Admissions Officer Advice: Making Your Essays Shine
Worried about writing your college essays? We’re here for you! Join CollegeAdvisor.com as Aya Waller-Bey presents “Admissions Officer Advice: Making Your Essays Shine”, a 60-minute webinar and Q&A. Aya will share inside scoop on how to approach, write, and edit your college essays to stand out in the college admissions process. Come ready to learn and bring your questions!
2022-08-17- Admissions Officer Advice: Making Your Essays Shine
Hey everyone. My name is Juliana Furigay and I’m your moderator today along with my coordinator, Katie Chiou, um, welcome to Admissions Officer Advice: Making Your Essays Shine. So to orient everyone with the webinar timing, we’re going to start off with a presentation. Then answer your questions in a live Q&A.
And on the sidebar, you can download our slides and you can also start submitting questions in that Q&A tab. Now let’s meet our panel. Good evening or hello everyone. I’m not sure what time zones we’re all in. I am Aya Waller-Bey and I’m a former Admissions Officer from Georgetown University. I also work with CollegeAdvisor as an Admissions Officer.
Um, and I have been in the college admissions college guidance space for now over eight years. Started my career at Georgetown. Um, and then did various independent consulting. Um, I got my master’s at the University of Cambridge in England, and I’m currently getting my PhD in Sociology at the University of Michigan, where I also studied college admissions and particularly the college admissions essay.
So I’m super excited to be with you all tonight. And I look forward to answering your questions. Great. Thanks so much for the intro Aya. Um, so right now we’re gonna do a poll for our attendees tonight. So what grade are you all in? Um, and while we wait for those results to come in, I would love to ask you Aya, you know, what drew you to higher education and college advising?
That’s a great question. Um, Yeah, I have always been a, a people person and most college admissions officers or people who worked in college admissions will say there is not a particular route. There isn’t anything you study per se. You can study history, you can study business, um, and go into to college admissions and college advising. Um, but for me, my first job out of college was working as an admissions officer at my alma mater, which is Georgetown University. And being able to tell the story of the university directly interact with students and parents, um, helped students navigate a very critical process with something that I fell in love doing, not to mention the travel, being able to meet students in various places across the country, which is something I really enjoyed.
So now it’s just a part of. My, my kind of my story. And again, I also get to research it, which is something I enjoy doing. So it just kind of happened and it’s one of the, the best decisions I’ve ever made. That’s so great to hear. Um, so the poll results are in now. It looks like 7% are in 10th grade, 29% in 11th grade and 63% in 12th grade. So we have a lot of seniors out here tonight. Um, and going back to the presentation.
Awesome. So, um, hello again. Um, so we, I, I wanna start first with kind of discussing what essays that students have to write for the college application. So there’s one kind of major essay that we often hear about, and that is the college personal statement. So now that essay is the one that you’ll submit to various institutions.
You often will write one particular essay, um, that you will use when you apply on the Common Application or the Coalition Application, or for our students applying to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, they, they have their own application portal. So that’s that one essay. Where you submit to various institutions, highlighting your student voice, your writing skills, and again, revealing depth in adding context to the application.
Um, so that’s a college personal statement, and again, some students will only submit one, um, personal statement to various in multiple institutions using multiple kind of, um, application portals. And then you have supplemental essays. So not all schools require or have supplemental essays and it’s overall the, some of the more selective institutions will have these additional essays.
Now, supplemental essays range widely. It could be something as simple as create a list of your favorite books. It can be write a letter to your roommate. It could be why “insert institution name.” So supplemental essays vary widely, but they are additional essays that invite students to write about a variety of topics often using school specific prompts.
So, um, they’re only required by some colleges, universities, so not all, um, universities have them. and then finally this is less common, but there’s a scholarship essay. So some colleges may require students to also write an additional essay for funding. Um, again, this is less common as because the institutions that do allow students to receive merit scholarships often though use.
Previous kind of material submitted to determine that, um, however, there might be an additional essay. Um, you’ll have to write, um, to say, why should you get this scholarship? Why you’ll be a good fit? Why has your academic excellence and background make you eligible for said scholarship? But again, that is less common primarily.
Um, students are working on that college personal statement and supplemental essays. However, the, the, I think the purpose of this conversation, we’re gonna focus primarily on a college personal statement. but feel free to ask additional questions about those, uh, additional essays as well.
Right. So what is the significance of the college essay? So. As I mentioned earlier in my introduction, I’m currently, uh, studying college personal statements. And in my research, I, I actually get to interview college admissions officers from private universities all across the country. And a question that I often ask them is what is the significance of the college essay and overwhelmingly admissions officer said that it is one of the only pieces of the application where admissions officers and universities get to hear directly from student.
Okay. So it’s a few opportunities in the college application that they get to hear your story, hear your voice. Um, it is something you are writing and submitting. It is not a letter recommendation from a counselor. It’s not a transcript, which is kind of predetermined and fixed. It’s not a standardized test score.
It is something written from you and about you ideally, right? Some schools do allow or require interviews. So that is another human and personal element. But the, the personal statement, which is more common is one of the few things, um, opportunities for students to speak directly to the admissions officers.
Again, it provides also an opportunity to talk about your story, your experiences, your backgrounds. In your own words and not through the words of teachers or counselors. And it also adds qualitative information to your application, right? So you have these various standardized tests. You have the grades, you have these numbers, these quantitative, sometimes fixed metrics that universities sometimes use to evaluate.
And then you have this beautiful qualitative opportunity. Again, to talk more about who you are and what you hope to bring to their various university.
Now. Okay. Now this is important. So what factors make for a great essay and how can students stand out? So overwhelmingly when I speak to students or when students reach out to me, they wonder how they can stand out in a essay. So. A great college essay at, at minimum, right. Presents information and ideas in a very thoughtful and focused manner.
