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For selective colleges, the latest buzzword in how they make admissions decisions is the “holistic approach.” But what exactly does that mean? And how has this process changed with many colleges continuing with test-optional policies? Typically, admissions decisions are based on a variety of quantitative and subjective factors including high school grades, class rigor, class rank, standardized test scores (if students elect to submit them), extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, awards, leadership, personal statement essays, demonstrated interest, and more. But with test scores no longer required, there is one less quantitative metric for admissions committees to consider. This makes the essay portion of your application even more important. 

The Common Data Set for each school offers insights into how schools weigh the relative importance of factors for admission decisions. We previously discussed more about the Common Data Set here. Both academic and non-academic factors are ranked from “Very Important” to “Important” to “Considered” to “Not Considered,” and each college specifies their own weighting.

For most competitive colleges, the personal statement and supplemental essays are considered very important for distinguishing among the applicants. This portion of the application is typically where students can share insights into the unique and special aspects of their personalities – provided they understand how to write for this situation. 

Understanding How to Write Your Personal Statement and Other Essays

The personal statement is NOT a resume nor a brag sheet. Nor should it be like an academic paper trying to impress the admissions committee. Rather, the purpose of the personal statement and other essays is to enable the admissions officer to get to know you as a person. This is the essence of a holistic approach to college admissions – getting to know the whole you. 

Many colleges and universities require both the personal statement, as part of the Common App, and several college-specific supplemental essays. Students typically focus first on their “Personal Statement” or Common App main essay, because it will be included in all applications. 

Once students have finalized the list of colleges they intend to apply to, the student shifts work to the college-specific supplemental essays. Sometimes, students can alter some supplements slightly to fit the prompt of another school. But other times, the prompts are so specific that they necessitate writing something altogether new to answer the prompt. The supplemental essays can often expose the student who too quickly filled out and submitted their application – it is always a big mistake simply to copy and paste essays with the wrong university’s name still in the text! Don’t be that student. 

How to Get Started?

But how do you ensure your application stands out in the crowd and honestly portray who you really are and what you have to offer the college? Well, this is not a type of writing that most students have previously done, and Mindfish offers both a “College Essay Bootcamp” and individualized College Essay Coaching to help you! Mindfish tutors can help explain the prompts, brainstorm topics, avoid clichés, read drafts (many drafts), and, most importantly, help you learn to convey your unique personality in a compelling and genuine way that helps admission officers decide to accept you. Our personalized plans are designed to help you write your own compelling story in your own authentic voice. Mindfish will also help you with your supplemental essays too. 

When to Get Started?

The summer between junior year and senior year is the perfect time to start writing essays. Though the Common App officially opens August 1, 2023, the Common App has already released the full list of essay prompts for the 2023-2024 application cycle (listed below). 

Once your senior year starts, you will be busy with classes, activities, senior year special events, distractions, etc. So, the best time to start writing your college essay is the summer. Additionally, creative processes like essay writing require the right frame of mind. Sometimes this takes extra time, and a relaxed mindset to let your ideas flow. 

And remember: do not use ChatGPT or any other natural language AI tool to write your essays – that would be cheating – and there are plenty of tools to detect it. 

From the Common App website:

Below is the full set of essay prompts for 2023-2024.

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

We will retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section. Additionally, we are closely following the Supreme Court case on the use of race in admissions. Depending on the outcome, we stand ready to create resources that will help students speak about their lived experiences.