College Essays

Common App and Coalition Essay Prompts for 2016-2017

As we blogged about in February, the 2016-2017 Common Application main essay prompts are quite similar to those from last year.

Here are the essay prompts for this year’s Common App:

Common Application Main Essay Prompts: 2016-2017

  1. 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.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Coalition Application Essays 2017

The Coalition Application launched in July. Colleges can choose to require an essay or offer alternate options. The Coalition App has 93 members, the Common App has over 600. Much is still unknown about the Coalition App, so we still suggest the Common App over the Coalition.

The Coalition App’s 2016-2107 essay prompts are as follows:

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

College Essays Student Study
Supplemental Essays

In addition, the supplemental essays for the following schools are listed below: American, Amherst, Barnard, BU, Bowdoin, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, George Washington, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Stanford, Tufts, University of California Schools, UChicago, UMichigan, UNC Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania, UTAustin, Virginia, Wellesley and Williams.

American University

Essays optional

Based on your knowledge of American University, what would it mean to you to call yourself an AU Eagle? (100 words)

Describe a time when you changed your opinion about an issue. What led you to hold this opinion in the first place and what led you to change your views? (100 words)


Option A   Respond to one of the following quotations in an essay of not more than 300 words.  It is not necessary to research, read, or refer to the texts from which these quotations are taken; we are looking for original, personal responses to these short excerpts. Remember that your essay should be personal in nature and not simply an argumentative essay.

  • “Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight—insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments.”  
Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College
  • “Translation is the art of bridging cultures. It’s about interpreting the essence of a text, transporting its rhythms and becoming intimate with its meaning… Translation, however, doesn’t only occur across languages: mentally putting any idea into words is an act of translation; so is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. No citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation– that is, I untranslated.”  Ilán Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College, Robert Croll ’16 and Cedric Duquene ’15, from “Interpreting Terras Irradient,” Amherst Magazine, Spring 2015.
  • “Creating an environment that allows students to build lasting friendships, including those that cut across seemingly entrenched societal and political boundaries…requires candor about the inevitable tensions, as well as about the wonderful opportunities, that diversity and inclusiveness create.” Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, 19th President of Amherst College, from Letter to Amherst College Alumni and Families, December 28, 2015. 
  • “Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather, achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.” Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst College Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeal.

Option B Submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities. We are particularly interested in your ability to construct a tightly reasoned, persuasive argument that calls upon literary, sociological or historical evidence. You should NOT submit a laboratory report, journal entry, creative writing sample or in-class essay.

Barnard College

What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? (100-250 words)

Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about? (100-250 words

Boston University

In no more than 250 words, please tell us why BU is a good fit for you and what specifically has led you to apply for admission.


Select one of the three topics below and provide a response of up to 250 words.

Bowdoin students and alumni often cite world-class faculty and opportunities for intellectual engagement, the College’s commitment to the Common Good, and the special quality of life on the coast of Maine as important aspects of the Bowdoin experience.

Reflecting on your own interests and experiences, please comment on one of the following:

  1. Intellectual engagement
  2. The Common Good
  3. Connection to place

Brown University

Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? If you are “undecided” or not sure which Brown concentrations match your interests, consider describing more generally the academic topics or modes of thought that engage you currently. (150 word limit)

Why Brown? (150 word limit)

Tell us where you have lived – and for how long – since you were born; whether you’ve always lived in the same place, or perhaps in a variety of places. (100 word limit)

We all exist within communities or groups of various sizes, origins, and purposes; pick one and tell us why it is important to you, and how it has shaped you. (100 word limit)

Columbia University

What aspect of the Columbia community, outside of the classroom, would you most want to impact and why? (150 words or less)

List the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the print, electronic publications and websites you read regularly. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why. (300 words or less)


Please respond in 100 words or less:

Oh, The Places You’ll Go is one of the most popular books by “Dr. Seuss,” Dartmouth Class of 1925.  Where do you hope to go?  What aspects of Dartmouth’s curriculum or community might help you get there?

Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth ’91, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, recently documented her Year of Yes; for one year she vowed to say YES to everything that scared her. Share a moment when you stepped out of your comfort zone, and describe how it helped you grow into who you are today.

Celebrate an example of excellent teaching and how it illuminated the subject you were studying. Why did it resonate with you and excite your intellectual curiosity?

