What Makes a Strong College Essay

High school students should think of the essay as a chance to convey information not included in the rest of their application, experts say

Step 1

Writing a college essay could very well be the most high pressure part of the college application process.

At some point, there is little students can do about grades, extracurricular activities and what will and won’t be said in their recommendation letters. The essay is the one component of the application students can control fully, and provides one last chance to leave a lasting impression.

Students who want to write a compelling essay should keep several things in mind, experts say.

First, crafting an effective essay takes time.

“This is not an exercise that can be procrastinated and done successfully,” says John Gaines, director of undergraduate admissions at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University. “It takes drafts sometimes and it takes reflection, sometimes some deep personal reflection.”

The best personal essays tell the admissions committee something about a student that they wouldn’t otherwise pick up from an application, admissions experts say. The strongest pieces not only have great descriptions of people and events, but ultimately explain how those experiences have affected the student.

Step 2

Effective essays also need to be well written
Students should be sure to seek out a thorough proofreader. Students who rely too much on a parent, counselor or other person for writing help may face negative consequences.

“When you’ve read tens of thousands of essays, you get a sense of what the 17-year-old voice is, and it’s not the same as a 45- or 55-year-old voice,” says Karen Long, senior associate dean of admission of New York’s Colgate University. “Sometimes you read something that is really polished but it does not sound like any teenager I have ever met. We are not expecting someone to sound like a college graduate; we are expecting someone to write like a thoughtful high school student who is excited about learning and exploring ideas.”

The one caveat, says Ellen Kim, director of undergraduate admissions at Hopkins: “This is a personal statement, so what works in these essays works because of who the student is and how it fits into the rest of his or her application.”
(Thanks to Devon Haynie, assistant managing editor, U.S. News)

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