Often, people are surprised when we suggest they write about their Greek experience in a graduate school admissions essay. After all, they reason, there's nothing academically impressive about kegstands and hazing rituals, is there?

Well, if you're letting Animal House cliches blind you to the wide range of fraternity experiences, maybe it's time you re-examined the role of Greek life on a modern campus. Aside from their social functions, fraternities and sororities also do charity work, balance budgets, provide professional training, create and host events and elect leaders, fundraise and recruit. The leadership and organizational challenges encompassed in actually running the day-to-day business of a fraternity is not all that different from running a law office, medical office or managing a division of a business. You need to be persuasive, persistent, innovative and able to work with a wide range of personalities and ideas.

As you already know -- because as a fraternity brother or sorority sister, particularly if you assumed any kind of leadership role, you have been responsible for many or all of these challenges.

Now, do you see how this might become MBA, JD or even MD application essay material?

No one is saying that acting as the social chair of a fraternity is a comparable level of responsibility to, say, CFOing a company. But most twenty-two to twenty-seven-year-olds applying to graduate school haven't been given much professional responsibility yet. Rather than writing about being a tiny cog in a big machine, filing away papers and earning somebody else lots of money, write about the personal challenges involved in persuading alumni to donate $100,000 to keep the lights on, or getting fifteen to twenty people to agree on the theme for an event. Admissions officers will learn a lot more about you that way.

In no way are we endorsing the idea that you should ignore your professional experience when applying for a professional degree!  But you might need to supplement your professional experience with other areas of your life where you had more authority, and fraternities are a great one to consider.
If you're interested in learning more about possible topics and how to write amazing essays, give us a call, we'll be happy to walk you through the process in detail.



"Harvard is my top choice, but I have decided I'm willing to settle for U.Penn."
AKA, how to create a college application list that doesn't suck.

So, you've begun the college application process! Congratulations!

You're thrilled with your grades, proud of your SAT/ACT score, satisfied with your complement of extracurriculars. And now, you're hunting for a school that offers a good complement to your skills and temperament. Of course, your parents are 100 percent behind you -- they don't care about the status symbol of a brand-name on their bumper sticker. Why, just the other day Mom said, "Wherever you think you're going to thrive, honey, we're behind you all the way. Even if it's community college." 

After extensive research, carefully comparing schools, weighing the professors and extracurriculars they offer, refusing to get distracted by celebrity alumni or vague rumors of 'networks', you are ready -- not to choose, but to apply. You know, of course, that the final choice will come further down the line, but you're confident that you will have good options to choose from, since you have applied to a wide range of programs. Now, everything is taken care of. There's nothing to do but fill out the applications and wait, calmly and patiently, for your answers.

Sounds great, doesn't it?  The above is a perfectly accurate description of ZERO PEOPLE'S COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS. In fact, here's what you're going through right now --

* You're behind on everything. Not just on your applications themselves. Everything. You haven't showered in a week. You're eating takeout and you're not even sure what week it's from.
* Every campus tour is turning into a pitched battle. This one has a bad location. That one just didn't seem very accommodating. The other one doesn't have good 'career options'.
* People you haven't spoken to in years are coming out of the woodwork to jam their oars into the process. "You know, you should really think about Cornell. It's so easy to get in there. What do you mean it's changed since I applied 30 years ago?"
* You can't seem to get a handle on the basic facts and differences between schools. How are you supposed to know what's marketing and what's real?

Welcome to your personal Hell -- college applications.

On this site, we have covered many aspects of the college application process in detail, but one thing we haven't written much about is creating a school list. This is your master list of places you will apply, and everybody needs one (even you!).

The reason we haven't written much about it is that it is (or should be) a very personal, non-cookie-cutter process. It is impossible to come up with a great school list without carefully analyzing who you're creating it for. That said, there are a few rules of thumb we can share to help you avoid the nightmare scenario -- not getting in anywhere you actually want to go.

RULE ONE: Spend 4x as much time researching and applying to safeties as reaches, and apply to at least three THAT YOU WOULD ACTUALLY WANT TO ATTEND.  People hate this rule. Nobody likes thinking about their third, fifth or seventh choice school. But a great safety list = a great school list. And the fact is, everybody already knows about your reaches, including you. They're the same as everybody else's reaches. But no two applicants' safety lists are identical, because different 'safety' schools are strong in different areas. Safety schools force you to sort out your priorities. Posit that you can't have everything -- what's the one thing you can't live without?  Location, school size, academic rigor?

RULE TWO: Apply to AT LEAST 10 schools. You only go through this process once, and the entire point is to give yourself options. Research until you come up with at least ten schools that excite you.

RULE THREE: Understand what differentiates the schools on your list from one another. No two schools have the same strengths or weaknesses. If you follow the above instructions, you're going to have options. So plan out how you would spend four years at each school you're considering. How would you fulfill your academic needs? What social opportunities on campus look promising?

RULE FOUR: Avoid early decision unless you're SURE that's the school you want. There are strategic advantages to ED at most schools -- but that is completely useless unless you're completely certain that your ED school is the one you want to attend, AND that money is no object, since you're sacrificing a shot at scholarships at other schools.

RULE FIVE: Apply early action everywhere you can, and always apply in the first week of a rolling deadline. If your target school has a rolling application, don't wait -- apply as soon as it opens. You'll get a leg up on the competition, and it doesn't cost you a cent, unlike ED. Early action, which is not binding, offers the same advantages.

RULE SIX: No procrastination. Alongside magical thinking, procrastination is the biggest college candidacy killer. The moment you know what work you need to do, create a calendar and start getting it done. No excuses. Nothing is higher priority right now for you than this process. Your future depends on it.

