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Secrets of a Great College Application
Updated August 2, 2023
By Melinda Sewak, Amelia Riley, Elizabeth Chen, Olga Shkolnikov, and Mereat Askander

College applications include what can seem like a million different pieces, each with its own demands. Compiling them all is a feat, let alone making sure that each individual piece represents your best self to your potential future college. Whether it’s writing the perfect essay, understanding the importance of extracurriculars, or just learning to get comfortable with bragging about your accomplishments, Enhanced Prep’s tutors and advisors have great tips for helping you put together an application that will shine.

Student reacting with excitement to something on his computer

Undervaluing Uniqueness: Why YOU Are Your Biggest Selling Point

By Melinda Sewak

It’s the age-old question, common to college applications and interviews alike: why are you the best fit?

If you’re anything like me, that question may bring up all kinds of inner monologues and insecurities, all stemming from one giant question: AM I the best fit?

With the inherently competitive nature of college admissions, it’s natural to write personal statements or go into interviews with a desire to win, to be the best, and to beat out other applicants for the prize: a spot at your dream school.

The truth is: fit is a two-way street. Colleges want you to succeed, so while asking whether or not you’re the best choice for their incoming freshman class, they also want to ensure that they are the best fit for you. It can be difficult to keep this in mind when so much of the admissions process may feel like a quest to be the best, but applying for colleges is just as much a search for dream students as it is for dream schools.

So if college admissions are really about you, what is the best way to stick out? What makes up a dream student? Is it top grades, leadership roles, varsity sports, and above-average test scores? Maybe, in part, but the best thing you’ve got going for you is pretty singular: it’s you.

Perhaps it sounds intuitive, but there’s something about the beast that is college admissions (especially in the middle of a pandemic!) that makes it easy to forget that you are your biggest asset. Your quirks, your particulars, and your uniqueness are more interesting than any elaborate story you could fabricate in the hopes of dazzling a college admissions counselor. Turns out, we as humans consistently undervalue our uniqueness. We go out looking to be what friends, family, and colleges want us to be, and to varying degrees diminish our biggest selling point: what makes us uniquely US.

So consider this your February pep talk: there is space for you. There is space for you to succeed, to contribute, and to thrive. Leverage what makes you unique. Tap into your life experiences, your background, and your interests, however different or uninteresting they may seem; they’re nuanced and they’re important and they matter. High school has helped give you the fundamentals--now take that foundation of learning, connect it to your tremendous inherent worth as an applicant, and apply to colleges with the belief that you belong, because you DO.

You’ve got this.

Melinda has a BA from Yale University in Theater Studies and has been an educator for over a decade. She specializes in mentoring students achieve their college dreams.

Your Extracurriculars Hold More Weight Than You Might Think

By Amelia Riley

The college application process is complex and nuanced, so it’s tough to make generalizations about what admissions officers are looking for. However, students heading into the process may find it helpful to think about how they can emphasize three general categories of their application: extracurricular activities, academics, and character.

I’m going to talk about the first category because it’s often overlooked, and students assume that it’s pretty obvious. What more is there to extracurriculars beyond, well, doing them and listing them on your resume?

At a surface level, not much. But from the perspective of college admissions officers, a lot.

Extracurricular activities give admissions officers a chance to understand how you make use of your time outside of the classroom, what matters to you, and how you’re making the most of opportunities available to you given your circumstances, community, and resources. Reviewing your activities can even go so far as shedding light on your personal values, career aspirations, and leadership capabilities! (No pressure or anything.)

Remember: colleges are looking for applicants likely to seize opportunities on campus, become the next generation of leaders and meaningful contributors to society, and thrive in that particular undergraduate environment. With this in mind, your extracurricular activities can go a long way in showing colleges that you are the ideal applicant.

So how do you choose meaningful extracurricular activities? And what can you do within those activities to ensure they are rich additions to your resume?

