Thursday, August 27, 2015

Common Application Prompt #1

This article first appeared on on August 27, 2015.

Common Application Prompt #1
This is an actual college application essay written in response to the Common Application prompt: Share Your Story. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective. 
The intention of this series is to show readers a sample of a good essay in response to each of the Common Application prompts. This essay is an actual college admission essay, written and submitted by a real student. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective.
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
June 2003
Armed with a shoebox, a bag of cheerios, and a box of glitter and yarn, I dash across the living room floor and over the couch. I duck into my makeshift cave—a tiny space I claimed under a scarf-roof between the wall and the lumpy backside of the couch. I dump out my supplies and get to work cutting six lopsided squares of cardboard, using my bag of cheerios for both decorating and snacking. Once yarn shapes, globs of glitter, and stacks of cheerios adorn the cardboard squares, I carefully construct a beautiful box.
A while later, I am ready and waiting with big eyes as my mom rounds the corner of the hallway. Laid out in front of me are a row of four little boxes and a sign that reads “5 sents”.
November 2006
The bell rings and the usual eruption of noise and chaos ensues as a stampede of second graders burst out the door for recess. I take a deep breath, nervously glancing down at my red folder. Mrs. Elms stands behind her desk, digging through a stack of notebooks. She smiles as I approach and asks why I'm not outside playing. Instead of answering, I proudly open my folder to present bookmarks depicting flowers, trees, butterflies, hearts and puppies. I clear my throat to deliver my eloquent sales pitch: “These are bookmarks I’m selling for free. I made them and I… I thought maybe if you liked them, you could have one.”
August 2009
Today’s business plan consists of an upside-down bulletin board resting flat on two stools, a jam jar for money, and a bean bag chair for my own comfort. Six bundles of yellow and purple wildflowers and three paper cups of blackberries sit beside a notecard that reads “$2”. A lopsided sign taped to the bulletin board boasts, “Local and fresh!”
Business is slow and my last customer is my dad. I think back wistfully to last week’s lemonade stand which raked in a hefty $12.25 after only an hour. Oh well, I muse as I pack up my stuff and eat the blackberries, at least labor was cheap. I wave at the first-grader happily picking flowers down the street.
January 2012
“What’s the difference between ionic and covalent bonds?” asks Mr. Helsel, my chemistry teacher. A hand is raised one row over and my heart jumps slightly. Gold… turn your hand. Stop moving. Aha! I can make out the word “love” in thin gold wire around Julia’s pointer finger. I feel a surge of pride. Julia Smith, the most popular girl in my grade, is wearing a ring I made. It has been a month since my handmade wire rings, at first only worn by me and my close friends, became a trend throughout my high school. Girls I have never met come up to me to ask for one, and could I possibly make a matching one for their best friend as well? 
June 2013
I walk into Tender Loving Empire, a small shop located in a trendy neighborhood in downtown Portland. Ashley, the owner, greets me with a smile, then obliges when I ask for a stock report and last month’s check. While I wait, I wander over to look at new arrivals, scanning the displays of small handmade goods such as natural soaps, little clay plots, jars of lavender and books about Oregon forestry. I give a small smile as my eyes wander to a wooden tray displaying thin wire jewelry. A small placard states the price and the label “Lightshandmade: handmade wire jewelry from Portland, Oregon”. (Enya, Chapman University, Class of 2019)
Conor’s feedback: This is a nice example of Show rather than Tell. Through timely examples dating from childhood the author balances a consistent theme of entrepreneurship while also showing us a growing sense of business acumen.
Anna’s feedback: The format of this essay – short vignettes – is a great way to demonstrate commitment and passion of her interests. She’s not just stating “I’ve been interested in art and business for a long time” but rather giving a glimpse into what this has meant during her life. I feel like I know this young woman and want to know what she plans to do next.
Jodi’s feedback: Wow! This student is really creative and entrepreneurial. I liked the writing technique that showed her maturing over time, yet staying focused on art and business. Perhaps she will use her business skills to launch a start-up with other students she meets at college.
Conor O’Rourke is Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at Pomona College, which is also his alma mater. Contact Conor at: 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

6 Tips for Writing Compelling College Application Essays

This article first appeared on on August 19, 2015.

The college admissions essay (also known as your personal statement) is your chance to show who you are beyond your grades and test scores.
Embrace the opportunity to give the reader a sense of your personality.
Decide what characteristics you want an admissions officer to remember before you brainstorm and choose your essay topics.
Remember, this is a personal narrative—not the sort of expository essay you write for a class assignment, and definitely not a restatement of your activities and accomplishments in paragraph format.

