Making the Most of Your College Essays

Now is that anxious time of year when college-bound high school seniors are making final decisions about where to apply, struggling with those dreaded application essays, and balancing all of that with making the most of senior year. It’s an exciting time often involving a fair amount of stress, but there are at least a few legitimate short cuts that can help you successfully manage it all.

For students applying to schools that utilize the Common Application, the same essay can typically be used at all the schools. For those applying at non-CA, moderately selective schools, or some combination of those schools with Common App institutions, you can very likely either use the same essay or essays, or find a way to integrate portions of your other essay into one with a slightly different focus.

Here is a quick run-down of the current set of six Common App questions that students have to choose from, in abbreviated form. Many colleges, whether CA members or not, use similar questions:

  • Relate a significant experience, achievement, risk or dilemma you have faced and describe its impact on you;
  • Share an issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and indicate why it affects you;
  • Describe a person who has had a significant influence in your life and the nature of their influence;
  • Identify a fictional character, historical figure, or creative work that has influenced you, and describe that influence;
  • Write on a topic of your choice.

In my view this is a nice set of topics, permitting a wide range of approaches. Some CA schools pose an additional supplemental question or essay topic.

Exceptions are Ivy League and highly selective schools, which often feature unique and complex essay topics as a way of challenging their applicants. Not long ago I assisted a client applying to all top tier schools by editing and making suggestions on his essays, and it was fascinating experience, which he was very much up for. At the other end of the spectrum is the occasional school with a clunker of an essay topic. To my surprise one such school  is the University of Colorado, which has as one of the longer of two required essays a request that the applicant make a response to the university strategic plan statement.  I have supported more than one student through the agony of this stultifying assignment, and I can only imagine that they get a lot of boring tripe in response; I can’t imagine why they continue to require this topic!

Whatever the number and topic of the essays you are required to write, take the assignment seriously, and plan on multiple drafts.  Also be certain to run a copy by someone in your life who will give you competent editorial suggestions, whether an English teacher, advisor, or member of your family. Here are two good sources of suggestions and examples for your essay writing:—learn-‘em-avoid-‘em





Early Fall College Planning

What should high school students and their families be doing in the late summer/early fall to be ahead of the college planning game? Here is what I would suggest:

Seniors: Do as much as you can before senior year starts. You will be distracted, you will be busy, and besides applying to colleges your main job will be keeping your grades up. Start your college essays; you can have them well underway if not finished before your classmates — one less stress during crunch time come November-December, which is prime application-time. Check the essay prompts for the Common Application, which are pretty typical.  Even if you are asked to write a different kind of essay by a particular school, cutting and pasting sections is often possible.

Also, do some initial scholarship research to see what you might qualify for (also a time-saver later), and visit any schools you have a clear interest in that you haven’t visited. Many colleges regard an official visit as an indication of sincere interest, so don’t miss out on communicating this.

Juniors: Do some serious prep for the ACT/SAT (see my blog of Feb 21, ‘11) and take each exam.  If your results aren’t stellar determine which was your strongest test, do more prep and re-take it.  Schools will only consider your highest scores, so there is no downside to repeating these tests.

Make this a standout academic year, as junior year grades are what you will be showcasing in the majority of your applications come fall of senior year. Maintain one or two of your past extracurriculars, as these will be scrutinized as well.

Begin building a college list and touring colleges in earnest to identify what kinds of schools match you, and to establish your interest.  Participate in some of the college fairs that happen locally in the fall. This is a great chance to learn more about all kinds of colleges, collect information, and meet admissions reps.

By all means, consider working with an independent educational consultant!:)

I made additional recommendations for high school sophomores and freshmen in my past blog of Sept 28, ‘09; check it out!


Stalking the Admission Essay

What’s the best way to approach the admission essay required by most selective colleges? First, directly address the prompt, whatever it may be; second, be yourself.

If you’re a wit, be witty; if you’re artistic, be creative; if you’re a deep thinker, go deep. If you’re serious about environmentalism and the prompt permits such a discussion, by all means share your passion for the subject. Also visualize in your mind’s eye the poor admissions’ counselor sitting at her or his desk with a stack of perhaps 60 applications to read, and imagine yours in the number 57 position.  Will your essay capture the attention of this beleaguered soul, or will it lead to a deeper glazing of the eyes?

What you should NOT do is compose an essay in which you tell the college why they would be lucky to have you, or submit an essay that reads like an application for employment, where you reel off accomplishment after accomplishment.

Here is an excerpt from a funny one-time college essay that has acquired iconic status over the years. Enough folks have read it that you shouldn’t remotely consider using it as a model, but it’s good for a chuckle. I found it again recently in the Answer Sheet Blog in the Washington Post. Apparently the author was a fellow named Hugh Gallagher, now a professional writer (naturally!).


“I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

“I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

“Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

“I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

“I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

“I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

“But I have not yet gone to college.”

Top 10 Traits Colleges Seek in Students

From IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, based on a survey of members:

1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include AP or IB classes.

2. Grades that represent strong effort and an upward trend. However, slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all As in less challenging coursework.

3. Solid scores on standardized tests (SAT, ACT). These should be consistent with high school performance.

4. Passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership and initiative. Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important.

5. Letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselor that give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and an interest in learning.

6. A well-written essay that provides insight into the student’s unique personality, values, and goals. The application essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should demonstrate careful and well-constructed writing.

7. Special talents or experiences that will contribute to an interesting and well-rounded student body.

8. Demonstrated leadership in activities. Colleges want people who will arrive prepared and willing to take leadership of student activities and events.

9. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school, leisure pursuits, and more.

10. Demonstrated enthusiasm to attend, often exhibited by campus visits and an interview, showing an interest toward attending the college.