1. Follow the principle of less is more.

Be very wary of doing something just because you think a college will like it. This kind of resume padding is very obvious. It can also make it hard for the people reviewing your application to pinpoint big themes in your out-of-classroom work – if you dabble in a little bit of everything, that actually tells officers less. Prioritize 1-3 extracurricular activities and commit to them for extended periods of time in order to have them speak louder on the page.

2. Ensure that your activities align with what actually interests you.

Are you pursuing something because you are genuinely intrigued by it? Or is it filling your calendar because you just think it should? Colleges are very interested in an honest, robust portrayal of who you are. They love hearing about your passions and interests. If there’s anything on your resume that doesn’t truly align with you, it might be time for a reassessment.

3. Diversify your roles and deepen your involvement in long-term activities.

It’s great to stick with an activity for several years. But it’s even more great to evolve your role within that activity over a long period of time. This demonstrates your relationship to community, your capacity to grow and change, and other aspirations. Examples of deepening your involvement in an activity include running for and maintaining an office position (secretary, president, etc.), launching initiatives, expanding a club or activity’s influence to the broader community, and starting a new club, activity, or event.

There are so many other ways to choose and maintain meaningful extracurricular activities, but for now, these tips are a good place to begin. One last thing before you dash off to your next activity – make sure your extracurriculars are having an impact on you. The best kinds of activities are the ones most likely to influence, inspire, and invigorate both you and your immediate communities. They are also most likely to be (quite simply) fun.

Amelia tutors students in all things writing, from essay tests to college application essays. She has a BA from Princeton in English Literature & Interdisciplinary Humanities, and an MFA Creative Writing from Boston University.

The Summer to Make a Statement

By Elizabeth Chen

A personal statement. The essay(s) that colleges require in the application process. Summer is one of the best times to start brainstorming these statements because you don’t need to spend six to eight hours a day in class, plus extracurriculars and homework!

Most personal statements ask questions that look like this:

  • Provide an example of leadership experience or accomplishment.
  • Reflect on when you questioned/challenged a belief.
  • When did you overcome an obstacle?

At the core of these questions, admissions is trying to get a strong picture of you as a student of their campus and as a future citizen of the world. How motivated are you? How do you chase after your dreams? What do you do when you don't succeed on the first try? Will you know to take advantage of what the college has to offer to achieve your goals?

The easiest way to answer these questions is to go out there and experience something you can write about. This is not to say that you can't write about your family, your school experience, or your day-to-day life, especially if it's impacted you in a significant way. But if you're unsure of how to answer any of the questions above, you have all summer to try something new!

One way to tackle this is to make a list of things you want to try or have always been curious about. This could be an instrument you’ve always wanted to learn or a recent coding curiosity. Or maybe you’re interested in animation—digital, or flipbook. Jot these ideas down. From there, you can create a plan for how to get started. If it’s learning an instrument, look for a music store nearby that will help you rent one for a couple months to try. Take advantage! If it’s coding, lots of websites have plenty of free lessons. And if you want to get into animation, pick up a pencil and look for a video on YouTube. For all of the above and more, there will likely be lessons you can find on YouTube. Try it. Have fun. Get stuck on a learning obstacle, and then learn how to get un-stuck.

Another way to go about it is to think about what you’re currently working on and how you can expand your horizons. Always logged on an mmorpg? Maybe try leading some raids instead of just joining one, or try being the shot-caller when the team fights come. On the other hand, if you’re always in the lead, try a support character and take a step back to let others learn their way to leadership. Or, gaming aside, if you’ve been loving and caring for your pets all your life, check volunteer opportunities at your local zoo, aquarium, or animal shelter.

As a senior, you're likely working on these applications already, especially for campuses with rolling admissions. It's still not too late to go out and make those experiences that could lead to even stronger essay topics. If you're a sophomore or freshman (or even younger), you have even more of a time advantage because prepping for the SAT or ACT is not urgent business, yet. Regardless, now is the time to go out there and make this a statement summer.

Enhanced Prep has AP tutors, science tutors, or the best tutors for anything you need to prep for.

