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Is the SAT/ACT Essay Still Needed?

In 2005, the College Board debuted the “new” SAT, which included a new and mandatory essay. The impetus for the change was both a desire to prioritize the importance of good writing but also in response to pressure from the University of California. The large UC system, enrolling over 200,000 students, said that fewer freshmen were prepared for the rigors of college writing, and threatened to drop the SAT altogether unless a writing section was added. Not to be left behind, the ACT also added an optional writing section in 2005.

No one disputes the importance of writing, but nearly 15 years later, are these writing assessments relevant? Do they provide admissions committees helpful information to assess a student’s writing ability?


Let’s start with a look at the current admissions requirements of schools atop US News and World Report’s top national universities and liberal arts colleges to see what they say about this assessment:

National University

Essay Liberal Arts College



not required Air Force Academy

not specified

Cal Tech

not required Amherst recommended

Carnegie Mellon

not required Barnard

not required

Columbia not required Bates

not required


not required Bowdoin

not required


not required Bryn Mawr

not required


optional Carleton

not required


not required Claremont McKenna

not required


not required Colby optional


not required Colgate

not required

Johns Hopkins

not required Davidson

not required


not required Grinnell

not required


not required Hamilton

not required


not required Harvey Mudd

not required

Notre Dame

not required Haverford

not required


not required Middlebury

not required


optional Naval Academy

not specified


not required Pomona

not required


not required Smith

not required

U Chicago

not required Soka University


U Penn

not required Swarthmore

not required

UC Berkeley

required U Richmond

not required


required Vassar

not required


not required Washington and Lee

not required


not required Wellesley

not required


not required Wesleyan

not required

Wash U

not required West Point



not required Williams

not required

NOTE: This list is subject to change. Be sure to confirm with each school prior to applying.

Only two top national universities – UC Berkeley and UCLA (as well as the rest of the UC system) clearly state on their websites that the essay portion of these exams is required.  Of the top national colleges, only two require it—Soka University of America, and West Point—and one (Amherst) recommends it.


Does this mean that admissions committees no longer value writing? Absolutely not. They will review grades in rigorous and honors level English courses, your essays and supplements, other standardized testing (especially AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition), recommendations, and increasingly, graded English or history papers.  Yes, many schools, Princeton for example, are finding that the graded papers required by all applicants are helpful in evaluating for admissions.

So, don’t stress out about the essay portion of your SAT or ACT, unless you are targeting any of the schools mentioned above, but do focus on improving your writing abilities through rigorous coursework and reading great literature (fiction, non-fiction, classic, and contemporary) and challenging periodicals. Beyond just getting into college, improving your writing skills will be key to your lifelong success.

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Common App 2019-2020 Essays Are Out: Write Now

It’s official –for any current junior in high school, essay writing season just began. The Common App released their main essay prompts for the 2019-2020 year, which means that essay brainstorming for any junior, if you’re ready, can launch.

One of the things we work on with our students is helping them pinpoint and refine the main academic interest that they will present to colleges with. It used to be that an “exploratory” approach to college admissions was okay and that checking “undecided” for your targeted major/concentration on the Common App wasn’t a huge deal. No longer! Your main essay for the Common App is one spectacular shot that you have to convey to colleges that you are (already!) a scholar in a particular field.

Is that art history perhaps? Awesome! Then maybe an online course from Georgetown University’s Summer Program for High School Students is the way to go, as you could take a 3-college credit course called Renaissance to Modern Art and learn all about western pictorial art, sculpture and architecture from the early Renaissance to the 20th century. Now THAT will likely spark some great ideas for your main essay response for the Common App –not to mention the Georgetown transcript you’d earn in just a few weeks of online coursework from June 3rd to July 26th, 2019.  Or, maybe your main academic interest is environmental sustainability OR evolutionary anthropology or biophysics?…  Stellar! A wonderful way you can research that is with an examination of what you’ve done in your high school career and summers so far, with careful planning for your ever-important summer 2019. We’d love to assist!

Bottom line:  We track updates on the Common App very closely and are SO pleased that the main essay prompts from last year will be the same for 2019-2020; this was announced earlier than ever before. So:

KEY things to know about the 2019-2020 Common App Prompts

  • The “topic of choice” essay question remains in place.
  • There are 7 main essay prompts to choose from, quite a lot.
  • The most popular essay prompt last year (which 24% of applicants picked) was #7, the topic of choice, but we actually do not usually urge that one.

The 2019-2020 Common App Essay Prompts

  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 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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  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?
  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.

We’ve done a thorough review of these and feel strongly that applicants should cross off 4 of these prompts RIGHT NOWWork with us and we’ll tell you which ones and how.

Are you a junior and ready to start your essays now that the prompts are out? We’re here to help!

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Colleges Without Supplemental Essays

Back when the Common Application was newly launched, life was a bit simpler for our essay writing rising seniors! Supplemental essays used by colleges were practically an afterthought.

