Writing college application essays can be a daunting task for teens. While some students know immediately what topic they want to write about, others may be overwhelmed and unsure what they want to say.
College application essays (along with interviews) offer students an opportunity to show a side of themselves beyond their grades and achievements. The hope is that after reading an essay, an admissions officer will find the candidate likeable, memorable and a good addition to the college community.
But what makes a likeable and memorable essay?
Choosing What to Write
In an episode of the sitcom Modern Family (Treehouse, November 2011), high school senior Haley struggles with what to write for her college admissions essay. She blames her parents for giving her too good a life because she feels she no hardships she can write about.
Many teens can relate to Haley’s sentiments. They may worry their story isn’t “enough” to get them into college. But most students, thankfully, have not experienced a big trauma or major life-altering event and colleges understand this.
[Check out the Guide to Preparing for College for advice, tips and pre-college programs.]
Christine K. VanDeVelde, college speaker and coauthor of the book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, explains, “Colleges are not looking for essays about big subjects such as world peace. Colleges are looking to see what the character of the applicant might be. That is often found in a more personal approach to the essay.”In fact many great essays are about simple ordinary experiences. Says VanDeVelde, “An admissions officer once told me one of the best essays an applicant ever wrote was about babysitting for her younger siblings when her parents went out for date night.”
Teens should focus on writing about something that helps the reader to understand them better. Lisa Sohmer, Director of College Counseling at the Garden School says, “Rather than picking a topic, write about a story you want to tell and tell it well.”
Make sure the essay is about the applicant. Sohmer asserts, “The writer has to be the star of the essay. Readers want to hear about the student and how something that occurred influenced him.” For example, if a teen chooses to write about a grandparent, the essay should not be about the grandparent’s life but on how this relationship affected the applicant’s life.
Sohmer advises students, “Don't tell me how smart you are, show me. It is a fine balance for students to show who they are rather than bragging about themselves.”
In an effort to “sell” themselves to a college, students may chose topics they think make them look good. But sometimes these types of stories can come across off putting to a reader. Says VanDeVelde, “It is hard to write a compassionate essay about a service trip to an exotic country. It may end up sounding condescending or like a travel log.” Instead, focus on telling a story that is authentic and matches up with the rest of the application (extracurricular activities, recommendation etc.). The goal is to allow the reader to see how the teen will fit in on campus and add to the college community.
Watch Your Language
Teens writing their college essays must carefully consider the language they use. Sohmer cautions students about using humor in their college essay saying it tends not to read well. Explains Sohmer, “I had a student write an essay about being president of a club and he called the people in the club his ‘lackeys.’ It was something he would never have said in real life. He was trying to be funny but it came across rude. I told him, ‘this essay makes me hate you and I like you so imagine how a reader who doesn’t know you will feel.’”
Be polite and grammatically correct. Teens are so used to informal written communication they need to be reminded that this is not a text or email to a friend. Don’t use slang, abbreviations foul language Write in the first person.
What Not to Write About
Students need to be careful about the topics they choose to write about.
Colleges are looking for students with strong opinions and beliefs but also a willingness to be open minded. Again, the overall objective of the essay is for the reader to remember the writer in a positive light.
In her book, VanDeVelde has a whole section on what not to write a college about. A few examples include:
- Young love or sexual experiences
- Recreational drug or alcohol use
- Resume (the admissions officer has already seen this)
- Complaints about life, parents or teachers
- Health issues
- Fabricated stories—never lie on a college essay