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Tips for Writing Your College Essay
Posted by Kim Struglinski on Monday, October 9, 2017
When I speak with students about the components of an application to Vanderbilt, I always save the personal essay for last. This is partly because it is my favorite part of the application to read, but also because I know this is often the most dreaded part of the application process. I know, I know: writing about yourself is hard. Condensing an entire life’s experience into less than 1000 words is a tough task. But it is pivotal in helping colleges get to know you through the application process. The essay is an important component of the application that helps us understand what our applicants would contribute to our campus community. Here are a few of the tips I always share with students when talking about the essay. You can also read a few more tips from previous blog posts(here and here) if you would like some additional advice.
- Write like you speak. Here’s my favorite trick when I’ve got writer’s block: turn on the recording device on my phone, and just start talking. I actually use voice memos in my car when I have a really profound thought (or a to do list I need to record), so find your happy place and start recording. Maybe inspiration always seems to strike when you’re walking your dog, or on the bus to school. Make notes where and when you can so that you can capture those organic thoughts for later. This also means you should use words and phrases that you would actually use in everyday conversation. If you are someone who uses the word indubitably all the time, then by all means, go for it. But if not, then maybe you should steer clear. The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me.
- Building on that idea: What should we know about you that we don’t already know? Your essay is the only piece of your application that you have complete control over at this moment. Your academic record is largely set, and your activities outside the classroom have been building upon one another over the last few years. So what else do we need to know? Why would our campus be a better place with you around? The answer to that question is different for every student, so help us understand what unique experiences and perspectives you would bring to our campus.
- Make sure it’s about you. If we threw your essay in with everyone’s in your senior class, your friends, teachers, and parents should be able to tell us which one was yours. Between what you write about and how you write your essay, it should scream “you” and ooze your personality. That also means that you need to write about yourself. I know – that can be hard! But the whole point of submitting this application is to help us understand why you would be a great fit for Vanderbilt, so make sure you are communicating that. If you tell us about why your mom or cousin or teacher inspire you, that’s great, but that also makes us want to admit them to Vanderbilt. It is totally fine to write about the impact others have had on you, but make sure you close the loop and help us understand why that impact affects you – not your mom/cousin/teacher!
- Use the application as a way for us to get to know you. This last piece of advice is a bit broader than the essay alone, but the essay is one component here. Use the entirety of your application, from your transcript and letters of recommendation to your essay and extracurricular activity chart, to help us get a complete picture of who you are. If you are contemplating submitting supplemental materials – from artwork and recordings to additional writing samples – think about how you can tell us about those experiences through the components of the application you are required to complete. There is a lot of space to provide information to us, so make sure you use all of it. Is there something else that is important for us to keep in mind? There is even a spot for that, in the “Additional Information” section. Yes, the various application components ask for specific information, but make sure the information you provide in those components represents you through and through.
There is no one single way to write a college essay, and no perfect topic that works for every student. We received upwards of 31,000 applications last year, which means there were upwards of 31,000 different topics and types of essays. Make your essay your own, and help us learn more about who you are. Happy writing!
Posted in Application Process, General Information, The College Essay and tagged: college applications, college essay, writing, writing your college essay
Are interviews required for prospective students?
Vanderbilt admissions officers do not conduct interviews and interviews are not a required part of the admissions process. We do offer interviews with local alumni as an optional component of the application process. Through our CoRPs (Commodore Recruitment Programs) Interviewing program, applicants are invited to request an interview from an alumnus/a in their local area. After a student applies, s/he will be sent information via email about how to request a local interview with an alumnus/a. Alumni interviews are completely optional and Vanderbilt cannot guarantee the availability of alumni to interview all students, particularly those living outside major metropolitan areas. In no way will it reflect poorly on students who cannot arrange an interview. Visit our CoRPs Interviewing page for more information.
Does Vanderbilt prefer one standardized test over another? How important are the SAT and/or ACT in the admissions process?
Vanderbilt requires all students to submit an official score report from either the SAT or the ACT directly from the testing agency. There is no preference between the two exams.
Standardized test results are part of the academic profile for an applicant. The other components of the academic profile include the student’s rigor of curriculum, grades, relative position in class, and teacher letters of recommendation. The academic profile is one part of the holistic review process. It is important to remember that admissions outcomes cannot be predicted on the basis of test scores alone. Test scores are important, but they are used in conjunction with other parts of the application.
Does Vanderbilt require SAT Subject Test scores?
