Essays

There are differing opinions about the importance of the college essay. The consensus view is that the essay is less important than grades and test scores, but that an essay can make a difference in some instances, often at highly selective colleges where they can "make or break your application." There was one report that essays were becoming more important as a way to judge a student's potential, and that essays have supplanted personal interviews as a primary way to evaluate a student's character.

Generally counselors recommend that the essay should not be too long, such as over 500 words. The Common Application suggests 250 to 500 words in length. One advisor suggested that an essay longer than 700 words risked "straining their patience," but the 500-word suggested maximum length is not a hard-and-fast rule, and what's important is honing and rewriting:

Writing is easy; rewriting is hard. And essays deserve to be rewritten several times. Lots of kids think the objective is to write about something that will impress the admission office. In part that is true, but what impresses an admission officer is an essay that conveys something positive about the applicant; that allows the committee to get to know the kid just a bit from those few pieces of paper. The essay is an opportunity to provide a different perspective about the applicant, a reason to accept a kid. It is an opportunity not to be wasted.
-- Steve Cohen in The Washington Post, 2011

Advisors suggest that the essay should be concise, honest (with no embellishments), coherent, not boring, accurate, evoking vivid images, revealing a likeable and smart individual, with cautious use of humor, and possibly touching on controversial topics but in a balanced way. Other tips include avoiding jargon or abbreviations, overly emotional appeals, profanity or texttalk (example: Schools H8 2 C texttalk), or artiness (e.g. poetry in an application) or being cocky.

Former guidance counselor for students at Andover and college admissions authority, Donald Dunbar, suggested that essays must emphasize personal character and demonstrate intellectual curiosity, maturity, social conscience, concern for the community, tolerance, and inclusiveness. He advises don't just "be yourself", but show your "best self", and that demonstrating class participation suggests a "willingness to go beyond selfishness" and shows enthusiasm for learning. Alan Gelb suggests that the only no-no is "shameless self-promotion". Topics to avoid include babysitting experiences, pets, encounters with illegal drugs or alcohol or criminal activity, excuses to explain a low grade, stories about a former home or big brother or sister, simply listing achievements, expressing thanks for being chosen as a leader, talking about a "wilderness leadership course," general complaining or whining, racism or sexism or disrespect for groups of people, bad taste or profanity or vulgarity or bathroom humor, early love or sex experiences, criticism or disrespect for parents, telling only jokes, excessive bragging or too many instances of the "I" pronoun, divulging personal health information about yourself or a friend or a family member, copy-and-pasting a term paper in the essay form such as about global warming or the European debt crisis, and experiences involving lawbreaking or illegal activity. Applicants should not express opinions too strongly as if no possible counterviews were possible. The topic should be something the applicant cares about, and should show leadership in the sense of "asserting yourself to help others have more success." According to Dunbar, leadership is not necessarily about being in charge such as being the team captain or school president. Applicants should present a broad perspective and avoid simplistic words such as never, always, only, or nobody, which suggest narrow thinking. Dunbar advised against the standard "tell 'em what you've told 'em" essay formula but doing something different, interesting, and exciting.

Former admissions director Michele Hernandez agreed, and suggested that the best essay topics were a slice-of-life story, with poignant details, in which the writer shows and does not tell. She suggested that a student show their essay to a literate friend and ask if would they admit this person to the college She recommended that applicants not try to come across as a "preppy well-off kid" but downplay parental status. Advisors Mamlet and VanDeVelde suggest that students proactively try to explain an unusual grade, such as a low grade in a core course. There are online databases available to help students write cogent essays.

Site Map