How to Tackle College Application Questions

Get advice on whether to list a major and disclose learning disabilities on your college application.

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As the college application season grows nearer, students and their parents are beginning to raise good and important questions relating to their preparations. The following is a sampling of those questions.

I am applying to mostly small Northeast liberal arts schools and plan to major in English (more than 80 percent sure). Is it more beneficial to my chances of gaining admission if I put down "undecided" for my major, or should I declare English? (I have indicated a strong interest and strength in English in my interviews, in a great recommendation by an English teacher, by taking extra English elective courses and AP English, and by working as an editor of my school newspaper).

Liberal arts colleges assume their entering students are, to some degree, undecided and that most will change their minds about majors once enrolled. Your relative uncertainty will be welcome! They are also looking for evidence that candidates might have well-cultivated interests, academic or otherwise. Based on your description of the situation, I see no reason to hide the fact that you have a strong interest in pursuing English as a major. Moreover, I don't see any advantage in applying as "undecided" with regard to your major.

As you pull together your application, the next step is to demonstrate your passion for English as a discipline. In other words, what has drawn you to this particular discipline? How has it influenced you? Where do you see connections between your experiences in your study of English and other perspectives you have developed? Make your interest come to life. It sounds like you already are off to a good start in that regard.

[Find out when you should choose a major.]

When my kid is asked on applications about the other colleges to which she is applying, it makes me anxious. Is she being evaluated in part by where else she's applying? Should she list all the competitors? Should it be left blank?

Your daughter should not feel obligated to provide colleges with any information regarding the other places to which she is applying. The question, whether it comes up in an interview or on an application, serves no constructive purpose. The fact is that admissions officers are often looking for ways to calibrate a student's interest in attending, and they're prone to all kinds of conclusions according to how she responds.

My advice is to leave it blank. This is not information an admissions committee is likely to track down if she doesn't answer the question—and, if it does, she should inquire as to how the information will be used. If a school hassles her on this point, she really needs to ask herself whether she wants to be on that campus.

[Get more information about applying to college.]

About how long should my Common Application essay be?

Generally speaking, short and concise works the best. Keep in mind that admissions officers are prone to acting on first impressions. You don't want them to feel as though they are laboring to get through your prose. The suggested Common Application word count is 500. Try to stay as close to it as possible.

I would suggest three editing techniques that could prove helpful:

1. Develop a topic and, without worrying about length, write a strong draft. Put the draft away for at least two weeks. The hiatus will give you a better perspective on what you wrote and help you in the subsequent editing process.

2. Make a conscious effort to cut your word count on the initial draft by at least 15 percent. Doing so might be painful, but it will help you tighten your presentation.

3. Read your essay out loud. Listen to how it sounds. You will be surprised by the number of small edits you continue to make.

In the end, it matters less that you hit a certain word count (unless a college makes it a requirement) and more that you have developed a compelling essay that someone who doesn't know you will want to read.

[Get more help with college application essays.]

I have a daughter with learning disabilities who has an IEP (Individualized Education Program). She attends an academically rigorous high school and has taken college prep classes (with very few accommodations), instead of opting for the classes through the special education department. She is a hard-working student who I am certain can succeed in college because of her work ethic. However, her GPA is only a 2.6 and her class rank is not upper 50 percent. Her test scores are fairly average. Since her college applications will not disclose her learning disabilities, do you think it is wise to address this in her essay?

I am a firm believer in self-disclosure. In other words, if there are factors that have adversely affected her performance, she needs to make them known. She can do this in an interview and in an essay. It is also important that her counselor and teachers are on the same page as they present her in letters of recommendation.

You can't worry about whether this type of disclosure will hurt her chances of admission. Colleges that value her for what she has to offer will welcome this additional insight—and welcome her, too.

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