Stress and college applications—do they have to go together?



Each fall, the next cohort of students prepare to embark on their senior year of high school. For some this means little more than having only two semesters to go–the good, the bad, and the mediocre will all be drawing to a close in a matter of months, and their futures beyond that ever-lingering date in June remain stubbornly undecided.  But for others, this may feel more akin to clambering into a body of icy water with the full knowledge that they will have to swim through it for the next several months, clinging to their faith that what awaits them on the other side is far more than worth it.  In other words, knowingly subjecting oneself to a great deal of suffering on the basis that the ends will justify the means.  This, of course, begs the question.  Is it really worth it?  Will the constant, unwavering stress and anxiety that invariably plagues those students who decide on the competitive college-bound path be compensated for by the outcome?

Most unfortunately, no one answer can satisfactorily resolve these questions –individual circumstances and values are too large of a factor.  The A/B personality type theory, pioneered by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman in the 1950s, is widely used to categorize behavioral patterns as they relate to stress management, and can therein be applied to the predicament facing high school students.  People who tend to be less competitive and achievement-driven or lean toward a Type B personality may be less inclined to pursue the “icy water” path, as it is undeniably taxing and can feel thankless for long periods of time.  Correspondingly, the highly ambitious, driven, Type A’s of the world are more likely to embrace (or at least contend with) the difficulties that path presents to them for the sake of achievement. Thus, when evaluating the pros and cons of this grueling approach, such predispositions must be factored into any personalized conclusions about its worth.

For some students of the latter camp, the pressure is on as soon as they enter high school.  After all, the majority of colleges do consider freshman grades in admissions decisions–a fact that parents are often quick to remind their students of.  However distant the post-high school future may seem at the time, every test and homework assignment already counts toward that end goal.  This mentality, persisting throughout high school, is certainly conducive to a higher GPA, but it is not without its faults.  Having such high expectations for performance–whether they come from oneself, one’s parents, or an outside source–can potentially contribute to the development of a whole host of problems, including declines in mental and physical health.  Pediatricians generally agree that teenagers should sleep eight to nine hours each night, but what with homework, extracurricular activities, and other obligations, this is simply not feasible for many.  Patterns of sleep deprivation have more severe medical implications than people often realize, and are closely linked with depression.

This is not to mention the inconvenient reality that when fatigued, it is infinitely more difficult to perform well on exams and keep up with school work, which can lead students into a dangerous whirlpool of exhaustion, poor performance, greater stress, more exhaustion.  Once senior year rolls around and college applications are added to the already skyscraper-esque pile of to do’s, this effect is magnified tenfold.  It has become alarmingly normal for students to suffer mental breakdowns, severe headaches, and heart palpitations from the overwhelming pressure and anxiety that they feel, as staying on top of everything becomes an impossibility.

With all of this taken into consideration, one’s health and sanity may seem like a high price to pay for a college acceptance letter.  But somehow, there appears to be a general consensus from students who end up at one of their top-choice schools that the delayed gratification was, in fact, worth it–though of course, that may be because they were predisposed to think so anyways.

That being said, the eventual rewards cannot outweigh the mental and emotional costs of actually getting there for everyone.  Gaining acceptance to a top university is an extremely demanding process, and the pressures are undeniably weighty.  In an ideal world this would not be the case–being a successful student and viable college candidate while still leading a balanced, healthy lifestyle should be possible.  But given the current system, the best thing for a high school student to do is to know themselves and know their limits.  Everyone has a slightly different set of values and goals for the future, so allowing these, rather than any other set of perceived expectations, to inform one’s decisions as a student is essential in determining the right path to take.




It’s 48 hours away, but there’s still time to act on the ACT


Try teaching yourself 11 school years worth of English, reading, mathematics, and scientific reasoning in a few days. On second thought, don’t. Very soon, you’ll be breezing through the English, reading, math, and scientific reasoning sections of the ACT, but traditional cramming isn’t going to help you get there.

3 Reasons Why Traditional Last-Minute Cramming Won’t Help You Ace the ACT:

  1. You’ll tire yourself out by taking several long practice tests that will only frustrate you. The ACT will test you on years of material that you’ve learned throughout your school career. Long practice tests in the final moments leading up to the ACT won’t improve your knowledge or help you isolate your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll only exhaust yourself.
  2. There’s too much material. You may attempt to furiously memorize ACT vocab, but the chances that the specific words you’ve agonized over will appear on the test are quite small. The time you’ll spend making flashcards won’t be worth the score reward.
  3. You won’t know what to focus on. Beyond the four main sections of the ACT, the test is a web of concepts that test very specific abilities. Without guidance, you won’t be able to target your true weaknesses.

