This week we have a guest post on “the essay” by my friend Stephanie Jones McCaine who gave me lots of great advice when my daughter was applying to college. Stephanie is the Director of Admissions at Purchase College, SUNY, overseeing all undergraduate and graduate recruitment and enrollment initiatives. 

by Stephanie Jones McCaine

IMG_0915I’m not sure who dreads the college admissions essay more—the students who have to craft them or the admissions counselors who have to read them. What I do know is that each year students suffer from essay anxiety and readers experience essay fatigue.

Nevertheless, I remain a fan of the essay. It’s the best, if not only opportunity for a student to really tell the admissions officer something about themselves as a person not just a student. Hence, the essay’s other name—“the personal statement.” In spite of the surrounding controversy, a well-written, carefully crafted personal statement is a joy to read and can make an application stand out. In fact, although it may have little impact on a “no,” it can change a “maybe” into a “yes!”

Sadly, perhaps due to the often accompanying pressure, the essay is often the worst aspect of a student’s application. But by observing just a few guidelines, students can submit essays of which they can be proud.

Make it personal Students should be honest, authentic and the authors of their own work. Students should write about their real selves not their imaginary “I’m sure this will impress them” self.  They should not worry if their story is exciting/tragic enough. Typically it’s not the story that has the greatest effect, it’s the student’s courage and candor in sharing why and how an event has impacted them that packs the wallop. Like dozens before me, I encourage students to “use their own voice.” Seriously, parents/counselors/admissions coaches/essay writers, step away from the personal statement!

Focus It is easy for students to lose sight of what they really want to say when everyone around them claims this is potentially the most important essay they will ever write. But it is critical to stay focused. Students need to be sure to answer the question or address the topic that has been asked or selected. In addition, it is better to select a seemingly mundane topic that can be explored in detail rather than a broader one. Trying to cover too much ground in 650 words (more or less) is quite often a recipe for disaster. The reader will get more out of a carefully crafted nugget than a more meandering and prosaic submission.

Keep it appropriate First, it’s an essay not a text message. So even though “OMG, i cnt w8t 2 go 2 College, LOL!” is Tumblr appropriate, it is not appropriate for the essay. Students should be sure to observe proper grammar rules and avoid misspellings and profanity. [I recommend that a parent or a teacher proofread the essay to check for typos and appropriateness.—Anne] In addition, the ability to take risks is certainly an admirable and desirable quality for many colleges, however the essay may not be the best way to demonstrate that attribute. Students should consider the audience for whom they are writing and make every effort to avoid being offensive—this includes being sure to address the right college in the right essay (it’s just bad form to personalize incorrectly).

There is no doubt that the essay is important and that students really have only one chance to get it right. However, it’s important to recognize that if the essay really is a reflection of who the student is, there is no right or wrong. There are plenty of resources on the Web that give excellent essay writing advice, but the most important is to be sincere. After all, college selection is all about fit. If what a student has to say about themselves is not appealing to the colleges to which they are applying, then it is better to discover that as soon as possible.

Share your thoughts on the college admissions essay in the comments section below.