Addressing Weaknesses in the Personal Statement

WeaknessMany college application essays will include a question asking you to identify your biggest weakness. Students often make a crucial mistake with this type of question, deciding to answer as if the admissions committee had asked, "why shouldn't we accept you?" The goal of your personal statement is to make yourself as attractive as possible to the college, so don't give them a reason to reject you. This question should be dealt with like every other one in the packet: as an opportunity to show how great a student you will be.

The first step is to identify something that is a realistic weakness. You may be tempted to say something like "I'm a workaholic" or some other weakness-that's-really-a-strength. Don't do this. College admissions officers see variants of "I just care too much about my school work" too often to believe it. Instead, critically analyze your application and identify your biggest weakness. A low GPA, a disappointing SAT or ACT score, or low participation in extracurricular activities are all great examples.

Next, figure out an explanation — not an excuse — for your weakness. Perhaps your family moved around a lot, preventing you from rooting in a school. Perhaps you had to work an after-school job that cut into your time to play a sport. Whatever your reason, make sure it's something that you can use to make yourself look like a better candidate. It's much easier to forgive a low GPA, for example, if the reason for it was the time you spent in a professional internship.

Here are four examples of the thesis statement for your personal statement weakness. Note that they are ordered from worst to best:

"What is Your Biggest Weakness?"

Worst
"I have a low GPA."
The admissions officers already know you have a low GPA, and if they didn't, you just alerted them to go look. Your weakness should be cleverly woven into your answer rather than appearing upfront and obvious.

Bad
"I'm a very sensitive person and sometimes care too much about my friends."
This is an example of a weakness-that's-really-a-strength. You want to show the admissions committee that you can objectively and critically analyze yourself, and "I care too much" is not a realistic weakness. Additionally, this answer focuses on personal characteristics rather than on academic ones. Focus on your scholarship rather than on character flaws.

Better
"I have a lower than average GPA due to the time I spent working as an intern at a law office to earn money to support my family."
What makes this answer better than the previous ones is that it identifies a real and credible weakness (low GPA), but provides an explanation that is positive. Though colleges want to see applicants with high grade point averages, they also want to see students with real-life work experience and those who have overcome difficulties. This answer shows both of those, making the student appear more well-rounded. The rest of the answer would then discuss why the student believes his experiences as a legal intern make up for his lower GPA. There is, however, one thing that should change to make this an ideal thesis.

Best
"I worked a part-time job before and after school in order to support my family. Though the work was incredibly rewarding, it limited my ability to focus on my high school work. Though I was able to work with my teachers to extend deadlines and make up missed work, my job did limit my ability to complete all of my assignments."
Rather than leading with the weakness, this answer weaves the weakness into the discussion of the applicant's strength. The admissions officers will already know about your GPA by the time they get to this section, so it is unnecessary to call attention to it again. Instead, go right into your explanation. This allows you to write an answer that focuses on your strengths while, at the same time, compensating for your weakness. This answer also demonstrates that the student took the initiative to try to overcome her weakness by approaching her teachers and requesting extensions. Not only does this answer show that the student has a good reason for her lower GPA, but it also shows that she recognizes, addresses, and takes steps to correct her problems rather than merely complaining about them.

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6 Laws your Letters of Recommendation must follow

Securing quality letters of recommendation is one of the most daunting tasks a college applicant must face. By understanding what exactly admissions officers use the letters of recommendation for, students are better able to tailor these powerful tools to boost their odds of acceptance.

There are six main laws your letters of recommendation must follow, and I explore all six in the newest Accepted to College article. You will learn not only how to pick a good recommender, but also how to guide that recommender toward writing the best letter possible.

Click here to read the full article.

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Top 12 Tips to Perfect your College Application Resume – Part 1

With most colleges now requiring a resume as part of the college application package, students will benefit greatly from learning how to craft a proper resume. And while many of the generic tips floating around the web can be useful, there are certain things a college application resume must include to be a winner. Because of the number of tips and the length of my commentary, I will be splitting these tips into two posts. Look for the continuation to come soon.

Why do colleges require a resume?

Sometimes the format of a typical college application does not allow the candidate to highlight his or her strong points. A resume is basically a brief, at-a-glance brag sheet that you can use to draw attention to all of the accomplishments you feel are important to define who you are, but that didn't quite make it into your personal statement.

