Writing the application essay is one of the most stressful parts of the college application process. Students are tasked with the job of writing a compelling essay that is authentic and unique while trying to convince a stranger they are worthy of admittance. And, according to the National Association for College Admission Consulting, the essay’s importance ranks just after grades, strength of curriculum and test scores. As a college consultant, former admissions officer and founder of AdmissionsCheckup.com, I have read my share of essays, both good and bad, over the years. We are now in prime essay-writing time, so I asked some of AdmissionsCheckup’s former admissions officers from Williams, Georgetown, Princeton, Bowdoin, Tufts, Columbia and many more what works and doesn’t work. Some of their answers may surprise you. (For a 10% coupon code, email [email protected] and mention BLOG.)
What makes an application essay stand out?
The best essay reflects the uniqueness of the applicant and approaches the topic in an unconventional manner. It should reveal something significant about the student’s experiences, values, beliefs, aspirations, thought process and growth. A predictable essay does not stand out. Eloquent use of the English language, without an overuse of SAT words no one understands, combined with insights will grab an admissions officer’s attention. The essay should be personal and real and the right dose of humor can also help.
Give us an example of an essay that really grabbed you.
One former admissions officer remembers a student who divided her experience with her 4-H lambs into reflections on the life cycle and four seasons. The essay had pithy imagery and revealed insights on her personal growth over a period of seven years.
Another memorable essay was when a student told the story about putting a ping pong ball into a microwave to see what would happen. She described exactly what happened—instead of writing an essay about her love of physics, she actually showed her passion.
What topics should be avoided?
The list includes deceased relatives, gimmicks, grudges, a sports injury, raging hormones, violence and anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read. Tread carefully on essays that discuss the “big” game or community service projects that could come off as patronizing.
What makes an essay awful?
Essays written for shock value do not go over well, nor do essays that are full of proclamations, platitudes and/or accomplishments. Students need to appear likeable and show the admissions officers how they can contribute to the school.
What is the worst thing a student can do on an application?
Lying or plagiarizing is the most common answer from AdmissionsCheckup’s former admissions officers, but sounding arrogant and not proofreading are application killers too.
The application essay is one of the most important components of the college application and can make or break an admissions officer’s decision. The bottom line is that the essay should tell a unique story about an important milestone that shows your growth and aspirations.
By Stephanie Klein Wassink
Stephanie Klein Wassink is the founder of AdmissionsCheckup.com and Winning Applications College Consulting. She frequently writes for blogs such as Money Magazine and The Huffington Post.