The College Essay
Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement. (Pause for moaning and groaning.) It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it’s also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time.
Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay (along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities) to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story
So what does set you apart? You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it).
The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of essays, most of which are banal and forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don’t care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don’t need to have started a company or discovered a lost Mayan temple. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the freshman class.
The Mechanics of a College Essay
Write about something that’s important to you. It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
Don’t just recount—reflect! Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the time they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
Being funny is tough. A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off-color.
Start early and write several drafts. Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicants’ own voice?
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application—nor should it repeat it. This isn’t the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
Answer the question being asked. Don’t reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
Have at least one other person edit your essay—a teacher or college counselor is best. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Tackling Common Essay Questions
The college application essay is your chance to show what makes you unique. Admission officers read hundreds of these every year. Don’t write about the same subjects as every other applicant.
Here are some common essay questions with tips to help you craft a great response.
Write about someone you admire
Many people write an ode to Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. These leaders are admirable and heroic, but you shouldn’t write about them unless you have a strong, genuine and very personal reason to do so.
Otherwise, ask yourself what individual has actually had the greatest influence over your life. Describe the impact they’ve had on you. The more specific details you include, the better.
Write about something you have read
This question is not asking for a book report! Don’t just summarize the plot; detail why you liked this particular selection and what it meant to you.
Your book choice should make it clear that you read outside of class—stay away from high school mainstays like The Catcher in the Rye.
Why do you want to attend this school?
Unless your real reason is something better left unsaid (hint: avoid mentioning keg parties), you should be truthful in responding to this question. Steer clear of generalities (e.g. “to get a good liberal arts education,” “to broaden my knowledge”) and stay specific (e.g. “I’m a future doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation”). Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them (beyond its reputation or ranking on any list).
What will you be doing ten years from now?
It’s okay to be creative and ambitious, but don’t be silly. And don’t feel that you need to talk about the ways in which your college education will help you snag a dream job.
Write about a meaningful activity
Careful—it’s easy for this response to read as clichéd and uninspired. Don’t just say that your service on student council was significant because it taught you the importance of effective leadership. Push yourself to really examine what experiences have been valuable to you. Maybe you learned more from your after-school job at a burger joint than you did as president of the student council. Admissions officers can tell when you’re being genuine and when you’re just saying what you think they want to hear.