“A student should never be thinking, 'What are they looking for?' There is no monolithic 'they,'" according to Margit Dahl, director of undergraduate admissions for Yale University.
Dahl's words couldn't be more important and more insightful. Quoted on the Wow Writing Workshop blog, Dahl points out that when it comes to the broad, open-ended "Why College X?" prompt on your college application, “A student is in the driver's seat . . . and should never relinquish that control. The essay is a chance to decide what to share with admissions officers. A student has the best sense of what to share.”
Many universities look beyond the Common App prompts to find out what makes prospective students tick, what would make them good additions to their campuses. Unfortunately, students often fall into the trap of talking about the excitement of the football stadium, the charm of the campus or always having worn the sweatshirt of Mom's or Dad's alma mater, writes Kim Lifton, president of Wow Writing Workshop.
"Be careful," Lifton warns. Using your essay to tell the University of Michigan, for example, that you bleed maize-and-blue "is not what admissions officers want to know. They want to know why you are a good fit on campus, whether you have the chops to succeed academically, if there are clubs and activities to support your interests and if you are likely to graduate from this institution."
“We do not want broad statements (the brick pathways and historic buildings are beautiful) or a rehash of the information on our website (College X offers a strong liberal arts curriculum),” adds Calvin Wise, associate director of admissions for Johns Hopkins University. “All institutions have similarities. We want you to talk about our differences.”
Every student has a meaningful story. The challenging is finding that story and crafting it into a compelling college essay, writes Marj Southworth on the College Coach blog.
Your essay topic needs to be "internally motivated," something you write for yourself, not something you manufacture for the sake of your dream school, advises Southworth, a former senior admissions officer at Cornell University, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Given the the Common App's 650-word essay limit, Southworth offers these tips for zeroing in on the right topic for you:
- Imagine yourself 25 years from now, looking back on your life's accomplishments. What stands out from your high school days? That's likely to be the part of your life -- so far -- that's the most relevant for your essay.
- Pretend you have just one hour to answer a Common App prompt. If you can pick one prompt and quickly decide what you'd write, "you might have a good clue about the topic in which you feel most confident — the one that will be the most fun and fluid to write," Southworth says.
- Picture yourself standing before the admissions committee, with the chance to tell them one thing about yourself. "It could be a skill, a personality trait, an accomplishment or something completely random, but it would be the one thing that best defines you at this time in your life." Bingo! You've got the topic for your essay.
It's easy to see how high school seniors come unglued at the thought of tackling their college essays, according to Patrice Apodaca, writing in The Daily Pilot in Orange County, Calif.
"Even professionals don't always agree on what's good, bad, right or wrong, so just relax and do your best," says Apodaca, a former newspaper writer. "Every year around this time I start hearing from frazzled parents and brain-fried incoming high school seniors facing one of the most dreaded and fraught-filled exercises in their stressful lives: the college essay."
Apodca's pointers are common sense to those who have worked with high school seniors for years on this daunting task, but they bear repeating.
DO -- Be sincere; "show, don't tell"; and have someone (an English teacher or some who really knows his or her way around the written word) proofread your work.
DON'T -- Worry about what anyone else writes or how they write; write a term paper; let your parents or anyone else write your college essay for you.
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.