How To Write a Stand-Out College Essay
Some teens think their college essay, or “personal statement,” will determine their entire future, and others bristle and balk when asked to finally write it, believing it will never be read.
The truth is somewhere in between. The essay itself won’t propel an average student into Harvard, but may indeed make a difference.
For the 2015-16 application season, the Common Application announced that their 600-plus member schools, which include many private and public universities, need not require essays (although some still require supplementary ones). Inside Higher Ed, a popular website monitoring issues in higher education, estimated that 20 percent of members will eliminate the essay requirement.
Read or Not?
There has always been speculation as to the value colleges place on the essay.
At a college fair, a highly selective East Coast university representative confided in me that admissions decisions were so difficult last year that the essays were the best way to distinguish among many well-qualified applicants. In other words, an outstanding essay may tip the scales.
However, after studying admissions at an unnamed top-tier school, Stanford sociology professor Mitchell Stevens wrote in a 2014 New Republic article that students should stop obsessing because “personal essays rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers.”
“All this scribbling has almost nothing to do with whether the student gets in,” he wrote.
Patricia Krahnke, president of Global College Search and former assistant admissions director at Rutgers University and Vermont State Colleges’ dean of admissions, agrees with Stevens. She tells me large schools receiving 30,000 to 60,000 applications are using software to crunch numbers and manage the volume of applications.
“Big schools – they are not reading (the essay) unless there is a compelling reason,” she says, adding “essays will slow the applications coming in from kids,” which runs counter to a college’s goal of raising the application count. Students will be accepted “if the student’s numbers fit the academic profile of the institution,” she says.
Randi Heathman, college advisor and former senior assistant director of admission at Michigan’s Albion College, tells me no essay is left entirely out of the equation at any college, but great ones are read with enthusiasm, and others may just be skimmed. Strong essays, she says, “can have a strong positive impact on the applicant,” whereas “weak ones…can leave a student at a disadvantage when they are put up against…essays that are stronger.”
Both Stanford University and University of California Berkeley officials insist they read all essays.
“We read the essays,” Richard Harding Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid at Stanford, says by email. Similarly, Amy Jarich, assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions at Berkeley, writes: “We read every application, including the two personal statements, by two separate readers.”
Jennifer Sandoval-Dancs, director of admission at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) near Los Angeles assured that they read every essay: “Any school that’s really holistic reads them and requires only what they actually use.”
In other words, they wouldn’t ask for them if they didn’t read them. Last year, CMC had eight admissions officers and 10 part-time readers for 7,100 applications.
College planning consultant and former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College, Joie Jager-Hyman, says that admissions committees do indeed read each and every essay, especially at highly selective colleges. The B+ Grades A+ College Application author says, however, that some essays are afforded 20 minutes, and others just a perfunctory glance.
Jager-Hyman also confirms what my college fair buddy shared: essays are used to help “choose between this valedictorian and that one” in the highly competitive schools.
College counselors weighing in on the college review website Unigo indicated that, depending on the school, up to four people could read a single essay.
What’s the Formula?
There is no way to know who will be assigned to read a given essay, says Jager-Hyman. Every reader has his own taste in what he wants and what matters to him, and a student sometimes gets lucky. “You have to hope that (the reader’s) taste jives with your sensibility,” Jager-Hyman says.
She says that a well-written essay about chunky peanut butter, for example, might be viewed as sincere, or not serious enough, depending on the reader. Still, she acknowledges that there is such a thing as “an objectively good essay.”
On Unigo, Heathman says, “Great essays pull (readers) in like great novels,” and she tells students to “give them a great reason to tune in and read it all the way through!”
According to Krahnke, essays – particularly those submitted to smaller, selective schools – should demonstrate that the student “has clearly done some deep thinking.” She says “schools are looking for signs of motivation,” and want essays to be personal. Colleges want to “hear specifically what you learned from an experience” – not clichés.
Many advisors and colleges urge applicants to spell-check and proofread, but Krahnke’s focus was never perfection. “I (didn’t) care about polish …I would rather see a few mistakes to show that the student wrote it,” she says. “It’s like the difference between handmade and machine-made.”
Sandoval-Dancs adds: “We want to feel like they are talking to us: (like) they’re sitting there.”
In this competitive climate, many students think their essay must reflect an earth-shattering achievement, like curing cancer or ending world starvation, but that’s not its purpose. It’s also not a place to reiterate one’s résumé or explain away a bad semester (there’s a section in the application for that).
Admissions officials have seen plenty of overused topics, such as a venerated parent, a game-winning goal or volunteer work in the soup kitchen. These essays can’t work without a personal connection or engaging observations.
Many experts gave the same advice: students should write about what is important to them, not what their parents think is important or what they think colleges want to hear.
I know parents who believe kids who can’t sit down and write essays themselves aren’t ready for four-year college. Jager-Hyman said there are some who believe a 17-year-old need only “put one foot in front of the other” and apply himself to complete this task. But in reality, many otherwise-capable teens have no clue where to start.
When asked to write an essay about something meaningful to them, teens suddenly claim no passion for anything. They have passion, but they need to identify it before they can share their story.
The colleges want to know what makes the student tick, and for the students to express that, they must become introspective. Krahnke says she helps students discover for themselves what’s inside by telling them to step away for a moment from the frenzied pre-college race “to find the thing inside of (them)…removing the mask they wear, and talk about their lives and world.” She advises: “Shut down your tech…and close your eyes, wave away the voices you hear every day… until all you can hear is your own heartbeat. Hear what it’s telling you.”
