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Students Doing Homework


There are endless things you can worry about when it comes to your college applications, but for some reason it is the college essay that often seems to cause the most anxiety among the students I work with. In many ways, this doesn’t surprise me.

The essay is, without a doubt, the most subjective part of your application. You can understand what a 620 means on the math section of the SAT and you have some sense of what a 3.6 GPA means. The difference between a good essay and a bad essay can be much harder to define and different people may even have starkly different opinions about whether your essay is effective.

No matter what topic you choose or how many people you ask to look your essay over, there is some element of insecurity many students feel about their essays when they hit the submit button.

You will hear a lot of advice from the “experts” when it comes to the admissions essay. Some people will tell you the best essays vividly tell a story, others will tell you that you need to have a clear opening point and multiple supporting examples, and some say the only effective essays are the ones that showcase a hook.

I don’t believe there is one right formula for the essay. The most effective essays I’ve read are the ones that elevate the application by bringing it to life.

How do you do that? The key is to read your application as a stranger.

Pretend You Aren’t You

The first thing you should do is fill out everything on the application except for your essays. Fill in your awards, extracurricular activities, grades, test scores, and biographical information. This part of the application is relatively easy – this is the stuff you already know.

Once you’ve filled all of this out, read through everything you’ve written down, pretending you are an admissions officer who knows nothing else about you. Ask yourself the following questions:

What are my initial impressions of this person?

What is this person passionate about?

Will this person take advantage of the opportunities available at my college or university?

How does this person stand out?

What are my concerns about this applicant?

As you answer these questions, remember the only information you have about this person is what you see in front of you.

Just because a student is the captain of the tennis team in high school doesn’t tell you anything about whether he or she intends on continuing this pursuit in college.

Just because a student volunteered at a hospital doesn’t reveal anything about his or her ambitions to become an oncologist.

Just because a student attended school in three different countries doesn’t reveal the unique perspective on the world he or she developed from living in such varied environments.

Write down only what you can definitely surmise from the factual information you’ve written down.

Now stop pretending you are an admissions officer and read through the answers to these questions as yourself.  You have full knowledge of your passions, goals, and ambitions so as you read through, ask yourself: What is missing from this picture?

You know yourself better than anyone else so you probably know that this list of facts is missing some sort of spirit. It doesn’t fully reveal the extent of your passion for a particular field, the hard work you put into attaining a position of leadership, the complex relationship you have with your family, the reason your grades dipped during your junior year or other key facets of your personality and life.

When you completely eliminate the backstory in your head and judge yourself only from this list of facts, many of us react by saying “This doesn’t tell the whole story!”

You will never be able to tell the whole story in the limited space provided, but you need to figure out what part of the story is most important to tell. When you read through the answers you wrote down, you’ll likely know what parts of your application are missing the depth you feel you need to reveal.

Reveal the Right Qualities

Now that you’ve identified key parts of yourself that you feel are missing from your application, you’ll have an idea of where to begin your search for the right essay topic.

Write down a list of the missing components and their associated stories such as:

  •       Reasons why I’m interested in studying biology/interest in rare plants and medicinal usage/summer biology camp story
  •       Why I decided to start the Sailing Team at my school/story about competition in Providence
  •       Story behind how I got into the AP Calculus class when the school initially rejected me
  •       Why I believe excelling in debate will help me as a future doctor/how this perspective makes me stand out

Now compare your list of missing components to a list of qualities most colleges are looking for in applicants. These qualities include, but are not limited to the following:

  •       Hard-working
  •       Ambitious
  •       Passionate
  •       Motivated
  •       Self-starting
  •       Broad-minded
  •       Entrepreneurial
  •       Community-oriented
  •       Creative
  •       Curious
  •       Motivational
  •       Inspired
  •       Intellectual
  •       Resilient
  •       Courageous
  •       Generous
  •       Thoughtful
  •       Conscientious
  •       Patient
  •       Energetic
  •       Unique
  •       Interdisciplinary
  •       Liberal arts oriented

Determine which components best showcase the qualities you hope to reveal.

In most cases, you are going to have the opportunity to write several essays so you may choose to write an essay about several of these components. Your essay about why you are interested in studying biology may reveal how you are passionate, curious, and a self-starter.

Your second essay about how you believe debating skills may help in effectively practicing medicine may reveal different qualities such as that you are creative, interdisciplinary, and unique.

Together, these essays round out the picture of who you are in a much more vivid way than was possible from your original list of facts.