Right? So you want to make sure that there’s cohesion, that you’re not talking about 1,001 things. Um, and granted, there are very interesting creative styles. And we’ll talk a little bit about this, you know, later where students do vignettes, but all overall, you want to make sure there’s a cohesive story.
You also wanna use specific concrete examples to convey your points, focusing on examples on the present in your past. So you want to be specific, right? You don’t wanna talk so abstract. So high level that admissions officer walks away not knowing where you were headed, where you were talking about, even if you’re being creative.
And again, we’ll talk more about that later. You wanna tell Admissions Officers about yourself. You wanna talk about your personal triumphs. You wanna talk about challenges or leadership opportunities and experiences outside of the classroom. And that’s a really good point. Um, some students say, Hey, I know I wanna study biology.
I know I wanna be a doctor. So I’m gonna write this statement about like my love for science while that’s really important. That you have a love for science, especially if you’re interested in medicine, you also want to show, um, depth and complexity, uh, in your application. So you do wanna kind of diversify the types of experiences you’re talking about.
So it’s an opportunity for you. The personal statement is rather to talk about experiences that occur outside the classroom. And of course you want to have good use of grammar. That’s a, a no brainer.
So again, additional things for, you know, how do we ensure that there’s a, a, a strong essay. So you wanna ensure that the essay answers the question . So that’s also very important. So the Common Application, which is the most popular kind of college application platform, We’ll have seven, um, essay topics, and one of them is also choose your own topic.
So you have that, but specifically for the supplements, you want to make sure you’re answering the question. So that makes a really good essay. Again, you want to effectively describe how the experiences you talk about led to some personal growth or understanding whether it’s maturity or open-mindedness, it’s not, um, Really important that you not only talk about what happened to you, but you also need to talk about what you learned, what you gained, how will that contribute to the person you have become, or are becoming, you also want to ensure that it reflects your voice.
Now, this is really important, right? Because so often our essays have so many touchpoints. So we have teachers, we have counselors, we have advisors, we have parents, we have independent counselors, et cetera, who might want to read our. That’s great. You want to make sure that it’s free of grammatical errors and typos, right.
But it should not sound like I wrote it as a fifth year PhD candidate, right. It should not sound like a college professor wrote it. So we want to hear your student voice. And again, as I, I said earlier, you want to use specific concrete examples to compare your points whenever possible.
So what are some common mistakes to avoid in college essays? Okay. So first writing essays that focus on other people. Now this is important folks. So, so often, um, you know, we’ve lived in, we live with various family members. We have various touchpoints with teachers and friends that have impacted and influence our lives.
However, when you are writing an essay, it needs to talk about your story. So you don’t, even, if you want to talk about an, the impact of a grandparent or someone, you just, you want to make sure that you are still centered in that. Story. Right. So make sure the story is about you don’t spend so much time writing about grandma when, and, and the initials officer walks away saying, I wanna admit grandma, I’ve learned so much about how wonderful grandma is.
I want to admit her, right? We want to admit you, um, secondly, writing essays about overly common or controversial topics. This might be controversial to say, but admissions officers, the sport injury essay we read so often that when a student has just another idea, we’re like, please. Please choose that other idea.
Right? So the sport injury is something admissions officers read a thousand times, um, winning the, the winning touchdown, the winning shot read a lot also, um, the death of a loved one as a, as a, a story, a narrative that we often hear. Um, and again, these can be done and, and. In a creative way, but we’ve, we’ve seen a lot of versions of it.
So I just always encourage students to think about other alternatives, other options when writing the essay. Also, I forgot to mention the mission trip. That’s another popular one as well. And you have to be careful with that type of narrative. Um, you, you don’t wanna kind of have the savior. Like I went to this poor place, save the people, and now I’ve learned that I’m privileged.
That’s also a type of, um, narrative you wanna avoid whenever. I mentioned writing essays, like, like they were like, you were a college professor, right? You wanted them to be well written, but it should be clear that it’s coming from a 16, 17 or 18 year old student. Um, we, we have a really popular thing.
That’s uh, and when we’re reviewing essays that say show don’t tell, so, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that later. The personal statement is often submitted to various institutions. So. You don’t want to name, drop a university, um, in your personal statement, just to submit it to 10 other schools, because once they read that name, they’re gonna be like, huh?
Okay. That person didn’t carefully review this essay. They clearly want to go to this particular institution. So you really wanna be careful about that. Also overly using. So, so we know that, you know, students wanna creatively talk about their experiences. They wanna show a heightened vocabulary.
However, when we see words just thrown in that don’t really fit the context or just seem so convoluted. Um, it, it makes us kind of second guess. So you want to. Use words that would creatively kind of explain your point, but you don’t have to overly use at the source. Um, if you were like me, uh, and you’re very verbal, um, sometimes your sentences can be really long.
So you want to make sure that they’re simplified, um, and not, you know, one sentence should be. A paragraph and then whenever possible avoid kind of passive voice, which is a, a writing kind of exercise that a lot of students have to kind of unlearn. I, I myself have, have to unlearn it when I write, but you want to show action.
You wanna show you’re in the moment. So whenever possible, avoid, um, writing and passive voice.
So, so again, so how can students write creatively about themselves while still being clear and concise? So this is all about balance. Okay. So you, again, you wanna use specific concrete examples as discussed earlier, and you want to limit flowering abstract language that does not communicate substantive meaning.
Right. So I think sometimes students, we, because the college personal statement is a personal statement. So it’s a very different pro than a, the five paragraphs standard English. Writing assignment you may have. So some students say, okay, if it’s not that I’m gonna go completely out the box. So often that, you know, admission officers kind of get lost because it’s so it’s so abstract in the cloud.
