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Written by: Rachel Kapelke-Dale
When you're prepping for a test as hyped as the SAT, it can be tempting to dig your old algebra notebooks out of the attic and try to make sense of them (you saved those, right?) But while I run across a lot of students who have piles and piles of notes from their classes all ready for review, I run across far fewer who realize: the SAT is its own thing. Some of what you learned in school will be tested, definitely! Do you need to read through three years of English notes, though? Absolutely not.
You can spend your time better than that! And I'm here to tell you how.
Math is the subject on the SAT for which students are most likely to dive for their class notes. But guess what? You're actually better off just refreshing the topics you kind of remember and learning new material (or re-learning things you've forgotten) in your SAT prep. This sounds like overlap, but it will actually save you time in the end.
Why? Because the SAT tests these topics in multiple-choice format, in very particular combinations, and in very particular ways. The best way to prepare is to take several practice tests and do series of practices problems to get used to the way that these topics appear.
And now, what you've been waiting for…here's what you can expect to see on test day (for SAT Math):
Combinations and permutations
That's not actually a huge amount of material. And while, yes, "algebra" is a big topic, the SAT likes to use it in several scenarios, often in combination with geometry or other categories, that you'll learn about with a good study guide and by doing practice problems!
Now, on to the subject that students are least likely to turn to their class notes for. After all, how likely is it that you'll see passages that you've read in class on the SAT? Not at all. And you're right about that! Which is why, for this section as well, I'm going to suggest (you guessed it), learning SAT-specific strategies for reading that focus on evidence (this is a big thing on the test these days).
What's the best way to practice this? Practice tests. Practice sets. But make sure you've got your strategy down first by reading a good SAT guide—otherwise, you may waste precious time!
You might have heard rumors about the crazy grammar rules the SAT tests…well, that was the old SAT! The post-2016 SAT actually is all about grammar and rhetoric in context. Now, on SAT test dates, you'll be asked to pick the best option for a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, given the surrounding text.
With that in mind, memorizing lists of grammar rules won't be of much help here! What will be helpful is doing lots and lots of practice problems (do I hear an echo?). The more you do, the more you'll see the patterns that emerge pretty quickly in this section—definitely the most formulaic of the three.
A Final Word
The best way to use schoolwork in SAT prep is sparingly. That is, as a last resort when you've narrowed down exactly which topics in which areas are giving you trouble (an SAT practice test can give you a sense of this). Because the SAT is written very specifically, the best way to spend your time is by preparing specifically for the exam, with test-specific resources, like an SAT study guide. That way, when you get your SAT scores, you'll know that they reflect your hours of studying materials that applied to this exam and to your future college career—and not to recapping the ten or eleven years of school that you've already finished! Remember: the SAT is all about the future—not the past.
Rachel Kapelke-Dale is a test prep expert with Magoosh, specializing in undergraduate and graduate admissions exams. She has worked in test prep and education for over a decade. Rachel has a BA from Brown University, a Master Recherche from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She currently divides her time among Paris, London, and Wisconsin (the glamour!).
A big thanks to Lisa Heffernan, founder of Grown and Flown, for contributing many of these tips.
Listen to the podcast episode where Ethan Sawyer and Lisa Heffernan explore these tips in greater detail and Lisa talks about why she started her website, Grown and flown.
YOUR GUIDE TO BEING THE WORLD’S BEST COLLEGE PARENT
The application process is different for every family, but here are 20 important things for parents to keep in mind while helping their children get into college.
1. EMPOWER YOUR STUDENT’S IDEAS FOR EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES.
Give yourself a break and let your student decide where to volunteer. Inspire him or her to go as far as they possibly can; your child doesn’t need to be the next Steve Jobs by senior year to get into a great school. Chances are, the more say your student has in where they volunteer, the easier it will be to get them out of bed on Saturday morning.
2. MOVE AT YOUR STUDENT’S PACE.
I know. When your son is sitting in front of the TV at 9pm on a random Thursday, you may be wondering, “Hey, why aren’t you working on your college applications?” But keep in mind that you may have a different sense of when work needs to begin and your alarm could be going off a little earlier than his. Rather than playing the role of taskmaster--Get to work!--invite your son on a walk, or out for coffee. Spend some time together. Ask questions. Get curious. Which reminds me:
3. THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR GOOD OLD-FASHIONED LISTENING.
This should probably be #1. Here are some active listening tips that I like (especially #8).
