This year, for the second time in my ten-year career as a college essay advisor, one of my students not only got into his top-choice school but also received a letter from the admissions committee specifically complimenting the strength of his essay. (This student received his letter from Tulane; my prior student received his letter from Yale.) These letters prove what college preparation companies all assert: the essay is among the top three factors in college admission, after GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Sadly, I will soon be leaving this line of work to begin my career in law, but before I depart, I would like to share the top three strategies I have developed that make a college essay worthy of a special letter from the admissions committee:
1) Hook the reader:
College admissions officers read dozens of essays every day, and hundreds of essays every week. If you don’t grab their attention within the first thirty seconds, you won’t grab it at all. Thus, without a good hook, a great essay may never receive the attention it deserves.
Last year’s essay that received the letter of praise started like this: “My favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once wrote, ‘The most exquisite pleasure in the practice of medicine comes from nudging a layman back to safety again.’ If that is true, then the doctor who saved my life must surely have taken great pleasure in his work.” And with that hook, I knew that the great essay that followed would not go to waste.
2) Take a risk with your topic:
My students and I have written great essays together about their stuttering, their high school popularity, their tan skin, and their loneliness as over-achievers. In a world where too many students write about their successes and achievements, with my help, a student wrote a great essay about his disappointment in his high school debate career. And all of these students gained admission to top schools.
My experience proves the old saying that with greater risk comes greater reward. Admissions officers see countless essays touting the brilliance that is already apparent on paper. Why bore them with redundancy? A display of thoughtfulness, humor, and, above all, originality is a sure-fire way to make the essay count.
3) Use your own voice:
Too often I have seen a student’s natural, authentic-sounding prose stilted by a parent’s or an English teacher’s re-write. College admissions officers are not dummies: they know when an essay has been re-written by an adult. And when an essay sounds forged, it will lose all its points no matter how good it is.
For that reason, I always try to keep as much of my students’ natural voices present in the essay as possible. This effort always requires a continual, collaborative effort with the student, but the extra work that I put in pays dividends in the ring of the prose. There is nothing wrong with seeking help, but make sure that the help does not in fact hinder.
If you follow these three pieces of advice, you will be well on your way to a winning college essay. You may even receive a letter that says so!