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
Watching your kid sweat over college applications? Wondering which college is the best fit for your child and how to help them make that happen? We asked dozens of admissions officers to reveal the truth about admissions today. Here is what some of them told us. [Responses edited for length]
Martha Blevins Allman, Wake Forest University dean of admissions: Concentrate not on being the best candidate, but on being the best person. Pay attention to what is going on in the world around you. If you do those things, not only will the world be a better place because you’re in it, your greatest admissions worry will be choosing which college to pick from. I look for beautiful, clear writing that comes to life on the essay page and offers insight into the character and personality of the student. Beware of being someone you are not in the essay. Beware of outside influence. Editing by adults or professionals often removes the very elements that admissions officers seek.
[Want your kid to get into a good college and have a good life? Here’s how.]
Tim Wolfe, College of William & Mary associate provost for enrollment and dean of admissions: Essays can help an admission committee better understand the individual and how he or she will add to the campus community. They are also an opportunity for us to evaluate a student’s ability to communicate through the written format. Whether you major in physics, history or business, you’ll need to write and be able to share thoughts and ideas with your professors and fellow students. The college application is an opportunity for the student to share his or her story and allows students the opportunity to add their voices to this process. We can get a glimpse into their personalities, and perhaps, learn something new about them, their backgrounds and experiences that doesn’t necessarily show up elsewhere in the application.
[To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving]
Ken Anselment, Lawrence University dean of admissions and financial aid: Writing an application essay might feel like you’re singing for the judges on “The Voice,” hoping that what you write will get them to pound their giant button, turn their chairs and say, “I want you.” It’s true that your voice is what we are looking for. When you write your college essay, use your authentic voice. If you’re a serious person, write your essay with a serious voice. If you’re a funny person, be funny. If you’re not a funny person, your college essay might not be the best place to try on that funny writer voice for the first time.
[Accepted into college, but can’t afford it]
Stefanie Niles, Dickinson College vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications: Nothing is more important than a high school transcript showing strong academic performance in a solid curriculum. We want to admit students who will persist to college graduation, so knowing that you can do the work starts with a thorough review of high-school performance. The essay also matters; we want to see that you can write, what you write and what we can learn about you. We want to enroll students who will contribute to the life of the campus, so we are eager to see how you have contributed to your high-school community or the community in which you live.
Toni Riley, Illinois Institute of Technology director of undergraduate admission: If you had a bad semester or a bad year, and your cumulative GPA doesn’t reflect your ability or your overall high school career, still apply, but talk about the decline in your grades in your application. It is a pet peeve when we see an anomaly in grades and the student never addresses this. Tell us what happened and how you turned it around. This is a great way for us to see how you respond to setbacks. If you had a recent decline in grades we may ask to see another semester of work before making a final admission decision, but you have nothing to fear if you turned it around.
Anthony Ferguson Jr., Drake University admissions counselor: College will be a fun time, but it also may seem like a daunting journey, so relish the time you have with your friends and lose yourself in the small moments that make you laugh till your stomach hurts — college will be there when it’s all over. Applicants who are able to convey that they have spent their high school years exploring different classes, activities and opportunities immediately grab my attention. The most attractive applications ultimately grant me insight into the applicant’s passion, motivation and reasoning behind wanting to be at Drake.
Anthony E. Jones, DePauw University vice president for enrollment management: Institutions exist to supply the world with new knowledge and an acculturated, well-informed society. This takes an optimal graduation rate, and the main ingredient contributing to that is persistence on the part of the student. Whether reflected in the essay or the thoughtful confluence of the academic course load and extracurricular activities, a successful applicant should highlight an ability to overcome obstacles and garner results. It’s about proving you can produce outcomes, both on the part of the student and the university.
Kaitlyn Botelho, Lasell College associate director of admission: I would rather a student tell me about the handful of clubs and activities they have been involved with and excelled in, rather than an exhaustive list of clubs they that they feigned interest in, kind-of-sort-of-one-day. This leaves students with little time to flourish in any one organization, or worse, they suffer academically due to over-involvement. A student that has been a leader in one or two organizations will typically make for a better citizen on campus than a student who is already burned out before they even get to college.
Robert D. McCaig, Monmouth University vice president for enrollment management: The most important things students should do when applying to college is pace themselves and prioritize. Starting early certainly helps students with the pacing, and knowing when to put time into SAT prep versus studying for an exam versus visiting another college, for instance, is an important part of prioritizing. There is this great myth out there that where you go to college will dictate your success in life. For the vast majority of students, that simply isn’t true. What you do in college matters far more than where you go.
[Do you really have to go on college visits?]
Chris Hooker-Haring, Muhlenberg College vice president for enrollment management: Think about your extracurricular contribution — community service, athletics, the arts and elected leadership. What are you good at and what do you care about deeply outside the classroom? The college application process is a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. You will find out things about yourself, what motivates you and what excites you. This is a passage to an exciting new chapter in your life. We want to get to know you and your story, and we want to help you in this process. This is a people-helping-people business. If you see it that way, it can help you relax and enjoy the process.
Ross R. Grippi II, Ohio Wesleyan University director of admission: Finding the right fit for you (not mom and dad) isn’t a cliche, so be yourself throughout the process. We’ll read right through you if you’re not. You can’t fake it during the admission process. If you do, you’ll end up at a college or university that’s a poor fit.
[I learned my son is gay when I read his college essay]
Michelle Curtis-Bailey, SUNY Stony Brook senior admissions adviser: Students should self-advocate by being in contact with a specific representative within the office of admissions. This is one skill that will continue to serve students, not just in college planning but also through navigating their educational journey.
Meaghan Arena, SUNY Geneseo vice president for enrollment management: Keep in touch with us. Students who keep in touch with us themselves build better relationships with our admissions counselors. Getting to know students on a personal level is one of our most rewarding experiences and really helps us to advocate for you when it’s time to make offers of admission.
Janine Bissic, Whittier College director of admission: Don’t try to play the game, as there are no tricks to getting admitted. Listen to the advice of admission counselors from each institution to provide insight on their admission process, but don’t believe your girlfriend’s uncle’s cousin who told you that only students who apply in the morning, who play badminton get admitted.
Jaime Garcia, former admissions counselor for Northwestern University and presently director of college access at Chicago Scholars: If you are 100 percent sure where you want to go, seek early admission. Generally, college admissions officers know that those who apply for early decision are those who have a higher satisfaction rate when they are on campus. Because early decision is a great indicator for this satisfaction, schools frequently have goals and benchmarks for admitting a particular percentage of students through early decision. They won’t tell you this, but early-admission acceptance rates are often higher than regular acceptance rates. It is also less competitive because the applicant pool is smaller than regular decision.
Andy Strickler, Connecticut College dean of admission and financial aid: Applying for admission and being denied is not the end of the world. This is a great opportunity to experience and learn that one can emerge from it a stronger individual. Ignore all the outside noise and don’t think about specific schools, think about yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions about what kind of environment you need to be successful in college. Then think about specific schools that match your ideal set of characteristics. Finally, invest the time and energy to visit campuses and test the assumptions you have made about these attributes.
Justin Rogers, Canisius College director of undergraduate admissions: The only thing colleges and universities have in common is that we are all different. The same can be said for the students who apply. Make sure the colleges know that. Tell your story. Some of my most memorable offers of admission have gone to students who like to color outside the lines.
Judy Mandell is a freelance writer.
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