Frequently Asked Questions
of Parents and Students
Q. How important are essays in getting into college?
A. Essays are an important part of your application.
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, they rank fourth in importance after grades, rigor of courses, and test scores. Essays give you a chance to go beyond the statistical presentation of grades and test scores and offer admissions officers an intimate glimpse into who you are and what matters to you. It is an opportunity to share information that can’t be found anywhere else on your application and to make a powerful and unique impression.
However, even the best essay cannot make up for poor grades or low SAT or ACT test scores. Conversely, a mediocre essay may be “good enough” if a student is being recruited for a specific skill, such as a sport or musical talent.
Well-written essays, however, can tip the scales in a student’s favor if that student is on the cusp of being admitted. It can also help a student stand out in a sea of similar applications (students with the same activities, GPA, courses, and test scores). You will want to give your essays the best effort possible because you never know if they will be the ultimate tipping factor in your admission to a college.
Q. I haven’t started my own charity, spent a summer building orphanages in China, overcome a huge challenge, or worked on a cure for cancer. My life is so ordinary, what could I possibly have to write an essay about?
A. Colleges aren’t so much as looking for how extraordinary events impacted your life but how the ordinary moments have had extraordinary impact on your life.
Some students have one-in-a-million stories to tell of dramatic accomplishments or life experiences, but the majority of 17-year-olds don’t, and that is okay. Colleges don’t expect it. So-called “ordinary” experiences, if told in a compelling way, often make for terrific and terrifically effective essays. Topics such as a job, volunteer work, family rituals, or your first car can all make for good essay topics as long as you take the time to reflect on the experience and can articulate the importance of it in your life.
Q. Is it okay to recycle essays?
A. Yes! In most cases you should be able to tweak your Common Application essay to fit one of the two UC prompts.
Some supplemental essays can also be recycled when edited. Don’t make it hard on yourself – re-use and re-work essays whenever you can.
Q. I have finished my Common Application essay, but now have to write supplemental essays, such as “Why do you want to attend this college?”. Are the supplemental questions really that important?
A. Yes, in fact these essays might be more important.
Most students spend the bulk of their time on the Common Application essay and not enough on the “why this college” essays. All too often, students write generic essays that could apply to a number of colleges. When a college reads such an essay, it questions a student’s “interest” in the school. Yet today, in order to have a high “yield” (the percentage of students accepted to a college who wind up attending), colleges lean toward accepting those students who they think will attend. They also want students who will add to the college culture and be a participant in the many opportunities the school offers. If you write a lackluster essay on why you want to attend a school, this can be a bigger strike against you than a mediocre Common Application essay.
Q. How can I write a convincing “why this college?” supplemental essay if I’ve never visited the school or don’t know much about it?
A. If possible, try to visit any school you are applying to.
While you are there, take notes of professors you meet, classes you visit, tours you take, so you can add these details to the essay. If you can’t visit the college, research it on-line or talk to alumni or current students. Spend time learning about classes in areas you’d like to study, professors you’d like to study with, and programs you’d like to take advantage of, and mention them specifically in your essay. You need to sell the school on the fact that you are sold on it. This may sound like over-kill, but in today’s competitive environment, it’s what is needed.
Q. What are some of your best tips for writing the essay?
A. Here are a few:
Tell a story. The best essays offer a strong narrative to draw in the reader.
Start small and end big. When telling a story, focus on one “slice of life” rather than try to encapsulate the entire experience. Otherwise you run the risk of your story being too generic or general. Then, at some point in the essay, usually about one-half or three-fourths through it, you can go “bigger” and share a lesson learned or a broader truth gained to give your slice of life perspective greater meaning and depth.
Make the lead count. Admissions officers spend a few minutes on each application. A catchy lead will make your essay stand out from the rest.
Avoid writing the essay everyone else is. Did you overcome an injury in your sport? Learn to get over your shyness through debate or Youth in Government? Discover on a trip to Mexico that you got more out of building homes for the homeless than the ones you were helping? Score the game-winning goal? Blow the game-winning goal and learned to deal with defeat? Deal with the death of a grandparent? Well, so did thousands of other high school students. It’s not that these topics can’t be told in a new and fresh way, but they are so worn that it is very difficult to write them effectively. If you think your subject material is a common story, take a deeper look at your life and scour the “nooks and crannies” of your daily routine, your loves, your hates, your passions, and your idiosyncrasies for subject material.
Don’t write about a topic just because your parents want you to. I have yet to see such an essay work because it lacks conviction and passion. Students need to write about topics that interest and move them, even if their parents have other ideas. (This isn’t to say parents can’t contribute greatly to the process and offer support and editing along the way.)
When writing about a challenge, focus at least half the essay on how you overcame the challenge. Some students spend so much time describing a problem, they don’t share how they grew from the experience, overcame it, and what they learned from it. While you can start the essay at a point of failure, eventually, you must show success. Otherwise the admissions officer is left feeling like you can’t cope with challenges and that you might be a poor risk for adapting to college. Your college essay should highlight the best of you, not the worst.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Some students have a hard time finishing an essay because they keep re-editing it to make it “perfect.” Yes, you want your essay to be well-written and be free of typos or grammatical errors. However, worrying about the minutiae, such as a comma placement or word choice, is usually not productive because admissions staff don’t have the time to ponder every punctuation mark or word. At some point you have to trust you’ve done your best, take a deep breath, and release your essay into the admissions stratosphere.