Effective College Application Essays

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Making Your Essay Work For You


I am about to tell you a secret about the things that can happen behind the scenes of the college admissions process. Admissions committees are known to take a holistic approach as they sift through many students’ grades, courses, extracurriculars, and—sometimes—standardized test scores. But it’s so important that with all of these considered criteria, that a student seeking admission to top colleges finds a way to stand out among the crowd.

When admissions readers are sorting through essays, it is possible that they organize applications they’ve read into sections like a “Yes” pile, a “No” pile, and perhaps, a “Maybe” pile. And now, here is the secret: Perhaps even worse than being a “Maybe” applicant is going into the “LMO” pile. What does LMO stand for? Like many others. LMO is something you don’t want to be when it comes to applying to college. What can help you to avoid the dreaded LMO label? An outstanding essay. How does a student write an outstanding essay? With a lot of thought, a natural voice, strong character traits and values, a memorable story, and sometimes—with help.

At College Ready, your student has the ability to brainstorm and get feedback from consultants as well as a professional essay editor. Because it is essay season and the Common Application has officially opened, let’s focus on how a fantastic 650-word admissions essay can help you stand out and be UMO—unlike many others.

Read on to learn some common concerns with the Common App essay, and how you can combat these concerns as you enter the essay-writing and application process.

During a recent brainstorming meeting with a rising senior (applying to Ivy leagues), the student was worried. “What am I supposed to write about?” she asked. “What kind of essay do they want to read?”

This is a typical question that many students grapple with. Choosing a theme or thesis for your essay from a list that features “Topic of your choice” as one of the prompts can be daunting. The answer to this question truly is: Write about whatever you want.

BUT, make sure that what you write about is something that comes to you organically and naturally. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to please your admissions committee at the expense of your personality and integrity.

Are you a person that loves to care for animals? Have you worked with a rescue organization or had an extraordinary experience with caring for animals? Do you work a part-time job that has come with some story-worthy experiences (think, food delivery, retail, internships, or babysitting or pet sitting)? Are sports, music, debate, service, or family part of what your passionate about? Tell a story in an essay that makes your personality, voice, and values shine. Chances are, you’ve lived through some memorable moments or have learned valuable life lessons through everyday life.

Another concern our College Ready student voiced: “It just feels different with this essay,” she said. “It feels like it matters A LOT.”

She’s right. The essay does matter, and we’ve highlighted the essay’s importance before at College Ready. The Common Application essay’s word limit is 650. That’s about 1 ½ to 2 pages of typed text, depending on your formatting. In those 650 words (or less), how are you going to accomplish everything you need to get yourself out of the LMO pile of applications? By being yourself, yes, but also by ensuring that there is plenty of depth and detail in your essay that allows you to express the things that make you outstanding. Sometimes student’s essay topic is something as simple as a hobby like fashion design or surfing or football.  Sometimes it’s a little more intellectual or academic like astrophysics, string theory, or the inner-workings of the human heart. For College Ready students, each of these—very different—topics have been successful with college admissions.  If astrophysics and surfing are not your passions, do not write about them just to stand out. Consider what is special or different about your hobbies, preferences, learning style, relationships, or anything that would be easy for you to write a page about.

“There is so much happening recently,” our College Ready student said. “While I’m trying to write about my topic, I’m trying to process it as well.”

If this statement doesn’t sum up life as a 17-year-old, I don’t know what does. The Common App offers students 7 different choices for essay topics. We already know that there’s the “topic of your choice,” but there are half a dozen other ideas that might inspire you. One asks what is so meaningful to you that your application would be incomplete without it? For you, is your meaningful thing your connection with a friend or family member? Another prompt encourages students to write about obstacles that have turned into a powerful learning experience. Showing your growth and development through a clear and thoughtful narrative is a great approach for an admissions essay. The other prompts focus on questioning or challenging beliefs or ideas, reflecting on gratitude, discussing an event that led to personal growth and a perspective shift, and going into detail about a topic you find completely engaging. These are great places to begin brainstorming.

“It’s hard to put into words sometimes,” our College Ready student worried when she started to discuss the topic she had chosen to write about.

This is where College Ready can help. Our Certified College Consultants take a personal approach to getting to know their students and working with them through each step of the application process—even the essay. For extra essay help, we offer editing services as well as options to meet with a consultant for brainstorming and drafting essays. The student is the author of the essay and the one with the story to tell; College Ready can help them get to their best final draft.

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