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The Importance of the College Essay

In November, The Daily Beast posted an article taken from Newsweek entitled “The College Essay: Why Those 500 Words Drive Us Crazy.” The author, who has published a book about the college application process of his own children, chronicles a Washington, DC “lawyer-mom” as she navigates the process with her son. Since the essay is one of the most heavily debated and stressful parts of applying to college, I wanted to give a few observations, based on my experience both as an admission counselor and college counselor.

First, I was amazed at how often the words panic, stress, anxiety appeared in the article. In my opinion, this just perpetuates these feelings. Parents (the intended audience) who read the article will either identify with the sentiment because they are feeling the same way. Parents who aren’t in a panic about their child applying to college will think they should be, and parents on the cusp of beginning the college application process might just want to hide under the bed until it’s over.

I was also struck by how the feelings of anxiety expressed in the article mirror those of many of the families we work with at Campus Bound. I also gained a strong sense of pride from knowing how much I am able to reduce the stress for a family by guiding them through the process.

The article largely focuses on the essay and its “mythical importance.” Citing a recent study that 1 in 4 private colleges places “considerable importance” on the essay and only 1 in 10 public universities gives the same designation. By saying that many colleges spend less than a couple of minutes on an application, the author seems to be saying that students and parents spend so much time worrying about a piece of the application that has no impact on the admission decision. So the advice would appear to be not to spend much time on the essay. However, the author then quotes guidance and admission counselors advising what makes a strong or weak essay.

Most colleges require an essay or personal statement as part of the application. The reality is that there are some colleges that simply process so many applications that they don’t have time to pore over every word of the essay, and in those cases a decision really does come down to grades and test scores. That does not give students license to submit poorly written essays. Take pride in your work and in yourself. The majority of private and smaller schools will read your essay and will be looking for some information about you and your writing ability. Some will read every word, with a red pen (guilty as charged), trying to glean some insight into your personality and what you can bring to the school. Some colleges will spend a few minutes to make sure you can write coherently (you’d be surprised what some students submit as essays). At many selective institutions, the essay can be the tiebreaker to admit or not, or even for a scholarship award.

The last line of the article was particularly bothersome to me. It reads, “…He’s a well-adjusted, normal kid. But that doesn’t make for a good essay, does it.” The student’s mom was referring to the idea that if a student hasn’t climbed Mt. Everest or saved the world by age 12, they are somehow “less than” in the admission process. Few things upset me more as an admission counselor than when a student would say, “I don’t have anything to write [my essay] about. I haven’t had anything bad happen to me and I haven’t done anything special.” Where did we go wrong in teaching our children to be proud of themselves, thankful for what they have, and to pursue their own interests and dreams, not ones they think will make them look good to colleges? True, some of the most poignant essays I’ve ever read have been from students who have overcome incredible hardship and tragedy - it didn’t give them an unfair advantage for admission. And I didn’t dismiss a student who had a fairly typical upbringing and wrote about what was important to them. To use the quote from the article, “well-adjusted, normal” kids can write very strong essays that tell the admission committee about themselves and their place in the world.

My takeaways from the article:

1.     Whether your essay will be read for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, make it as strong and personal as possible. Anything less is a missed opportunity and should you get less than favorable news from the college, you don’t want to be left wondering if you could have done more.

2.     Write your essay as if you are talking directly to an admission counselor who will read every word.

3.     Don’t focus on what you haven’t done or on what hasn’t happened to you. Be grateful for what you have, write about something important to you, and make sure your passion comes through. If your essay shows your best self, you’ve done your job.

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