Seniors: A memorable essay? Might be family breakfasts, piano lessons, or raising pigs...

A couple of years ago, the New York Times published an article claiming students were cultivating summer experiences such as expensive internships or exotic travel experiences "with the goal of creating a standout personal statement." Quick, buy a ticket to Shanghai! NOT! Some form of this urban myth wanders through the hallways of high schools across the country during essay writing season.

This "strategy" couldn't be more wrong-headed. Or, as a former admission officer on Robin Mamlet's staff at Stanford put it -- more colorfully --in an email to us, "YUCK.  That should be YUCK in all caps, bold, italics, the works. With many, many exclamation marks."

One of our favorite things to ask a college admission dean is "What is the most memorable essay you've read?" Believe us when we tell you that overseas internships or travels abroad don't usually top the list. Former Stanford admission dean Mamlet remembers an essay about Tom Robbins' novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and another about why an applicant hated piano lessons.  Others recalled essays about silverfish, babysitting a younger sister, astronomy, holiday rituals, the family's backyard chicken coop, repairing motorcycles, thrift store shopping for vintage clothing or family breakfasts.

As you work on finishing up your essays, don't psych yourself out by thinking the essay has to do all the heavy lifting in a college application. It is only one of many pieces. Keep in mind the two things that colleges are looking for when they read your essay:

First, can you write? Colleges want to know if your ability to write meets the academic standards of the college. They want to see that you can take a thought and develop it in a clear and organized fashion, using proper grammar. No typos, please. Your ease with language and ability to write in an engaging and thoughtful way shows them that you can express yourself effectively and that you possess the intellectual ability and readiness for college work.

Second, who are you? Admission officers want to hear your voice and know more about you when they have finished your essay than they did before they started reading it. Above all, they are trying to learn what impact you will have on their community. Will you make their school a better place simply by being a part of it -- whether that’s in the classroom, chemistry lab, a residence hall, or theater program. Colleges look for who you are in the application as a whole and the essays are one place in particular where this can be seen most clearly. So tell a story only you can tell -- whether that's a story about studying viruses, your collection of vinyl records or raising pigs in 4-H.  

For more on essays, including developing a topic, getting feedback, and advice from deans of admission at Georgetown University, Northern Illinois University, Sarah Lawrence College, and more, please see Chapter 13, "Essays", in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.



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