As a parent, you’ve observed your child working incredibly hard throughout high school to achieve good grades and ACT/SAT scores, as well as devoting significant time to several extracurricular activities to build a strong college résumé.
Shouldn’t that be enough for your child to gain admissions to his or her top-choice schools? Probably, especially since your child has been accomplishing all of this while trying to be a normal teenager, which is hard enough in itself!
Nevertheless, when applying for college admissions, your child will be asked to submit a number of personal essays. This process represents the last step in your child’s journey to his or her dream schools, but more importantly, to be in the best position to achieve his or her educational and career goals.
Why do college application essays matter?
This is a loaded question, so I’m going to provide three answers to fully explain the importance of college application essays:
1. From a purely functional standpoint, college essays carry a lot of weight in the admissions process. In fact, many of America’s college insiders estimate that college essays account for 10-30% of admissions decisions! Whereas a great college essay won’t help your child overcome low-to-average grades or standardized test scores, a poorly-written or average college essay could sink an otherwise strong application. Therefore, your child should take the college essay writing process seriously.
2. From an application standpoint, the college essay provides the only opportunity for your child to tell college admissions committees anything he or she wants them to know. In other words, through college essays, your child can tell his or her story beyond grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. What makes your child tick? What qualities set him or her apart from other applicants? During college admissions season, there is nothing your child will be able to affect more than what goes into his or her college essays to wow admissions committees.
3. From the colleges’ standpoint—and this is typically the most difficult angle to consider—admissions committees want to know what’s in it for them to admit your child to their school. What will your child do for them? How will your child be an asset to their college, as a student and future alumnus? Yes, colleges want to know what makes your child wonderful, but mostly, they want to assess how he or she will positively impact their college community and build their prestige.
How can my child write great college essays?
Another loaded question. Writing a great college essay requires a particular writing approach your child has likely never used up to this point, nor will use in college.
Unfortunately, when the stakes are highest, your child is expected to write college essays that make him or her sound brilliant yet humble, accomplished yet grounded.
That’s a tall order, but the good news is that your child doesn’t have to go through the college essay writing process alone. Better yet, I’ve distilled my knowledge from helping hundreds of students write standout college application essays and get into America’s top colleges, and I’m sharing some of my most key insights here.
A lot of material on writing college essays provide tips, but no examples. They cover what students should or shouldn’t do, but they don’t demonstrate how well-written essays read vs. typical essays.
To cover these gaps, I’m going to provide comparative examples of the primary ways the best college application essays stand out from the competition.
Comparison #1: The best essay writers focus on conveying their special qualities through everyday stories, regardless of the college application essay prompts. The others over-focus on directly answering specific prompts with their biggest accomplishments.
When most students see The Common App or University of California’s essay prompts, their mind quickly jumps to the experiences they think will most impress admissions committees while directly answering the essay prompt.
For example, students will often feel like they have to write about their role in winning an important soccer game, or their specific contributions during an international summer volunteer trip. The reason this is a problem is that admissions committees don’t want to know more about what your child has done or accomplished; much of this information will already be provided in the lists of extracurricular activities on his or her applications. Instead, through college essays, admissions committees want to know who your child is.
The best college essay writers, therefore, focus on their defining qualities—character, personality traits, attitudes—first, and then choose the moments where these qualities were best exemplified. That way, admissions committees can learn a side of your child, or an interest, habit, or routine, that they couldn’t elsewhere. More importantly, admissions committees will learn about the great qualities your child will bring to their school.
Perhaps counterintuitive, these qualities often come through in students’ most mundane, everyday experiences. For example, a student who wants to convey their perfectionism may choose to write about how attempting to perfectly floss every single tooth in the morning has produced impeccable teeth, but also led to tardiness five days before the school year’s end, ruining their perfect attendance record.
Once these moments have been identified, the best college essay writers will choose a college essay prompt where their story can reasonably fit. The essay prompts are purposefully made very general, so this approach is not at all a problem.
Another benefit to focusing on specific moments where your child exhibited his or her defining qualities is that the essay, and by extension, your child, will be more memorable. In the example above, admissions committee members will certainly remember “the perfectionistic girl whose tooth-flossing ruined her perfect attendance record.” And like the perfectionism example, your student will get bonus points for demonstrating the positive and negative aspects of owning their defining qualities.
Comparison #2: The best application essays start in the middle of the action to hook the admissions readers from the opening sentence. The others take a while to warm up.
Most admissions committee members from top colleges that I’ve spoken with tell me that they read hundreds of essays during each admissions cycle. They often come across essays written about life-changing volunteer trips, major artistic accomplishments, and significant leadership moments. In other words, they are rarely surprised by essay topics.
