What is the Point of the College Application Essay?
Much of the college application is quantitative, for example, your GPA and standardized tests scores. The application essay is the college’s effort to humanize the process and to add a qualitative element to their admissions decisions. They want to know something about the applicant, as a person.
Therefore, the first thing your teen needs to decide is what he wants the College Admissions Office to know about him that isn’t spelled out in his application. Remind him to take some time to consider this. He may have to spend a bit of time on identity development. He should consider the following: Who am I? What’s important to me? Do my activities, classes and accomplishments point to a special interest, passion, trait, or commitment that I want to further develop?
Try this exercise:
When the admissions representative is finished reading your teen’s essay, what is the one thing she wants the reader to learn about her? “Wow, this student sure is !” Be sure she can confidently answer this question prior to beginning her rough draft.
Now, how will she get her message across without just blurting it out? Remind her to put herself in the reader’s chair for a moment. Most admissions officers read hundreds of essays over a period of two to three months. This may get a bit tedious, so it’s okay if she considers something unique or unusual. Remind her to feel free to entertain, educate, or persuade as she develops her message. She might consider telling a story that only she can tell, perhaps a story that screams perseverance or one that hints at innovation and creativity. Descriptive words, powerful verbs, and lots of details paint a picture that makes the reader feel like he is right there with the writer. Remember that her goal is to get the reader to know her—not her favorite French teacher, her father who sacrificed to bring her to this country, or her favorite author. The readers may, however, want to know how one of these people has inspired her or made her who she is today. The focus should be on her!
You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Your teen should realize that his college essay is not an English assignment that will be graded by his teacher. He may have mastered the “summary statement” to kick off his term paper, but he should save that for his SAT Writing test. The best college application essay draws the reader into the essay and allows the story to unfold in front of her. He might consider beginning his essay with a statement or question that causes the reader to think, “Hmm, I wonder what this student is going to talk about?” and ending with, “Oh, I get it!” He might want to start his essay in the middle of his story for a more intriguing, eye-catching beginning: “Clutching my guide rope and flailing for a toe-hold, I thought longingly of the hot chocolate that awaited me at base camp.”
He’ll want to be specific. Sometimes our small daily rituals tell more about us than the big awards we win. Some students choose to humbly tell a story about a failure and what they learned from it. As long as it holds a powerful message, the story will accomplish his goal. Remember that he should review for grammar, spelling, and overall flow of the essay. He should use transition words, statements or sentences to make sure the ideas are connected in a logical flow.
It’s about telling your story.
There is a movement toward innovative options for students to share their stories with admission officers. Many schools now offer the option to supplement the traditional personal statement essay with an uploaded image, video, or document file – these files could reflect music, artwork, graded high school paper, robotics schema, and more.
For example, over a hundred colleges now offer students a field on the Common Application to enter their ZeeMee account link, a free online portal for students to collect files for a portfolio. And many of the colleges that are members of the new Coalition for Access and Affordability and Success (CAAS) application allow students to better distinguish themselves through uploaded files. Encourage your student to consider being creative in showcasing their unique interests and accomplishments.
You gotta’ be real.
Be sure your teen uses his voice, explaining any slang or technical jargon. Remember he shouldn’t make things up or fall prey to exaggeration. He should be real – this is his chance for the admissions office to get to know him! Read his essay aloud and be sure it sounds like his voice. He may ask a few people to review his application, and then read his essay. The essay should complete his application and convey something key about him as a person. This is your teen’s chance to make his point!
The author, Lynette Mathews is freelance writer and member of the National Educators Writers Association.
She is the director of The College Planning Center, a resource for students and parents. © 2016