Writing an Effective College Application Essay

By the time students apply to colleges, there is not much they can change about their GPA, number of AP classes, standardized test scores or extracurricular activities. They can’t control teacher or counselor recommendations.

The one part of the application they have total control over is the essay or personal statement. While an essay won’t compensate for mediocre grades and test scores, at a time when so many academically accomplished students are applying to selective colleges, an impressive essay can be the deciding factor between two strong applicants.

There’s not one right topic or one approach to writing an essay. That’s what makes it so difficult for students who are used to following directions and finding the right answer in school. There are many right answers here.

The first step is to generate potential topics. At this stage, it’s important to not make judgments, but to write down any ideas that come to mind. Some of them will be lousy. Maybe most of them will be lousy. But it only takes one good idea, and if students keep at it and don’t expect to come up with the perfect essay topic in one day, they will be successful.

An effective personal statement is honest, introspective and reflective. It could be about one moment, one day, or a lifetime. Ideally, the student has a realization, a moment of understanding something in a different way.

Students should present themselves in the best, honest light. Addressing a weakness is fine if a student can show insight and growth. The essay needs to communicate a positive outlook and focus on how the student has changed. It’s fine to offer an offbeat perspective on the world, but it’s also important to communicate an open mind. Admissions officers want to know that students are psychologically healthy enough to cope with the stress of leaving home, handling a college workload and living with other people.

An essay or personal statement is not an English paper. This isn’t the time to pull out the thesaurus and use big words to sound more impressive. Readers want to hear the student’s voice, so the tone should be conversational rather than formal.

Admissions officers might spend only a minute or two reading an essay, so it’s important to get them hooked with a strong opening. Writing that is clear and concise, as well as specific and personal, will keep the reader going.

Several admissions directors recently told me they are reading the “Why do you want to attend our school?” short essays more carefully. One director said that students don’t usually get help on these questions like they do on the longer essays, so he believes he gets a writing sample that is truly the student’s work.

Another reason to spend time on this question is that some schools try to gauge how serious a student is about attending. Knowing something about the college and being able to say why it is a good match tells admissions officers that the student was motivated enough to do some research and to write a thoughtful answer to the question. A student who clearly communicates a strong interest in the college may have an edge.

There’s another, perhaps more important reason to think carefully about this question. It helps students clarify their reasons for choosing a certain school, and if they can’t come up with anything to say, perhaps they shouldn’t be applying to that school.

Students who are able to articulate what they want and how they would fit into a college community not only improve their chances of admission, they have a better chance of making a good college match.

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