Crafting College Essays - ASK ME ANYTHING!

@Lindagaf is a test prep tutor who assists students with all types of college essays. She started ten years ago at the local community college, where she helped students with writing assignments and transfer application essays. Since then, her students have been accepted to Columbia, UC Berkeley, Brown, U Michigan, Yale, Middlebury, Wesleyan, Bates, and many other great schools. The best part of her job is that students share some of their most personal thoughts with her, which is a true privilege.

Many students feel awkward talking about themselves. They think there is nothing interesting about them, but everyone has something worth saying. The key to a successful essay is the student finding a topic they care about which shows a positive quality. The priority is for the essay to shed light on a student’s personality. The student’s voice should come through and the AO should want to keep reading. The goal is for the admissions officer to want the student on campus.

Lindagaf’s own kids mostly made her wish she was at the dentist instead of trying to advise them on their essays. She recommends that students and parents relax about essays. They might seem daunting, but they really aren’t.

Ask her anything!

Are you a parent who accumulated expertise with certain schools or topics (e.g. financial aid, FAFSA, essay writing, test prep, etc.)? Do you have a unique story you want to share to help and inspire other parents? If so and want to be part of our Parents4Parents initiative send me a private message and we’ll connect on next steps.

My DC will be applying to college in a few years - I’ll likely proof read his essay when the time arrives. How will I know his essay is good and ready for submission?

I know the question is very “nebulous”, but I hope you can give a few tips for us parents to understand whether an essay is “worthy” or not.

Thank you!

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@sonatarhia , Our idea of what is “worthy” is much different to that of our kids or admissions officers. My thought is that if it conveys something positive about the student, and the student wants AO’s to know about it, it’s probably worthy.

I just worked with a student who is very interested in a particular aspect of the environment. He spoke of this environmental interest enthusiastically for some time. But what really mattered to him, and what he wanted AO’s to know about him, had no connection to that interest at all. He wrote about something totally different.

This prompted his parent to contact me. He felt his child should be writing about this area of academic interest, which the son intends to study in college. I explained that the student felt his chosen topic was clearly conveying the qualities he wanted AO’s to know. My impression was that the parent wanted his child to write what he, the dad, wanted his son to write. It doesn’t work that way, because it’s the child who will attend college, not the parent.

When you read your child’s essay, ask yourself:

  1. Are the punctuation and grammar correct?
  2. Does the essay sound like him/her?
  3. Is it conveying the student’s personality in a positive light?
  4. Do you want to keep reading it? If not, you could perhaps suggest ideas to bring some interest into it.

A parent can help by looking for the points I just listed. Be careful of not trying to make your child write what you think the essay should say.

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Some of the best essays are about ordinary things. Not environmental issues or how you want to cure cancer someday because your uncle had it.

Offhand I remember great essays on blueberry muffins, Legos and waiting in line in the supermarket. A good essay will tie this up at the end with some lesson or meaning.

The essay can also be relatively conversational. It doesn’t have to use big words or ideas.

We adults need to avoid messing too much with college essays. That said, if a parent feels an essay is truly terrible, it is worthwhile to suggest another topic.

There is way too much stress over essays and kids seem to be expected to labor over them all summer. A good essay can be done just before the deadline, too :slight_smile:

Thank you @Lindagaf and @compmom - what you both said makes a lot of sense. It will definitely be tough to “stay at a distance” as a parent, but I absolutely agree that the DC should be in the driving seat about the essay (and the entire application process), and as a parent, we should just provide directions and help them get back on the path if they’re distracted, and provide encouragement during this grueling process. But having said that, it’ll be really tough to stay “hands off”!!!

Just one more thing: I feel that likability is an important factor in an essay. (This can include humor, humility, apparent kindness or just generally a vibe from the writing.) Values and character come out in unexpected ways.

@compmom , I tell all my students that colleges want to admit people they like.

Be genuine. So many kids try to use big words that sound very unnatural. It’s fine to use normal, conversational words. In fact, it’s probably better.

Here’s some advice I tell kids, stolen from an AO interview I read: Your essay should be so like you that if it fell on the floor, and your name wasn’t on it, and your friend picked it up, they would immediately know it was you. Too many kids think they need to sound “better” than who they really are. Who you are is great.