So you do want to make sure that you’re communicating, um, clearly, like what exactly is happening. Um, I think one creative way that I see are students incorporating elements of culture, including language. Or expressions that reflect distinct culture experiences. I think those essays are always fun. You know, um, if you, you know, if you grow up in a, a community where most people speak Spanish, so you integrate elements of, you know, Spanish, that makes sense in the context I’ve seen that done incredibly well, you know, elements, types of foods that you eat, um, within your.
Household that have shaped you and your culture and your identity. So, you know, you, I think there’s ways to really in invoke creativity, um, that center self that just doesn’t get lost in the clouds. And then whenever possible, try to define, you know, less well known terms or expressions in your essay.
Again. Um, if you are really passionate about something, you will probably position yourself as an expert. So it’s gonna be really important that. You kind of explain those niche ideas to people because we won’t know what that very specific robotics term is. I wouldn’t know that. Right. So you also want to make sure that when you’re talking about things you’re passionate about that you’re also explaining and provided some context to those less or, uh, less well known terms or expressions.
Great. Thank you so much. That was all super helpful information. Um, so I do wanna release a poll to our attendees tonight. Just wondering where is everyone in the application process? Um, and I would love to ask you, I, in the meantime, you know, what does it feel to be in the room? Um, while college, um, admissions decisions are being made?
Like, I think it’s something that’s just sod to all of us. Like, even as myself, I’m a college student, I, I don’t know how it feels to be in the room. Um, what kind. Discourse is being made. Would love to hear about that? Yeah, that’s a great question because so many universities have different policies. So, um, in some institutions there is a, a sole admissions officer making the decision.
Um, and then some universities have, um, kind of peer, uh, review processes. I will review it once and then you will review it the next time and then we’ll talk about it. And then we have a committee model. So my former institution, we kind of have a version of all three. And I think of those rooms when you had the conversations, you know, I think.
I would say that oftentimes universities are looking for reasons to omit students. Right? So, um, it, it’s always interesting when you have an admissions officer who like falls in love with an applicant and is fighting for them, you know, like I want Juliana to be here. This is an exceptional student and seeing how they have to kind of negotiate that, um, The first few times I did it, it was difficult because I was so personally invested in every student I wanted everybody to get in.
And then I realized that actually it’s not how the, how it works. Um, but I, I do think that, um, a lot, what students often don’t realize that you often actually have advocates on the inside kind of advocating for you, which I think is a beautiful, uh, way to think about it. And that’s not something I thought about when I applied to.
Yeah, no, I love that framing of it. Thanks for sharing. Um, so the poll results are in, looks like 18%. Haven’t started yet 37% are researching schools. 28% are working on their essays and 15% are getting their application materials together. Um, so kind of a mix there, um, and going back to the presentation.
Awesome. So I talked a little bit about this earlier, but in asking how can students edit their essays effectively? There are a few things to think about. So first, uh, one of the features that I really like is the, the read aloud feature or Microsoft Word where, you know, I write an essay or in my context, I write my, a chapter in my dissertation.
And I press that button and it allows the text to just read to me. And one of the reasons why that is so important, because you can spell every word correctly, right? However, it could be the wrong word in the context. And an example I really like to use is, and this is why a proofread is so important is, you know, someone writing an essay about you.
They say, I enjoy torturing animals. I have volunteered torturing animals at a local shelter since eighth grade. And the experience has solidified my desire to become a veterinarian. Right. I don’t think this person really enjoys torturing animals. And if they do, they should not be writing about that in a college personal statement.
Cause the red flags will certainly go off for that. But if it’s, you know, if they meant training animals, Or treating animals yet the word torturing just came up. Right? So you see it’s spelled correctly, but it is not being used in the correct context. And it completely changes the essay and the story that they’re trying to communicate.
Right. So proofreading is critical. Um, I also encourage, and again, I do this in my own, writing that after finishing a draft, I take 24 hours before re reviewing it again. When you are so immersed and invested in your own writing, it’s sometimes hard. Pull yourself out of it. And you know what you tried to say?
So you read it that way. So they probably read tour training. It was like, I know, I mean training. Right. But they just, if you’re so immersed, it’s hard to see out of it. So I always encourage people close the laptop, walk away from it. If, if you can’t take 24 hours, unless you’re procrastinating, you don’t procrastinate.
But if you are procrastinating, you know, take some time apart. Um, so you can then see it with fresh eyes. And then of course, have a teacher counselor or someone you trust, review this statement, right? So the person’s statement is personal. So if it is something that you feel like you won’t feel you want, you know, as little eyes as possible to review it, you know, have a friend or someone you trust, take a look at it.
That’s a great way to get some more, so some additional support you do wanna be mindful of how much editing happens, right? Because as I mentioned earlier, the personal statement is your story in your own words. So it’s okay to tell someone, Hey, thank you so much for your feedback, you know, but this essay is, is not me anymore.
And being able to say that is an important boundary as well. So you want someone else to look at it, but make sure at the end of the day, that is your voice and your story and your.
So what are essays that have stood out to you? Um, yeah, so I get this question a lot and it there’s essays. Students have such diverse experiences. It’s hard to like pinpoint, um, essays that will be applicable to a broad audience. Uh, here, I kind of, I provide like overall gene kind of things of what. what I consider as you know, resonating, um, students reflecting about their ambition and growth.
You know, students highlighting their tenacity and essays that are painting colorful photos. Of the human experience and what I mean by that one is, you know, I had a student write about, um, working at Jimmy John’s, right? So a, a job, um, you know, at Jimmy John’s the sandwich place, but talked about the various interaction that they had with like diverse customers through the drive through window, behind the counter.