SAT Subject Tests are optional. If official scores are sent to Vanderbilt, they may be considered during the application review process. For students who enroll at Vanderbilt, some SAT Subject Test scores can be used to meet language proficiency requirements in the College of Arts and Science, and to meet mathematics requirements for some majors in Peabody College.
How are applicants with alumni relatives or "legacies" handled in Vanderbilt‘s admissions process?
Vanderbilt strives to honor family and legacy connections to the university whenever possible, and admissions officers are keenly aware of the powerful emotional connection that is often behind those applications. However, the admissions office has received no mandate from the university administration to grant preference to the children or siblings of Vanderbilt alumni. When a student‘s record closely mirrors those of other students being offered admission, legacy status may be taken into consideration.
How can I apply to Vanderbilt?
There are four ways to apply. You may apply through the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success; the Common Application; QuestBridge*; or the Universal College Application. Choose the application system that is right for you - we do not prefer one over the others. Do not submit an application through more than one system. Choose one application, and submit all required materials through that method. Please note: applicants to Blair must also complete a music resume and submit forms for two music teacher recommendations via the Blair Accept'd application.
*Because of Blair’s audition timeline, students applying through the QuestBridge National Match program may not select Blair as their first-choice school.
Requirements for first-year applicants:
How does the waitlist work at Vanderbilt?
Because Vanderbilt receives so many more applications from highly qualified and capable students than there are available positions in the class, some students in whom the admission committee is very interested will receive an offer to join the waitlist. Once it is known how many students have accepted Vanderbilt‘s initial offer of admission, the admissions office will use the waitlist to fill the remaining spots in the entering class. The waitlist is not ranked; the selection of waitlist students will be based on a variety of factors and remaining needs for the class.
How important are extracurricular activities?
One goal of the admissions process is to create a dynamic and active campus community, thus it is important that we evaluate how applicants’ have enriched and enlivened their communities through extracurricular activities. What matters most is not the volume of involvement or the number of leadership positions held, but rather the steady commitment to a handful of meaningful activities beyond your required academic coursework. We do make particular note of significant local, regional, and national achievements.
Extracurricular activities are also help us understand what is important to you and what you value, and to see more clearly how you might bring those values to the Vanderbilt community. The most effective applications are those that clearly and concisely communicate which activities have had the most meaning to a student. In addition, it’s important that applicants explain organizations and achievements with which the admissions officer might not be familiar.
How important are my senior year course load and grades?
The admissions office believes that the senior year of high school is critical to a student‘s preparation and readiness for the academic rigor of Vanderbilt coursework. We expect students to demonstrate their interest in learning by continuing to take a full complement of academic courses and maintaining a high level of performance.
How will my application be evaluated?
Vanderbilt uses a holistic admissions process – we do not employ cutoffs for standardized testing or grade point averages. In our review process, we evaluate students’ academic records, looking for students who have performed well within the context of their high school’s most challenging academic programs. We evaluate activities outside the classroom in terms of depth of involvement, roles and responsibilities, and leadership. We also evaluate applicants’ writing through the application essay and short answer. Finally, we consider letters of recommendation – these often offer the admissions committee context about the applicant, both in the classroom and in the wider community.
Is high school class rank used in the admissions process? What if my high school does not rank students?
Class rank can be an illuminating measure of an applicant‘s academic performance relative to his/her peers and is considered thoughtfully in conjunction with other data the admissions office gathers about a given high school. Keep in mind that the most promising candidates for admission to Vanderbilt have typically earned grades in a high range when compared to their classmates, and class rank often confirms what we can otherwise surmise about a student‘s performance.
When evaluating a student attending a school that does not rank its students, the admissions office relies on data provided by the school to gain some sense of the student’s performance relative to his or her peers. Such information is always used responsibly. GPA ranges, distributions, and graphical displays are data sets we commonly use that provide contextual information for schools that do not release exact rank.
Is my family situation taken into consideration?
Vanderbilt‘s application asks students to provide basic and demographic information about their parents and family background. Students are welcome to provide more detailed information in the form of a supplemental statement written by themselves or their school counselor, which will be read and considered along with the rest of the application for admission.
Is the high school I attend taken into consideration?
Academic achievement can only be measured meaningfully when considered in conjunction with a student‘s context and environment. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions makes every effort to gather academic information about applicants’ high schools in order to better understand their performance, course selection, and access to academic and extracurricular opportunities. Our process recognizes that traits such as grading and course offerings are by no means standard across all secondary schools. Vanderbilt expects students to have distinguished themselves academically whatever their environment, and to have sampled extensively the most rigorous coursework offered by their high school in most core academic areas.