4. CONSIDER HIRING SOMEONE TO HELP.
You don’t have to do this on your own. If it feels like it might be nice to have someone to help with the process, see: Is Hiring a College Essay Coach a Good Idea? If you’re certain it’s a good idea, but want more info, go here.
5. COMBINE A COLLEGE TOUR WITH A VACATION.
Here’s a win-win: avoid a dull college tour AND save money by combining college visits with a family trip. To get you started: about 20 miles from Stanford is Big Basin State Park where you can hike, swim, and wander through one of the few old-growth redwood forests south of San Francisco.
6. ENCOURAGE YOUR STUDENT TO REACH OUT TO ADMISSIONS OFFICERS.
Not only will this build your child’s self-confidence and communication skills, but it’ll show the school “demonstrated interest,” which is something many schools track (in other words, many schools track how much concrete interest you’ve shown: Did you visit? Did you interview? etc.) Sure, it’s important for parents to stay informed, but it sends a poor message about your student’s motivation if admissions counselors only hear from a student’s parents. (Note that I underlined the words “your student” above.)
7. SUPPORT YOUR CHILD FINANCIALLY.
This doesn’t mean being your child’s piggy bank. Supporting your student financially means having your taxes done on time and putting your financial information into their hands, so that they can be equipped to apply for scholarships and fill out their FAFSA. Above all, stay informed and read about the Parent PLUS Loan, the most common parent loan option.
8. BE AWARE OF DEADLINES, BUT DON’T DRIVE YOURSELF CRAZY BY WORKING WAY AHEAD
Here’s a step-by-step guide to what should be happening when. You can even download it and print it out; just drag it to your desktop.
9. SEPARATE YOURS AND YOUR CHILD’S WORRIES
Part of the pressure that comes from the college process is our own pain at letting our kids go. From the start it helps if parents can be clear in their own mind about what parts of the pressure are their own feelings of sadness or anxiety and what it is their kids are actually experiencing. It is very easy to conflate the two.
10. FOCUS ON FINDING “BEST FIT” SCHOOLS
Instead of feeding your kid the canned line that there are thousands of good colleges “out there” focus on finding a school they really want to attend and are more than likely to be admitted. This can be tough sometimes, but once they have found that school, and better yet been admitted to that school, the pressure will be reduced.
11. BUILD BOUNDARIES AROUND WHEN AND WHAT KINDS OF COLLEGE DISCUSSIONS HAPPEN
Constrain, by mutual agreement, the amount of time that can be spent discussing college admissions every week at home and making sure that younger siblings, particularly if they are close in age, are not dragged into the discussion. This will make their process too lengthy.
Remember that much of what we know about colleges is 30 years out of date and grandparents can be more than half a century out of date. If we think about what changes in our world in 10 years it is easy to see why parents are lost. Forget old notions about schools and instead do good research with good sources and find experts to answer your questions. Even if you have an older kid, many things have changed. Don’t poison your kid with outdated notions on schools, applying and test taking.
12. FORGET EVERYTHING YOU LEARNED WHEN YOU APPLIED TO COLLEGE
Don’t wax on about how much easier it was to apply to college in the 80s or 90s. Your kid can’t time travel and this just increases their stress. All parent do this. Don’t.
13. DON’T START LOOKING AT COLLEGE TOO EARLY.
Kids need good grades, scores and activities they love. By starting college tours as early as 9th grade the subject of college hangs over their heads when it doesn’t need to be. The reality is that what they want and where they will apply changes so much that starting too early can waste time and increase stress. Parents should start looking and finances, scholarships, savings, costs early, but this does not need to involve the teen until 11th grade.
14. BE PATIENT
Kids change their minds and how nothing is cast in stone until they confirm a school. Until they have accepted and offer of admittance keep the conversation going and listen to what they are saying. This is a period of huge growth for many kids and the schools they were sure they loved early in the process may fade by the end.