In the wake of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” If you could tackle any of the world’s “troubles,” which one captures your imagination and inspires you to act?  What would you invent or devise to mitigate it and how might your coursework at Dartmouth inform your ambitions?

“It’s not easy being green” was a frequent lament of Kermit the Frog. Discuss.

“Three things in human life are important,” said the novelist Henry James. “The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” Share a moment when kindness guided your actions.

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” was the signature catchphrase of Fred Rogers, the creator and host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. What kind of neighbor will you be in our undergraduate community at Dartmouth? What impact have you had on the neighbors in your life?

Duke University

The following question is required for Engineering applicants.

If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke. (150 words maximum)

The following question is required for Arts & Sciences applicants.

If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (150 words maximum)

The following question is optional for all applicants to Duke University.

Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 words maximum)

George Washington University 

The GW supplemental essay question is a chance to show your personality and share your voice beyond your application. Select one of the essay questions on the Common Application and respond in 250 words or fewer.

Your Greatest Learning Experience: 

Research shows that an ability to learn from experiences outside the classroom correlates with success in college.

What was your greatest learning experience over the past four years that took place outside of the traditional classroom?

Your Shoulder to Lean On:

Historians write that Martha Washington was George Washington’s sounding board and closest confidant. Reflect on a significant challenge you have encountered during your high school career.

Tell us about the person (mentor, family member, friend, coach, teacher, etc.) who provided support, advice, and wisdom to you in times of difficulty.

You & GW:

We imagine you have spent a great deal of time researching different colleges and universities.

Describe how GW offers a strong fit with your interests, talents and goals.

Georgetown University

Short Essay

Briefly discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved. (approximately one-half page

Compose two brief essays (approximately one page single-spaced each) on the topics given below.

Essay One

All Applicants: As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.

Essay Two

Applicants to Georgetown College: Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your goals. How do these thoughts relate to your chosen course of study? (If you are applying to major in the FLL or in a Science, please specifically address those interests.)

Applicants to the School of Nursing & Health Studies: Describe the factors that have influenced your interest in studying health care at Georgetown University. Please specifically address your intended major (Health Care Management & Policy, Human Science, International Health, or Nursing).

Applicants to the Walsh School of Foreign Service: Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.

Applicants to the McDonough School of Business: The McDonough School of Business is a national and global leader in providing graduates with essential ethical, analytical, financial and global perspectives. Please discuss your motivations for studying business at Georgetown.

Georgia Tech

Beyond rankings, location, and athletics, why are you interested in attending Georgia Tech? (max 150 words)

Please choose ONE of the following questions and provide an answer in 150 words or less.

Tech’s motto is Progress and Service. We find that students who ultimately have a broad impact first had a significant one at home. What is your role in your immediate or extended family? And how you seen evidence of your impact on them?

Students are often told what classes they should take. If you had the opportunity to create a class, what would it be and why?

We challenge our students to “be comfortable being uncomfortable”. Tell us about a time in high school that you felt outside of your comfort zone and the resolution.

Harvard College

Essay optional

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

Unusual circumstances in your life

Travel or living experiences in other countries

What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

How you hope to use your college education

A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 on a spirit of exploration and discovery. As a result, students can pursue a multi-dimensional undergraduate experience both in and outside of the classroom. Given the opportunities at Hopkins, please discuss your current interests—academic or extracurricular pursuits, personal passions, summer experiences, etc.—and how you will build upon them here.

Northwestern University

Other parts of your application give us a sense for how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.


Candidates respond to all three essay topics. (250 word limit for each essay.)

Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.

Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.

What matters to you, and why?


Short Responses (Required of all Applicants)

Think outside the box as you answer the following questions.  Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected.  Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.

Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: “Why Tufts?” (50–100 words)

There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised – your family, home, neighborhood, or community – and how it influenced the person you are today. (200–250 words)

Now we’d like to know a little bit more about you.  Please respond to one of the following six questions (200-250 words). Students applying to the SMFA at Tufts’ BFA program must answer prompt F; we strongly recommend that candidates for the five-year combined degree with the SMFA at Tufts choose either prompt C or prompt F:

A)Nelson Mandela believed that “what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived.  It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”  Describe a way in which you have made or hope to make a difference.

