The college application essay (sometimes called a personal statement) is the single most time-consuming part of the college application process. Accordingly, it is also the part that gives the typical applicant the most stress. What makes the essay so difficult? And what can you do to make it more manageable?
First, let us talk about what makes the essay so difficult. It is important to keep in mind that the essay is only a small part of the total application. If we recall all of the other parts – including school GPA, SAT/ACT scores, recommendations, and other items – we can keep the essay in proper perspective. However, most parts of the application are more or less fixed as you near the application deadline. For example, your GPA started going on the record from the day that you entered high school. But the essay is special in that it is the most significant item that you can change right up until the second of the application deadline. So, because the essay is always changeable and improvable, applicants tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about it.
Now, let us talk about how to make the essay more manageable. The key is always to remember what you are trying to achieve. One college, in its essay prompt this year, described the ideal essay like this:
“[The ideal essay will show] original thinking, sincere passion, and polished writing. Basically, you should do whatever you can to present your writing at its best. The most impressive essays will be clear and lively and will give us a vivid sense of who you are and what you can bring to [our college].”
That description of the ideal essay is good advice for pretty much any application to any college.
You have probably noticed that there is very little concrete advice in the foregoing description. This is intentional, because there is no single form for an ideal essay. Every outstanding essay must be as unique as the outstanding candidate writing it. In fact, if you think that there is some “magic formula” for a college essay, hundreds of other people will probably have heard the same rumour. And if all of you are following the same formula, then none of you will stand out in any way whatsoever.
The only truth about writing college essays is that they must show what is best about you, in a style that is distinctly yours. This is hard – and intentionally so – because difficult tasks force writers to think, and thoughtful essays reveal copious amounts of information to admissions officers. Based on a good essay, admissions officers can discern your level of maturity, independence, your world views, fitness for college, and all sorts of other nebulous yet fascinating information. And only with such information do they have the confidence to say that, yes, you are the right candidate for their college.
The role of a good counsellor in a successful college application process is to help you to achieve all of the above. If you are lucky enough to have such a counsellor, he or she should be able to do several things for you. First, your counsellor should help you to decide what aspect of yourself you want to present to colleges. You may choose to present different aspects to different colleges, depending on each college’s profile. Second, your counsellor should help you to condense everything you want to say about yourself into an essay of a few hundred words. Often, this will require lots of brainstorming, rewriting, and even soul-searching. That is – as you know by now – precisely what colleges want you to do.
Best of luck to all college applicants this season!
Patrick is a graduate of Phillips Academy (Andover), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston University, and University College London (UCL). He has helped many students apply to top-level boarding schools and universities in the United States.
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