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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Amber Hopkins, Palm Beach, FL asks:

How tailored to each school should an application be?

“Love The One You’re With” (with apologies to Crosby, Stills & Nash)

Anne Richardson | Director of College Counseling, International & ESL Programs
While it is impossible to tailor the Common Application to specific colleges, many of the supplements are specifically designed to gauge a student’s interest in a particular college. Thus it is very important to demonstrate knowledge of and interest in the school, especially when asked specific questions designed to test your knowledge of the campus and its programs. A campus visit and/or careful research of the school’s website, which allows you to discuss majors, programs and other school specifics, can demonstrate an active interest in the school. This, in turn, allows the college to take your application seriously as one who seeks admission because this school is the right fit.

Applications Should Be Tailored When Possible

Michael Goran | Director & Educational Consultant
The more you can demonstrate to a college that you are a good fit, the better. Admissions officers want to know that you have researched their schools and have a true interest in attending. One of the best ways to demonstrate that interest is through your essays. Often, colleges will give you an opportunity to explain why you want to attend their school. Let them know what you think is special about their programs, campus, school culture and activities. Where appropriate, through your essays and short answers tell admissions officers how you will contribute to the lifeblood of their college.

Be organized. Know what you can use for multiple applications and you can’t.

Patti Demoff | Co-Founder
Some applications, by virtue of the questions asked, must be tailored, while many answers can be used for multiple applications with similar questions or changed slightly to address a specific question. Organize yourself by listing off all your applications, their short and long questions, with character and word counts and any other school-specific requirements. See where they intersect and which are unique. For the Common Application, the tailoring generally comes in supplements. In particular, the “Why Us” responses must be written after doing considerable research, in person or online, so that it is clear exactly what makes the college a good fit.

Be specific in your "Why our college?" supplement essay

Stephanie Campbell | Executive Director
Your "Why our college?" essay in supplements to the Common App cannot be generic (re. small classes, low student-to-faculty ratio, etc.). It must show that you've actually researched the college and found things about it that make you enthusiastic about the prospect of attending that school. If you haven't visited the college or attended a recruiter meeting, spend some quality time investigating the website. Visit the page of the department you may want to major in so you can write with enthusiasm about research and projects the faculty and students in that department are involved in, and how exciting it would be for you to be able to have such an opportunity. Follow-up to your application is helpful too. Admissions offices are impressed by what they call "demonstrated interest." Call Admissions and ask if there's a student you could speak to about their experiences at that college. Ask them to put you on their mailing list and send you materials. Join the college's Facebook page and ask questions or comment. If you live near that college, by all means visit - if it's close by and you don't visit, they'll figure you're not really interested.

Colleges are unique places, not a generic commodity

Ken Huus | Dean of Admissions
Applications for admission should be taken seriously and should be tailored to each college to which you are applying. The application should be an honest representation of the applicant's background and experience, and should provide the admissions office with an understanding why you believe that college is the right fit for you - tell the college why you are interested in that place (and those reasons will be different for each college where you are applying), and let the admissions office see why/how you will be a good student for them to have in their student body.

Colleges want to know you are serious - personalize your application

Craig Meister | President
An aggressive applicant will customize his or her application for every college that receives it. This is of course easy to do when filling out an institutional application; however, it is also imperative to do with Common Application colleges. Many Common App colleges have specific supplemental questions that allow applicants to demonstrate direct interest in the programs offered or characteristics of the campus in question. Even if a college does not have a supplement to the Common App, students should reach out directly that college’s admissions office to at least informally personalize their application.

Customize each application: especially the ‘why you’re applying’ question

Ralph Becker | Owner & Director
Applying to a college, especially a private college, is comparable to applying for a job: the more tailored your application, the better. I would even, if it will help your application, make changes to your main essay on the Common Application—an easy thing to do—if it benefits your candidacy. Yet, more important, if the school on its supplement asks why you are applying, do the research and respond with specifics. It’s absolutely critical you do your homework and convincingly show, to the best of your ability, how both you and the school will benefit by accepting you.

Cut-and-Paste Won't Cut It On Your College Application!

Yolanda Watson Spiva | Executive Director
Colleges want students who demonstrate that they are not only interested in attending their institution, but also demonstrate that they are informed and knowledgeable about the college to which they are applying. Your college essay should therefore reflect the particular ways that you are a fit for the institution, while also telling YOUR individual story. With that said, while you may think that recycling basic elements of an essay you've written for use in multiple applications is easiest, the best practice is to instead re-work the shell of a basic essay about your experiences or goals, with the particular nuances of the question and the college's key characteristics in mind.