What that meant, right. To have these interactions, what they learned about themselves, what they learned about others, what they learned about the world through making these sandwiches through these interpersonal, uh, interactions. So when you have students who, um, talk about mundane experiences, as I like to say, but they still cut, you know, paint a colorful picture of the human experience.
We also, I also had a student once. Wrote about, um, actually being in like a therapy center, uh, because of some health issues and having parents kind of bring in food from their cultural background. So this student was Ethiopian and like what it meant for her to unwrap this food that had this pungent, distinct cultural smell that she loved, but that she was embarrassed by it because.
Not a normalized in the space she was in. Right. So having to come to grips of like, what does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to have this distinct culture and how, how one, you know, ultimately can be proud of being both. So those types of stories are the ones that, that, that stand out, right?
Those are stories that only those students can write. And I think the, those stories are often, um, you remember them years after you’ve read.
Alrighty. So, uh, we’re nearing the, the end again of, of the presentation. And we just have some kind of final tips that I want you all to think about. Um, so I said this earlier, Um, you really wanna show and not just tell an admissions officer what happened, right. So you wanna show us, paint the picture for us.
We’re not there. So let us, you know, welcome us, invite us into the scene. Right. So instead of, you know, I learned a lot volunteering at the Cleveland animal shelter, which is. Which is great. You know, you can try while feeding the sick puppies with the other shelter volunteers. I learned the importance of teamwork and compassion, right.
Um, so already kind of saying like what the act, what was happening, how did you learn is not only, you know, what you learned, but how did you learn it through what actions? Right. So showing us that is incredibly important. So when in doubt show, don’t. Share lessons learned again, very important, right? So even if you write a beautiful, thoughtful passion essay about something you overcame a particular struggle, some personal trauma, if you do not kind of, uh, also indicate lessons learned how you grown from it, how that then affects the person you are, the person you hope to feed the person you are becoming, it falls, falls a little short.
So you want to share. How you’ve, how, what you’ve learned and experienced has informed your future and the type of student you’ll be in college. Okay. And it doesn’t mean it has to relate exactly to your major. Again, a personal statement is it’s a personal one, so you’ve already indicated your, your desire to major in government.
You’ve already shared that you’ve already showed that through your extracurricular activities. Um, so the personal statement, again, show depth, uh, about your identity and your back. Proof read, right. Again, I, I mention it, use the read aloud feature on Microsoft word to capture correctly, spell words use in the wrong way or the wrong context.
That’s incredibly important, you know, walk away for 24 hours before you open that computer. Um, up again. And also I don’t have this list to hear, but your first draft is not gonna be what you submit. To you know, the college is the university that you’re applying. Okay. Your first draft is your first draft and it’s okay.
If it’s a rough first draft, the process of writing a college personal statement is very iterative. You know, students write 2, 3, 4, 5 drafts. I don’t want you to lose sleep over the essay, but just know that the first one you write won’t be the final essay. And that is okay. It’s a part of the process.
that’s why it’s important to start early and then tell your story again. You want to write about your experience. In your experiences and not someone else’s. Okay. Talk about you. Even if you mention how much you love grandpa. Cause I loved my Papa. Um, the essay should center you, right? You, the college is not looking to omit your Papa or maybe they are, but you are writing because you want to be admitted.
Okay. So it’s important that your story reflects you and doesn’t focus solely on the student. You mentor. The the, the students and from your, you know, your church camp, um, the mission trip students, like you want to tell those experiences or show those experiences, but at the end of the day, the story should be about you.
Thank you so much. Um, so that’s actually the end of the presentation part of the webinar. I hope you found this information to be helpful. And also remember that you can download the slides from the link in the handouts tab as well. Um, so moving on to the live Q&A section here, Katie and I are going to.
Switch off asking questions. So definitely feel free to submit those questions in the Q&A tab. Um, as a heads up, if your Q&A tab, isn’t letting you submit questions, uh, just be sure that you join the webinar through the custom link in your email and not from the webinar landing page. Um, so I guess I can start off here.
Um, the first question some students are wondering, you know, when should you start writing your college essays? Is there a recommended general timeline to follow.
Yes. So, I mean, I, I think students should start writing their college personal statements, um, if they are so the summer between their junior and senior year, um, I think starting in July or August is it’s really great. I mean, starting earlier really helps. Um, one thing to keep in mind is if you are applying to universities through the Common Application, the common app often kind of.
What’s the word update their portal at the end of July, early August. So sometimes students will want to just wait for that, but I think you can start, you know, in, in July the summer, you know, I, I think that’s a great way to just get the ball rolling again. That would be your first draft, but even just getting those thoughts from your head until the piece of paper is really great, because if you are applying early action or early decision and you’re, you know, there’s that no, November 1st deadline, you don’t want to be, you.
On Halloween, you know, editing essays. So the just, you know, next thing you know, the computer goes down and the wifi ends and et cetera. So I think the earlier the better, um, but I would, I, I encourage students to start around the July period, um, because you also don’t wanna start too early and, and miss out perhaps on experiences you might ultimately wanna write about.
So I think in the July, August, um, space is a good place to start also, if you haven’t started yet, that’s okay too. You can brainstorm some ideas.
Okay, our next question. So I said that a lot of our students are asking about an essay that asks about unique opportunities and challenges throughout their high school years and how they shaped them to who they are. Um, and kind of asking what is on the borderline of two personal or not personal enough.
And. So answering that. That’s a great question. So great job to whoever, um, asked that question. And also, I, I kind of studied this particular thing, actually. So, um, so a personal statement again is personal. So I often encourage students to think about not only what they plan to put on the page, but also who might read.
Once they submit it, right? Because once you submit an essay, it goes to an admissions officer. Often you don’t know who that exact person is. It might go to a committee, it might go to a Dean. It might go to a summer bridge program that the university has. So you want to realize that you are not the only person who is going to be reading that.