B) It’s cool to be smart. Tell us about the subjects or ideas that excite your intellectual curiosity.

C) Whether you’ve built blanket forts or circuit boards, produced community theater or mixed media art installations, tell us: what have you invented, engineered, created, or designed? Or what do you hope to?

D) What makes you happy?

E) Celebrate the role of sports in your life.

F) Artist Bruce Nauman once said: “One of the factors that still keeps me in the studio is that every so often I have to more or less start all over.” Everyone deals with failure differently; for most artists failure is an opportunity to start something new. Tell us about a time when you have failed and how that has influenced your art practice.

University of California Schools

You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.

Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.

Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you:  But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or a taking lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about your accomplishments and what you learned from the experience.  What were your responsibilities?Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities.  For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider:  What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem? How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you? Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few. If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strived to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone? If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?”

Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

Things to consider: Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or activities — and what you have gained from your involvement. Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)?

What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place – like your high school, hometown, or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community? Why were you inspired to act?  What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Things to consider: Don’t be afraid to brag a little. Even if you don’t think you’re unique, you are — remember, there’s only one of you in the world. From your point of view, what do you feel makes you belong on one of UC’s campuses? When looking at your life, what does a stranger need to understand in order to know you? What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge, or opportunity that you think will help us know you better? We’re not necessarily looking for what makes you unique compared to others, but what makes you, YOU.

University of Chicago

Question 1 (Required): About 500 words max

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Question 2 (Optional): About 500 words max

Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.

Extended Essay Questions: Choose one, 500 words

What is square one, and can you actually go back to it? Inspired by Maya Shaked, Class of 2018

Once, renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg said: “There is a fundamental error in separating the parts from the whole, the mistake of atomizing what should not be atomized. Unity and complementarity constitute reality.” Whether it’s Georges Seurat’s pointillism in “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, quantum physics, or any other field of your choosing, when can the parts be separated from the whole and when can they not? Inspired by Ender Sahin, Class of 2020

The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words. Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)

Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about. Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020

According to Lázló Babai, Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of Chicago, it is unfortunate that mathematicians do not have any procedures in place for revoking theorems once their validity is established because sometimes our results would be nicer without them. If you had the power to obliterate any known truth for the sake of getting nicer results, what truth would you choose to obliterate and why? This power cannot be used as a Ctrl-Z on events in your own life. Inspired by Erin Horning, Class of 2016

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun. Explore past favorite prompts at

University of Michigan

Essay #1 (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words.)

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

Essay #2 (Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum.) FRESHMEN APPLICANTS

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?

UNC Chapel Hill 

In addition to the essay you provide with your Common Application, please choose two of the following prompts and respond to each in 200-250 words.

Tell us a story that helps us better understand a person, place, or thing you find inspiring.

What do you hope will change about the place where you live?

Tell us about a small goal you hope to achieve, whether in the next 10 days, 10 months, or 10 years.

What will be the best breakthrough—whether scientific, social, economic, or other—between now and 2025?

University of Pennsylvania

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying. (400-650 words) *For students applying to the coordinated dual-degree programs, please answer this question in regards to your single-degree school choice. Interest in coordinated dual-degree programs will be addressed through those program-specific essays.

University of Texas @ Austin

ApplyTexas Essay Prompts A, B and C

Essay A:

What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.

Essay B:

Most students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.

Essay C:

You’ve got a ticket in your hand – Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

University of Virginia

We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists.  Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.

  • College of Arts and Sciences – What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
  • School of Engineering and Applied Sciences – If you were given funding for a small engineering project that would make everyday life better for one friend or family member, what would you do?
  • School of Architecture – Describe an instance or place where you have been inspired by architecture or design.
  • School of Nursing – Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.
  • Kinesiology Program – Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.

Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.

  • What’s your favorite word and why?
  • We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
  • Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the UVA culture. In her fourth year at UVA, Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
  • UVA students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?


When choosing a college community, you are choosing a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. Generations of inspiring women have thrived in the Wellesley community, and we want to know what aspects of this community inspire you to consider Wellesley.  We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the “Wellesley 100” is a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 ( and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why.  (PS: “Why” matters to us.)


Imagine yourself in a tutorial at Williams. Of anyone in the world, whom would you choose to be the other student in the class, and why? (Please limit your response to 300 words.)