An Example of this Method

Let’s go through a full example of how this works. We’ll take a look at the application of a girl named Clara. Here is what she writes on her application:

Name: Clara

GPA: 3.8

SAT Scores: 760M, 650CR, 680W


District Math Champion 1st Place

Extracurricular Activities:

President of the Math Club

Vice-President of the Student Government Association

Varsity Volleyball Team

Desired Major:


Obviously, a full application would have more information than I’ve listed above, but this gives you an idea. Clara would read through everything above and pretending to be the admissions officer, she would answer the following questions.

What are my initial impressions of this person?

Clara seems to be a talented math student.

What is this person passionate about?

It looks like she is likely passionate about math since she leads the Math Club and has won a math award.

Will this person take advantage of the opportunities available at my college or university?

It looks like she will be focused on math where she clearly excels.

How does this person stand out?

She stands out from her peers in her math skills and has some leadership experience from her positions in the Math Club and student government.

What are my concerns about this applicant?

Her critical reading and writing scores are on the lower side for our university, and I’m not sure if she will fully take advantage of the liberal arts curriculum our university offers if her main focus is math.

Now that Clara rereads these reactions from her own perspective, she’ll need to think about whether this is an impression she is comfortable with. Chances are, she will realize that this portrait of herself is incomplete.

She’ll make a list of missing components of herself from this original analysis:

  •       Passionate about not just math but math education/my initiative as the vice-president of the SGA to bring multivariable calculus to my school/want to volunteer at schools in college to improve math education/interest in how math education affects the future of this country
  •       I strive to be well-rounded/I am not naturally good at reading and writing, but I have worked very hard to improve my skills/read hundreds of speeches over the summer and practiced delivering them with Dad/delivered speech when running for office in front of hundreds of people and got standing ovation/continue to be interested in the art of persuasion and hope to continue to work on these skills in college
  •       Fascination with Legos and my story about how I’ve been building a giant Lego castle in my basement for the past ten years
  •       Challenges having a deaf grandmother and how it taught me the value of nonverbal communication

Clara looks at this list and compares it to the list of qualities she wants to reveal in her application. All of these missing components are important to Clara, but she doesn’t have time to write about all of them. Ultimately, she decides that she will write her main Common Application essay on her struggle to improve her writing and speaking skills.

Clara knows that her lower SAT scores in critical reading and writing might be seen as problematic, and she also wants to make sure colleges have no doubt that she is a good fit for a broad liberal arts education. Furthermore, Clara is proud of the fact that she worked extremely hard to overcome a natural obstacle and was able to achieve a high level of success.

Clara will be able to use this same essay to elaborate on the nature of the success she has been able to achieve. She will describe how she was able to use the opportunity to be elected to student government to improve math education, something she continues to be passionate about. Clara can conclude that this experience taught her that she was capable of anything, that interdisciplinary skills can lead to greatness, and that she is therefore a firm believer in the liberal arts model of education.

In just one essay, Clara has now been able to address many of the issues she thought were missing from the admissions officer’s original analysis, and she was able to reveal a lot of positive characteristics about herself including the fact that she is:

  •       Ambitious
  •       Hard-working
  •       Passionate
  •       Broad-minded
  •       Goal-oriented
  •       Resilient
  •       Likely to pursue community service or politically-oriented activities in college
  •       Interested in a liberal arts education

These characteristics would appeal to all of the colleges on Clara’s list which is why this is an ideal essay for the Common Application.

For her supplemental essay, Clara will write about her fascination with Legos and her Lego castle. She believes that this essay will reveal different qualities that she also feels are important, including the fact that she is:

  •       Unique
  •       Self-starting
  •       Creative

With these essays included, Clara comes across as a much more well-rounded and distinctive applicant. She feels she has translated the core aspects of her personality into the application and feels ready to send the application off.

You Don’t Need a Masterpiece

Writing a good essay isn’t about composing a literary masterpiece, contrary to what some of your English teachers might lead you to believe. A good essay rounds out your application, revealing who you are in a more personal and deep way than is conveyed elsewhere on the application.

In order to figure out how to do this, you need to read your application with fresh eyes.  You need to see yourself as a stranger would and figure out what is missing. Dig down and figure out what drives you to succeed, what makes you passionate, and how you would contribute to your college community. Look for your weaknesses and address those head on. Choose an essay that makes all of the facts scattered about your application come to life, revealing the core part of who you are.

When an admissions officer reads your essay and sees you as a multidimensional person with complex thoughts and clear ambitions, your application comes alive.

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