Tip #1: Learn by Example
Read a lot of examples of well-done college essays. You will get that chance to do so if you follow this column for the next five weeks.

Tip #2: Avoid These Overused Topics
  • The Trip and/or Outward Bound (how I broadened my horizons)
  • My Favorite Things (a list of fluffy things that tell you I’m nice)
  • Miss America (how I will work for world peace)
  • The Jock (how I learned the noble value, the great lesson)
  • The Three D’s (discipline, determination, diversity)
  • Tales of My Success (how I overcame adversity to win the day)
  • Pet or Relative Death (how I learned to value life)
  • The Autobiography (I was born at a young age).

Tip #3: Drafting Do’s
  • Tell a story only you can tell
  • Write in first person, present tense
  • Make it a slice of life – a moment in time
  • Show, rather than tell
  • Provide rich sensory detail
  • Use metaphors
  • Be very selective with adjectives
  • Get the story on paper without editing (that comes later).

Tip #4: Hook the Reader with a Good Lead
Here are a few options:
  • The Anecdote (dive into the story, almost mid-stream)
  • The Why? (make the reader ask the question)
  • The Shocker (takes the reader off balance)
  • The Curmudgeon (refutes conventional wisdom)
  • The Split (there are two types of people…)
  • The Confession (become the reader’s confidant)
  • Stating the Obvious (that was hidden).

Tip #5: A Good Ending
  • Ties to the lead – but adds a deeper insight
  • Is not “moral of the story-ish”

Tip #6: Revising
  • Make sure the tone sounds like you (read aloud)
  • Cut weak and waffle words (clearly, somewhat, rather, kind of)
  • Cut (who, what, which, that, thing)
  • Cut needless restatements
  • Swap lazy uses of “to be”
  • Swap vague verbs - become, get, do, have
  • Swap passive verbs – use active voice
  • Prefer punch over perfect grammar.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Student-Parent Agreements

This article first appeared on on August 12, 2015.

Congratulations, you’re off to college! But before you go, consider making some deals with your parents about how you’ll relate to each other now that you’re leaving home. 
Sometime in August or September you’ll start your college adventure. Freedom and new friends beckon. But to help your transition go as smoothly as possible, it’s a good idea to make some agreements with your parents before you go. Trust me, it is way easier to negotiate with your folks face to face than it will be from college. It’s even worth putting your agreements in writing and having you and your parents both sign the document.
Here are key areas you might want to look at:
Portland State University
Photo Credit: Parker Knight via Compfight cc (Image cropped)


How often will you talk to your parents and by what method?
This is an area where your desires and the needs of your parents could differ greatly. You already have some system established that you used throughout high school. Perhaps you text each other multiple times a day. Your mom or dad might think this is going to remain the pattern, but you might think it will be different once you are away from home. There is no right or wrong, but getting your expectations aligned is important.
Whether it’s a weekly Skype call or a check-in phone call, it’s important to strike a deal on what works for both parties. 
Note to parents: While you should definitely communicate with your child, it is not appropriate for you to communicate with his or her roommate or professors. Avoid all temptation to advocate or rescue your child from tough situations.


Who is paying for what? At this point you and your parents have a clear understanding about how your tuition and living expenses are being handled, but part of that estimated total cost of attendance was for transportation, books, laundry, pizza and movie money. Are your parents giving you a monthly allowance for living expenses, or must you pay those out of pocket? If you had a summer job, were you expected to save that money for college? Who is buying books (which can range in price from $1,000 per term to far less if you shop early and buy used)? Who is buying the plane ticket for you to come home at winter or spring break (and which party is making the reservation)?
Some parents also set minimum academic standards that their student must achieve in order for the parents to keep paying for college. If that is the case, be sure those standards have been clearly spelled out. 
Note to parents: You may not receive the bill for college. That sometimes comes directly to your child. If you are paying, make sure that your child is passing you the bill in a timely manner so that you don’t incur late charges. 


Surprise! Your parents won’t get a copy of your grades. You are considered an adult and responsible for your education, so they only come to you. Many parents want to see your grades each term. Since college is harder than high school, it is entirely possible that your grades won’t be the same as what you are accustomed to.
It’s a good idea to agree in advance on some minimum standards and the consequence that will occur if you don’t meet them. 
Note to parents: If you want to get information directly from the college about your son or daughter, they will need to sign a FERPA Release.


