Much of a college application is fairly straightforward, asking students about family, interests and educational background. But things can get tricky when it comes to the essays, their open-endedness requiring students to effectively delve into who they are as people. The idea is to give an admission officer a glimpse into the applicant’s personality.
Some schools require just one essay. Others have supplemental essays that ask more specific questions or pose hypotheticals to see how a student thinks. Regardless of the topic, it’s an opportunity to make an impression. To do so, students need to start thinking about what they want to convey early—usually the summer between junior and senior year.
“What we’re really looking for is to give the student the opportunity to use their own authentic voice to stand out,” says Dr. Douglas Zander, director of admissions at the University of Delaware. “Use the essay to express your journey. Whatever you’re talking about—if it’s an essay about an experience that was life changing for you, or something happened that really influenced who you are today—express that as a journey that brings to light your authentic self. When we’re thinking about who we’re admitting, it’s with an expectation that we understand who this candidate is and whether they’re going to best benefit from attending the university, for their sake as well as ours.”
But many students aren’t exactly sure who they are as a person, so it’s easy to get “really bogged down with the open-endedness of the question,” says Caroline Gromis, an essay specialist at Educational Services, with locations in Chadds Ford and Wayne, Pa.
Those struggling to hone in on who they are should sit down with a trusted adult—like a parent or grandparent—to target those defining moments in life. “Sometimes, we don’t recognize when we’re that young that an experience we’ve had is truly unusual,” Zander says. “So somebody with a little more maturity can look back with them and help them come up with those things that are unusual and defining and rare.”
Zander advises avoiding overused topics. “If a student is going to describe an experience that’s around athletics, find a way to do it that’s a bit more unusual,” he says.
Gromis agrees. “I’ve read a lot of essays about travel—how students go on a trip, experience a different culture and realize something about themselves,” she says. “[Admissions officers are] reading thousands and thousands of essays—you want to search through your ideas for the topic that’s going to be really unique and special and make you stand out.”
Students often feel that they must write to the word count, but Gromis and Zander recommend keeping essays concise. “I typically tell my students to write very comprehensively,” says Gromis. “Thoroughly explain what’s going on. Use as many words as you want to start with, and then work on paring it down.”
Having a keen eye is also important in supplemental sections. “It’s important to really look at the prompt and see what’s being asked,” says Zander.
If you have something to explain—like a low grade, for instance—use the space. But if it simply doesn’t apply to you and it’s optional, leave it blank. “Take every opportunity to show who you are in the best light you can,” says Zander. “But just filling in space [isn’t necessary].”
As you might expect, avoiding grammar and spelling mistakes is also important. “It will unnecessarily give us pause,” notes Zander.
Even worse than that: submitting an essay that addresses another university. “You’d be surprised how often we get something that has a different school’s name on it,” Zander says.
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