sheet crammed in a corner. So I did the only logical thing… I opened a window, hastily sprayed Febreze and left shaking my head.

Image result for TRANSFORMERS AND TOYS AND OPTIMUS PRIME

Three days later, while I was out of town, my wife had a similar experience. This time our son watched with the rapt interest one has while viewing an African watering hole at midnight. “Who else is coming? What might happen next?” After rifling thoroughly through his room and strewn belongings, she asked him lovingly but repeatedly why it smelled distinctly of urine.

After the third time, it apparently dawned on him. “Hmmm…wait. I know why, mommy. I think it’s because I have been peeing in my floor vent.” Silence. Stunned silence.

And then, and only because of her incredible patience and God-given restraint, she laughed and asked calmly, “You what?!”

Yep. Come to find out that for an unknown (but likely multi-week/month) period of time, my man had been using the floor vent as a urinal. I actually Googled it. It’s more common than you’d think.

Why? You might ask– and with good reason. Quite simply, “You know how when you’re playing, and you don’t want to stop, and the bathroom seems so far away…that’s when.”

Several hundred dollars and a new duct system later. Let’s put it this way– it’s a good thing she discovered it and I was out of town or we might also have had a broken window or door to put back on its hinges.

Get Started!

Why do I share this with you?  Well, if the increasing temperatures, slower schedule, and nightly baseball games were not a hint, it’s summer! A few weeks ago, we posted another blog on this: “Make it a Summer!”

In that blog, we talked about using your time to write college essays, visit schools, talk to graduated seniors or friends returning home from their first year of college, etc. But we looked at the analytics on that blog and realized that perhaps the clicks on the piece on writing  was not as high as we’d hoped.  And so I wanted to come singularly back to that part.

If you are a rising senior, I’m imploring you to use July to write your college essays and supplemental questions. You have an entire month.

Here’s how you can get started:

Week One (July 1-8): Read the prompts from Common Application and Coalition Application. Consider what you might write about. Think about them when you’re at the pool or the gym or driving (but mainly think about driving). Jot down some ideas. Who knows, you may be inspired by fireworks on July 4, so consider voice recording on your phone. That is how I start my drafts and get ideas out and recorded. Whatever works for you.

It does not have to be formal or sequential. During this week also write one supplemental essay for a school you know you are going to apply to. Georgia Tech’s are here.  Generally speaking these are shorter and most schools only require 1-3 additional short answer/supplemental writing samples. And many schools simply ask you to submit something you have already written, so consider your options if you find that to be the case for a school you’re interested in.

Week Two (July 9-16): Get your first draft done. Chip away. One paragraph at a time. One page at a time. A little bit of time each day. If you know you are applying to a school that does not accept the Common Application or Coalition Application, then you may need to write two essays this week. Not a problem. Allocate an hour a day for that entire week. You got this! Use this week to write another supplemental essay for the same college or a different one this week.

Week Three (July 17-23): Get this to an editor (not a co-author). Hint: You should ask them if they’re up for it during week two and tell them they’ll have it on July 16. Check in with them on July 20. “How’s it going?” Have you taken a look yet? Can I clear anything up for you?” Plan to meet with them or Skype/FaceTime with them by July 23. Write another supplemental essay this week.

Week Four (July 23-30): Second draft. Take the edits and make your improvements and enhancements. Consider how you can add description or make your essay more unique, personalized, authentic. Write your fourth supplemental essay this week.

July 31. Treat yourself. Ice cream, a new shirt, a movie or show. You do you, because at this point you have a long essay and four supplemental essays done. Your editor should be up for reading a few supplemental essays this week, especially if you brought them along for the double scoop or enticed them with an Amazon card.

Now use the same method in August for any additional supplementals or long essays. This way as your fall ramps up with sports, school activities, and normal homework and other papers, tests, etc., you’ll be good to go for making October or November EA/ED deadlines.

Why Do I Care?  

Last year, of our 31,500 applications, 1/3 were submitted on a deadline day or the two days prior. Now, I’m guessing that when these applications open on August 1, you are not stumped by some of the initial questions, ie. Name, Date of Birth, Address. (If you are, please call me, and we’ll discuss if college is right for you.)

So what takes so long to submit? Why is meeting an October 15 or November 1 deadline tough when you have 10-12 weeks post August 1? I’ll tell you why… “You know how when you’re playing, and you don’t want to stop, and the deadlines seem so far away…”

Trust me. Get started! You don’t want admission readers looking for Febreze after reading your essays.

We moved last year. I really like our new house. One of the features the real estate agent did not point out but I most appreciate is that the vents are in the ceiling.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address (above) and click “subscribe.” We also welcome comments and feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

You Do You

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a spin class. If you’ve not done one of these, it’s basically a lot of people on stationary bikes in a small, dim room, with music that accompanies it to aid in cadence and motivation. Ultimately, you control your own pace, but the instructor in the front calls out instructions on when to add tension, when to stand up and sprint, and when to recover, all in sync with the beat of the songs. Well, because it was Super Bowl Sunday (no comments on the outcome please… just typing this is difficult), our instructor had on a Falcons jersey. I’d never seen this particular woman before, but she did not strike me as a big football fan. What can I say? When you know you know.

