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What Matters in College Essays

College essays can be make or break, especially for applications which are undecided about admit or reject. There are also a lot of trends in college acceptance which suggest the essay and extracurriculars will be of increasing importance. Grade inflation has increased the average of many students and many schools are getting rid of college rank, making it difficult to differentiate between students. Colleges also have trouble understanding the differences in rigor as there are large differences between high school ratings. This is also why AP or IB courses are favored. The SAT and ACT are being made optional or in some cases not counted at all (like in the UC system).

How much does an essay matter? For top colleges for instance, our college acceptance algorithm rates application essays as having a weight between 15-35% of the total decision.

This post will cover the most important aspects of what should be included in a college essay.

What is important in selecting a topic (hint, it’s not as important as you think)

What matters is not the what but the how.

One of the most famous books in the 20th century was about repairing motorcycles (Zen and the art of Motorcycle Repair). Another one was about making friends (How to Make Friends and Influence People).

We have another blog post dedicated to selecting a topic which can be summarized as: pick something you can write about. Even better if you can pick out something that shows an event or situation where you made a difficult decision, showed leadership, resilience or did something creative. Just so you stress a little bit less, here are some examples of successful essay topics.

1. An essay about shyness got into Northwestern RD.

2. An essay about folk medicine got a full scholarship to Cornell ED.

3. An essay about the components of robots got into Notre Dame RD.

4. An essay about difficulties learning a third language got into UCLA RD.

5. An essay about the personalities of family members got into USC RD.

**RD is regular decision, ED is early decision. To learn more about these, look on our blog page about early decisions.

Important Note: Although some clever students may think it benefits them to completely subvert the topic like asking, “what is the definition of motivation” and answering that instead, this will work against you. The questions are expected to be answered.

What in The Essay Matters

Each admission’s department looks for different things. However, here are some secrets which can help. If you have done an uncommon extracurricular, if you have spent a lot of time doing something, if you have showed resilience in the face of difficulties, these are significant advantages. They can also help explain nuances about the totality of your application. Colleges are looking for diverse groups of students. Your essay should try to convey this.

The essay is not just a place to make yourself look unique, however. It can also be used to explain inconsistencies. For instance, a sudden dip in grades. Or taking fewer than a total of 5 AP classes. (Academic rigor is often more important than simple grades).

The ideal essay, to as much as possible should emphasize the following:

Intellectual curiosity

1. This is a vague term but is incorporated to a lot of different entrance admissions ratings. You can think of it as showing awareness and interest in things around you. Instead of just writing about “I did this,” it can be helpful to write about why. Many essays have a 650 word limit though, so it should be brief!

Leadership

1. This is a broad term. It does not just mean, “I was in charge of other people.” It may mean, “I initiated conversation with the shy person in the corner.” Or, “I took charge and responsibility for organizing schedules.” From experience, emphasizing taking initiative, showing long-term commitment and responsibility for different tasks all do very well.

Diversity and Awareness

1. Diversity can be experiences in another culture, language or just something out of the ordinary. For instance, if you are applying to computer science but you also like to paint or play sports, this can also count. Being able to apply full pay can be an advantage for many ED applications. If you are a full pay applicant, remarking that you have had certain inherent advantages can also be a positive factor.

Commitment and Consistency

1. College admissions in general tend to favor consistency. GPAs which go up and down significantly can hurt your chances. Consistent improvement or consistent grades are much more favored. In the same way, having done an activity for several years with a consistent time commitment looks very positive.

Collaboration

1. Colleges are looking for people who are willing to negotiate and to reach out to others to meet them in the middle. There is an important balance between accepting the opinions of others and also emphasizing your own opinions.

Originality

1. Lastly, if you have had uncommon experiences, or uncommon ideas, emphasize them. Perhaps you encountered a roadblock or unfair gatekeeper and thought of an unusual way of altering the situation. Those can be great options.

A strong application essay can offset lower grades, show Intellectual curiosity, and demonstrate character. This accounts to 15-35% of an admission officer’s decision, depending on the institution. So it is a great idea to settle in and practice writing in the first person. Get comfortable talking about yourself, and what a terrific addition you would be to the college.

Writing About YOU

Talking about yourself can be uncomfortable for the average teenager. But you need to remember that the addition of the essay was explicitly to get to know the person who is applying--you. Many applicants achieve an A in Chemistry or Music Theory or break 1000 on the SAT. Your story doesn’t have to be extravagant. Did you skip school to watch a play? How did that experience shape you? Similarly, have you struggled with depression, or held a parent’s hand through a health crisis? In these stories, you will find a beautiful college essay that will help you stand out to the admissions officer--which is precisely the point.

But hey, no pressure.

The Important Points

Every college applicant has a unique and memorable story, and test scores will never tell that story the way an essay will. Your extraordinary story, however, is simply a jumping-off point. A unique story is excellent, but reflection is also required. Colleges want to hear your stories, and they want to hear how your experiences affected you, changed you, and helped you grow as a person.

Colleges want to fill their halls with moldable minds who will take in the information from their professors and digest it and improve as a person. Colleges value not only reflection in these essays, but also demonstration of leadership and examples of cooperation.

The essay also gives you a chance to highlight something unique about you that you could not include earlier in the application. For example, you may include that you were a part of the dance team on the application itself, but in the college essay, you have a chance to talk about what dancing onstage feels like for you. While you would have “Dance Team” listed as an activity on your college application, the essay gives you a chance to write about how you felt onstage, in costume, under the lights, with an audience watching. Or, if you were on the golf team, you could write about the feel of the glove, the weight of the club in your hand, and the color of the grass the day of your best round--and how that felt for you, what it meant to you.

If you included volunteer work on your application, your essay is your opportunity to explain how the experience influenced you. This shows the admissions officer not what you did but how you were shaped by what you did. What was your reaction to the event, or change?

Your college essay is also a chance to show how you confronted and overcame an obstacle or setback in your life. Overcoming a setback demonstrates resiliency and personal growth. Colleges and universities are impressed by young adults who can meet a challenge, create a plan to navigate a response, and work through a solution. Perseverance is impressive.

Topics and Closing Points

Whether you are writing about a passion project or solving a problem in your school, remember there are necessary steps you should take to ensure your essay is excellent:

1. Choose a topic that is important and meaningful to you. What impactful events have occurred in your life? Is there something you love doing in your life, or something you wish was radically different? Do you have a passion for something, or a dream you are still chasing?

2. Be descriptive in your writing. Paint a clear picture for the admissions officer so s/he knows the setting, how you felt, and how you were affected.

3. Read and re-read the prompt to be sure you are staying on topic. Make sure the main points from your essay connect logically back to the prompt.

4. Allow at least two other people to proofread your essay for typos and grammar mistakes. This could be a parent, your guidance counselor, a trusted teacher, or a friend. But your essay should be read by at least two other people before submission.

5. Read the essay out loud yourself to hear how it will sound to another person. Hearing the words read aloud gives you a different perspective on the essay, and more closely reflects how the admissions officer will receive it. Your tone may come across differently when you hear your words out loud. Always, always read your essay out loud before submitting it.

And Remember…

Writing a college application essay is not easy for anyone. Start early and try not to worry about completing it--spend your time thoughtfully and carefully engaged in writing an essay that will dazzle the admission officer.

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