Need help now? Check out our Essay Guidance Program; you won’t be disappointed.

Application Boot Camp Insider Tips

Application Boot Camp 2016 Highlights

Post by Brian, Senior Counselor.

We just finished our 13th year of Application Boot Camp®, and I’m happy to say our students are all the better off for attending.

Right in the heart of Boston, near Fenway Park, our team helped students revise multiple rounds of essays (over 1,000 drafts in total!), held strategy sessions to dissect and understand how to maximize the Common App, brainstorm topics for our proactive approach to essays, and shed light on the difference between early decision and restrictive single-choice early action. Students came away clear-eyed about the college admissions process, and with their personalized application strategies, took to heart our feedback about strengthening their essays. As one student put it, “Application Boot Camp really is a personal trainer for the mind.”

Baseball Fenway
Each four-day session of Application Boot Camp is demanding, but every year I see the same transformation from our attendees. Students arrive with myths about the “mysterious” Common App and the entire application process. They puzzle over how to best ask for teacher recommendations. They feel muddled about using their academic experiences to create gripping personal narratives and they have no idea how to respond to many random college supplemental essays.

But by the end of these four days, all of our students, and their parents, leave with an empowering sense of clarity and a killer portfolio of essays.

Even more, students receive an individualized college admissions strategy plan and learn how to apply their core suite of essays to an ever-growing list of supplemental questions.

Most of all, our team helps students articulate their interests, to ensure they will stand out during the admissions process. Our goal is not to hide, but to express their dimensionality, to guide them to a honed academic niche.

Take the young man who came with a boilerplate community service essay, but ended up with a piece about his enthusiasm for open-source automotive engineering. Or the student who explained how his Hawaiian background gave him a better appreciation for epic poetry. Or the student who received advice about how to increase her SAT Subject Test score, so she could apply to higher-reach schools.

Resource for Boot Camp

The gift of Application Boot Camp is that our team of counselors creates a supportive environment in which our students can work; it’s our belief that the true act of writing occurs only in the presence of rapport. We work with students to unspool their personal histories and reveal their most gripping experiences. We guide them to colleges that match their interests and personalities while using a strategy that will increase their odds by up to four times for some colleges. We sharpen their why essays so they show how they will contribute to a school’s community.

Application Boot Camp lasts only four days, but our best indicator of progress is reviewing the first draft of an essay, compared to the final piece. This comparison leaves our team heartened about our students’ college admissions prospects. We’re also happy to see parents leave more relieved about the application process, and students more free to focus their energies on their very important senior years.

We look forward to working with even more families next year.

Insider Tips Standardized Testing

SAT Subject Tests – What You Need to Know

Recently Columbia University followed the University of Pennsylvania’s lead by becoming the second Ivy League school to drop both SAT Subject Test requirements along with the writing section requirements for the SAT or ACT. It appears schools are starting to trend a bit more on the ‘less is more’ side in terms of standardized test requirements. Like the ‘mom jeans’ revival of late, we urge you to buck this trend. PLEASE. Remember, things are not always as they appear in college admissions.

These tests formerly called SAT II’s and longer ago, achievement tests, are important regardless of school requirements. Naysayers will combat this with ‘Well, if the school doesn’t require them then why should I/my student bother?’ The answer is honestly quite simple – college admissions isn’t getting any more transparent or less aggressive while (blessedly) our students and their applications are getting stronger and smarter. Competition is fierce in college admissions even for lesser-known schools. If you have the opportunity to shine just this much brighter than your competition – why wouldn’t you go for it? Make it easy for an admissions officer to see the value of your high grades with equally high Subject Tests.

In our workshops and talks with parents, students, and school officials we are often asked about the mysterious Subject Tests. And, the same misunderstandings are voiced concerning these one-hour, content-based tests put out by the College Board.

Let us clear up some things and bust some Subject Test myths.  Buckle up!

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Subject Test Myth


NOT TRUE. Not only do Subject Tests provide another quantitative way to evaluate a student, they allow student comparison on an even playing field. They help colleges interpret your grades and equalize grading scales from high school to high school. How does an A at school X compare to an A at school Y? Well, if one student scored a 770 on the Bio SAT Subject Test and the other scored a 580, colleges would assume that the first school had a much “truer” grading scale and that the competition was simply not as strong at school Y. In effect, these scores either show that a student deserved the high grades he received, or that the school simply hands out many A’s.

