The College Search: Writing Application Essays

Tips and tricks when it comes to writing college application essays. (College essay forms)

May 12, 2010 7:29:04 AM PDT
Of all the various hoops high school students have to jump through en route to getting into college, no one obstacle can seem as daunting as the essays that most colleges require as part of the admissions application.

Even the SAT and ACT Tests can pale next to the essays. This is because, unlike tests, there's no set rule when it comes to writing admission essays, and no definitively right or wrong approach. And yet, college admissions officers will tell you that, beyond test scores and grades, the essay(s) can be the single most important way for a candidate to stand-out from the crowd.

GET ADVICE FROM AN EXPERT: Click the video link above this article to hear more on writing essays from Liz Eshleman, Director of College Planning and Placement at Devon Preparatory School.

So what to write? Admissions officers and college websites are full of general suggestions, but they all say pretty much the same thing. "Write about yourself. Tell us something we wouldn't know about you from simply reading your application. Use the essay to stand-out from the crowd."

My kids found this advice only partially helpful. The truth is a lot of kids aren't particularly good at cutting loose and writing creatively about themselves. This is partly due to their past essay-writing experience, which has often focused on prescribed topics like historical events, or literature. Also, getting a good grade on, say, a term paper often has more to do with getting facts straight, than composing creative sentences. Another problem is that while colleges seem to want to hear from the "real you" in an essay, it's hard to know how much creative license is permissible or advisable.

Here are some general rules of thumb, culled from advice I've gotten from guidance counselors, admissions officers, and college websites, as well as the experience of nudging two kids through this process. While it's okay to be conversational, make sure your kids are writing grammatically correct sentences. And for God's sake, make sure they're using spell-check. Once they settle on a topic, have them write a rough draft and let you read it. Have their high school guidance counselor read it, too. You're not supposed to write the thing for them, but it's okay to give them direction. By all means, tell them if there's a better way to make a point, or if parts of the essay just don't sound well thought-out. My kids did several drafts before they were done.

What to write about

However, the biggest challenge of all is coming up with a good topic. I'm happy to tell you a couple of stories that may help. During an open house at a prestigious Ivy League school, the subject of the essay came up, and it was immediately obvious how much anxiety the topic had caused the assembled parents and students. And here, of all places, you would expect the bar for both topic and scope to be rather high. But the admissions officer leading the discussion told us that the essay really was about a candidate's personality and personal experience, and that it need not cover weighty ground. Here's the example he gave of a memorable essay: a student simply wrote about how much she enjoyed curling up on the sofa in her family room, eating s'mores, and watching old sit-coms with her mother. It was personal, funny, and well-written. The admissions guy said after he read it, he just felt good about the kid. "You go, s'mores girl!" he thought. Whether this tact would work everywhere, I can't say, but this kid did make the first cut at one of the more respected schools in the country with this simple approach. My daughter wrote about how she had hatched parakeets on her own; I'm betting she was the only one with that story. My son took a chance with his topic, writing about his religious beliefs which, at the time, had evolved into something called agnostic theism. His counselor advised that it might be a turn-off to some admissions officers, particularly at religious campuses. In the end, my son felt that this subject ran to the core of who he was, and that the essay was supposed to be about something personal. He made the right decision. Even a Catholic college to which he applied accepted him. Of course, it's impossible to know whether it was only the SATs and GPA that did it, but at least we know that in 7 out of 10 schools, the essay was not a deterrent.

Some colleges may make it easier by giving a few optional topics from which to choose. Many will also have several "long answer" questions. My favorite was from a prestigious technical school that asked, "Tell us about something you've invented." I mean, really. Another university asked: "It's ten years after graduation, and you're writing your autobiography; what's on page 227?" The kid had a lot of fun with that!

The bottom line for students: take the essay seriously, but don't be afraid to have fun with it. Talk over possible topics with your guidance counselor, and have them proofread the various drafts you produce. Use proper grammar. Spell-check! Allow your personality and personal experience to guide you.

MORE COLLEGE SEARCH ARTICLES: Submitting Applications, When Will I Hear If I'm In?, Wait List, When Must I Decide?, What If I Have Trouble Deciding?, Merit Aid, Need-Based Aid, Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I Ask For More Aid?, 529 Savings Accounts, Myths About The Cost, What Is Upromise?, The Best Way To Pay, College Troubles, College Depression, NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, The College Search Preface

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