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09/04/2019

How much does the essay portion matter in a college application?

QUESTION
How much does the essay portion matter in a college application?
For almost all of the schools I’m applying to, my stats are generally in the high range or at least in the mid to high range. My ACT is a 34, my GPA is 4.0/4.7 (UW/W), and my AP course-load and extracurriculars are pretty good. However, the element that I’m worried most about on college application is the essay. I’m honestly quite terrible at writing personal essays, and I feel like I have nothing special about me to talk about. Furthermore, I don’t want to sound I’m either boasting too much about myself, but I also don’t want to sound too unassertive. I’ve written numerous essays, talked with teachers, and I just can’t get a decent essay churned out. And this is just for the common app essay; I still have the supplements too. Can the essay wreck my application? (I’m applying as an engineering student for all of the schools I’m applying to, if that matters in this question.)

ANSWER
An essay can make a difference. (Probably less for an engineer program applicant, but they still matter.) When one extremely qualified candidate from my son’s school was not admitted to a top college, the college counselor asked the admissions person why (they find out so they can advise future students), and they stated it was his essay. When this same student using the same exact essay was admitted to another just as prestigious college, and the college counselor asked what stood out, the answer was “his essay”! So yes, a good essay can make a big difference, but don’t be too hard on yourself because apparently opinions vary greatly, if your counselor says it’s good, it’s likely good enough. You can’t know what each reader wants.

My son is a great writer, won many awards, but cannot write about himself. He doesn’t like to sound boastful, and he doesn’t want to delve deep inside himself, I think, and spread too personal information. He’s a writer, he writes about other people, about made up things, not himself. He’s very happy, and he doesn’t like to make a big deal over things. He avoided working on the essay all summer, he was busy, but not like now. Then he had to write an essay for National Merit Finalist, it’s not as important as the common app, and it needed to be done quickly, so I told him just do it or else, so he did, and it’s really good. He’s probably using it for his Common App essay, unless he can figure something else out by Nov 1, but he’s still got tons of supplemental stuff due then and soon after.

Start by looking at the common app prompts and see if you have anything you can fit into one of them. Perhaps you’ve had an experience that to you isn’t a big deal, but to others it would be. Don’t put obstacles in front of your brain, start writing a list of things about you, things that have happened to you, things you’ve done, anything to do with those prompts. Write the list without editing in your head, just put it all out there. There is even topic of your choice! If you have some community service that will usually be a good place to start. Try to decide on one and just write, don’t worry about the word count, just write. You can even be a little creative with your essay, if you know what I mean. Don’t out and out lie, but maybe it needs to be a bit more interesting. Do not edit in your head while writing, your writing will be dry and boring. Put it all down on paper! (FYI, the reader is often a youngish woman, so think a bit about your audience.)

Decide if what you’ve written is what you want to write your essay about, if so, write a rough draft following essay guidelines and hopefully it’s somewhere close to 250 – 500 words, but it’s ok if it’s over by quite a bit, that’s what editing is for. Take it to the college counselor and ask for help. Also bring your list about you and if they don’t think the essay topic you’ve chosen, maybe they will be able to help you decide on another. Even if you’ve already written essays, you obviously don’t have one you like, so try it my way, just put it all out there without worrying too much about form, etc. Structure and editing can come later, because it sounds like you’re having problems getting the emotional and interesting out of your brain. Just do it.

Good luck!