15. BEWARE BAD COLLEGE ADMISSIONS ADVICE
There is real expert information on college admission to be found online and there is dangerous hype from parents who know no more than you do. Be very careful to distinguish between the two. We love to direct parents to some of the best blogs by college admissions officers, the people who actually admit students. They make for interesting and truly informative reading. Here is are a few college admissions blogs we love.
16. REMEMBER YOUR TOP PRIORITY
And what is your top priority? To empower and support your student through the process and remind them that you will love them no matter what. Ask yourself: does my child know my love is unconditional? Maybe. But throughout this process it helps to give lots of reminders. And hugs.
17. SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Remember that the process of applying to college is now much more competitive than when you applied. So cut your child some slack if they don’t get in to where they (or you) had hoped. One of the best ways to avoid disappointment is to work together to develop a balanced college list that includes three reach schools (1-24% chance), three maybe schools (25-75% chance), and three match schools (76% chance or better).
Here’s a tip: fall in love with all nine schools on the list, not just one or two at the top.
Here are a few comforting words on why your amazing son or daughter probably won’t get into Harvard.
18. REMEMBER IT’S THEIR COLLEGE EDUCATION, NOT YOURS
I know you know this. But sometimes you forget. (I forgot too sometimes when I was helping my younger brothers with their college essays.)
Remember to empower and support rather than micromanage their college essay writing process. A great book that I’m reading right now (in anticipation of my first child) is Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. Amazing stuff.
19. INVEST YOUR TIME, NOT JUST YOUR MONEY
Abigail Van Buren once said, "If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them and half as much money." The university application process can be fun and can even bring you closer. So be a mentor rather than just an ATM. This might be the last year you live together. Which reminds me. Once your child is off to college...
20. LET GO
Don’t think like an empty-nester; think like someone who just got a lot of extra free time.
Wondering how you can get more involved?
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Check out the podcast: where Ethan interviews Jed Applerouth, the author of this post, and outlines each of the 25 ways to reduce testing anxiety one at a time.
Why are we talking about anxiety in the first place?
The 2014 National College Health Assessment found that 54% of all college students report feeling overwhelming anxiety, up from 46.4% in 2012.
61% of high school students reported suffering from test anxiety at least some of the time, as many as one-quarter (26%) were afflicted ‘‘almost always.’’
Test anxiety is becoming increasingly common: Research reveals an increasing trend in test anxiety over time, potentially as a result of the increase in testing and testing requirements in U.S. schools. Test anxiety is more prevalent in later grades.
Students with disabilities, gifted students, and females tend to experience higher rates of test anxiety. Test anxiety contributes to the gender gap in mathematics on tests like the SAT (Anxiety, Stress, & Coping (2011). University of Florida research).
Test anxiety can affect performance, squeeze out cognitive capacity, overwhelm working memory, and create a cascade of physical symptoms.
Potential confounding factors include processing speed deficits, skill deficits, learning differences.
25 Practical Ways to Reduce Test Anxiety
Normalize test anxiety: Share with your student that test anxiety is remarkably common, that over 60% of students report experiencing test anxiety at some point, and over 25% report experiencing it regularly.
Identify the source of the anxiety: In many cases students are internalizing anxiety from an outside source and making it their own. Sometimes parental anxiety can manifest as student anxiety. In cases such as these it can be helpful for parents to remove some of their attention from the testing process and outcomes by hovering less and giving the student more space. Taking external pressure off of the student can help decrease the student’s anxiety.
Learn a little about your biology and neurochemistry: Students who understand how anxiety functions in the brain and in the body will have an edge on self-regulation. Students should understand the amygdala’s primary function, how it spots threats and activates stress hormones to rally the body’s defenses. Students who understand how stress hormones affect the body and mind will be able to quickly identify the earliest signs of anxiety and begin to use interventions to regain their center.
Draw from other domains of competence: Students should adopt a strengths-based approach, examining other areas of their life where they’ve been able to effectively regulate anxiety and stress. What works for you that you can borrow and bring to testing? How do you manage stress before a sporting event or performance? What techniques already work for you? Let’s import those and put them to work.
Accentuate self-care: How do you nurture and take care of yourself? We all have things that make us feel good and relaxed, whether it’s a warm bath, a favorite meal, soothing music, playing with a pet, or talking with a supportive ally. Do things that help you center yourself and calm your mind.
