The Role of College Counselors in Students' Application Essays

As a college counselor, you can foster the writing of brilliant essays by understanding their purpose, what makes them stand out, and how to edit without taking over.

As a college counselor, you can foster the writing of brilliant essays by understanding their purpose, what makes them stand out, and how to edit without taking over.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

“All happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“Call me Ishmael.”

You’ll likely recognize these as the famous opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Moby Dick, respectively. They represent classic and unforgettable tales spun by some of the world’s greatest masters of language. While you may not have the next Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, or Melville lurking among your students, college application essays offer them a chance to show off their writing chops and leave a high-impact, if not Dickensian, impression on admission officials. As a college counselor, you can foster the penning of brilliant essays by understanding their purpose, what they should include, and what makes them stand out.

Why college application essays matter

An admission official is reviewing the applications of two seemingly equally qualified applicants. Their grades, GPAs, and class rank are nearly identical. When numbers aren’t enough, a well-written essay can help determine who is accepted and who isn’t. Outstanding essays can also shed a favorable light on students with average credentials in other areas of their applications. The importance of a gripping and memorable narrative can’t be underestimated.

Essays can breathe life into an otherwise one-dimensional application. They allow students to elaborate on things like extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and personal experiences that will make them both academically successful and positive additions to the student body. They can also help admission officials gauge an applicant’s overall level of maturity, intellect, and preparedness for college life.

While it is imperative that college counselors have an understanding of the significance of essays in order to help their students craft them, Keith Berman, a certified education planner and President and Founder of Options for College, recommends going one step further.

“Know how to write and be willing to write an essay of your own just to show students it is possible,” says Berman. “Know your grammar and understand narrative.”

Anatomy of a compelling application essay

The types of essay questions your students encounter will vary by school, but the primary tenets of successful essays and the modus operandi for writing them are relatively constant. A few of the parameters to work within include:

  • To thine own self be true. First and foremost, students must be themselves. Devising elaborate falsified accounts of some harrowing, life-changing experience probably won’t pass muster because it will read as disingenuous. Likewise, students should write in their own voice and avoid such tactics as employing a contrived vocabulary or an unnaturally high-minded style. Overusing the thesaurus can have disastrous consequences as well. Of course, students should write clearly, coherently, and intelligently and their essays should reflect their writing ability at its best. But this isn’t the time to take a stab at emulating Ulysses. If the writing is forced, it will fail. College counselors who have gotten to know their students will be able to read their essays and spot insincerity, affectations, and blatant works of fiction. You might even consider asking your students for writing samples before they begin their essays in order to get a better sense of how their personalities normally come across on paper.

    “Some of the best essays I have read have been by students who have really revealed themselves,” says Catherine Marrs, a certified college counselor at Marrs College Admission Advisors. “They give the reader real insight into their heart, such as a student’s love and admiration of a sibling with a serious physical disability, or students who reveal their own vulnerability and/or can laugh at themselves.”
  • Clean it up. Essays should be impeccable and demonstrate a mastery of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. A misplaced or missing period could end up speaking louder than the words themselves. Vocabulary should be neither overextended nor elementary. A student may not describe an influential mentor as “garrulous,” but perhaps he was “verbose”--he certainly was not “chatty.” Let students know that these small but critical details will benefit greatly from several sets of eyes.
  • Stay on track. Another pitfall to watch for is the question itself. It may seem obvious, but students should be reminded to actually answer the question and stay on topic. It can be easy to go off on a tangent or completely change the subject without ever returning to it. Even if a student doesn’t like the question, it still has to be answered directly. The essay should be so clear in its intent that anyone reading it could infer what question is being answered.
  • From beginning to end. A strong introduction and conclusion are vital. When reading a student’s essay, watch for an immediately engaging introduction. Admission officials are pressed for time, so getting to the point and seizing their interest straightaway is a must. Conclusions should bring the essay to a logical and emphatic ending. The final paragraph should not be a summary but should instead stress or reiterate the student’s strengths as an attractive candidate for admission. It’s an opportunity to leave one last impression, so it needs to be a good one.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but with a little diligence, ingenuity, and the help of a few discerning editors, even the most writing-averse student can conduct a symphony of words that will wow the admission committee. So what are some of the specific ways in which college counselors can help their students hone their essays to perfection without taking over them entirely?

College counselors as essay editors

College counselors can play an informed and objective role as editors of students’ application essays. They are far enough removed from students’ personal lives that they won’t be tempted to give unwarranted praise, as close relatives or friends may be inclined to do. College counselors may also have a more in-depth understanding of the college admission machine and what gets a student plucked from a conveyor belt of applicants and thrown into the “accepted” pile. Over time, they also see which essays get students accepted and which essays don’t work, so they know what attributes, both good and bad, to watch for.

“A college counselor is a guide, not a writer of the student’s essay,” says Sandra Bramwell, Director of Versan Educational Services. “We inspire stories within them to come out and read for the essence of their souls, their characters.”

Catherine Marrs sums it up by offering a few tips for college counselors as they help students with their essays:

  • Work with students to understand what the colleges are looking for from an applicant and help them select the prompt that best gives them a platform to share more about who they really are.
  • Help students brainstorm ideas and key words. Hopefully the counselor is able to convey to them that the key to a good essay is to share more about who they are in their hearts . . . what makes them “tick.”
  • Give students very pointed feedback, such as, “I started thinking about what I was going to eat for dinner,” or, “I got lost in the first paragraph.”
  • Tell students that if they are funny and can write a funny essay, go for it. Otherwise, they should not try to be someone they are not.
  • Caution students not to have too many people proof or critique their work, as the chances become greater that the essay will not be the student’s when all is said and done.

Tempting as it may be, no one reviewing a student’s application essay should write, rewrite, or over-edit any portion of it. It may seem helpful, but it’s doing a disservice to the student, who should be using the opportunity to show the school who he or she truly is while making a first attempt at college-level writing.

Bramwell echoes that last piece of advice. “The student’s voice is real and that is why it’s always refreshing to read essays after 16 years of counseling, because I don’t know what I’ll get!” she says. “I try to stay trendy with my students and I read a lot to inform me of what appeals to them at this stage in their lives. I introduce them to films, theater, and discussions to help unlock their inner child. What I will not do is write the essay. The student has to feel a sense of accomplishment in his or her own work.”

And that’s what it’s really about: helping your students create something that they can be proud of by gently coaxing from them the best of their own ideas in their own words. They simply need honest and insightful feedback that will help them shape those ideas into something extraordinary.

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