These are five articles relating to college admissions essays from top tier national media outlets. The articles contain information that is very valuable and helpful to students when writing their essays. I ask all of my students to read these articles before meeting with me so we can discuss them. Be sure to read Leah’s Skimm at the end of each article!
1) 5 Horrible Essay Topics For Your College Application
USA Today, College Choice
July 2, 2012
By Elizabeth Heaton
Think you have a great, super-unique idea for an essay? You might want to think again. Of the thousands of essays I read when I was an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, very few were particularly distinctive. Of those, even fewer were distinctive in a positive way.
Curious as to which topics you would do well to avoid? Here are the top five.
#5: The most important moment in my life was the big game that my team won (or lost).
Yawn. This is a bad idea because it’s boring, and the lessons learned are typically the same regardless of who writes it. The importance of sportsmanship coupled with the joy of being part of a team. How much it meant to win or how much you enjoyed the experience even though you didn’t win.
One of the primary goals of the essay is to help your application stand out. Don’t blow it by writing about something so common. Either find a more interesting angle on athletics or find a new topic.
#4: Behold all of my successes, aka The List.
Most applications include a place where you will record all of your activities, honors and awards. The essay is not that place.
Instead of trying to cover everything you have ever accomplished within the confines of 500 words, pick one important achievement and focus on that. What sparked your interest in that activity? Why do you do it and what do you enjoy most about it? Does it relate to your future goals and, if so, in what way?
#3: One night I volunteered at a soup kitchen and it changed my life.
Otherwise known as the essay where you tell the admissions people what a great person you are. With three exceptions — yes, three — every single essay I have read about volunteer work came to one of the following conclusions: I never realized how much I had until I met people who didn’t have anything; I never realized anyone could be happy without the things I take for granted; or a combination of the previous two.
You might think that admissions officers want to hear about what a great person you are, but in reality they want to hear about the person you are. Writing about a passion or true interest will always result in a more genuine and impactful essay.
#2: I am a can of seltzer.
This topic probably seems much more unique than the soup kitchen essay. Not everyone is comparing themselves to a bottle of soda — I’m fizzy! — right? Well, there’s a good reason for that: It’s an awful idea.
Admissions officers respond to authenticity. Focus on what’s real rather than on a “creative” idea that amounts to a gimmick. If you can find a more personal story, one that shares something important about who you are, your readers will feel like they know you much better when they’re done.
#1: Here I am writing my college essay (which, did you know, is really hard?!), and there you are, reading it.
You may be under the impression that this topic will show off your intellectually witty side. It won’t. At best, you’ll look like you started to write the essay the night before it was due. At worst, you’ll come off as a self-involved showoff without anything interesting to say.
Showcase your wit and intellect by writing about an absorbing academic or thought provoking experience. Instead of seeming pretentious, you will come across as an engaged learner who will likely make the most of the college experience.
The essay is the primary chance you have in the application process to share something important about yourself. Make the most of the opportunity by spending as much time thinking about what to write as you do actually writing it.
Elizabeth Heaton is a senior director of educational consulting at College Coach, the nation’s leading provider of educational advisory services. Elizabeth began her admissions career at the University of Pennsylvania, where she chaired university selection committees, evaluated potential athletic recruits as one of the school’s athletics liaisons, and oversaw the university’s portfolio of admissions publications.
Leah’s Skim: Out of all these rules, the one that stands out most to me is number four: “Behold all of my successes: AKA The List.” A basic rule of college essay editing should be that you shouldn’t write about anything listed on your resume. The essay is the one opportunity to show personality and unveil emotional maturity in the college admissions process. Whether it be your experience, growing up in a divorced home, working in a restaurant or living on a farm in a foreign country, the essay is the sole opportunity to show that you have gained perspective in a unique and exciting way. Do not waste this chance to show the college admissions officers what makes you unique!
2) Tip Sheet: An Admissions Dean Offers Advice on Writing a College Essay
The New York Times
June 23, 2009
By Martha C. Merrill
Periodically, in a feature called “Tip Sheet,” The Choice will post short items by admissions officers, guidance counselors and others to help applicants and their families better understand aspects of the admissions process. As an inaugural post in this series, Martha C. Merrill, the dean of admission and financial aid of Connecticut College, and a graduate of the class of 1984, encourages incoming high school seniors to begin contemplating their college essays this summer. She also offers perspective on what she looks for in an applicant’s essay.
Prospective students will often ask me if a good essay will really get them accepted. The truth is that while no essay will make an unqualified student acceptable, a good essay can help a qualified applicant stand out from the competition. A good essay just might be what turns a “maybe” into a “yes.”
The college application process takes time, preparation and creativity, which is a lot for any active senior to handle. Summer, however, typically offers about 10 weeks free of classes and homework and many of the other stresses that come with high school. The pressure of the looming college application deadline is still months away, which allows students the freedom to play around with different ideas, test different angles and solicit feedback from friends and family.
Another reason to focus your summer energy on crafting a quality essay: at this point in the admission process, it is one of the few things you can still control. This is your chance to show us what you are capable of when you have time to think, prepare, rewrite and polish.