She says “very often the thing you think is worthless to know about you is the very thing that makes you special.” For instance, she advised one student to keep “his wonky use of phrasing” because it made him sound real and not “like just another cog in the genius machine.”
Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford and author of The New York Times bestseller How To Raise An Adult—Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, says the personal essay is “the student’s opportunity to take a look at the self – lessons learned over the years, values clarified, perspective honed – and produce a piece of writing that allows them to emerge from the two-dimensionality of grades, scores, and lists of things done into a three-dimensional human…The more your actual kid pops off the page – what they thought, felt, feared, saw, wished, hated, adored, believed, discounted, and why – the better.”
Using a Professional Coach
“We...find hiring of professional essay coaches completely distasteful,” Stanford’s Shaw told me. “It is not the student’s work so (it’s) not honest or authentic. We want an applicant to have freedom to share their voice; not someone else’s.”
Jarich, speaking for Berkeley, was not quite as harsh: “We discourage the use of professional coaches, but if students choose to use one, the final work should be their own.”
Evidently, there is a fear that students who hire coaches won’t be presenting original work, which would be cheating.
In a 2007 Boston magazine article, Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, drew a parallel between professional essay editing and hiring an imposter to sit for the SAT.
Lythcott-Haims, the former Stanford official, tells me it’s unethical for a student to represent an essay as his own “when someone else outright writes or rewrites it,” noting that “a multibillion dollar independent college counseling industry… profit(s) from parents’ anxieties, (and) it can be hard for a parent to buck these over-helping trends.”
But there is a big difference between a professionally written essay and an essay conceived, written and revised by a student, under the direction of a professional coach. The Independent Educational Consultants Association bans members from writing any portion of a student’s essay, and the Higher Education Consultants Association directs members to advise students to be the sole author of their applications and essays.
High school English teachers and guidance counselors routinely help students to start their essays, and later read the essays and suggest changes. So, why do colleges frown on professional coaches?
The concern is that “someone will be edited out of their own essay,” says Sandoval-Dancs of Claremont McKenna College. “Writing is a process. Students should feel confident that this is their process. We don’t want anyone coming in and taking over… it can break down their confidence and ability to succeed.”
Moreover, it impedes a school’s ability to see who they are, get a sense of their authentic voice and writing style, and determine if they are prepared for the writing demands of college.
“We don’t have a problem with (students) having some assistance,” she says, understanding that students want to present themselves in the best light. She encourages applicants to ask someone who doesn’t know their narrative, such as a neighbor or church member, to provide a fresh look at the essay.
“We want honesty in that process, and we have a lot of trust that (applicants) are pursuing this process with integrity,” she says. She does not object to coaches if they help students tell their story and become better writers and agrees it’s possible for a coach to do this without taking away the student’s voice. She says a coach can tell a student to fix certain words or phrases, redo all or part of an essay or say, “We don’t know what you’re trying to say – this doesn’t make sense.”
Essay coaches agree. Jager-Hyman notes that every writer has an editor, and editors can help select topics, tell students where the essay is lacking and help them organize their thoughts.
No one would expect a student to dash off a perfect essay. In fact, more than one professional points out that students should not have already reached their writing potential before entering college.
Jager-Hyman uses Mad Libs to help students find their own language to express their thoughts. She highlights issues with their work and helps students learn to express themselves in a more engaging and organic manner. She also pushes them to be more intellectually rigorous, when necessary.
Heathman helps students narrow down topics and gives feedback on outlines and drafts.
Applicants should realize that most admissions counselors are young and have a sense of what a teenage voice sounds like, Jager-Hyman says. If a college suspects an essay is not the student’s work, they don’t automatically throw him out of the applicant pool, says Krahnke, but a negative vibe is placed in the counselor’s head. Heathman believes the job of the essay coach is to help students themselves find the right way to tell their story.
How Parents can Help
Parents clearly have a role in this process, with or without help from of a professional.
Still, Jager-Hyman says that some parents who get their hands on their kids’ essays go too far and change the tone or tenor. Some essays she read were “too stiff, too adult and too formal,” – not the student’s work.
Lythcott-Haims tells parents to instead help kids brainstorm about their “uniquely you moments.” Start early and go through drafts, provide feedback on structure and organization, circle grammatical issues and ask for more precise language. She warns parents against rewriting or fixing grammar.
“Parents have the gift and burden of knowing their students better than anyone; they are therefore uniquely qualified to help them identify good essay material,” Heathman says. But, if they can’t limit their participation appropriately, or are causing their student needless stress, they should seek out a teacher or counselor.
Good editors help students describe what makes them different and special. Parents can step in and fill this role, but they are emotionally invested in the application process, and Heathman wants them to remember the application is a demonstration of their student’s preparedness for college.
The real message for teens may be to present their best work wherever they go, as this is an important lesson for young people entering the real world.
It’s clear that many colleges read essays, and they could be the means by which an application moves from the rejection pile to the acceptance pile. For those schools, and even for ones where their value is less clear, isn’t it worth it for the student to produce an impressive piece of quality writing?
The essay is more important than the scores or grades in some ways, Jager-Hyman says, because it showcases that which sets a student apart. It can serve as a personal imprint on an often faceless process.
Risa C. Doherty is a copy editor and education and parenting writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Working Mother and Boston Parents Paper, among others.