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‘How to write the killer college application’

New book, by author and college admissions counselor Katherine Cohen, helps students learn how to write college applications that stand out from the crowd.

Straight A’s and perfect S.A.T. scores aren’t enough to get accepted into the most competitive colleges anymore. The application has to convince the admissions officer that a student’s not only smart, but special. A new book titled “Rock Hard Apps: How to Write The Killer College Application,” gives tips on how to whip an application into shape, and stand out from the crowd. The advice comes from one of the most successful private college admissions counselors in New York City, Katherine Cohen. Cohen discusses the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:

My motivation for writing this book was simple. It arose out of a fundamental misunderstanding about the college application process, one which plagued many of the students whose families came to me for help as a private college counselor. Stressed-pit parents were largely to blame, parents who called me out of the blue, armed with their children’s stellar GPAs and SAT I scores, desperate to know whether I thought they would be accepted at one of he nation’s most selective colleges. A new round of parents would call me right after decision letters were mailed out in April, again armed with their children’s near-perfect GPAs and SAT I scores, desperate to know why their children hadn’t been accepted at the college of their dreams. The very nature of these questions revealed the problem: By and large, these were students whose academic and personal profiles made them highly desirable candidates for selective school admission, yet their parents and counselors erroneously believed that mere statistics were enough to get them into the nation’s most selective schools. I wish it weren’t the case, but no one is a shoo-in anywhere, no matter what the record.

Every time one of these families came to me for help — usually reeling from the blow of multiple rejection letters — it would pain me to think of all the hard work the students had put in during four difficult years of high school. The countless hours they spent studying for exams, writing papers, and keeping up with classroom assignments; all the tiring nights of standardized test preparation; the grueling tests themselves; the numerous and time-consuming extracurricular activities; the endless college visits and research — all of this culminating in a sloppy, rushed, and underdeveloped application, one that did almost nothing to highlight and promote the students’ significant personal achievements, character traits, and strong desire to attend the college in question. These students, and the adults advising them, had not understood that an applicant’s entire chance for admission rests on the strength of the application itself, a 10 to 15 page document that ends up sitting in a pile of nearly identical documents on the desk of an overworked college admissions officer who has no more than 20 minutes at most to read it, judge it against impossibly high standards, and decide on the fate of the student’s academic existence. In failing to spend the necessary time fleshing out their applications, perfectly good students were ending up in the reject pile at colleges where they should have been accepted, simply because they believed statistics alone would do the trick. In the film world, it’s known as the cutting room floor, the melancholic meeting place of all the well-intended shots that could have been part of the picture. I was shocked to meet so many great students who had ended up on the cutting room floor, students who now needed my help overcoming these self-created obstacles. How could they have hoped to make their applications stand out from the crowd when they had treated the application as a means to an end rather than as an end unto itself?

Your IvyWise Counselor says:

“Take time to reflect. Take at least one hour a week to sit with yourself and think about the course of your life. Meditate. Go on a walk. Relax. Get to know yourself in quiet times.”

Did you know?

That selective colleges view public and private high schools differently? Depending on the school, a regular level course at a private school may be considered more rigorous than the same level course at a public high school. Also, many public high schools don’t require community service, so if a student does a remarkable amount of community work at a public school, it might look better than a student who simply fulfills the fifty required community service hours at a private high school. Since public schools tend to be bigger, if you are the top-ranked student in a graduating class of a thousand, it might look better to an admissions reader than if you are the number one student at a private high school with a graduating class of only one hundred. Similarly, SAT I scores coming from public and private schools may be considered differently because test score averages are usually lower at public schools and there is often less test preparation available to public high school students. Finally, the type of school from which you apply can affect the way an admissions reader looks at your college counselor’s letter of recommendation. Because of their heavy student load, counselors at public schools often don’t get to know their student as well as counselors at private high schools, and college admissions readers will therefore not weigh their letters as heavily in the admissions process.

