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10 Things to Know about Your College Essay

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It is almost time to start working on your college essay, if you are a rising senior. Probably sometime after junior finals you will sit down to write. Here are a few things to know.

1. Admissions readers typically read about 30 files a day between January 1 and March 1, and sometimes during the “early admissions” reading period.

2. The purpose of the essay is to share with the college what else you, the applicant, will bring to campus. Colleges already have your grades, your scores, your recommendations, and your activities. So you need to show them something new. Would you, for example, be a caring, supportive friend in the dorm? A planner of major social events? An aesthetic sole who will appreciate art exhibits, concerts, and plays produced on campus? A person who would actively respond to an emergency? A survivor who knows how to persevere when things get tough?

3. An effective approach in writing the essay is to find a story about you to share. Maybe tell a story that shares an approach to life. Or a story about a particular moment of clarity. Or a story of how you became the you that you are. Or a story about overcoming setbacks. The story and the details, as well as the words you employ reveal who you are.

4. What kind of stories can capture the attention of an admission’s reader who is reading his or her 23rd file of the day? I have probably read more than 5000 admissions essays, which is not many in the scheme of things, but the ones that work for me are those with a genuine voice that let me see an awareness of life or offer an openness of self.
I remember one story called “Don’t get You Head Down” about a young woman who believed it was her mission in life to made sure others didn’t get discouraged. I remember a story called “Kankles” about an athlete who shot lacrosse goals and philosophized with his friends after practice, while they good-naturedly made fun of his short calves. I remember one story called “3000 Tries” by a future engineer who like Edison never gave up. Edison didn’t make 3000 mistakes when he invented the light bulb; he discovered 3000 materials that could not be used for a light bulb element. I remember another story called “Two Floating Sandwiches” about a young sailor who flipped her boat three times while attempting her first open-ocean race. If you can tell a good story, you will be remembered.

5. The obvious goal for your essay, given the statistics above, would be to strive to engage the reader in the story. To do this well, you should begin with a good “grabber,” continue with on-going tension, and finish with a final resolution.

6. & 7. Another goal for your essay is to talk in a conversational voice—not the voice you would use to speak to a teacher , but the almost informal voice you use when you are thinking out loud to a friend. A related goal is to imagine you are telling your story to a sympathetic listener who already knows and likes you. This audience could be an affectionate older brother, your savvy grandmother, your fairy-godmother. But I must be someone who already appreciates the real you and will value your story. This will make your story more authentic and real.

8. To brainstorm for the story you want to tell use a list of 60-80 adjectives and choose those that describe you. Then pick 4 or 5 that suit you the best. Tell a full story to yourself or others that illustrates why each specific adjective describes you. Then choose among you stories.

9. Your essay is only one part of the application. But sometimes it ties together other pieces into a better presentation. Other parts are: transcript, with school profile and level of academic challenge (1), standardized test scores (2), counselor and teacher and other recommendations (3), a list of your activities (4), and an interview report, if interviews are recommended or required (5).

10. How important is the essay? It has more weight at some schools than others. At the University of Michigan, I have heard, where GPA can be worth up to 80 out of 100 points, and SAT scores can be worth up to 12 out of 100 points, the essay is only worth up to 2 points. At some smaller schools, however, an apathetic essay can be the cause for denial even if grades and SAT scores are strong. I have also heard that in actuality in 3% of application outcomes, a student who would have been admitted otherwise is not admitted because of his essay. And in 2% of application outcomes, a student who would have been denied otherwise is admitted because of his essay.

Suffice it to say, the essay is important enough, or might be, that no one should write it the night before it is due. And also at some point it is the only thing left within a student’s control that can influence his or her admissions outcome.

Good Luck!
Jan Rooker #college #essay #teenadvice

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