A group of college admissions experts gathered at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling convention in San Diego, and held a panel discussion on college essay writing. These experts (which included the head of admissions at both Cornell and UC-Berkeley) agreed that most students are unable to write compelling college application essays that offer admissions officers any insight into who they are and how they think.
However, they agreed that following five simple guidelines would allow students to write better essays, and therefore, to better indicate what they would bring to a college campus.
- Students should avoid the very words that their teachers or college counselors at school want them to put in. Passion? Dedication? Leadership? Everyone uses these words in their essays. Illustrate what you’re passionate about without explicitly saying the word, and let your actions dictate the emotion for the reader.
- Let other people (including trusted teachers and advisors) provide feedback on your essays, but don’t allow the essay to adopt a voice that’s not your own. A better vocabulary choice here and there can add pop to your essay, but if it starts to sound like you’re simply swapping out words using a thesaurus, your essay will lose authenticity.
- Be yourself. Sound like yourself, and don’t let anyone else write your essay. Berkeley’s Amy Jarich said, “I just want to know what you care about…let me know that you’re active and alive in the world you live in.”
- Don’t simply rewrite award-winning essays that you’ve found online or in books. You wouldn’t believe how common this is, and you might not know how familiar college admissions officers are with the very same material. This is a very fast and easy way to ensure that your essay finds itself in the reject pile. Jarich says, “I’ve read those books, too. I know what you’re copying.”
- Celebrate leadership, or even failures, in the most unlikely of places. You don’t have to be captain of the football team, or class president. If you’ve started a club, especially one that might not be the most popular club on campus, say so. But describing a failure or how you overcame failure might offer more insight into your personality! Recent students at Biltmore Tutoring have written about becoming lost in a storm, and overcoming that fear. They have written about taking up scuba lessons, and overcoming panic attacks in the middle of their certification dives. They have written about going hunting with their grandparents, and having the courage to say, “I’m not going to shoot any geese today.” If you can show that you have grown in some way, or learned something important about yourself, this will tell a college admissions counselor that you are open to new experiences and this is exactly what they are looking for.
Above all, don’t be afraid to reveal something important about yourself. It doesn’t have to be the height of drama, and it doesn’t have to involve an overseas mission trip or service trip (which are, by the way, highly overrated — we have heard, directly from UNC admissions officers, that they view these as ‘vacations’ and discount them immediately). But it doesn’t matter whether your family is privileged or poor, because you can find something compelling to write about.
By way of illustration, one of our recent college counseling students told us that she had nothing to write about. We started talking, and she said that she has, for years, been a “hugger” at the finish line of the Special Olympics. Her mother made her do it, but you know what? Suddenly, her essay topic was right in front of her.
Still struggling? Give Biltmore Tutoring a call at (828) 505-2495 and we’ll get you matched up with a tutor that can help you develop all of your college application essays.