Writing Scared – Taming the College Essay

Allison Ijams Sargent writer

Utter the word “essay” to most high school students and watch them get the vapors. Put the word “college” in front of it and it may be time to administer CPR. In the vast and complicated labyrinth of the college application process, the college essay is the immutable constant, the dreaded blank page that beckons the writer with the challenge to sum up his or her last 18 years in a cogent, error-free document that will “wow” college admissions officers with wit and insight. “It took a significant amount of time and effort,” says John Williamson, a Wellesley High School senior. “In total, I probably spent 12 hours writing the essay.”

One reason the college essay seems heaped with significance is because it is the very last piece of the application over which a student has any control. “Most of the other information on the application is done,” says Timothy Lee, Senior Director of AHP Educational Consulting in Sudbury. “It’s too late; you can’t influence it.” The unsettling knowledge that it is too late to go back and ace that freshman year chemistry final imbues the writing of the essay with a super-charged sense of mission. “It’s the thing [students] tend to stress out about,” says Maggie Farnsworth, an associate director of admissions at Wellesley College. “I always joke that I wish they would stress out more about their math and science grades.”

But can a well-written essay tip an application in favor of a student? How much can it influence a college admissions officer? “If a student is completely outside the reach of the application pool, the essay is not going to make a difference,” says Michael Kalafatas, an educational consultant at Admissions Advantage, a college counseling service in Weston, “but it can push an application over the line.” The chance for a student to rise above the cacophony by strength of an essay alone is what keeps them (and sometimes their parents) up at night. “I am not going to remember you because you took AP calculus; everyone takes AP calculus,” says Maggie Farnsworth, “so this is where you can add a personal touch.” Timothy Lee agrees: “Students need that thing that is going to distinguish them from one another in a crowded pool of people who look a lot alike in terms of background and scores.”

Crafting an essay that stands out from literally thousands of others is a job that every expert agrees should be made a priority. “Get it done early,” says Alexis Avila, president of Prepped and Polished, a test prep and college counseling service. “Come up with a deadline: if you don’t, you will procrastinate.” The ideal time is well before the pandemonium of senior year begins in earnest. “I found it extremely helpful to have chosen my topic and have written a solid draft before school started in the fall,” says John Williamson. The counselors at Admissions Advantage encourage juniors to begin the process of drafting and completing the essay over the summer so as to sidestep all of the college pressure.

Finding the time to write the essay is one thing, picking a topic is another. According to Kalafatas, “The first question a student might ask is ‘what do colleges want to hear?’ It’s the wrong question. The right question is ‘what do I want to tell them?’” And this is where many students stumble. Given the relatively short word count for essays, students need to quickly identify the “why” of the piece. “It is a trap a lot of students fall into,” says Maggie Farnsworth. “They will write about a topic – somebody dying in their family, or a study abroad trip, or the last three seconds of a basketball game, and I know more about the topic than I know about how it relates to the student.” Explaining too much about the subject of the essay “takes away from the real question: who are you?” says Timothy Lee. And that existential question is really at the heart of any superior essay. “Tell the story only you can tell. Words from the heart go to the heart,” says Susan Simon, president and founder of Admissions Advantage. But striking an authentic tone can be excruciating for students weaned on perfecting their formal writing. “Great kids and great students don’t do the kind of writing that best serves the college application. They do school writing, three paragraphs and a conclusion,” says Kalafatas. Personal exploration is simply a luxury that contemporary kids don’t indulge in often, which is why they tend to fall back on topics that they are tempting to expand on, like their high school achievements. “You don’t have to write about your experience at the Guatemalan orphanage because it is already on your application,” says Alexis Avila. Restating your résumé is only meaningful if it reveals something about the writer. “What motivated you is what is important,” says Timothy Lee, “not the fact that you did it.” Often the smallest and most individual insights are the ones that are the most revealing and are the greatest pleasure to read. Michael Kalafatas says, “Think of it: a college admissions officer with a stack of 50 applications to read in front of him and all of the essays sound the same. When I won my swimming meet or when I got my ‘A’ on a history paper and then there is this story to be read. And then they pause and they take it in.” Students often think they need to have done something extraordinary to keep the admissions committee in awe. But everyone has a story worth telling. It is “the texture of your story, what is going through your heart and mind during that particular experience that will make it a powerful essay,” says Susan Simon.

Okay, start early, find your story, don’t restate your résumé, check, check. It’s time to start writing. Sounds obvious, right? But after an awful lot of soul searching and planning, students can give the mechanics of writing a clear, flawless essay short shrift in the race to be done with the darn thing. “Half the battle is how you write,” says Alexis Avila. “[Admissions officers] want to see if you can write at a college level.” In short, grammar counts, as does spelling. According to Maggie Farnsworth: “There are two things we are looking for: a bit about your personality and how strong a writer you are. Sometimes students forget that.”

Revising and revising again can help students see weaknesses in the overall body of the essay. Also having a teacher or parent review the essay can only improve the quality. “Getting feedback from many people was not one of my goals but it ended up being the most beneficial thing I did,” says John Williamson. Most admissions persons interviewed for this article are aware that most essays are vetted by others, and this was not in any way seen as dishonorable.

Another overlooked aspect of the essay process is the short answer supplements that are now regular features of the college application. For example, students may spend umpteen hours polishing the one essay that might appear on the Common Application and then underperform on the three other questions asked by the college. The incongruity in the quality of the answers gives admission officers unwelcome ammunition when reviewing a candidate. “We pay a lot of attention to the short answers because they can be revealing. They are very important,” says Maggie Farnsworth.

At the end of it all, the college essay is a place to start a conversation with a college. “I think of it as having a cup of coffee with a student,” says Farnsworth. The best essays should add color to an application that can otherwise offer only a dry batch of data and test scores. “The best essays are as personal as a phone call or as warm as a letter from an old friend,” says Michael Kalafatas. But that intimacy can’t spring forth without some reflection. And finding that time for personal contemplation is always the challenge. “The pace of life is so fast for young people and their families,” says Kalafatas. “We need to hit the pause button, to figure out what it all means. We need to find that skill.” 

Third Grade Football

Printed with Permission from My Dog’s Name is Einstein and Other College Essays: Written from the Hearts of Boys and Girls by Michael Kalafatas and Susan Simon (Admissions Advantage, 2010)

© 2011 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher Beth@ElmBankMedia.com

Summer 2024