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The College Essay:  There’s No Code to Crack

Posted by Lauren Boucher on Aug 16, 2018 1:59:24 PM

campus life - 7548916The college counselor’s hand eagerly shot into the air.  

“Yes, please go ahead,”  said Shawn Felton, director of undergraduate admissions at Cornell University, making eye contact with the woman with her hand up.  

“What do you all want?  Which essays get your attention?”  she asked.

Felton quickly made it known that the counselor’s question was one he hears a lot, and it’s not one he likes a whole lot.  “I don’t know what I want,” he said. “All I know is that I want to get a sense for the air a student breathes.”

campus life - 7548904It was at a National Association for College Admission Counseling conference where I heard Felton and two other panelists speak and respond to questions from college counselors eager to gain insight into what makes a great college essay, also known as a personal statement.  Along with Felton was Katie Fretwell, former dean of admission at Amherst College; and Amy Jarich, associate vice chancellor for admission and enrollment at UC-Berkeley. They proceeded by debunking three myths about the college essay.

Myth #1:  The essay has to sound sophisticated.

Panel Response: No, the essay doesn’t have to sound sophisticated.  The essay needs to be revealing, honest, and informative.  Admissions officers crave authenticity of student voice, not sophistication. Prompts are just a pathway or guide.  They can be limiting and cause overthinking; the content is the most important thing.

Myth #2:  Admissions officers don’t read them.  

Panel Response: Essays are definitely read.  As an example, Jarich shared that at UC-Berkeley where upwards of 85,000 applications are received, each one is read twice, and the essay is a critical component of a student’s application.  

Myth #3:  Colleges don’t know if students get help with their essays.

Panel Response:  “Of course we know!”  A high school senior’s voice is different than an adult’s.  We know; we read a lot of your work. We are good judges of what feels real, and this can include grammar, usage, and mechanics.  The panel’s message to seniors: be yourself and write from the heart. There’s no code to crack; we aren’t looking for anything in particular other than to learn about you.  We want to know who you are; be reflective.

When asked what they see most frequently in an essay, the panelists were quick to point out that there are a few types of essay writers they see a lot.  For example, there’s The Pleaser. The Pleaser is eager to prepare and present what they believe admission officers want to hear. Let’s remember what Shawn Felton from Cornell said:  admission officers don’t know what they want. However, they do know when they read an essay with authentic voice that helps them get a better sense for the student behind the application.  

Then there’s The Pack Rat.  The Pack Rat crams a laundry list of of accomplishments into the essay.  Tour guide. Check. Community service trip to the Dominican Republic. Check.  Varsity rower. Check. Lead in last winter’s musical. Check. NO! All of this is addressed in other parts of the application.  Instead, address those things behind the multiple commitments. What inspires a student to participate? What excites him or her about getting out of bed in the morning?  

It’s most important to keep in mind that we all have a story to tell...every one of us.  Given that, the panelists from Berkeley, Amherst, and Cornell all agree that a student’s writing needs to be fluid, like talking; the college essay needs to read like a story.  Don’t spend too much time crafting the perfect introduction or the formulaic finish. Focus on your story.

The final word from the panel?  They asked that students keep in mind that being ordinary is actually extraordinary:  “Be yourself and write like you’re telling a story.”


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