You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.
While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.
“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”
The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:
1. Open with an anecdote.
Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”
Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.
2. Put yourself in the school’s position.
At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.
“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.
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3. Stop trying so hard.
“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”
Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!
Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.
4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness
There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.
On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.
“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.
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5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them
Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.
“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.
6. Read the success stories.
“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”
Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.
Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”
7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.
“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”
The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.
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8. Follow the instructions.
While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.
“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”
9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.
Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”
Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.
At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”
Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University.
admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
The admissions essay helps us get acquainted with you in ways different from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It also enables you to demonstrate your ability to organize thoughts and express yourself. This is a very important part of the admission process and we’ve even put together some helpful essay writing tips below to assist you in answering all of your essay-related questions.
- Why do colleges require essays?
- What role does the essay play in the application process?
- Who will read my essay?
- What kinds of topics do most colleges require?
- Do I have to write about something serious?
- What about a humorous essay?
- Is the essay a good place to discuss my academic record?
- What “original” topics do colleges see with surprising frequency?
- Is there a “right” answer?
- Do I need to stick to the essay length suggested by the college?
- Can I send extra writing samples?
- Can I submit something I’ve already used for a class assignment?
- Can’t I just print an essay off the Internet?
- Who should read my essay before I submit it?
- What are some common pitfalls that students encounter when they write essays?
- Getting started on your essay—what comes first?
1. Why do colleges require essays?
Colleges use essays to try and create a personal snapshot of you unobtainable from other parts of the application. Essays tell what you are passionate about, what motivates you, what challenges you have faced, or who you hope to become. At selective colleges, admission officers also use essays to make sure that you can reason through an argument competently, that you can connect a series of thoughts, and that you can arrive at an organized conclusion.
2. What role does the essay play in the application process?
While an admissions decision does not hinge on the essay, it certainly can influence the decision making process. A strong essay will capture the attention of the admissions committee. An essay with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes may leave a negative impression.
Your essay deserves effort and attention, but keep in mind that it is only a part of the overall application process. The transcript, course selection, test scores, recommendations, activities, interviews, and any other required materials will all play a part in the final admissions decision.
3. Who will read my essay?
At small and/or selective colleges, admissions counselors thoroughly read all required materials that are part of the application. At Lewis & Clark applications are read by at least two people. Your application is first reviewed by the area counselor who will make a recommendation on the application. A second reader will then review the file. If the readers agree, a decision is made. If the readers disagree, the application file goes on to the admissions committee for a final review and decision. As this process unfolds, your essay is read by a diverse group of individuals. While admissions counselors take their jobs seriously, do not feel that you must write a serious essay. Your writing should reflect your voice and your personality. Do keep in mind that admissions committees reflect a wide range of ages, interests, professional experiences, and even senses of humor.
4. What kinds of topics do most colleges require?
It is important that you research the essay requirements for every college on your application list. While many colleges will accept a Common Application essay, some colleges have specific essay topics which must be addressed by every applicant. Since Lewis & Clark uses the Common Application exclusively, please use one of the following essay topics when applying:
- 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.
5. Do I have to write about something serious?
Not necessarily. You should not feel that you have to choose a serious topic in order to have a powerful writing sample. Sometimes simple topics can leave lasting impressions on admissions committees. If you feel that a serious event has defined you as a person, changed your opinion about life, or has affected your academic record it may be worthwhile to make this the subject of your essay.
6. What about a humorous essay?
It is always a pleasure to read a “funny” essay. A unique topic or approach is often refreshing to a college admissions officer who has been reading applications all day. Further, an unusual or off-beat essay is an excellent way to show your creativity. However, you should not attempt to be funny if this is not your natural personality or voice. Your comfort level as a writer is a serious factor in the success of your essay. The more natural you sound the better.
7. Is the essay a good place to discuss my academic record?
The essay can be a good place to explain in more detail any ups or downs on your transcript or a significant experience that has impacted your academics. You can, however, also write a separate letter explaining those circumstances if you’d like to write your essay on another topic.
