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3 Keys to Successful College Admission Essays

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 8, 2014 11:29:00 AM

I was cleaning up my study over the weekend, clearing the decks to write a new book about college admissions, and I found my notes from the road trip I took with my daughter in 2011, the summer before she applied to college.

“85% of the students who apply to Harvard,” I dutifully transcribed as I listened to the admissions officer, “are academically qualified. You will live here for four years, so we want to know who you are. Use your essays to show us who you are.”

It’s not just Harvard. In the 2012 NACAC study of over 10,000 college admissions officers, essays were the most important factor in college admissions after grades and SAT/ACT scores. The essay plays a key role in helping admissions officers choose between thousands of students with similar test scores and GPAsyour essays are what take you from the 85% who could be admitted to the 5% who are admitted.

College application essays play a unique role in college admissions, more important than another 100 points on your SATs or a couple of decimal points on your GPA. Your application essays (both the 650-word Personal Statement and all the supplement essays) reveal your character; they show admission officers who you will be on their campus and in their community.

In a Story To College survey of 48 admissions officers from selective private colleges, the admissions officers said that they look for three things when reading your essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice.

Let’s look at the three keys to admissions essay success more closely:

1. Unique perspective

A unique perspective reveals how you see the world and what difference you have made through your actions. To get started on your essays, brainstorm 20 moments when you learned a key lesson, changed in a fundamental way, or made a difference in the lives of others. These can be simple moments, like a family meal or late night conversations with friends. Narrow the list down to focus on things you did, not concepts you realized or believe in. And remember: admissions officers aren’t looking for expensive trips or fancy experiencesin fact, sometimes that kind of extravagance can be a little off-putting and it doesn’t tell your story. Share personal moments that reveal who you are as a human being.

2. Strong writing

You might think admissions officers are looking for essays like you write in English class with a strong argument. Not so! Successful college admission and scholarship essays are based in stories, not arguments. For most students, personal narrative writing requires new skills. Your brain already knows how to do this, but you need to clear out the critical writing cobwebs you collect in school and learn to tell stories instead. Story2 empowers students to explore the experiences that have shaped them into who they are, and to share those moments honestly in college admissions essays and interviews. It’s important to proofread your essays and clean up any grammar snafus, but more important to write with the power of storytelling.

3. Authentic voice

Your authentic voice is the voice you use when you are talking to your friends. To access your unique voice, tell your stories out loud into a phone or computer. If you can gather a group of friends and tell your stories to one anothereven better. Telling your stories out loud is your authentic voice. Storytelling builds a powerful emotional bridge between you and your audience and connects you to with the people who read your applications in admissions offices. Many students find their authentic voice while writing their college essays, and then through over-editing turn the essays back into something generic that is no longer theirs. 

Topics:college admission