I am really stuck every time I sit down to write the college essay. Is it really important ?
The essay is probably the most important and certainly most difficult part of the application. While an essay will rarely compensate for poor grades or scores it certainly has the ability to make or break your application. When you recognize that students can be indistinguishable from each other in terms of grades, scores and even extracurricular activities, the essay is the one opportunity for you to shine as you tell your own story. Even your letters of recommendation may merely reflect the writing ability of those writing them it, especially if your recommenders do not know you well.
Colleges can easily fill their seats with students with stellar grades and scores. If that were all colleges were looking for there would be no need for the comprehensive review that is used by most schools. We could all go back to the days when schools like the UW used an academic index by which students were primarily admitted or denied based on set criteria. The reality is that now most colleges are looking to create a balanced class of interesting individuals who can bring something unique to the campus. They also want thoughtful individuals who seek passion and curiosity in learning. Lastly they are looking for what I call it the roommate factor, whereby they want students that other students will want as their roommate. The essay is your chance to show the admission officers that you fit in one or more of these categories and will be someone that they themselves will want to know.
It is important to understand who reads these applications since knowing your audience allows you to speak more directly to them. In general, readers are men and women in their twenties who are often alumni of the school. Usually, these young admission officers last in the field for only a few years before they move on in a different path or graduate school. On the other hand directors of admissions are usually seasoned professionals who have actively sought a career in college administration. Since the young readers who often represent our geographic area are the first and sometimes only ones reading your essay, you are often writing to someone maybe five or six years older than yourself. Now imagine these same readers having to take home dozens of files each evening or having 5-10 minutes per application during the day in the hope of finding one essay that will entertain them or at least say something that has not been said before.
Many of my students believe that there are certain topics that they should not write about such as winning the big game, a grandparentï¿½s death or a trip abroad where they realize that there are cultural differences. While it is easy for any of these topics to quickly turn to a clichï¿½, there are in fact no such things as bad essay topics, just bad essays. Use the essay as a chance to entertain in the same way that we would share our story as we go about making a new friend.
The essay is the chance for you to write about what only you could know. Rather than tell about an entire trip, share a meaningful anecdote incorporating vivid details that allows the reader to gain insight into how you perceive the world. Everyone loves to be told a story especially if you can metaphorically use it in a way that shows how you have grown through the process. Many students on the Eastside fear that they have nothing significant to tell having experienced privileged lives with often little opportunity to engage in real diversity. Adversity can be approached in a multitude of ways as long as you are true to your story and do not try to present yourself in a disingenuous way. Regional representatives who will be reading your essays know our community and our schools and are comparing you only to other applicants from your school or your region.
While parents are often eager to assist and even write your essay it is important that it has the voice of a seventeen-year-old student. Admission officers can see right through an essay that has been written by an adult. While it must be well written, generally admission officers are looking at what it has to say about you as a person and how it reflects your personality and values more than as a piece of literature. Students sometimes mistakenly write as if it were a scholarly essay that they would write for a class assignment. While we all love to recycle essays this is not the time to try to incorporate that winning class essay into your college essay. That being said there are times that your one good college essay can be used for a variety of prompts at various schools if you can safely justify to yourself that you are answering the question, if even indirectly.