So. I think that’s something to keep in mind as far as too personal. I mean, one thing colleges and universities are not only assessing, you know, beyond grammar and, and fit and et cetera. They also want to make sure that they can provide the support to the student, right. Once they’re on campus, right. They don’t wanna admit a student that they think will fail.
So when it comes to, um, issues. Some students, uh, I know mental health is a really popular topic and I think college and universities now have gotten a lot more sophisticated in the type of support that they provide students. But, um, you want to make sure that when you are talking about a challenge, that there is some type of indication that you have, you are getting the support that you need, um, that you.
You are kind of, um, on the other side, as you kind of navigate that, you’re learning how to cope with that issue because again, colleges and universities, if they feel like they cannot offer the support that you need, they may be, um, discouraged from emitting a student. Right. So there’s so if, if it’s. So kind of complicated.
If there’s a situation where taking you out from your environment in Alabama may actually do more harm than good. They actually may consider that admitting you may not be the best option for the student. So I tell students again, it’s your story. So write whatever you feel most comfortable with, but remember that you are not the only person reading that.
That once you submit it, it goes to an individual or a committee that may also read that essay and determine the type of support you may or might, may not need. And ultimately, if they feel that they cannot offer you the support that you might need, that they may, uh, not omit you because they, they want you to succeed and may not feel like you leaving your current environment is the best case scenario.
So I. And this is, uh, quite personal, but I think it, it’s very difficult for admissions officers, um, to read as cuz we’re humans and people to read, um, a lot, you know, about violence, uh, physical violence, sexual violence. Those are very difficult things to read right as admissions officers and as professionals as humans.
Um, but we, we have students write about it. So again, I just think it’s important to say, what do I feel comfortable sharing? Why am I sharing this particular story? What do I want you to learn from this particular story? And will I be comfortable if this story was read by a committee of people who who’ve never met me before?
So I think those are things to consider when writing, um, personal statements. Great. Thank you. Um, so I’m looking in the Q&A tab right now, and it looks like a lot of students are wondering about the actual structure of the essay. So I know you talked about having like a unique essay topic, but some students are wondering, can you differentiate yourself in the structure of your essay, for example, writing as if it’s like poetry pros or in the form of conversation or incorporating quotes in there.
Um, so any general advice or insights. You know, I personally love a good quote um, but that’s a personal, um, you know, preference. Um, so one thing I encourage, um, students to avoid are cliches, right? So you can, you can start an essay there. So firstly, there’s no format, right? You could, there’s no kind of rule of thumb as far.
How to start the essay per se. Um, I think one thing to remind yourself is you don’t want to start off with a cliche. So no matter what it is, so starting off with life is like a box of chocolate. We’ve we know that means we’ve heard it before. We’ve read it before I would, I would discourage you from using cliches to open.
And that’s with, you know, anything, I think, um, essays that start off with kind of broadly explaining experience and you’re like, wait, what’s going on? Um, the, the, the essay I mentioned earlier where the student was talking about the smell of like the Ethiopian food, she starts in a way where you’re like, you don’t know exactly where she is or where she’s talking about.
And then, you know, the third sentence she says, you know, from the bed of my treatment center. And you’re like, wow, okay. And then I think a good rule of. If you start with a story in the intro, you should revisit that story in the conclusion. There though, there needs to be a tie between the intro and the conclusion.
I think those essays often do a great job. Um, as far as telling, painting a picture in a story, now you can use quotes. Um, you can use song lyrics. I’ve I’ve, I’ve seen that you can use. Um, I’m, I’m personally, I’m less of a fan of like the recipe format of the essay, so that that’s the students and say I’m one scoop of charisma.
I’m two cups of tenacity. Um, I’m a teaspoon of, you know, Passion. And then that makes me IA, I’m usually not a fan of that. Right. Um, and that was some that was also a common type of essay. And again, I don’t think that often communicated, um, what students were really trying to get at. So I I’m, I’m personally not a fan of that and that, and some of my colleagues, I, I think, would share that opinion as well.
But again, I think. Writing and creative pros is fine. Again, I’ve seen people use, you know, quotes from like cultural that they’ve translated. I’ve seen people use different languages inserted in there when they’re talking to their, their Tia or, you know, other people. Uh, so I think that’s fine. Uh, but I will say.
You want, whatever the, if you start with the narrative in the intro, I think revisiting that narrative in the conclusion is really important. If you start with a quote, maybe revisiting that quote is a great way to tie it up a little bit and also making sure you express like lessons learned. And it doesn’t have to be, I learned X, but like showing that there was growth, there was some triumph.
Um, some lessons learned, some values learned. I think that’s incredibly.
thank you for that really thoughtful answer. Um, so the next question is what are some common prompts that are given by colleges for essays and what are some ways that you think a student should approach answering the prompt? Should they look at the prompt first and answer to the prompt or write an essay first and then have the prompt follow?
So, I mean, so there, there are different types of essays, so. The most common prompts I will say are the prompts used? I, I don’t know if I, if I could say matter of factly, the majority of universities, but a lot of universities are on the Common Application, the common app and the common app has essay prompts that they use.
And they’re usually about the same every year. They may make slight modifications on them, but they’re seven. That they’re commonly used and I, I just pulled them up. So I’m gonna refer to my, my notes here, but you know, a, a topic or question could be, you know, some students have an identity or a background.
That’s interesting, you know, that’s meaningful. Please tell your story. Common prompt, um, reflect on a time when you were questioned or challenged, you know, what prompted you thinking? What you’re thinking well was the outcome. Um, it could be shared essay of your choice, a topic of your choice. So those are common app, um, essay questions.
