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Writing the College Application Essay: Insight from a Former Admissions Officer

By Meg, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Whether you like to call it the “college essay” or the “personal statement,” countless books, blogs, and articles have been written offering advice about how to write a compelling one. For many students, the essay is the most daunting aspect of applying to college. For some, however, it’s the most enjoyable part of the process. One thing is certain: it’s part of the application that a student can and should control.

I encourage the students I work with to view the personal statement as a key part of their applications through which they have the opportunity to share information that will help the readers of their application see them in a positive and authentic light. I remind my students that the Common App personal statement is just one part of their application. And, like most aspects of the application process, the weight that an admissions committee will give an essay will vary greatly, by institution and even by applicant.

Start Thinking About the Essay Early
Beginning in the spring of their junior year, I urge students to read over the Common App essay prompts once they’ve been confirmed for the following application cycle (prompts can change from year to year.) I advise students to think about anecdotes and stories they could offer up in response to each question or prompt. After going through the entire list of prompts, most students realize that, while worded differently, the prompts ask students to share an autobiographical story or anecdote that would allow the readers of the essay to get to know something important about the applicant.

Selecting a Topic
So, what makes for a “good” topic? From my perspective, part of the challenge for many high school students is that they haven’t had much exposure to reading, let alone experience writing, personal essays. Many schools emphasize analytical or critical expository writing. For this reason, I usually encourage my students to read at least a few “essays that worked” before attempting to draft an essay of their own. In recent years, The New York Times has sponsored an essay contest for high school seniors whose personal statements touch on themes related to money, work, or socioeconomic class. Editors from The Times typically select four or five outstanding essays which are published. I encourage students to read these essays along with some essays posted on the Johns Hopkins University admissions website and the Connecticut College website.

My hope is that students quickly see that each essay is as unique as each applicant is unique. I want them to understand that there are many interesting and effective ways to approach one’s college essay. I point out to my students that it’s okay and often very effective to include dialogue in an essay. I note that it’s okay and perhaps quite desirable to use some foreign words or phrases, in certain cases. I point out that using contractions, in many instances, are acceptable as well.

While I personally believe that aren’t too many strict rules when it comes to personal essays, I’ve also read enough of them to know that certain topics or approaches can be problematic. I’ve had to tell many students that it’s usually a good idea to avoid the mention of bodily fluids in their essays. We also talk about topics that are terribly hackneyed (the “Big Game” or “Winning Goal” essay) or that focus on the wrong thing (a student’s very brief and very expensive community service trip to a Caribbean island.)

Mostly, I point to the “topic of your choice” prompt and remind students that this is their opportunity to think about the impression they want to make. What do they want the admissions committee to know that they might not fully know or appreciate from the other parts of the application? I emphasize to students that getting started can be the most difficult part of crafting their essay. Therefore it’s critical to get an early start and to give oneself time to think, brainstorm, draft and revise.

A number of students have told me that they’ve been instructed by others NOT to write about anything that overlaps with the information they’ve provided in their activity list. From my perspective, having read thousands of college essays over the years, I think this can be somewhat misleading advice. You want to use the personal statement to reveal something new about yourself and sometimes expanding upon a meaningful activity or experience already mentioned in your application, when done the right way, can do just that. Anyone who has filled out – or looked closely at – the activities section of the Common Application understands that the format of this section prevents applicants from offering too much detail about any single activity. Therefore, although admissions officers can see what an applicant has done or been involved with during high school, they won’t necessarily know why the student chose to participate in an activity, what the student has learned from their participation, or what being involved in an activity has meant to the student. The application readers won’t necessarily know what hurdles or obstacles a student had to overcome to achieve any noted accomplishments. Writing a personal statement of roughly 550-650 words allows a student to tell such a story.

The Editing Process
When students are ready to share their essays, we discuss the process of seeking feedback from a couple of trusted critics. I caution students not to invite or let “too many cooks” into their essay-writing kitchen, which I’ve seen backfire too many times. However, I want to underscore the value of having someone who knows you well, in addition to someone who doesn’t know you well, read and offer feedback on your essay. I advise students to ask their readers, “What did you learn about me from this essay?” At IvyWise, we incorporate this into our Roundtable review process for our seniors. I tell my students upfront that they should be prepared to revise their essay more times than they’ve revised any other essay they’ve written. It’s truly not unusual for personal essay drafts to undergo four or more significant revisions! Rarely have I seen a student dash off a powerful essay at the last minute!

Whether you’re a senior who is actively in the throes of essay-drafting or a younger student who is beginning to contemplate the task ahead, I think it’s helpful to keep asking yourself: What do I want the members of an admissions committee to learn and/or understand about me from my essay?

At IvyWise we work with students to help them discover their authentic voice in the essay writing process and craft compelling personal statements that reveal another aspect of themselves to admissions officers. Our team of expert counselors have over 200 years of combined experience reading essays and evaluating applications at some of the country’s top universities, so they know what admissions officers are looking for. If you need help with your college application essays this fall, contact us today for more information on our college counseling services for high school seniors.