There is a lot of information out there, and sometimes hype, about college essays. I’ve worked with a lot of colleges, spoke with their admissions departments, and even read many opinions that the Deans of Admission from competitive colleges have to say about college applications and essays (or “personal statements”). Here are a few key points that you need to know:
1. A good essay will not overcome a bad academic record
Admissions committees review applications to not only see who would be a “good fit” with their college, but more importantly, who will succeed at their school. The best predictor for college performance isn’t SAT scores or the essay, but high school grades. If you don’t keep your grades up, even the most eloquently crafted essay will not get you in. I’ve seen this too many times to count.
2. Colleges expect you to answer thoughtfully
A college essay will show your thinking and writing style, and explain why your are considering a particular college. You need to first look at the important aspects of a college that you’re considering, and then carefully describe why a particular school fits in to your overall educational plan. Writing one essay and then using it for multiple colleges may sound good from your perspective, but may be too generalized to help you get in. Also, a common mistake is to use the same essay and forget to replace the name of the school throughout the text.
3. Your essay will be read, perhaps multiple times
Especially at small colleges, your essay will be read, perhaps many times by the time the admissions considerations process is over. In some cases, it might even be a tie-breaker between you and a competing student, so you need to get it right.
4. You must write the essay yourself
Colleges fully expect you to write your application essay yourself. Can you ask others for feedback? Of course. But, schools expect the essay to “match” the rest of your application packet. For example, if you have a very strong science or technical background with only moderate grades in English, yet submit in a very poetic essay, this will arouse suspicion of it not being your own work. In fact, some colleges require the student to attest that the essay is their own work. Lying or plagiarism is not the way to begin a relationship with a college.
5. The essay should show what the application can’t
A college essay is a great place to tell what the formal application didn’t let you describe. For example, any challenges or obstacles you faced might be discussed in the essay, like having to help your family while in school or overcoming a disability. An essay should also reflect any quality pre-college experiences that show your personality, creativity, or innovation. If you were happy with a B average because you balanced your experience by creating a blog, making documentary films, or other exciting experiences, the essay is where to describe this.
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Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national level Higher Education Consultant based in Pittsburgh, PA. He’s worked with students and parents across the U.S. about college issues since 2001, and is a member of CSRDE that focuses on best practices in helping students. He is also a member of NACADA, the national college advising association in the U.S. Please see the program page for services Jeff offers.