Seven Tips for Writing College Admissions Essays

by Stuart Nachbar, Daytripper University Contributor *

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College admissions essays are nothing like the usual writing assignments that a high school senior has been asked to do for teachers to earn grades. For those who do not like to write, they’re something to be feared. However, when a student has a combination of suspect grades and/or test scores with a dislike for classroom education, a half-hearted effort also means a missed opportunity.

College admissions offices require essays for good reasons. They help them to know more about their prospective students as well as assess their writing ability.  And the essays are also a way for prospective students to thoroughly and thoughtfully consider their interests in a school, and sometimes to demonstrate their creativity. 


Prospective college students are advised to follow these seven tips as they work on their essays. 

  1. Answer the question. College admissions officers consider an applicant’s ability to read as seriously they consider their ability to write. Also consider: if you were asked this question in a face-to-face meeting, how would the person seated across from you feel if you ignored the question, and talked about something else? 

  2. Never, ever, lie on an essay, and better yet, don’t even think about it. This does everyone—the prospective student, their parents, the admissions office, and the college itself—a huge disservice. The people on the college side may recover from the embarrassment, but the student and parents may not. 

  3. Write each essay in your voice. Never, ever have someone other than the student write the essay, and have the student write in a way that they “sound” as if they were to speak to an admissions officer in person. Experienced admissions officers know when an applicant has not written their essay, and they teach the less experienced ones to know the telltale signs of an “unrepresentative” submission. Not to mention that you might be invited to meet that admissions officer on campus, possibly for an interview. You want to make the admissions officer feel comfortable knowing that they met a person who wrote a strong essay.

  4. When essays ask you to elaborate on something that you might have covered briefly in another essay, be consistent. Sometimes college essays will build upon each other. For instance, if you briefly mention a possible major when you write about your interests in a school, then prepare to elaborate in the same voice for an essay that asks you to explain about your interests in a major. If you talk about another major, your application is more likely to be denied at a school that has selective admissions. 

  5. Check grammar, punctuation and spelling before pressing ‘Submit’. Do the essay in Word or Pages first, then run it through the spelling and grammar check before it is uploaded online. Not all admissions officers were English majors, and most are not expert writers. But most can catch the more obvious grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes, especially if they read your essay on a computer screen.

  6. Do not use the essay to show how smart you are. These essays are not a space to demonstrate mastery of complex academic material that admissions officers may not understand. But they are a great space to share enthusiasm for the material, even “teach” it in a way that will leave them more curious about you as a prospective student, and where you might fit in, or help to diversify, the incoming class.  No college wants to have a class where so many students have so few academic or pre-professional interests. 

  7. Happiness is always better than sadness. Leave admissions officers smiling after they read your essays. They have many to read, and they are human, just like you. They would prefer to read something that stands out, and leaves them smiling, than something negative that leaves them concerned that their school might not be right for you. This is especially true for colleges that are “need aware” and selective at the same time you need scholarship aid. In those situations admissions officers consider your standing in the applicant pool against your needs, and the college’s costs to provide them for you. 


College admissions essays may be a bane or pain to many students, but concise, thoughtful and well written ones can help get into colleges that might otherwise say no. They are your main space to make a strong impression on those who have the say to get you to yes.  


For assistance in college admissions essays and other steps in the college admissions process, contact Stuart at stuart@educatedquest.com or call 609-406-0062.

* As founder of Educated Quest, Stuart Nachbar provides personalized college, transfer and graduate/professional school admissions advisory services to help students and parents make the best-informed decisions their future education. Having worked around higher education for over three decades as an admissions advisor, author, urban economic development professional and senior-level software marketing executive, he knows the “inside baseball” about how colleges do business. Stuart holds a BA and MBA from Rutgers University, a Master of Urban Planning for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Certificate in College Admissions Counseling (with Distinction) from UCLA. He and his wife, Carol, live in Central New Jersey.

STANDING TALL

I don’t exactly remember when I started to slouch. “Stand up straight!” my parents would constantly remind me. But I could not seem to master it. Everyone’s parents tell them to mind their posture. But since I naturally stoop worse than my 85 year-old Nana, I often heard: “You look like a question mark!” ”

When I was little my dad was the volunteer coach for my peewee soccer team, and he always played me. I knew how lucky I was, not just for this advantage, but also for having a dad who loved me enough to spend his Saturday mornings with screaming children. My dad never pressured me to be the best, he just wanted me to try hard and have fun. He always encouraged me by saying, “When you stand tall and run, you are unstoppable.” Even though my greatest worries at the time tended to center on snacks, off the field I still slouched around like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders.

Now that I am a senior, I am almost always huddled over something. Cooped up at my desk trying to finish my calculus homework, lugging a 40 pound backpack around school, or peering down at my phone sending off that last urgent text message to my varsity soccer co-captains reminding them about an upcoming practice or game.

