Tell One Great Story; Share a Personal Experience in College Admissions Essay

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 25, 2009 | Go to article overview

Tell One Great Story; Share a Personal Experience in College Admissions Essay


Byline: Karen Goldberg Goff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

For college admissions staffers, fall means stacks of application essays - how I overcame adversity, how I won the big game, how I traveled the world, captained the debate team and am a friend to all. The essays (or personal statements at some schools) are chock full of SAT words, chosen to show the prospective applicants' smarts and charm while highlighting his achievements, even in a world of achievers.

That's a perfect example of what not to do, says Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, a New York admissions essay consultant and author of the book Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day.

There is a lot of mythology out there about what makes a good essay, Ms. Wissner-Gross says. You shouldn't try to abridge your life into 500 words. Just tell one great story.

But for today's highly competitive high schoolers, narrowing down considerable achievements and experiences to one tale is the tricky part, she says. The experience that might get the attention of the admissions department might not necessarily be an academic one, she says.

I tell kids, 'Illustrate who you are or what you want to achieve.'"

Ms. Wissner-Gross says applicants should not only think outside the box, they should think outside of school. For ideas, she tells them to look at what they have done at jobs, in the arts, for charity and as an act of compassion.

Bev Taylor, founder of the Ivy Coach, a New York-based college admissions consulting firm, says applicants should never repeat in their essay what is already on their application.

In your essay, you don't need to prove that you are a member of every club, Ms. Taylor says. First of all, if you are applying to a competitive school, everyone is a member of the National Honor Society. Mentioning it isn't going to get you anywhere. The best essays seemingly have insight. The writer should show, not tell. This is the only thing that is not objective on your application. Everything else is courses and grades.

One essay, written several years ago, sticks out in Ms. Taylor's mind as a good example of such insight. The student wrote about a rubber-band ball she and her father had made. They collected the rubber bands that came with their groceries and other mundane things. Eventually, the student relied on her special brainiac rubber bands to bring her good luck on tests. She shared the ball with her friends, and came to see it as a symbol of her relationship with them and with her father.

Here's how we know it was a great essay, Ms. Taylor said. The girl applied to Williams College. She was accepted early, and the dean of admissions wrote her a personal note and sent her a rubber band for her collection.

Ms. Wissner-Gross says her favorite essay was by a student who wrote about how she made the best ice cream sundaes.

Ms. Wissner-Gross says there are some other big don'ts to remember:

* Don't say anything bad about your parents or otherwise complain. …

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