Leslie Atkin leads a college essay workshop at Wheaton High School in Maryland on Oct. 17. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Find a telling anecdote about your 17 years on this planet. Examine your values, goals, achievements and perhaps even failures to gain insight into the essential you. Then weave it together in a punchy essay of 650 or fewer words that showcases your authentic teenage voice — not your mother’s or father’s — and helps you stand out among hordes of applicants to selective colleges.
That's not necessarily all. Be prepared to produce even more zippy prose for supplemental essays about your intellectual pursuits, personality quirks or compelling interest in a particular college that would be, without doubt, a perfect academic match.
Many high school seniors find essay writing the most agonizing step on the road to college, more stressful even than SAT or ACT testing. Pressure to excel in the verbal endgame of the college application process has intensified in recent years as students perceive that it’s tougher than ever to get into prestigious schools. Some well-off families, hungry for any edge, are willing to pay as much as $16,000 for essay-writing guidance in what one consultant pitches as a four-day “application boot camp.”
But most students are far more likely to rely on parents, teachers or counselors for free advice as hundreds of thousands nationwide race to meet a key deadline for college applications on Wednesday.
[College admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision]
Malcolm Carter, 17, a senior who attended an essay workshop this month at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md., said the process took him by surprise because it differs so much from analytical techniques learned over years as a student. The college essay, he learned, is nothing like the standard five-paragraph English class essay that analyzes a text.
“I thought I was a good writer at first,” Carter said. “I thought, ‘I got this.’ But it’s just not the same type of writing.”
Carter, who is thinking about engineering schools, said he started one draft but aborted it. “Didn’t think it was my best.” Then he got 200 words into another. “Deleted the whole thing.” Then he produced 500 words about a time when his father returned from a tour of Army duty in Iraq.
Will the latest draft stand? “I hope so,” he said with a grin.
Admission deans want applicants to do their best and make sure they get a second set of eyes on their words. But they also urge them to relax.
“Sometimes, the fear or the stress out there is that the student thinks the essay is passed around a table of imposing figures, and they read that essay and put it down and take a yea or nay vote, and that determines the student’s outcome,” said Tim Wolfe, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at the College of William & Mary. “That is not at all the case.”
Wolfe called the essay one more way to learn something about an applicant. “I’ve seen rough essays that still powerfully convey a student’s personality and experiences,” he said. “And on the flip side, I’ve seen pristine, polished essays that don’t communicate much about the students and are forgotten a minute or two after reading them.”
William & Mary, like many schools, assigns at least two readers for each application. Sometimes, essays get another look when an admissions committee is deliberating.
Most experts say a great essay cannot compensate for a mediocre academic record. But it can play a significant role in shaping perceptions of an applicant and might tip the balance in a borderline case.
[Top colleges put thousands of applicants in wait-list limbo]
Essays and essay excerpts from students who have won admission circulate widely on the Internet, but it’s impossible to know how much weight those words carried in the final decision. One student took a daring approach to a Stanford University essay this year. He wrote, simply, “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times. And he got in.
Advice about essays abounds, some of it obvious: Show, don’t tell. Don’t rehash your résumé. Avoid cliches and pretentious words. Proofread. “That means actually having a living, breathing person — not just a spell-checker — actually read your essay,” Wolfe said.
But make sure that person doesn’t cross the line between useful feedback and meddlesome revision, or worse. (Looking at you, moms and dads.)
“It’s very obvious to us when an essay has been written by a 40-year-old and not a 17-year-old,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College. “I’m not looking for a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. And I get pretty skeptical when I see it.”
Some affluent parents buy help for their children from consultants who market their services through such brands as College Essay Guy, Essay Hell and Your Best College Essay.
Michele Hernández, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, based in Vermont and Massachusetts, said her team charges $16,000 for a four-day boot camp in August to help clients develop all pieces of their applications, from essays to extracurricular activity lists. Or a family can pay $2,500 for five hours of one-on-one essay tutoring. Like other consultants, Hernández said she does pro-bono work. But she acknowledged there are troubling questions about the influence of wealth in college admissions.
“The equity problem is serious,” Hernández said. “College consultants are not the problem. It starts way lower down” — at kindergarten or earlier, she added.
Christopher Hunt, with a business in Colorado called College Essay Mentor, charges $3,000 for an “all-college-all-essays package” with as much guidance as clients want or need, from brainstorming to final drafts. He said the industry is growing because of a cycle rooted in anxiety. As the volume of applications grows, now topping 40,000 a year at Stanford and 100,000 at the University of California at Los Angeles , admission rates fall. That, in turn, fuels worries of prospective applicants from around the world.
