Is College Admission Too Competitive Essay

Last month, the 2012-13 edition of the Common Application was released. Simultaneously and/or soon after, many schools released updated supplements, several of which request at least one additional essay (in addition to the personal statement and activity essay required on the Common App).

As college admissions becomes more competitive, and more students are applying to more schools, colleges are increasingly using a student's "soft factors," including letters of recommendation, interviews, resume, and essays to transform an applicant from a series of numbers into a living, breathing human being.

Colleges don't ask you to write essays because they want to make you miserable, they are asking because they want to hear from you! They want to get to know your background, interests, goals, triumphs, failures, likes, and aversions in your own voice. When reading an essay, an admissions officer will try to determine: Who are you? Will you make a valuable contribution to your our campus community? What type of character traits do you possess? Are you responsible? Shy? Creative? A Leader? A nonconformist? How have you shown your intellectual vitality?

In order to properly plan your time in the coming months, first read through each application that you plan to submit to determine the number and nature of the essays you'll have to write.

Let's take an average college list with 12 schools for a high-achieving student who wants to study business:

  • Five reach schools: University of Pennsylvania (Wharton), Cornell University (Dyson), Georgetown University (McDonough), New York University (Stern), University of Virginia
  • Four target schools: University of Michigan, Babson College, Emory University, University of Southern California
  • Three safe schools: American University (Kogod), Brandeis University, Bentley University

With this list, there are at least 20 distinct written responses!

Not only is there a large number of essays, but each requires a considerable amount of time, effort, and thought. Many schools want to know why a student is applying to that particular college. The "Why this college" essay is often the most important -- the dealmaker. Colleges want to know what you hope to gain from your education and also what you will contribute. There are seven such essays on this list of 12 schools.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania asks, "A Penn education provides a liberal arts and sciences foundation across multiple disciplines with a practical emphasis in one of four undergraduate schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, or the Wharton School. Given the undergraduate school to which you are applying, please discuss how you will engage academically at Penn."

Other colleges take a particularly creative approach to the application essay prompt with the hopes that students will reply in kind.

This year, the University of Virginia asks: What is your favorite word and why?; Brandeis University queries "A package arrives at your door. After seeing the contents you know it's going to be the best day of your life. What's inside and how do you spend your day?" and University of Michigan's Honors Program wants students to "Explain Unicorns."

These questions are tough. Ultimately, college admissions officers are trying to determine who they are inviting to campus and how you think. Regardless of how the question is phrased (many schools ask applicants to write about a quotation, literary work, or philosophy topic), be sure to relate the chosen material to your own ideas, outlooks, and aspirations. Dig deep - think about who you are, what's important to you, and what you want out of your education, and make sure that your essays accurately reflect those qualities.

Here are some additional tips for students writing their college essays:

  • College admissions committees want to learn something about the applicant that they cannot learn from the rest of the application; avoid writing an essay that just reiterates the activities on your resume.
  • Choose a single incident that defines who you are today and write a clear and creative essay about it -- a story only you can tell!
  • Gimmicks (such as writing your essay in a foreign language) rarely work and often make even more work for an already over-burdened admissions officer; "sob stories," topics of public consciousness, things that happened to you in middle school, and intimate details about your dating life are not good topics.
  • Don't be afraid to write about being unsuccessful. Failure is usually a growth experience.

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As the benefits of a college education become more prevalent, more students have been applying to university. This has created an increasingly competitive college admissions environment, with almost 80% of ranked schools accepting 50% or less of their applicants according to a U.S. News article. With colleges increasing their selectivity, families sometimes look to public colleges as an inexpensive fail-safe option for attending college.


Public colleges and universities, including state colleges, operate under the supervision of state governments and are funded largely by taxes and subsidies from the government. A private college, on the other hand, is privately funded and sets its own policies and goals. For a more detailed explanation of the different types of colleges, see our blog post on public vs. private universities.


With the recent increase in competitiveness across all colleges, students may need to reevaluate how they view their chances of being admitted to in-state colleges. In this post, we will recognize and dispel some of the common assumptions about state colleges, explain why they have gotten more competitive, and offer some tips to keep up with the changing landscape of the state college admissions process.


Why Things Are Changing in State College Admissions

In general, college admissions are becoming increasingly competitive. This is in large part because college graduates in recent years have seen substantially higher average incomes and better job prospects than their counterparts who did not attend college. In fact, according to a recent TIME article, the average starting salary for a college graduate in 2017 was around $50,000, a 3% increase from the previous year.


As the benefits of a college education increase, more students are seeking a college education, and the applicant pools at each college are getting larger. Meanwhile, most colleges have not increased the number of students they accept to account for the increase in applicants. In short, there are more and more students competing for the same number of spots at each college.


State colleges are no exception to this increasing competitiveness. In addition, many state governments have decreased their budget subsidies to state colleges and universities by an average of 17%, creating budget issues for affected institutions.


In order to compensate for the lack of funds, state colleges have chosen to both increase tuition and accept more out-of-state students to their college, as they pay higher tuition than in-state students. This decreases the number of spots available for in-state students, putting in-state applicants at a potential disadvantage in the college admissions process at their state colleges. See this 2016 New York Times article for more information about the changing trends in state college admissions.


Common Assumptions About State Colleges (And Why They May Not be Accurate Today)

College applicants sometimes assume that getting accepted to a state college in their home state is easy and cheap. Indeed, many states have college admissions policies that can seem appealing. For example, most state schools in Texas follow an automatic admissions system, where Texas students with the top class ranks in their high school can gain automatic admission into any state school in Texas that they apply to. Other states have different policies regarding in-state admissions into state schools, but they generally include impressive benefits to high-achieving, in-state students.


Students tend to take these policies to mean that their admission to in-state colleges is guaranteed, when that is not always the case. Given the aforementioned budget cuts and competitiveness, in-state students sometimes face harsher competition for fewer and fewer enrollment spots in colleges in their home state. This means that even if you’re an in-state student with good grades and a decent extracurricular profile, you may not get admitted to the state school in your home state.


This wasn’t always the case, however. You may hear from older community members, parents, and even guidance counselors that it is easier to gain admittance to a state college because that was the case when they were applying to college. However, in recent years, state colleges have gotten considerably harder to get into than parents, community members, or even guidance counselors may expect.


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