Giving Admissions Essays the Old College Try

Karen Goldberg Goff

October 25, 2009

For college admissions staffers, fall means stacks of application essays — how I overcame adversity, how I won the big game, how I traveled the world, captained the debate team and am a friend to all. The essays (or personal statements at some schools) are chock full of SAT words, chosen to show the prospective applicants’ smarts and charm while highlighting his achievements, even in a world of achievers.

That’s a perfect example of what not to do, says Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, a New York admissions essay consultant and author of the book “Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day.”

“There is a lot of mythology out there about what makes a good essay,” Ms. Wissner-Gross says. “You shouldn’t try to abridge your life into 500 words. Just tell one great story.”

But for today’s highly competitive high schoolers, narrowing down considerable achievements and experiences to one tale is the tricky part, she says. The experience that might get the attention of the admissions department might not necessarily be an academic one, she says. “I tell kids, ‘Illustrate who you are or what you want to achieve.'”

Ms. Wissner-Gross says applicants should not only think outside the box, they should think outside of school. For ideas, she tells them to look at what they have done at jobs, in the arts, for charity and as an act of compassion.

Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college admissions consulting firm, says applicants should never repeat in their essay what is already on their application.

“In your essay, you don’t need to prove that you are a member of every club,” Ms. Taylor says. “First of all, if you are applying to a competitive school, everyone is a member of the National Honor Society. Mentioning it isn’t going to get you anywhere. The best essays seemingly have insight. The writer should show, not tell. This is the only thing that is not objective on your application. Everything else is courses and grades.”

One essay, written several years ago, sticks out in Ms. Taylor’s mind as a good example of such insight. The student wrote about a rubber-band ball she and her father had made. They collected the rubber bands that came with their groceries and other mundane things. Eventually, the student relied on her “special brainiac rubber bands” to bring her good luck on tests. She shared the ball with her friends, and came to see it as a symbol of her relationship with them and with her father.

“Here’s how we know it was a great essay,” Ms. Taylor said. “The girl applied to Williams College. She was accepted early, and the dean of admissions wrote her a personal note and sent her a rubber band for her collection.”

Ms. Wissner-Gross says her favorite essay was by a student who wrote about how she made the best ice cream sundaes.

Ms. Wissner-Gross says there are some other big “don’ts” to remember:

  • Don’t say anything bad about your parents or otherwise complain.
  • Don’t highlight biases, even if it is meant to show compassion, such as saying something like “I enjoy hanging out with old people.”
  • Don’t tell stories about luxury vacations, summer camp or teen tours. That can just make the admissions reps dislike you. “One admissions rep hates to read those, because he can’t afford trips like that,” Ms. Wissner-Gross says.
  • Don’t tell stories about drinking or drugs.
  • Stay away from personal religion or politics. Talking about big-picture politics and religion is OK, but don’t highlight your personal views.
  • It is OK to show how you overcame adversity, but don’t emphasize being a loser. “Who wants to let in a loser?” Ms. Wissner-Gross says.
  • Never begin with “Ever since I was ‘x’ years old ….” That’s just boring and probably insincere, Ms. Wissner-Gross says.
  • Don’t overly flatter the school, even if you have wanted to go there forever. “Never write, ‘I want to go to Yale, because it is the best.’ They don’t need to hear that,” Ms. Wissner-Gross says.
  • If it is painful to write, it probably is painful to read. “A great essay should be as much fun as telling your best friend a story,” Ms. Wissner-Gross says.

Thinking of using a gimmick to get your essay noticed? Don’t. A pink application might have worked for Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” but it won’t work for you. Neither will sending cookies to the admissions office or writing an essay on a roll of paper towels. With the advent of the computerized common application, there are fewer chances for gimmicks these days, Ms. Wissner-Gross says.

No matter what the story, it should be well-written. And it should go without saying it should be self-written. Ms. Taylor says she has seen essays sent off with a parent’s secretary’s initials at the bottom. That’s a sure way to kill the applicant’s chances.

Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University in Fairfax, says “cutting and pasting” is one of the most common errors applicants make.

“There is no reason to believe there is a better essay out there,” he says. “The idea that someone else got in with [that essay] increases the chances you will be found out. Every so often we get an essay that is lifted directly from a book. The best essays are the well-written essays. All those things your English teachers have been beating into your head, well, it turns out they were true.”

Mr. Flagel says while the application essay is necessary, the importance of the essay may be overblown.

“Essays are a great opportunity for students to tell us about themselves,” he said. “But if you look at most competitive colleges, it is clear the vast majority of the decision is made on the academic record. Next most important is test scores. After that is a group that includes the essay, extracurriculars and recommendations. Most people think the process is very complicated and easy to predict. Actually, it is very simple and nearly impossible to predict.”