Transition For College Essays

What’s the point of the essay?


Put yourself in the admissions officers’ shoes. They’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of data sets to review, one for each potential student. Imagine the big conference table where these folders are spread out under the fluorescent lights. You’re just one folder in a pile, and the essay is their one window into who you are.

What about the rest of my application?

Sure, grades show you can study and that you care about academic success; test scores show something of critical thinking skills; extracurriculars and volunteer work show you’re “well-rounded.” But everyone knows that these things, for most college-bound students, are standard. People have been telling you they’re “important for college” since you were in 8th grade, and admissions officers know that. So there’s a limited amount even a 4.0 GPA and a perfect score on the SAT can say about your readiness for many aspects of college.

College isn’t high school 2.0

See, college isn’t just classes and parties; it’s a transition between childhood and adulthood. Plenty of kids with high GPAs and great test scores can have a hard time in college due to the lack of supervision and the less defined reward structure. In other words, high schoolers with determined parents can be coaxed or bribed into hundreds of hours of AP studying, varsity sports practice and all kinds of SAT prep. Those kids might build great applications that get them the acceptance letters they want. But none of that stuff will help them once they’re on campus.

In addition to possessing academic prowess, students who get the most out of college know what they want and are willing to work for it. They are mature, self-motivated, curious, and able to think outside the box. In short, they’re (mostly) ready to be responsible adults.

Why do different schools have different prompts?

Different schools are looking for different variations on this ready-for-adulthood theme; Juilliard wants students who apply this maturity and determination to their art. Tiny liberal arts schools want students who will bring their passions to enriching the community on campus. Ivies want students who are clearly head and shoulders above their peers.

But all colleges want students who, as alumni, will enhance their alma mater’s reputation, whatever it may be. And the admissions essay is unique in its ability to convey much of the information that could convince a school you’ll be able to handle the job of succeeding, not just in school, but in life. To that end, here are our top 3 tips on what not to write in your college admissions essay.

1. Don’t write about the easiest thing

High schoolers have a bad reputation for being shallow. Adults tend to think of them as Facebook-obsessed, smartphone-dependent text-monsters who do whatever (and only) what their friends do. Along with these charming characteristics, teenagers are also seen as closed minded and self-obsessed. The essay is a chance to prove definitively that you are not one of these teenage whiners who thinks only of themselves, and one way to do that is to really put some thought into your topic.

In other words, don’t write about the first thing you think of, or the thing you think you could most easily tailor to the prompt. Let’s look at an example: one of the 2014-2015 Common Application essay prompts is, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

If you ask the average high schooler this question, some of the most common answers will be not making the team, not getting a desired grade, or losing the student government election. These are easy kinds of failure to talk about; they are the most obvious. But you want to show that you understand all the things failure can mean: disappointing someone you love, doing something you know is wrong, giving up when you could’ve persevered. Some kinds of failure are painful to think about, but hiding from painful feelings is exactly what teenagers are expected to do. Be unexpected. Think about the prompt from multiple perspectives and try to make it your own.

2. Don’t write about something lots of kids have done

This one might seem obvious, but let’s examine it using another prompt from the current Common App: “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.” Again, do not write about the most obvious things: graduating to Eagle Scouts, your Bar Mitzvah or your first job (unless you have an amazing twist on those old tales).

Even events that may seem less common than the ones above aren’t: thousands of kids each year write essays about their mission trips, their parents’ divorces, and moving to new towns or schools. Maybe it seems like nobody at your school has done it, but that doesn’t mean kids at other schools all over the country aren’t doing it right now. Do a little research, give it some thought, and reach for an essay that will make the admissions counselors think, “oh, right, that’s the kid who was in the circus for a year.”

3. Don’t write about something that happened to you, write about something you did


This one is less about your topic and more about the way you frame it. Let’s examine it using another Common App prompt: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

This might seem like an impossible prompt to answer with something you do, and that’s why I chose it. When most people think of the word ‘content,’ they think of relaxing or lounging in a private space. But content actually means “in a state of peaceful happiness,” or “satisfied with a certain level of achievement, good fortune, etc., and not wishing for more.” Peaceful, here, doesn’t mean restful: it means untroubled, complete. This state can easily be attained through doing.

