Across the country, parents and high school seniors are in the middle of the daunting college application process, especially the much-feared, often misunderstood personal essay portion. How important is the essay section? Enough to potentially make the difference between getting into the school of your choice, or landing on the reject pile. A lousy essay can sink a student with terrific grades and test scores; likewise, a compelling, well-crafted essay just might push a more moderate achiever over the top and into class next fall.
Chances are you're completing the "Common Application" used by more than 500 schools for undergraduate admissions. But whether you are filling out a Common Application, or a university's own entry form, the questions, and the principals of writing powerful answers, largely remain the same. Typically, applicants are asked to write a personal essay, followed by a shorter supplemental essay (often asking why they want to attend that school) and a short-answer essay, usually about one of their personal experiences outside the classroom (work, sports, cultural pursuits, volunteering, etc.). All three are critical: Do not equate word count with importance.
Essay questions are referred to as "prompts," and you should take that meaning literally. They are meant to make you think, reflect, self-analyze and work out in your mind how you feel about a certain topic, and how you want to express those feelings in writing. This year's Common App eliminated the "Topic of Your Choice" option, but extended the maximum word count from 500 to 650. There are five prompts to choose from on the Common App, other schools will vary:
Your personal background story
How you learned from a failure
How you challenged a belief or idea
An ideal place you experienced
An experience that marked your transition to adulthood
Many students have already drafted their essays, but many more have not. In either case, you might want to check out these suggestions from admissions officers I spoke with at five leading schools: UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, NYU, Northeastern, and George Mason University (GMU). Depending on the University, they told me, about 30%, and in some places as high as 50%, of the decision is based on the essay sections.
TAKE YOUR TIME
These will be, perhaps, the most important documents you will have written so far in your life, so don't rush through any part of them. Choosing what prompt to follow, formulating your message, composing a first draft, editing a second draft, and polishing the final product into a compelling read are all important stages of good writing, and they each require their own amount of time. If you hurry through one step, the other steps will not carry the essay, and it will fail.
"Start early, gather as much information as you can, sign up for the mailing list of every college that you're interested in, and visit a few colleges, if possible," advises Garrett Brinker, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at The University of Chicago. "The college application process is long and arduous, so take some time, think deeply, and don't forget to enjoy the process while it lasts,"
Students, and their parents, "should spend some time to consider the application as a whole rather than just the sum of its parts," he adds. "There is no magical formula to a successful college essay. And there are very few ways to write a successful essay unless you have spent a significant amount of time on it. The very best essays come from students who have devoted a significant amount of time to introspection and preparation. It is apparent to us when a student has spent only a couple hours on an essay."
If you are completing the General App, think over the main essay's five options very carefully before deciding which one to tackle. If there is nothing particularly exceptional about your personal background, choose another prompt. If the failure that you learned from paints you in an unflattering light, that's not the prompt for you. Whatever the topic, be sure to relate it back to you as an individual, and how that person, place or thing affected you and made you the type of student this school would want to attract.
Be sure to keep your topic, well, topical, and within the bounds of reasonable discourse. "While I don't believe there are any essay topics that are inherently bad, it is important for the student to keep in mind that they don't know who will be reading their essay," says Liz Cheron, Associate Director for Admissions at Northeastern University. "If they choose something obscure or related to pop culture, they should make sure to give enough context for a reader who may not be familiar with the topic," she adds. "If they choose to write about something controversial, they should take an educated stand, rather than what could be seen as an offensive stand." Remember, extreme views, about politics or religion, especially, are probably unwelcome at most schools.
It's critical, as well, to stay focused, even if you are trying to say a lot. "There are multiple different avenues you can take. Some essays might be about one topic or event or person, while others weave a compelling story about multiple things," according to Shawn Abbott, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Admissions at New York University. But, he warns, "The only danger is that the essay is going to be read by admission officers, each with a potentially different expectation for that essay. And they are going to read the application and essay at a relatively rapid rate, so you risk losing the attention of the committee if you try to accomplish too much with one writing sample. It is one writing sample. You're not expected to tell us about every experience in your life."
THIS IS NOT A RESUME
"If the admissions essay were meant for applicants to list all their awards and qualifications, it would be called a resume," says Northeastern's Cheron. "The essay is more of an opportunity for the applicant to share their character, unique passions and interests, and meaningful experiences."
NYU's Abbott concurs. "The biggest mistake is simply to rehash your resume. It's lazy and not creative," he says. "There's ample amount of real estate on any application for you to talk about your resume-like experiences in other sections. The essay is your forum to tell an admissions officer and committee a story." But you have few words, so use them to "talk about you as person and the life experiences you've had."
