Writing Effective College Application Essays

| TBS Staff

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education—Chapter Four

The Big Picture

Many students don't think the college essay matters all that much in the college application, but since this is the only time students can “talk” to a college, the essay proves to be very important. Since colleges are reading the essays to get a sense of the student's “voice”, you'll want to write a personal essay that shows them how you think, how you feel, and what matters to you in the world. The “Why Us” essay asks students to explain what they see in the college that makes it a special place to them, and how they plan on making the most of what the college has to offer. In answering both of these kinds of essays, the student will want to make sure they communicate in an honest way that completely answers the question, and that they do so in their own words. Students will also want to make sure they aren't being too personal in their responses, and that they select an editor for their essays who is willing to support the student's efforts to write their own best essay, and nothing more.

In many ways, the essay is the most important part of the college application. Think about it: the grades you've earned in your high school classes tell part of the story of who you've been, and so do your test scores. But where do the colleges get to find out who you are now, and learn more about what matters to you, what you think about, and what you'd like to do in the future? All of those answers can be part of a strong college essay, where sharing the story of your life can make all the difference between bringing your application to life, and being just another applicant with a bunch of numbers.

But most students don't see it that way. They view the college essay as just one more part of the application, another item on the college checklist they have to take care of. Besides, writing is hard. It takes a long time to put together a book report, or a research paper—and that essay on what I did on my summer vacation? Please!

It's easy to see that most of the writing students do is hard—but a lot of it is pretty easy, too. Think about all the writing you do that has nothing to do with school. Texting your friends. Posting captions with your pictures online. Talking about who did what at a recent concert, or what someone wore to the music awards show. It isn't hard to write then—in fact, most students love to write then. You put an opinion out there, someone responds, you post an answer, someone else jumps in the conversation, and suddenly, there's a real exchange of ideas going on. Nothing stuffy or boring, but the real you, talking about real ideas.

If it's done well, that's exactly what a good college essay does—inspires ideas. If they could, the college you're applying to would have you come to campus, take a tour, talk with the admissions officer for an hour or so, get some lunch, talk a little bit more with the admissions officer, grab some swag at the bookstore, and then head home. If they did that, they'd really know who you are, and what matters to you. But if they did that with every applicant, they'd need 20 years to decide who gets admitted.

Since they can't do that, they ask for your side of those conversations in writing—and just like a face-to-face conversation or a really good text discussion, the quality of the conversation in the college essay is all up to you. Instead of seeing this as one more part of the application, think of it as the best chance you're going to get to show them who you are, and your goal is to get them so focused in your world, that they'll look up at the end of the essay and wonder where you went, because they'll feel like you've been talking with them. You can do that with a good post to social media, so you can also do it with a good college essay. It isn't quite the same thing (no LOLs in a college essay), but the tone is very similar.

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Kinds of College Essays: The Personal Statement

There are three different kinds of college essays, and the personal statement is the one most students are familiar with. Personal statements give the student an idea, or prompt, and ask the student to write about it. These prompts can be very detailed, like this one from The Common Application that's used by over 500 colleges:

Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

In the world of college applications, this is like your best friend texting you and asking, “What's up?” It isn't like a math problem, where there's just one answer, and it isn't like an English quiz, where they ask about just one part of the book. Here, you get to pick a part of your life to share with the college, and what it means to you. Where the story goes, and how you get there, is pretty much up to you.

To be honest, this is where most students blow it. Rather than see this as a chance to tell their story, they think they have to give a speech, or write a book report, which makes the tone of the essay very stiff and boring. Worse, some students think they don't have anything important to say. Since they haven't cured cancer, or won six Grammys, they feel like the college doesn't really want to hear their story. It's almost like the student is thinking, “They don't really care about me.”

But here's the thing

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