8. What “original” topics do colleges see with surprising frequency?
Students often write about their mission and/or volunteer trips out of the country, an outdoor experience, the death of a family member or close friend, a sports injury, or travel. While you can write a successful essay about these experiences, make sure you focus on a specific moment and how you have been impacted. Don’t just tell the admissions committee that your values or outlook changed when confronted with a challenge – tell us how you changed as a result of that experience.
9. Is there a “right” answer?
No. Specific questions do not necessarily have specific answers. A good essay will be focused on a clear idea with supporting details. How one admissions counselor reacts to a particular essay may be entirely different from how another admissions counselor, your mom, or your friend might respond to the same essay. One thing we can all agree on is that grammar, spelling, and sentence structure is important. As far as content is concerned, we all have different opinions. What about writing on controversial topics? A controversial topic can be successful, but it must be done sensitively so that a reader with an opposite opinion can relate to your essay.
10. Do I need to stick to the essay length suggested by the college?
The Common Application instructions stipulate that the length of your essay should be between 250 and 650 words. The form will count the number of words entered as you type, and will not allow you to submit the essay if it falls outside the parameters. If your essay is outside the length guidelines, check with colleges to see if you can mail your essay separately – most will tell you that would be acceptable. (Do make sure your names and one other identifying piece of information is on every piece of paper you mail.)
11. Can I send extra writing samples?
Many students feel that creative writing, a graded paper, poetry, or newspaper articles will enhance their application and provide a better picture of their writing ability. Unless the application says otherwise, most colleges will accept additional samples. Colleges know the materials that they need to make an admissions decision, but extra writing samples can be good supplements to those required materials. In most cases we would prefer copies of graded writing assignments.
12. Can I submit something I’ve already used for a class assignment?
A piece of writing that served as my essay on The Great Gatsby will read like “My College Essay on How Much I Love The Great Gatsby.” A paper written for your English class may inspire your college essay—just make sure that it doesn’t feel recycled.
13. Can’t I just print an essay off the Internet?
No way! College admissions officers are pretty savvy people. We read thousands of applications and many admissions professionals are familiar with the content of essays discovered online. If we have a question or a concern about an essay we will request graded writing samples to get a better sense of the student’s writing ability. More than anything, you do not want to put your application in jeopardy. You will be writing a great deal in college—consider your application essay to be good practice.
14. Who should read my essay before I submit it?
Do not rely on technology to proofread your essay! Beyond using your computer’s spelling and grammar check program, it is a good idea to have several “real” people read your essay, too. No matter how many times you read your own writing, or how many times you check your spelling, you may miss small errors because you are so familiar with the essay. If they have time, ask a teacher or counselor to read your essay, as well as a parent and/or a friend. It is important to have several different people with different viewpoints read your work for content, errors, and tone.
Keep in mind that admissions committee members are complete strangers to you, so having your essay reviewed by someone who doesn’t know you well (a friend of a friend, for example) isn’t a bad idea either. Remember, your essay should reflect your voice, so listen to the advice of your reviewers but do not let them re-write your essay.
15. What are some common pitfalls that students encounter when they write essays?
Number one is procrastination. Don’t wait for this to be the last part of the application that you do. Start a draft, work on the rest of the application, and then go back to the essay – as many times as necessary. That’s why you start early.
Too often, students write their college essays as “one huge paragraph.” Your essay should resemble any other academic paper where the rules of grammar and style still apply. Remember the basic rules of writing—avoid excessive use of exclamation points, be careful with commas, don’t use slang, don’t overuse capital letters or abbreviations, etc. Also, don’t rely on a thesaurus. Big words, especially when misused, detract from the essay and make the essay sound contrived.
If you have created your essay in a separate document and have cut-and-pasted it into your online application, please double-check before you click on that submit button. Make sure your entire essay gets pasted, your document has copied correctly, etc. Don’t let glitches detract from the quality of your essay.
16. Getting started on your essay—what comes first?
Follow the practices that have worked for you in writing essays, compositions, and research papers in high school. Once you decide on a topic, you might want to:
- Develop an outline
- Determine the best format to present your message and start with a creative lead
- Prepare a draft using detailed and concrete experiences
- Review and edit the draft for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage
- Share your draft with others
- Rewrite and edit as necessary