Getting Those College Application Essays Right
The advice I offer here is based, in part, upon my six-years of experience as an admissions officer at a highly selective university where I read and evaluated approximately 2,000 application essays every admissions season and, in part, upon my five years of experience as a high school teacher who read drafts of students’ application essays and advised how they might best address the various schools to which they were applying.
This December many high school seniors will devote a significant amount of their holiday break to completing college applications. As January 1st deadlines approach, college-bound students will find themselves rushing to complete the various components of the application package. The good news is that the process has never been easier now given that most institutions support some form of online application.
Nevertheless, as streamlined as the process has become, students need to be reminded that successful personal essays still demand a significant amount of time. Because the type of writing demanded of college applicants by the personal essay is only rarely taught in high school, most students are not prepared for what may be the most important piece of prose they will ever compose. This is not the moment for dashing off a quick piece of writing and hitting the send button before running out to that New Year’s Eve party. Indeed, the best way--really the only way--to approach the college essay in these final weeks before the deadline is to be certain to set aside ample time for reflection, drafting, revising, re-reading, and revising again before submitting a final draft that will present you to schools. It is worth noting that a well-written essay usually can, with minor revisions, serve as a response to essay prompts from several schools.
It is very important that students recognize that the personal essay represents an opportunity to speak in the present about themselves—each applicant in his or her own voice. More than anything else, it is voice that differentiates one essay from the hundreds of other essays that admissions officers read each year. When we speak of voice here, we mean the tone and approach that a writer chooses to use in answering an essay question. Students need to bear in mind that, when reading personal essays, admissions committees are as engaged as much by voice as they are by topic. A well-crafted essay necessarily has a voice that represents the writer as precisely the sort of person the admissions committee wants to see arrive on its campus next fall.
Application essay prompts help make clear how important voice is in the process. For example, the 2008/09 Common Application asks students to write an essay of a minimum 250 words and explains that the “personal essay helps us become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data...it will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself.” The 346 colleges and universities that accept the Common Application make it very clear that they hope to “become acquainted with” applicants through their essays; to a great extent, this acquaintance is made through the voice that a student presents. As the following examples make clear, the Common Application essay prompts invite students to discover the best voice for introducing themselves to admissions committees:
- Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
- Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
- Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
- Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
- A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
To help your child discover the best topic and voice for writing an application essay, engage him or her in a casual conversation with any of the above essay prompts. Through dialogue, both a topic and voice will begin to take form. Encourage your child to jot down ideas and key phrases. Have your child write up a deadlines schedule for a first draft, a revised draft, and a final draft completed several days before the January 1st deadline. Make sure that all deadlines are met.
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* Former admissions officer from Univ of Chicago & PhD
Reprinted with the permission of Academic Approach. © 2008 Academic Approach.
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