See, they don’t really care about the place or environment you’re describing. They care about how your answer reflects your personality, maturity, and ability to think and write creatively. Note the question “What do you do or experience there?”

So while a ton of students will answer this prompt with “my bedroom,” or “the hammock in the garden,” they’re losing ground by not considering the other varieties of contentment: a strong tennis player practicing forehands, a musician picking out strings for his guitar, a volunteer working with infants in the hospital nursery. Don’t worry about seeming weird or being wrong; the point isn’t to “do it right,” as it is in so many high school courses. The point is to communicate something unique and deep about yourself.

4. Consider the Bigger Picture

The essay is only one part of the college application.  Other parts include your GPA, extracurricular activities, and SAT / ACT score.  If you're late in junior year or already in senior year though, you don't have too much leverage to increase your GPA and activities -- those have already been set by your high school career.  

The only two things you can affect at this point would be the essay, which you should write well, and your SAT / ACT score.  Be sure to ensure your SAT score is good enough or ACT score is good enough.  If not, seriously consider retaking it, as even a couple of weeks of study can boost your admissions chances a lot.

For more information on admissions essays, see these resources:

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After pouring their heart and soul into the Common App essay, students often run out of gas by the time they encounter any remaining supplemental essays. While supplemental essays may ask you anything from “What makes you happy?” (Tufts) to analyzing a Kermit the Frog quote (Dartmouth…seriously), the most important question in this section will, in some form, ask you to explain why this school is the perfect postsecondary home for you. Quite often, we observe that the “Why Us?” essay, in whatever permutation, lulls students into spewing clichés, empty hyperbolic proclamations, and other vapid, “let me just fill up this space” commentary.

Don’t worry—the task before you may be challenging, but it’s hardly nuclear physics. Everything you need to know to write a winning “Why Us” Essay can be reduced to seven fairly straightforward tips. The list below begins by highlighting a series of important “don’ts” and ends with the “do’s” that are essential for success. Follow all seven tips with fidelity and we guarantee that your essay will sparkle.

1. Avoid empty superlatives

Imagine an admissions officer, at the end of a long day’s work, getting ready to digest his or her 37th “why this college?” answer of the day. Picking up your essay, the officer learns that you want to attend their school because it is “great” and “has a stellar reputation.” Yawns ensue.  After being reminded for the 37th time today of their school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, they take another sip of coffee and move on to the next file.

Heaping generic praise on your school is not going to sway anyone. If you’re going to shower a college with flattery, make it as specific and genuine as you possibly can. This requires research (more on this a moment).

2. Don’t play “Why Us?” Mad Libs

If you are applying to 8-10 schools, and will thus be composing 8-10 of these essays, your inclination to take shortcuts is completely understandable. Just make sure that these timesavers don’t turn into admissions-killers.

Having a general structure for all of your essays is okay, but try to avoid playing the fill-in-the-blank game. There are two main reasons we advise this: 1) Your essay will feel generic and uninspired and 2) you are more prone to mistakenly reference the wrong school’s name, mascot, colors, etc.

If, due to a time crunch, you end up playing a degree of college application Mad Libs, at least make sure you play it flawlessly. The last thing you want to do is tell the University of Florida that you’ve always been a huge Seminoles fan.

3. Ditch the non-essential details

On your visit to Brown, you made sure to try the famous pumpkin pancakes at Louis Family Restaurant. Awesome! Hope you found them to be delicious but if you feel inclined to write about the experience, do so on Yelp, not as part of your “Why Us?” essay.

Many essays contain the equivalent of, “I can picture myself strolling through Branford Courtyard (Yale)…” Specifics about why you want to attend a given school needs to be more meaningful than referencing campus landmarks and attractions.

