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
Recently, I saw a private coach inside a Starbucks using a thesaurus to help a high school senior make a college application essay sound "more mature." Another counselor encouraged one of my students to write about a troubling failure without focusing on the lessons learned. This season, yet another of my students couldn't explain to me what different sections of her story meant because her tutor, a screenwriter, had added examples into her essay that were unfamiliar to her.
I am tired of watching college applicants disappear as their adult advocates take over.
Admissions officers tell me they desperately want essays written authentically by the applicants, featuring stories, themes, and language that reflect the applicant's actual writing. Yet college coaches, tutors, counselors and parents at times take the opposite approach. They are over-editing by telling students what words to use and what to write.
My appeals to privilege the teenagers' voices grow stronger every day of college application season. What message are we sending our young people if we over-edit their essays so much that their originality and authenticity fade away?
It is time to let the 17-year-old voice take center stage.
As a national expert on college application essays, I travel around the country speaking to parents, schools, and communities about college application essays. I work with under-represented students to help encourage them to write application essays that communicate their stories, and I coach more privileged students individually.
No matter what their background, all teens need to learn that they have powerful stories to tell. While they usually don't have experience writing admissions essays, they can all write powerful essays if provided with brainstorming, drafting, and revising strategies.
Applying to college is an audition process; only the student can set foot on the stage and perform. College application readers look at student's grades, test scores, and recommendations, as well as essays. They are experts, and they can see disconnects. They can also see the other essays each student writes and can observe wild shifts in style and tone.
Teachers, coaches, parents, do what good mentors and editors do: guide and question, but do not rewrite. If you are reviewing a student's work, it is important that you understand that colleges do not want to hear your stories or read your mature writing styles. They want to hear fresh stories that reveal the unique experiences of students growing up in their era, not yours.
Also, anyone who helps students should be a mentor and a guide -- not a ghostwriter. Drafting essays takes time and is often painful, requiring students to find the allegorical stories that share powerful evidence of how they will enrich a campus. External advice, not rewriting, can be very helpful for your students. Remember, they have never done this sort of writing before. Help them see drafting as an authentic means of sharpening their voices.
And students, please understand that colleges want to hear from you and only you. When they want to hear from an adult, they will ask, usually in the form of a letter of recommendation.
Colleges want to read a story in your voice that tells them about an event or experience, quality or place that reveals what you, and you alone, can offer. What does the experience mean to you? They don't want manufactured grand stories that would belong in The New Yorker, unless you are a brilliant author who has already been published and who can demonstrate a portfolio of similarly written pieces. The process of thinking about the messages you want to send colleges in your essays can take weeks. There are no shortcuts.
As the holidays and college application deadlines approach, let's all give admissions offices a gift -- essays that enable the applicants' voices to pop off the page with originality and authenticity.
Follow Rebecca Joseph on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@getmetocollege