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What Do Colleges Want to See In An Essay?

Writing a college essay that satisfies the application requirement is relatively easy. Crafting an essay that can be the tipping point in the application process, though, is quite another matter. And, for students in search of a “winning essay,” finding creative solutions often proves to be a vexing challenge.

So, what is it that admission officers are looking for? More importantly, what makes the difference between a good essay and one that is truly impactful?

While they want to see evidence of good technical skills—have you mastered the basics of good writing(?)—admission officers are particularly interested in learning more about you.

  • Are you creative?
  • Can you think critically and reflectively?
  • Are you comfortable taking risks—will you settle for a “safe” approach to your presentation or will you risk making yourself vulnerable in telling your story?

Your academic record and extracurricular profile will reveal the facts of your life. Rather than repeating them, the essay should serve as an effective complement that reveals the person behind the numbers. Reliance on such insight during the credential review process will be especially critical this year as the “data” normally associated with applications is limited due to the coronavirus.

Coming up with a compelling essay, though, can be a challenge largely because the inspiration for such essays is hard to find! I’ve often maintained that the actual drafting and editing of an essay is easier than landing on messaging that will carry the day. If you expect to sit down and crank out a winning 650-word essay on a Saturday afternoon, good luck.


Brainstorm Your Essay: Here's How to Start

Crafting good essays—really good essays—starts with reflection (brainstorming).

  • What do you care about most in life—and why?
  • What word would best describe you—and why?
  • If you could interview anyone in the world, who would it be—and why?
  • Can you recall a revelation or “aha” moment—how did it change your perspective?

The key is to tap into an intensely personal perspective, to reach beyond the superficial to a deeper understanding of who you are and the life experiences that define you.

Brainstorming in this manner can require a certain amount of courage because it might take you to times in your life that you’d rather forget. Your ability to process them, however, is important to establishing your sense of self. In the end, your ability to make yourself vulnerable is what will make you—and your message—strong.


Tap into Your Emotions

When talking with students, I listen for voice inflections that reveal an emotional response. Excitement, frustration and even anger are often indicators of a deeper, underlying story that the student either fails to recognize or is uncertain about how to approach.

Notice that, in the previous section, each question has two parts. Exploring the “why” and “how” of a response is essential to greater understanding. If you focus only on the “what,” “when” and “where” of a story, you fall short of revealing the sense of humanity that readers want to see.


Conceptualize Your Story

Once you determine the story or message you want to convey, focus on creating an appropriate concept for the telling of your story. Will it be a conversational narrative? A metaphor? Do you want to employ drama or self-effacing humor? I’ve even read poems that powerfully and/or playfully conveyed the character of the author!

In the case of prose, put the reader at the point of revelation with you at the outset of the essay. Share the emotion of the moment. Then, create a narrative that reveals the contextual backstory and, finally, the lessons learned or the resolve taken from the situation.

It might be helpful to approach this step of essay development as an artist would approach an empty canvass. After all, your final “work product” will be your creation, your art. The last thing you want is for your essay to look like a five-paragraph essay written for an English or History class! As an artist, you want to create an impression with your work. What will your art say about you?


Don't Overthink Your Essay Topic

The questions of topic and concept are particularly relevant this year given the unique, life-changing circumstances introduced by COVID 19. The fact that many students will understandably reflect on the impact of the coronavirus in their lives has led to rampant speculation that the topic would not be a good one for college essays—add it to the list of “taboo” essays.

You might be surprised to know that admission officers don’t agree. They don’t see taboo topics, but they do see taboo approaches—generic essays on the same topic that could have been written by anyone. The events of the past year have presented challenges unlike any other. Has time stood still for you? Or have you found opportunities to reimagine yourself—to explore new interests or to respond to needs in your community? The manner in which you responded will define the approach you take to your essay. Whether yours is an essay drawn from a COVID 19 experience or something completely unrelated, if the story is intensely personal and artfully presented, you’ll be fine.

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