Nothing creates more anxiety for college applicants than the dreaded college admissions essay. Students struggle to find compelling topics, and some purchase books with titles like “Essays that Get People Into the Ivy League.” They seek to show something special, enlightened and poetic, but in shooting for the stars, applicants usually shoot themselves in the foot.
Picking a subject matter requires an understanding of two things: who you are, and how the admissions offices evaluate your information.
Most students confuse these two issues, concluding that they should present themselves as near-perfect candidates. In pursuing a supposed ideal, they all try to be the same things, using words like “passionate” and “hard-working.” In the process, they neglect to explain their own individuality, perhaps because they do not understand what makes them unique.
Until applications are filed, colleges know nothing about their applicants. What they really want to know is, “Who are you?” If you cannot answer this question, then you should not expect a college admissions representative to understand you or your strengths. Therefore, before attempting to write any college essay, take the time to understand yourself.
In writing the essays, a simple rule should be followed: Instead of focusing on a topic prompt that a college application “requires,” write about yourself. When you’re done, your essay will naturally answer the prompt, perhaps needing only a few additional words to satisfy the most demanding readers.
But what specifically should you say? The answer lies not in topic prompts, but in understanding how the colleges evaluate applicants. There are generally two methods of evaluation.
Major, public universities care primarily about “numbers” such as test scores and grade point averages. For the most part, they only read essays for applicants whose numbers place them “on the bubble” for admission, the applicants whose scores are not so high as to be automatic acceptances nor so low as to be automatic rejections. Here, the essay is an important determining factor. It is a writing sample, something that should demonstrate both thought and communication skill. It is important in these essays to write about yourself, pay homage to the topic (so that you don’t insult any college by submitting a generic essay), and perhaps most importantly to edit and revise carefully.
Private, selective colleges do not use essays as determinants. Rather, essays are used as supporting information in grading applicants in multiple areas, such as academics, activities, and personal qualities. Since those separate grades are the basis for determining which applicants are in the running for admission and which are not, a student’s focus should always be on how to achieve the highest possible grade in each area.
To achieve the best result, the specifics of college essays should be used to supplement and explain a student’s strengths as shown elsewhere in the application. For example, everyone knows that some students become officers of a club merely to bolster their resumes, while others treat leadership positions as opportunities to do important things. Because college applications provide very limited space outside of the essays to describe years of effort and accomplishment, the essays allow you to explain and elaborate upon the many things you’ve done during high school.
Increase your chances of admission by using your essays to describe the depth and breadth of your achievements in the context of “who you are.”