I want to explain a change that’s recently happened in the college application process.
When I was in high school, my grade was incredibly competitive. To give you numbers, I had a 97 grade point average, and I was ranked 90th in my class. My GPA was a 97, and 89 people in my graduating class had better GPAs.
One of my best friends was our class Salutatorian--she was ranked #2 out of over 500 students, and she basically ran or was involved in every club, had near perfect SAT scores, and she was a world-traveling cellist. She was rejected from her top choice school but ended up at another Ivy and later a top medical school.
The reason I bring this up is because I was recently speaking with another friend about my role as an essay advisor and why I’m needed, and she said, "Jackie...it’s gotten so competitive that basically everyone applying to these schools is super smart, talented, a leader...and admission officers have to reject students who have literally done everything right on paper. Today, I would have been out of the running for my top choice school despite having incredible grades."
I don’t know if this crazy, ultra-competitive, super-stressful bubble will burst anytime soon. In the meantime, you are in the middle of applying to colleges, and you want to put your best foot forward. The best way to do that is by writing outstanding college essays. If you’re a competitive candidate, you’re also up against equally deserving competitive candidates.
The college essay is the only part of your application where you don’t have to be perfect on paper--you can let your guard down a bit and show that you’re a human being. That being said, this is the time to learn how to do this because you want to give this your best shot.
Let me tell you a story.
One former student of mine was frustrated. He showed his essay to college guidance and they hated it. They sent him to me, and I read it and hated it too. From the way it was written, he came across as someone who conforms to the status quo, as someone who will change himself to fit in. I asked him if that’s what he wanted to get across, and he said, “UM. ABSOLUTELY NOT! I changed myself in that area because I felt that my outer-self didn't match the person I felt I was inside.
So, I gave him simple shifts in his thinking to tackle his essay and to keep it focused on what he wanted to get across. I taught him a few strategies, and he was so much more upbeat than when he had first sat down. He got excited to write, and he said, “I get it now; I totally get it.” Once he “got it” he was unstoppable. The next day, he handed me his new essay. My jaw dropped--overnight, he had gone from writing an essay that we all hated to writing an essay that we were sharing with the rest of the guidance department. He ended up writing a few more stellar essays for different schools. And, this wasn’t even from a lot of one-on-one coaching...this stemmed from me teaching him how to think about the college essay differently--how to be strategic about it. I find this happens even more so with students who consider themselves math or science people--they panic that they have to “be creative,” but once they are given a few formulas to use, they “get it.”
I’m going to show you some small, simple strategies that will help you do this too. So wherever you are in the process--haven’t started, wrote a draft, already sent it in--you can benefit from this information. I’m going to take you from your current situation to your dream situation. Over the past 4 years, I’ve helped hundreds of students get into their top schools by teaching them my proven strategies and also by teaching them some -to feel less stressed. I hated seeing my students overwhelmed, so I also learned how to dance with stress, and I teach that too.
I’m going to teach you this strategically so it’s easier to remember. We are going to discuss 3 categories where you’ll learn the shifts to make in your thinking or writing to make your essay outstanding: The three categories are Mistakes, Model, and Message.
Mistake #1--You don't know the essay’s purpose
The first mistake and the biggest mistake you can make is to neglect to fully understand why admissions officers ask you for an essay. Students who think that this essay is meant to impress admissions officers end up writing it incorrectly. They end up bragging or repeating something that’s already on their application.
The college essay is simply a way for admissions officers to see you as a person, not where you fit on the graph in comparison with other candidates. It’s a way for them to hear your voice, to see how you see the world, and to get a feel for what type of roommate you’ll make.
You need to make yourself likable. That’s it. They aren’t looking for a sob story or things that happened to you--they are looking to get to know you a bit better. On that note, and I’d write this down, humility is super important. You don’t want to spend your essay talking about all the wonderful things you’ve done and how smart you are--leave that up to your activity list and your transcript. The college essay is your time to be a storyteller and to tell them a story that captures who you are that can’t be found anywhere else on your application.
Keep this in mind--you don’t necessarily know who is reading your essay, so avoid being polarizing. For example, you don’t necessarily want your essay to be about religion or politics unless there is a really strong story there. You want to also be mindful of red flags--addiction, entitlement, and cliches.
Mistake #2: You're unfocused
A mistake that I see an overwhelming number of students make is that their essay isn’t focused. You only have 650 words to tell your story, so make sure it is focused and easy to follow.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to add in too much backstory. What ends up happening is that you lose your reader's attention. Before you begin your essay or as you edit it, keep in mind what you want the reader to know about you by the time he or she is done reading it.
Write this down. If you don’t know what you want them to know, then chances are your story is going to be unfocused and you’re going to have details in there that are useless. In a 650 word essay, each word needs to add value or it needs to go. So, when you are revising your essay, reach each line and ask yourself whether or not it is remaining true to focus.
