“If you volunteered for a week one summer, don’t write about what you did that week, write about why you did it, how it affected you and who you are.”
After speaking to 8 different college admissions reps in one summer, this is a summary of what we learned about writing admission essays. They can see your resume’ and the facts of what you have accomplished, but your essay is your opportunity is to show who you are; your character, your personality, how you’d fit with their university. While you should of course have good grammar, this doesn’t have to be professional perfection. It should be authentic, sincere, the reader should be able to hear your “voice.”
That being said, it can still be stressful and time consuming. Start early, long before you plan to actually fill out the applications. Look at the essay prompts on The Common App and spend some days thinking about the topics, brainstorming, taking notes, talking with your family and friends about what they see in you and what you see in yourself. Your essay should be thoughtful and show what you have to offer the university you are applying to, why they would want you to be part of their community. And certainly don’t make the mistake of writing the wrong university name on the application if you send it to more than one!
Write some rough drafts, edit them, let others read them. Do some homework on the schools you are applying to and find out what they are looking for in applicants, or call them up and ask. One advisor suggested you have your essay read by someone who knows you well, and someone who doesn’t. Ask this second person if they can get a sense of who you are from your essay.
Admissions representatives do read your essays, along with hundreds of others. So even though it CAN be 600-650 words, it doesn’t have to be. If you do a good job of making your point and standing out, longer is not better. Also, don’t spend your time recounting all of the activities and awards on your application and resume’. They’ve already seen those. This essay is a chance or you to show more about your personality that did not come through on lists and forms.
Keep track of deadlines! Different colleges have different deadlines for applications and scholarships, as well as when they announce who received them. Make yourself a spreadsheet to keep this straight. Schools have scholarships you may automatically qualify for with admission, but different competitive scholarships that have a separate application form and deadline. Look for the difference.
Don’t forget to apply for local community and employer scholarships, as well as national ones. Commonly recognized national lists include Scholarships.com and fastweb.com. Do NOT pay money for someone to find you scholarships. They cannot guarantee you scholarships, only help you look.
There are many articles, guides and books out there to assist with essay writing. Here are a few links, but feel free to find your own (Princeton Review, College Board 8 tips, USA Today, and the New York Times). Also, it can be helpful to find and read essays that have been successful. You may be surprised that they are not perfect, but unique.
All of this can take time and emotional energy, but what would you do for hundreds or thousands of dollars? Devoting yourself to doing this well can make a huge difference in the college you attend and the debt you don’t incur in the long run. In addition, you can do this every year of college, not just before your first year. Don’t limit yourself. You can totally do this.