While admissions committee members read every essay through, they pay extra attention to the ones that are written so engagingly from the first sentence that they interrupt the reader’s routine.
So, how could your child write these types of essays? By starting their story in the middle of the action, leaving the before and after for later. There’s no need to write a linear story with a beginning, middle, and end. As the news world puts it, your child shouldn’t “bury the lead,” that is, the most provocative and interesting part of the story.
I’ll provide an example of a captivating essay intro and then break down its key elements:
“The first time I met true heat, it was more of a slap in the face than a handshake. At half time, the local soccer team needed a break from beating us 6-0 during the 95-degree, 100% humidity afternoon, and we needed a break from losing–and from the Zambian sun. Our team, composed of volunteers from my school, huddled up to create strategies to lose by less, but I was not listening because I frankly could not care less who won. Instead, I was smiling uncontrollably, even though I was dripping in sweat, covered in dirt, and had missed three shots on goal during the first half. During that soccer game, I was the happiest I had been on my entire trip, but I did not know or think about why I felt like this until midway through the second half.”
I chose to highlight this example on purpose. The story occurs during an international volunteer trip, a common essay topic that I highlighted in Comparison #1, above. However, a close read reveals that the essay isn’t about the trip at all, but rather about a realization or lesson learned during a specific moment during that trip. This example underscores an immensely important point for college essay writing: there’s no good or bad essay topic, only strong and weak execution.
That said, let’s dig into why the above example is well-written:
- Begins in the middle of the action
- Uses vivid details to set the stage (e.g., being down 6-0 in a soccer match during a 95-degree, 100% humidity afternoon in Zambia)
- Uses first person and maintains the focus on themselves
- Employs a casual writing style
- Shows vs. tells (e.g., “I was dripping in sweat, covered in dirt, and had missed three shots on goal during the first half” vs. “I was tired, dirty, and frustrated”; more on this in Comparison #3, below)
- Is unique to the writer, that is, it could not have been written by another applicant
Taken together, the vividness, relatability, and authenticity of this story will surely demonstrate the student’s tendency to practice mindfulness during difficult moments and capture the reader’s attention—and heart.
Comparison #3: The best college essay writers demonstrate their qualities, feelings, and insights through detailed examples, rather than simply listing everything.
Think, for a moment, about reading your favorite book. Whether it’s a timeless masterpiece such as Pride and Prejudice, or a modern classic like The Time Traveler’s Wife, great authors engage us not by plainly telling us how the story unfolds, but rather through creating a vivid moving picture in our minds. Then, we as the reader ascribe certain qualities to the characters and infer what they may have been feeling or thinking.
Now, your child doesn’t need to be a literary genius to write a highly engaging college application essay; I know I’m not! Rather, they have to harness the power of showing their qualities, emotions, and thoughts, instead of simply telling them.
To demonstrate this point, let’s consider the following two sentences:
1. Telling: “I continued to wonder.”
2. Showing: “Thoughts uncontrollably rushed through my mind.”
The first sentence tells you that the writer continued to wonder, whereas the second sentence shows you how he or she wondered. If the writer pumped this up even more, they could write something like:
3. Showing (with pumped-up details): “My thoughts resembled a high-speed freight train with no signs of slowing down.”
When admissions committee members read sentences like that, they will inevitably be transported to the time and place the writer is describing, and understand the emotions and thoughts the writer was experiencing. Ironically, although the pumped-up version doesn’t use the word “wonder,” the intensity of the wonder comes through so much more than if the writer just stated that they “continued to wonder.”
Showing sentences serve the dual purpose of connecting with the admissions committee reader, as well as providing support for the claims and sentences being made.
Think about it. If one student writes, “I often spend time with my grandmother,” and the other writes, “Each time I hold my grandmother’s hand, her right palm feels indistinguishable from the dry New Mexican soil she has gardened during the past three decades,” who will come across as more family-oriented and caring?
Your child’s next steps
Admittedly, there are other way ways in which the best college application essays stand out from the competition. The best essays provide a clear context for the opening sentence and paragraph, highlight a problem, describe the resolution, and reflect on the lessons learned.
Nevertheless, the three comparisons discussed in this post are some of the most important for your child to keep in mind. By following this advice, your child will be well-equipped to write a captivating college essay to connect with admissions committee members and have a leg up during college application review season.
College essays, while stressful for many students and families, offer a unique opportunity for your child to share the values and qualities that will make him or her successful in his or her future college, career, and community. The good news is that there are tried-and-true approaches your child can use when writing college application essays to have admissions committees practically begging him or her to join their institution and alumni.
About Dr. Shirag Shemmassian
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, is a college admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into top schools like Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. Click here to receive, for FREE, the top 10 steps your child must take to stand out and dramatically increase their chances of getting in.
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