Conquer Your College Essays: 3 Do’s and 2 Don’ts for Writing Successful Admission Essays

On the same day that the final Class of 2015 admissions decisions were released, the Common Application publicized its new essay questions for the Class of 2016. For a detailed dissection of the new essay topics, check out Story2 admissions coach, Josh Stephens’s, blog in the Huffington Post.

Here I want to give students some specific guideposts for the part of the college journey that revolves around writing college essays. Although the essays come last (most students don’t start writing them until fall of their senior year), there are a few key steps you can take now to avoid a lot of hassle later.

3 things you need to know and do to conquer your college admission essays:

1. Focus the Personal Essay on your character, not your achievements

There are other places in your college applications to showcase accomplishments: in the Activities and Honors sections, in a supplement question that asks about an important activity or accomplishment, or in an Arts or Athletics supplement. But in your 250-650 word Common App personal essay, accomplishments are the wrong currency. Instead, look for stories that reveal who you are as a person. Use the Story2 EssayBuilder™ to begin exploring topics and moments that reveal your character and help admissions officers believe in your future.

2. Pay attention to the supplements

If you are applying to selective colleges, prepare to write a lot of essays. Make a list of all the essays you’ll need to write for each college and allow plenty of time to plan out your supplements for each college to which you’re applying. If a college asks, “Why do you want to attend this college?” do the research to answer in a specific and nuanced way. If they ask about community, figure out what community really means to you. Generic responses like “I fell in love the first time I walked onto the campus” or “Community has always been really important to me” will not help you. And, by the way, “optional” essays are not optional. Each essay is a chance to reveal another part of your story, by showing moments when you have changed or grown or made a difference. Start planning now to avoid a time crunch later.

3. Write the essays yourself

You will be tempted to let other people write your essays. This happens, often innocently at first, with a teacher, advisor or parent “editing” your essay. If his pen is writing on your paper or her fingers are typing on your keyboard, then he or she is writing it for you. Before you know it, your voice gets lost, and your essay sounds like it was written by a 40-year old instead of a high school student. On the other side of the table—when I was reading admissions essays at Rutgers—essays that had been written in an adult voice were never successful. The essays felt insincere, and they did not help the student’s application.

2 Things you should never do in your college admission essays:

1. Write about general ideas that lots of people can say

At Story2 we call these scripts. You will be tempted—early and often, and by many well-meaning adults—to tie up your essays with a pretty “and see how perfect I really am” kind of ribbon. This is almost always a mistake. One of the prompts is about failure because colleges want you to reflect on what choices and circumstances have molded you into the person you are today. Joe Latimer, Associate Dean of Admissions at the University of Rochester, said at the end of this year’s admissions cycle, “There are so few essays that are moving. Everyone plays it safe. Most of the essays are quite boring.” College essays are not a time to play it safe!

2. Over-editing

Darryl Jones, Associate Dean of Admission at Gettysburg College, says “if you can’t finish it in 2 drafts, it will never be a great essay.” I’ve seen many students’ unique and authentic spirit killed by editing round and round until the spark of creativity is lost and their essay sounds just like everyone else’s. You want your Common Application essay to be your best work, but you don’t want the essay to be so safe and sanitized that it sounds unreal. Your essay should sound like your unique spoken voice. When in doubt read them out loud, and cut out everything that sounds flowery, literary, or like you plucked it from a thesaurus.

College admission essays provide the opportunity to establish an authentic, personal connection with the admission officer reviewing your application. Take advantage of each opportunity to reveal your character—who you are as a person, beyond your grades, test scores, and achievements—by showing moments when you have changed or grown or made a difference.

Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story2 and author of Write Out Loud, has empowered 15,000 students around the world—from first-generation college students to the children of bankers and CEOs—to tell their stories out loud and write essays that win admission and scholarships at selective colleges. Have questions about storytelling, college admissions, and life choices? Ask her anything on Twitter @carolbarash.

About Story2: Founded in 2011, Story2 has taught over 15,000 students and 650 teachers how to use the power of storytelling to expand writing confidence and persistence in college admissions, job search, and on the job. Through online education, resources, and community, Story2 makes writing fluency accessible to all people. Story2 collaborates with leading colleges, high schools, and community organizations to democratize college completion and provide equal access to successful careers by providing all students with the best communication and college access tools at an affordable price.


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