[Stanford dean: Ultra-low admit rate not something to boast about]
“Most of my inquiries come from students,” Hunt said. “They are at ground zero of the college craze, aware of the competition, and know what they need to compete.”
At Wheaton High, it cost nothing for students to drop in on a college essay workshop offered during the lunch hour a couple of weeks before the Nov. 1 early application deadline. Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, provided pizza, and Leslie Atkin, an English composition assistant, provided tips in a room bedecked with college pennants.
Her first piece of advice: Don’t bore the reader. “It should be as much fun as telling your best friend a story,” she said. “You’re going to be animated about it.” Atkin also sketched a four-step framework for writing: Depict an event, discuss how that anecdote illuminates key character traits, define a pivotal moment and reflect on the outcome. “Wrap it up with a nice package and a bow,” she said. “They don’t have to be razzle-dazzle. But they need to say, ‘Read me!’ ”
As an example, Hammond Davis distributed an essay written by a 2017 Wheaton High graduate now at Rice University. In it, Anene “Daniel” Uwanamodo likened himself to a trampoline — a student leader who helps serve as a launchpad for others. “Regardless of race, gender or background, trampolines will offer their uplifting influence to any who request it,” he wrote.
Soaking this in were students aiming for the University of Maryland at College Park, Towson, Howard and Johns Hopkins universities, Virginia Tech, the University of Chicago and a special scholars program at Montgomery College. One planned to write about a terrifying car accident, another about her mother’s death and a third about how varsity basketball shaped him.
Sahil Sahni, 17, said his main essay responds to a prompt on the Common Application, an online portal to apply to hundreds of colleges: “Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Sahni showed The Washington Post two drafts — his initial version in July, and his latest after feedback from Hammond Davis. (It’s probably best not to quote the essay before admission officers read it.) During the writing, he said, he often jotted phrases on sticky notes when inspiration occurred. If no notepads were handy, he would ink a keyword on his arm “to stimulate the ideas.”
Sahni summarized the essay as a meditation on the consequences of lost keys, “how the unknown is okay, and how you can overcome it.” He said composing three or four high-stakes essays also had a consequence: “Every day you learn something new about yourself.”
Senior Sahil Sahni with Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, at Wheaton High’s college essay workshop. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Sample College Admission Essays
This section contains two examples of good college essays.
- College Essay One
- College Essay Two
- College Essay Three
College Essay One
Prompt: Please submit a one-page, single-spaced essay that explains why you have chosen State University and your particular major(s), department(s) or program(s).
State University and I possess a common vision. I, like State University, constantly work to explore the limits of nature by exceeding expectations. Long an amateur scientist, it was this drive that brought me to the University of Texas for its Student Science Training Program in 2013. Up to that point science had been my private past time, one I had yet to explore on anyone else’s terms. My time at UT, however, changed that. Participating for the first time in a full-length research experiment at that level, I felt more alive, more engaged, than I ever had before. Learning the complex dynamics between electromagnetic induction and optics in an attempt to solve one of the holy grails of physics, gravitational-waves, I could not have been more pleased. Thus vindicated, my desire to further formalize my love of science brings me to State University. Thanks to this experience, I know now better than ever that State University is my future, because through it I seek another, permanent, opportunity to follow my passion for science and engineering.
In addition to just science, I am drawn to State University for other reasons. I strive to work with the diverse group of people that State University wholeheartedly accommodates – and who also share my mindset. They, like me, are there because State University respects the value of diversity. I know from personal experience that in order to achieve the trust, honesty, and success that State University values, new people are needed to create a respectful environment for these values. I feel that my background as an American Sikh will provide an innovative perspective in the university’s search for knowledge while helping it to develop a basis for future success. And that, truly, is the greatest success I can imagine.
This emphasis on diversity can also be found in the variety of specialized departments found at State University. On top of its growing cultural and ethnic diversity, State University is becoming a master at creating a niche for every student. However, this does not isolate students by forcing them to work with only those individuals who follow their specific discipline. Instead, it is the seamless interaction between facilities that allows each department, from engineering to programming, to create a real learning environment that profoundly mimics the real world. Thus, State University is not just the perfect place for me, it is the only place for me. Indeed, having the intellectual keenness to absorb every ounce of knowledge presented through my time in the IB program, I know that I can contribute to State University as it continues to cultivate a scholarly climate that encourages intellectual curiosity.