Also, some students get carried away with talking about a particular event or person that the essay ends up not even being about them at all. The essay needs to be focused on you. If it’s not, admissions officers won’t know whether or not they like you. What they will know is that you didn’t learn how to craft your admission essay, and that can count against you.
I’m going to teach you about scenes and reflections in a moment, but I want to make this point here too. The best essays are focused on a specific moment. They start in the middle of the action to hook the reader. You can fill in backstory later--just don’t go overboard.
MODEL WHAT WORKS
The next two shifts are going to discuss what the winning essays do well and how you can model them.
Model #1: Balance Scenes and Reflections
Scenes and reflections are something you’ll notice in all the essays that colleges pick out as their favorites once you have a trained eye.
Scenes are exactly what they sound like...similar to a scene on a television show, the scenes in your essay put your reader into your story. When you describe what a scene looked like using vivid imagery and/or dialogue, you are allowing the reader to get a glimpse at the event through your eyes. If you’ve ever read a book that you just couldn’t put down, it’s likely that the author was great at creating scenes that pulled you in.
The way to do this is to use imagery. When you pick your scene, take the reader there. Show them instead of telling them. For example, you could tell them that it was hot. Or, you could also show them it was hot by saying, “My legs stuck to the back of my chair as sweat dropped down my back.” In the first sentence, you probably had a different image in your head than the second sentence because you were basing it on your own experiences of what being hot feels like. In the second sentence, your thoughts were directed to visualize someone sitting on a chair.
Reflections are what your thoughts about the event are. These should be thoughtful and give the reader a glimpse into how you think about the world. It's your chance to be honest, to show how you've grown, and to dig deep into why you are the way you are. At the core of the reflection, your reader should be able to relate to you in some way.
I like to explain scenes as the actual events of a movie and reflections as the character's voiceover of his or her inner dialogue.
When writing your essay, strike a healthy balance between the two. And, many of the top essays start with a scene in order to hook the reader.
I encourage you to look up the ones John’s Hopkins University picked for their "Essays That Worked" section of their website and notice the use of scenes and reflections.
Model #2: Declutter Your Essay
If it isn’t adding value, get rid of it. Your essay is so short, and you want it to be engaging.
The best writers are able to cut things out of their essay even when they "really like how it sounds." Yes, we all know you've been there too. When you read through your essay, look for times when you can be more succinct, or look for unnecessary information. While it's great to create a vivid scene, you don't necessarily have the space to detail every aspect of the outfit you wore that day.
It always helps to ask someone else to read your essay. Ask them 1) is this clear to the reader and 2) is there any information I can take out?
GET YOUR MESSAGE ACROSS
Message #1-Practice Humility
The reason that the college essay is a challenge for so many students is because it's a document that is supposed to shine a bright light on you in hopes that you'll stand out from the rest of the crowd.
Problematically, that often leads to students believing that they need to hash out all their accomplishments in a page and a half or tell the admission officer how they are better than other people. What ends up happening is that students inadvertently put others down to raise themselves up.
When you are editing your essay, check for times in which you sound arrogant. The rest of your application should be a brag list; your essay should not be. Instead, focus more on being genuine and on telling a story that admission officers can relate to or that peaks their interest.
Mind you: you can take a risk on a topic--maybe even challenge the status quo--but, keep humility at the center for a way to get your message not only heard, but listened to.
Check out my article "7 Reasons Why Humility is the Single Most Important Trait to Display in Your College Admission Essays" to learn more about using humility in your essay.
Message #2-Be Positive
If you're in a challenging situation, who would you prefer to have around: 1) the friend who can't see that there is any way out and cries out in despair or 2) the friend who always figures out a way to figure out a plan to fix the problem and learn from it?
Admission officers are not only admitting you to their university, they are also adding an addition to their campus life and giving someone a roommate. They want problem solvers; they want students who will figure out a way to handle the stresses of college.
My college essay was about how I coped with my mom’s illness in high school. She was having mini-strokes daily and would be dizzy and collapse to the ground. But my essay wasn’t about her--it was about how much school I missed simply by taking her to doctors appointments because she couldn’t drive anymore. I was kind of forced to grow up and learn to balance my school, home, and work life. The focus wasn't on what happened to me; it was on how I handled a challenging situation.
There’s a fine line between asking for pity and asking to be seen and understood. Therefore, aim to be the person who, despite difficulty, can and persevere.
One simple way to do this is to read through your essay for negative words--see if you spend too much time focusing on the negative.
This article was written by Jaclyn Corley, the founder of The College Essay Captain, She provides virtual college essay strategy sessions, develops online courses, and runs college and career writing workshops. Jaclyn Corley founded her company to be a resource for students, and she has made it her mission to inspire students to tell their stories powerfully.
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