Do Answer the Question Directly, Don't Overshare

Jolyn Brand | Founder & Director
One of the biggest problems with essays that I see from my students is that they are too casual and overshare. Admissions officers don't want to or need to know about how you "hang out" with your friends, or that latest cool movie. When they ask about outside interests, try to find something positive. That can be something academic, such as computer programming, or charitable, such as volunteering with church youth group, but it should not be "hanging out." Students should also be sure to answer the question directly; don't ramble off topic.

Every Application Should be Unique to the College

Jeff Haig | Co-Founder
When completing college applications, it is important that each application be specifically tailored to each college. Students need to show passion and specific reasons why they are applying to the colleges they have selected. Stay away from generalities and dive into the specifics including mission/vision, department characteristics, and outside-of-the classroom opportunities. Every application needs to be uniquely tailored so that the application stands out from the rest.

How can you show the love?

Susan Reznick | Independent Educational Consultant
Given that The Common Application is used now by 456 schools, it has become progressively more difficult to “tailor” your college applications. While the Common AP is a great time-saver and many colleges use it as their only application; it definitely does homogenize the applications. So it becomes even more important for a student to try to stand-out in their essays. It is in the supplements however, where one is often asked “Why do you want to attend our college” (what I refer to as “The Love letter” essays) which offers the best chance to focus on the individual schools. You need to make those essays as specific as possible- try to focus primarily on why exactly each school matches you! And try to avoid crafting generic essays that might fit a hundred colleges.

How tailored to each school should an application be?

Scott White | Director of Guidance
With the advent of the Common Application, this is a more common question than ever. What is seen as an opportunity for streamlining the more repetitive tasks of the application process is also something which can appear to homogenize the process for students. Simply adding a line in an essay about how this experience “let me know that University of Chicago is the place for me” is technically complex (see https://www.commonapp.org/commonapp/docs/alternateversiontechnologyfaq.pdf for creating alternate versions of an application) and unnecessary. The colleges that want information tailored to their college have supplements to do this. This is the student’s opportunity to customize the actual application. This is not to say that this is the only way to customize the college process. Students should visit colleges, interview when it is suggested, go to open houses or college fairs, go to college visits at their schools and make sure they research multiple and varied sources of information about colleges.

If proposing marriage, would you not tailor your proposal to that person?

Kris Hintz | Founder
The National Association for College Admission Counseling has found that 21% of colleges participating in its annual Admission Trends survey say that "demonstrated interest" is of considerable importance in the admission decision. In a world where it is easy to apply to many colleges due to technology, but where admissions people are pressured to accurately predict yield, they want to know that an applicant is genuinely interested in their school. If they offer admission, they want to know there is a good chance that the applicant will actually enroll. Think of a college application like a marriage proposal. It should follow a courtship (i.e., researching the website, visiting the school, interviewing with alums, making contact with the regional admissions reader who visits the high school). Who would say yes to a marriage proposal that was like a form letter? So customize as much as possible. Remind the admissions people of your visit and name specific programs that intrigue you in your application supplement. Tailor it as much as you can!

It all depends...

Chris Hooker Haring | Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
If you are applying to a highly specialized school for a specialized program (i.e., a conservatory for a specific arts program) it is a good idea to tailor your application to the school and program for which you are applying. However, in most cases, the best plan is to simply follow the directions on the application. If the school wants some tailoring, they may ask for it (i.e., a question about why you are specifically interested in that school, or a recommendation to do a personal interview). The best plan is to follow directions and pay attention to deadlines!

No round pegs in a square hole: Tailor your applications

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
Make sure each college feels it is your first choice, so prepare applications that are tailored to each college. But be strategic. You can duplicate some pieces--teacher recommendations, transcripts, applications (Common), and more. And yes, you can use essays more than once: you can use your Common Long for one of your UT Austin or UC applications, etc. Yet sometimes you apply with different majors to different schools, so you will need to tailor key features of your app, such as test scores sent, different letters, and especially college specific essays. Let colleges you know you fit perfectly with them.

One and done…not so fast!

Mary Ann Willis | College Counselor
The elephant in the college application room: those who espouse the one-and-done mentality don’t give the same attention to the supplements and the “why college X?” questions. If those are cookie-cutter approaches, the applicant may well be toast. Consider the unwritten college application guidelines. College Y says and means one teacher recommendation. College Z says one, too, but overtly encourages additional meaningful recommendations. The essential rule to follow: do exactly what the college tells you to do as you apply. A killer common-app essay is expected. The applicant who neglects the institution-specific extras does so at his or her peril. Applying is, well, complicated—and rarely as simple as one-and-done.

Personalize Your Essays Whenever You Can!

Estelle Meskin | Certified Educational Planner
Students applying to schools using the Common Application should plan to personalize their essays when responding to the school's supplements. When responding to the main essays on the Common Application, this isn't necessary unless you're applying early decision or early action. This shows your interest. For schools that don't subscribe to the Common Application, using a college's name will catch the attention of the reader. When using similar essays to different schools be sure to change the name to fit the school.