Many students will present to schools with the same high grades and test scores. Having high Subject Test scores, highlighting your mastery of the subject, may give you the edge you need to get your essay read.


NOT TRUE. The percentile scores do NOT get reported to colleges, only the score. Most admissions officers don’t differentiate or even worry about if your 760 was high or low for your test. So those who get a 768 on the Korean with Listening test (the highest average of all the SAT Subject Tests) score only 50%, but the score still looks strong.

Point: it pays to study the average scores and pick tests based on your ability and the scoring curve. The average information is available on the College Board’s web site, and is actually printed on the score reports you receive back after taking SAT Subject Tests. Use them to your advantage!

SAT Subject Tests # Taken Mean
Literature 56,594 618
US History 70,298 645
World History 16,657 618
Math I 65,319 619
Math II 144,772 690
Biology E/M E: 31,027

M: 42,253

E: 625

M: 652

Chemistry 73,551 666
Physics 58,921 667
Chinese w/Listening 5,204 759
French w/Listening 1,621 666
German w/Listening 438 636
Japanese w/Listening 1,332 694
Korean w/Listening 2,110 768
Spanish w/Listening 2,982 665
French 7,587 636
German 706 644
Modern Hebrew 330 608
Italian 492 695
Latin 2,790 613
Spanish 19,302 651

*Data courtesy of the College Board website


NOT TRUE. Students should consider very carefully WHICH tests they sign up for – most students don’t even realize that the average test scores are different on every SAT Subject Test! Most assume that the mean score is 500, but that is NOT the case.

Take the Math Level I and the Math Level II as an example. Many students take Math Level I thinking it’s “easier,” but the average score on that test is a 619. If you miss a handful of questions, you will not even score in the 700’s! Compare that to the Math II — the AVERAGE score is 690! That means you can get a bunch wrong and still be in the 700’s (on a recent test, you could get 7 wrong and still score a perfect 800). In other words, every test has a different group of test takers — the kids who take the II are a smaller group, but a stronger group.  Not only that, the Math I isn’t really weighed very heavily at top colleges as it’s the same math that’s on the SAT.

Then there are the tests such as the Chinese with Listening — since many kids who take it speak fluent Chinese, the average is very high: 759!


TRUE. Many students aren’t even aware that they should take these tests after completing the corresponding course work. You’re already studying for your class, which means the Subject Test itself should not be an incredible added burden. So, are you taking AP US History, AP Biology, and AP French? Take the corresponding Subject Tests.  See the list of Subject Tests and check your classes.  Got it?  Now, the Literature Subject Test doesn’t really align perfectly with any class, so study for this test and take it junior spring.  Math 2 is fine if you’ve taken Pre-Calc.


NOT TRUE. Top candidates at schools like Stanford typically submit four, five, or six subject tests taken since freshman year even if they are not required, and those scores are in the mid 700s. Mr. Fitzsimmons from Harvard’s admissions office was quoted as saying:  “…the writing test has similarities to the SAT’s Subject Tests, which are generally optional and assess knowledge in many academic areas such as biology and French.” Though Harvard (for example) doesn’t require Subject Tests they do strongly recommend submitting two Subject Test scores and “finds those to be among the top predictors of performance.


TRUE. The practice tests available in the College Board’s book: The Official Study Guide for all Subject Tests are only an hour long (the length of the test) and the results are quite true to actual results so will help you study. Practice can make (close to) perfect. And, practice from the company that writes the tests.

Subject Tests Info


SHOW don’t just TELL. The great Pablo Picasso was spot on when he said, “Action is the foundational key to all success.” Take action, demonstrate your love of learning, highlight your scholarly side and be willing to go that extra mile or take that last test.

So, even if a school doesn’t REQUIRE Subject Test scores like Columbia or Barnard, submit high scores anyway. Take the necessary action, let your Subject Test scores do YOU a favor and begin your travels down that path to success.

We are always asked about scoring and there’s lots of confusion on this front. Subject Test scores are reported on a scale of 200 to 800. Language Tests with Listening include subscores, on a scale of 20 to 80. That’s it.  Pretty clear.