How should the resume be structured?

Professional resumes will generally lead with work experience and discuss an individual's professional career. Colleges are not interested in you as a worker so much as they are interested in you as a scholar. As such, many of the typical rules for resume structure do not apply to college applicants. In general, following this format will work for you:

  • Heading:Make sure to include a heading on the top that states your name and any other important identifying information. Many colleges will identify you with your social security number, so putting this information in the heading is helpful. A university may also assign you a special applicant number that can be used in lieu of your social security number.
  • Overview: Take approximately 3 short sentences to write a mini biography about yourself. If you speak more than one language, mention it. If you're the science fair champion four years running, mention it. If you have the highest GPA at your school, mention it. Highlight your strongest features. Imagine yourself as a news reporter that needs to capture the readers' attention in only a few lines. Make the admissions officer want to read more about you. Naturally, anything you include in the overview should also appear in one of the later sections.
  • Education: After the heading, lead with educational information. The name of your high school and its address will go here. Follow that with your GPA and, if you know it, your class rank. Class rank can either be stated by percentile (such as "top 5%") or by actual numerical rank (14 of 326). Any sort of academic distinction may be placed here as well, such as if you earned an International Baccalaureate full diploma or a special state distinction. Do not list your academic awards here, however, as those will come later.
  • Activities: Any clubs, programs, community service organizations, sports, or other activities you were a part of during high school should go here. You should try to limit the list to only about 8 entries, so if you have more than that, choose only your most important 8. If you have less than 4, try to think of some organized event you participated in to include. Remember, it does not have to necessarily be a school-sponsored program; activities through your church, community center, or of your own personal drive (bands, etc.) may be included. Each activity should have a short, one sentence description using strong, active verbs. For example, rather than just saying "Band", say, "Marching Band First Trumpet 3 years, performing in 57 school games and in two regional competitions."
  • Special Projects: Something that you did once or twice but that could not necessarily be considered an 'activity' may go here. Participation in a science fair, history day project, one-time volunteer effort, or other special events may be included. This category is not vital, so if you cannot think of any special project you participated in, you may omit this section. You should limit your list to 3 entries and provide a bit more detail about each than you would have in the Activities section (about 2-3 short sentences). If you have held a steady job during high school, feel free to add your position here with a few descriptive sentences. You should also change this section's title to something like "Experiences".
  • Awards: Don't limit yourself here. This section can be a simple laundry list (though you should explain any awards that do not have an obvious title) or may include more detailed descriptions depending on the amount of awards you have received. Feel free to overlap in this section with other sections (for example, you may mention the science fair in Special Projects, and then also mention that you got first place here), but avoid listing too many awards for the same event. Mentioning your placement in each of the three years you went to History Day is fine, but outlining each of your 67 Speech and Debate victories is too much. Remember that many accomplishments may fit in this category even if you never received a trophy, medal, or certificate.

You don't have to limit yourself to just these sections. If you have a special, extraordinary experience that warrants its own section, feel free to include it. Look around on the Internet for other student resumes and see the kinds of things they include for some ideas for what you might want on your own resume.

How long can the resume be?

Don't listen to the old rule that a resume cannot be longer than a single page. Feel free to go up to 2 pages if you need the room.  Keep in mind that a resume is more like an outline than an essay; it should not be dense with information, but rather be an easy-to-follow bulleted list. If you simply have too many activities and awards to keep yourself limited to one page, do not cut information out. Instead, expand onto a second page without worry (unless, of course, the application guidelines tell you to use only one page).

Should I include stuff from before high school?

Generally no unless the activity continued into high school (such as playing in the middle school band and in the high school band). Colleges are generally not interested in your pre-high school experiences.

This concludes part 1 of the college application resume tips list. Check back for part 2 with even more tips!

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Why You’re Wrong about Your GPA, and what to Do about it

Many High School juniors who are trying to figure out their chances at competitive schools are confused about what their GPA actually is. Between "unweighted" and "weighted" GPAs -- and also with many high schools now calculating the grades of AP courses, honors courses, and standard courses differently -- students are often presented with two or three different numbers to represent their GPA. Even more confusing, many colleges use their own formulae to calculate GPA, meaning that the numbers your high school reports may all be different from what the university actually considers.