Remember, many schools use Common or Universal Apps for a reason!

Deborah Shames | Independent College Search Consultant & Transfer Admissions Advisor
There is no need to personalize the main application essay for a school, unless it specifically asks how X school will help you reach your goals, in which case, obviously, that should be addressed. However, in the supplements, there is often an opportunity to truly reflect upon why the school is a good fit for you. The more specific you can be about this, the better. Listing “great academic opportunities” or “school spirit”, while significant, are applicable to so many schools as to be unconvincing reasons for admissions to include you in their entering class. However, discussing an experience you had on campus or something enlightening that you discovered while researching the school can be genuinely persuasive and tip the scale in your favor.

Send The College A Love Letter

Lisa Bain-Carlton | Educational Consultant
Think back to the last time you received a personalized hand written love letter. I bet it made you feel special. The Common Application has made it easy for students to apply to a large number of colleges. This makes it difficult for colleges to differentiate the serious applicant from the casual applicant. In your application you have the opportunity to let the college know that your interest is more than casual flirtation. Pull out all the stops- nobody likes a lukewarm love letter. Think back to when you visited the school or met the admissions representative. What made your heart jump? Don’t be bashful- tell them why you love them.

Show the schools you really know them and why they are a match for you

Francine Block | President
It is hard to truly tailor an essay for a college when applying through the common app. So, when they have a supplement question asking why you are applying, you need to really do your homework and let them know through your answer why they are a good fit for you. Talk about some of their specialized programs that match your interest, how do their study abroad options tie into your career plans, what extracurricular activities do they offer that would be a continuation of what you have done in high school, or what do they offer that you have always wanted to try such as ultimate frisbee.

Show who you are--that's tailoring enough!

Mary Beth Fry | Director of College Counseling
The Common Application removes a lot of the possibility of tailoring your apps, but that doesn't mean you can't (or shouldn't) let a college know why you are a good match. Many colleges ask the "Why us?" question in their supplements, and that's your opportunity to show each college how you fit into that campus community. If a school isn't on the Common, or doesn't ask that "why us?" question, you can always send a supplemental essay that drives the point home. Long story short: showing how you are a great match to each college you like (with narrative detail about who you really are), will help admissions representatives imagine you on their campuses, which will make them even more eager to admit you!

Tailor Common App and UCA Supplements and all individual apps

Marjorie Shaevitz | Author & Founder
There are two answers to this question, depending on whether you apply to Common Application or Universal College Application schools or to colleges that offer their own applications. Common App and UCA applications are standardized for participating schools, meaning that your responses and essays are the same for all colleges. It’s very important that you NOT identify individual colleges in those responses, but applicants can and should tailor answers to individual schools in the colleges’ respective Supplements. Many public schools and some private ones offer their own applications. It’s very important that your application responses be very tailored in those applications.

Tailoring starts with research, ends with Graduation

Pamela Ellis | Founder
The breakdown in college graduation happens in the application process when students apply to colleges that are not a good match for them academically, socially, or financially. Student applicants must conduct thorough online and in-person research for good matches. A tailored application shows the institution that the student has done that research. This tailoring, which usually happens in essays, gives the readers more confidence that the student is a good match for their institution. The application should be tailored as much as possible for potential of the best outcome – graduation.

Take the opportunity to be specific when possible

Nola Lynch | Owner
In their own applications or in their supplements to the Common Application or Universal College Application, many schools ask one or more questions about why you are applying or what you expect from your education there. Such questions are your main opportunity to tailor the application to the school, and it can be very important to show familiarity with the programs you are interested in. Many schools take your interest seriously and look for evidence that you know something about them. Conversely, be certain that nothing in the main part of a multi-school application is meant for a particular school.

Use the Common Application Supplement to Tailor Your Interests to the School

Carol Morris | Regional Director of Admissions
If you are using the Common Application, use the college's supplement, not the application itself, to make your case for that school. This is your chance to show that you've explored the school and have come to the conclusion that it would be a good match for you and your interests. Schools want to know that they are not one more random application that you've sent, but a legitimate contender for your presence on their campus. Be careful not to mention the name of the school in a Common Application essay, however, as the essay cannot be tailored or changed; every school receives the same one.

When Should I Write About What Interest Me At A Specific College?

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
Standardized applications such as the Universal and Common Applications do require material that the colleges on your list will see – that is unless you create separate versions of the application. It is best to keep your writing personal and not school specific. Certainly, you can mention academic and other interests that the schools where you are applying will have. However, it is best not to mention one college when many will see the same application. Students do have an opportunity to write more specifically about a college if that college has individual supplements. It is then appropriate to discuss specifics about that college. If you work on an application from the college’s own website, it is okay to write about that college in more detail.


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