Great thread idea! Thanks @Lindagaf

I have a question about including ‘faith’ in essays.

S21 attends a Catholic high school. He has a few colleges asking for 250 word supplemental essays about favorite activities. S21’s favorite activity (beside sitting on the couch playing video games) is teaching a ‘Sunday School’ class. For him, it’s not about the ‘faith-filled’ material, it’s about hanging out with the kids and getting their attention, and making them laugh and helping them to enjoy the discussions - he’s very good at it. Several of the colleges he is applying to are Catholic (Villanova, Holy Cross, Scranton, etc.) For these schools I encouraged him to give a full description, including faith. He’s not a holy roller, but the curriculum he teaches is pretty religious.

Some of his schools are not faith-based, so for these I suggested he water down the faith part and emphasize the interaction part - is this a mistake?

What do you suggest, especially for the schools with no religious affiliation?

250 words isn’t a lot to play with. I’d ask your son to make sure he’s using those words wisely and answering the prompt fully. When you say “full description,”my first thought is that I’m not sure that’s the right tactic. I think an AO will be much more interested in seeing how he is making kids laugh, showing how he engages the kids, which should help illustrate what’s engaging about him. Emphasize the interaction, as you suggested.

Remember, @STEM2017 , the AO isn’t primarily interested in the activity. They are interested in HIM. I am not sure he needs to emphasize religion any more in the supps for those schools than for any others. It isn’t about watering down the religious aspect of his activity, (though it’s best not to come across as a zealot for most schools.) It’s focusing on the right thing—him—that matters. The fact that he teaches Sunday school is going to tell them he is religious, right?

Of course, he can adapt an activity essay for various colleges as needed. There can be a lot of variation in the prompts for those.

I’ve had a number of kids emphasize their faith. I think it’s fine to express that aspect of a kid’s personality. It can be a bit of a balancing act, irrespective of a college being faith-based or not. I sometimes suggest kids tone down things if they start veering in a direction that unintentionally sounds a bit overzealous. All things in moderation.

I recall two essays that stand out. One was by a student who wanted to emphasize something she found beautiful about her religion. Another was by a student who wanted to discuss how his faith inspired him in a creative way. Both of the students applied to both religious and secular colleges and had plenty of acceptances across the board.

Always concerned about the conflicting advice:

Essays should reveal something about one not evident elsewhere in one’s application versus college essay found on floor easily identifies writer to a friend.

Also, college essays should differ based on the level of school to which one applies.

Great advice, as always @Lindagaf Thanks!

When I wrote ‘full description’ I meant using words like Catechism, Scriptures, Eucharist, etc. In his Catholic apps, he plans to use those words because further explanation is not really necessary for the AOs.

In his other apps, I suggested he replace those words with others like, ‘teachings’ or ‘service’ or ‘gathering’. It’s a tightrope, but he’ll be fine.

He is not a religious zealot and I will make sure his essays don’t read that way.

Thanks again!

@Publisher yes, I have some kids who write a different personal statement for each college. Not many though. Usually it’s a student who is aiming very high. Or maybe they applied ED, got rejected, and changed their personal statement.

I don’t think there is a conflict in what you’ve said. How else can the AO see the kid’s personality, according to the kid ? I recently heard another admissions officer say he wanted to feel that he had just met the person who wrote the essay. The point is that grades and such don’t help an AO get to know a kid.

@STEM2017 , got it. I think that’s fine.

Butting in. Bear in mind, re: likeability, personality, some side of you: the higher the tier, the more they want to find more specific traits. It’s not an ordinary essay for a hs teacher.

Essays don’t need to reveal something otherwise not known. They can elaborate on something already in evidence.

Ask yourself if it’s something those adcoms need to learn about you, for their class decisions. And what that is. What traits are you showing? Something relevant to them. But again, that’s the highest tiers.

Your friends recognizing you-- that’s about not overwriting.

