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The Rochester Institute of Technology, which I will attend for Computing Security in August (photo by RIT).

My College Application Essays (and tips!)

tudent essays are one of the most important inclusions in a college application, and they are even more so today as many colleges choose to forgo the traditional standardized test scores in lieu of options that allow students an opportunity to express their individuality and work ethic via alternative methods. I began applying to universities in October 2016, and while my goals and experiences may be different than yours, having a range of opinions on this essential topic is always good for prospective students. Here I will share my college application essays and the tips that I received while writing them.

Before I begin, a word of warning: Plagiarizing essays (especially college applications!) will get you nowhere and is incredibly easy to detect. Besides, my essays almost certainly won’t apply to you as everyone who chooses to attend a university almost always has a unique, specific goal that can’t be reflected by an essay copied off the internet. I’m doing this to help you learn and write the best application you can, not to give you a shortcut!

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The Common Application, the best way to apply to college

How I applied

I applied to two different universities using the Common Application, which is exactly what it sounds like: a single application for the most commonly requested parts of a college admissions package in a single form, which can be sent to any supporting universities for a small fee each. The Common Application is a godsend to busy students and an incredible time saver because it has a single prompt for your application essay, and you can find many excellent sample responses to this prompt all across the internet (some even from the colleges themselves demonstrating the types of students they are interested in accepting)! However, that doesn’t mean that your application isn’t going to be unique: many universities will ask for additional short response questions that are specific to their goals or programs. The days of rushing to find and replace one university’s name on an application essay with another (one that often leads to careless blunders) are no more!

Who I applied to

The two universities and programs I applied to with the Common Application were the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY for Computing Security and Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worchester (pronounced, to my Midwestern understanding, woos-tah), MA for Computer Science. I also applied to Neumont University in Salt Lake City, UT for Computer Science, but it did not use the Common Application.

RIT is a private, nonprofit 4-year university in the Northeast most well known for its strong focus on career education and the co-op program, especially for engineering and the computer sciences. WPI, on the other hand, is a private, nonprofit 4-year university set an hour outside of Boston with an emphasis on mathematics and science education, “theory and practice”, and research. Finally, Neumont University is a private, for-profit (notes on that in a second) college preparing students for careers in the computing industry in only 3 years.

WPI is ranked higher than RIT in US News’ National Universities list and quite a bit higher than Neumont due to a larger endowment, better location, and more rigorous academics, but as we’ll soon see, there is quite a lot to be said about the affordability of each university. All three universities are accredited, and I had visited RIT and WPI prior to the time of this writing.

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College logos in order of my applications: The Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY (left). Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Worchester, MA (center). Neumont University in Salt Lake City, UT (right).

A note on affordability…

I was accepted to all three universities via regular-decision but ended up taking RIT’s offer because it was much less expensive than WPI’s and I found out that as a for-profit college, none of my outside scholarships would apply to Neumont University. (There is a whole internet debate going around about for-profit colleges and potential problems with them that I won’t get into here, but I still believe Neumont is a good option for someone looking to get only career and technical training while undercutting most 4-year programs. The college also does its best to make up for the loss of outside scholarships with additional internal ones.) RIT sealed the deal by having a more specific major in computing security major that I was especially interested in. I might have to do another article about the college decision process and financial aid awards soon!

Now, without further ado, my essays. We’ll begin with the Common Application’s prompt and the response that I wrote, and then follow with a few college-specific short answer questions I was asked.

The Essays

WPI asked an additional question on the Common Application while RIT didn’t. Neumont had an outside application I had to complete with similar questions to those I was asked by the Common Application and WPI.

Common Application

Prompt: “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.”

My response:

Many people have indescribable moments of joy throughout their lives – those moments of excitement, anticipation, and perhaps a bit of nerve-racking uncertainty – before a big ensemble performance, a first trip on an airplane, an interview for a prestigious award, or even in the short moments before buying a new gadget. These have been some of the most exciting, giddy moments in my high school career, but nothing can compare to the day where I bravely left my small bubble of the Nevis sixth grade and marched down the high school hallway to Mr. Uscola’s room.

I had simply meant to return some science equipment for my teacher and then get the heck out of that foreign environment. However, little did I know how teachers conspire; this was not to be my only task once I arrived. I walked into the science room, expecting to find it empty due to a prep hour. Here is where I realized there can be no class in a room, yet it can be full of students, computers, and a variety of tools, metal scraps, and other pointy objects such as angle grinders, which make a very loud noise and scare the heck out of unsuspecting middle school students.

The members of the Nevis FIRST Robotics Competition team – Team 3102 or “Tigers ‘N Tails” (as it was then) were waiting for me before they began their meeting. As soon as I entered and realized this was not the quiet, empty classroom I had intended to find, I made a mad dash for the door. Before I knew it, however, I was swooped up by a very strong arm and stuck awkwardly in a chair between two guys with beards – and they were both freshmen! After listening to a discussion about the program’s future, I was handed something resembling a grey brick with lots of modules and introduced to Shelby Engels, current head programmer for TNT.

