It’s spring, a good time to debunk some of the rumors about the college essay that spread like wildfire among the college-bound crowd and their families.
With that in mind, here are our Top 5 college essay myths and facts:
Myth 1: A college essay has to be written about an impressive topic.
Fact: The student is impressive, not the college essay topic. The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what an applicant has learned, rather than what they did.
One Wow student came to us confident that it was her trip to help the poor in Central America that would stand out in her application essay. Not at all. While brainstorming ideas with a writing coach, she discovered her most important moment during that trip occurred when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water.
“What does the experience mean to you?” asked Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University. “That is what we want to know.”
Myth 2: A college essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.
Fact: A high school student should sound like a high school student. Not a professor. Or a famous writer.
(Students should) “be themselves,” said Andrea Nadler, Associate Dean of Admission at Hofstra University. “The college essay should allow us to use our senses to see, feel, taste and experience the kinds of things that are important to these students. If writing about a book they have read, we want to feel like we are in it with them. If writing about a meal they have had, we want to taste it.”
Myth 3: Admissions officers will never know if anyone helped too much with a college essay. They won’t know if the student plagiarized, either.
Fact: There is a fine line between helping your child and writing or over-editing the essay for them. Admissions officers know when someone other than the student writes all or part of a story; they don’t like it.
“If a student has an adult write it, the admissions committee can tell,” said Jim Cotter, Director of Admissions for Michigan State University.
Many schools will automatically reject a student’s application, without an explanation, even if they merely suspect plagiarism.
Myth 4: There is a right way and a wrong way to write a college essay.
Fact: An applicant’s best story will grow out of the process of writing the college application essay. To stand out, they must tell a genuine story and show insight.
Despite what you might hear, there are no tricks and no shortcuts. No magic formula. The essay doesn’t need a killer opening line or a tight conclusion. Trust the process; the college essay will emerge through the process of reflection, writing and revision.
“The key is to show genuine passion, commitment and that they have what it takes to survive at the school,” said Lorenzo Gamboa, Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Santa Clara University.
Myth 5: They essay doesn’t matter because admissions officers don’t read them.
Fact: They read them, and they matter.
Essays won’t get a student who is not qualified into any college. However, they can help a qualified applicant get a better shot at admission to that dream school. Yes, the essay can help you.
Gregory Sneed, the Vice President for Enrollment for Denison University, puts it this way:
“A poorly written essay can take an applicant out of the running, but conversely a great essay can certainly help. A fantastic essay can absolutely give the applicant a bump up. Even after reviewing a mediocre transcript or seeing a limited activities list, I can be swayed to admit a student who writes an essay that really blows me away. The topic of the essay doesn’t need to be mind-blowing (in fact, the most mundane topics are often the most relatable and enjoyable), but if it reveals a someone who would be highly valued in our campus community, that could tip the scales.”
Remind your students that colleges want some insight into every applicant’s character. What did they do? What did they learn about themselves? Why does it matter?
Our Gift: A Free Book for You
To show you how much we appreciate the work you do, we’d like to give you a free electronic copy of our book: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents. Find out how to get free books for every parent in your school, too.
How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are. Feel free to email me email@example.com.
Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim, a former journalist, speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges all the time. Wow works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants who want to improve their essay-coaching skills. Wow also offers professional communication and writing services to businesses and nonprofits.