Many college admissions offices provide tips for candidates on their websites. Here are some links that are particularly useful.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays, so it’s important to grab their attention from the get-go. This list of first lines from successful Stanford application essays shows how some students rose to this challenge.

The Yale Admissions Office offers terrific advice to all students who plan to apply to college. There are tips for freshmen, sophomores and juniors about how to pick classes and extracurriculars, as well as a wealth of information for seniors about choosing where to apply and putting together strong applications. Be sure to watch this five-minute video about the importance of being true to your own voice in your essay.

Tulane University’s Jeff Schiffman is refreshingly candid about what he and other admissions officers are looking for when reading applications. His 10 Expert Application Tips are a good place to start, and his advice on answering the popular (if annoying) supplemental question “Why Do You Want to Attend Our College?” is the best I can find online. He describes this question as an optional statement, but for many schools it is mandatory.

Here, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni relates some cautionary tales about “oversharing” in college essays. My rule of thumb: if a student can’t say of an experience “It was hard, but I’m over it or even better for it,” he or she isn’t ready to write about it. (And IMHO no one should spend $14,000 + room and board for a four-day “application boot camp”!) 


You can find examples of application essays all over the Internet, but not all of them are as good as they purport to be. Here are a few that I recommend. 

Johns Hopkins’ admissions committee serves up some examples of “Essays That Worked,” with explanatory notes on why they were so effective. (And they really are – focus especially on the ones by the Class of 2018 and 2019, which adhere to the current Common App guidelines.) You’ll also find some useful essay-writing tips from the Hopkins Insider. These essays and tips are applicable to all colleges and universities that take the Common App.

The folks at the Tufts admissions office are similarly generous with advice, posting a whole bunch of “Past Essays That Mattered.” Note especially the essays responding to the “Why Tufts?” question – a staple for many colleges, and a super-important one for students to ace. Meredith Reynolds’ “Inside Admissions” also contains practical tips on how to write an essay that stands out and manage the application process in general.

Gary Shteyngart, author of the The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and other satirical novels, wrote this personal essay for The New Yorker in 2007. It has all the elements of a great college admissions essay: humor, detail, voice, brevity, and a poignant lesson about growing up.

“Alone at the Movies” by Jonathan Lethem is another wonderful example of how a seemingly ordinary experience can be imbued with meaning when analyzed from the distance of a few years. I love this one.


Are “Holistic Admissions” Fair? Many elite colleges practice what they call “holistic admissions,” assessing applicants on factors beyond test scores, grades and extracurriculars. Some argue that this is necessary to ensure a diverse student body with a range of interests and talents, while others contend that the practice discriminates against high-achieving students who lack wealth and connections, particularly Asian Americans. Here are two articles addressing the controversy: “Let’s Sue Harvard and End Illegal Preferences in College Admissions,” by Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, and “The Truth About Holistic Admissions,” by a former dean and admissions officer.

Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class and Poor: In this excellent online feature, David Leonhardt of the New York Times provides fascinating, in-depth data about the vast differences in financial aid offerings and enrollment priorities among similarly ranked schools. For example, 23 percent of Vassar College students receive need-based Pell grants, while only 6 percent of students at Washington University in St. Louis do, even though Wash U’s endowment is six times as large as Vassar’s. This is a must-read for parents and students looking for competitive schools with generous aid packages.   

More Essays, Fewer Applicants: This New York Times article provides evidence for a phenomenon I’ve observed firsthand over the years: that students shy away from applying to colleges that require a lot of supplemental essays. My advice: Do the opposite and apply to these schools! Supplements are time-consuming, but they offer students a precious opportunity to charm the admissions committee.

Why the “Best” Colleges Aren’t the Best for Everyone: Frank Bruni’s op-ed column “How to Survive the Admissions Madness” generated a lively debate on the New York Times website and the Parents of New York Teens listserv. Bruni argues that top-tier private colleges aren’t necessarily the best choice for students who aspire to attend or are admitted to such schools. Why? Well, like Malcolm Gladwell, he suggests that good students end up feeling intimidated by the presence of other good or better students. At less competitive schools, such students might feel more confident and emboldened to pursue difficult courses of study, start businesses, and so on. Bruni, who was admitted to Yale but chose to go to UNC, also encourages students to spend their undergraduate years outside their comfort zone, choosing schools not just on the basis of their cachet but according to their ability to upend students’ longheld assumptions about race, class and culture. An interesting argument, albeit one with many holes…. 

In Defense of the Liberal Arts: Colleges across the country are grappling with the fact that students are fleeing in droves from “unmarketable” majors such as English, education, philosophy, and classics and moving into more lucrative fields like business, consulting, engineering, and computer science. See this New York Times article for some shocking statistics about the shrinking humanities departments at Stanford, Yale and other universities. Journalist Fareed Zakaria provides a rousing defense of the liberal arts in his 2014 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. Read the transcript here or watch the video here.

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