The Importance of Writing a Great College Essay

By Amelia Riley

The college essay has always, in my opinion, constituted one of the most important parts of a college application. Yes, colleges want to see applicants’ standardized test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and resume. These components can give admissions officers great insight into a student’s potential as a leader, scholar, and academic.

But the college essay gives students a chance to showcase who they are outside of these data-driven application components. With the essay, applicants can (and should) talk about what matters to them in life in their own distinct voice; it is their opportunity to be authentic, honest, and vulnerable with admissions officers.

This is why I encourage students to start working on the college essay as soon as possible, preferably in their junior spring or the summer prior to their senior year. It takes time and profound effort to craft a story that presents what is meaningful to you in 650 words or fewer, after all. What’s more, many colleges now require applicants to submit additional essay responses, “supplemental essays,” that can quickly fill a student’s application timeline.

Many universities are becoming test optional, saying they will not require t applicants to submit standardized test scores in an effort to promote fairness in admissions decisions. Test optional does not mean that admissions officers completely ignore test scores, certainly, but it does mean that colleges will likely be emphasizing other parts of the application to distinguish students. And yes, they will probably be emphasizing the component that is most likely to set students apart: the personal statement and/or additional essay responses.

This doesn’t mean that you should let your grades flag or wait until the last minute to ask for that letter of recommendation; on the contrary, transcripts, letters, and resumes will still prove highly meaningful in college applications. But do take the time to give your college essay its due.

Some students wonder if they should write about COVID-19 in their personal statements. After all, a global pandemic constitutes an unprecedented challenge, and many students choose to write about specific challenges in their lives (and their response to these). This subject is very much fair game; however, keep in mind that the pandemic is a shared experience. What will be distinct is what you have to say about your response to it and what that response says about your values, character, and perspectives. Spend more time discussing your specific relationship to this global challenge, and focus on your distinct personal growth that has emerged as a result.

Regardless of the topic you choose, now is the time to start reflecting on you in preparation for a compelling essay. Good luck!

Amelia tutors students in all things writing, from essay tests to college application essays. She has a BA from Princeton in English Literature & Interdisciplinary Humanities, and an MFA Creative Writing from Boston University.

A tutor helping a student in a school library

Writing Your College Essay? Ask These Questions

By Olga Shkolnikov

It’s important to start thinking about your college essay early - the college essay writing process can be more intensive than most students realize, given the personal statement’s standard: distinct, engaging, personal, and creative writing.

What’s more, many students applying to college will have to consider supplemental essay responses, questions specific schools ask applicants in addition to that personal statement. As the college admissions process becomes more intensive, more and more schools are incorporating these essay questions in an effort to distinguish competitive applicants.

To ensure that you craft a competitive essay - and on a reasonable timeline - I encourage you to ask these questions before you begin. These will guide your brainstorming process, what I consider to be the most important part of the process itself, topic selection, and writing/revising of the essay.

Before Choosing Your Topic

  1. What are your top ten values? Top five?
  2. What is weird about you?
  3. What distinct challenges have you faced in your life (personal, academic, interpersonal, physical, etc.)?
  4. What are your top interests / passions?
  5. What motivates and/or inspires you?
  6. What matters most to you?
  7. How would a friend describe you in five adjectives?
  8. Has anyone ever challenged a belief of yours? What did you do? What did you learn?
  9. What keeps you up at night?
  10. What do you dream about?
  11. Identify a time when you encountered something unexpected. What happened and how did you respond?
  12. What do you believe in?
  13. Who do you aspire to be?
  14. What does the rest of your college application not say?

Choosing Your Topic

  1. Does this topic allow me to say something the rest of my application does not say?
  2. Will talking about this topic demonstrate my character, values, and/or voice?
  3. Will this topic result in an honest essay?
  4. Is it distinct and/or unconventional?
  5. Will this topic give a reader a greater sense of who I am as a person?
  6. Will I enjoy writing it (for the most part)?
  7. Does it have storytelling potential?
  8. Is it specific enough to discuss in 650 words or fewer?
  9. Is it better saved for a supplemental essay?
  10. Will this topic allow me to create some serious introspection and reflection on the page?