Also butting in to say that the advice is not conflicting. Perhaps an example works best. My oldest son was a news junkie, checking out the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and the NY Times every day. He was incredibly engaged with what was going on in the world. It was a very big part of him/his personality. Now – this trait is not something that shows up on a transcript or in an organized activity. But (IMHO) it is a great thing to write about. It tells the college something about my son that they would never have learned from other parts of the application. And, if the essay fell on the floor, my son’s friends would know right away who it was.

If one can, I think it is good to write about these “softer” traits, traits that don’t necessarily show up on your official record, but that would add a lot to a school/class.

Anyway, unlike @Lindagaf I am most certainly not an expert, though, after 3 kids, I have an opinion!

Any advice about the why _____ university essay? No matter how much research done they sound generic to me. Also, colleges think they are so unique. I don’t really think that is the case - study abroad, collaboration, internships, interdisciplinary studies. have not been able to visit any colleges. My S is really having a hard time avoiding the travel brochure response. Even mentioning specific classes, clubs, and professors sounds canned. Especially challenging in the shorter essays.

@SchoolNews , yes, those essays are hard. This post has useful advice about supplemental essays. The Why Us essay is discussed first. It has an example of how a student could find an angle with which to approach this essay.

Your question doesn’t have a straightforward answer. The higher he is aiming, the more his essay needs to demonstrate that he “fits” what they look for. If he isn’t aiming really high, it isn’t quite as important to nail it.

Generally, I think the Why Us essay should do this:
demonstrate fit, show how the student will be part of campus culture, and, often, show genuine interest.

Your son can scour the college website, read Niche (or similar) student reviews, and maybe try to get in touch with a student at the school, or call the admissions office. If there are any videos or podcasts of an AO from a particular school, watch or listen. They can give good insight. (Be careful of pestering AO’s with questions via email; this could backfire.)

To avoid sounding generic or like a travel brochure, you son can include information about him and his interests that align with that college’s values and goals. Find SPECIFIC details about the school and relate them back to HIM. The topic is actually the student. The more specific a student can get, the easier the Why Us essay should be.

@lookingforward . Please do butt in. Your perspective is always useful. :smile:

Yes, the highest tier of colleges are looking for something specific. I would say though, that if a kid has IT, it should come out in the essays. If a kid doesn’t have it, it’s going to be tough to “manufacture” it.

You also bring up a good point that these essays aren’t like a homework assignment. They aren’t graded. Perhaps viewing it as a conversation can be helpful. A one sided conversation, but still, it’s their chance to tell the AO something about themselves.

“Generally, I think the Why Us essay should do this:
demonstrate fit, show how the student will be part of campus culture, and, often, show genuine interest.” Yes.

Again, this applies to the most competitive. Where it starts, imo, is really knowing the college targets- that’s much more than liking the prestige or envisioning taking classes X, Y, Z. You want readers to believe you explored and found the attraction. And, see the match: not just them for you, but you for them. It’s not just what you want, it’s not one way.

Then, that offers breadth in how you answer. I’ve seen kids express interest in particular sub aspects of the campus culture, or note some fun things- but it works best when it does NOT look like you scanned the web site and just picked bullets. No, don’t be generic- eg, every college has some opportunity for study abroad. It won’t convince readers if you claim that’s “Why.”

As for the big essay, the reason the challenge prompt works is it offers a chance to describe something you faced, has its own timeline to follow, and can end up showing the sort of traits they want. Eg, persistence, growth, good will. Some turnaround. Show, not just tell.

The problem with a lot of essays is they fly off track, from the get go. It’s really about the high school “you.” Not freaking 3rd grade (you wouldn’t believe…)

And it does need to be relevant to readers. You’re asking for college admission, not just telling a tale/any tale. Your little brother may be your best friend, but he’s not coming to college with you.

The Sunday School thing could work- but see if it relates to those traits a college looks for.

Disagree in significant part with the above advice.

@Publisher , please elaborate.

Different standards apply to different levels of schools.

The most competitive schools want indications of intellectual curiosity. Some, such as Northwestern, also want specifics about “Why NU?” which can be derived from a viewing of the website.

Writing about one’s sibling can be an appropriate and effective way of revealing much about an applicant.

P.S. My disagreement lies mostly with the contents of post #16 above.