college application essay

College Application Essays:
One Piece
Of the Admissions Puzzle


This is the time of year many high school juniors start to get serious about their college admissions strategy–including their college application essays.

Some have been all over the admissions game for years. Most are just now shifting into high gear. And a few need to start tuning in.

My focus is on helping students learn to write effective college application essays. But these dreaded essays are only a part of the process.

Check Out the Whole College Application Puzzle First

I recently read a post by a college admissions counselor from Texas who put together what I thought was a complete yet simplified roadmap of what to expect, and where to focus your energy.

His name is Shane Bybee, of Bybee College Prep, and he not only helps guides students through the process, but is a former teacher with some writing experience. (His blog is loaded with more great advice and tips.)

The idea is that if you know what to anticipate through your application journey, you can see how all you need to do is take one step at a time.

Before you know it, you will land in a terrific college or university without all the anxiety and stress that this process is notorious for.

college application essay


Here’s Shane’s guest post on
What Goes Into Your College Application Portfolio:

As students work through preparing their college applications, one of the things they miss is looking at the portfolio as a whole. The entire process is a little like working on a jigsaw puzzle. You can solve the puzzle by focusing on how each piece fits with the one right beside it, but if you back out a little bit and focus on the whole thing, you see an entirely different picture.

In terms of applying to college, an applicant’s portfolio is going to be made several key pieces of information that every college asks for. In order of importance, they are:

  1. Transcript
  2. Test scores
  3. Essays
  4. Recommendations
  5. The college resume
  6. Interviews
  7. The application itself

Each of these are a component of what you might think of as “the application.”

Keep in mind that admissions boards, especially at selective schools, are looking more for reasons to say “no” than they are to say “yes.”

An organized and planned college portfolio can keep you out of the “no” pile.

The individual parts are discussed briefly below. You can click the subtitle for a more thorough analysis of each one of the items.


The transcript is probably the single most important part of the application. Since grades are an excellent predictor of college portfolio-clipart-portfoliosuccess, the transcript provides the university with a narrative your academic performance over the years.

While grade point average and class rank can be important, they’re also interested in the difficulty of the classes you took as well as the general trajectory of your grades.

Test scores

The prominence of test scores gives the misperception that they’re the magic ingredient themselves.

They’re a great shorthand. Students with high scores are generally pretty smart, but the scores don’t tell much of a story after that. Instead, they give admissions boards a view into what the transcript means.

The story they will say “no” to is the student with high test scores and low grades, especially if the grades are in regular classes.

The same study that demonstrated how well grades predict college success pointed out that this is the scenario where test scores are the most helpful. About 80% of these students will fail to finish college.


Every school is going to require at least one essay.

Most schools will require two or three, and some will go crazy with 15 or so (I’m talking to you, USC). The essays will range in length from extremely short (100 words like the “Why Yale” essay) to the longer 650-word Common App essay.

Some will define the length by the number of characters they’ll allow. The ApplyTexas essays are typically around 500 words.

The instructions say you have 120 lines of 80 characters each, but a 9600-character essay is extremely long. For comparison’s sake, this post is about 1100 words and 6500 characters. 9600 characters is more space than just about any student will use.

Letters of recommendation

Most schools are going to ask for letters of recommendation from 2 teachers and your counselor.

In some cases, you might be able to replace one of the teachers with a boss or job supervisor. No matter who you choose, you want to make sure they are able to speak specifically about your abilities.

This is more than a letter of reference talking about your reliability or congeniality. The best letters specifically reference work your did or projects you completed.

The teacher usually needs to be in a core subject and often one you worked with your junior year. You can go back to sophomore year, but beyond that is too far.

It’s also great if you can ask teachers from subjects related to your planned major. If you want to study engineering, math and physics teachers will be great options.

English teachers can often speak to your creative ability and work ethic.

The college resume

The college resume serves two purposes.

Some schools do ask for it, and it’s a great place to record activities that aren’t going toresume-clipart-gg57215963 show up on the transcript like community service or extra-curricular organizations.

It can also highlight awards you’ve received. The other purpose is a point of reference for the people providing you letters of recommendation.

It’s a great way to give them ideas of things they can talk about specifically in their letters, so you should always offer a copy of your resume when asking someone to write a recommendation.


While they’ve become less  frequent, many schools do still use interviews to evaluate applicants.

The reality is that the interview probably isn’t going to be the thing that puts you over the top or tank your chances, although it could. Most schools actually use the interviews as a way to stay in contact with their alumni.

The person sitting across from you or talking to you on the phone is likely a successful professional with experience evaluate applicants in some way or another.

They might have experience hiring people in their own professions, but they don’t really have the insight into what the university is looking for in this particular freshman class.

The interview is more likely to affirm what the other items in the portfolio have indicated about you.

The application

The application itself isn’t going to hurt or help your chances beyond the demographic information it provides.

I won’t go into the murky waters of universities trying to diversify the ethnicity of their student bodies. Sure, they’re going to find that information here and use it if they have a policy that requires them to.

You don’t have any control over that. It’s a lot more difficult to polish up your heritage than it is to edit your essays.

The thing about the applications is that they can be tediously time consuming.

About 600 schools use The Common App, which allows you to enter the demographic information once and saves it for all the schools. Texas has ApplyTexas which allows you to apply to just about every university in the state, but you have to reenter all of the demographic information every time.

The University of California system has it’s own online application, and some schools, like Baylor, have their individual process.

The information is usually pretty repetitive, but it still requires navigating a number of pages. You’ll need to allow more time than you think to this part of the process.

Putting it all together

Taking some time to put all of the parts of the portfolio together provides you with an advantage over many of the other applicants.

It can also allow you to tell your story to the admissions board the way you want it told.

Bringing all of these pieces into one application and submitting it effectively can be the key to presenting yourself as the sort of student that fits that university.