Ultimately, what these students had failed to understand was this: The selective college application is so much more than a few pieces of paper relaying the dry facts and statistics of your academic or personal experience. Far more, the application is a living, breathing document of your life’s achievements, your successes and failures, your trials, tribulations, hopes, and dreams. The application is your proxy, your spokesperson, your ambassador, either your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on how well you treat it. It is your first and last chance to make a deep and lasting impression on a group of complete strangers sitting in a wood-paneled room in an ivy-covered building far from all the toil and trouble you have gone through in high school, far from the intimate details that make your life uniquely yours. It is, as Theodore O’Neill, dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, has said, a “conversation” between the applicant and the college. Wouldn’t you rather have an eloquent, thoughtful, levelheaded, and razor-sharp speaker on your side, than some underprepared, hurried, and ultimately boring hack?

The book you are about to read has a simple philosophy. Since so many of the problems I encounter in my practice stem from the frantic, obsessive, and ultimately self-defeating worry caused by the admittedly heavy competition for the nation’s most desirable colleges, I want to put your mind at ease regarding the college application process. If you approach your application experience with a healthy attitude, a clear goal, a definite strategy, and the wisdom of an expert on your side, then you can write the strongest application possible-and actually have some fun in the process. I try to think of the college application as a body-a body of material, that is. Each segment of the college application equates to a group of muscles in the human body. Getting your application into the best possible shape, therefore, is roughly the equivalent of getting your body into the best possible shape at the gym. Those students who rely too heavily on their academic performance — to the detriment of their personal profile — are the equivalent of the jocks you see in the gym with massive shoulders and arms but flabby abs and skinny legs. They look ridiculous, don’t they? The same can be said of the college applications that boast extraordinary extracurricular activities but have mediocre grades or that contain a superstrong transcript but weakling test scores.

The best way to avoid this detrimental development is clear: Train. Just as your body requires a daily routine of cardiovascular exercise that works each crucial muscle group in careful rotation, you also need to put sustained and serous effort into all aspects of your academic and personal development in preparation for college admission. You must take the daily grind of going to class; participating in discussion; engaging in numerous extracurricular work and community service activities; preparing adequately for test and exams; writing papers with plenty of time to spare; maintaining a healthy, positive attitude; and cultivating strong relationships with your peers, teachers, and high school’s college counselor. Remember, like the human body, if all aspects of your college application are strong but one leg is weak, then you won’t be able to stand up in front of an admissions committee and, excuse the pun, put your best foot forward. That is why I have chosen to highlight three students whose applications began as 98-pound weaklings but who gradually trained themselves to become superb athletes and outstanding application performers. Through first-hand case studies of actual college applications to some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, this book will provide you with the best possible training for the grueling endeavor ahead. It will also provide an objective analysis of all that is strong and weak in the body of your college application, and it will pinpoint strategies aimed at increasing your chances of getting the body of your application into the kind of shape you have always wanted. Only the perfect application, in the best possible shape, will be strong enough to stand up to the competition for a well-deserved admission to the college of your dreams.

What’s the biggest mistake applicants can make on their college applications?

Not following the instruction on the application. (Brown University)

Not indicating clearly what it is you want to study. For NYU and colleges with specific undergraduate schools, you must indicate which program of study you intend to pursue (Richard Avitabile, formerly NYU)

Rushing. Not paying attention to the look of your application is the equivalent of not being thoughtful of your reader’s experience. This includes not using spell check on your computer. One essay to the University of Pennsylvania continually referred to The Wharton School of Bunnies (Dan Evans, University of Pennsylvania)

Reiterating in your essay everything you talked about in your brag sheet. (Brown University)

Writing the same essay for ten colleges but forgetting to change the name. (Adam Max at Emory University)

Burying genuinely outstanding accomplishments in a sea of more mundane activities. (Marianne M. Kosiewicz, Associate Dean of Admission at the University of Virginia)

Excerpted from “Rock Hard Apps: How to Write The Killer College Application,” by Katherine Cohen, Ph.D. Copyright © 2003 by Katherine Cohen, Ph.D. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.