Abbott adds, if your resume is largely focused on one thing (sports, business, politics, etc.) you might want to consider another subject to write about. "If you have been published as a writer, that stands on its own. You don't have to use it as an essay topic. If you're a soccer player, don't write about soccer. The danger is you can be perceived to be one dimensional. I have seen so many acting, dancing and theater students do that. It's just a missed opportunity."
It may sound cliché, but it's true. This is perhaps the most important tip of all: The word "compelling" came up in all my interviews. Tell the reader a terrific story, hopefully one they've never heard before. Compel them to fight for you by providing as many clues to your character as possible. "I always say the more information you can give a college, the better your ability to write an essay," says Richard Friesner, Director of the Washington Scholars Program at George Mason University's Admissions Office. "Challenge us; we're giving you an opportunity to tell us more about yourself, so you should take that chance." Friesner wants to read an essay and then think, "This is a good kid and I could see them here," he says. "I like to see their passion. They're going to college to learn skills, problem-solving skills that are used in the real world. So show me that passion on why you want to be pre-med, or why dance is the major for you."
Matthew Boyce, Senior Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at GMU, believes students should find something attention-grabbing in their past to highlight. If you don't have any experience in community service, say, you might instead describe, "overcoming obstacles, or confronting other things in your life that might show how persistent you'll be through graduation," he says. "I'm interested in who you are, and why I should accept you as an admissions counselor. What makes you interesting is a really important aspect of your essay."
So what should take precedence, style or substance? "Both things are appropriate," Boyce says, adding that you should write directly to admissions officers, who want to feel moved by your words. "If two students are competing for a spot, and I look at two essays, which one do I feel more compelled to hear? If it makes me laugh or cry, it's more likely the one I'll remember. I will fight for that kid, because I feel a personal attachment."
Again, whatever you write about, make it personal. "Essays should be self-reflective. This is the difference between a good essay and a great essay," says Cheron of Northeastern. "Most applicants can tell a story with their essay, but many will miss the part of the question that asks them to relate that topic back to themselves. The story gives us context, but the second part is the most vital. It is an opportunity for the student to demonstrate an awareness of their ability to learn from and be shaped by personal experiences."
Good writing counts. "You'd be hard-pressed to find too many universities that aren't compelled by students who are strong writers, even if they are studying math or science," says NYU's Abbott. "The ability to tell a story and be a good writer is a skill that most (schools) revere." A poorly written effort, he warns, "is the quickest way to sink an essay, even if the content is compelling and tugs at heartstrings, or inspires or entertains us. Even if that's the case, if the writing is bad the writing is bad, and probably the fastest way to sink an application."
Amy Jarich, UC Berkeley's Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Undergraduate Admissions, says students should think of these as "personal statements," rather than essays. "Show us strong numbers, great courses, a good long list of solid extracurricular activities, but tell us how you used these opportunities to achieve what you did in your short 18 years," she says. But don't kill yourself over it. "I've been reading application essays for a long time. Most are in the middle: not great, not awful. Don't try to make this the essay that I remember at the end of year. Just make it the best story you can tell. What we're hoping to find, no matter how well you've done academically, is strength of character, motivation for service to others, and leadership."
TO BRAG OR NOT TO BRAG?
If you have something to brag about, go ahead, brag. But keep it within the bounds of humility. "The kids I work with are more likely to express how great they are, they're not likely to undersell themselves," says GMU's Boyce. "Give us what you are great at, just tell us. Every college is looking for the best possible student. We want to be able to brag about you (to the committee) and the more we know, the more we can brag." The University of Chicago's Brinker agrees. "We're trying to better understand a student's personality, character, and intellectual fervor," he notes. "Some of the better essays are the ones I can come away from knowing exactly the type of person this prospective student is."
So how boastful should you be? "That's tough to answer," Abbott, of NYU, concedes. "If you're writing about yourself, there will be a fine line between arrogance and confidence. Showing a little humility can help you be an effective ambassador for yourself."
HANDLING THE "WHY US?" QUESTION
This is one of the most important prompts of all, and if asked, you need to answer it with care. "Colleges, like students, vary in personality and character. Do your research, decide what is most important to you, and put together a list of schools at which you will be both happy and successful," counsels Brinker. Such careful preparation "will empower you to craft applications which will appeal to the particular character of each college," he says.
"Admissions counselors are hoping to hear a genuine, thoughtful answer," as to why you want to attend their institution, Cheron says. "While we aren't looking to read a paraphrased version of our website, we would like to know that the student did their homework and that their interest is genuine and their opinion is educated. A student should take some time to reflect on why they want to attend a certain school: Was it how they felt on a tour, or something they read in a publication that resonated? We want to know why they're excited to think about life as a student on our campus."
