You only have two essays to write, one short and one long, on the Boston University application. In fact, the short essay is only 5-6 sentences (which really qualifies more as a paragraph than it does a short essay). It's important to make the most of that limited opportunity to help the BU admissions committee get to know you better. So here are some tips to help you do that.
In five or six sentences, tell us how you first became interested in BU and what steps you have taken to learn more about us.
I'm not sure I can adequately describe just how many responses the BU admissions committee is likely to read that are some version of,
"I first became interested in Boston University when I read about it in a college guidebook. The combination of great academics in large city seemed like the perfect combination for me. The more I researched the school, the more I liked it. I also visited the campus last summer."
AtCollegewise, we teach our students a concept we call "Own your story." To own your story means that you've written something that nobody else applying to college could have written (or at the very least, that thousands of other kids would absolutely not have written).
The person who wrote the response above doesn't own that story. Any kid applying to Boston University could have written it. Believe me, a lot of them will. And they'll torture the admissions committee because of it.
But compare that response to this one:
"In April of my junior year, my high school counselor told me, "Kevin, you're an interesting kid. Why are you applying to such uninteresting colleges? I asked her what she thought would be a good choice for me, and the first school she named was Boston University. I've visited your website obsessively, probably once a day at least for the last six months. I've read about all the classes I would take as a communications major. And last summer, I took a three-hour road trip with my friend in my '93 Corolla just so we could take a tour of BU."
The chances that another student will write an identical response are zero. This student owns his story. So the most important thing you need to do in this response, even though it's only 5-6 sentences long, is to own your story. Be very specific. Whether you read a guidebook or talked to your friends or visited the school or went to a college fair, share the details about how you learned and followed up with BU, and do so in a way that no other applicant will be able to do.
What about the long essay?
Here's the prompt:
This section of the application gives you an opportunity to present yourself in a way that grades and test scores cannot. The Board of Admissions uses your essay to determine your ability to organize thoughts and express yourself clearly. Accordingly, we ask that you prepare this work entirely on your own.
In an essay of no more than 500 words, please select three words that describe you best and tell us how you will use these qualities/characteristics to contribute fully to the BU community.
A lot of students are going to pick three words that make them sound impressive, like "diligent," "determined" and "trustworthy" and then struggle to fill the rest of the essay with descriptions of how they'll use these traits in college. That's hard to do, because they didn't pick words that actually described themselves; they just picked words that sounded good. So they don't necessarily have any stories to relate that show these traits in action (or if they do, it's what the admissions committee knows already, like, "I am very committed to my academics").
There are no right or wrong answers to this question. The three words are just a vehicle for you to share more about yourself and help the admissions committee get to know you better. The best way to tackle this question is to work backwards. Don't even think about the three words just yet. Instead, think about how you will contribute to the BU community.
"Contributing" to a college community means participating, engaging, doing more than just going to class and then sitting in your room playing video games. So think about what kind of college kid you expect yourself to be. How do you envision yourself spending your time in and out of class? What parts of college are you most excited about?
When you ask yourself those questions, you'll start to get a picture of yourself in college. For example, you might envision,
"I'm excited to finally start learning more about writing. I've been saying forever that I like to write, but in college I'm going to actually have professors teach me how to be great at it. I can't wait for that to happen." Or…
"My favorite times in high school have been Friday nights playing acoustic guitar with my friends. I really hope I get to do that a lot in college. I'm going to set a goal for myself to find other musicians whose idea of a good time is to stay up late, teach each other songs, and enjoy making music together." Or…
"I can't remember the last time I wasn't on an athletic team. And while I'm never going to be a good enough baseball player to play at the college level, one of the things I'm really excited about is to play a lot of different sports and to have some of them just be purely for fun, like pick-up basketball games, or co-ed intramural volleyball, or even just a weekend softball game with my friends. I might even try broom ball. I like the camaraderie of playing sports with friends and I think that's how I'll be spending a lot of my time in college."
Contributing in college means becoming an engaged member of the campus community. So, that's step one. Think about how you'll make those contributions.
Now, take the next step backwards and think about your experiences in these areas so far. What stories do you have that illustrate yourself doing these things, or exemplifying these traits? Be specific and own the stories. Review your answers and ask yourself which ones really make up who you are. The writer, musician and athlete above make it pretty clear that they're going to find some way to do these things wherever they are, and that they spent a lot of time doing these things in high school. Those stories are part of who they are, and they are the types of examples you should be looking for in your own life.
This is important, because the prompt specifically asks for three words that "best describe you." It's not always clear what words best describe you, but if you sometimes like to write, or just occasionally strum a guitar, or play basketball with your brother every now and then, those aren't necessarily experiences that are defining for you, and the associated words probably aren't good choices.
Now, you've identified how you'll contribute, and you've found some stories from your current life that illustrate those themes. So now, ask yourself what three words you could use to sum these experiences or traits up. For example, our sample applicants above could be "communicative," "musical" and "athletic." Do an honesty check when you pick the words. If "musical" isn't really a word you would use to define yourself, is this experience or trait really an important part of who you are? If it isn't, pick a different story. And if it is, just pick a different word.