This was the beginning of what would become six years of pure joy. Since that day in 2011, our FRC team’s success and influence has grown immensely. With our first award in 2014, a Judges’ Award, two Industrial Safety Awards back-to-back in 2015 and 2016, and an Industrial Design Award in 2016, grant and sponsor money poured in. We became the “Tech-No-Tigers”, a much catchier backronym for our beloved TNT. Later came the launch of tnt3102.org, recognition of Nevis as Northern Minnesota’s first official Kickoff and Week Zero sites, statewide PR campaigns and a presence at events ranging from the local Muskie Days festival to 3M’s Robots Invade the Plaza. Finally, in Finals match 2-2 of STRONGHOLD on March 26th, 2016 the famous “blue banner” proclaiming the winners of the Wisconsin Regional became ours, along with an invitation to the FIRST World Championship in St. Louis, Missouri.

Today, as the head of our public relations and web design, outreach and event management, and programming departments, I am proud to say our team has grown much more outreach-minded, establishing ourselves as one of Minnesota’s leading groups of authorities on FRC and STEM. While we no longer worry about confusing our bearded students with our mentors, we are also now in need of new members willing to develop talents to supplement those we have lost.

TNT has been a major game changer in my life. As a senior and one of the main leaders of the program, I could not be more proud of how far we have come. Today I work with my replacements-in-training to prepare them for their future responsibilities, and I cannot wait to see where they will take the program after I leave to pursue my career. Without experience in FIRST Robotics, I would not have had opportunities to build networks of friends, scholarship opportunities, or explore my future career in technology. My life would not be remotely close to what it is today.

WPI

Prompt: “In what ways are you a good match for WPI’s distinctive educational and campus experience?”

My response:

I believe I am a good match for WPI because I believe I will be given the opportunity to develop my education into what I would like it to be. Unlike other universities, limits won’t be set on what ways I can learn and create. I will be given control of my education and the responsibility for my own success.

While so many colleges pack all freshmen into a lecture hall and expect them to learn by listening to only one person talk, I learn better by solving real problems with groups of people. I have experience working with and leading groups of people due to many classes and extracurricular activities that emphasize learning together – especially Knowledge Bowl and FIRST Robotics.

I also love to travel, and would be excited to have the chance to do my IQP and MQP abroad. While I have travelled the United States to an extent, I have never left the country. I would enjoy the chance to solve problems abroad and be exposed to new places and cultures.

Finally, I feel I would be a good match for WPI due to my involvement in the FIRST Robotics Competition. As an FRC alumnus, I would like to help develop the WPI Library and volunteer at the WPI District Event for 2018.

I would enjoy attending WPI for the personal level of education, project-based learning, opportunities for global immersion, and for the chance to network with other dedicated, like-minded students in my major and across programs to learn and make an impact.

Neumont University

Prompt: “Please describe your passion for and interest in technology. Include any experience you’ve had learning or applying technical skills, or describe why you want to enter a technical field.”

My response:

My interests in technology began to develop when I was five. The CPU fan in my grandparents’ dated Windows 95 Acer desktop ran constantly and was a great annoyance to them. One day, I built up the courage to tell them that I wanted to clean it out. They reluctantly agreed, and this finally gave me the chance to break out my play screwdriver set and disassemble the darn thing. After about three hours it was safe to say that I did have it all apart, but without any idea on how to go about putting it back together again! I did clean the dust out of the fan, though, so my efforts must have counted for something.

Thankfully, the other twelve years of my life have been filled with much more successful technology ventures. I have been employed at my school since the summer of 2012 as an assistant to the IT coordinator. My responsibilities began simply: cloning workstations and running CAT6 cable around the school. Today, however, I have progressed to managing a good majority of our school’s mobile devices, including Surfaces, iPads, and Chromebooks. I have also had my fair share of setting u patch panels, replacing access points, and configuring servers for digital signage, domain group policy, and the like. I am often called upon by staff to serve as the technology support during school as well.

Outside of my regular job, I spend time configuring access points and new computers for local businesses. I also repair PCs, televisions, smartphones, and small electronics for people in my area, and offer services such as data recovery, malware removal, tune-ups, and technology education. Although grueling to a good majority of the population, recovering and protecting data as well as discovering, removing, and preventing malware infections are some of my favorite tasks. When not working, I earn a small income by running a StorJ server, where I am paid in Bitcoin to store others’ files through a peer-to-peer network. Finally, I devote some of my time to test preview versions of Windows and Office as a Microsoft Insider.

When not at work, I am the head of programming and public relations with my FIRST Robotics team, 3102 or “TNT”. My responsibilities include programming robots in NI LabVIEW and Java, maintaining our website (tnt3102.org) and social media accounts, organizing events and maintaining sponsor relations, and editing video. Being in robotics has allowed the development of my communication and public speaking abilities, as well as my ability to work with and direct teams of people. These experiences eventually culminated in my nomination as a Dean’s List Semi-Finalist at this year’s Lake Superior Regional Competition, although I did not progress to become a Finalist. Finally, I love travelling to new places and participating in new experiences with my team, such as winning the 2016 Wisconsin Regional Competition or attending FIRST Championship in St. Louis, Missouri for the first time!