Be as specific as possible, adds GMU's Friesner. "We taut our diversity, so tell us exactly why you want to go to a diverse school. If you're pre-med, provide a list of courses that specifically interest you: What class or professor you would like to learn from?"
Abbott says there's "no magic answer," to this prompt. "But the candidates that do best are thinking about making a personal connection between the university and themselves. You can safely assume that anyone applying to NYU is attracted by the city of New York. So do what you can to make it more personal, go to a deeper level as to why you feel you are a good match, above and beyond the expectation you would have as a tourist. It's not compelling to us when a student talks about visiting Time Square."
Flattery, meanwhile, will only get you so far. "There's no extra credit for having us at the top of your list. We look for clues in the application and personal statement that tells us you didn't just pick us off the Top-10," says UC Berkeley's Jarich. "The best informed applicant is going to write the best essay."
The worst answer, everyone agrees, is to say "I want to study here because you have a great major in X," or because, "you are in the Top-10," say. "You need to talk at a more granular level, about your specific area of study, or a faculty member you want to work with," says NYU's Abbott. "We want to see how you'll contribute here for the next four years. We don't want to be perceived as just a pit-stop on your way to your career."
REMEMBER, YOU'RE YOUNG
Hemmingway, you are not expected to be. "Parents and students can often forget that the essay, as well as the entire college process, is designed to be manageable for a 17-year-old," Cheron says. "Students should take the essay seriously, but colleges aren't expecting doctoral dissertations, they just want to learn about the applicant, in the applicant's own voice."
Berkeley's Jarich notes that, "Most young people have little real drama to write about. The average suburban kid might ask, 'What's so special about me?' I say to them, do a journal exercise. When something happens, write down how it makes you feel, turn it into a very personal, powerful story, one that lets you tell what you believe in, what you stand for. These things happen to us throughout the day, every day, and I think they happen more often when you are in high school."
One of the most "meaningful" essays Jarich ever read came from "one of those students who felt they didn't have any drama or anything to stand out to make me tear up." So she wrote a story, "very well-put together, about a summer job dressed in costume at a theme park. She showed me the park through the eyes of a giant cartoon character, and did it so powerfully and so well. That summer taught her that, when a child gives you a hug, you let them decide when it's time to let go," she says. "It was very sweet and very observant. It brought tears to my eyes, and it didn't have a story of high drama, just her experience and compassion and understanding. What college isn't going to say, 'We like that, we need that'?"
PROOFREAD, PROOFREAD, PROOFREAD
"The simplest thing an applicant can do to prevent missteps is thoroughly proofread their essay, not just spell check it," Cheron says. "While a mistake may not make or break an applicant's decision, it doesn't leave a positive impression with the reader if you wrote 'reality' instead of 'realty,' or 'costumer service" instead of 'customer service.'"
Friesner at GMU says grammatical errors "are a big issue. We have the expectation that students spent time thinking and completing their essay. I see all kinds of errors of spelling, text type, even a lower-case 'i' and 'lol.' These things are from the new age of communication, and that's irrelevant for this type of writing." Finally, if applying to more than one school, make SURE to change the name of the institution in each essay! That fatal mistake happens more than you'd think.
GET HELP, BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Many students hire coaches to help with their essays, but it is illegal and unethical to have them do anything more than advise and provide suggested edits for you to consider. This is your chance to shine: every word must be your own. Of course, don't be the only one to read your essay. "We recommend getting another pair of eyes and feedback on what you've written, but to us there's a firm line between getting feedback and having someone else edit your essay," says Abbott. Cheating, plagiarism, or hiring someone to write the essay will likely be detected. "Some colleges employ software to do just that," he says. "There's incredible danger in paying or copying someone. If you turn in an A+ writing sample, but your other grades don't add up, you're not going to get in. We suspect students who produce samples that are too polished but got a C in AP English."
Berkeley's Jarich advises applicants "to read their work aloud and edit it when given feedback, but do not edit it to the point that your voice is lost. While some may wonder how we could know if it is their voice, a veteran application reader will tell you that there are enough clues in the application to know when the essay has been re-engineered to the point of losing the connection to the student."
In other words, write to your ability, be yourself, and do the best you can. And remember, writing can be a great life experience in itself. "For some, this is the first time that they are being asked to shine a light on their own life," Jarich adds. "It is an exercise that will prove to be helpful not only in college applications, but in other selection processes that will follow."
David Kirby, an author and journalist, also provides writing and media consulting to individuals and organizations. More information is at www.davidkirbycoaches.com