Writing a College Application Essay

By letting what you think “they want” dictate the contents of your essay, your writing can wind up feeling self-conscious and manipulative.

In coaching students on their college application essays, I am often asked, “Do you think they’re looking for people who join clubs?” Or, “I don’t want to say that I’m on the tennis team and I teach tennis to little kids. They’ll think that’s all I do.” This, of course, is a natural and understandable impulse. The purpose of the application essay is to give the school an idea of who a student is, beyond his or her GPA and test scores, and it’s important to make that impression a positive one. 

Yet there is also a danger. By letting what you think “they want” dictate the contents of your essay, your writing can wind up feeling self-conscious and manipulative. Besides, the person who will be reading your college application essays is experienced and astute. She can tell when a student is just mouthing back what he think she wants to hear. Rather than create a positive impression, this can have the opposite effect and alert the reader that the student is not being entirely ingenuous. 

College application essays need to demonstrate positive values, initiative, insight, individuality, maturity, leadership, curiosity, courage and an ability to grow from experience. They should also give an indication of what kind of citizen the student will be, once he or she gets on campus. Obviously, they need to be well written. Accomplishing all that is difficult enough without burdening yourself with trying to second guess your Admissions Committee. The truth is, Admissions Officers are most impressed when a student has the confidence to write from the heart and be exactly who he or she is. Set that as your goal and your essay will become a true asset in getting you accepted to your first choice college. 

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