Getting into a Great College: Essay, Recommendation, and Interview Secrets

These days, getting into the college of your choice is more than a matter of academics. Admissions officers put a great deal of emphasis on your essays, recommendations, and interviews. Here’s how to ace yours.

How To Write Your Essay

Here are some tips about writing the essay portion of your college application:

  • Be yourself. Colleges ask you to write essays because they want to find out about you. They don’t want the essay to sound generic, bland, or exactly like every other essay they’ve received. Let your own voice and thoughts shine through. If you’re not yet sure exactly who that is, don’t worry about it! Just use examples from your own life to answer the question(s). Be honest and don’t exaggerate or embellish your accomplishments. On the same note, this is an excellent chance to show your vocabulary and command of English, but don’t overuse big words just to show how smart you are. Keep it natural.
  • Be interesting. When the Beatles first played in Hamburg before they were famous, the German audiences shouted at them, “Mak shau! Mak shau!”. This means “Make a show,” i.e., Do something! Don’t just stand there! Get into it! You can apply this to your college application essay. Using personal details from your life, be conscious that you are writing for a reader. Be funny (but not too funny), be sad (but not too sad), and vary your tone and sentence structure. Try to write something that you think would be interesting to read.
  • Write a rough draft. The essay is not a “one-and-done” exercise. You want to craft something sensational. Write a first version with the idea that it’s just a rough draft, and then go back and fine-tune it. Often this approach leads to excellent work as it takes the pressure off to be outstanding right out of the gate.
  • Stay within limits. The Common App has a minimum of 250 words and a maximum length of 650 words. While you are probably best served writing more than 251 words, don’t write significantly more just for the sake of it. Admissions officers have stacks and stacks of these things to read! Be concise, and don’t make their jobs harder. If the application specifies an upper limit, do not go over.
  • Proofread. Above all, make sure that your final essay has no typos, misspelled words, misplaced punctuation, or grammatical errors. Have an adult you trust (parent, family friend, teacher) read over your essay for these kinds of technical errors. Proofreading is extremely important. These are institutions of higher learning, and they will judge you if you confuse “your” and “you’re,” “its,” and “it’s” and put commas in the wrong place.

Getting Recommendations

Nervous about asking your teachers, coaches, or employer for recommendations? Don’t be. Here are some things to keep in mind to make the process run smoothly.

  • Ask the right people. Ask someone who knows you well and is likely to say very nice things about you. A famous person you have access to but doesn’t know you very well is unlikely to impress a college admissions officer as much as a trusted teacher or coach who can talk about your work ethic and personality in great detail. If you need a recommendation from someone outside of school, choose somebody who has a good understanding of you and your strengths.
  • Make it easy for them. Provide them with stamps, envelopes, addresses, and all the information they might need about you to write the best possible recommendation. Also, give them a list of your recent accomplishments (if necessary) to refresh their memory of what you’ve achieved. Politely remind them when the due dates are, and follow up if you’re not sure if they’ve sent it.
  • Waive your rights to view the recommendation. Most applications have a box you check to waive your right to see the recommendation as part of the application. This allows your writer to be more candid and lets the admission officers know they are seeing an unbiased view of you.
  • Accept no for an answer. It’s not your birthright to have the teacher of your choice write your college recommendation. It may be disappointing if they say no, but you still need to be polite and say, “Thanks anyway.” It may not be personal if the teacher says no; they may have legitimate reasons or be too busy. If you ask the right person, though, the chances of a “no” are significantly reduced because you already have a relationship with them. Don’t pester them; be gracious and move on to finding someone else.
  • Follow up with thank you notes. It always helps to be appreciative.

How to Prepare for your Interview

The interview is one of the more stressful parts of this process (wait…there’s a non-stressful part? More on that later…). You’re liable to feel “on the spot” as the admissions officer grills you about specifics on your application and the details of your academic life. Here’s how to make it through:

  1. Know what to expect. Like any part of this process, you’ll want to prepare and be realistic about what to expect. The interview is your chance to impress a college representative with those parts of you that grades and test scores can’t quantify. You’ll be talking one-on-one with a college admissions officer for about an hour, during which time you’ll be asked questions (“Why do you want to go to college?” “Why do you want to come to our college?”), and then you’ll have the opportunity to ask them questions. You should be prepared with a few legitimate questions to ask about the college, be able to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the school, and have some idea of information about yourself that might not be on a transcript that you would like to share. If there is anything questionable in your grades/test scores that needs an explanation, now is the time when you could bring that up.
  2. Be prompt. Being late for your college interview is tacky! Don’t be that person.
  3. Present yourself well. Dress nicely (like you would for church). Don’t use a lot of slang. If you’re honest, forthright, and generally pleasant, the interview should go well.
  4. Don’t be intimidated. Be who and what you are, proud of your accomplishments yet humble, and relax. Take a deep breath before you walk in. Just because it’s the oldest college in America doesn’t mean it’s the right school for you. Remember: you’re the one paying for college, so you have a right to ask questions and receive answers. On the flip side, be confident but not arrogant.
  5. Practice. You may even want to run a practice interview with your parents or a trusted adult friend if the idea of being interviewed by a stranger makes you extremely nervous. Remember that the interview is a conversation, so your answers shouldn’t appear rehearsed (and definitely not memorized!). Speak naturally, clearly, and in your own voice and words, and you will be fine.

In short, never underestimate the importance of your essay, recommendations, and interview. Blowing them can cost the best student a slot in a great college. And nailing them can help a less-than-stellar candidate get in.

Make sure you have all your i’s dotted and t’s crossed when you apply for college. Check out these Alliance articles about how to apply, when to apply, and standardized tests. Also, be sure to check out The Alliance College Guide. It explains what you need to know about choosing, preparing for, applying to, and paying for college. 

Also, be sure to look into the Alliance Scholarship Program. Since 1996 the program has awarded millions of dollars to thousands of deserving students. Learn more here.

Additional Resources