Myths About the Essay

“College Essay Season” has begun. The summer between junior and senior year of high school is the best time to write the main college essay – the 650-word (maximum) personal statement you can use for all colleges you apply to through the popular Common Application. Students who can complete the essay now will be in much better shape come fall. Before you dive in, however, make sure you don’t fall into any of the traps below.

  • MYTH: The college essay is used as a writing sample. FALSE. Admissions offices already have information about your writing skills based on your course grades and tests. They also know that most college essays have been reviewed by parents, guidance counselors, English teachers, and other adults. Finally, while writing skills are important, no campus is looking to fill its entire incoming class with future F. Scott Fitzgeralds. While it’s true that you don’t want to submit anything riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, the main purpose of the college essay is to show admissions offices something important about you as a person that they cannot find elsewhere on the application.

  • MYTH: The college essay is a chance to highlight your accomplishments. FALSE. You don’t need to run away from your achievements, but anything noteworthy you’ve accomplished is already covered elsewhere on the application (most prominently in your list of activities). Writing an essay about the big STEM award you won at your school’s award ceremony is redundant. Instead of describing the prize, focus instead on the “how.” The choices you’ve made and actions you’ve taken with your friends and teammates reveal who you are. Show admissions officers how you work, and they’ll believe that you’re the kind of person who can achieve in the future, not just the past.

  • MYTH: You need to carefully select the best essay prompt. FALSE. Trained editors and consultants know the essay prompts on the common and coalition applications are basically interchangeable. Not only that, both applications include a final prompt for you to write about anything you want. Focus on telling a story that shows something important about who you are, and no matter what you write you’re certain to fit at least one of the prompts.

  • MYTH: College essays should show humility. FALSE. Look, we’re not telling you to write an essay about how you’re the greatest person in the history of the world and much better than all your friends. However, But you do need to make sure your essay is about YOU. The trick is to show YOU doing something. Instead of writing “I have a strong sense of right and wrong,” try telling a story that shows a time where you stood up for something you thought was right. Transmitting ideas about your personal qualities is not the same as boasting.

  • MYTH: The college essay is the most important and difficult part of the application. PARTLY TRUE. If you failed out of high school twice and your main activity is Netflix, even the best essay won’t get you into Stanford. That said, admissions offices at elite schools don’t have nearly enough space to accept all qualified applicants. A strong essay that helps them picture the kind of person you are can give you a definite leg up.

So you do need to take the essay seriously. But that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult! In our work with students, we use a CODE system that breaks the essay into individual steps, none requiring more than 30 minutes time. Each year our students are astonished to discover how easily the essay goes with a little organization.

While many schools don’t require essays at all, most selective private universities do still put a lot of stock in the personal statement. If you think it’s difficult on your end, imagine being an admissions officer, required to read thousands of essays each year. The good news is, if you can tell a good story that highlights the type of person you are, you’ll be ahead of the game. Good stories are memorable, and memorable essays can be an important element in moving an applicant from “maybe” to “YES!”

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