With increased competition across the board at all colleges coupled with high achieving students, many colleges wanted yet another avenue for students to demonstrate their interest in their school and showcase what they would bring to campus. NOW, most colleges seem to have three or four, if not more, of their own supplemental essays in addition to what’s asked on the Common Application.

MOST but not ALL. There are many great schools that don’t require supplemental essays and rely solely on the Common Application.

If you find yourself late to the admissions game, you might be considering a few of these schools simply for sake of ease as you’re running out of time. Whatever your reason for seeking a school that doesn’t require additional supplemental essays, we’ve got you covered.




Many colleges typically want more than what the Common App asks applicants but as you can see, there are quite a few that are content with a main essay only. Whether for a main essay or supplemental essays, we work with our students to craft a proactive approach to their writing. We’re here to help you share your voice, your vision and your true scholarly selves to the college admissions world.

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Top Tips for Writing Winning College Application Essays

For many high school seniors, college application season means a barrage of advice about application essays. It can feel like everyone you know — parents, guidance counselors, English teachers, even admissions officers themselves — is ready to weigh in with their two cents about your essay’s topic and structure.

With so many voices offering suggestions, it can be hard to figure out which pieces of advice to follow. It’s also often difficult to separate good advice from bad (and there’s lots of bad advice out there!), especially if you’re new to this particular genre.


For over 20 years, we’ve been working with students to produce effective college application essays that help them achieve their admissions goals. To accomplish this, we’ve spent lots of time weeding out the bad advice and winnowing our own suggestions down to a few simple principles that help students produce strong pieces of work.


In hopes of helping students navigate the college essay writing process, here are our top tips for mastering your application essays.

  1. Don’t just write a personal essay. Write an essay that shows what you’re passionate about and how you think.

Many well-meaning advisors will tell you that your college essay should tell us about you. This is true, but it’s not enough.

When it comes right down to it, your main college essay is a 650-word introduction to you as a scholar, a community member, and a potential alumnus/a. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

There are likely plenty of stories in your background that are personally meaningful to you, but that don’t represent you in this particular light. A story about watching reality television with your sister, for example, might capture a family tradition, but it won’t tell us much about your scholarly interests or goals. A narrative about your mother’s immigration to the U.S., too, might show us her ability to overcome difficulties, but it won’t highlight yours.

Rather than focusing on stories that are personally important to you, we recommend that you tell us about moments in your life that highlight your passions, goals, and interests. Tell us about how watching reality TV with your sister inspired your award-winning research project on modern celebrity culture. Tell us about how your mother’s experience coming to the U.S. informed your own passion for immigration reform, which has led you to spend your time campaigning and volunteering with organizations that support migrants.

The stories don’t just give us a window into your life. They give us insights into how you’ve developed and explored your interests in high school — and how you might continue to pursue them at college.

  1. Show, don’t tell.

The #1 suggestion in all creative writing classes holds true in your college essays, too. Show, don’t tell.That is, rather than telling us that something is true, show us evidence that makes us believe it. It’s especially important to follow this advice when making statements about yourself: I like chemistry. I am a strong baseball player. I am kind.

These assertions may be accurate, but your reader has no reason to believe them without any supporting evidence. You can make your position far more compelling by offering evidence that shows the truth behind each statement. Tell us about the three chemistry classes you’ve taken outside of school; about earning your spot as the top-ranked baseball player in your league; about the charities you help run, the non-profit you’ve started, and the time you spend tutoring your classmates in difficult courses.

By giving us examples that prove the truth of your assertions, your statements won’t come across as empty boasts, but as important insights into your interests and values.

college application essays

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk about failure.

At the end of the day, your essay is a narrative. Although it may not have the well-developed characters and complex plot of a lengthy novel or film, it does need to have enough tension to hold your reader’s interest.

One great way to develop this tension: talk about a time you’ve failed. Tell us about the ideas you held that were incorrect, the projects you developed that didn’t work properly, or the arguments you presented that were quickly dismissed on the debate floor. Once you’ve shown yourself at a low point, you can then explain how you climbed out of this hole. Tell us about the ways your project’s failure inspired you to rethink your approach and tackle the next year’s competition with a new perspective.

This structure doesn’t just draw in your reader. It also shows your ability to grow in your thinking and to learn from your mistakes — two great abilities for any college scholar.

  1. Make sure your essay supports your larger application profile.

As we’ve mentioned before, admissions officers generally don’t have much time to review students’ applications. As a result, they’ll often look for a quick way to sum up each applicant — an elevator pitch, if you will. They might describe Student A as a scientist who volunteers to help low-income families. Student B might be an artist with a passion for literacy education.

In order to sell yourself as a candidate, you’ll want to come up with a compelling angle for your application and write a college essay that supports your self-presentation. If, for example, you’re a budding politician, use your main essay to talk about your summer internships for a state congressman, not your enjoyment of the nature walks around your home. If you’re presenting yourself as someone with a passion for women’s rights, talk about your experience campaigning for equal pay and supporting women’s education, not about the fun experiences you’ve had learning how to cook with your dad.