Prompt: “What have you done in the last year to prepare for the rigorous academic programs at Neumont University?”

My response:

During the past year, I have enrolled in college classes through my school’s participation in Minnesota’s College in the High School and Online College initiatives. During my junior year in high school, I took classes such as algebra-based Physics I, Composition I, and 3D CAD (Autodesk Inventor), among others. Now in my senior year, I am currently taking College Algebra, Survey of Calculus, algebra-based Physics II, and Composition II, among other things. I plan to graduate from college with an Associate in Arts degree in early May of 2017, and plan to graduate from high school in late May of 2017.

Outside of school, I am involved in FIRST Robotics. This year, I have been experimenting with Java and wish to program our 2017 robot using the language. Another activity I am involved in is Math League, which gives students the chance to challenge themselves with non-traditional mathematics material and applications outside of the classroom. I have also been inducted into many honor societies recognizing my commitment to high performance in challenging classes, such as National Honor Society and Phi Theta Kappa.

Prompt: “What criteria are you using to select your college/university? Why are these criteria important to you?”

My response:

Most importantly, I want to attend a university that emphasizes learning in areas that are important to me. One of the greatest frustrations that I have had while taking online college classes was that I could not take the classes that I wanted to take. For example, I could not take Intro to Networking Security as my required computer class because it’s course ID did not start with ITEC. Instead, I had to take a class on the Basics of Microsoft Office, which I am very experienced at and learned nothing in. I want a university that will provide me with an education beyond the limitations of normal four-year colleges by working with me to figure out what I want to achieve, and work with me to help me achieve it and go beyond.

I was also frustrated by my online college because they set limits on what they believed I could do, such as not allowing me to take extra classes (which I wanted to do so that I could take the Networking Security class). I want a university that will treat me like the responsible, aware person I am and let me decide what I am capable or not capable of doing.

My motto throughout life has been “The question is not who is going to let me, it is who is going to stop me” (a quote by Ayn Rand). I want a university that will understand this, one that will let me get an education that matters to my future career. I don’t want to have to take classes which teach me the skills I already have or attend a university that limits me from taking the classes that I want to take. I want a university that will challenge me, let me network with others, and make me desirable to employers. After all, the point of pursuing an education is to learn. I don’t want to attend a university that limits that.

I also want a university that puts an emphasis on technology education, a school that has a wide range of technology classes and electives, and that teaches skills that are applicable. I would like to attend a school that encourages students and organizations to network and develop skills. I want to learn things that I can use and apply as soon as possible. However, I also want students and professors who are willing to help each other and work together to encourage understanding and make the classes better.

Finally, I want to get to know people who are as interested in technology as I am. I don’t want to sit in a lecture hall silently and listen to a single person talk. I am looking for a university that encourages collaboration from day one, because those skills are needed in every business.

I also want a school where people appreciate and accept each other, especially if they all are slightly different but united by a love for technology.

Prompt: “Are your high school and/or college grades an accurate reflection of your abilities? Explain your response.”

My response: (the admissions counselor stated they were particularly impressed by this one)

I do not believe that school grades are an accurate representation of anyone’s ability. In no way can a challenging class and all the experiences in it be summed up into a single letter. I believe that the way you apply what you have learned in your classes in your life is an accurate reflection of ability.

I do not believe I took the easy route through high school and college. I challenged myself with classes that I believed would help me later in life, even if they were difficult. Not only do I believe my classes have prepared me to attend college, I can apply the skills learned in classes such as College Algebra, 3D CAD, and Composition in my life. For example, I often am required to apply math and CAD skills while working with my robotics team and while working with technology, and I must apply composition skills while working on college essays and robotics publications. I believe this works in reverse as well and that my real-world experiences are just as important because I will be able to comprehend classes more easily due to my prior experience with technology.

I also believe that hard classes have not only taught me skills found in the textbook. These classes also have let me work with other students, building communication and teamwork skills. These skills will help immensely during large projects and while seeking employment. Since I have challenged myself sufficiently and can apply the skills I have learned, I have developed the ability to communicate and work with others along the way.

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RIT students walk on the Quarter Mile between colleges and dorms

Good luck on your essays!

While college application season certainly won’t start again for another few months, I do wish all future seniors reading this post luck on your essays. This is definitely a time to stand out among your peers and show your dream college or university the unique and interesting work you’ve been doing in high school. Be proactive, know the difference between early action, early decision, and regular decisions, ask questions to students and faculty outside your tour group. Maybe take a chance, even, at a college you don’t think you have a shot at getting into. You never know!

Written by

DFIR, CTFs, disinformation, STEM education, and pretty much anything else that comes to mind. RIT Computing Security ’22. wyatttauber.com

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