Everyone and your brother will offer you advice about how to write a great college essay -- me included. Below are five common-sense/no-nonsense/you-can't-go-wrong tips to make sure your essay is the best reflection of who you are. Follow this advice and you may just find yourself with lots of choices when it comes to deciding which college or university you are going to wind up attending.
1) Don't think too long or too hard about which prompt to answer. The list of prompts for the 2013-14 Common Application Essay is fairly comprehensive. But there is a topic for everyone! When applicants come to me to work on their essays they've been looking at those prompts until they're dizzy. I know that at least one of those prompts applies. The hard part for them is choosing which one. But maybe it isn't really all that hard.
I have them start out by process of elimination. There is always one prompt which doesn't "speak to the student" at all. They don't really love it, they have no story to tell to satisfy it, and we can now reduce that list of five by one. Another prompt could work but the student isn't crazy about. So I ask them, "If you did this one, what story would you tell?" The applicant then tells me stories they think would work. Some of those stories are good, but not great. Remember, whatever you write about has to be compelling for 650 words. Usually, the applicant comes to the conclusion that this prompt won't work either. And then there were three! Invariably one or two of the three are so vague no one could find themselves excited about it. And that leaves one. And nine out of 10 times that last prompt standing is the one for them. This is where we start to talk about stories which is where your time should be spent rather than ruminating over topic choices.
2) Think small. Often times applicants who I work with are excited about the stories they bring into our brainstorming sessions. These stories are usually a big trip overseas they took with their family which: "changed my life." Or they donated their time one previous summer to a group of underprivileged kids and that experience: "changed their life." See what I mean? All applicants have big stories about exciting things they did either alone or with their family. And while these are great tales to tell, trust me when I tell you, you're not the only one with a story like this. Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions counselor who sits and read these stories one after another? Sometimes the best stories, the kind with the most power, the ones which are most reflective of you are, are small in nature. Sometimes, small is not just good, but small is great. A vast majority of the time it's not what you write, but how you write it.
3) Think less. Thinking through how you are going to write an essay is good. Thinking too long and too hard that you don't really know how to start your essay is not. Many of the applicants I work with say the same thing over and over again: "I don't know how to start." So when you're sitting in front of your computer staring at a blank screen, just start writing. Don't worry what that first draft will look like because it most certainly will not be perfect. Writing is -- more than a few writers have pointed out -- just re-writing.
4) Don't look at the rewrite process as a chore. I liken it to standing in front of your closet trying on lots of different clothes to see what you look best in. And when you go through your essay and change this or change that, remember to read it all the way through. Look at the essay in its entirety because that is how it will be judged. Yes, it's part of the entire package you are presenting. But that essay should stand alone. Rewriting it should be fun as you see it evolve. If you truly enjoy the process, you will be so much happier with the results.
5) Everyone -- friends, parents, teachers -- is going to want to read your essay. They will be curious how it turned out. And while they want what you want -- a great essay -- letting everyone take a look could be trouble. Differing opinions are commonplace. Think of it like this: You go to see a movie with four friends. Afterwards, when discussing how good it was or how good is was not, is there ever really a consensus? So if you let everyone take a look at your essay you risk the opinions being so diverse you won't know which changes to make. So when it comes time to "put it out there," choose one person you trust -- a friend, a teacher -- and take only one or two opinions to read it and offer guidance. Your parents are going to want to read your essay and that's not a bad thing. But you might be faced with having to defend it to them and therein is the trouble. Opinions are great as long as there aren't too many of them.
Your Common Application essay really is your best shot to show the admissions committee who you are. Own it. Make it yours. And follow your instincts. If you do this, you are pretty much guaranteed a terrific essay.
Follow Robert S. Schwartz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RSSinBrooklyn
For years, Skidmore College included one or more short-answer questions on its supplement to the Common Application. Last year’s applicants had to respond to three prompts. One was: “Please share an example of an instance when you feel creative thought really did matter.” The answers were supposed to give Skidmore insights into applicants, says Mary Lou Bates, dean of admissions and financial aid. Yet some students and college counselors complained that the questions were too onerous. “We heard that our questions were the hardest,” she says. “And someone called them ‘the worst.’ ”
Ms. Bates has now concluded that the additional writing was not adding much to the evaluations, and the Common App essay is sufficient. “The answers felt very generic,” she says. So Skidmore removed the extra writing for students applying for the fall. After a few years of application declines, Skidmore saw a big jump this winter. The college received 8,200 applications, up from 5,700 last year. And more students (81 percent versus 75 percent) completed the application once they started it, a rise Ms. Bates attributes directly to the streamlined supplement.
The results may have as much to do with the ease of technology as with laziness. At the 11th hour, with anxious students looking for a few more colleges to apply to, those that don’t require additional writing look more appealing than those that do. “With the Common Application,” says Matthew J. DeGreeff, director of college counseling at the Middlesex School, in Concord, Mass., “you can drop 10 apps with a keystroke on Dec. 31.”
Though some students relish the opportunity to write about themselves, many view the requirement as a chore. So says Jay D. Bass, director of college counseling services at Thomas S. Wootton High School, in Rockville, Md. “Most juniors and seniors are not great writers,” he says. “Trying to figure out what colleges want to hear is stressful.”
Mr. Bass has wondered about the downside to supplemental essays. Additional requirements, he suggests, may deter low-income, first-generation applicants from applying to a particular college.
“For kids who do not have access to resources, or a parent who can sit down and help them with this,” he says, “does it impact their ability to meet what they think the college is looking for?”
Gregory W. Roberts has thought about that concern, but he says additional writing gives students more chances to make an impression. Mr. Roberts is dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, which requires two essays of about 250 words on its supplement in addition to the Common Application essay. “Asking for two short answers seems appropriate and reasonable,” he says. “Writing in a different format can give you a sense of different types of skills.” Admissions officers are looking not only at what students write, he says, but how they express themselves.
Applicants to U.Va.’s College of Arts and Sciences must describe a work of art, music, science, mathematics or literature that “surprised, unsettled or challenged” them; applicants to the schools of architecture, engineering and nursing are asked to explain their interest in those programs. All applicants must also choose one of four other prompts, including, “Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.”
Mr. Roberts recalls an essay written by an applicant from a poor family, who described her father coming home from the coal mines, his face covered in soot. In her essay, the student described why she had not participated in extracurricular activities — she had worked part-time jobs to help support her parents.
A memorable essay, Mr. Roberts says, “tells me someone knows how to write, and knows who he or she is,” and can help an applicant with middle-of-the-road test scores stand out.
Plenty of submissions fall short, however. “It’s shocking, the lack of effort we see in some essays,” he says. Yes, from time to time his staff comes across an essay that seems to have been repurposed (they know what’s being asked out there, and even a response to the quirkiest prompt can get broad after the first paragraph). He says he doesn’t really mind.
Of the four new topics presented by Boston College, the one about service to others has proved the most popular among applicants. Some responses have moved officials; the ones in which applicants recite their achievements and list their professional ambitions, not so much. “I don’t think everyone’s fully grasping the questions,” Mr. Mahoney says.
The requirement has some drawbacks. Previously, admissions officers read five applications an hour, but now they’re lucky to get through four, Mr. Mahoney says. Yet he believes the additional writing sample has helped his staff make better decisions.
“We’re trying to hear the student’s voice,” he says. And they know what they’ve heard came from applicants who were willing to type an extra 400 words.
Eric Hoover is a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering college admissions.Continue reading the main story