On the other hand, Edupath’s free College Passport for ACT app can help you soar on test day by targeting your prep and maximizing every precious minute of study time.

5 Reasons Why Edupath College Passport Is Your Ticket to Acing the ACT:

  1. Study in short 10 minute bursts. Unlike traditional practice tests, Edupath College Passport allows you to focus on test prep one core concept at a time in manageable segments.
  2. Isolate your strengths and weaknesses. Immediately, you’ll know the categories of questions that you’re missing. Edupath’s targeted approach will allow you to cultivate your specific weaknesses until they become your strengths.
  3. Concept help and tips. Stumped? Edupath College Passport offers hints and tricks to make even the most difficult questions solvable. Uncover concept secrets for test day that will help you approach tens of questions.
  4. Immediate and accurate score predictions. As soon as you finish a burst of questions, Edupath will update your progress. Watch your score and confidence grow instantly.
  5. Free and from anywhere. Forget lugging around a heavy prep book, Edupath College Passport is easily accessible from your mobile device. Whether you have a few minutes in between classes or en-route to extracurriculars, kickstart your prep anywhere, anytime.

Download the free mobile Edupath College Passport ACT now at!



Feel the Love: 5 Tips for Acing Your Spring Break College Tour


What’s the best way to find out what a college is really like?

You can scope out schools that suit you with high-tech resources like Edupath’s mobile College Explorer (available free with Edupath’s SAT test prep app). You can take virtual tours of campuses, pore over faculty resumes, and study students’ “why this school rocks” statements until the cows come home. (Yes, cows do keep notoriously late hours).

But despite the wealth of information available online, most of us make life’s Big Decisions based on gut feelings, not on facts and figures.

And for many high school students, the feel of a college—the look, the locale, the way people drop their R’s or talk through their noses, even the aroma of the place (magnolia? French fries? tobacco?)—is what turns a vague interest into a fierce passion. Or, of course, the opposite.

Any college visit is better than no college visit. After all, you can’t find out whether you and Sounds-Good U have great chemistry if you never get within orbiting distance. But to get the most out of your time on campus, invest a little before-travel time in the following five simple tasks.


 1. Map Out Your Trip

For an exploratory college visit–the kind typically made by high school juniors during spring break–the stakes are low, and the ways to approach the experience are varied. You could:

  • Focus on colleges in just one city or region

  • Check out whichever colleges interest you the most, even if they’re far-flung

  • Sign up with professional providers for a packaged group tour (google “College Tours” to find trips of this type)

  • Stay at home, and tour colleges in or near your town

Whatever your strategy, experts say it’s best to limit college visits to two a day. You don’t want to wind up with your head swimming, your feet aching, and distinctly non-SAT vocabulary words exploding out of your mouth.


2. Yoo Hoo, It’s Me: Contact Colleges Before You Tour

Nothing says you can’t scope out a campus on your own. In fact, you should! More about this in a minute. But start–especially at bigger schools–by taking advantage of official guidance. Almost all colleges offer (1) an information session with admissions staff and (2) a campus tour led by current college students.

You can expect to spend between one and three hours, total, attending the information session and taking the college-provided campus tour.

Visit the school’s website to find out how to register for these standard offerings. Usually you’ll be directed to an online sign-up form or a phone number.

 Other freebies that a college can help you arrange:

  • An interview with admissions staff

  • Touring a specific department

  • Attending a class

  • Talking to a professor

  • Talking to a coach

  • Spending the night in a dorm (usually for high school seniors only)


3. Make It Your Mission to Snoop

Unlike standardized tests and application essays, the exploratory college tour is all about what you want to know about a college, not what a college wants to know about you. On any campus, take time after the official programming to get the vibe of the following:

  • Student center

  • Main library and other libraries

  • Student bookstore

  • Sports facilities

  • Dining halls

  • Student newspaper

  • Posters, flyers, advertisements

  • Office of undergraduate admissions (while you’re there, you might as well say hi to the staff and tell them your name)

And especially, check out the students. Do people look interesting to you? Where is everybody hanging out? What are they eating? Where are they studying? Oh, and by the way–this is a college tour, after all–how much are they studying?