This isn’t to say all of your essays should reiterate the same point or that you can’t tell original and compelling stories. You want to be conscious, though, of how your application presents you and make sure that you stand out as a thoughtful, focused applicant.

  1. Open with a hook that grabs your reader.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: your opening line matters!

Especially since admissions officers read countless essays every application season, you need to grab your reader early with a compelling opening that draws him or her into your essay. In a blog post over the summer, we reviewed some easy ways to use your introduction to grab your reader’s attention. Some quick suggestions:

  • Surprise your reader by opening with an unexpected statement or a situation
  • Present a thought-provoking question that drives your studies or your reader won’t be able to answer easily

If you want to see some of these approaches in action, take a look at this collection of opening lines for successful admissions essays to top colleges:

  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • When I was in eighth grade, I couldn’t read. 
  • The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.
  • I’ll never forget the day when my childhood nightmares about fighting gigantic trolls in the Lord of the Rings series became a reality.


As the saying goes, knowledge is power. If you keep these suggestions in mind, you should be writing strong college application essays in no time. And if you need a little additional help? We can work with you to make sure you’re on the right track.

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Maximize your Impact with Supplemental Essays

Banging on conga drums at an assisted living center, launching a cooking class on a military base, pushing through sweaty weight-lifting, and studying marine science in the shallow depths of a nearby swamp. No, these are not the activities that our TTA staff members engaged in this past weekend. They are instead the topics of some successful supplemental essays that our seniors wrote in the past few months.

While many students are encouraged by their guidance counselors to think very seriously about their main essays for the Common App, the supplemental essays can sometimes fall by the wayside, yet those essays are still vital pieces within the qualitative materials that make up your application.

The prompt on many college supplements typically reads something like this: Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below.

Depending on what the exact prompt is, the idea is to zoom in and elaborate on a particular job, quirky hobby or special interest.  You want to get across your passion for the activity, your expertise, your uniqueness, and your high level of initiative (teaching yourself something, learning something on your own, engaging with others, etc).

It’s also important for you to plan out your supplements so that you can ensure you are maximizing your time. Some colleges ask for a 650-word supplemental essay and others may ask for a 200-word response on a similar topic. Our advice is to prep that 650 word supplemental essay first, then you should pinpoint the key 200 words within essay 1 and trim it down to ensure you can repurpose the essay. For example:


Please choose two (2) of the short answer prompts below. Each response should be no more than 150 words.
1. What is your favorite fiction or non-fiction work (film, book, TV show, album, poem, or play)? Why?
2. What motivates you to learn?
3. What do you want to bring from your current community to the Emory University community?
4. In the age of social media, what does engaging with integrity look like for you?


Now, when you look to the prompts that Wake Forest University has, you’ll note that you’re already pretty far along as the prompts are similar. Wake Forest’s first 3 supplements are:

1 (a). List 5 books you have read that intrigued you.
1 (b). Discuss the work of fiction you have read which has helped you most to understand the complexity of the world.
2. What piques your curiosity?

Right off the bat you can see that Emory’s supplement 1 aligns with Wake Forest’s 1a and 1b. And, Emory’s supplement 2 aligns with Wake Forest’s # 2. Motivation to learn can certainly be quite similar to curiosity.


Emory University also has the ever-popular community essay. This supplemental prompt is common because it’s an opportunity for the student to show colleges his/her diversity and strong sense of community that he or she will bring to campus.

UMichigan also has a community supplement this year; it reads: “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.”

Colleges are BIG on community and HUGE on diversity in today’s modern admissions arena. The odds are strong that you’re going to have to prep a community supplement in some way. Other examples of colleges that have a community supplement this year are: Brown University, Boston College, UChicago, UVA and Yale.


We urge students to reflect on their community and where/what they call home. What does diversity mean to you?  Why is community important to you? Where are you from? Note just physically, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally, etc. The University of Michigan this year actually helps students out a lot in terms of brainstorming what might make applicants diverse.  Many think about only race when it comes to diversity, but it’s SO much more than that. As UMichigan advocates, think beyond and reflect on diversity in terms of “geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, intellectual heritage”, etc.?

We’ve had students use the community supplement to talk about their military family, all-girls school, LGBTQ group, local meditation center, and more. Think outside the box, but inside your place, your people, your community. How are you different from the pack, but also how do you fit with YOUR pack?

supplemental essays for college applications


One thing is for sure, college admissions officers don’t want to read the same supplemental essay response again and again. This is your shot to expand on who YOU are. If that’s in a community supplement, then great. If that’s in a “Top Ten List,” as some colleges love to ask for, excellent. If that’s in a “Why Essay,” then use the space to show you’ve done your research on what the school has, how you mesh with their academic and extracurricular offerings, and what you can bring to them.

Every college and every university already believes they are terrific, their faculty are the best teachers and researchers in their fields, their labs and facilities are superior, and the courses they offer are groundbreaking —don’t just restate all of those impressive campus offerings back to admissions officers, instead illustrate what YOU uniquely offer them.