But who (really) knows better than the folks who actually read your essays and make admission decisions largely based on your essays?
The admissions staff at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, was asked for their top essay tips, and here's some of their truly expert advice:
- Make it fun. If you're recounting an amusing and light-hearted anecdote from your childhood, it doesn't have to read like a Congressional Act.
- Tell us something different from what we'll read on your list of extracurricular activities or transcript.
- Write thoughtfully and from your heart. It'll be clear who believes in what they are saying versus those who are simply saying what they think we want to hear.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread. Nothing says "last-minute essay" like an "are" instead of "our" or a "their" instead of "they're."
The college-admissions essay effectively has taken the place of personal interviews with prospective students, according to educational consultant Eric Greenberg, writing in The Huffington Post.
As the field of applicants grows more competitive -- students presenting higher standardized-test scores and GPAs -- "it inherently becomes harder for schools to effectively differentiate among students," he says. That's where essays come in.
"Admissions teams want to get to know the students, their passions, social skills, versatility and level of confidence, and so they are looking to the essay for the student's humanity and personality," Greenberg writes.
One of the most effective techniques for crafting your essay? Say it out loud first.
"By talking through your thoughts and ideas, it can help to determine which subject to write about, as well as to find a better sense of voice," Greenberg writes. "This can result in an essay that is more conversational in tone and thus very appealing to admissions officers."
And that's a good good thing. Just like in fashion, there are trends, he says, and "conversational is 'in.'"
There are few things -- some would argue there's nothing -- more important to your college application than your essay. As the application landscape changes, the importance of your application essay grows.
That said, college consultant Gerald Bradshaw has parsed five categories of problematic essays. Understand the flaws that he identifies, and you'll be well on your way to avoiding many of the common problems high school writers fall into.
"Essays will play the decisive factor in your admission," says Bradshaw, writing in the Post-Tribune in Merrillville, Ind. "Rejection letters typically are sent to the applicants with the worst essays."
Blunt. But oh so true.
Here's how Bradshaw breaks down unsuccessful essays:
Greenhorn or first generation. Who wrote this essay? It could have been written by any applicant. There are no details about the applicant’s personality or what excites them about learning.
Another pretty face. Your goals and interests may show up in lists of achievements and names of people who have influenced you, but you will fall short if you do not describe your background in some detail.
The second time around. His friends in college wrote law-school essays that not only were uninteresting, they were "just plain boring." He had them rewrite their essays, make them more personal and revealing and apply again the next year to the same law schools.
Write short autobiographies, warts and all, he told them. Include their hopes and aspirations, failures and disappointments, he advised. Most got into their chosen law schools the second time around.
"Remember," Bradshaw says, "that the goal is to write a great essay, not vie for a Pulitzer Prize. Let the admissions committee see you as a real person."
Arnie Rosenberg is the founder of The Center for Essay Excellence. He writes regularly about college essays and their importance to the college-admission process. Contact him at Arnie.Rosenberg.Editor@gmail.com.
© 2014 The Center for Essay Excellence