What Makes a Good College Essay?

There are less than 75 days left before the first college application deadlines hit and then they come training in like thunderstorms on Doppler radar. College application season is open and high school seniors across the area are busy scanning the bucket loads of glossy college brochures and literature that are being stuffed into their mail boxes. Soon the annual travail of the college application essay will begin. Soon they will complete the application that is particular to the school to which the student has decided to devote four plus years and thousands of dollars. It could be the Apply Texas application, the Common Application or another. For better or worse, most of these applications have between one and three opportunities to tell the admissions office something that will hopefully make them say, “I want to meet this kid on campus someday!”  Seniors know the rest of their life depends on the words they write down. This can be terrifying.  

So what makes a good college application essay? Or better yet – what, Mr. or Miss Senior, do you want to avoid to insure the eyes don’t roll or even worse, someone scribbles DDI (Daddy Did It) on the essay?

The first thing to do before writing the essay is to write. Write anything! If you have been keeping a journal, you are already ahead of the game. Writing anything gets you in the habit of writing and it is easier to face that blank screen when the habit has been established. Writing also allows you to learn your own ‘voice’ (writing in a way that is uniquely you). College admissions readers are expecting perspectives from a 17 or 18 year old. Consider what is important to you and spend some time putting it on paper.

The next thing to do is start from a positive perspective. Having a positive mental attitude when writing will come across to the reader. You want to put on your best face.  Too many students confuse maturity with cynicism and that just comes across as teenage angst. Be upbeat, even if the subject is serious or even painful. No one wants a “Debbie Downer” in their freshman class.

Be creative in your essay. This is one of the key attributes the admissions office wants to see. However don’t be silly or gimmicky. The admissions officer has hundreds of essays to read, and they will spend about 5 minutes on each application. Being creative will be appreciated; being silly or gimmicky will get an eye roll and a sigh. If you are a naturally funny person use that. If you are not, don’t force it.

Check the essay for errors. Spell check on computers is great, but it will not change ‘affect’ to ‘effect’ and it does not catch punctuation problems. Have others read your essay. They will catch what you don’t. Moreover, have them read it as if they do not know you and ask if they would like to meet the author of the essay based on what they read.

Now for a few DON’Ts! 

Don’t be too general. The reader wants to get to know you, so if anyone could write this essay, then the point is missed. Make the essay about you, and only you. They have your transcript, SAT scores and a list of accomplishments already; tell them something they do not already know.

Don’t tell the “Dead Dog” story. Trying to pull the heartstrings will not work unless the situation is truly a sentimental event. And don’t lie or even exaggerate!!! It is way too easy between Google and social media to discover a falsehood in the essay.

Avoid writing on “The Championship Season”. Writing about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is best left to the professionals in Hollywood. This is overdone and boring. I am reminded of an admissions associate in Washington State who said “Who would think that a story about getting on a leaky boat, crossing the ocean to a new land where you do not know the language, people or customs, would become boring? But after about 100 “boat people” stories, I think ‘Oh no, not another one!’ “

Writing the college application essay is a unique experience, unlike any research paper you will write or have written. This is the only opportunity to put your face on the pile of statistics and numbers which make up the bulk of the application. A good essay can propel an otherwise average application into the select pile of folders, and a poor one can send it into the refuse pile.

And once you have finished the application essay, catch your breath – because you may have to write a supplemental essay or two before you are done!

Kurt Goedecke is a former Assistant Director of Admissions of Rice University and is the Senior Advisor of The College Money Guys in Sugar Land TX.

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