Monday, November 30, 2015
Almost every college applicant will find that they have to write a personal essay as a part of the admissions process. Many students are not used to talking about themselves and will find this requirement a little daunting.
My clients often ask me if anyone ever reads the essays or whether they just wad them up for a 2-pointer and pitch them in the circular file. I am quick to advise that nothing could be further from the truth. Members of the admissions committee do read your essays, and it can make all of the difference as to whether you are admitted when the competition is keen.
Picture yourself as an admissions officer. You have hundreds of applications stacked up around you. Your eyes have become glazed over from reviewing the applications, and after a while they all start to look alike — similar grades, test scores, awards, extracurricular activities.
There are only so many openings (Harvard accepts only 1,650 students out of 35,000 applicants) so when it comes time for the vote on who gets in, how do they decide? Each applicant must somehow separate himself or herself from the pack. My view is that a well-written personal essay gets the most attention from the admissions committee and that the applicant who submits it is the one who will get talked about the most.
The 250- to 650-word personal essay is critically important, especially as the competition gets tougher each year. The essay is a chance to show the admissions committee a part of you that is not reflected in the formal application. It is an opportunity to talk about yourself — your personal traits, your values and the experiences that helped shape your life.
When I was applying to college, I spent hours thinking about what to say before I started writing my essay. With the first draft finished, I gave it to my friends to read. Most of them were polite and said great things about it: It was well written, interesting to read, this is the real you.
However, my very best friend threw it back at me. He did not like it. He said, "It isn't you!" In short, it was boring, and he was right. That draft made me look plain vanilla. In no way did it represent me as a person, nor did it bring out the personal accomplishments in my life that I valued most — my military service with the 101st Airborne or my time stationed at West Point as part of the training cadre. I was at West Point for Gen. MacArthur's famous "Duty, Honor, Country" valedictory address. They piped it outside to the parade ground for the enlisted men to hear. I was 17 years old, and that was the day I knew I had grown up and had to become a man.
My original essay did not describe my maverick high school behavior (I had some funny stories to tell) or my upbringing in the South. These were the things that made me interesting to my friends — not my intellectual aspirations. I got the message.
I wrote and rewrote the essay at least a dozen times. It took me three weeks and a lot of pizza-party bull sessions before I got it right. But I knew when I finished the final draft that this was the one. I did not have to have anyone else read it because I recognized the sound of my own voice.
So my advice is: Do not look at the college essay as a waste of time. It is your opportunity to blow the competition out of the water.
Gerald Bradshaw is an international college admission consultant with Bradshaw College Consulting.
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