So what is a confused student to do? First of all, you should understand the process:

Many colleges will see and consider both your weighted and unweighted GPAs -- the former of which uses a 5.0 scale for honors and AP classes as opposed to the standard 4.0 scale. Most high schools will report both on your transcript. However, while a university may use your weighted GPA in considering your relative course rigor, they are typically more interested in your unweighted GPA when comparing you to other candidates. In other words, despite the common belief that an honors B equals a non-honors A, many colleges understand that an honors B is still a B even though it was earned in a harder class.

Complicating matters even further, many universities will recalculate your GPA using their own methods. Some will strip away all but the core classes, meaning the "easy A" you earned in art and gym no longer boost you as much as you thought. Instead, it is "Fundamental Five" which determine your GPA for many colleges: math, science, social science, English, and your foreign language.

So if you're looking at the 25th and 75th percentile numbers that many colleges publish, you will want to calculate your GPA using the most accurate metric possible. The best method is to consult the college itself and see if they'll reveal their system for calculating GPA. If not, or if you do not want to go through the hassle, the most conservative way to estimate your own GPA is to calculate your unweighted (i.e. don't differentiate between honors and non-honors courses) GPA from only the 'Fundamental Five' classes you have taken. While other methods of GPA calculation will be used to compare you against other applicants, this number will likely be the most accurate and universal one that you could use to estimate your chances of admission.

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7 Things Savvy Good Students Do to Avoid Being Rejected Good Students

Yesterday I spoke briefly about the various reasons why good students are not accepted. I also provided some advice for parents. Today, I'd like to discuss 7 techniques that savvy students may use to avoid the various reasons that get good students rejected:
Acceptance Packet College Acceptance Materials Enclosed

  1. Submit your application early - Quotas or preferences for a specific geographical location or gender occur at many universities. Unfortunately, because it is based on simple, statistical information, there's no way to color your application if you're disfavored. Instead, get around these ceilings by submitting your application as soon as possible. If a university is committed to accepting only 100 applicants from Massachusetts, make sure you are one of the first 100 they review. Naturally, you'll never know what statistical quotas each college is using on any given year, so submit every application early just in case.
  2. Do your research - Colleges frequently talk about the types of students they're looking for, but many applicants are not listening. Be different by actually keeping your eyes and ears open. Note the types of recruitment presentations each college gives, and if they seem particularly dedicated to finding, for example, first-generation students and you happen to be one, play up this fact in your essay. Also, read through each university's enrolled student information (usually available on their websites) and note any underrepresented population that you may be a member of. Statistics for racial groups, genders (both males and females are sometimes underrepresented), geographical location, and other basic statistics are available here. A sharp eye for phrases like, "we're committed to expanding our gender diversity" will let you know what types of personal features you should comment on in your essays.
  3. Fish DiversityExplore your own personal diversity - Even if a website or college admissions officer does not explicitly mention a certain group they feel their student body is lacking, you should still discuss the types of things that make you unique. This doesn't need to be only racial diversity, but also things like special personal experiences, status as a first-generation student, birth in a foreign country, physical disability, or anything that makes you diverse. For tips on how to discuss these types of things, consult my article on expressing diversity in the personal statement.
  4. Make yourself internally diverse - Even if you are interested in a college looking for more first-generation students and come from a lengthy Ivy League pedigree, all is not lost. There is rarely only one thing a college is looking for. So make sure to at least mention all sorts of facts about yourself that may put you into a niche the university is looking to fill. Avoid creating a laundry list of statistics, of course, but do feel free to discuss all of the unique features and experiences that have contributed to making you who you are.
  5. Appear interested and dedicated - If you're an otherwise qualified candidate but fall into a group the college simply feels it has too much of already, the admissions committee will be looking for reasons not to accept you. Make this job harder (and also encourage them to reject other applications in your same pile instead) by sounded interested in and dedicated to the university. Opening an essay with, "I have always wanted to attend X College" is trite, but weaving in an anecdote about how the school library reminds you of a beloved building from your youth will make you seem much more interested in the college than the average applicant. Subtlety weaving in something that would make the admissions officer think that you would be likely to contribute to the alumni fund will help as well.
  6. quill penWrite an essay with universal appeal - You may be incredibly passionate about football, but a college admissions officer who hates sports will be bored by the subject matter. This does not mean that you should avoid writing about it -- all personal statements should be about topics you have a passion for -- but merely that you should try to avoid any technical jargon that a non-fan would be confused by. Also, try to connect your topic to a more universal experience. For example, use a metaphor to compare your proudest in-game football moment to falling in love. Read your essay and ask yourself if everyone would be able to relate to it. If not, try to broaden your language.
  7. Above all, be the best you can be - You're not going to be able to anticipate every little thing the college may be looking for. So don't stress about quotas too much; instead, do the best you can to highlight yourself. If you put your strongest foot forward, the university is much more likely to be interested in you despite any quotas or preferences they might have