Oh, and don’t forget to check which schools will require you send ALL scores such as Stanford and Cornell.  Why? Because you would not want to send a score that wouldn’t help you.  See why we insist our students take practice tests before sitting for an actual Subject Test?

College Essays Colleges

UChicago Prompts Out for 2016-2017

UPDATE: Aug. 9th

University of Chicago Adds Early Decision 1 and Early Decision 2

Chicago once again has shaken things up, introducing ED I and ED 2 along with their traditional early action program.

  • As of a couple of weeks ago, Chicago now has ED1 November 1 (and ED2 January 1) in addition to Early Action November 1. SAT and ACT scores are now self-reported at first, same as APs. Of course, if you are admitted you have to send an official score report, but this seems sensible—why penalize the 90% who aren’t admitted with score report fees?

College Essays Count!

Here they come!!!  College’s supplemental  essay prompts are starting to be released with The University of Chicago leading the charge. Two supplement prompts have been posted, one of which is required and the other optional.

Question 1 (Required):

  • How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Question 2 (Optional):

  • Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.

U Chicago has become known for their quirky essay prompts, generated each year by current students.  This year their six extended essay prompt options don’t disappoint. Students must choose one of the six which range anywhere from creating your own idiom and telling of its origin to describing something vestigial and providing an explanation for its existence. They are:

Essay Option 1.
What is square one, and can you actually go back to it? —Inspired by Maya Shaked, Class of 2018

Essay Option 2. Once, renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg said: “There is a fundamental error in separating the parts from the whole, the mistake of atomizing what should not be atomized. Unity and complimentarity constitute reality.” Whether it’s Georges Seurat’s pointillism in “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, quantum physics, or any other field of your choosing, when can the parts be separated from the whole and when can they not?—Inspired by Ender Sahin, Class of 2020

Essay Option 3. The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words. —Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)

Essay Option 4. Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about. —Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5. Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence. —Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

Essay Option 6. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

Let Your Voice Shine Essays

Whether you are writing your Common App essay or going after supplements, keeping admissions officers interested and engaged and letting the know how you think is key.  Here are some of our tips for doing so:

College Essays Student Study

Top Tier’s Top Quick and Easy Essay Tips

  1. Be Authentic.
    • Demonstrate who YOU are outside of your grades and test scores through your writing.
  1. Choose Your Words Carefully.
  • Most college essays have a word limit which means you need to carefully consider every word you enter into the Common Application, whether for a main essay, a supplement, or a why essay, etc.
  1. Use ACTION Words In Your Writing.
  • Admissions officers want to read about the action you’ve taken, the progress you’ve made, the work you are doing, the scholarly evidence you offer –so action words are key!
  1. Use a Great Opening Hook.


  • I had no idea how poor people in Africa were until saw them when I went on safari in Kenya last summer.
  • College holds vast potentialities for the optimization of my intellect and ability to succeed in the personal financial arena.
  • I was up late last night trying to figure out what to write for my college essay when the idea finally hit me!


  • I am my own favorite fictional character.
  • Every October, the dry winds arrive, the sky clears, and at night the hills above my house cut a black profile against the stars.
  • I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn.


Write Great Esssya

Get To Work

Use your summer wisely – start working on your essay(s) NOW so they can be fine-tuned for submission. Keep posted as we’ll be posting  more school’s supplements and plenty of college essay writing tips as the summer progresses.

Need help now? Check out our Essay Guidance Program; you won’t be disappointed.

Graduate Admissions

Summer: Time to Consider Grad School

–post by Dr. Kristen Willmott

As college graduation season comes to a close, many graduates and rising seniors are considering their next steps, just as working professionals are assessing if a graduate degree may take them to the next level in their careers.

As Inside Higher Ed recently noted, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employers will add just under 2.4 million jobs requiring a graduate or advanced degree between 2012 and 2022. In 2016, the demand for a graduate degree in the workplace is here to stay.

As a former Admissions and Financial Aid Officer for an Ivy League graduate school, and one who left a full-time job to obtain a PhD, I have seen firsthand the benefits of a graduate degree.

