Tips for Writing the College Essay

By Deborah McKew

Gretchen studied her list of possible essay topics. She could write about her three months in New Zealand working on organic farms, the gap year she spent as a guide at a national park in Texas, or growing up in rural Vermont the oldest of four siblings. All of these made for interesting subject matter. She began to play with these ideas about her life experiences. Unexpectedly, she veered off in an entirely different direction. She remembered a little girl she used to babysit for; her name is Sara and she was born blind. “Sara was the most imaginative person I had ever met,” Gretchen recalled. “She helped me to see the world in a whole new way.” Suddenly, Gretchen knew what she was going to write about.

Tracey Perkins, director of admissions counseling at Colby-Sawyer College (CSC) in New London, notes that the question she hears most from applicants is, “What should I write about?” Her answer is, “Write about what you are passionate about, not what you think we want to hear.” 

This year, Perkins and her staff, nine counselors in total, received nearly 3,000 applications for about 400 slots for the class of 2014. College applications present a two-dimensional picture where the landscape is often the same — many students look great on paper with high GPAs, solid SAT scores, and a long list of extracurricular activities. The college essay is “the only place on the application where students truly have a voice about themselves,” says Perkins. 

The essay is important because, when all criteria are evaluated, this written expression of the student’s personality may become the deciding factor for acceptance to the school. At Colby-Sawyer, the essay is “a piece of the process that we put a lot of weight on,” says Perkins. “It is second only to the transcripts.”

Choosing the colleges to which to apply is first and foremost the most important step. A successful college career starts with choosing the right fit. The best way the admissions personnel can determine if an applicant is a good fit for their school is for them to get to know that applicant as an individual. So, a student’s personality and enthusiasm must shine through in the essay. Perkins emphasizes that admissions can tell by the language they use if the essay is their own work.

Writing the college essay is a process that starts with students understanding what is important to them and why. The essays that stand out to the admissions counselors, says Perkins, are the ones that might connect a current situation to the student’s future goals. She advises students to use real, specific examples, explain why a particular event or situation affected you, how it made you better, and how you grew from it. Admissions staff looks for evidence that demonstrates a maturity level and an ability to succeed under challenging circumstances.

After receiving acceptance letters from several schools (and personal notes from two deans commenting on her thoughtful essay), Gretchen Kaija decided to attend Bates College in Maine. “It was incredibly rewarding to receive such positive feedback because I then knew that I had been effective in putting my heart into my essay,” says Gretchen. “I could not have been happier with the effect my essay had on admissions staff.”

Five tips for writing the college essay

  1. Start early — allow time for ideas to percolate.
  2. Explore different ideas — work on a variety of topics to discover what you really want to say
  3. Don’t stress out over it — by allowing time to explore different topics, you will find the one that is right and you will have the time to revise and polish
  4. Choose a topic that is personal yet has universal appeal; in other words, one that almost anyone who reads it can relate to, yet that no one but you could have written.
  5. Proofread it!

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