Test-optional admissions has made your essay more important.

I recently read a comment on a group for counselors that really resonated with me. The respondent said applicants are not one dimensional and compared a painting to a sculpture. College applications are a chance to show you are three dimensional. Academic performance shows one side of you. Activities show other interests. But the essay (or essays and short answer questions depending on where you are applying) rounds out the story. Use it to paint (or sculpt) a picture of yourself that leaves the admission committee wanting you to join their campus community.

One of the biggest fallacies I hear from students is they have nothing interesting to say about themselves. Everyone has a story to tell—it doesn’t have to be overcoming a major struggle or obstacle in life. Think about what your friends would say about you. How do you spend most of your time? What are some of things your enjoy in life? What is a passion or dream you have? All if these can be crafted into a personal statement.

Many schools have a supplemental essay that is basically “Why are you applying to this school”. They want you to have thought about how the academic programs and campus life match your interests. How will they prepare you for your career? Get past the basics (I will thrive in a small environment) and get a little personal (I want to interact with biology faculty in a small class setting, gaining mentors who will connect me to research opportunities. Professor Smith’s project on how vitamin D impacts cancer cells is an example of a research project I hope to join). Maybe you have always been a fan of Indiana basketball. Instead of saying you want to watch the Hoosiers win an NCAA title make it more personal, “I can picture myself living with my fellow informatics majors in the Luddy LLC, discussing our latest computer projects while cheering on the Indiana Hoosiers as they defeat Duke”.

If a school has multiple essays try to write something different in each. If your common application personal statement focused on one aspect of yourself or interests, write something different in the supplemental essays. If you are funny in real life it’s ok to be funny in an essay. If your not, now is not that time to write comedy. It’s ok to be vulnerable and take a risk. Maybe you write poetry and you want to submit a poem. Some schools will love it and some will penalize you for not writing an essay—but which school would you rather attend?

Admissions counselors read a lot of essays about not making a sports team or play, parents divorcing and Covid. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about these things but how do you make it different or unique? As a result, how have you changed, grown, found a passion or career interest? If you are asked who is your hero, and you pick your mother (which is sweet) have reasons. There is a difference between “my mom is my hero. She is always there for me” and “every side line, she is there cheering me on with a smile. She balances a full-time job while caring for my grandparents and her children. She is up before most of us, and goes to bed after all of us, working tirelessly to make sure others are cared for and accomplish their dreams”.

Highly selective schools often have very cerebral essay questions like “what if the moon was made of cheese”. These are designed to see your creativity, intelligence and academic prowess. It’s also a way to build a diverse class of unique thinkers. Some have short answer questions where you need to get your point across in very few characters. For example if they ask “what can you not live without” you don’t want to just answer “my family”. Instead think about one of your beloved possessions. I know a student who could say “a well-worn, often mended stuffed pig named Porkchop”. You will stand out and be remembered with an answer like that.

We are happy to brainstorm essays or help review them for content and clarity. Colleges know you are smart (they see your grades). They want to see how effectively you can communicate and express your ideas.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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