Getting into college is like dating

The college decision process is a lot like dating. You’re selling the best version of yourself in hopes of finding a great match, and probably learning something about yourself in the process. Edupath has some strategies for how to play the college admissions game like Casanova; feel free to apply these tips to your dating life as well.
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  1. Don’t be needy.

    Focus on what you need from a school more than what a school needs from you. Just like your crush, admissions officers can smell neediness from 3,000 miles away. Don’t volunteer in Haiti, join the yearbook club, and sell your startup to Yahoo! as a sophomore just to get Stanford’s attention—unless that’s truly who you are. Choose extra-curriculars that reflect your scrappy genuine quirkiness—it won’t guarantee you admission, but it will make you a more attractive person.

  2. Play hard to get.

    Don’t give yourself away to any school that will have you. Conventional wisdom has you apply to lots of safety schools. We say, don’t apply to any school you wouldn’t be totally stoked to attend. As long as you’re pretty confident you can get into one or two of those schools, the rest can be reaches. You’re worth it.

  3. Expect rejection.

    In the quest to find a great match, you’re going to get burned, but it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe. If you’re doing a good job of being you, then you aren’t pleasing everyone. Rejection can be a sign that you’re doing something right.

  4. There are no perfect matches.

    As long as you are compatible when it comes to the important stuff, you can probably be happy at lots of schools. So relax. There are no wrong decisions.



10 Killer First Sentences for the Personal Statement

There are plenty of examples of good first sentences of personal statements, and while they’re fun to read, they aren’t that helpful. You’re not going to copy someone else’s first sentence—what really matters is why it’s good. So that’s what we’ll cover today: 10 good first sentences, and what makes them so good. (By the way, these sentences all come from Berkeley High students’ successful college essays.)

“My letter jacket often clashes with my leotard.”

In one sentence, this student has communicated a lot more than the fact that he’s style-conscious. He tells us he wears a letter jacket, so we already know he plays sports and that he’s the kind of guy who flaunts it by rocking his varsity letters for everyone to see. But wait—he also wears a leotard!? Eight words into his essay, we get a picture of complex person. He’s into both sports and the arts, but he doesn’t feel the need to pick one or the other. He’d rather clash than suppress himself.

“Honestly, I’m not a people person.”

Can’t you just hear the slightly annoyed sigh behind this sentence? It’s like you’re trying to get the author to come with you to a party, and she’s stubbornly resisting. This girl knows who she is, and she’s not afraid to say it, even if it might make her unpopular. That kind of rugged authenticity makes for a winning essay, so don’t be afraid to be a little dark. If that’s who you are, you’re in great company—lots of great writers also happen to be moody misanthropes: Bukowski, Houellebecq, Nietzsche…

“My greatest disappointments and satisfactions have come from my campaign to make Linux universal.”

I love the contrast between that grandiose beginning and then the big reveal: his “greatest disappointments and satisfactions” are not about true love, world peace, or building a school in Ecuador. They are about Linux. This is clearly going to be a “nerd” essay—an explication on a quirky topic that the author is obsessively interested in. It’s a great strategy for standing out as an applicant. If you’re into something obscure or peculiar, this is the time to wave your nerd flag high.

“THWACK went the sound of a wooden dildo hitting the side of a desk in order to get the attention of my students.”

Yes, this came from a real essay that actually used the word ‘dildo.’ Clearly the author knows how to wield a dildo to capture an audience, whether it’s her “students” or her readers. But it’s more than just a shameless ploy for attention. It takes confidence to go waving dildos around classrooms and college essays, and it’s clear that this author has it. She knows what she’s doing. She waves that dildo with a sense of authority. (The essay, in case you’re wondering, is about her experience teaching a sex-ed class.)

“I remember their eyes the most.”

This came from an essay about teaching English to students in South America. That’s a dangerously popular topic, of course, but this first sentence offers a unique way in.

“‘Bacon!’ I yell to the busy kitchen staff, throwing a tray in the exchange window.”

The author doesn’t provide any context here; she just drops you into the middle of the chaos, leaving us curious to find out what’s going on. This sentence has energy. How to do this yourself: if your college essay includes an antidote, don’t tell it from beginning to end. Instead, think about the most exciting moment and start there.

“She went for a walk and didn’t come back.”

This sentence creates a lot of narrative tension. Who is “she”? Why is she important to the author? And why didn’t she come back? One short sentence into the essay and already my mind is brimming with questions. There’s nothing wrong with using good old suspense to draw a reader in.