While there is no magic formula for the perfect admission essay, there are a few things prospective college students should know. Here are my Top Ten tips:
- Write about yourself. A great history paper on the Civil War might be very well written, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the writer. Regardless of the topic, make sure you shine through your essay.
- Use your own voice. I can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior.
- Focus on one aspect of yourself. If you try to cover too many topics in your essay, you’ll end up with a resume of activities and attributes that doesn’t tell me as much about you as an in-depth look at one project or passion.
- Be genuine. Don’t try to impress me, because I’ve heard it all. Just tell me what is important to you.
- Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.
- Don’t rely on “how to” books. Use them to get your creative juices flowing, but don’t adhere too rigidly to their formulas, and definitely don’t use their example topics. While there are always exceptions, the “what my room says about me” essay is way overdone.
- Share your opinions, but avoid anything too risky or controversial. Your essay will be read by a diverse group of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, so try to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
- Tell a good story. Show me why you are compassionate; don’t tell me you are. Show me that you have overcome great difficulty; don’t start your essay with “I have overcome great difficulties.”
- Don’t repeat what is already in your application. If you go to a performing arts school and all of your extracurricular activities and awards relate to dance, don’t write about how much you love dancing. Tell me something I couldn’t know just from reading the other parts of your application.
- Finally, don’t forget about the supplements. The supplement questions are very important – you should plan to spend as much time on them as you do on your essay. A well-written essay won’t help if your supplement answers are sloppy and uninformative.
Leah’s Skim: This article echoes a lot of great points I’ve heard from college admissions officers, such as not repeating one’s resume, using a 17-year old voice, showing rather than telling personal qualities and paying good attention to the supplement questions. I’ve also heard from college admissions officers that a good essay can turn a “maybe” into a “yes,” demonstrating the importance of writing a good essay. Additionally, I completely agree that starting to write the essay the summer before senior year is a great idea; and I always encourage my students to do so! Remember, it is the one part of the college application that the student has complete control over.
3) Do’s and Don’ts in Writing College Application Essays
The Huffington Post: College Blog
July 31, 2012
By Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz
College Essays Can Give a Glimpse into Your Soul
While student grades and test scores are clearly top factors in admissions office decisions, application essays often play a pivotal role. Like nothing else, essays give admissions readers a real sense for who you are as a person and student. Some say they are a “glimpse into your soul.”
Most colleges require at least one essay as a part of their applications; some require two, three or even more. Ranging in length from just a few words to one, two, or three pages of content, essay questions in any free-response section of the college application should be considered an opportunity to make a good impression.
At the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) yearly conference, college admissions deans have admitted repeatedly that poorly written essays can “do in” a student with top grades and test scores… and that great essays can sometimes turn the tide toward acceptance for a student with less-than-stellar grades and test scores.
These same deans have offered sage advice about the dos and don’ts of writing college essays.
- Write revealing, concise essays that inform, enlighten and amuse.
- Present yourself as genuinely humble, modest,perhaps even self-effacing.
- Be yourself.
- Answer each and every aspect of the essay question as best you can AND within the character/word limit provided.
- Come across as mature, positive, reflective, intelligent, down-to-earth, curious, persistent, confident, original, creative, hard-working and thoughtful.
- Demonstrate evidence of your having real knowledge about a college and its many resources, including courses, programs, activities and students.
- Write about anything that is counterintuitive about yourself, e.g., you are a football player who is totally into poetry, a young woman who is a computer or physics geek, a macho guy who wants to be an elementary school teacher.
- Compose an essay, give it to others to read and edit, and then do a final edit before you declare that it is done.
- Use a variety of words to describe something or someone, e.g., Charley, my friend, my buddy, my schoolmate, he, him.
- Explain what needs to be explained,as in an illness, a learning disability, a suspension, a one-time bad grade, a family tragedy, a major challenge you have had.
- Write too much, ramble on, thinking that more (words) is better. It is not.
- Brag, boast, toot your own horn, or come across as arrogant.
- Write what you think college admissions people want instead of what you really think.
- Go off writing about what you want to say rather than what the question asks AND ignore the specified character/word counts.
- Come across as immature, negative, superficial,shallow, a phony, glib, a slacker, insecure, whiney, judgmental or disrespectful.
- Give the impression that you know little about a college by writing trite, inaccurate or inconsequential things about it.
- Make something up about yourself just to impress the admissions readers.
- Write an essay and consider it done without looking for punctuation or grammatical errors and having it edited by at least one person.
- Use the same words over and over, e.g., my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.
- Make excuses for anything,including a bad grade, an infringement of rules, a suspension, whatever.
Application essays are a wonderful opportunity for you to show admissions offices who you really are, in what ways you think, how well you perform, and even your sense of humor.
Leah’s Skim: There are a lot of good tips here. This article seems to have a resounding theme of encouraging the student to be genuine and not write about what he or she thinks college admissions officers want to hear. I definitely believe that demonstrating evidence of having real knowledge about a college is extremely important, and this can really make the student stand out in the supplement essay section. A college admissions officer once told me that the “why (insert college name here)” essay is the most important of all. The admissions committee is looking to make sure you have done your research about their college or university and have good reasons for wanting to attend that particular institution.
