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Insider Essay Advice

Where does your application essay stack up against the thousands that are submitted every year?

Every year, thousands of high school seniors apply to U.S. colleges and universities, and most submit application essays (or personal statements) that are thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate. But after reading upwards of 2,000 essays, as most university admission counselors do each year, a few things become clear . . . like which books are required reading in senior English and literature classes, or how some applicants mistakenly think it’s acceptable to produce an essay by cutting and pasting from a number of sources (also known as plagiarizing), and that proofreading is becoming a lost art.

Your essay, reviewed

After 28 years of working in university admission, I know students tend to think of essays as the most mysterious part of the application process. In truth, there’s no mystery. When admission counselors review applications, they look at every word of every document submitted. They check the grade point average and SAT, ACT, TOEFL, and/or IELTS scores. They look at the caliber of the courses the student took in secondary school. And they read the essay—often more than once—for each applicant.

Of course, admission counselors do not expect perfection. They do, however, want to see a reasonable level of competency as a writer and proof that the applicant can string together thoughts and draft cogent sentences. To do this, take the time to plan out your essay before writing it. Focus on the prompt or question, then make an outline that you can flesh out with interesting details when you finally sit down to write. Keep in mind that while the essay doesn’t need to sound like an academic paper, you should still have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Writing with passion is a definite plus. Writing about armed robberies you committed and got away with—yes, it’s been done—is a bad idea. So is making a “mash-up” essay from different sources. Admission counselors expect original content, and they use plagiarism-detection software to make sure they’re getting it. They also can recognize essays written by your parents or an advisor.

Students should write about themselves and what they know, telling a story that no one else can share. People cannot be defined by their test scores and grades, and the essay is your chance to give your application some personality! After reading your essay, admission counselors should have a good idea of who you are: your character, your life, your goals, etc. If you’re genuine and passionate, it will show.

Finding a purpose

Of the hundreds or thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of applications universities receive each year, many come from students who are neither an automatic “yes” nor “no.” In these cases, the essay is especially important. A quality essay can turn a “maybe” into a “yes.” By the same token, a poorly written essay has been known to do the reverse.

Everybody’s definition of quality is a little different, but there are a few universal rules:

Stay on message. Some colleges have a specific essay question all applicants must answer. If that’s the case, don’t use your essay as a platform to rebel and write about something else. Many schools give a choice of two to four questions or prompts. A common essay prompt, for example, is “Why are you interested in attending XYZ University?” If that’s the essay you choose to write, put ample thought into it. Saying, “the campus is pretty” or “the school is highly ranked” is not sufficient, and more importantly, it doesn’t tell the admission counselor anything about you.

Give specific reasons—the more specific, the better. For example, “My favorite childhood gift was a small, plastic microscope. The slides that came with the device did not satisfy my curiosity, so I would spend hours scrounging around the kitchen and our backyard, collecting bits of natural material. I carefully examined pieces of leaves and squished tomato pulp, always making detailed records of what I saw. That love for research and discovery has stayed with me, and I know I would enjoy and benefit from the student-faculty research opportunities in biomedical engineering unique to undergraduates at XYZ University.” You want to be that specific.

The essay also gives applicants a chance to address any issues, like a brief slump in grades during the sophomore year or why the GPA isn’t what it should be. If you have a good explanation, then share it, but also explain what you learned and why it won’t happen in college. Do not pin the blame on anyone else, either. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Universities look for students with integrity who intend to succeed.

Refer to the school by name. Just make sure it’s the right name. Admission counselors know you’re probably applying to several schools and may be sending a “similar” essay to each. That’s fine. But when you’re applying to State University, don’t submit an essay about “Why you have always wanted to go to Private College.”

You’re not the only applicant. A common essay theme is “Write about a book you love.” Whenever that’s the case, universities receive a slew of essays about books commonly mandated in English or writing classes. I can’t tell you how many essays I’ve read about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Kite Runner, among many others. These are certainly inspiring works of literature, and it’s perfectly acceptable to write about them, but students should remember that many of their fellow applicants may be writing about the same topic. You want your essay to stand out! Make the topic your own by finding ways to relate it back to you—it will show that you are invested in what you’re writing.

If you’re going to turn in a graded paper, which some schools allow or even require, make sure you received a good grade. If you got a bad grade, there’s a reason behind it. Whether you’re submitting a graded piece or a new essay, share only your very best work.

Don’t over-write. Aim for one page, about 500 words. Or, if the school provides a word count, adhere to it. If you find yourself going over 500 words (or their word limit), consider it an exercise in editing for conciseness. An essay with well-written, succinct sentences is preferable to “flowery” language—sentences sprinkled with lots of adjectives and hyperbole. And please, double-space your essay. That makes it easier on readers’ eyes. When you’re reading 2,000 essays, anything that makes the process more manageable is appreciated.

Finishing touches

Once you’ve gone through the planning stages and written your essay, take the time to review it. Then review it again. And again. Spelling and grammar errors reflect poorly on you as an applicant, and your computer’s built-in spelling and grammar check may not catch every error, so it’s very important to edit carefully. You should also have your parents, friends, writing professor, and guidance counselor read the essay before you send it; they may catch other mistakes or highlight unclear passages. Finally, read the essay aloud to yourself once or twice. It’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them!

If you approach the application essay with passion and planning, you will be sure to capture admission counselors’ attention—and a place in the freshman class.

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