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Obviously, this list just barely scratches the surface, and feel free to contact us if you have more questions. But hopefully this can get you started on your path to the ideal college fit!


The 2018-2019 common application questions for college have just been released!  The college board has announced that they will now be updating prompts every two years instead of every year, giving them more time to evaluate feedback from students and educators. Therefore, the prompts and word counts are the same as last year.

First, a few ground rules.  Your word count should be between 250 and 650 words for each question.  Don't feel obligated to use every word -- but don't go over, either.  Double and triple-check your spelling and grammar -- don't get dinged on a technicality!  Read all of the topics and consider each of them before choosing which one you will answer.  Don't choose based on what story about yourself you feel like telling, or what you think the committee 'ought to know' about you -- instead, select a story where you grew, changed or evolved as a person.

THE QUESTIONS

1.  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Read this prompt carefully.  This is a standard 'diversity' prompt -- which means it asks students to share some distinctive element of their background or upbringing -- BUT the wording is very strong.  Only choose this prompt if your background is so integral to your life that you really can't imagine writing about anything else.

Note that this prompt also invites you to tell a story that is central to your identity -- that could be (for instance) a narrative about personal growth, or about an unexpected friendship or chance encounter -- again, so long as it is central to who you now are as a person, it's fair game.

2.  The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The common App has softened this prompt, perhaps after a bunch of complaints of being triggered by even thinking about past failures … 😊  So now, you can write about a challenge, setback or failure. But guess what – you should still write about a failure. If you don’t feel up to it, or don’t think you have a strong failure to discuss, then call us. But seriously, if you don’t have a strong failure, you should pick another prompt, you certainly have plenty to choose between.

OTOH, if you're applying to a reach school, or if you're concerned about other areas of your application, this prompt is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make an impression.  Nothing grabs admissions officers' attention as quickly as a well-thought-out failure essay, particularly because most students run screaming from this kind of prompt.

So what makes a great failure essay?  We cover this at length in our MBA admissions book, but the fundamentals are this -- you need a singular, powerful failure narrative where you failed not just yourself, but others you cared about.  The failure must be absolute -- no saving the day at the last minute.  It must point to some underlying aspect of your character which you then identify (stubbornness, overcaution, arrogance).  You finish up the failure essay by telling a brief (50-100 word) anecdote about how you have changed as a result of this failure -- use concrete examples here! 

3.  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome

The flipside of the failure essay, the challenge (or as we call it, the leadership) essay is one of the most commonly seen essays on the common application.  This, too, has been weasel-worded down to a softer “questioned or challenged”, but your story about that time you asked the teacher if you really had to sit at the front of the class all year is NOT good essay material, trust us.

If you have accomplished something that was exceptionally challenging for you and really shaped who you are as a person, this is your prompt.  If you are just looking to brag about your killer grade in that AP History class or your five goals in the championship bocce match, this is NOT your prompt.  Move along.

When thinking about challenges, students always want to focus on the external -- what happened and why it's impressive.  This is the wrong approach. The question-writers are giving you a very big clue when they ask you to describe what prompted your thinking – they want to understand how your mind works. The important story to tell is how you GOT to the impressive result -- and what you thought about, did and said that led to that result.

Finally, remember that these types of stories work best and are most impressive when you're motivating other kids (or adults!) to excel -- contrary to what your lovin' mother told you, it ain't all about you.

4.  Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt is a somewhat unusual spin on a common theme of transformation and growth.  There is an obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) spin to this question -- after all, a laboratory experiment or a planned course of study fits into this prompt very neatly.  But resist the urge to get completely technical and step outside your own experience!  Remember that whatever prompt you choose for your essay, the central figure in the story is you -- your challenges, your growth, your maturity.

This prompt also might be a good choice for students who have been fortunate enough to have interesting experiences in unusual places and contexts.  Worked on a social issue overseas?  Spent eight months living with the Amish?  Shadowed a researcher at CERN?  This could be your prompt.

5.  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Rites of passage can be fascinating topics for essays -- if they're handled well.  No one wants to hear about how grandpa cried at your confirmation -- snoozefest!  Becoming an adult is about accepting the responsibilities, limitations and joys of being human, and so should your essay.

The focus on a particular event is important.  It's very easy when writing an essay to drift from one subject to another, but great essays have a singular focus -- they're about one thing and one thing only.  In this case, the event or accomplishment in question and why it became a period of maturation.

It’s also worth noting the emphasis on understanding others. Surprising or difficult events often deepen our ability to empathize with others’ struggles – if you have a story that involves learning to see the world in a new way, this could well be your prompt.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

This is a brand new prompt, for those of you who are just 100 percent not comfortable talking about yourselves in any way, shape or form. Now, before you breathe a sigh of relief and rush off to write yet another paean to microbiomes or Martin Luther King, let us insert a caveat. This is usually the wrong kind of prompt to choose. For most people, most of the time, you’re going to get an essay that’s dry, technical, and reveals nothing about the candidate – in other words, a waste of word count.

In order to write a good essay about an idea or concept, you have to loop in … feelings!  Yours and others.  Talk about the people who share your passion, or the ones who inspired it. Talk about the key moments in the development of your favorite obsession – how did it all begin, where do you see it going?  Relate it back to larger themes in your life. How has this experience helped you to grow and mature?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

This is what we call an open-ended prompt. You can do whatever you want with it, which most folks find utterly terrifying. Not to worry – this should really be a last resort prompt if you have a fantastic essay already written that just doesn’t seem to fit any of the other prompts.

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So there you have it!  Not so scary after all, huh?  Still, you probably have a lot of questions as yet unanswered.  Or maybe you have a draft all written up and you want some seasoned eyes to take a look?  If so, drop us a line -- we'd be happy to help!

PHOTO BY CLINT MASON