4. Nab a Notebook

To make the most of your tour, take on-the-spot notes. Bring a notebook for this purpose, or use a digital device–whatever is most comfortable. It’s also smart to snap a few photos here and there. An image of a crowded bike rack, students sunbathing on a dormitory roof, or the sculpture garden in the center of campus will help you remember details you might otherwise forget.

Believe it or not, this material will come in handy just a few months down the road. Many colleges, as you’ll soon discover, require applicants to write a short essay about why they want to attend that particular school, and “Just because I do” is not going to catapult your application to the top of the heap. Referring back to your notes on the cozy study areas in the library, the friendliness of the professor who stopped to give you directions, or the intriguing internships described by three random students will provide the kind of interesting and convincing detail that colleges like to see.

5. Pack for Maximum Impact

Unless you’re bringing a sherpa, you’ll be doing a lot of luggage-hefting over the course of a several-day college tour. Pack accordingly (think Zen monk, not compulsive hoarder).

  • Check the weather report for the area(s) you’re visiting. Will you need a below-zero parka or a fold-up umbrella? Flannel-lined jeans or walking shorts?

  • When in doubt, choose clothes that are comfortable, casual (but not tacky or tattered), and clean. Note: “casual” means one thing at a performing arts college, quite another at West Point.

  • Chances are, you won’t be touring all those acres of libraries, dining halls, and tennis courts while glamorously perched atop a royal elephant. Shoes you can actually walk (and walk and walk) in are a must. Save the steep platforms and thigh-high lace-ups for more sedentary situations.

“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” wrote the novelist Kurt Vonnegut (who, back in the day, may or may not have gone on a pre-college tour of his alma mater, Cornell). And just like a beginning tango or salsa class, a spring break college tour is likely to leave you exhausted from exertion–but exhilarated by the way your horizons have suddenly expanded.

Now go on, get out of town.


In April, featured blogger Autumn Stephens will report on a real live spring break tour with a real live high school junior.


Countdown to the SAT: Your Guide to Sanity


What are you doing Saturday morning, March 8? If you’re reading this post, chances are that you, like hundreds of thousands of other high school students, will be taking the SAT.

If you’re a human being – and we’re betting you are – it’s only natural to feel a little anxious. Or, okay, a lot.

But fretting and sweating won’t do a thing to spike your SAT scores. Nor will a big bout of last-minute studying. Here’s what to do instead so you sail into the test feeling confident and at the top of your game.


1. Put Your Mind at Rest

Take a page from the playbook of champion athletes, who know they’ll perform better if they relax in the final hours before a competition.

Last year, Diana Nyad became the first person to make the grueling 103-mile swim from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage. The night before, she ate an early dinner (pasta with garlic and olive oil). Then she put on her pajamas and did crossword puzzles.


And just before Olympic snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg won gold in Sochi last month, he “was chilling really hard,” he told The Boston Globe. “I was eating mad snacks. Chocolate. Onion rings. Chips.” As a grand finale, he “fell asleep watching ‘Fight Club.’”
The takeaway here? Walk into the SAT – more or less the Olympics of high school – feeling relaxed and rested, not frantically digesting info from a last-minute cram. Watch TV. Listen to music. Hang out (but not too late) with friends. Right now, boosting your mood is the best way to boost your scores.

2. Plan Your Morning… Tonight

The devil is in the details, they say. For a smooth, non-Satanic start tomorrow morning, figure this stuff out tonight.
a. What time does the SAT begin?
b. How will you get there?
c. What time will you leave home? Add half an hour to your estimated travel time in case of unexpected delays.
d. Is someone giving you a ride? If so, make sure they are on board for this trip, and know when you need to leave.

3. Schedule a Three-Alarm Morning

Set your alarm clock for a time that allows you to get dressed and eat breakfast without rushing. Set a back-up alarm as well, just in case. And finally, have someone else in your house set their alarm, too. Make them promise they’ll jump on your bed yelling “Time to rise and shine, you fabulous love lump!” if that’s what it takes to get you going.

4. Get Your Wardrobe in Gear


Set out each and every item you will wear to the SAT. Hey, this is the perfect day for your lucky underpants.

5. Prep Your Take-to-SAT Kit

Photo ID
Your SAT admission ticket
Two sharpened No. 2 pencils
A calculator with fresh batteries
It’s not required, but you might also want to bring water and snacks for quick energy during breaks.

6. Do Not Pack

Any electronic device, including phones, tablets, cameras, computers, music players, and recording devices. Also, obviously, no weapons. Except, perhaps, your razor-sharp mind.

7. Get Enough Sleep

A rested brain is an alert brain. Enough said.


