In this issue:
- Applying to US colleges for entry in 2021 (class of 2025) – an outline of the two main application platforms.
- Differences between the US and UK university application systems.
- Introduction to the Personal Essay and a full list of 2020/21 essay titles for the Common App and the Coalition for College – plus guidelines on how to answer them.
Applying to US colleges for entry in 2021? Start your application now!!
Online application forms to US colleges went live on 1st August, so if you are at the end of Year 12 (England & Wales), S5 (Scotland), or Year 13 (N. Ireland) and intend to apply to US colleges for entry in 2021, you should now register at one of the application websites and put together as much of your application material as possible over the summer. If you intend to take a gap year, it is easier to apply this year, at the same time as your peers, and then defer entry for one year if you are offered a place.
Here is a summary of the main application methods.
1. Common Application Form (Common App)
The Common App is used by nearly 900 institutions, including some outside the US, so most applicants are likely to use this method.
Useful information and advice for students and teachers about completing the Common App form is contained in the Common App Ready Toolkit, described as: ‘…a complete toolkit of tips and best practices designed to help your students complete their applications successfully and on time.’
Scroll down the Common App Ready webpage for links to a number of PDFs that give further information about applying, including:
- What is the Common App?
- Common App for international applicants
Preparing your application
- Gathering materials
- College requirements
- Details of your school
- Understanding the testing section in the Common App
Telling your story
- Approaching the activities section
Working with recommenders and advisors
- Understanding the recommendation process
- Parent brag sheet (parents’ questionnaire to help their child’s teachers write letters of recommendation)
- Counselor¹ brag sheet (students’ questionnaire to help their counselor¹ write letters of recommendation)
- Teacher² brag sheet (students’ questionnaire to help their teachers² write letters of recommendation)
¹ The nearest UK equivalent to the ‘counselor’ is your Head of Sixth Form or teacher in charge of university applications. This person will write your main character reference.
² This refers to the two teachers who will write your academic references. They would normally teach you for two of your A Levels, IBs or Scottish Highers.
Paying for college
- Understanding application fees and fee waivers
- Understanding your financial aid offer
Around 75% of Common App member colleges will also want you to complete their own supplements, which all require short pieces of writing in addition to the personal essay in the main Common App. The supplements will be unique for each individual university and are located within the ‘My Colleges’ section of the form. You may wish to check the supplement section for each college you’re applying to, and consider all of the essays and the personal essay together to ensure you are not repeating yourself and that the various pieces of writing complement each other.
For a useful outline of the 7 parts of the Common App, see the Khan Academy Common Application Walkthrough.
Note that this year, the Common App has an additional (optional) question for students affected by COVID-19 under the ‘Additional Information’ section of the form:
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
2. The Coalition for College
The Coalition for College was launched four years ago with the purpose of making the US college application system more accessible to students with modest means, particularly those whose high schools are unfamiliar with the application process. It currently has approximately 150 member colleges, including most of the Ivy League schools, Stanford and the University of Chicago.
The student area, called MyCoalition, consists of a set of online college planning tools arranged in four digital areas:
The Locker is a private, digital space where students may collect and organise examples of their work to build up their US college application portfolio. It provides unlimited online storage for resources and materials relevant to the student’s application, such as essays, artwork, videos, class projects, extracurricular activities, awards and letters of support from instructors, coaches, or supervisors. The contents of the Locker are confidential and can only be accessed by the student. Students may use the Locker from US 9th grade onwards, which is Year 10 (England & Wales), S3 (Scotland), and Year 11 (N. Ireland).
The Collaboration Space is a virtual area in which you can connect with trusted adults, teachers and family members and ask for their input on your college preparations. This is how it works: the student firstly emails the mentor requesting their input. The email will connect the mentor with the Collaboration Space, which will contain the items the student wishes to share. After reviewing the items, the mentor can provide comments for the student, who will receive a numbered notification in the items box indicating that feedback is ready. When the student opens the item, the mentor’s comments will appear in a side bar. Mentors are permitted to comment on, but not to make changes to any shared item. When students are finally ready to complete their application, they may choose which materials to transfer from the Locker to the Coalition Application.
