By Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman

No subject is more fraught with anxiety for the high school senior than the essay on the college application. Whether it is as bizarre as the University of Chicago’s “How do you feel about Wednesday?”; University of Pennsylvania’s “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.”; or Tufts University’s “Are We Alone?”—or whether it is a more mundane question about a formative experience you’ve had in your life, or about some controversial social or political issue, students tremble at the very thought of writing the essay and being judged on it.

We wondered what tips could be offered to ease the pain. For advice, we turned to visiting blogger Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, who before that was the senior associate director of admissions (and humanities instructor) at Stanford University.

He should know; he’s been on both sides of the high school/college door. Here are his 10 best tips.

  1. . Be concise. Even though the Common Application main essay has only a suggested minimum of 250 words, and no upper limit, every admissions officer has a big stack to read every day; he or she expects to spend only a couple of minutes on the essay. If you go over 700 words, you are straining their patience, which no one should want to do.
  2. Be honest. Don’t embellish your achievements, titles, and offices. It’s just fine to be the copy editor of the newspaper or the treasurer of the Green Club, instead of the president. Not everyone has to be the star at everything. You will feel better if you don’t strain to inflate yourself.
  3. Be an individual. In writing the essay, ask yourself, “How can I distinguish myself from those thousands of others applying to College X whom I don’t know—and even the ones I do know?” It’s not in your activities or interests. If you’re going straight from high school to college, you’re just a teenager, doing teenage things. It is your mind and how it works that are distinctive. How do you think? Sure, that’s hard to explain, but that’s the key to the whole exercise.
  4. Be coherent. Obviously, you don’t want to babble, but I mean write about just one subject at a time. Don’t try to cover everything in an essay. Doing so can make you sound busy, but at the same time, scattered and superficial. The whole application is a series of snapshots of what you do. It is inevitably incomplete. The colleges expect this. Go along with them.Be coherent. Obviously, you don’t want to babble, but I mean write about just one subject at a time. Don’t try to cover everything in an essay. Doing so can make you sound busy, but at the same time, scattered and superficial. The whole application is a series of snapshots of what you do. It is inevitably incomplete. The colleges expect this. Go along with them.
  5. Be accurate. I don’t mean just use spell check (that goes without saying). Attend to the other mechanics of good writing, including conventional punctuation in the use of commas, semi-colons, etc. If you are writing about Dickens, don’t say he wrote Wuthering Heights. If you write about Nietzsche, spell his name right.
  6. . Be vivid. A good essay is often compared to a story: In many cases it’s an anecdote of an important moment. Provide some details to help the reader see the setting. Use the names (or invent them) for the other people in the story, including your brother, teacher, or coach. This makes it all more human and humane. It also shows the reader that you are thinking about his or her appreciation of your writing, which is something you’ll surely want to do.
  7. Be likable. Colleges see themselves as communities, where people have to get along with others, in dorms, classes, etc. Are you someone they would like to have dinner with, hang out with, have in a discussion section? Think, “How can I communicate this without just standing up and saying it, which is corny.” Subtlety is good.
  8. Be cautious in your use of humor. You never know how someone you don’t know is going to respond to you, especially if you offer something humorous. Humor is always in the eye of the beholder. Be funny only if you think you have to. Then think again.
  9. . Be controversial (if you can). So many kids write bland essays that don’t take a stand on anything. It is fine to write about politics, religion, something serious, as long as you are balanced and thoughtful. Don’t pretend you have the final truth. And don’t just get up on your soapbox and spout off on a sensitive subject; instead, give reasons and arguments for your view and consider other perspectives (if appropriate). Colleges are places for the discussion of ideas, and admissions officers look for diversity of mind.
  10. . Be smart. Colleges are intellectual places, a fact they almost always keep a secret when they talk about their dorms, climbing walls, and how many sports you can play. It is helpful to show your intellectual vitality. What turns your mind on? This is not the same thing as declaring an intended major; what matters is why that subject interests you.

by Katie Lobosco, CNNMoney (New York)

You know things need to change when the most elite colleges in the country feel compelled to “reduce achievement pressure” on American high-schoolers.

Harvard University released a report Wednesday that outlines how colleges should revamp the admissions process to do three things: take the pressure down a notch, level the playing field for students across races and incomes, and promote concern for the common good. It’s endorsed by 85 top institutions.

The report says that the college admissions process is contributing to a societal problem by appearing to focus more on personal success rather than concern for others and the public good.

It recommends that colleges change their recruiting strategies, rewrite essay questions, and make standardized tests optional. As a result, Yale has committed to add a question to its application that asks students to reflect on the contribution they’ve made to their family, community, or the public good.

