College Essay Hell

As a former English major, I’ve always enjoyed writing but understand it’s not everyone’s favorite pasttime. The good news is that this isn’t your standard English essay. The bad news is that you’ve got only 650 words to tell your unique personal story. We all have one. What’s yours? The 2015-2016 Common Application folks just released the new prompts. New language appears in italics:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

What makes a student competitive are their grades, course rigor and standardized testing. What makes a student compelling are their interests – what they do outside the classroom – as well as their essays. If you are competitie, an essay can be the difference between an admit and deny decision. So what do college admissions officers want to know?

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write?

How to start? My favorite resource for brainstorming is a process introduced by The College Essay Guy called the Objects and Values exercises: These two exercises are where I start with my students. Once you nail down your essense objects and values that are most important, you are ready to find your unique story that highlights those things that are most important to you. Once you’ve figured out the angle you want to take, the next step is getting it down on paper. With my students, I encourage a stream of consciousness exercise where they just brainstorm the different elements that could fit into the essay. Working together, we identify the most compelling parts of the story to craft the essay. How to craft the essay? This is where my other favorite resource comes into play. If you don’t have a copy of Janine Robinson’s Escape from Essay Hell, I highly recommend you purchase one. It’s a quick read and more importantly, is the best guide I’ve found for students who aren’t natural writers…. Last piece of advice: have fun with the essay and let your unique voice shine throughout. There is only one you!

Admissions Office

Admissions officers are looking for students who are competitive as well as compelling. GPA, testing, teacher evaluations, extracurricular activities, essays and personal qualities are evaluated individually and then given an overall rating. This final rating is often the deciding factor. These individual factors are ranked in order of importance.

  • GPA. Admissions officers look at a student’s transcript first and foremost. Colleges believe that the transcript is the best predictor of future success. As admissions officers are analyzing the transcript, they are asking themselves two questions: How will this student perform in a college classroom? Has the student stretched themselves in the subjects that are most interesting to them?
  • Standardized testing. Some colleges today want to see all a student’s test scores. However, most colleges superscore which means that if a student takes the SAT three times (which is standard), then the college will look at their highest subscores – for critical reading, math, and writing. For the ACT, colleges look at the highest subscores as well which are the combined composite and combined English/writing subscore. These two tests are the most important though admissions officers will pay close attention to AP subject tests as well as SAT II subject tests.
  • Teacher Evaluations. For the most competitive colleges, these evaluations give admissions officers great insight into how a student will perform in a college classroom. Does the student raise the level of discourse in the classroom? Does the student seek out the teacher during office hours? Does the student read proactively outside the course syllabus? Admisssions officers are looking for those natually curious, inquisitive students who will add richess and color to the classroom environment.
  • Extracurricular Activities. Colleges are very interested in what students love to do outside the classroom. It doesn’t matter what your student loves to do. They could be a juggler, musician, athlete, or writer. Depth is more important than breadth. Think about a pyramid. Students in middle school start out with a wide array of activities. As they enter high school, these activies begin to narrow and focus. Students begin to go deeper into those areas they care about. Leadership roles enable a student to stand out.
  • Essays. For competitive students, essays can often separate the wheat from the chaff. When I worked at Stanford, I often saw an admit or deny decision based upon the strength of one 250 word essay. Admissions officers are looking for students who write well but more than that, they are looking for a glmpse into the life of the student. Who are they? What do they enjoy doing? What can they bring to campus? A unique story told in an interesting way makes for a compelling read.
  • Personal Qualities. Admissions officers get a very good sense of who a student is throughout their application. From teacher recommendations, they can determine if the student is a team player and helpful to fellow classmates. From their own essay, students can reveal more of their personality. Are they humble, confident, involved, and helpful to others? And interviews offer great insight as well.

I hope the above information gave you some insight into how your student’s file will be analyzed.