It’s your parents’ job to worry about you, and it is scary for them if you are sick and not close enough for them to provide some chicken soup or chamomile tea. 
Note to parents: If you want access to medical records and to be able to speak to your son/daughter’s doctor, they have to sign a HIPPA Authorization Form. and an Advance Care Directive for Health Care, which allows you to make some medical decisions on behalf of your son or daughter should they be unable to do so on their own.

Home for the Holidays and Summer

You might come home from school with mixed feelings—excited to see family and friends, and also wary of giving up the independence you feel while at school. Perhaps at college you choose to stay up till 3 a.m. and sleep until noon, but at home your parents are not OK with that schedule. At college you never have to tell someone where you are going, but back home your parents might expect you to let them know. 
It’s worth making a written agreement about the expectations. 
Note to parents: Remember, you need to give your student more freedom than he or she had during high school. Also, you may only get your child back home for one summer (the one between freshman and sophomore years) because the other summers may be filled with on-campus research opportunities or internships or study away, so don’t let your potentially last summer in one household be filled with tension. 
Note to students: You cannot treat your parents as if they are your roommate or running a free hotel service. Everyone needs to compromise.
Working out these details may not seem fun, but it’s a good idea to do it now, before you leave. That will help you avoid arguments and devote your attention during your initial weeks at college to the important things: personalizing your dorm room and making friends.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Think About Graduate Fellowships Your 1st Year of College

This article first appeared on on August 6, 2015.

