The first thing to know is that you’re playing offense, not defense. Too many students look at the prompts, try to think of a response, and then write something. They take a defensive stance, wondering how they should respond in order to seem worthy to the universities. Instead of thinking of yourself as a passive commodity for the schools to peruse, think of yourself as an interesting person and decide what you want the schools to know about you. The essay is your primary way to show the schools that you’re a person, so make sure you show them what a great person you are.

Don’t start by looking at the prompts! I had a really great literature professor in college who talked to us about the essay questions on her final exam. She said that, ideally, the final exam would simply say “Explain.” Then we’d have two hours to explain what we’d discovered and learned over the semester, and she could assess us from that. However, lots of students would be confused or anxious about such an open-ended test, so she posed several essay questions, each ending with “Explain.”

College admissions essays are similar. What they really want to ask is “So, tell us about yourself.” But that would be too weird for too many applicants, so they ask more specific questions to get you to tell them about yourself.

So instead of beginning with the prompts and taking a defensive stance, begin with yourself. Think about several things:

·      What makes you an interesting person?

·      What skills and traits do you have that will make you successful at college?

·      Other than your grades, what do people praise you for the most often?

·      How do you fit into your communities, and what kinds of communities do you want to belong to?

·      What are you hoping to get out of college?

·      What are you hoping to provide to your college?

Spend some serious time thinking about these and similar questions, and think about what kind of a presentation you’d make to an admissions committee about yourself. Once you have that in mind, then go and look at the prompts. Think about which prompts can best highlight the qualities you want to talk about, and then go from there.

Nobody likes a show-off. This is tough to remember when you’re being asked to talk about your accomplishments, but it’s still true. When you’re writing your essays and speaking to people, you want to make it clear that your accomplishments are not traits in themselves, but evidence of your important personal traits.

So it’s not just that you were captain of the basketball team, but that the challenges of being captain of the basketball team taught you a lot about motivating others and yourself. It’s not that you had the highest grade in your math class, but that the rewards of good grades highlight your resilience and ability to meet self-imposed goals. It’s not that it felt great to win the debate trophy, but that your ability to cooperate and collaborate with a partner made you successful at the debate tournament. It’s not that your band went to Regionals, get the idea.

Balance style and content. I often had students ask me which is more important on admissions essays: the writing itself or what the writing talks about. The answer is both. A poorly written essay about something really cool is neither better nor worse than a really polished piece of meaningless fluff. Work on both. A lot.

Most college admissions essay sound alike. This makes sense. There’s a limited range of possibilities—most of the applicants are about the same age, come from the same national cultural background, and are high school seniors. There’s only so much variety you can have. So don’t worry about writing something that’s going to be completely different—worry about making yours stand out in small ways. In a 650-word essay, a single sentence can make a huge difference. So pay attention to each sentence.

Consider the past, present, and future. Whatever personal quality you’re talking about, make sure to include—even in small ways—how you developed this trait in the past, how you’re displaying that trait now at the end of high school, and how you think that trait will be useful in college.

Some things NOT to do:

·      Rehashing what’s already in your transcript. If you only say things in your essay that the admissions committee can already see on your transcript or test scores, you’re missing a big opportunity.

·      The Mission Trip essay. Maybe you went on a mission trip or some other service project, and you learned a lot about people in different circumstances than yourself. Maybe you felt that they affected you more than you affected them. That’s wonderful, but please understand that the admissions counselors have seen this essay a gazillion times and it’s going to be extremely hard to make yours stand out. If you write this essay, make sure you work hard on highlighting your own personal traits and not just the epiphany you had. I’ve also seen many weird essays where the student basically argues that the way of life of those being helped is superior to the writer’s way of life. These essays have sentences along the lines of “they may be poor, but they take care of each other and have true happiness.” This is a great idea if you’re applying to go and live among the people you helped in your service project, but not so much if you’re applying to a expensive college.

·      Unbalanced before & after. Many essays use a “before and after” structure as a way to talk about personal growth or overcoming setbacks. I used to be unmotivated, but now I’m motivated. I used to be a bad student, but now I’m a good student. I used to be selfish, but now I’m involved in helping others. Things like that. If you write this kind of essay, make sure you spend most of your time and words on the positive, not the negative. I’ve seen too many essays that spend about 90% of their words on describing the negative in great detail, and then give a vague “but I got better.” Spend no more than 20% on the negative Before, and most of the essay on the positive After.

·      On any type of essay that is going to multiple schools (like the Common Application), you should not name any individual school or place. If you send an essay to individual schools that includes a school name, make sure you have the right name. Many students send the same writing to multiple schools and simply replace one school name for another. If you do this, make sure you replace them ALL.