May 17, 2020

How to Write a Winning College Essay

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THE College Essay

One of the most daunting aspects of the college-going process involves writing the dreaded college essay. Though throughout your high school tenure you have written several narrative pieces, this particular task ends up the most difficult for students.

Why is writing the college essay so complicated?

Perhaps it is the weight of the narrative as one of the only aspects in the application process where you have an opportunity to sway an admission decision in your favor through persuasion. It is an essay that is perceived to hold your future as a determinant to where you will pursue higher education.

It could be because we feel that our narrative is dull and does not have a competitive edge in a pool of talented youth. We struggle pinpointing exciting, inspiring and valuable moments of our lives and being able to explain them.

There is also the fact that there are those who simply get anxious at the thought of writing an essay of any sort.

The college essay is so difficult because you have to write about yourself. Yes, we typically enjoy talking about ourselves, but it is much harder to write our narrative down. The confusion comes when trying to maintain a balance of being modest but also bragging about yourself, in hopes that you present yourself in the best light. There’s also the big question- what does this admission committee want to hear?

Before diving into the details, we should all know that different schools ask for different prompts for the college essay. Some will let you choose a prompt and if we are using the common application platform (which we should be), there is a few prompts to choose from and then we can send the one essay to multiple schools (less time-consuming, more efficient, definitely a good choice).

Some of the general themes of the essays include: Write about someone who inspires you, who is your role model or has influenced your career goals. Tell me about a time that has changed you/made a huge impact
Why do you want to attend [blank] school or why do you want to pursue [blank] major. Tell me about a time where you suffered from a setback and how you moved forward.

Although the essay topics can differ and some schools become very creative in topics for example University of Chicago’s “Where’s Waldo” prompt,

they all want to know one thing- who you are.

The uses of the College Essay include: Getting to know you, the student. The admission team wants to know your passions, hobbies, but most importantly character. Basically, are you a good human being and someone we want to work with and an individual that we want to represent our school. Finding out if you can follow instructions. The essay provides insight into whether you are capable of actually answering the prompt accurately (really astonishing how often this is not the case).

They want to see your writing style. Can you write cohesive, flowing, concise statements sin grammatical errors and get your meaning and points across.The bottom line- can you write well. This is key because the ability to write well is foundational to your college education and the essay predicts your ability to succeed academically.

And obviously a part of writing the essay is because admissions want to know the answer to the prompt, to see how much you know about their school, programs, chosen major and they reflect on your ability to make connections between values and experiences (Take note that this is 4th on the list).

Here is a general tip from an admissions counselor at NYU:

“Your essay should be well formed, well-written, clear and concise. It should be a reflection of you, of your character, your passions and your values. Here is a scenario: I am walking in the Windy City with a pile of College Essays in my hands and drop them all on the sidewalk. All of them unlabeled, no identifiers, no names written on the papers.

I should be able to pick up a paper and know who it belongs to. Your story should be you, it should differentiate itself from every other essay. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to be creative as long as it fits you. There is absolutely no need to force it, to make things up so they sound more exciting, that really is not the purpose of the college essay.”

The more genuine the writing, the better it ends up being as you actually relate to the narrative and are excited to share those thoughts.

Remember to always actually answer the question that is being asked. Read the prompt thoroughly and answer every part of it.

Many students submit the same or slightly altered essay to several schools. That is understandable and schools are aware that this is the case. However, DO NOT forget to change the name of the school if you refer to it in your essay. That is unprofessional, does not resonate well with admissions, and could really ruin your chances at admittance to that school.

It is always a good idea to have your essay reviewed. We can always start out with asking our peers to review it, but always reach out to an English professor, a private professional and a school counselor to look over it. School counselors will give you an idea of whether the content is accurate and what an admission team would be looking for.

The English professor will ensure there aren't any spelling or grammatical errors and that the essay is generally well-written. A private professional is able to provide more time and individualized support in writing the essay.

The best part about it, is that with the Common Application platform you only really need one spot-on, perfect essay. The platform allows you to send applications to multiple schools and most schools participate in it, therefore the same prompt applies.

Think about this: Harvard announced that it had 43,330 applicants for the class of 2023 and admitted only 1,950 students.

We know it is competitive but the point is, a fairly small team of admissions counselors are looking through 43,330 college essays. They have at most 5 minutes to go over your application, so there is no point in stressing over small details but rather ensuring that it looks good holistically.

Remember not to overthink it! Don’t add fluff, use unnecessary lengthy words, or create weird experiences that you haven’t actually gone through because you think you’ll sound cooler. These admissions counselors have read thousands of essays, they have seen a lot, so keep that in mind.

I'm Joanna Klimek. I'm a college counselor. I specialize in helping elite high school students get into their dream college.