4) Naked Confessions of the College Bound
Oversharing In College Admissions Essays
The New York Times
June 14, 2014
By Frank Bruni
The Yale applicant had terrific test scores. She had fantastic grades. As one of Yale’s admissions officers, Michael Motto, leafed through her application, he found himself more and more impressed.
Then he got to her essay. As he remembers it, she mentioned a French teacher she greatly admired. She described their one-on-one conversation at the end of a school day. And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself.
“Her point was that she was not going to pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating conversation just to meet a physical need,” said Motto, who later left Yale and founded Apply High, a firm that guides students through the admissions process.
And his point in bringing her story up during a recent interview? The same as mine in passing it along:
When it comes to college admissions, our society has tumbled way, way too far down the rabbit hole, as I’ve observed before. And in the warped wonderland where we’ve landed, too many kids attach such a crazy degree of importance to getting into the most selective schools that they do stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out. The essay portion of their applications can be an especially jolting illustration of that.
It’s an illustration of something else, too: a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome, among kids who’ve grown up in the era of the overshare. The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet, producing autobiographical sketches like another that Motto remembers reading at Yale, this one from a male student.
“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”
Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.
But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction. Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the Jerry Springer-ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.
Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic vomiting syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?
Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.
Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.
“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”
She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.
Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.
“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.
THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.
“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”
Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.
In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.
The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in New Haven lay beyond them.
Leah’s Skim: I don’t think there is anything wrong with oversharing as long as the student chooses an appropriate topic. I agree with the former admissions officer from Dartmouth who asserted that vulnerability can show great insight into one’s character. That being said, topics such as how parental divorce or a parent’s alcoholism affects the student are much more appropriate ways to show vulnerability than the topic of urinating on oneself or mulling one’s genitalia. It seems like this article is more targeted toward subjects more similar to the latter.
5) Passion over Pitfalls: The Art of the College Essay
Huff Post College
June 16, 2014
By Madeline Diamond
For a high school senior, the Common Application personal statement essay may seem like the most important 650 words he or she will ever write. Throughout high school, students are coached to write the perfect “personal essay” to show why they are qualified to extend their academic careers to colleges and universities. There is intense pressure to make sure that this essay accurately represents one’s intelligence, insight, experiences, and qualifications — all in a concise, well-articulated format. So, how then, is a student supposed to represent him or herself in fewer words than an average newspaper editorial?
With some of the most competitive schools in the country, such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, and NYU, all receiving over 40,000 applications each year, there is clear pressure for applicants to stand out, and the personal essay is often the time to do so. It is understandable for students to draw from unique, and often unfortunate, experiences to appeal to admissions staff. However, in the midst of trying to set themselves apart, many students can be found competing for the most tragic story for their essay, rather than for a holistic representation of themselves as students and human beings. A seemingly beautiful opportunity to express oneself often takes a negative turn when students try to justify their mistakes or a poor grade through the telling of personal tragedies.
This is not to say that students shouldn’t write about challenging experiences. We are all entitled to feel proud of our accomplishments, as well as overcoming adversity. The open-ended nature and variety of prompts allow students to truly write about what ever they please. In fact, one of the Common App’s essay prompts asks students to recall an experience of failure.
What truly matters is how applicants address writing about hardship. When I was writing my college essay, I thought about discussing the many moves my family made across the country through my childhood. It was certainly difficult moving to new a new place where I knew no one, but these experiences were also incredibly enlightening. I learned to appreciate diversity in many forms and I gained a unique perspective on life. I ended up writing about how these experiences and others combined with my passion for writing inspired me to begin writing a memoir-like book of essays. My essay was far from perfect, although through the college application process, I learned how to use my passion for writing to express my feelings about experiences of my life, both difficult and joyous.
Undoubtedly a better example of a college essay comes from Kwasi Enin, the Long Island teenager who was accepted to all eight Ivy League schools this year and has since committed to Yale University. In his essay, excerpts of which can be found here, Enin shares his passion for the violin and how his love of music has influenced his life.
“The most important task of a leader is to create harmony between each member of the group, which reveals the group’s maximum potential. With improvement and balance comes success and music taught me all of these virtues.” Drawing from his own experience as a musician, Enin relates his musical passion to leadership and working as part of a team, showing how playing the violin has shaped his identity and values.
Writing about hardships, while it is easy to focus on the negatives, can actually be a positive healing experience. This type of writing allows students to realize their own resiliency and passions. Regardless of one’s interests, whether it be writing, a sport, or music like Enin, passion will shine through in an essay. Through writing about both challenging and positive experiences, students should not sell themselves short and rather emphasize their passions as a result of these experiences, not despite them.
Leah’s Skim: I agree that writing about hardships can be a positive healing experience, and I encourage my students to write about them. The most important part of writing about hardships, however, is that the student expresses how this hardship has contributed to their personal development and identity.