“When people ask me what I do after school and I reply, ‘I’m in the circus,’ they usually raise their eyebrows skeptically and conclude that I’m referring to a Ringling Brothers-style show, complete with three sawdust-filled rings, parading elephants, and bags of roasted peanuts.”

The specific details in this sentence are what makes it so compelling. Especially that part about the sawdust-filled rings! To be honest, I don’t really know what she’s talking about, but it doesn’t matter—I like the fact that she sounds like an insider, and that she’s inviting me into her world. Besides the vivid details, the author also creates a sense of tension and mystery when she hints that the circus she’s in is not the one you’re probably picturing.

“We were a group of 17 year-old boys, so of course our planning for the adventure was nonexistent.”

I like the conspiratorial and slightly self-deprecating tone of this sentence. I’m already picturing him as a self-assured, adventurous kid who’s also keenly aware of his own hubris. There is some subtle foreshadowing here—though he begins with a teenage sense of invincibility firmly in place, an unexpected tragedy forces him to grow up fast.

“The sun seeped into my hospital bedroom, its warmth spreading across my swollen eyes.”

The mix of happy details and sad ones creates enough tension to make me want to read on. And I like how naturally she works in the fact that she’s in a hospital bedroom and that her eyes are swollen; the way she’s structured the sentence, those details are just incidental to her description of the sunlight.



Five ways to write a fascinating personal statement

A witch can’t smell a child through a layer of dirt, just like an admissions officer can’t smell your uniqueness through bad writing.

On a recent episode of This American Life, one college admissions officer said that 19 out of 20 essays he reads suck. How do you make yours stand out?

Remember this: admissions officers have to be bored out of their minds. They spend all day sifting through thousands of essays, most of them falling into the same small handful of categories. The admissions officer on This American Life spoke of the fabled Central American Service Trip essay with such unbridled scorn that I blushed to remember the community center for which I laid bricks in Costa Rica, and I didn’t even write an essay about it.

The “mission trip” has become such a cliché that it’s hard to believe anyone actually writes about it anymore. But despite admissions officers’ professed boredom with the same tired themes, it would be a mistake to turn the essay into a contest for the most obscure and outlandish topic. Good writers know that the best essays can make any topic interesting. Here are the top five ways to do it on your personal statement, even if you’re not a good writer:

1. Don’t try to be perfect. It’s fine to show your essay to a trusted adult, but don’t let them smooth over all the rough spots. To an admissions officer, an authentic high school voice is like catnip to a kitten. You should sound like a high schooler, because that’s what you are.

2. Perform yourself. Funny people don’t go around telling people how funny they are—they just tell jokes. Remember this when writing your essay. When Julian Cranberg wanted to show colleges that he was a bold critical thinker who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, he took a college to task for sending him loads of wasteful marketing collateral:

“Why, in an era of record-high student loan debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met?”

3. Break some rules… If you’ve chosen a topic that’s genuinely important to you, don’t worry about silly rules about certain topics being off-limits. One applicant began her essay, “My college counselor told me not to write about my mother’s cancer, but if you want to know anything about me, you have to know what I’m dealing with every day of my life.” She got in almost everywhere she applied. And I’ll bet the admissions officers who read her essay were impressed by her moxie.

4. But not others. Needless to say, your grammar and spelling should be impeccable. You can be an iconoclast when it comes to the topic you choose to write about, but even iconoclasts proofread. Bad grammar doesn’t make you quirky and lovable, it makes your writing less relatable and muddles your voice.

Remember the Roald Dahl book The Witches, where the clever aunt character advises her nephew not to shower, because witches track down kids by their smell, and clean kids smell more like themselves, while dirty kids just smell like dirt? Well, bad grammar is like dirt. Your writing should smell like YOU.

5. Be specific. One of the easiest ways to transport an admissions officer into your story is to use lots of sensory details—especially at the beginning and the end of your essay.

Eleanor Smith, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004 and is now a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, wrote a personal statement about her love of newspapers. From her opening paragraph:

“At the breakfast table, I drink my juice, fill a bowl with cereal, and arrange the paper so that it is perfectly propped up against two blue candlesticks.”

She went on to spend the bulk of her essay talking about why she loved newspapers and her responsibilities at the Berkeley High Jacket, but her final sentences return to sensory details and leave a strong impression:

“I am the person who carries all the newspapers in from the delivery car, my hands smudged with newsprint. But I’m not complaining. I like newsprint: its cheap smell, gritty feel, and the pleasure it brings me.”