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  • Bentham Admissions Team

College Essay Assumptions and Realities

Many young people get off on the wrong foot when it comes time to start writing their essays, based on false assumptions that they, their parents, or even their counselors might hold. The protean world of college admissions is always changing, and it’s important to stay up to date.

Assumption: The admissions office is obliged to read my essay.

Reality: At many selective schools, the admissions officer can only spend one minute on an essay - if the essay seems worth reading while they skim it, then they will spend more time. How do you draw them in, arrest their eyes and force them to take a closer look? Obviously, grabbing the reader’s attention from the outset is vital. Open with a strong hook - a dazzling description, a suspenseful moment in your story, a good joke, or a contrarian and surprising statement.

Assumption: You should avoid risk in a college essay by avoiding overly personal or controversial material.

Reality: While it’s true that you should use your judgment, and the judgment of your trusted readers, to avoid being coarse, offensive, or otherwise inappropriate, you need to take risks to engage the reader. Something personal might help you bond with the admissions officer. Something you feel is controversial might grab the reader’s attention by being original and contrarian. Avoiding risk is self-defeating. You may have encountered this in an essay for school - you play it safe, and the teacher complains that your essay lacks a strong point of view.

Assumption: I should not reveal weaknesses, mistakes, or failures in my personal statement.

Reality: You want your personal statement to show where you’ve struggled and what you’ve learned about yourself; it’s hard to discuss yourself as a relatable human being without revealing your imperfections.

Assumption: A college essay should impress the reader by detailing your accomplishments.

Reality: Let your transcript and your recommenders do the bragging. Your essay should tell the story behind the transcript. What motivates you to excel? When have you overcome disappointment? What really makes you joyful? If you bring your transcript accomplishments into the essay, the readers, who have reviewed your transcript, will feel you are wasting their time.

Assumption: The essay is all about me.

Reality: Some students find it paralyzing to write about themselves, but a strong college essay is also about what you observe, what arouses your compassion, and those who inspire and motivate you. Great essays have centered on a grandparent, a closely observed portrait of a parent, or a relationship with a friend.

Assumption: A college essay should be about something exotic or dramatic, like the time I ziplined in Costa Rica, or suffered a painful sports injury.

Reality: Many applicants are at first paralyzed by the conviction that “nothing has happened” to them. They choose the most “dramatic” event in their lives without thinking about whether it’s a story that really demonstrates what is unique and important about them. Events like injuries and deaths don’t always give the writer an action to take, or a decision to make. Also, the admissions officer has seen thousands of these essays and has probably never read a good one. Your life has been full of story: sibling rivalries, parental expectations, standing up for yourself, poignant encounters with strangers, difficult bosses, awkward conflicts with friends, rejections, embarrassments, initiatives you have taken to pursue a passion, and obstacles of every kind that you have overcome provide the external and internal conflict needed for a compelling story. And nobody wants to read about your expensive vacation.

Assumption: I should emphasize how well-rounded I am.

Reality: While it’s true that applicants should demonstrate an ability to care about something beyond their GPAs, it is commonly and erroneously believed that they should demonstrate that they are well-rounded, showcasing several school clubs, sports, and community service in their application, and even in their essay. First, again, it is redundant to focus in your essay on what is covered elsewhere in your application. Second, at highly selective schools the admissions office is less interested in whether you are well rounded than in whether you have one or two particular passions that you have pursued with ambition and tenacity, beyond even what is offered through your school. Having your own sphere of expertise makes you an unusual and highly appealing candidate.

Assumption: Writers wait for inspiration, and write in one sitting once it strikes.

Reality: Writers write, often hating what they write, until, after a few minutes or hours of false starts, they begin to understand what they're doing and something in the writing sparks inspiration. Don’t put off writing your essay because you aren’t feeling inspired. If you do this, you will lose precious time. It can feel very uncomfortable to write when you aren’t excited by an idea but write anyway. A fish doesn’t usually bite as soon as you cast your line.

Myth: I show my essay to a teacher or my counselor just for proofreading advice.

Reality: Expect a skilled reader to identify what works and what doesn’t in your essay and then suggest you restructure and rewrite it. Writing a great personal essay is as difficult as performing a great Olympic dive. Just as the diver practices and practices, making small adjustments, to perfect a dive, you will write several drafts of your college essay. Show your essay to a trusted reader early in the process to be sure you don’t waste a lot of time polishing an essay that just isn’t going to cut it. You are better advised to rough out an incomplete draft and show it to your trusted reader, so you’ll know if you’re on the right track. Finding a reader you can truly trust, a reader with extensive experience reading the essays that gain students admittance to top schools, is not so easy. Contact Bentham Admissions if you want an expert to read your essay.


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