Top College Admission Essay Myths Debunked

President, Wow Writing Workshop

Fall of senior year is officially crunch time, especially if you are eyeing early admission deadlines. But that’s no reason to get all worked up.

During this stressful time in your life, please remember to breathe! You’ve done all you can to up to this point to get good grades and tests scores. There’s only one thing left you can do to stand out: nail that college essay!

“It’s value-added,” says Michigan State University Director of Admissions Jim Cotter, a 30-year industry veteran. “At a moderately selective school, the essay can pull a student on the cusp up. At a highly selective school, a poor statement can make the difference between being admitted or not.”

There is a lot of misinformation out there that can take you off track. Consider these college essay myths and facts before you get started:

Myth: No one really reads the application essays.

Fact: Of course admission officers read your essays!

They wouldn’t ask you to write something they did not plan to read.

Admissions professionals want to read your story, the one you feel it’s important to share with them. It’s your story. Your voice. Your words. What they don’t want is to read a story about something you think they want to hear.

At the September 2014 National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference in Indianapolis, we polled about two dozen admission representative to find out if they really read the essays. The collective answer: yes!

“Last year we received 25,000 applications, and we read 25,000 essays,” says Amy Hoffman, Assistant Director of Admissions at Miami University of Ohio.

Myth: An application essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: You are impressive, not the topic.

The subject is you; the topic is secondary. A college application essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. Colleges want to know what you learned, not what you did.

One student started her admission essay confident that discussing a trip to help the poor in Central America would capture someone’s attention inside the admission office. But she wasn’t really talking about what she learned about herself. Instead, her most important personal moment occurred when she was hanging out with friends during the trip. She overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water. That experience would have been meaningful whether it had happened during a service trip in Costa Rica or on a family vacation.

“The essay does not have to be about something huge, some life-changing event,” says Calvin Wise, the Associate Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Johns Hopkins University. “You can write about an ‘a-ha’ moment, what defines you as a person. But it doesn’t have to be really extensive. Students think they need a monumental experience, but the essay can be about something small.

“What does it mean to you?” Wise asks. “That is what we want to know.”

Myth: Your college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Fact: Nope, admission officers do not expect you to sound like a professional writer.

The college essay is your story, and it should be written using your words, in your voice. You are a high school senior, and you should sound like one. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your English teacher. And certainly not one of the most revered writers of all time!

“I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17-year-old,” says Duke University’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag. “By the time (the applications) come to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized.”

Myth: Admission officers can’t tell if a parent, tutor, teacher, or college coach has “helped” a student with an essay. They won’t know if you plagiarized either.

Fact: Oh, yes they can. And there is a fine line between getting help and letting someone write part or all of your essay.

While parents and others cannot always tell the difference, admission officers know when someone other than the student writes a story. And they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admission committee can tell,” Cotter says.

Many schools, including the University of Michigan, will automatically reject a student’s application, even if they merely suspect plagiarism. The U-M website states: “Plagiarism is academic fraud and will cause your application to be thrown out of consideration. You know those great websites that will write your essays for you? We know about them too. Aah, the power of Google.”

Myth: There is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay.

Fact: Your best story will grow out of the process of writing your college application essay.

There are no tricks and no shortcuts to writing the “perfect” college application essay. You just need to trust the process.

Nor does the college essay need to be so daunting. That does not mean it will be easy, but it can be a little less stressful if you allow it to emerge from a process of discovery that includes brainstorming, free writing, revision, review, and editing.

Just keep reminding yourself: there is no magic formula to help you ace this assignment. To stand out, tell a genuine story about yourself using your words and your voice, and show some reflection.

Myth: Only superstar students impress admission officers with their essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story!

You don’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or train seeing-eye dogs to impress admission officers.

One student wrote a fabulous college essay about memorizing the general intestinal track to ace his anatomy final. Another wrote a gorgeous story about finding her passion for nature while pulling weeds in a community garden. One boy focused on the moment he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His problem-solving skills impressed admission officers, and one college sent him an offer of admission that praised his essay.

"I think sometimes students feel that because they haven't found the cure for cancer they have nothing to share," says Vanderbilt University’s Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Jan Deike. "Life is truly lived in the smaller moments."

So be personal. Be reflective. Move away from the English paper formula and write a first-person story that draws the reader in.

“There’s a misconception about what we do inside the admissions office,” Hopkins’ Wise adds. “We are trying to predict future potential. We need to dig deeper where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student. The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office, and we want to hear a 17-year-old’s voice.

How do you do that? Be personal. Be reflective. Move away from the five-paragraph English paper formula and write a first-person story that draws the reader in.

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