There are many articles, studies, and blogs devoted to reasons not to pursue graduate school and just as many for graduate school. In December 2015, Business Insider published an article highlighting ‘14 Reasons Not to Go To Grad School.’ All 14 reasons essentially boil down to two central points:  it’s hard work and it’s costly.


If you need an article to tell you that a 1-2 year Master’s degree or a 5-7 year PhD is going to be hard work and costly, then you weren’t going to be admitted into a top graduate school program anyway.

The time and money input is real, but it doesn’t have to be scary-real. This is especially true if your graduate school pathway is well planned out, your application is worthy of funding, especially the ever-important merit aid that students DO obtain, and your career goals align with what graduates actually are likely to obtain post-program.

Graduate school DOES require immense commitment to your studies over many years (depending upon the program), a considerable change in your distribution of time (little time for social engagement outside of your department, plus top schools often intentionally design the first part of their programs to be tough), and money, as even fully-funded graduate students have research, books, conferences, and travel expenses.

Job searching, career climbing, and job-switching are also hard work and costly. Depending on your targeted career, graduate school can offer a leg up, and it doesn’t have to be a choice that negatively impacts your life.

 Summer Grad Student

Top Reasons to Go to Grad School:

1.) You can make tuition back and then some. As the Georgetown report ‘The College Payoff’ found, and similar studies have confirmed, holding a graduate degree pays off. Those with a Master’s degree earn $400,000 more that those with a Bachelor’s. Those with a Master’s or higher typically make 30% more that those without.

2.) You can get paid to study. Stipends, research assistantships, teaching fellowships, outside fellowships, and merit aid are all possible.  I have worked with students who have received merit aid in Master’s, PhD, law school, and MBA programs. Merit aid is not dependent on your financials. It’s designed to sway you to attend a program and the best way to obtain it is with a stellar statement of purpose and recommendation letters (and obviously in-range, meaning above-average, test scores/GPA).

  • Many do not know it’s possible to apply for outside fellowships before applying to graduate school. This is a boost for your application and your budget.
  • Also, understand that it is never a good idea to borrow your way (completely) through graduate school. When all of your acceptance letters are in, if you have zero funding, you may want to rethink your graduate school plans. You cannot, will not profit from a graduate school stipend; it’s an assist, not a salary. The salary is what you make when the stipends end.

3.) You can expand your job options. A graduate degree is something you will have on your resume or CV forever.

  • You might not have the “Mrs.” before your name indefinitely, but if you earn a PhD, the “Dr.” is there to stay. That fact is appealing to students, but for PhD applicants especially, it is important to understand that as Dr. Karen Kelsky has articulated time and time again, the tenure-track academic job market is collapsing. Her February 8, 2016 Facebook post in response to a recent job market summary on History PhDs sums this up well with her comment: “History: Stop. Admitting. Ph.D. Students.” If you’re a history scholar seeking a U.S. tenure-track faculty position post-degree, consider the work you could do outside of the tenure track climb, perhaps curating a museum, becoming a researcher, etc.
  • If you are a graduate school applicant willing to explore the immense benefits of your degree and how your transferrable skills (see #4 below) can propel you to a rewarding career, then your pursuit of graduate school may well be a great decision. Graduate degree holders are sought after on the job market and an increasing amount of job postings now have the words “Master’s degree holders especially encouraged to apply.” The value in a graduate degree is now equivalent to the value of what a college degree used to be.

4.) You can obtain more transferrable skills than you would at just one job. Beyond enhancing your resume with your academic, research, and professional experience in your program, graduate school offers unique access to a wide array of transferrable skills that span across many fields.

A few examples of :



  • Project management
  • Budgeting
  • Public speaking
  • Grantwriting
  • Fundraising
  • Research
  • Analytical thinking
  • Coding
  • Report writing
  • Networking
  • Multicultural sensitivity
  • Event planning
  • Leadership
  • Conflict negotiation, and more.

Your degree goes on your CV or resume –but so do these, and there is immense value in that.

With a stand-out application including above-average undergraduate GPA and test scores plus a statement of purpose that gets shoved to the top of the metaphorical pile in graduate admissions, you can obtain a top Master’s or doctoral degree. The trick is to understand that you’re on the clock in more ways than one: your graduate degree should be obtained at a top program in your targeted field and completed swiftly in terms of time, money, family sacrifice, and years away from your profession. The good news?  It can be done.