The Coalition Application is the form used to apply to any of the Coalition member colleges. Note that this year, the Coalition Application has an additional (optional) question for students affected by COVID-19:
Natural disasters and emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the lives of many students and their families. While entirely optional, you may share information here regarding how any of these events have affected you or your family circumstances.
MyCoalition Counselor provides free online articles and advice to help you with your application.
A major difference between the Coalition and the Common App is that students may still use the Locker to store their work even if they will be applying via the Common App. Hence the Coalition may be used alongside the Common App as well as an application platform in its own right. The Coalition platform and tools are free to use for students, parents and teachers, as member colleges provide the necessary resources to support its operation.
Click here to create your MyCoalition account.
Some colleges, including Harvard, accept both the main application methods; some accept only one of them; and some have their own individual application forms. Therefore an important factor in your preparation is to find out which application methods are accepted by the colleges on your shortlist.
Differences between US and UK university application systems
Both of the main US application methods differ from the UK’s UCAS system in the following ways:
- You send your US application directly to the American colleges to which you are applying, whereas you have to forward your completed UCAS form to your school before it is submitted.
- In the US system you apply to the college as a whole, not to a specific department, so your application will be assessed by the undergraduate admissions office, not by departmental tutors.
- You can apply to a maximum of five UK universities through UCAS, but there is no limit to the number of US colleges to which you can apply, and you may apply to both the US and UK systems at the same time. (Please bear in mind that US colleges with Early Action or Early Decision plans will have restrictions on the number of schools to which you may apply early. For an explanation of the meaning of Early Action, see the October 2019 newsletter).
- If you are applying to Oxford or Cambridge, you can apply to one or the other, but not both, whereas in the US you can apply to as many top colleges as you wish.
- About 75% of the colleges that use the two US application methods also require you to fill out a supplementary form, whereas British universities do not usually require additional material.
- Offers of admission to US colleges are not conditional on attaining specific grades or scores in your final A-Level or IB exams – but be warned! there is still an expectation that you will achieve grades roughly in line with those predicted, or your offer of admission may be withdrawn.
The personal essay
Most students find that the personal essay (equivalent to the UCAS Personal Statement) is the most challenging and time consuming part of the US college application process.
The essay topics that are being used this year by both application platforms are given below. You will notice that all the topics prompt you to talk about yourself. This is a fundamental difference with the UCAS Personal Statement, which asks you to explain why you are well prepared to follow a particular course of study. But when you apply to a US college, it is not to study a specific subject, and for the first 18 months you will have the opportunity to explore many different topics before deciding on your ‘major’ (sometimes known as a ‘concentration’, or main area of study). So the purpose of the personal essay is to enable Admissions Officers to find out what you are like as a person: your ambitions, interests, opinions, achievements and challenges.
The suitability of the various essay topics to your particular story will be one of the factors that will help you decide which of the application platforms to use. You should try to identify a prompt that will enable you to describe your unique qualities as an individual – something that will set you apart from other candidates. Then plan the structure of the essay and write several drafts. There is a plethora of online material to help you – simply type ‘US college admission essays’ into your search engine.
In addition to the main essay topic, most colleges have supplements in which they require further short essays or memos. Check out what is required by all the colleges on your shortlist before you start writing, as different colleges sometimes ask similar supplementary questions, enabling you to adapt the same answers.
Common App personal essay
The Common App essay titles for 2020-21 are unchanged from 2019-20. The maximum word limit is also unchanged at 650 words.
2020-21 Common App essay prompts
- 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.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
College Essay Advisors website has produced this useful guide on how to answer the 2020-21 Common App essay prompts.
The Coalition for College personal essay
The Coalition essay prompts for 2020-21 are:
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a student now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
The Coalition website states that: “…While there is no perfect length for an essay, we recommend that you aim for 500-550 words…”
College Essay Advisors website has produced this useful guide to the 2020-21 Coalition application essay prompts.