Planning Your Outline

  1. Does my topic tell a specific story (beginning, middle, end)?
  2. Does it elaborate upon a belief or perspective?
  3. Does it follow a clear thesis?
  4. Does it involve a central comparison / contrast?
  5. What are the key takeaways of what I wish to say?
  6. Which structure will allow me to share this story in the most powerful way possible?

Writing That First Draft

  1. What is powerful about this draft?
  2. What background / context details will be critical for the reader? Do I have enough? Too much?
  3. Where do I start talking about the how / why?
  4. Have I left room for introspection and reflection?
  5. What is my storytelling arc?
  6. What can I identify as strengths? Weaknesses?
  7. Where do I see my voice?

Revising Your Additional Drafts

  1. Does this tell a clear, coherent story?
  2. Is everything in its right place?
  3. What takes center stage in my essay?
  4. What do I need to hear more of?
  5. What do I need to hear less of?
  6. Is everything getting the airtime it deserves?
  7. What “picture” have I painted here?
  8. What details do I need more of? Less of?
  9. Where can I incorporate imagery? Specificity?
  10. What tone does my story convey?
  11. Is my language precise and specific?
  12. Are there any glaring grammatical errors in need of fixing?
  13. Is my writing engaging? (not just the story itself)
  14. Where is my voice evident? Where do I need MORE voice?
  15. Where can I incorporate my own distinct writing style?

Olga has BA in English Literature and language from NYU and a Master’s in Teaching English from Colombia. She is passionate about engaging students in their learning and helping them grow.

The Secret to Talking About Yourself

By Mereat Askander

“Tell us about yourself.”

We all get stuck when we’re hit with this question, whether it's for an interview, a college application, or an introduction to a potential mentor. Here’s the secret formula to answering this question: know who your audience is, identify the character traits or qualities they would like to see, and pinpoint genuine experiences that showcase these character traits.

Know your audience

Who is your audience? Who’s listening to you answer this question? If it’s a college admission board, then find out more about what the school values by taking a look at their mission statement. These days, most schools have similar (if not identical) mission statements. However, every now and then, you will catch small differences. For example, one college might emphasize diversity as one of their main missions, while another school throws out the word excellence. Adjust your personal statement based on these buzzwords.

For the example school that emphasizes diversity, think about what it means to be a diverse student. This could mean involvement in a unique community or volunteering experience within a diverse group. Also consider the character traits and qualities typically associated with those mission statement buzzwords. If you’re trying to write a personal statement for the school that emphasizes excellence, for example, consider how excellence relates to the qualities of dedication, focus, or grit.

Identify the character traits they’re seeking

Once you’ve identified who your audience is and what is important to them, continue thinking deeply about the kind of student who fits their needs. This is important to identify, because an open-ended question like “Tell me about yourself” can lead you into a black hole of endless stories about when you were six years old. But the college isn’t looking for six-year-old you! They want to know about who you are now. Because we are social, ever-changing people, though, we have many character traits and many experiences. How can you offer a focused answer with all of these experiences in mind?

Building an image of a college’s ideal student will guide your writing to something specific, powerful, and concise. You don't want to go on a tangent that will make it seem like you're the jack of all trades but a master of none. You want to show them in your storytelling that you are cognizant and aware of the kind of student they are looking for.

Back it up with experience

Next, think about specific events, leadership roles, and volunteer experiences that align with these values and qualities. Build your story around a specific event, experience, role, or subject. This way, a college admissions counselor can walk in your shoes for a few paragraphs and develop some curiosity about you. You don’t need to give a detailed play-by-play of your essay subject! Focus instead on the impact of what you’re discussing and how it shaped you as a person. When you are able to keep your storytelling concise and direct, the reader will have an easier time following your story and seeing what kind of an individual you are.

There you have it! Follow these three simple steps when you begin writing your personal statement and you will be golden. You can even use these steps in an interview.

Mereat has a Bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego and is currently in medical school. She loves tutoring, especially in biology, physics, and public health.

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