If you’re a college freshman heading off to school or university, it may seem awfully early to consider what comes next. After all, you have four years! And between the wide range of graduate schools and careers that exist, there are a lot of options. For most of those, it’s fine to wait a few more years to narrow down your choices. But if you’re interested in prestigious international fellowships, I encourage you to start thinking about them now.
Let me clarify what I mean by “prestigious international fellowships.” These are well-known, fully funded scholarships to earn a degree, conduct research, or teach in a foreign country for at least a year after graduation. Because there are a lot of fellowships out there, this post won’t get into prestigious awards that fund you within the US (like National Science Foundation grants). Instead, I’ll be discussing top international fellowships and what you should keep in mind during your university career if you want to be a good candidate. That said, a word of warning: Do not let your university years revolve around the pursuit of one of these awards! All of them are very competitive, so your odds are low. They also all have different focuses. If you follow your passions during university, earning good grades and doing interesting curricular and extra-curricular projects, you will likely meet the criteria to apply for some of them.
Rhodes: The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and best-known of any of the awards on this list. It is tenable at the University of Oxford in England, where students can earn a second BA, a Master’s degree, or a DPhil. It also has a particularly grueling selection process. Notably, the original charter for the scholarships specifies that students will be judged not just on scholastic achievements, character, and leadership potential, but also on success in sports. This criterion is now interpreted fairly broadly: non-competitive participation in sports (such as social ballroom or swing dance) is usually considered to count as the required proof of “energy to use one’s talents to the fullest.” Still, if you want to be a candidate for the Rhodes, you need to fulfill this condition in some way. Also, in addition to a personal statement, the Rhodes application requires five to eight recommendations, with the strongest applicants submitting seven or eight. This means that prospective Rhodes Scholars should begin building strong relationships with professors, employers, research supervisors, and sports coaches as early in their university careers as possible. Finally, the Rhodes interview process is notoriously wide-ranging and confrontational. Interviewees may be asked to quickly formulate and defend positions on controversial world events. You should keep up with world news and practice answering difficult questions quickly.
Gates-Cambridge: For nearly a century, the University of Cambridge in England had no equivalent to the Rhodes Scholarship. In 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation established the Gates-Cambridge Scholarships to fund international students at Cambridge. This is notably one of the few international fellowships that will fund an MBA (as well as other Master’s degrees and PhDs). While Gates-Cambridge Scholarships are extraordinarily selective, the application process is less intimidating than the Rhodes process, consisting of only the usual Cambridge graduate application, plus one additional personal statement and one additional recommendation. Students are evaluated first by the department to which they applied at Cambridge, with only top-ranked students in each department being considered by the Gates-Cambridge Trust. Interviews are conducted by panels specific to each subject area (and unlike Rhodes, Marshall, or Mitchell interviews, they can be done over Skype if travelling to the interview site presents a hardship). In my experience interviewing with the arts and humanities panel, the interview format was fairly relaxed, with a focus on how well Cambridge fit my goals. (Not so relaxing: Bill Gates’ parents sitting in on my interview.) The Gates-Cambridge looks for people who will be influential in their fields rather than future world leaders, so there’s less focus on public service than in the case of the Rhodes, Marshall, or Mitchell. As a result, the group of scholars is more diverse and less concentrated in politics- and technology-related fields.
Marshall: If you love the United Kingdom but don’t have your heart set on Oxford or Cambridge, the Marshall Scholarship may be for you. It funds two years of study (with a possible third-year extension for PhD students) at any UK institution. One fun and unique thing about the Marshall is that students who are not doing PhDs are encouraged to earn two different one-year Master’s degrees at two different institutions, so scholars have the chance to live in two UK cities and study two subjects. Based on my experiences with them, Marshall Scholars tend to be very public service-minded and very ambitious. The scholarship also focuses on the “special relationship” between the UK and the USA, so be prepared to write an essay about your desire to live in the UK as well as a more specific personal statement and plan of study.
Mitchell: Drawn to Ireland? The George Mitchell Scholarship is a one-year postgraduate award tenable at universities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, awarded to twelve students per year. It focuses on public service and leadership as well as academics, and most scholars can articulate clear, world-altering visions. The living stipend is one of the most generous of the prestigious fellowships, but the application process can be scary. While only four recommendations are required, to get to the in-person interview stage, you must also complete a recorded video interview and a Skype interview. Finalists are then invited a weekend similar to the Rhodes weekend, with social events and mixers as well as a formal, confrontational interview. (My panel had a dozen people shooting difficult questions at me.)
Watson: The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is incredibly open-ended: You get $30,000 to travel and have new experiences. There are no research or degree requirements; in fact, formal research is discouraged. However, there is a catch: only graduates of forty small, selective liberal arts colleges are eligible to apply. If you happen to be attending one of those (the list is here), lucky you! Talk to your college’s fellowships advisor about how to become a good candidate, as each partner college each has its own nomination process.
Erasmus Mundus: Erasmus is a popular European program that funds study outside of students’ home countries. While it’s well-known and well-regarded in Europe, it’s not as commonly discussed elsewhere because so many of the scholarships are restricted to European residents. However, there’s a branch of the program—Erasmus Mundus—that runs Master’s degrees and PhDs split between multiple European institutions and offers generous scholarships for non-European residents. There are Erasmus Mundus programs in nearly every academic field I can think of, with separate websites and application processes for each. A compiled list, sorted by field, is here for Master’s degrees and here for PhDs. Note that although many of them are very enticing, you can only apply to three Erasmus Mundus Master’s programs per year if you want to be eligible for funding!
Fulbright (and more): The Fulbright Program actually includes a wide range of scholarships, but the most relevant to soon-to-be-university-graduates are research grants and English Teaching Assistant grants. The former provide a year of funding to work towards a Master’s degree or conduct independent research; the latter provide a year of funding to work as an assistant English teacher. Fulbrights are available in over 150 countries, with application requirements (such as the required level of proficiency in the local language) and selectivity rates varying widely. All countries require proven academic achievement, and all research grants require an established affiliation with a local institution and a compelling research proposal. (It’s easier to find an affiliation than you might imagine. If you study abroad during undergrad and want to return to the same country, find a host institution and professor while you are abroad! Otherwise, e-mail and call professors whose work aligns with yours late during your junior year.) Some countries will interview you; some will not. (I didn’t have to interview for Germany, but a friend who applied to Spain completed a phone interview.) Once you have a specific country in mind, it is also worth looking into country-specific grants. For instance, the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) funds graduate students in Germany, while the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme funds and places English teachers in Japan.
Most importantly, if you are interested in any of these fellowships, talk to your college’s fellowships advisor at some point during your freshman year! Most of these fellowships (all but the Gates-Cambridge, in fact) require an endorsement from your college. This will usually be written or ghost-written by the fellowship's advisor, so it can help to build that relationship now. Be sure to check in with him or her regularly. In your junior year, you need to become very serious about fellowships if you plan to apply. Many have deadlines in October or September of your senior year, and it can be hard to get in touch with potential recommenders over the summer. Secure your recommenders’ agreement before you leave campus at the end of your junior year, and be sure you leave yourself lots of time for drafting and revising statements over the summer. (The Rhodes Scholarship statement that secured me an interview offer went through sixteen major drafts!) For now, though, don’t think too hard about your postgraduate plans. Focus on excelling in your classes, working on cool projects you’re passionate about, and keeping up with what’s going on in the world. After all, those are things that will serve you well regardless of whether you apply for prestigious international fellowships.