As class started she made a few comments like, “Okay, let’s get some work in before the big game.” And intermittently through the first few songs, “Push harder up the hill so you can eat whatever you want tonight,” or “Dig deeper and really work now. Just like the Falcons are going to do against the Patriots.” Eesh. I could not help cringing a bit and squeezing the handlebars a little tighter while scrunching my nose and eyes on these comments. It all felt so forced, as if she felt compelled to wear the uniform and make some references since it was the Super Bowl.

Then we came to the second to last song. At this point, after riding hard for 45 minutes, you really do benefit from good music and encouraging commands from the instructor because you are pretty spent. As the beat started, I knew things were going to go downhill (no pun intended) fast. And they did. “Okay, Falcons fans. Close your eyes as you pedal. Imagine that you are there at the game. It’s first down, second down, third down. They pass and score. Julio Jones is in the end zone for a touchdown.” I cocked my head to the side to look at my wife as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” She just looked back at me, knowingly shook her head, and smiled. At that I raised both eyebrows and opened my eyes wide. She gave me a look that said “Be nice” and went back to looking straight ahead. I won’t go into  much more detail here, but suffice it to say it got worse. A LOT WORSE.

Since that was the last “working song,” the next one was a cool down where you take your hands off the handlebars, slow your cadence, and do some stretching on the bike.  Naturally, at that point, all I could think about was the college admission process.

Your Voice

I have written before that your college essay and short answer questions are your opportunity to help us hear YOUR unique voice. Throughout the rest of the application, grades, course choice, test scores, and even in your extra-curricular activities, you cannot communicate your voice—and it’s an essential differentiator. Because it is so critical to our review and to your “fit” for each school you are applying to, it’s even more important that you are genuine in your responses.  Are you pensive, deep and brooding? That’s great… love to hear it. But don’t try to summon your inner Emily Dickinson if you know for a fact she’s not in there. And the same is true for humor or rhymes or new words you may have found on Synonym.com.

Last week I was at a high school junior class program to “kick off” the college admission process with parents and students. In my speech, I made this comment verbatim, “We want to hear YOUR unique voice.” Afterward, a young woman came up and said she did not understand what I meant.  I have sat on panels and overheard some pretty confounding advice: “Push yourself academically, and do what you love, but set a good foundation because it’s all about preparation.” “Don’t forget you also need to know you’re in competition with the applicant pool, but really with yourself, and kind of with the curriculum too.” Yeah, that’s a little bemusing.

But “your voice” is just that: your voice. There is no hidden message. In other words, before you go donning the jersey, making the music selection, and wading into completely unfamiliar territory, take a hard look in the mirror.  You know you, so find your voice. You do you. You’ll thank me, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

Recognize that Stretch

At the end of spin class, everyone gets off their bike and stretches. And as I stood there in moderate pain, still pondering college admission, I realized this class (and therefore this blog) was a two-for-one lesson.

See, at this point, you have three choices of how to stretch: (1) put your leg up high on the handlebar, (2) mid-range on the seat, or (3) at the lower crossbar. My wife throws her leg up on the handlebar and puts her head to her knee as if that’s normal. Me? Not so much. I typically start at the lower crossbar and work my way up to the seat.

Here’s the thing: You will find that schools are very transparent with their academic profiles. Normally, they’ll publish these on their website and in their brochures as middle 50% ranges. For example, last year at Tech, our mid-50% range was 1330-1440 SAT or a 30-34 ACT. Our new freshmen averaged between 7-13 AP/IB/college level courses and were primarily making A’s in those classes.

So if you have a 28 ACT, mainly B’s, and have taken two AP classes when your school offered 15, we’d be “a handlebar school” for you, and your odds of being admitted are what statisticians would expertly deem as “low.” We will absolutely still read your essays, evaluate your background outside the classroom, gain context into your home life, and determine if there are any incredibly outstanding circumstances that need to be considered. But to borrow a phrase from spin class, you should be “recognizing that stretch.”

We often talk to students who are literally ONLY applying to Ivy League or Ivy-type schools (normally at the prompting of parents). Even if you have A’s, good classes and nearly perfect test scores, this is a BAD IDEA. How do I know? We denied about 500 students like that in Early Action this year. And keep in mind that at 26%, our admit rate is three times higher than Harvard’s.

Listen, I am all for you pushing yourself. I love the confidence. Want to take a crack at throwing your leg up on the handlebars? Go for it. Just be sure you have a few schools on your list in the seat and low crossbar range too.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

College Admission Essays: I’ve heard that one before…

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes and key messages. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic: sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all. My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.