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College Application Season

Steve Reed has been a college counselor for 53 years. He describes the process of helping with the students’ college application essays and speaks of one of our students’ superb responses to a fifty-word supplemental essay from the Stanford application. He is interested to know how our readers (grads and others), with their accumulated experience, would answer. To that end, he offers a $50 prize for the best submission. See the article below for details.

College Applications

We are nearing the end of the college application season; its peak runs from November 1 to February 1. One of my responsibilities as a college counselor is to read over the early drafts of our students’ major and supplementary essays for the Common Application. In five decades here, I have been the first eyes on a few thousand of them, vetoed a few hundred, suggested major surgery on most, and applauded a few dozen. My all-time favorite: current teacher Justin Felhaber’s humorous piece on the benefits of being deaf. Some runner-ups: working the checkout register at the Grand Union; the excitement of reading Descartes in Honors Lit.; the courage of a family member with multiple disabilities. Almost any subject can work. This year, some of the best I’ve read were on unlikely topics: the shoes in my closet, why I doodle, and how working on a farm informed my art.

Of course, helping students with their submissions involves a bit of tightrope balancing. The work must be theirs but theirs at its best. The process works best if they come to me with ideas, and we cull the ones that have less potential. I don’t like essays on your favorite sport (If you are any good, the college will find out from its coach), the death of a family member (best guess – you were sad; that doesn’t differentiate you much), highly personal emotional or sexual issues ( Admissions Officer-Let me pause here from reading your app to make a quick call to the Dean of Students). I tell the seniors that the best essays are those that show them in motion; I suggest they think of the essay as a verbal sound – camera, objectively recording them doing something they would be proud to have the admissions officer see. Once they’ve chosen an idea, the students must craft their (650 words max) masterpiece). Once they’ve done that, they bring me a draft. Almost always, my pencil eliminates about half their word count. Sample sentence: ”When my alarm rings at eight am in the morning, I know that I am only thirty minutes away from my 8:30 history class, which is a subject that bores me.” With the weeds whacked, we can hope that some buttercups become visible. Three drafts later, we are close. The best students will be paralyzed as they decide whether in context “exhorts” works better than “urges”; the less able won’t worry about the distinction between “skinny” and “slender.”  It’s taken some resolve over the years for me to let go of worry about the essays once the student has clicked the submit button. I have an intuitive sense nowadays that the colleges expect mainly grammatical competence and an inoffensive point of view. They know that even those two attributes are often the work product of a plethora of proofreaders.

Many colleges have supplemental questions they believe will be more revealing than the standard Common App essay. My favorite is on the Stanford application: What historical event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50-word maximum). * Our soccer player, Liam Doyle, who will matriculate there next year, gave an answer that I found exceptionally thoughtful. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to have the readers of this page offer their answers. I am offering a fifty-dollar prize for the best answer I receive. The judges will be Liam, his All-American counterpart at Northwood, Sebastian Green, who has committed to Notre Dame, and your not so humble scribbler on this site. I will publish Liam’s answer after we determine the winner amongst your offerings. The deadline is January 15. Mail submissions to

•    Editor’s note – A Northwood alum (Darcy Prime) was a part of the Stanford Admissions Office that created their supplemental questions.