How to Approach College Application Essays
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By Andrew Henrotin

Andrew Henrotin is a lifelong educator who has specialized in college preparation and college counseling over the last two decades. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master’s degree in Education Curriculum from … [Read More About the Author]

As college admissions become more competitive (Stanford and Harvard have acceptance rates near 5%), and the majority of applicants to such selective schools have 4.0’s and nearly perfect test scores, the college essay (or personal statement) has perhaps become the most important part of a student’s application. The numbers speak for themselves: however, the essay and its personal and subjective nature give applicants a distinct opportunity to show themselves as more than a transcript and a test score—someone unique.

While colleges are placing such a premium on the essay, many admissions officers are underwhelmed by what they are reading. Failed chances to stand out have become a major source of frustration. “It’s a shame that highly qualified and accomplished students aren’t willing or able to express themselves through their writing,” explains one Ivy League admissions officer. “We know our applicants work well in the classroom and at the exam table, but we want to know if they think and write well. We want them to stand out through their personal stories.”

So, how do students AVOID MISSING OUT on this critical opportunity? Based on feedback and recommendations from admissions counselors at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, here’s how.

Answer the question. Read the prompt and answer it. When in doubt, always refer to the prompt. Every word, every sentence, and every paragraph should relate to and address the prompt. Stay focused on the prompt. Don’t get off track.

Write about something that has meaning to YOU. Be authentic. Get personal. The reality is admissions people read a lot of boring essays. The primary reason is students don’t write about subjects/topics that interest themselves. If the writer is bored and uninspired, it’s quite likely the reader will be as well. Regardless of your subject’s simplicity or complexity, you must have sincere interest in and passion about it. Johns Hopkins University published a sample of Essays That Worked, and here were some of the topics: My Height; Playing 20 Questions; Ambidexterity; A Blue Armchair. Readers sense the significance of your subject/topic by the way you write about it. It is impossible to spark interest in something if you the writer don’t SHOW it. And, a summary of a resume or high school activities is not interesting to anyone!

Keep it simple. Students (and parents) get caught up in trying to write the perfect essay. There is no such thing. In fact, the more you try to impress colleges with big words (never use a word you don’t the meaning of) and trying to sound intelligent, the more watered down and boring your writing/story becomes. Also, be careful whom you share your writing. The more viewpoints and suggestions you receive, the more confusing the writing process becomes. A qualified editor is a must, but as far as the subject goes, trust yourself.

Use anecdotes (especially in your introduction). Show, don’t tell. Demand the reader’s attention from the start with a real-life moment, incident, or experience. Avoid beginning your essay with a narration about yourself, which is most likely things they already know from your application. Use the most interesting part of your story as your introduction. Don’t lose the reader’s attention right from the start. Anecdotes (examples and stories) allow readers to see what you are trying to say, rather than simply explaining it to them. Use details and specifics, show what things look like, what they feel like, what you see and hear. Don’t tell the reader you enjoy traveling. Show the reader a detailed travel moment, incident, or experience.

Begin the writing process early and write many drafts. Stay organized. Good essay writing isn’t a one-night, quick-fix endeavor. The process—brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, revising—takes A LOT of time. Therefore, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the writing prompts at least a month before the submission deadline. As soon as you know the essay prompts you are going to address, establish a timeline to follow throughout the writing process and keep track of deadlines. Then write. And edit. And revise. And write. And edit. And revise. Find a capable writer (TTL counselor) to help with edits and revisions. When you’re finished, your final draft should be your fifth or sixth version.

Remember, you are unique, and you have one chance to show it!