The best college essays start with a lot of thought, not so much about what would sound good, but rather, about what you'd really like to say. Start there with these essays, and you'll be submitting a much stronger application to BU.
Note: Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides
And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store. We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you. Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.
Filed Under: Advice for specific colleges
Harvard is up. MIT is up. Northeastern is up. UMass Amherst is up. Boston University is up. But at Boston College, the number of applications received for its incoming freshman class is down. And that’s just the way the school wants it.
BC saw its applications decline by 26 percent after it made a strategic effort to raise admissions requirements. The school added a supplementary essay to its application, university officials said, with a goal of attracting more serious students and deterring less interested ones from applying.
“This was a deliberate move on our part,” said John Mahoney, the director of undergraduate admission for BC, who explained that the new supplementary essay helps the university make more informed choices about which students to accept. “We’re trying to make good decisions.”
In 2012, 34,061 students applied to BC; this year, the number dropped to about 25,000. The college admits about 2,270 to its freshman class.
Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here
High school counselors and education observers say the less-is-more approach by BC and other schools reflects a growing trend as colleges confront an applications “arms race.”
Some high school seniors now apply to a dozen or even two dozen colleges. And with one year at some top colleges surpassing $50,000, students, parents, and educators are keenly aware of the admissions process and the stature of various colleges, often summed up in national college rankings published by magazines and other publications.
Mahoney said he does not think a smaller applicant pool will affect BC’s standing in national college rankings, because the rankings tend to focus on selectivity.
But David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, wasn’t so sure, and said BC’s showing in popular lists like the U.S. News & World Report ranking could suffer, though he thinks a drastic change is improbable.
He also said that BC now has a pool of applicants who are more likely to attend if they are accepted, meaning the school could accept fewer students than in years past and still retain a good-sized freshman class.
“They may have actually found a way to improve their statistics,” he said.
And BC is not alone with its strategy.
Kevin McMullin, president of Collegewise, an organization that helps students apply to college, said some other colleges are adding challenging essay questions to weed out those who are applying not because they sincerely want to attend, but because it is their backup, or a so-called “safety school’.’ Even if they got in, it is unlikely they would attend unless they had no alternative.
For example, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles recently added an essay, McMullin said, and “it stopped a lot of kids from tossing in an application.”
Universities, of course, have no way of knowing which students are serious about attending and which are not. In some cases, admissions offices have to accept a substantial amount of students and hope that only a small portion will enroll.
“It’s like sending out 5,000 save the dates for a wedding when you only have 100 spots,” McMullin said.
Brad MacGowan, director for the College and Career Center at Newton North High School, said some students and their parents now think of applying to college as if they are playing the lottery: the more applications the student submits, the better chance he or she has of being accepted into a good university.
MacGowan said he suggests his students apply to eight to 10 schools, though he has seen students apply to as many as 25 to 30. At a certain point, the process becomes too expensive and time consuming, he said.
“I definitely don’t subscribe to the more-is-better theory,” he said.
Among area schools that saw an increase in applications this year, Boston University reported a 20 percent jump in applications after it dropped two requirements — a second supplemental essay and the SAT Subject Tests.
Among other local colleges:
ª A record 35,022 students applied to Harvard, a 2 percent increase from the previous year.
ª Applications to Northeastern University increased 7 percent, to 47,321.
ª The Massachusetts Institute of Technology saw a 5 percent increase, to 18,989.
ª Numbers also rose at the state’s public flagship, UMass Amherst, where figures show that more than 36,000 have applied, a 5 percent increase.
At BC, the number of applicants had become overwhelming since the birth of electronic applications in the 1990s, Mahoney said. From 2004 to 2012, BC’s applicant pool grew by 52 percent.
Mahoney said that in 2009, he and other admissions officials began discussing how they could make the application more challenging and draw students who truly were serious about attending if they were accepted. After consulting focus groups, the admissions department chose to add an essay.
This year, applicants were asked to choose one of four questions and write a response of no more than 400 words.
One of the questions was as follows: “In his novel, ‘Let the Great World Spin,’ Colum McCann writes: ‘We seldom know what we’re hearing when we hear something for the first time, but one thing is certain: we hear it as we will never hear it again. We return to the moment to experience it, I suppose, but we can never really find it, only its memory, the faintest imprint of what it really was, what it meant.’ ”
Students were asked to “tell us about something you heard or experienced for the first time and how the years since have affected your perception of that moment.”
The application picture at Boston University has been markedly different.
Last year, BU received 44,006 applications for 3,900 spots. This year, the number rose to 52,691 applicants for 3,800 spots.
Kelly Walter, associate vice president and executive director of admissions at BU, cites the university’s strengthening academic reputation as one key reason for the surge. She said BU has also intensified its recruiting efforts and is hosting more student visits.
One year after BU added a second essay to its application supplement, the college dropped it this year, finding that many essay answers lacked originality. “The responses, sadly, were very generic,” Walter said.
BU also eliminated the requirement for SAT Subject Tests, she said, because standardized testing can be a barrier for many students, particularly those from other countries. With the changes, BU admission officials had expected an increase, but not one quite so large.
“We did not have a goal of increasing our applicant pool — not by 20 percent,” Walter said. “This certainly surprised all of us.”Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@