August 12, 2012. After an Essay Coaching workshop, one high school student said to me:
Now I understand. High school essays are about what we know. College application essays are about who we are.
She was right. Colleges want to know more about you than whether you can get an “A” on your physics test. They often have to choose between many students with strong test scores, extensive advanced placement classes, and a 3.9 or even 4.0 grade point average.
How Admissions Officers Use the Essay to Help Make the Admit Decision
So how do admissions officers make their tough decisions? They choose the most impressive students. They read what you say in your essay and they read between the lines. They choose the student they understand, respect and like, the one who shows more maturity, self-insight, initiative, intellectual curiosity, passion, creativity, focus, and/or drive. They choose the student who they believe will fit into their college, contribute, be successful, and graduate. So the goal is to reveal yourself in your essay, in a positive, memorable way.
Remember that high school essays were written for teachers who know you. Your teacher sees whether you raise your hand and look engaged or stare down at your desk. He knows whether you hand in your homework on time (i.e., you’re reliable) and whether you stop in during your lunch period to ask questions about an upcoming test.
Structuring your College Essay
The college admissions officer doesn’t know you the way your teachers do. She uses the essay to get to know you. That’s why finding your writing voice is so important.
When it comes to essay structure, a five paragraph essay is not required. The major structure is this: make sure that your essay answers the question and sticks to the word length. When no word length is given, it is best to not exceed 500 words.
Draw in your readers by including details (e.g. sensory details, and names of places, people, books) and keep them compelled to read to the end with your unique experiences (what has happened to you and what you have done) and reflections (what you’ve thought and felt about the experience).
An Example: One Sentence Can Show Who You Are
I smile at people when I pass them in the hallways. Sometimes they even smile back, and I wonder, “Will we become friends?” Because I know that’s one way that friendships start.
The student is drawing a strong image for the reader. She’s connecting an experience (walking in the hallways and smiling) and reflecting on the experience (she knows her smiles can start a friendship). She is showing her inner strength because her smile is not dependent on others’ reactions. Readers of these sentences may read between the lines and see the writer as confident, friendly, risk-taking for a positive goal (not afraid to get shot down by unrequited smiles), self-aware (knowing why she does what she does), and as a person with vision: all characteristics of leaders.
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