What You Need to Know About College Application Essays

We’ve looked over a lot of high school students’ personal statements in our time, so we have a pretty good sense of what does and doesn’t work. Now that the Common Application and the University of California applications are available (they went live on August 1), many prudent rising seniors have begun to work on their essays before the demands of school inevitably take precedence.

Blessed with having a friend who is an expert on college admissions, we consulted him for advice on what information to provide, emphasize, and omit (to avoid creating unnecessary confusion). His name is Ethan Sawyer, and his alter ego is College Essay Guy. If you or someone you know needs help in making sense of the college application process, bookmark his site and follow him on Twitter.

DISCLAIMER: This article is not going to explain how to write a personal statement that will get you into every Ivy League school. If that could be done in one article (or even at all), our friend Ethan — and thousands of other excellent educational consultants like him — would be unemployed. The process is complicated, mysterious, and daunting. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the surfeit of questions, forms, and deadlines that need to be answered, filled, and met, ask an expert for help.

This article, which will get you off on the right foot in writing your college application essays and supplements, will proceed as an FAQ.

Q: How do I brainstorm for ideas and topics to write about?

A: Consult these two excellent articles that help you with exactly that.

  1. Objects Exercise
  2. Values Exercise

Both exercises should take you less than 30 minutes combined, and you will likely end up with some concrete ideas, topics, and themes for your personal statements.

Q: How long should my essays be?

A: Your main Common Application essay (not the supplemental questions) can be up to 650 words. Your two University of California essays need to be no more than 1,000 words combined. And as far as supplemental essays are concerned, they vary from school to school and from topic to topic. A smart move is to make a spreadsheet that lists how many essays are required for each school, how many words are required, and when they’re due.

Q: How many essays will I need to write?

A: That depends on how many schools you apply to, but 15 has been the average for the students we’ve worked with and spoken to. These include the main Common Application essay, the two University of California essays, and the X factor: supplements. Some schools may have only one supplemental essay; others might have up to five. This is why it pays to do some preliminary research into the admissions requirements of the schools to which you want to apply. (The easiest way to do so is to visit the school’s website and click on the admissions link.)

It’s helpful to see the big picture early on. For instance, you might realize that the 12 schools you want to apply to require a total of 32 essays. Even if some of the essay topics overlapped, that is a lot of writing to do. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you would plan accordingly. You don’t want to realize this in late November, when you might have no choice but to not apply to some great schools. Moreover, doing research early on will help you discover that certain schools ask unique and challenging, i.e., time consuming, questions.

For example, the University of Chicago has a reputation of asking unorthodox questions. Two years ago, one of the questions was “Where’s Waldo?” (The school regularly uses questions that its current students submit to the admissions department.) If the prospect of answering off-the-wall questions doesn’t appeal to you, then you might want to reconsider applying to the University of Chicago and look for a different school.

Can you find Waldo?

Q: What should my essay be about?

A: Your essay should be about you. After all, no one knows all the different sides of you better than you do, right?

Q: What exactly are college admissions officers looking for?

A: Basically, they’re looking for the answers to these three questions:

  1. Who is this person? What makes him or her special?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our school?
  3. Can this person write well?

Q: How will college admissions officers evaluate my essay?

A: Understandably, each school has its own criteria, and even within the same school, different admissions-essay readers might prefer different elements. For instance, Michael Gulotta, former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Southern California, looks at each essay primarily to assess a student’s writing ability. But Rick Diaz (Regional Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Southern Methodist University) is less interested in evaluating the student’s writing ability than in learning the student’s story. Neither approach is inherently better or worse; rest assured that the admissions officers (plural) at each school will assess both.

Q: When should I start writing my essay?

A: The sooner the better. Right after you read this article.

PROTIP: Start on the essays before the new school year starts and you’re bombarded with homework, extracurricular activities, and other commitments. Many students we know have already begun to brainstorm and flesh out ideas for their three long essays (Common Application essay and two essays for the University of California schools).

Q: What’s a good way for me to structure my essay?

A: Our friend Ethan (College Essay Guy) endorses two structures that we also love:

  1. Narrative Structure
  2. Montage Structure

Take a look at both and figure out which one works better for you. Even if both feel strange at first, don’t give up on them. Both structures are more likely to generate an effective college application essay than a traditional five-paragraph essay would.

Q: How much do essays matter?

A: Again, it depends on the college, but approximately between 10%-30% of the student’s overall profile. Generally, essays are more important for small schools or for schools who look at applications holistically. For large state universities (like any of the University of California schools), who receive tens of thousands of applications, they matter less.

Q: If my grades are bad, can I still get into an Ivy League school if I write amazing essays?

A: Unfortunately, no. Schools look at your GPA, the difficulty of your courses, and test scores first and foremost. If you don’t meet the minimum requirements, your essays will have very little impact — if any. On the other hand, if you’re being compared to other students with comparable numbers, the essays can make or break your chances. Having said that, it can’t hurt to write amazing essays.

Q: Can a bad college essay negatively affect my application?

A: Yes.

If you want inspiration, there are numerous resources to help you. The first two links, complete with real-life essays, come from the fine writers at Medium.

  1. Medium Extra Credit Scholarship-Winning Essays
  2. Medium Extra Credit Scholarship Semifinalist Essays

Here are a few more real-life sample essays, complete with expert analysis, (from College Essay Guy):

  1. “With Debate” (Written by a student who has faced significant challenges and knew what she wanted to study)
  2. “Machines” (Written by a student who had not faced significant challenges and knew what he wanted to study)
  3. “Raising Anthony” (Written by a student who faced challenges and did not know what she wanted to study)
  4. “Scrapbook” (Written by a student who had not faced challenges and did not know what she wanted to study)