The process may seem unfair at times, but these techniques should help to transform you from a rejected good student, to an accepted good student.

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Does Using Other Acceptances as Leverage to get more Financial Aid Work?

Stack of dollar billsA reader going by the name Coach left a comment disagreeing with my advice in answering the question, how many colleges should I apply to? in which I recommended students limit themselves to 5-7 choices. Coach made a very interesting argument, and suggested that applying to many more colleges may be a better route (click here to read his full comment):

I don't see any value in limiting students to a specified number of colleges. In fact, it's counterproductive. More college acceptances in a high numbers game generates 2 advantages: increase of the possibility of being accepted somewhere, and working with more leverage to get more financial aid by working several school offers against each other's.

You make a helpful point about using competing financial aid offers for leverage, Coach, but I have to disagree with you somewhat. Even with only 5-7 applications, students should still receive enough acceptances to provide this advantage (assuming they are reasonable with their acceptance expectations and self-assessment). There is no need to apply to 20 or more schools simply to have a dozen financial aid letters to throw in the other colleges' faces. The extra time and expense associated with additional applications -- even with the Common Application Form -- will not pay off in this regard.

Also, while your tactic may have worked a few years ago, it is becoming much less effective now. With the number of applications rising substantially, and with colleges' finances stretching thinner each year, universities have their pick in a large field of very qualified applicants. Many students asking for a financial aid boost will hear, "we're sorry, but we have reached our cap on financial assistance," even with leverage.

Many financial aid officers hate this technique, as well. You will find that some colleges even have strict polices against adjusting aid offers; however, some will if you know how to ask. But remember, a university is neither a flea market nor a Circuit City. Financial directors will become less accommodating if you use the word "negotiation", and they will absolutely not "price match", so avoid both terms. Offering to "bargain" or insisting upon your "leverage" are two more words to stay away from. What you should be requesting is a "review".

When asking for this review, do so in a formal letter rather than a phone call. This allows you to be more controlled in your correspondence and avoids financial aid representatives from falling back on a "I can't do that" script they have memorized. In the letter, thank the officer for his or her offer, and express great interest in the school and its programs. Then, show your worry about being able to meet your expected family contribution (or EFC). Explaining any special circumstances such as unemployment, death in the family, or medical bills should be done at this point as well. Finally, simply ask if they can provide any help.

Discussing exact dollar amounts of other offers, or mentioning how many colleges gave you better financial aid plans are generally regarded as boorish tactics, and often will hurt your chances. Maintain the tone of asking for help rather than threatening or boasting, and the reader will be much more likely to think of ways to meet your needs. You may make a brief, casual mention of a competing offer, but only in passing. The goal is not to appear as if you have expectations as a result of your other offers, but merely to express that your financial situation will have to play a role in your ultimate college decision.

Whatever their response, thank them for their assistance and move on. Pressing the issue will not help. Even if your badgering gets you an extra few thousand dollars for your first year, the aid office will most likely lower your assistance when they review your plan in the following years.

Be respectful, and eliminate words like "leverage" from your vocabulary. You're not at a used car lot, and financial aid officers hate being made to feel like car salesmen. You can ask for a review, but never try to "negotiate". And finally, to return to Coach's suggestion, it is never necessary to apply to additional colleges only to receive financial aid offers to later use to "bargain". This tactic worked in the past, but has no place in the modern admissions strategy. I maintain my advice to apply to 5-7 colleges, and to stick only to schools that you would really want to end up attending. Save your time and money by rejecting the old, outdated leveraging technique.

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