The Art of the Essay
Forget the studying, the testing, the decision making, and the financial concerns. Of all the stressors that make up the college application process, nothing causes more angst than the entrance essay. Is it really worth all the worry?
Yes and no, says Jason Lum, private college consultant and CNBC’s contributing college admission consultant. If your child doesn’t have the grades and the test scores to back it up, an amazing essay will not get him into Harvard—or any other top-notch school. “The top two things are your GPA and how tough your curriculum is,” says Lum. “Test scores are a distant number three, and essays come behind that.” But—and here’s the “yes” part of the answer—for a qualified student, a well-written essay can make all the difference, says Lum, a Harvard grad who also worked in Harvard’s Admissions Office. “An essay, to a remarkable degree, can compensate for slight deficiencies on other parts of the application.”
For a generation of kids more comfortable with the shorthand language of texting and Facebook messaging, writing a college entrance essay can be a daunting task, especially when you consider that beyond the common application essay, recycling is rarely an option. “What we’re finding is that that now that colleges have moved to the common application, many of them are asking applicants to write additional essays specific to their schools,” says Jill Pollack, Director of StoryStudio in Chicago and now in Winnetka. According to Pollack, one of the essay questions at the University of Chicago a few years ago was, “What do you think about Wednesdays?” Try recycling that one.
Judith Rolfe, former college counselor at Highland Park High School, now a private college counselor, explains that highly competitive schools like the University of Chicago are looking for more than just a student who’d be a good match for their school. “They’re looking for uniqueness,” she says. “Something that makes one student stand above another child with the same GPA and test scores.”
Experts say students should think of the entrance essay as an opportunity to make an impression—to reveal the person behind the high test scores and good grades. “Schools are giving students the opportunity to truly express what they know, what skills they have, and what they think they can do in the world,” Pollack says.
Last year’s common application asked students to write about a significant experience, achievement, risk, or dilemma they have faced; an issue of personal, local, national, or international concern; a person, fictional character, or historic figure who influenced them; an experience that illustrates the diversity they would bring to a college community; or a topic of their choice in 250–500 words.
For Highland Park resident Nina Tannenbaum, who will be attending the University of Michigan next year, limiting her response to 500 words was the most difficult part of all. “Trying to fit what I had to say into 500 words, knowing that someone has to judge you based on those 500 words—it kind of gnaws at you,” she says.
Tannenbaum, who applied to 12 different schools, wrote about a dance program she started for underprivileged girls ages 5–12, which she teaches every Saturday. “I wanted to write about something I was passionate about, so this was an obvious choice,” Tannenbaum says.
Her essay not only did the trick, it garnered a lot of attention in her college interviews. “They’re really interested to hear about something you’re passionate about,” says Tannenbaum, a dancer who spent last summer in New York studying at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “When you write about something you’re really into, it brings you to life as a person,” she says.
In addition to her essay for the common application, Tannenbaum was required to answer supplemental essay questions for every school she applied to. “Some schools wanted three, four, or five extra essays,” she recalls. “Usually they were a little bit shorter than the main essay, but I thought the shorter essays were actually the most difficult. “
Tannenbaum, who says it took her “countless hours” to write her essays, advises starting as early as possible. The 2011–2012 common application essay is available online on August 1, allowing plenty of time to craft, edit, and rewrite.
While there is no magic recipe for the perfect admission essay, experts say there are offer a number of guidelines that can help: