But don't worry--here are the 3 most important ways to easily write them.
Audio Version (on YouTube)
I'd like you to get a piece of paper right now or open up a new doc on your computer.
Take your time.
Now, please write down an answer to this question.
Who are you?
How I am supposed to do that?
Where do I even begin?
Who is going to read this?
What if it isn't any good?
These may be just some of the questions that would flood your mind if you were to really try it. In fact, I have actually asked parents to do this exercise, and they find it even harder to do than teenagers. Regardless, this is essentially just one of the things colleges are asking for in an admissions essay.
Now, add to this the stress of knowing that strangers will be judging you
based on what you write, the pressure of wanting to get into a selective college after working your butt off for 12 years, and the rumors you have heard that it is “impossible" to get into top colleges, and you can probably understand why the essays are typically the most stressful part of the college application process. Well, it doesn't have to be.
I say this because what students (and parents) think colleges are looking for and what they are actually looking for are often very different. Even better, it is MUCH easier than you think to write admissions essays that not only stand out but also authentically reflect who a student is as a person.
Essays are actually my favorite part of the admission process because they can inject some personality, context and, dare I say it, fun into a student's application. Over the years, I have helped students write essays about everything from building couch forts to making a sustainable garden to holding a deodorant party (don't ask).
And in today's post, I want to discuss the top 3 ways to approach writing truly awesome admissions essays, which will hopefully help students get over any fear and help them come to believe they really do have unique things to say.
Tell. A. Story.
It was May of my junior year and swimming season was pretty much already over, but my water polo coach wanted to start training for the next season.. Well, considering that we didn't have a game until the following year, I asked him if I could get out of practice early on two days so I could go home and study for my AP tests. He said he'd think about it and then later that afternoon he brought all of us on the pool deck.
For a good 15 minutes, he berated me and told me that I was a worthless piece of crap, except that he didn't say crap. He said that I shouldn't have any friends and that I was pretty much worthless. He then made a swim this drill that took 45 minutes after which he promptly kicked me off the team.
Well, I went home and obviously was really angry, but I realized that my coach had a temper.
This is a guy who had broken 30 pairs of sunglasses during a season by throwing them on the ground. This is a guy who had a wooden paddle who used to used to hit us in a wet speedo. Yeah, if a player did anything wrong, he would make them get out and hold on to the lifeguard stand while he applied the paddle. Was that legal? Probably not, but he did it anyway. So, I decided that. I would go the next day and see if everything would just kinda blow over. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Well, he didn't say anything when I got to practice, but when I was in the water, my girlfriend walked out of the back of the gym, and he actually yelled over the pool and started talking more trash about me to her. At this point, he turned to me and said,
"Hey Danny, do you still need to study?"
And I honestly said, "Yeah, kinda."
So he kicked me off the team again.
That night I went home and told my dad and my dad was an old school Chicago guy. So he stood up and was going to go over to the school immediately and I said, "No dad, you're not going to get in a fight with my coach; that's not going to help the situation.” I told him that I would handle it myself. So I went back to school the next day and I said,
"Coach, can I talk to you?” and we went outside of the pool; in fact, I can remember we sat out on the orange lunch tables and I remember saying to him, "You know coach, I want to just thank you for everything that you've done for me over the last couple of years, and I think it's probably best if I don't play for you."
And he said, "I respect your decision" and shook my hand.
We were done, right?
Wrong.. He then gave me an F in swimming.
He then systematically went around and talked to all my teachers about me. My college counselor called me into her office and said,
“Why is your coach belittling you to all your teachers? Doesn't he know that the faculty had just voted you the top junior in the class?” And when I told her the story, she said, “You know what, just stay away from him.”
Yet, even in my senior year, the director of student council told me that I had an "attitude problem” after I simply asked a question. I couldn't figure out what was going on until I realized that he was best friends with my coach. and even though. I was senior class president, it took me a matter of months to turn that relationship around, although the director would end up writing me one of my college letters of recommendation.
