College Application Essays
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By Susan Packer Davis

I have been editing college application essays for nearly forty years.  I was previously the Director of a small, college-preparatory high school for which I personally did all the college counseling, including application preparation and essay review, to assure the success of the school and to provide the highest level of personal attention and administrative response.  During those years, the school amassed an extraordinary record of college and university acceptances and merit scholarships when, as a small, independent, solely tuition-supported, no-nonsense high school, with over 35% of the student body on school-funded scholarships and no sports program of its own, in the uber-competitive, social-climbing environment of the Westside of Los Angeles, subjected to several crises not of its own making, it should have died more than once.  Apart from the college-like atmosphere of the school that encouraged independent and critical thought, the accelerated and rigorous curriculum that was clearly visible on the school’s transcripts, the highly-educated and well-trained instructors, the bright, eager and accomplished students who were deeply and creatively involved in their communities, and the unique, heartfelt letters of recommendation I wrote as part of the Common Application School Report, what was it that “sealed the deal” for the myriad of acceptances by the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country?  I believe it was the students’ essays, the ones they and I labored over, for hours and hours, days and days, until I was sure they were perfect.  As a ThinkTank Learning Master Consultant, I am still happily editing college application essays exactly the same way – with similar results.

I never write for a student; the essay has to be hers/his, not mine.  My job is to clarify and strengthen the student’s own voice, by helping in the choice of a subject, and editing for grammar, word choice, and logic/flow.  My aim is always to turn a “nice” essay into a powerful, compelling one.

The idea of the essay must come first.  The subject of the essay need not have national importance, as long as it has significance for the student.  It could be a “small” story, as long as it is “large” for the student. A student should write about whatever has affected her/him in a profound way, even if the event might appear insignificant on the surface.  A college application essay is a brief look into the internal world of the student, not a scholarly treatise. After years of being instructed not to use the pronoun “I” in essays written in school, it is sometimes hard for students to write about themselves, but with encouragement and guidance, they learn how to do it effectively.  

A student should write her/his college application essays in a genuine manner; writing to impress will produce essays that are stilted and dry.  It is the student’s actual story, told in an artful but real way, that will command attention and provoke an emotional response, not someone else’s language or quotations.  A great deal of self-reflection is involved in the process, and for a young person on her/his way to the university and into the world at large – perhaps the most dramatic transition that exists in our society, that is a very good thing.

Finally, students should be honest in their college essays, but not too vulnerable.  A student can describe a personal experience or revelation without baring every aspect of her/his life, or soul.  It is good to be mindful of who might be reading the student’s essay, both as part of the college application process, and later, should the student ever choose to run for office or otherwise become a public figure.  In a college application essay, a student should show, in a coherent and fascinating way, that s/he is a thoughtful and serious candidate with something important to contribute, someone the reader is absolutely certain belongs on that college campus.