Is there a limit to the number of students who can be accepted from a particular high school?
No. Vanderbilt considers every student individually and within the application pool as a whole, not simply in comparison to the other students applying from the same secondary school. Keep in mind that within one school‘s applicant group, students may be applying to different Vanderbilt colleges or under different decision plans. The number of students Vanderbilt will accept from any given school will be consistent with the quality of the school‘s applicants for that particular year.
What are the minimum high school coursework requirements for admission?
Vanderbilt does not prescribe a specific distribution of high school coursework requirements, but most competitive applicants will have completed four full years of coursework in the five core academic areas of English, math, social studies, science (3 lab sciences), and foreign language. It is acceptable for a student to drop one of these areas in the senior year in order to take a second course in an area of greater interest, but the admissions committee will likely question a record that falls significantly short of the above curriculum.
What can I do in high school to prepare for Vanderbilt?
By far the best method of preparing for admission to Vanderbilt, or to any selective university, is to take a challenging curriculum and work hard to make the best grades possible. Remember that learning is worthwhile for its own sake, not merely as a vehicle for getting into a "good" college. The most compelling applications will demonstrate a genuine love of learning as opposed to the mechanical pursuit of good grades. Participate in extracurricular activities because they have meaning to you, not merely because they will be needed for your college application. Preparing for a selective university begins when you first enter high school, not sometime in the middle of your junior year. By following these guidelines and your own internal compass, you will arrive at the college admissions process as prepared and self-aware as you can possibly be.
What essays does Vanderbilt require? How should I answer the questions?
When you apply to Vanderbilt through the Coalition Application, the Common Application, or the Universal College Application, Vanderbilt requires one personal essay and one short answer. Applicants who apply through QuestBridge must answer additional short answer questions.
These writing samples allow us to gain a more complete understanding of a candidate for admission to Vanderbilt. We use these writing samples to assess not only effectiveness in written communication, but also to learn more fully who the student is and what he or she values. There is no secret method to writing an effective personal essay. The best essays are those written in a student‘s authentic voice and that convey the sense that, in formulating and composing the essay, the student achieved a greater sense of self-awareness and self-knowledge.
What financial aid is available to international students and non-U.S. citizens?
International students may apply for merit-based scholarships which can provide awards up to the full cost of tuition. The remaining costs not covered by the scholarship must be covered by personal funds or private sponsorship. For more information about merit-based scholarships and how to apply, please visit our Merit-Based Scholarships site.
Vanderbilt has a limited amount of need-based financial assistance for international students, and financial need will be considered when making admissions decisions. Students with a strong academic record and greater ability to finance their expenses will have a higher chance for admission. International students with demonstrated need who are admitted will have 100% of their demonstrated need met with grants and/or scholarships. Merit scholarship recipients with demonstrated need beyond the amount of the scholarship will have 100% of their need met with grant and/or scholarship assistance.
What is Early Decision? What is the difference between Early Decision I and II?
Early Decision is intended for students who, at the conclusion of a thoughtful college search, determine that Vanderbilt is their first-choice school. Early Decision is a binding admissions plan, meaning that students admitted Early Decision are expected to withdraw their applications to other schools and commit to enroll at Vanderbilt in the fall.
Vanderbilt offers two Early Decision plans, Early Decision I and II. Both Early Decision I and Early Decision II are binding admissions plans but they have different application deadlines and decision notification dates. Early Decision I has an application deadline of November 1 and admissions decisions are available by December 15. The application deadline for Early Decision II is January 1 and admissions decisions are available by February 15.
What is the latest date I can take the SAT and/or ACT?
For students applying to Vanderbilt under Early Decision I (submission deadline November 1), the October administration of the SAT or ACT is the final opportunity to take the exam. For students applying under Early Decision II or Regular Decision (submission deadline January 1), the last opportunity to take the exam is the December administration.
What role does diversity play in the Vanderbilt admissions process?
Vanderbilt seeks to enroll an entering class which closely reflects the diversity of society. To that end, we seek the very best students from all types of backgrounds. We consider ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic, religious, and lifestyle diversity as we build each incoming class.
Where should I mail my application materials?
Most application materials should be submitted online through the Coalition Application, the Common Application, the QuestBridge Application, or the Universal College Application. If you must mail materials, use this address:
Office of Undergraduate Admissions
2305 West End Avenue
Nashville, Tennessee 37203
Note that it is not necessary to address the envelope to a specific person.