Write about your test anxiety: Researchers have found that taking 10 minutes to write expressively about your anxiety and how it affects you can help reduce test anxiety and boost performance on tests.
Reappraise your arousal: Reframe the physical symptoms in a more positive light: Researchers have found that telling students that physiological responses often associated with anxious reactions (e.g. sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat) are beneficial for thinking and reasoning can significantly improve performance on high stakes tests! Don’t sweat the sweaty palms: a little boost in cortisol and norepinephrine can help you focus and do better when it counts.
Build upon small successes: The key to building your competency beliefs and creating future success is to have mastery experiences. Example: "If you can master these five problems, we can build on that and move on to the next problem set." When a student achieves mastery over a limited set of problems/challenges, it’s essential to focus the student’s attention on what specifically he/she did in order to achieve the mastery result. Focus on your actions and behaviors and the connection between those behaviors and positive outcomes. You can build upon your smaller successes to enable the greater ones.
Focus on your self-talk and inner dialogue: Anxiety is sustained by inner dialogue. Our self-messaging is fundamental. When your inner critic is serving up a plate of harsh self-criticisms, consider this as simply another mental activity for you to notice, rather than as something fundamental about you. You can label these critical thoughts “judging, judging” or “doubting, doubting.” Or you can directly counter and challenge the inner critic. “Hey, play nice.” Never let negative self-talk run unchecked.
Correct maladaptive self-talk: Be very careful about reinforcing negative self-beliefs. Don’t run around telling people, “I’m bad at test taking.” If you reinforce that message, something inside is listening, taking note. That thought can eventually become a thing, an obstacle, that will affect how hard you try when you encounter a challenging problem or test-section. Never make global, self-limiting statements to yourself or to others. Practice self-kindness and compassion with your self-talk.
Use “You-Statements” to bolster confidence: Build yourself up on the inside by making supportive second-person “You” statements. Researchers have discovered the efficacy of “you” statements over “I” statements. Coach yourself: “Sam, you can do this, you’ve got this, you’ve studied hard for this.” Establishing the cognitive distance, the separation between your little ego and your supportive external voice. It makes a difference.
Externalize the Anxiety Monster: If your critical/anxious voice is running wild on the inside, it may help to personify the negativity and give it a form, give it a name. “Oh, Worry Beast, there you are again. I knew you were going to show up here!” “Murray, you worry wart, of course you want to get into the action and show up during my ACT. But you need to leave for a while. We can talk later.” By naming the monster, you can help tame the monster. Creating some cognitive distance from the anxious thoughts allows you to achieve a measure of control over them.
Imagined practice makes perfect: If you have had many experiences of anxiety during tests, it may help to visualize yourself taking a test without suffering the effects of anxiety. It’s a practice known as cognitive rehearsal, or guided imagery, taking a mental walk-through in advance of a performance event. Athletes do it all the time, imagining themselves performing at their peak level, in advance of the high-stakes event. Imagine yourself walking through the test, missing problems and staying calm and centered: Lay down a new template of you as a peak-tester, and make the images as vivid and sensorily rich as possible, so your mind believes them. Imagined practice can be as powerful as actual practice.
Regulate your breathing: Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful anxiety-reducing technique because it activates the body’s relaxation response. Breathing from the diaphragm, in a slow measured way, filling the stomach then the chest, stimulates the vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. Stimulating the vagus nerve leads to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and other sympathetic responses. Practice breathing deeply and consciously, multiple times per day, and this technique will be available to you on test day.
Imagine you are breathing into your heart center: There’s a simple technique I use when I’m nervous, where I place my hand over my heart, and take deep breaths, focusing my energy on my heart. This is a technique I learned from an organization called Heartmath. The act of combining slow breathing, a nurturing gesture, and redirecting my consciousness to my heart, helps restore a sense of calm. This is a simple technique to employ for a few breaths during a test.
Use the body to help ground anxiety: Exercise is a natural anxiety reliever. Research shows that as little as 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week can provide significant anxiety relief. Exercise is protective in that it boosts endorphins and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which may reduce symptoms of depression and elevate mood; it also suppresses the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Use holistic relaxation: You can help lower anxiety by learning to relax your body. One technique involves progressive muscle relaxation. Tire each muscle, tensing it as hard as possible for up to 10 seconds before releasing and letting it rest. Progress from your right foot to your left all the way up the body, one muscle at a time. You will relax your body, and your mind will follow.
