College Essay Tips from Seasoned College Counselors

During the recent WACAC (Western Association of College Admissions Counselors) meeting at the University of La Verne, Hector Martinez, Director of College Guidance, the Webb Schools, Claremont, CA, conducted a session on the much neglected art of essay writing: "Helping Students find their Voices in Essays".

Hector, in his college counseling position at Webb, has spent over two decades helping students brainstorm, revise, and polish literally thousands of college essays. Over the years of working with essays, Hector can recall only five that truly impressed him. Three of the essay writers actually went on to become published authors. The point Hector made was well taken: only a small portion of essays make their mark.

This column, in the past, has wrestled with how to write an effective college essay. Hector and his colleagues at their session of the WACAC pulled together their collective wisdom and arrived at the following key items for effectively tackling the college application essays.

  1. Answer the Question: It's surprising how often students think they've answered the question, and they haven't, or they've only answered one part of it. One example, the first Personal Statement from the UC application asks: "Describe the world you come from-for example, your family, community or school-and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations." Too many students describe the world they come from, but forget, entirely, to mention how it has shaped their dreams and aspirations. Read the question thoroughly and respond to it completely.

  2. Be Yourself: The admissions officers are attempting to determine who you are through your essays. Write about something that holds meaning to you and describe your feelings. If you're worried that what you want to write about might sound strange or different, write it down and let others be the judge. Such topics as traveling to the Great Wall of China and getting down on your knees and kissing it or why your mother eats ice cream with a fork, are different, but they very well might reveal who you are. Write what you want to say, not what you think they want to hear.

  3. Avoid big words: 'Big words' are not necessarily more effective or sophisticated sounding than little ones. Use your own original voice, and keep it simple.

  4. Use imagery and clear, vivid prose:  Engage all the senses of your reader. The more detailed your descriptions, the better. If you're driving in a car, make it a blood red Corvette with a slightly ripped black convertible roof that flaps wildly at 87 miles per hour.

  5. Spend the most time on the introduction. Most admissions officers are going to spend about 1-2 minutes on your essay. If you don't capture them with your introduction, you've probably lost them entirely. Throw the best material you have at the beginning.

  6. The essay needs a solid conclusion as well. It does not have to be definitive or tidy. Some topics are messy and some problems will never be solved. These realities can easily find their way into your conclusion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson couldn't produce an essay in one draft, don't think you can. There are three very important words in the essay writing universe that you should always keep in mind: revise, revise and, revise. Look at the structure and ideas presented in your essay; could they be better?  Is every sentence crucial to the essay (this should be the case)?  When you're done reviewing and re-writing, give your draft to others. The more criticism you expose our essay to, the better it will become.

A good application essay will present a vivid, personal, and compelling view of you to the admissions office. It can actually help you come off the page and appear in three dimensions.  It will round out the rest of your application and help you stand out from the other applicants. In some cases, the essay might be the final determining factor in whether you, or another, are admitted. Take the time to do a good job on it.