And again, there’s seven of those, which a lot of universities, even if they have their own admissions portal, they pool those questions. So I encourage you to look at the prompt first, then write your, um, Write your essay. And again, there is always the option, which is option number seven, to share an essay on a topic of your choice.
So if you do feel like your essay does not respond neatly to any of the other six prompts, you can. You know, just write something that’s really passionate that you’re passionate about. And then just use set question number seven. Cause I actually think I did that when I applied to colleges now supplemental essays, right.
They very so wily. So I would encourage you to look at the universities that you’re applying to, to see what, um, you know, essay prompts that they have, uh, for I’m working with a student who is applying to Dartmouth and they have three supplemental essays and one is. Be yourself, Oscar wilds advise everyone else is taken.
And it says, introduce yourself in 200 to 250. That’s their supplemental essay prompt. So it varies widely, especially on supplemental essays. I mean, they are, universities have really gotten really creative. If you were a broom, what kind of broom you would be? I mean, they’re really random. So you do wanna make sure that you are checking the supplemental essay prompts and that you are.
Responding to the question, because that is critical. Um, that’s what universities wanna make sure that you can follow instructions. Um, but as far as the other common app or the other personal statement prompts, I do encourage you to look at the seven prompts, choose one and, and write a, a, a story or response that reflects, um, that you, you are answering a specific question.
Great. Thank you so much. And kind of on that note, we have a lot of students here wondering about the supplemental essays. Um, so a lot of these prompts will only give you, like you said, like 200 words to respond. So just wondering how can you stand out with such limited, uh, word count? Um, and is it okay to kind of reuse these supplements and change out the college name?
Um, so any advice you have that would be appreciated? Yes. Unless it. Unless a supplemental essay says why I’ll use my Alma mater. Why do you wanna go to Georgetown? Um, you should reuse your supplemental essays. You should definitely, um, think about how you can retailer retool essays to that will respond to very other universities on your school list.
I strongly encourage you to do that. Um, that’s, that’s something we do when we work with students. That’s something I’ve done in the past, so yes, that’s that’s okay. I also will say, um, How can you stand out for the supplemental essays? You really wanna answer the question. I mean, that is the priority. If it, if it says, introduce yourself in 200 words, using Oscar wild quote, what makes you, you say what makes you you, right.
So it, it could be your favorite food. What you enjoyed doing, how you raised your background, where you grew up, maybe you traveled a lot. Maybe you were raised in Alaska. Maybe you raised on a farm, whatever, but just answer the question. I think for supplemental essays. The prompts themselves are creative.
I think the priority, it should be making sure that you are addressing the points that they they ask. And again, when it’s the why, and this is a, the why Georgetown, the why insert institution essay. That is one where you need to do a little bit more research because it needs to be tailored to the university.
It shouldn’t just be things you found online. Um, if you, you know, when in doubt, I always encourage students to go on the, the website. Um, see if there, there are students they can talk to. Um, I’ve had people message me on social media to ask about my experience at Georgetown, despite me graduating a very long time ago now.
Um, so you really want to tailor those why essays, um, to the universities. If you can find faculty. Um, who are teaching courses and subjects that you would like to, um, uh, take that’s important if there are fun traditions that you’ve heard about, um, through a sibling or a classmate or friend, I think, including those.
So those you do want to tailor to the specific institution and you do want to make sure you’ve, you’ve done your homework. Um, but yeah. So in conclusion, yes, retailer reuse the supplemental essays tailor you. Of course be intentional with that, especially for the broad essays. Do that. Secondly, you do, um, You want to prioritize answering the question?
Right. So I know creativity is like a, no answer. The question for the supplemental essays. That’s my, my number one rule. And then third, you want to do your research for the Y essay and use all that you have available, whether it’s social media, the, everybody now has TikTok page, all the university of TikTok pages and everything.
Utilize those look at course lists, look at who’s teaching what and incorporate, um, those types of details into that why.
Okay. Um, so the next question I have to ask is how do you write a good essay without sounding too cocky or too intellectual or too pretentious, particularly if you are trying to speak well of yourself.
That’s a, that’s an interesting question. I think. Well, I think a lot of people would say they actually struggle with writing about themselves, which is always interesting. Um, I do think, um, with the college personal statement that it is complimenting so many other things you’ve, that’s already presented in the application and you are trying to make a good case for yourself, right?
So there is a part of you that is selling. Parts of yourself because they don’t know you. Right. They only know what you’re going to tell them. So if you are an Olympian and you’ve won a gold medal, if you do not put that anywhere in your application, I won’t know that you’re an Olympian and gold medal list.
Right. So you do have to tell them. everything. Otherwise, admissions officers won’t know what you are and what you represent. So I think a way of doing that is just, I mean, just being honest, right? I, I don’t think, I don’t think it should be a, um, they don’t have your resume or for the universities who require resumes they’ll have your resume.
Right. So you don’t have to hash out everything on your resume, but the personal statement topics, give you an opportunity to talk about other parts of your, your life. Right? So. If you want to write a story about struggle and then Triumph tell that story. It’s okay to say I, I started freshman year, not, you know, not fitting in and understanding, you know, social cues.
And then by the time I was a junior, I was class president. That’s not bragging. That’s just showing your growth. Right. So I think I, I will be less afraid. Unless you’re doing a resume brag sheet, which I would discourage in a personal statement, but I’ll be less afraid about sounding too cocky. I would just be yourself.
And if you want to talk about growth and things, you accomplish do that again. We don’t know. Um, Anything, unless you tell us, right. Because your counselor may not write about it. If it’s not neatly in the extracurriculars, tell us about who you are. So it’s okay. And I, you know, I’m, I’m a little biased, but I like people, you know, be confident.