At the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at State University, I will be able to do just that. In a department where education and research are intermixed, I can continue to follow the path that towards scientific excellence. Long-mesmerized by hobbies like my work with the FIRST Robotics team, I believe State University would be the best choice to continue to nurture my love for electrical and computer engineering. I have only scratched the surface in this ever evolving field but know that the technological potential is limitless. Likewise, I feel that my time at State University would make my potential similarly limitless.
This is a picture-perfect response to a university-specific essay prompt. What makes it particularly effective is not just its cohesive structure and elegant style but also the level of details the author uses in the response. By directly identifying the specific aspects of the university that are attractive to the writer, the writer is able to clearly and effectively show not only his commitment to his studies but – perhaps more importantly – the level of thought he put into his decision to apply. Review committees know what generic responses look like so specificity sells.
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College Essay Two
Prompt: What motivates you?
For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of science. Where others see the engineering, experimentation, and presentation of science as a chore, I only see excitement. Even as a child I constantly sought it out, first on television with Bill Nye and The Mythbusters, then later in person in every museum exhibit I could find. Science in all its forms fascinated me, but science projects in particular were a category all to themselves. To me, science projects were a special joy that only grew with time. In fact, it was this continued fascination for hands-on science that brought me years later to the sauna that is the University of Alabama in mid-June. Participating in the Student Science Training Program and working in their lab made me feel like a kid in a candy store. Just the thought of participating in a project at this level of scientific rigor made me forget that this was supposed to be my summer break and I spent the first day eagerly examining every piece of equipment.
Even at first, when the whole research group sat there doing rote calculations and others felt like they were staring down the barrel of defeated purpose, I remained enthusiastic. Time and time again I reminded myself of that famous phrase "great effort leads to great rewards," and sure enough, soon my aspirations began to be met. This shift in attitude also coincided with a shift in location: from the computer desk to the laser lab. It was finally time to get my hands dirty.
Now things began to get really interesting. During the experimentation phase of the project, I spent the majority of my waking hours in the lab – and I enjoyed every minute of it. From debriefing with my coordinator in the morning to checking and rechecking results well into the afternoon, I was on cloud nine all day, every day. I even loved the electric feeling of anxiety as I waited for the results. Most of all, though, I loved the pursuit of science itself. Before I knew it, I was well into the seventh week and had completed my first long-term research experiment.
In the end, although the days were long and hard, my work that summer filled me with pride. That pride has confirmed and reinvigorated my love for science. I felt more alive, more engaged, in that lab than I have anywhere else, and I am committed to returning. I have always dreamed of science but since that summer, since my experiment, I have dreamed only of the future. To me, medical science is the future and through it I seek another, permanent, opportunity to follow my passion. After all, to follow your passion is, literally, a dream come true.
In addition to its use of clear, demonstrative language, there is one thing that makes this an effective essay: focus. Indeed, notice that, although the question is broad, the answer is narrow. This is crucial. It can be easy to wax poetic on a topic and, in the process, take on too much. Instead, by highlighting one specific aspect of his personality, the author is able to give the reader a taste of his who he is without overwhelming him or simply reproducing his résumé. This emphasis gives the reader the opportunity to learn who the writer is on his terms and makes it a truly compelling application essay.
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College Essay Three
The winter of my seventh grade year, my alcoholic mother entered a psychiatric unit for an attempted suicide. Mom survived, but I would never forget visiting her at the ward or the complete confusion I felt about her attempt to end her life. Today I realize that this experience greatly influenced my professional ambition as well as my personal identity. While early on my professional ambitions were aimed towards the mental health field, later experiences have redirected me towards a career in academia.
I come from a small, economically depressed town in Northern Wisconson. Many people in this former mining town do not graduate high school and for them college is an idealistic concept, not a reality. Neither of my parents attended college. Feelings of being trapped in a stagnant environment permeated my mind, and yet I knew I had to graduate high school; I had to get out. Although most of my friends and family did not understand my ambitions, I knew I wanted to make a difference and used their doubt as motivation to press through. Four days after I graduated high school, I joined the U.S. Army.
The 4 years I spent in the Army cultivated a deep-seated passion for serving society. While in the Army, I had the great honor to serve with several men and women who, like me, fought to make a difference in the world. During my tour of duty, I witnessed several shipmates suffer from various mental aliments. Driven by a commitment to serve and a desire to understand the foundations of psychological illness, I decided to return to school to study psychology.