Get enough sleep: Sleep is key to reducing anxiety. Sleep helps to heal the brain, clean out toxins and waste products, process memories and regulate emotions. You may notice that you are edgier when you are sleep-deprived. If you focus on healthy sleep hygiene, this can help reduce anxiety. Be sure to get a restful night sleep the Thursday and Friday preceding a test day. Eight hours a night is optimal.
Attend to your body’s posture: Your body’s posture affects anxiety! The brain is listening to the body, so be attentive to the physical state of your body. If you furrow your brow, frown, and clench your fists, your external physical form can affect your inner state. Likewise a relaxed, open posture can affect your inner emotional state. Practice sitting in a relaxed, calm, open manner to create that same inner landscape.
Try tapping: One technique that has worked for some students is called tapping or the Emotional Freedom Technique. This is a super simple process, involve tapping a series of points on your body in a particular sequence: 1. Eyebrow 2. Side of eye 3. Under eye 4. Under nose 5. Chin 6. Collarbone 7. Under arm 8. Top of head. Tapping somehow has an effect in anxiety reduction and has been shown to help people with PTSD and anxiety disorders. It’s simple and free; it takes a few seconds and may be helpful.
Ground yourself in nature: Getting out into nature can help lower levels of anxiety. A quick walk in the woods can change activation patterns in the brain and lower rumination and focus on negative emotions. Another study found that teenagers exposed to water fountain sounds at the dentist’s office experienced reductions in anxiety levels! Emotional regulation increases when we are more connected to nature.
Ground yourself through human connections: Relationships and human connections can dampen your biological response to stress. Our human connections can stimulate the release of oxytocin, a hormone which helps regulate anxiety by decreasing our levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Oxytocin appears to make the amygdala less reactive to fearful stimuli and may ultimately be used in treating anxiety disorders.
Use centering physical objects: Having a centering stone or other grounding device can help regulate anxiety levels. This is a simple technique to have a physical object in your pocket that you can hold if you are feeling nervous.
Use centering mental images or wisdom figures: Carl Jung explored the grounding effects of accessing archetypal centering figures. When our little self is feeling scared and insecure, we can turn inwardly to a more developed aspect of our self, an inner spiritual or religious figure to help us to recenter and ground our anxiety. Evoking that centering energy within can help.
Practice taking tests in conditions which replicate the test environment: Recreate, as best as possible, the anxiety-inducing condition during practice. If you are learning how to self-regulate your emotions and manage your anxiety, it’s important you practice your techniques in a public setting, rather than in the relative tranquility of your bedroom or home. If being in a big testing room stimulates anxiety, you must practice your tests in a similar condition.
Mindfulness/meditation: This was our bonus strategy on the podcast. Meditation is all about self-regulation. Meditation can help you learn to calm yourself down and find your center, to learn to watch yourself from an observer’s perspective and learn how your mind responds to situations. If you practice meditation, and learn to observe your thoughts and reactions with composure, you will strengthen your self-regulation skills and be able to stay calm in a variety of conditions.
So what should students do with all this?
There are so many applications here, which apply to numerous areas of education and life. Self-regulation is essential. We will all face stressful situations in a great many contexts. The ability to self-regulate one’s emotional state is a gift that keeps on giving. Students can learn to take self-regulation strategies from one area of life and see if they can apply them to other areas. Get creative. Find out what works. Practice and get better and better at bringing yourself back to calm, to optimize performance and happiness.
Jed Applerouth is the founder and CEO of Applerouth Tutoring Services, an education services company with offices in major metropolitan areas across the country. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia State University, Jed is a Nationally Certified Counselor with a PhD in Educational Psychology. A published educational researcher, Jed has investigated facets of student cognition, memory, motivation, and learning strategies to enhance the pedagogy of his team of educators. Since 2001 Jed has lectured extensively across the country at national conferences and high schools on topics ranging from test test anxiety to academic motivation. Outside of work, Jed is an avid landscape painter and photographer and serves on the board of the therapeutic STAR foundation.
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