That’s okay. Own it. You’ve worked incredibly hard and you should be able to talk about it. So I, I think, I think you’ll be okay. Great. Um, and I do see that it’s almost 8:45 Eastern time right now. So I would love to do a little plug for CollegeAdvisor, uh, which Katie. So, yeah. So for those in the room who are not already working with us, we do know how overwhelming the admissions process can be.
Um, so we have a team of over 300 former admissions officers and admission experts who are ready to help you when your family navigated all in one, on one advising sessions. Um, so you can take the next step in that journey by signing up for a free. 45 to 60 minute strategy session with an admission specialist on our team using the QR code that’s on the screen.
So you can actually scan that with, um, a camera app on your phone or something simpler. Um, so during this meeting, we’ll actually be reviewing your current extracurricular list and application strategy and discuss how they light up with your college list and outline the tools that you need to stand out in a competitive admissions world.
Um, So while I give everyone a little bit of time to do that, I will say, like I previously worked as a specialist with CollegeAdvisor. The only reason I’m not doing that now is cuz I’m a med student, but I did that for the past. Like, oh God, since the pandemic started three or so years, and it’s been really meaningful experience.
So I typically will follow my students from the time they start with me all the way through the college application process. We speak together about a lot of the things that I was talking about today in terms of how to really make your personal statement kind. Show your own voice and your own story.
Um, and so I know a lot of folks were asking about that in the Q&A as to like who to ask to review your essays. And that really can be family and friends. It can also be someone like me, um, who works with a lot of students around the country.
Perfect. Thank you so much, Katie. Um, and shifting back over to the Q&A, um, so we have a couple of students wondering, I know you talked about those like overdone topics, but some students are wondering about taboo topics as well. So would you say that it’s okay to talk about like religion, politics, mental health, anything in that realm?
Yeah. So if you would’ve asked me this question five years ago, I would have a different opinion. So I mentioned mental health earlier, um, because I think. Five years ago, even universities, um, didn’t have the understanding or the sophistication and the language to talk about mental health and how to support undergraduate students.
I think it’s far more common now that students are more, um, like honest and open about mental health and that’s current students and prospective students. So I think it’s okay to talk about mental health. Um, politics is an interesting one. So that was actually on a slide where I mentioned, you know, it was a part of the overly, um, Kind of common topics.
Politics is tricky. So I think it’s okay. Again, I went to a school in DC. Everybody wants to be president or an ambassador, you know, so it’s, it’s the nation’s capital. So students will talk about, you know, their favorite president or a policy that was important to them or a policy that is negatively impacted people in communities.
They’re a part of, however, when you make, um, specific claims about political affiliation, you do wanna be careful because you don’t know who’s reading your. And you don’t know what their affiliations are, so you don’t wanna offend, that’s the thing you don’t wanna offend the admissions officer, even by mistake.
Right. And again, and as much as we try to be objective in these processes, as much as you know, committees are a part of the missions process, there there’s a human on the other side that has emotions and feelings, um, and biases that they’re working through and unlearning as well. So that’s why politics is just a little tricky.
Um, when talking about, you know, Kind of specific, uh, political affiliations again. Now, if it frames, I, you know, these policies from this leader kind of negatively affected X, therefore I want to be a politician to do this. I think it could be framed in a way that makes sense. But you do wanna be careful about that.
Um, religion, um, I mean, some schools, again, I went to a Jesuit school. You have Catholic institutions, you have a lot of religiously affiliated universities. So speaking about religion is it’s not a problem. Uh, I haven’t seen. I think there are ways where religion. Could be talked about as part of our culture and identity.
So I I’ve see, I find, uh, religion actually less taboo, um, in, in my own professional experience. But again, I think just something to keep in mind is you don’t know who exactly who’s reading this. So you just wanna be careful not to, um, offend the admissions officer by attacking and identity that they, they hold proudly, but you, you just don’t know.
So. There’s ways to do all those topics carefully and thoughtfully, but you know, just something to keep in mind.
Awesome. Thank you. So the next question I have is, um, how much, or what kind of weight does an essay carry in the overall holistic application? I see a lot of folks asking about in reference, like test scores or grades. Yeah, that that’s great question. And it’s something I actually, um, I asked the admissions officer.
I interviewed for my research on a scale of one through five, where is the personal statement? And, uh, overwhelmingly they say three. Um, so five, um, being the most important. And that’s the transcript. So across the board, the high school transcript is the most important part of the college admissions application.
Period. Okay. So that, that will always be number five. Um, and then based on whether schools are testing optional, um, or adopting some of the other kind of testing policies, you know, Test scores can kind of float to two or four depending on how they feel. I, I just get three often and I I’ll say this, the essay oftentimes will not.
Uh, if a student already had a very competitive academic profile and they just seemed like a good fit, they were probably gonna get in, um, unless their essay was one sentence. Um, and then mention another university. There were, the essay usually would negatively affect. Um, I, so I’ve seen rare. What I’m trying to say is the, the most important thing is the transcript and, and, and the grades and your performance in a classroom.
The essay is there to supplement that rarely will as, uh, the essay alone, be the reason a student, and by rarely, almost, you know, 0.0, zero, zero, 0% chance that the essay is a sole reason. A student is admitted at a university. Okay. Because there’s so many other factors that universities are considering a essay could help an essay provides context.
A essay, um, could helps the, the, the vicious officers get to know you a little bit more. Um, an essay might show a side of you that they don’t see in another part. And I, it could help you for sure. It is it. I think it is there to help you provide qualitative information. um, however, is the essay ever the sole reason a student gets accepted?
Absolutely not. But when written re written, well, it can compliment a, a, a student’s application and help in the admissions decision in the admissions process.
