The college essay

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“My application is almost finished – I just have to write the essay.” I can’t count the number of times that I have heard this or a similar comment from a frazzled high school senior with a looming application deadline. If, indeed, that is the case, then the application is far from finished. The college essay is a critical component of the application, particularly for highly selective colleges, and is the one part over which you, the student, have complete control.

Colleges want to know you as a person, and the essay provides an opportunity for your readers on the admissions committee to see beyond the transcript, extra curricular activities and test scores. The essay is the one part of the application process that encourages you to provide insight into your special abilities, interests and qualities or about any significant factors that might set you apart from the large number of qualified applicants with whom you are competing. A stellar essay will not cancel out a poor high school record, but a well-written essay can make a student with decent grades stand out from the pack.

An effective essay will present you as a real and valuable person, someone worth knowing. It will give the reader a sneak preview into what you will offer to the college. An essay can also be an opportunity to explain any extenuating circumstances that may have resulted in some inconsistencies in your academic record. It should not, however, be an apology for a weak transcript.

The person reading your admissions essay will generally be evaluating you on three basic levels:

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Your ability to use standard written English that is correctly punctuated and contains correct grammar, usage and syntax.

Content, substance, and depth of insight reflecting your ability to think about yourself and to convey your feelings or opinions about a topic.

Creativity and originality; do you present yourself as someone who would bring intellect, initiative and energy to the college?

Remember that admissions committees read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays, The first sentence should make the reader eager to go on to the next one. You should not try too hard to impress with inflated experiences or vocabulary (go easy on the thesaurus). It is important to be honest and be yourself.

Examples of college essay questions and topics:

Describe your most significant personal experience and how it influenced you.

Identify and discuss a specific problem facing your generation.

What have you read that has had special significance for you and explain why.

For which of your personal qualities would you want to be remembered by your classmates?

Describe a person or event of particular importance to you.

Describe the reason that influenced you in selecting your intended major.

If your junior year English teachers have a unit on writing the college essay, take advantage of this opportunity to choose an essay topic or topics from a college or university to which you may be applying, or choose one of the topics from the Common Application. Take the assignment seriously – write and rewrite and make good use of teacher feedback. This will pay dividends as you embark on the college application process in the fall of your senior year.

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