Other details that won’t set you apart include odes to features like the “scenic New England autumns,” the “heavenly weather” at UC-San Diego or the “roar of the crowd on Saturdays at Michigan Stadium.”  While there is nothing inherently wrong or off-putting about referencing restaurants, campus landmarks, weather, or sports, they ultimately take up valuable word-count real estate without doing anything to differentiate you from the pack.

4. The goal is not sameness

The best recipe for creating something unoriginal is beginning from a place of fear. It’s easy to play it super-safe and get sucked-into the clichés and tropes of the “Why Us?” essay. In the end you may produce a competent essay, but at a school with a single-digit admit rate, just about everyone will have produced something competent. To gain an admissions edge, you need to transcend competent blandness.

It all boils down to introductory game theory. In a competitive environment with more losers than winners (think of Stanford’s 5% or Columbia’s 7% admission rates), blending in with the pack isn’t going to add value to your candidacy. At least 95% of your equally brilliant peers applying to highly completive institutions will produce essays that lack an obvious flaw, but that isn’t the objective of an applicant wishing to distinguish him or herself.

To be clear, we would never advocate being different just for the sake of it—writing your essay in Dothraki, painting your response in watercolor, or writing something intentionally controversial. Your job is to be different in an organic and sincere way. So, how does one do that? We’re going to start answering that question right now…

5. Show that you did your homework

Let’s amend our uninspired example from our first tip: University X is “great” because Professor Anderson’s research on the human genome inspired you to study biology and you are impressed by the “stellar reputation” of their one-of-kind undergraduate research initiatives. You go on to lavish praise on their state-of-the-art laboratories that were completely revamped in 2016, with further renovations scheduled for 2019. In expressing your individual passion for biology, you paint a picture (not in watercolor) of how attending University X would tie-in to your academic and career aims.

Now, you have gotten the admission officer’s attention. Remember, admissions officers want to see that you have done serious homework on their institution indicative of students who, if admitted, is likely to actually enroll (the whole “demonstrated interest” thing).

So, where does one find this type of substantive information?  We recommend utilizing the top college guidebooks, a real-life or virtual tour of campus, a chat with a university rep, or some good old-fashioned Googling to gather what you need.

6. Say more about your passions

In addition to highlighting elements of a school that appeal to you, this essay also provides a venue to further explain what makes you tick and why this particular college is the ideal milieu in which to cultivate your unique passions. What clubs, activities, or study abroad locales appeal to you? Are there unique degree programs or undergraduate research opportunities that will enhance your learning experience? Is there something different about the school’s philosophy, commitment to undergraduate education, required coursework, or foundational courses?

If you can’t come up with a sincere answer to any of these questions, you might want to rethink why a given school is even on your college list in the first place.

7. Focus on the match

In order to accomplish your goal of penning a superior “Why Us?” essay, you’ll need to merge our previous two tips—showing that you did your homework and saying more about your passions. A stand-out essay seamlessly and incisively connects the opportunities that the school offers to your unique interest and talents. Here’s an example:

You did your homework and know that Reed College offers a rigorous environment for intellectually serious, self-directed students. Instead of letter grades, students receive qualitative evaluations from their professors. All courses are taught by professors, never TAs, and research opportunities for undergraduates abound. It’s little surprise that an insanely high number of Reed graduates go on to earn Ph.Ds. in their respective fields.

Now that you’ve done strong research and extracted some key facts as well as the ethos of the school, it’s time to show why you belong there. You value substantive and constructive feedback over chasing A’s. You plan on getting a graduate degree and want to immerse yourself in research throughout your undergraduate years. You are craving direct contact with faculty. You spent your high school years independently pursuing an area of passion—creating your own reading list, seeking out adult mentors, etc.

Whether you’re interested in Reed College or one of the other 3,000 four year colleges and universities in the United States, your mission is to hone in on why that school is a great fit for you, and then, why you are a great fit for it. If, after reviewing your composition, you can check both of those boxes, and you’ve avoided the common pitfalls highlighted previously, then you can rest assured that you have mastered the “Why Us?” essay.

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

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