Now, this was actually what I wrote for my main personal statement that helped me get into Stanford. And at the end of the essay, I remember writing that I learned that 'just because you're an adult doesn't make you right.’ Now, I didn't say in the essay that I was mature for my age or that I handled conflicts in a certain way. I simply told this story, but I hope you can see that, in the story, you learn things about my character that you wouldn’t necessarily have known if you just looked at my application or saw that I suddenly had stopped swimming and playing water polo and, instead, started a mock trial team. Therefore, not only did the essay give insight into who I was, but it also explained why the change in my activities took place
Now, some essays contain singular stories, some use intro stories with more explanation, and even others use multiple stories tied together, but the important thing to realize is that admissions essays do not need to showcase everything a student did in their life nor do they have to try to impress. Everyone has a story about a conflict, an interest, an overcome fear, a relationship, or a realization. Telling yours can help an admissions person see you for who you really are.
Let's talk about Way #2:
Many colleges have some version of this essay: "Why do you want to attend our school?” To be honest, most students answer this question generally by writing things about wanting a diverse campus, appreciating the school spirit, mentioning that the school has a business program, or stating how much they feel "at home.” But this question, whether it requires 250 words or 650 is really an opportunity for a student to do two things: demonstrate real interest in the college by showing that a student has taken the time to really investigate the institution's programs AND showing an admissions officer how and why a student's interests match up to that school's specific offerings. I cannot emphasize this enough. I have had admissions officers tell me that if they can't decide between two applicants, they let the why essay decide.
Colleges want students who will not only accept their acceptance but also come to campus and actually take advantage of their programs. Therefore, it really helps if a student takes the time on a colleges' website and finds programs, classes, study abroad and research opportunities, and student organizations that will allow them to pursue their interests. The best thing about utilizing this strategy is that very few students know to do it or spend the time doing it well. Now of course, doing this kind of research can be frustrating, given that each college's website is complicated and different from one another, but this is really just another reason why doing it can be so helpful.
Be authentic. Be specific.. Be vulnerable.
Let's face it. If you are a teenager or if you can remember being a teenager, one of the hardest things about going to high school is dealing with how others perceive you. Even those students of mine over the years who were truly independent-minded still had a hard time not feeling judged by one or many of their peers. Let's just say that high school does not make it easy for students to be their most authentic selves, let alone be vulnerable in front of others.
But here's the thing: being authentic and vulnerable is what other human beings connect to. We all face challenges, emotional and otherwise, so to know that someone out there gets us--that others are going through the same thing--can help us feel connected, supported, and even loved. If you think of your best friend, hopefully, he or she is someone you can really be yourself around, which is one of the reasons why they are your best friend. They accept you for who you are and are there for you.
Based on most of what people hear about college admissions, they feel it is some sort of cold-hearted process where someone is just sitting in an office with a big stamp with the word. REJECTED on it. How else could a college reject tens of thousands of qualified applicants, right? Doesn't this mean that an applicant has to be smarter, more involved, more caring, more passionate, stronger, faster, better?
Not at all.
The truth is that admissions officers are human beings just like you and me. In fact, they tend to be on the younger side--between 25-35 on average—and they have a very difficult job.
They have to find students of different interests, personalities, and abilities to make a campus interesting, diverse. They also have to find applicants who fit with the school's available programs. They can't, for example, only take students interested in business because who would all the other professors teach? It's not that admissions officers wake up wanting to reject applicants; they often agonize over their decisions and fight in committee to try to get the other members to admit the applicants they believe in. This means that making a human connection with an admissions officer can make a difference.
And if its' true that we find our greatest connections with those whom we believe are really being their true selves, then it is not about trying to impress an admissions rep. Instead, it’s about being authentic, specific, and vulnerable in your essays. I've already talked about the importance of storytelling, and I hope you can see that only you can tell your particular stories
and that these stories reflect who you are.
Now, since you often can't meet an admissions officer in person, the more specific you can be in your stories, or in your writing as a whole, the more they will get a picture of who you are. Instead of trying to position yourself or market yourself or separate yourself from others, instead, focus on your unique strengths and interests. If you have failed many times but have learned lessons and become stronger because of them, great! This means you are a real, interesting person, and I want to know more about you.
Think of any good TV show--what makes them great? Well, I would argue that one reason is that all the characters have to face some kind of conflict that we identify with and, consequently, cheer them on for. This does not mean you have to write about a hardship or come up with some sad story—not at all—but by being open and honest about who you are, what you want, and why you want to go to a school, the more you humanize yourself and can make that connection that allows an admissions officer to want you at their school.
In other words, write from the heart, and you might just be amazed at what happens.