Our oldest was just starting the college application process two years ago…. when I broke my wrist. With surgery, I was completely out of commission and my husband had a lot on his plate. Our son was pretty much on his own with his college applications. I couldn’t figure out why he was so worked up about writing his college application essay.
I knew he didn’t like writing (he’s a computer guy). But his level of anxiety seemed out of proportion to me. Even with great test scores, he was terrified that a less than stellar college application essay would blow his chances of getting into the college he wanted. He was afraid his essay would rip up his golden ticket.
If you look at all the articles giving advice about college admissions essays, his reaction – and the anxiety of other students – is easier to understand. These articles no doubt reflect a lot of what my son was hearing at school from teachers and other students.
As if the thought of having to write an essay wasn’t enough. Having to write a personal essay would make even an adult feel vulnerable. Are we surprised that just the thought of writing a college application essay ties teens up in knots?
And let’s not forget to stress the importance of the essay to their admission to their dream school. Their key, their golden ticket, to a successful life.
It’s no wonder seniors (and their parents) get so worried about the college admission essay. You can find lots of advice for writing the essay. And they are all careful to emphasize the “importance” of it.
What is really driving the discussion about college application essays?
When you read the article carefully, it becomes apparent what causes all the angst. Once again, concern about admission to a very small number of elite schools drives the information.
And this misinformation drives the anxiety. Anxiety that Harvard research has shown is damaging our children.
In an attempt to alleviate some of the damage, I analyze seven articles about college admission essays. In them, I highlight seven misconceptions and advice about college essays that increase student anxiety.
Read these articles for some great tips to help you write your essay. (Links to the referenced articles at the bottom of this post.) But remember to keep the essay, and the admission to any one particular college, in perspective.
No one college holds the golden ticket to your future. You do.
7mistaken ideas that make students panic over college admission essays
and why you shouldn’t
1. Your application essay is critical to getting accepted to any college.
Articles with tips for writing college application essays sound hopeful. With the right tips, you can do it!
The number one tip in “5 tips to write a great college application essay,” from a tutor who graduated from Harvard and MIT, is that “A great essay is very important.” (emphasis mine) Somehow it’s easy to overlook the qualifier below that.
“…critical to gaining acceptance at highly competitive schools.” Again, emphasis mine.
Any college application list should easily be able to contain some great schools that are not among the elite (read low admission rate, not best) colleges and universities. Make sure you have found some great schools where by the numbers alone you have a good chance of being admitted.
2. Good college application essays are super creative.
It’s easy to read “Essay About Love for Costco Wins Student Admission to Five Ivies” and think that a college application essay has to be incredibly creative. It has to really stand out.
What if you can’t think of a unique idea? Oh, no! Panic!
Remember, we are talking about admission to Ivy League Universities. (See headline.) And contrary to what they would like you to think, Ivy League schools are not the only way to success.
3. You should take a class specifically to learn how to write your application essay.
The header image of How to Conquer the Admissions Essay reminds you that some students take entire classes learning how to write their college admissions essays. If that’s not bad enough, the example given of what would be a standout essay is a Math Olympiad girl writing something profound about Hamlet. That’s followed by the lofty goal that the aim of your essay is to make “…someone fall in love with you.”
Breaking out in a cold sweat yet?
But this article does go on to have some useful information. For example, some rules for college application essays might be different from what you learned in English class. There are some things that you might have learned to use – or not use – in English class that you want to treat differently in your essay. Contractions “in.” Flowery descriptive language “out.”
4. You should spend the entire summer writing your college essays.
The headline, How To Write A Killer College Essay For The College Admission You Deserve, is again crafted to grab your attention.
If you don’t write a stellar essay, you won’t get what is rightfully yours. All your hard work in high school will be wasted!
The first paragraph then goes on to highlight all the hard work that you should have done leading up to your senior year. Then it advises you that it’s best if you spend your entire summer working on your essay…
There is a subtle difference between wording that suggests you should get your college admission essays “done” over the summer, and wording that indicates you should spend your entire summer working on your college application essays.
5. You need an impressive experience to write about in your college application essay.
In the next article, Great Common Application Essays, there is no way to know if these college essays were successful in getting the students in to Ivy League schools, or even into their dream college. But in my opinion, they are surprisingly technically more well written than the examples I have seen on news sites. However, three of the four represent unique opportunities that most students wouldn’t have – taking Quantum Theory and Relativity in high school, attending school in Thailand, and working in a university neuroscience lab.
Only one will be relatable to most students – the experiences surrounding the birth of a sibling. Focus on that one!
6. In your essay if you only have average experiences, they at least need to be illustrated in a way that shows understanding of advanced scientific theories.
Keep in mind that Johns Hopkins has a reputation to maintain. They want to keep perceptions high as to what caliber student they accept. They’re also using this information to keep attracting a certain type of student. Not all their students wrote essays like this. The ones chosen here would naturally be among the best of the best.
The first essay illustrates perseverance in the deceptively simple task of learning to tie a string around a bakery box.
Related to String Theory.
In case that reference isn’t enough, lots of other advanced topics are mentioned in passing.
The second essay is about a student’s obsession with learning her native Italian.
Yes, these represent remarkable young people who express themselves really well. And I by no means intend to make light of their accomplishments.
But you can still get into great colleges with less intimidating essays. It would have been more informative if US News had gotten the same information from a state flagship or a reasonably selective school. But it wouldn’t have been as big an attention grabber.
And if that’s not enough…
7. There’s contradicting advice about how to write your college admissions essay.
In, How to conquer the dreaded college application essay: Six hundred fifty words to change your life, the essay critiquer use terms such as “… woe to the essay…” that doesn’t have something [profound] to say.
That’s in case “Six hundred fifty words to change your life” didn’t catch your attention.
But what really caught my attention was the comments first person narrative essays. For years writers were cautioned in English class against using it. More than once I have read advice for writing college application essays that says the same. But here the critiquer tells you that the first person narrative is important to making this essay great.
In summary of the first draft, before it was revised in response to her critique, the writer pronounces that the essay would have been a “flop.”
No doubt the revised essay is better. The critiquer did do a great job. All writing can benefit from great feedback. But would the first essay really have been a flop? That bad?
Less alarming advice for writing your college application essay
If those articles raised your anxiety, try reading How to write your best college essay for recommendations for a step-by-step guide for writing your college essay, resources to help you learn how to highlight your talents and accomplishments, do’s and don’ts of writing a college essay, and successful college essay examples.
You might also find the following articles helpful in searching for and applying to colleges and universities.
Links to outside articles about college application essays referenced in this article
- 5 tips to write a great college application essay, from a tutor who graduated from Harvard and MIT
- Essay About Love for Costco Wins Student Admission to Five Ivies
- How to Conquer the Admissions Essay
- How To Write A Killer College Essay For The College Admission You Deserve
- Great Common Application Essays
- US News Infographic: Infographic: What Makes a Strong College Essay – Discover why these two real college essays got students in the door of Johns Hopkins University.
- How to conquer the dreaded college application essay: Six hundred fifty words to change your life.