Perfect. Thank you so much. Um, so we have some students wondering here, you know, Is there any essay that has ever really stood out to you because of the choice and topic? Um, any essay that comes to mind? Yeah. I mean, I talked a little bit about this earlier, cuz that that’s a fairly popular question. Um, yeah, and I mean, One of the, yeah, one of the essays.
And again, I, I referenced in earlier was a student who was, um, actually at a treatment center. They didn’t specify, uh, what type, but I think it was food related actually, whose mom came to visit her, um, to, to bring her food. Um, that was part of her particular culture. Um, and she kind of talked about the, how she had to navigate, um, You know, wanting to feel like an American, but also having these very distinct parts of her culture be you can smell it, you can see it.
It was like very specific. I don’t know if you were at Ethiopian food, but it’s very distinct, right. As a distinct smell, looking et cetera, and how embarrassed she was. Uh, and by the time she kinda left this center, um, she began to. Right. Um, and kind of embrace, what does it mean to be a part of these two cultures to be proud of our Ethiopia heritage, to be proud of the, the food, the way it smells, the way it looks, um, and how that.
Turn her kind of self confidence and understanding of self purpose. So again, that was just a creative way of, you know, and we’ll see that type of like, I was this, and now I’ve learned about my culture and experiences and how I appreciate it. But I think using food, it was very descriptive as far as like, I feel like I could smell the food just the way she described it.
She showed this contrast between the colorful food and the white walls and the, and the treatment center she was in. And I think using these various visual elements really helped to paint a really robust, um, story and.
All right. Next question. One of our students was asking many colleges ask about personal struggles or adversity. How do average students who haven’t run into extreme personal struggles set themselves away from the pack? That’s a really, that’s a really great question. Um, so I will say we all have personal struggles.
Um, I just think they look differently based on our own experiences or backgrounds. Um, and I mean, one thing we, we wanna make sure we don’t do is try to, you know, exaggerate, um, our, our stories and narratives. I mean, ultimately you could only tell the story that most aligns with your own background and identity.
Um, and unless the student, uh, The essay, uh, prompt is asking about trauma. I think that we all have stories where we had to overcome something. Now, BA as I said earlier in the presentation, I do discourage students saying, you know, we’re about to lose the game and I won the game. Winning shot. And I overcame losing the game like that.
I would try to , you know, those types of cliches went, I would try to avoid. Right. But there’s whether it was in the classroom, whether it was, um, running for an elected office in your school and wasn’t, uh, accepted, um, whether it was, you know, you, you try to, um, You applied for some opportunities and you didn’t get them.
I mean, I think there’s all the ways that we’ve had to overcome setbacks and failures. So I wouldn’t overthink it. I wouldn’t, I, I don’t think you need to create a grave story. I don’t think you had to have, you know, you know, Have had to have been homeless or affected by a natural disaster, if that was natural lived experience, do not fabricate do not exaggerate.
I mean, just tell the story that you can, you can tell. And I think we all have personal struggles. They look differently based on our backgrounds, but I think we all have a story to tell and I would just lean into that experience. Thanks so much. Um, and I do see that it’s 8:55 Eastern time right now. So I think the last question that we’re going to have time for tonight.
Um, so student is wondering here. Many of my peers have reciprocated feelings of fear toward tackling the college application process. Oftentimes the future seems scarier than it is. So, what would you say from the position of someone who’s passed that point and also from the other side, um, and how could you, how could students better deal with the mental challenges associated with the college application process?
Um, rather than like the actual process itself. That’s a really great question. Um, Person who asked that um, and I think it’s, it’s a really great one to, to address, particularly in a concluding point. I think part of the anxiety and the angst, um, that we, us students you experience is because we think, um, where we decide to apply and ultimately in, in college, um, We’ll like determine every step of our life.
And I, I don’t think that’s true. I think there, I think the college is just one kind of step on this longer journey called life. And I also think sometimes we need to evaluate why we put certain pressure of ourselves to go to certain types of institutions. I think a lot of angst also comes when students set their sights on you.
You know, eight or nine universities that are some of the most, you know, selective or rejective institutions in the country or in the world. Um, and they think their worth is tied to that. So I encourage students to detangle their self worth from the. The university that they apply to and ultimately are emitted because you are more than the name on your degree.
Um, and I think that’s important. Like you are worthy, you are enough, um, regardless of what school you ultimately end up. And I think detangling our self worth, uh, from the schools that we attend and apply to, will help us see that we are valuable and that no matter where we end up that we’ll be fine. So I think there’s just the angst.
Oh my God, if I don’t make it to this school, I’m not gonna be the lawyer. I’m not gonna be the doctor. And you will, you will still be the lawyer. You will still be the doctor. You’ll still be the artist. You’ll still be the, you know, the production assistant or whatever your particular goal is. You will still achieve those goals.
Okay. So I just want everyone to detangle the self-worth from the name on the application, uh, where they’re submitting because you are worthy and you are enough regardless of the schools that you apply to. And ultimately. That’s such great advice. Thank you so much. Um, big, thank you, Aya and big. Thank you to everyone else for coming out tonight, thank you also to Katie for being the co-moderator today.
Um, so we had a really great time telling you about making your essay shine. Um, and over here we actually have a list of the rest of our August webinars. Um, so tomorrow night we have CollegeAdvisor Masterclass: Brainstorming Your Common App Personal Statement Topic. Um, on the 22nd, we have an NYU Panel, 23rd John’s Hopkins Panel, 29th Engineering Majors Panel.
And to round out the month, we have Crafting Your Personal Brand for College Applications. Um, and just as a reminder, this webinar. Recorded it’ll be available on our website CollegeAdvisor.com/webinars. I also drop the link in the chat. Um, but thank you so much, everyone for coming out tonight. And I hope everyone has a good evening.