“We don’t want students who do things just because they think they have to in order to get into a good college,” said Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The report also outlines how a student can meet this new definition of achievement — without stressing out.

Avoid a 'brag sheet.'

Don’t feel pressure to list more than two or three extracurricular activities.

Forget the service trip abroad.

Admissions offices should not be impressed with “high-profile or exotic forms of community service” that have “little meaning” to the applicant, the report said.

Tackle a community problem.

Work with a group to clean up a local park or address bullying at school.

Volunteer with a diverse group of people.

Deepen your appreciation for diversity by working with students that don’t look like you, rather than for them.

Help out your own family.

Caring for a younger sibling or finding a job to help bring in additional income for your family should be valued more than “stints” of service, the report says.

Don't overload on AP courses.

Students should not be penalized from taking fewer advanced placement courses. Some people benefit more by taking one or two.

Remember, Harvard isn't the only 'good' college.

Be more concerned about whether a college is a good fit, rather than a perceived elite status.

by Heather Long, CNNMoney (New York)

Harold Ekeh scored the home run of college admissions.

He was accepted by every Ivy League school this year as well as MIT and Johns Hopkins. The 17-year-old from Long Island, New York starts at Yale University at the end of August with plans to major in molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

These days he’s chatting on Facebook (FB, Tech30) with his college roommate, sleeping in and walking around the house in his new hiking boots for a Yale camping trip. Ekeh also answers lots of queries from people around the country that go something like this:

How did you do it? Can you help me? Can you help my nephew?

So Ekeh published an e-book entitled “Hacking College Admissions” with Victor Agbafe, a teen from North Carolina who also got into all the Ivies. Agbafe will be a freshman at Harvard this fall.

“People ask me all the time: ‘how did you do it?’ I wanted to be able to provide a more substantial answer,” Ekeh told CNNMoney.

They partnered with the Frog Tutoring company. For every book sold, they are donating one to an underprivileged student.

The biggest tip: Start early. Literally. Both men would begin their days by 5 a.m. during their senior year in order to get more work done.

“I have a ‘do it now’ mindset,” says Ekeh.

He is mentoring other students from his public high school and the biggest mistake he sees is that people procrastinate — whether it’s delaying studying for a test or waiting too long to start writing their college essays.

The two Ivy Leaguers also stress that you have to start getting serious in middle school. Take more and more advanced courses as early as possible. And start applying for scholarships in your junior year — or even earlier.

Want more tips? Here are the top 5 from what Ekeh shared with CNNMoney along with those from the book.

1. If you haven't started your college essay already, you're behind.

Ekeh’s largest regret in his own process was that he didn’t really get going on his essays until October. He wished he had started in August. Even just jotting down notes can make it easier. A lot of times it’s just about getting that great first line that really makes the essay flow. Ekeh started his essay by describing the moment his mother told the family that they were moving from Nigeria to America. He was 8 at the time.

2. Prepare not to sleep a lot your senior year.

Ekeh and Agbafe describe days that would start by 5 a.m. and end around midnight. Between school, clubs, homework, athletics and family dinner, there isn’t much time for college applications. That’s why you have to start earlier. Ekeh says stop hitting the snooze button. The key is getting up right away and walking around the house — or even outside — for a few minutes to get the blood flowing.

3. Don't just Google colleges. Visit them.

A lot of schools ask applicants: Why Yale? Why Harvard? Why us? It’s a lot easier to answer that if you’ve been to the college campus. Ekeh wishes he had realized sooner that many universities will give low-income students aid to visit their campuses. They know it’s a financial burden to get there. But if you email a school and say you are really interested, they often do what they can to make it happen. Take the initiative. It helps you decide — and makes your application stronger.

4. Do at least 1 extracurricular that isn't obvious.

Ekeh wants to be a neurosurgeon. Most of his after-school activities focused on science and research, but one of his most life-changing experiences in high school was joining Model United Nations. He learned to become a better researcher and public speaker, and he participated at a Model UN conference at Yale University, which led him to apply there and connect with current Yale students who became his mentors. While being focused in high school is good, taking some risks in your activities often makes you stand out.

5. Seek help. Many college students are willing to mentor you.

There are over 65 million Americans now with a college degree (about 30% of U.S. adults). While the college application process can seem daunting, many people have done it before. Find them. Connect with them. Ask for help. Ekeh reached out to current Yale students and former alumni of his high school who had been accepted to top schools. He asked them to read his essays and give him feedback. Now he is trying to help others. Many colleges also have Facebook pages for applicants where current students offer to help, even if you don’t know them.