College reps share ‘secret formula’ for successful personal essays

It’s September, and, once again, seniors struggle through the tortuous, hazing ritual known as the personal essay. Now that early college application deadlines are almost here, most students who want to study in the West are frantically struggling to get ideas together.

What will work? What is compelling? What will complete the magic trick of persuading the colleges of our dreams to welcome us into their hallowed halls? The Woodstocker reached out and asked some college representatives what they’re looking for when reviewing application essays. Their answers may prove surprising.

It all begins with authenticity. Virtually all the representatives said the same thing: Students shouldn’t write something they think colleges would want to see if that does not truly represent them.

Lisa Anthony, the representative of the University of Rochester, went so far as to warn potential applicants, saying, “We have a good BS meter. So don’t try to be things you’re not” when writing the essay. She continued to say that students should “keep to their own personalities.”

Aylin Krieger, the representative of Jacobs University, echoed these views, saying, “You notice if a student has copy-pasted what they think universities want to hear,” because these misguided attempts lack individual “personality.”

Ivar Moller, representative of the University of St. Andrews, was even more specific, saying that copying styles would be meaningless: “Each essay should be specific to a person’s true selves and knowledge.”

Students should also keep in mind that colleges look to see if essays are backed up by the facts in the rest of the application. James Quill, representative of Wabash College said, “For example, if a student writes about community engagement, and how that was a big part of their lives and was very important to them, and we look at their application and see that they only did it for one hour a week for one year, that won’t reflect well.”

University representatives also stressed that students’ essays should be related to their major and their interest in it. This was especially important to representatives of institutions outside the United States.

“We want to see your ambition and purpose in choosing your program,” said Neharika Kataria, representative of the University of Victoria. “We want to see your interest in it.”

Moller even quantified this factor, saying, “Seventy-five percent of your essay should be about the major you’re applying for, with all the extra things like personality and the depth and breadth of your knowledge and reading in the remaining 25 percent.” He also said that essays should demonstrate “genuine passion for your chosen subject.”

Even the basics, like vocabulary choices, diction, and grammar are important, according to the representatives. In this regard, Moller said personal essays should be written in a “professional style” that is “articulate and grammatically sound, and have no colloquial terms, smiley faces or the like.”

While keeping all this in mind, the consensus from the college representatives we spoke to, and the major factor they said they looked for, was that the personal essay should illuminate something about the applicant that isn’t readily apparent in the rest of the application.

“We want to see something that will help us remember you, something we don’t see in the other sections of your application,” Quill said. “I remember some essays just because they were interesting. For example, there was this one essay I got from a Pakistani applicant. He talked about how the white in the Pakistani flag represents non-Muslims in Pakistan, how that founding value was at threat, and how that tied into his inspiration for doing volunteer work. It was interesting, I learned something, and that helped me remember him. We’re looking for something like that.”

Other representatives elaborated on this idea in greater detail. Natarika Kataria, the representative of the University of Victoria, said, “You should highlight your motivation, and why you want to come to a university.”

Julie Chiu, the representative of the University of Southern California, went deeper, saying, “A student’s essay should reveal something inherent about themselves that we won’t see otherwise. Show us rather than tell us about your character. You don’t need to write an autobiography, but it should be reflective about yourselves.”

It’s like Hafeez Lakhani of Lakhani Coaching (a college application coaching agency) once summed up for the New York Times: “Every college is like a dinner table. What will make you the most interesting contributor to that dinner table conversation? What will make you help everyone else have a more interesting experience?”

All this might seem like heavy stuff which is guaranteed to cause further anxiety for seniors, who are already overwhelmed with coursework and in constant panic mode about applications and this dreaded essay. But this is where looking deep inside – a cliché that exists for a reason – should help determine a path forward. Every student in the senior class has come a long way to a point that might have been improbable or even inconceivable not too long ago. Let’s not get daunted at these final steps, and help each other get there together.

Photo by Ryan Bajaj

Edited by Ryan Bajaj

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