Applying Oneself to Writing a Memorable, Original College Admission Essay

Kathryn Costello, 18, who graduated recently from Mercy High, got accepted to three colleges because she earned good grades, scored well on her tests and lost a lot of friends — or rather, because she wrote an essay about what she learned when friendships imploded.

Kenya Gouch, 17, of Detroit credits an essay detailing her decision to print a controversial story in the school newspaper for helping her get in to Columbia College Chicago for the fall term.

And Danny Cohen, 18, of Bingham Farms, who is headed to the University of Michigan, figures his essay about the night he and a couple of classmates left their tour group in Spain and explored Madrid on their own played a role in getting into the school he has wanted to attend since he was a young boy.

“I just talked about how I really felt a sense of belonging,” said Cohen, “even though it was a place I didn’t belong.”

Getting accepted to college — especially the best four-year schools — has always required good grades, a rigorous academic schedule, top test scores and extracurricular activities.

But as colleges are inundated with applications from smart students, and as they move toward holistic admissions policies in an attempt to ensure a well-rounded student population, the application essay or personal statement has become a bigger part of the equation.

“It’s about more than grades and test scores,” said Ted Spencer, admissions director and associate vice provost for the University of Michigan.

No grade grubbers

Admissions officials are looking for qualified students who can think for themselves and express themselves. In many cases, they’re more interested in what the student has to say than perfect punctuation. Reading the essays, they get an idea whether the student will fit in on their campus. And whether he or she will thrive.

“They’re looking to see if this kid is going to make a great roommate,” said Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based consulting firm that helps students get into college. ” ’Is this kid going to excite our professors?’ If there is any sign of a kid being a grade grubber … a kid with a personality like that is certainly not going to excite a professor, much less be a good friend and roommate.”

Kim Lifton, co-founder of the WOW writing workshop, a Huntington Woods-based business that coaches students on essay writing, said “the essay keeps moving up in importance. … People are realizing the essay is the place where you can stand out,” she said. At WOW, private instruction is about $150 an hour, group workshops are less.

Jim Cotter, admissions director at Michigan State University, said, “I would say that probably today, at least at Michigan State, it’s more important than it was three or four years ago.”

Knowing this trend, Cohen started his essay last July. “I worked on it a little bit each week. I finally finished it in September. … It was a huge part of that application. Everything else was just facts about you.”

Competition growing

Competition to get into many colleges gets tougher every year.

More students apply, and more students attend. Between 1999 and 2009, enrollment in degree-granting two- and four-year colleges and universities jumped 38%, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

“Today, when we look at the quantity of applications that we look at in terms of the 30,000 plus, Michigan State’s a bit more selective today than it would’ve been five years ago, six years ago, 10 years ago,” Cotter said.

In addition to the glut of students, the best students appear to be more accomplished than ever. They have extraordinary SAT and ACT scores. They’ve successfully completed Advanced Placement classes. They have International Baccalaureate diplomas. And they have grade point averages well over the onetime maximum of 4.0 because many receive extra points for taking the most advanced classes.

“Students see how competitive it is. They’re aware that kids with perfect scores and the perfect grades have gotten wait-listed everywhere,” Taylor said.

“Because of the increase in applications, there has to be a way for these very selective schools to differentiate between the multitude of wonderful kids they have to evaluate,” said Bill Hancock, associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills and president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling.

“The only opportunity a student has to speak … in first person is in the essay,” Hancock said. “Because of the increase in applications, schools had to find a way to allow the students to speak for themselves.” ”

Costello, whose teachers and counselors at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills had stressed the importance of the essay, was worried.

“I didn’t want to write about the wrong thing,” said Costello, who lives in Bloomfield Hills. “It was very daunting. … You really have to grab the readers’ attention. You want them to understand you, but you don’t want to share too much information.”

She decided to write about losing friends because the experience made her who she is today — an independent young woman.

Make it memorable

Costello’s essay worked because it was focused, authentic and free of clichés such as overcoming adversity to score a winning touchdown.

“I lettered in track. Everyone does that,” said Adam Rosen, who is 19 and just completed his freshman year at U-M. “That was probably the hardest part for me, wanting to say something that said something about me.”

In the end, he wrote about his father’s cancer and how it wasn’t until he told a friend about it that he realized he wasn’t the only kid with an ill parent. His friend’s mother had had cancer, too.

“When I went to orientation, one of the admissions counselors actually remembered my essay,” Rosen said.


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