In order to pay for school and continue being active in the community, I enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard as a Medic. Due to the increased deployment schedule and demands placed on all branches of the military after September 11, my attendance in school has necessarily come second to my commitment to the military. There are various semesters where, due to this demand, I attended school less than full time. Despite taking a long time and the difficulty in carving separate time for school with such occupational requirements, I remained persistent aiming towards attending school as my schedule would allow. My military commitment ends this July and will no longer complicate my academic pursuits.
In college, as I became more politically engaged, my interest began to gravitate more towards political science. The interest in serving and understanding people has never changed, yet I realized I could make a greater difference doing something for which I have a deeper passion, political science. Pursuing dual degrees in both Psychology and Political Science, I was provided an opportunity to complete a thesis in Psychology with Dr. Sheryl Carol a Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Texas (UT) This fall I will complete an additional thesis as a McNair Scholar with Dr. Ken Chambers, Associate Professor in Latin American studies in the UT Political Science Department.
As an undergraduate, I was privileged to gain extensive research experience working in a research lab with Dr. Carol. During the three years I worked in her lab, I aided in designing a study, writing an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application, running participants through both pilot and regular studies, coding data, and analyzing said data, with these experiences culminating in my honors thesis. This thesis, entitled Self-Esteem and Need-to-Belong as predictors of implicit stereotypic explanatory bias, focuses on the relationship between levels (high and low) of self-esteem and an individual’s need to belong in a group, and how they predict whether an individual will tend to explain stereotype-inconsistent behavior. Participating in such a large study from start to finish has validated my interest in academic research as a profession.
This fall I will embark on writing an additional honors thesis in political science. While the precise topic of my thesis is undecided, I am particularly interested in Mexico and its development towards a more democratic government. Minoring in Spanish, I have read various pieces of literature from Mexico and have come to respect Mexico and Latin American culture and society. I look forward to conducting this research as it will have a more qualitative tilt than my thesis in psychology, therefore granting an additional understanding of research methodology.
My present decision to switch from social psychology to political science is further related to a study abroad course sponsored by the European Union with Dr. Samuel Mitchell, an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at UT. Professor Mitchell obtained a grant to take a class of students to Belgium in order to study the EU. This course revealed a direct correlation between what I had studied in the classroom with the real world. After spending several weeks studying the EU, its history and present movement towards integration, the class flew to Brussels where we met with officials and proceeded to learn firsthand how the EU functioned.
My interest in attending the University of Rochester in particular, relates to my first semester at OU and the opportunity to take an introductory course in statistics with the now retired Dr. Larry Miller. Through the combination of a genuine appreciation and knack for statistics and with his encouragement, I proceeded to take his advanced statistics class as well as the first graduate level statistics course at OU. I continued my statistical training by completing the second graduate statistics course on model comparisons with Dr. Roger Johnson, a Professor in the Psychology Department. The model comparison course was not only the most challenging course I have taken as an undergraduate, but the most important. As the sole undergraduate in the course and only college algebra under my belt, I felt quite intimidated. Yet, the rigors of the class compelled me to expand my thinking and learn to overcome any insecurities and deficits in my education. The effort paid off as I earned not only an ‘A’ in the course, but also won the T.O.P.S. (Top Outstanding Psychology Student) award in statistics. This award is given to the top undergraduate student with a demonstrated history of success in statistics.
My statistical training in psychology orientates me toward a more quantitative graduate experience. Due to the University of Rochester’s reputation for an extensive use of statistics in political science research, I would make a good addition to your fall class. While attending the University of Rochester, I would like to study international relations or comparative politics while in graduate school. I find the research of Dr.’s Hein Goemans and Gretchen Helmke intriguing and would like the opportunity to learn more about it through the Graduate Visitation program.
Participation in the University of Rochester’s Graduate School Visitation Program would allow me to learn more about the Department of Political Science to further see if my interests align with those in the department. Additionally, my attendance would allow the Political Science department to make a more accurate determination on how well I would fit in to the program than from solely my graduate school application. Attending the University of Rochester with its focus on quantitative training, would not only allow me to utilize the skills and knowledge I gained as an undergraduate, but also would expand this foundation to better prepare me to conduct research in a manner I find fascinating.
From attending S.E.R.E. (Survival/POW training) in the military and making it through a model comparisons course as an undergraduate, I have rarely shied away from a challenge. I thrive on difficult tasks as I enjoy systematically developing solutions to problems. Attending the University of Rochester would more than likely prove a challenge, but there is no doubt in my mind that I would not only succeed but enable me to offer a unique set of experiences to fellow members of the incoming graduate class.
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