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Dirty Secrets of College Admissions-The College Essay

April 13, 2009 By: Category: College application essays, Get into College

On April 4, high school juniors breathed a sigh of relief. They took the ACT, and it is now behind them.  They will have jumped over a major hurdle in the college admission process. Are the admission hurdles now a thing of the past for our college-bound seniors? Not quite yet…


Photo by pigpogm

As I met with high school juniors on my travels through New Mexico and Colorado this past week, they are anxious about the the various aspects of the college application process, namely their personal college essays.   Here are some of the reoccurring college essay-related questions that I heard this week:

  • What should I write about?
  • Is there a right way to write my essay?
  • Should I have a counselor proofread it?
  • What if I don’t have enough space to tell my story?

After hearing the same questions from many different students, I decided to focus today’s blog on the personal college essay. Hopefully, my thoughts will calm some of the concerns out there.

While writing the college essay can be one of the most challenging aspects of the admission process, it’s an opportunity to let admission officers understand who you are as a person. You should take advantage of this chance to tell your unique story. You’re more than a GPA, an AP score or class rank. Colleges want to learn more about you-about you as an individual or about your interests. I encourage you to write about a passion of yours-something that excites you. Think about your favorite birthday or an exotic family vacation. Now think about yard work or household chores. As you probably would agree, it’s easier to describe experiences that are enjoyable, invigorating or rewarding. Writing about your passions allows your true character to come forth.

As you think about writing your essay, be sure to set aside enough time. Students should block 3-4 two-hour blocks of time spread out over a 2 week span. This allows students to properly create an outline for their essays, to critically reflect on the content, and to share various drafts with parents or counselors. You should not assume that you will have your final draft completed after one setting. The weakest essays are often the ones assembled at the last minute. Most admission counselors read between 800-1000 applications per season, and it’s easy to spot a last-minute essay. Give your essays a chance to develop with time. Many first drafts start out too long. That’s OK. You will reduce the essay’s size through proofreading and by reflecting on it over time. To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, if I had more time, I would have written a shorter personal essay.

Once you have begun to write your essay, maintain a consistent voice and theme. Admission officers are looking for the clarity of your writing style and an understanding of your sentence structure in addition to the essay’s content. Always include specific, concrete examples. Essays that rely on vague generalities don’t provide the same level of understanding or comprehension for the reader. While still being succinct, we want the writer to use specific examples.  At Fort Lewis College, we provide students with three separate essay choices.   These options allow students to choose an essay question that works for them-hopefully allowing students to write something that they care about. 

Students should stay within the word count limits. While admission officers aren’t going to automatically deny admission to a student whose essay exceeds the word count, be mindful that admission officers are reading a 20-40 applications per night and don’t have time to sort through an extra page. After a long day of reading applications, a 5 page essay instead of a 2 page essay could have a negative subjective response from your reader. Indeed, don’t feel compelled to use the entire word count. I’ve seen many an essay fall apart at the end because the writer forced the final 50 words.

The essay’s tone can cause concern for students. Students often try to add humor to their essay, but I encourage you to be careful about using humor. In some situations, it can work. In other situations, it can backfire. My recommendation is to use humor only if it comes naturally to you as part of your writing style. Again, be yourself, and let your inner voice shine through. On the flip side, don’t be pretentious or snooty. Just be yourself.

Finally, proofread, proofread, proofread. Each year, I see a handful of essays with misspellings or worse yet, the use of the wrong college’s name in the essay. You should always have a friend, parent or counselor read your essay before you submit it. I also find reading essays aloud-as a means of proofreading-to be an effective way to catch mistakes or questionable sentences. I recall a student a few years ago who ended his essay with “It’s been a lifelong dream to attend INSERT NAME OF COLLEGE HERE.” Please avoid mistakes like this.

Obviously, there are many other aspects of the personal essay to cover-Too many to cover if I am to follow my own advice of being succinct.

To continue the conversation, please feel free to share your thoughts or questions on the personal essay.