But when I play sports, I stand tall and feel powerful. This begins the instant I stride onto the field, whether it is for soccer or lacrosse, a practice or a championship game. Something about running and being free allows me to let go of the stress from homework, exams, and labs. Everything I’ve compressed throughout the day is decompressed, and I find myself channeling my energy and focusing on the goal directly ahead.

As my high school soccer career comes to a close, the legacy I will leave from this season as team captain has become very important to me. To rally my team I give pep talks and organize team dinners. To help the girls develop their skills on the field, I lead drills and races to build our stamina. I make sure that everyone feels they had the chance to play their best game. But mostly, I remind them to stand tall and always to put in their best effort.

Sometimes I have moments when I want to throw in the towel like everybody else. For example, at the end of a grueling pre-season workout this year, I shouted, “I’m so tired I’m going to collapse,” and heard the echoes of a dozen younger girls agreeing with me. I immediately saw them slowing down, and realized that as captain, they were taking their lead from me. Remembering my dad’s advice from years before, I immediately shifted my attitude and stood tall, exemplifying the behavior that I hoped the girls would follow.

It sounds so simple, but reminding myself to stand up straight is a constant challenge to be the best version of myself I can be. When I do that on the field, my teammates follow my lead. When I do that in the classroom, my peers listen and respect what I have to say. Standing tall, I am more positive, alive, and confident in my abilities. I love watching the big cats on the Discovery Channel, when they, feel threatened, they arch their backs and rise up to intimidate their predators. I have read studies that claim posture has a direct effect on people’s mood and self-esteem. But I don’t need a study to tell me what I have learned firsthand. Now, whenever I see a friend crouching over a book, or an exhausted teammate slouching on the field, I yell, encouragingly, “Stand up straight!” and then I repeat softly, to myself, “because then you are unstoppable.”

Comma Essay

 

    I was sick of the little red asterisk at the bottom of my page, discernible even from the farthest end of our Harkness table. Scrawled in bleeding marker lay the phrase I had become far too familiar with:

"This coordinating conjunction is not joining independent clauses: no comma here."

    I listened for my classmates' footsteps to dissolve into the hallway. Finally, it was silent.

    "Mr. Magee, I am at odds with the comma. Why another asterisk?"

    "You have two dependent clauses, Charlotte. There's no need to separate them.

    "I thought an essential use for the comma is to indicate a significant pause."

    "You're right, but that was not a significant pause."

I could feel the passion brewing within me.

    "It was to me! I wanted my reader to stop there; that moment meant something to me. Is that not the essence of artistic license?"

    

    Remnants of this conversation lingered in my ear long after I had left the classroom. The storyteller's ability to capture a moment through grammar fascinated me. In recognizing the role of the comma, I suddenly felt apart of something bigger. Punctuation isn't something the reader is meant to notice. A writer's inflection can transform a sea of indistinguishable characters into spells of both pain and pleasure. The navigating hand of punctuation steers me to experience a moment just as it was intended to feel. Sometimes I see parentheses and hear the words whispering to me, as if disclosing information so tender that the fragmented brackets must cradle it. The semicolon winks as it connects two isolated phrases, two incomplete moments. These seemingly innocent dots and dashes had opened my eyes to the power of language.

    

    On a storm-ridden afternoon, I rest my head in Stuart's hands. My usual nerve pain feels prickly as I fidget on the examination table. Stuart can sense my discomfort:

    “What’s it feel like today? Pounding or dull?”

    My mouth goes dry. His generalized symptoms resonate just as a foreign language does: these words do not belong to me.

    “I could tell you in the form of a poem; the way I’ve been able to understand my pain. Central Nervous System is at a cocktail party, and is very nervous,” I say.

The arachnid gang waltzes in uninvited

But – by all means – make yourself at home.

I feel the mingling crowd grow rowdy, shimmying to the music as my wrists throb with numbness. That arrogant spider is fighting with his spouse again

(in my left brachial plexus)

His rude words send her in a tizzy and tensions run high, gnawing at each other until She storms away. Down my left shoulder.

He crawls after her lazily

But

eventually

nestles

                under my shoulder blade.

lights grow dim, all guests file out

that medicine I took won’t kick out the arguing couple, but it’ll quiet them down

(for a moment)

They grab their coats, walk home in silence

I can tell tonight they’re sleeping in different beds because both hands throb with equally distributed soreness.

The female spider doesn’t get a wink of sleep.

I suppose she’ll be giving her husband a talking-to sometime soon

Because the right hand has begun to tingle

 

I can feel Stuart’s hands grow tender at my words, which convey what medical language could not. Punctuation was my imaginative agent, the tool that led me to discover a voice: one with artistic purpose, and a useful application. My ability to communicate creatively empowers me to find purpose in the classroom and newsroom alike. This gift of expression was not just a heightened awareness to composition but also a ‘significant pause’ within myself.

 

    "Alright, you've got me," Mr. Magee said. He chuckled softly and threw his hands up, as if to surrender.You win."

We exited the classroom together and parted ways. Then, from the end of the hallway, he chimed:

    "Forget Editor-in-Chief. You should be a lawyer, Klein."