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Tip Sheet: An Admissions Dean Offers Advice on Writing a College Essay

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Tip Sheet: An Admissions Dean Offers Advice on Writing a College Essay

Post by Orchidee on Mon Jun 29, 2009 8:32 pm


Periodically, in a feature called “Tip Sheet,” The Choice will
post short items by admissions officers, guidance counselors and others
to help applicants and their families better understand aspects of the
admissions process. As an inaugural post in this series, Martha C.
Merrill, the dean of admission and financial aid of Connecticut College,
and a graduate of the class of 1984, encourages incoming high school
seniors to begin contemplating their college essays this summer. She
also offers perspective on what she looks for in an applicant’s essay.

Prospective students will often ask me if a good essay will really
get them accepted. The truth is that while no essay will make an
unqualified student acceptable, a good essay can help a qualified
applicant stand out from the competition. A good essay just might be
what turns a “maybe” into a “yes.”
The college application process takes time, preparation and
creativity, which is a lot for any active senior to handle. Summer,
however, typically offers about 10 weeks free of classes and homework
and many of the other stresses that come with high school. The pressure
of the looming college application deadline is still months away, which
allows students the freedom to play around with different ideas, test
different angles and solicit feedback from friends and family.
Another reason to focus your summer energy on crafting a quality
essay: at this point in the admission process, it is one of the few
things you can still control. This is your chance to show us what you
are capable of when you have time to think, prepare, rewrite and polish.
While there is no magic formula for the perfect admission essay,
there are a few things prospective college students should know. Here
are my Top Ten tips:

  • Write about yourself. A great history paper on the
    Civil War might be very well written, but it doesn’t tell me anything
    about the writer. Regardless of the topic, make sure you shine through
    your essay.
  • Use your own voice. I can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior.
  • Focus on one aspect of yourself. If you try to
    cover too many topics in your essay, you’ll end up with a resume of
    activities and attributes that doesn’t tell me as much about you as an
    in-depth look at one project or passion.
  • Be genuine. Don’t try to impress me, because I’ve heard it all. Just tell me what is important to you.
  • Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the
    simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites
    have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school,
    or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the
    family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be
    interesting and informative.
  • Don’t rely on “how to” books. Use them to get your
    creative juices flowing, but don’t adhere too rigidly to their
    formulas, and definitely don’t use their example topics. While there
    are always exceptions, the “what my room says about me” essay is way
  • Share your opinions, but avoid anything too risky or controversial.
    Your essay will be read by a diverse group of individuals from a wide
    range of backgrounds, so try to appeal to the broadest audience
  • Tell a good story. Show me why you are
    compassionate; don’t tell me you are. Show me that you have overcome
    great difficulty; don’t start your essay with “I have overcome great
  • Don’t repeat what is already in your application.
    If you go to a performing arts school and all of your extracurricular
    activities and awards relate to dance, don’t write about how much you
    love dancing. Tell me something I couldn’t know just from reading the
    other parts of your application.
  • Finally, don’t forget about the supplements. The
    supplement questions are very important – you should plan to spend as
    much time on them as you do on your essay. A well-written essay won’t
    help if your supplement answers are sloppy and uninformative.

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