The Importance of the Essay in Gaining Admission to a Highly Selective College

Each year as more students are applying to colleges, they are submitting more applications than ever before, resulting in colleges receiving record numbers of applications. As a result, the volume of applications to highly selective colleges has reached new heights. Considering that admissions counselors have only a few minutes to read through each application, students need to view their essays as an opportunity to showcase their talents and interests, and to tell their story.

This past year Duke University, a highly selective non-ivy, received 23,750 applications for a targeted freshman class of 1,667, of which 547 students were accepted early decision. (View this year’s admissions statistics to the Ivy League Colleges here.)

With this vast number of applications, it was quite surprising when in February an admissions counselor from Duke University wrote in an acceptance letter to one of Ivy Coach’s students (two months earlier than expected) that she was very impressed about how the young man combined his passion for music with his dedication to community service. In four separate essays, without being too boastful or too shy, the student wrote about different aspects of his life, exhibiting his true passions. In a tightly woven fabric, by taking threads from each of his essays, he gave Duke’s admissions counselors a glimpse into his life and submitted an exceptional application, one that proved to be memorable.

While grades, courses and standardized test scores are always going to be the most significant factors in the admissions process, the other parts of the application, and especially the essays, can sometimes make all the difference between an acceptance and a denial.

It is important for the student to view the essays not as an obstacle to fear, but rather as an opportunity to speak directly with the admissions committee. Your grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation are already part of your application, so there is no point in discussing any of this, for it would only be redundant. You need to view your essay as a means of selling yourself to the admissions committee. This is a time to flaunt your talents and your accomplishments, but be very careful not to do so in a self-serving, pompous way. The essay portion is the only part of the application where you have complete control, so take advantage of it and express your individuality.

While some colleges ask you to write very general personal statements, often the choice of a topic is not entirely up to you since many applications have specific essay questions for you to answer.

So what are these essays? There’s always the personal statement, and usually the significant activity essay. Then some colleges ask for one about academic interests, or the intellectual experience. In addition, there could be an essay about your reaction to an honor code; the “tell us when you gained respect for diversity”; the person of significant influence; the song you would choose to sing in a talent show; the story of a street, real or imagined or metaphorical; the world you come from; the one issue that you would raise if you had an hour to meet with a government official; the values that you believe are important in fostering a cohesive, successful, and supportive campus community; a daily routine or tradition of yours that may seem ordinary to others but holds special meaning for you; the one accomplishment that you achieved in an unlikely way; or the letter to a future roommate. Then after writing three or four different essays, there’s yet another—there’s the my space essay, something you find fun and humorous, anything else you want to tell us, p. 217 of your 300-page autobiography, or the optional statement. All of these essays take considerable time and sometimes an extraordinary degree of imagination, creativity, and out-of-the-cube thinking.

Oh, but wait…there’s just one more. This essay takes not only time and ingenuity, but also requires some careful study and research. The “Why-I-Want-to-Go-to-Whichever-College-That-I’m-Applying-to” is an essay that needs to focus on the student’s interests and aspirations, but it specifically needs to address why the college to which the applicant is applying is a great match. Most importantly, it has to be realistic, plausible, and convincing. When the applicant writes about his or her academic interests and extracurricular involvements, those interests and activities need to match the academic disciplines and extracurricular activities that are offered at the college. Here the student has to make it fundamentally clear that he or she has some very specific reasons for wanting to attend that particular college. There is no room for error here. For example, if a student writes about how he or she intends to study business, but the college does not offer business courses, this statement alone could adversely affect the applicant’s chances of admission. Similarly, if the student writes that he or she intends to join the fencing team, but the college doesn’t have a fencing team, this too can have a negative impact on an admissions decision.

The best way to write the “Why College Essay” is to first take a campus tour, attend an information session, and sit in on a class. For some applicants the campus visit is not always possible, and so the next best place to learn about a college is from the school’s website and from the college’s literature or course catalogue. Again, this requires a great deal of time and some additional study and creativity. The answers aren’t going to just pop out, but once the applicant knows what to look for, he or she can write a credible and meaningful essay.

It is essential that a “Why College Essay” is not in any way generic. Since most colleges only want to admit applicants who will ultimately enroll, if an applicant writes an essay in which it becomes apparent that the college is not a top choice, that applicant may very well not be admitted based upon a sheer lack of interest. Probably one of the most common sentences students tend to write in this type of essay is “from my campus visit I knew that this college is the perfect fit for me.” There is nothing specific here in this statement, and there is no reason for an admissions counselor to believe that the student would enroll if accepted. Generic sentences, and worse, a generic essay, can negate all the positive work that a student has accomplished and result in a rejection.

While specificity is the key in the “Why-I-Want-to-Go-to-This-Particular-College” essay, it’s perfectly fine to recycle this statement for another college that has the same or a similar question. In doing so, however, the student needs to make sure that any particular reasons that he or she has for attending another college, any programs, courses of study, or extracurricular activities, are substituted accurately. In using a template of this essay for another college, it is of paramount importance that the name of the college be changed whenever it’s mentioned. So when writing the essay, “Why I Want to go to Georgetown University,” the University of Pennsylvania’s name cannot be even mistakenly included.

Whatever it is that you decide to write about, keep in mind that the best essays tell a story about the applicant. Admissions counselors want to feel that by reading your essays they have managed to get a glimpse into your life. Your ultimate goal should be for this essay to be your best written work. So think about your daily life, what you like to do and what’s important to you. Sometimes an inconsequential item or happening such as a rubber band ball, a fond memory, or a debate that happened in French class can turn into an excellent personal statement.

Writing powerful essays won’t happen overnight. Just coming up with an idea for a personal statement may take some time. You might even have to write several different essays until you finally hit on something that you feel will work, and once you do, you may have to write several revisions. A powerful essay will grab the admissions counselors’ attention and help them understand exactly who you are. A powerful essay could make your readers feel that they just had lunch with you. A powerful essay could be the one part of the application that gets you noticed, and as a result, gets you in.

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