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Many of the colleges you’ll apply to will ask you to answer short essay questions of 350 words or fewer in addition to the personal statement you draft. The University of California system, in fact, requires four short essays as opposed to a longer piece of writing.
Despite the smaller length, don’t assume these essays will play a smaller role in helping your admissions officer form her opinion about you. Students who overlook these essays raise questions about how interested they are in the school, how polished their writing actually is, and how much thought went into the application.
Whether you’re the likely valedictorian of your class or just finding your academic footing, your college list will include schools that will be a stretch for you to gain acceptance to. These reach schools are aspirational and help push you to do your best work. And students who approach the application process thoughtfully can vastly improve their chances of being successful even amidst an uber-competitive process.
A lot of attention gets paid to the reach schools on your list, those uber selective places where even the most qualified students have a small percentage chance of gaining admission. We certainly understand and celebrate high ambition. However, smart students construct balanced lists comprised of schools they love across different levels of selectivity.
For any number of great reasons – access to internships and research opportunities, scholarships, etc. — it might make sense for you to choose to attend one of your target or safety schools. It’s crucial that you approach selecting them with the same level of scrutiny and self-awareness that you apply to your reach schools. Then after you’ve been accepted to multiple places, you can make a choice about what’s ultimately the best fit for you.
Students who position themselves best for success in the admissions process begin with a well-crafted, thoughtful college list. Certainly, it’s great to have high aspirations and a plan for how to give yourself the best shot to attain them. But, constructing your college list also requires putting as much thought into schools that will be easier for you to get into that still compel you.
There is a common misconception that safety schools are also ranked at the bottom of your list, but this is only true if where you want to attend college is directly related to the selectivity of a school. And selectivity should not be your number one criterion for where to attend college.