1. Breakfast of Champions

The theme of today’s morning meal: normal, normal, normal. Eat whatever you usually eat. Add something high-protein for endurance if you can. Coffee  drinkers, don’t skip the java – your brain is counting on that caffeine. But if you’ve never sipped anything more stimulating than OJ, don’t even think about that king-size energy drink.

2. Reframe Last-Minute Jitters


Being nervous is all about the fear that things will go badly. Excitement is a response to the belief that things will go well. Yet we experience both states in a similar way, with butterflies in the stomach, rapid heartbeat, a sense of distraction, and so on. If our own bodies don’t know the difference, why should our minds? Try telling yourself how “excited” you are, reinforcing a sense of positive anticipation rather than one of dread.

3. Put the Test in Perspective

“The person who scored well on an SAT will not necessarily be the best doctor or the best lawyer or the best businessman,” sociologist William Julius Wilson has noted. “These tests do not measure character, leadership, creativity, perseverance.”

Yes, it’s true: your entire future does not actually depend on your performance on one short test on one brief Saturday morning of your hopefully extremely long, happy, and successful life.

And besides, if you want to, you can take the SAT again in just a couple of months.

4. Do Not Skip This Important Final Step

Once you’ve finished the test, you’re 100 percent entitled to celebrate. Maybe 101 percent. See, there really is something to be excited about.


Edupath completely updated for iOS7


We’re excited to announce a new and improved Edupath SAT & College Search, totally updated for iOS7. The app has a new, cleaner look and lots of functional improvements. A few highlights:

  • Personalized tuition data: Did you know that schools charge different tuition depending on your family’s income? Until now, it was very confusing to parse all the data and find out if you could afford a particular school. That’s why we created a tool to help you estimate how much a college will cost for YOU.
  • Customizable search filters in explore: you can now save your search filters
  • Search for schools by region
  • New Review Mode button: Previously, you could only access review mode by swiping up to view previous questions. The new review button makes it easier to access.
  • Redesigned Stats Page: It’s now faster and easier to read through your performance stats in the app

SAT Myth Busting: Practice Tests are Bullsh*t

This is the first in our SAT Myth Busting series, where we’ll debunk pernicious legends of SAT prep that are leading unsuspecting students astray. (By the way, pernicious is an SAT vocab word)

Myth #1: you need to take full-length practice tests to prep for the SAT

Other test prep companies tout full-length practice tests as key components of their test prep packages. When you’re preparing for the SAT, the conventional wisdom goes, you need to stimulate the conditions of the real test as much as possible. If you’re an anxious student, practice tests might seem like a good way to make the SAT seem a little less scary. And if you’re the parent of one, practice tests seem like the only barometer of whether the money you’re spending on test prep is actually getting results.

Well, Edupath is here to tell you that practice tests are a waste of everyone’s time (well, everyone except for the test prep companies that use them to make money off of test-takers and their parents). We don’t offer full-length practice tests, and we don’t recommend that you take them, except for in certain limited circumstances.

We think taking the SAT is like running a marathon; that’s why we call our program “training” and not “prepping” or “studying.” Any runner will tell you that running a marathon breaks you down. It’s a colossal undertaking of adrenaline and endurance that leaves you weak, exhausted, and more susceptible to cold and flu. That’s why most runners training for marathons never run the full 26.2 miles until race day. Instead, they do shorter sessions of high-quality, specific training, like tempo runs, intervals, and fartleks (don’t laugh—that’s really a thing!).


You don’t want to look like this when you show up to take the SAT

Only a foolish runner would train for a marathon by doing a bunch of marathon-length runs before race day. But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you take multiple practice tests before the SAT. It doesn’t help you build key skills, and worse, it breaks you down.

That said, practice tests are good for two things:

1. Assessment: taking a practice test is a good way to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are to help focus your studying. But if you’ve taken the PSAT, you already have this information, and probably don’t need to take another practice test.

2. Endurance: Sure, you need endurance to get through a 3+ hour test. But when you’re working on endurance, you’re not building any of the concept area muscle you’ll need to really succeed on test day. And again, if you’ve taken a PSAT, you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to stay focused on a test for a long period of time. If you have a particularly hard time staying focused, you might want to take one practice test, but don’t overdo it!

A final word for parents: with Edupath’s Parent Dashboard, you don’t need practice tests to make sure your test prep investment is paying off in score increases. It’s the only feature in the industry that lets you see your teen’s score improvement in real time.


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.
college post
  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.”