Making Your Essays Shine: Writing College Essays that Stand Out

Are you a high school student gearing up for the college application process? Do you want to stand out from the competition and make your essays truly shine? Join our exclusive webinar, “Making Your Essays Shine: Writing College Essays that Stand Out,” where our seasoned admissions officer Aya Waller-Bey will share invaluable advice and insider tips to help you craft compelling and impactful college application essays.

During the webinar, you can expect to learn:

  • The importance of a strong essay in the college application process
  • How to choose compelling essay topics that showcase your unique strengths and experiences
  • Techniques to grab the reader’s attention from the very first sentence
  • Dos and don’ts of essay writing to avoid common pitfalls
  • Tips for showcasing your personality, passions, and accomplishments through storytelling
  • Insight into what admissions officers look for in a standout essay
  • Ways to revise and edit your essays to make them polished and impactful

By attending this webinar, you will gain invaluable insights directly from an admissions officer who has reviewed countless college application essays. Their expertise will empower you to make your essays shine and leave a lasting impression on admissions committees!

Date 03/11/2024
Duration 1:01:37

Webinar Transcription

2024-03-11 – Making Your Essays Shine/ Writing College Essays that Stand Out
Hi, everyone, and welcome to tonight’s webinar. My name is Anesha Grant. I’m a senior advisor at CollegeAdvisor, and I will be your moderator today. Tonight’s webinar is “Making Your Essays Shine, Writing College Essays That Stand Out.” Before we get started, I just want to orient everyone with the webinar timing.
So our presenter will share some tips, resources, and guidance, and then we will open up the floor to respond to your questions in the live Q& A. On the sidebar, you can download the slides under the handouts tab, and you can start submitting your questions whenever you get ready in the Q& A tab. Now let’s meet our presenter, Aya.
Hey, Aya, how are you doing? Hi. Hi, everyone. Good evening, good morning, good afternoon, depending on where you are in the world. I know we just had daylight savings time here on the East Coast, so it is, you know, we’re still getting our adjustments, uh, together. Um, but as Anesha said, I’m Aya Waller-Bey. I will be tonight’s presenter.
Um, and to start, I’m just telling you a little bit about Who I am. So I attended Georgetown University in Washington, D. C. Where I study sociology. Um, and I also forgot to mention, I am a proud first generation college student. I then graduated and became an admissions officer there and coordinator of multicultural recruitment.
So I got to not only read for my region, which was four states in the Midwest, but I also got to read the applications of our multicultural students of color in the application process. After I finished my tenure there, I went on to England to get my master’s of philosophy in education. At the University of Cambridge in England as a recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
And while in England, I also became a alumni interviewer, where I actually interviewed Georgetown alum living in England, which was a really fun experience. Uh, I am now earning my PhD in Sociology at the University of Michigan, where I actually study. College admissions and college admissions essays. So this is particularly my jam something I’m very excited about and a conversation.
I love to be a part of and I have been with CollegeAdvisor going on three years So this is a community that I’m very fond of and I really have enjoyed working with students and having these conversations So looking forward to answering your questions at the end of the The webinar. Awesome. Yeah.
Thank you so much IA for that great introduction. Just as a person who’s worked with IA in the past, you all are in, in store for a great presentation. Uh, before we let her get started though, we’re gonna do a quick poll. So just let us know what grade level you are in. If you are a parent or a teacher, we’re happy to have you.
You don’t have to make up a grade. You can go ahead and just put other, we like to know that you all are in the room as we’re waiting. I was wondering, um, I feel like we, we have so many conversations about re about writing. And I’m wondering if you have good reading suggestions, like, are there things that you would suggest students read in order to prepare themselves for the type of writing they’ll have to do for the college essay?
That’s a great question. I mean, I think, um, students reading things that they enjoy and that they love is actually just a really great practice because, you know, writing comes, a lot of times people struggle with writing for the college admissions process or writing more generally is They don’t have inspiration.
And I think sometimes whether it’s Oscar Wilde or, you know, uh, Tony Morrison, that is really kind of riveting. But I also think there’s just conversations about the admissions process that students, uh, parents to really, you know, be a part of by reading. So I always recommend who gets in and why a year inside of college.
Really grateful for parents.
You got garbled there towards the end. Can you repeat the last thing you said? You said I heard the title of the book, but then you said it’s really good. Oh, I’m so sorry. Yes, I was saying that, um, who gets in and why by Jeffrey Salingo is just a really good book for both parents and students navigating the application process.
So beyond the essay, I think it’s just a really important way to just kind of understand some of the nuances in the college application process. Thank you so much. Thank you for repeating yourself. Um, all right, I’ll go ahead. Thank you for that recommendation and reminding me about that book that I have been in my Amazon cart for quite some time.
Um, but I’ll, I’ll just let you know for our poll. Um, we have 1 percent who are, um, in the ninth grade, 8 percent who are in the 10th grade, 74 percent in the 11th grade. So a huge chunk of juniors right now and then a few seniors and then some parents and teachers with us. So we’re speaking almost directly to students who are probably starting the writing process right now, a lot of 11th graders.
So I will stop talking, hand it over to you and be back a little bit. Fantastic. Thank you so much. And feel free to kind of jump in if you, if you have any questions. Kind of hear me get jarbled or garbled up a little bit. All right, so to start, it’s important to kind of talk about what essays you will encounter when you’re writing for your college application.
So first and foremost, the essay that we hear most often people discuss is the college person statement. The college person statement is that one statement, that one essay, that’s a 650 word essay, most commonly found on the Common App, um, the Coalition App, um, and also some universities have their own applications, and they also require a version of the person statement.
It is the one where you really get to just speak directly to colleges and universities. Showcasing your student voice, your writing skills, some depth, adding context to your application. The college person statement is, uh, unique because you submit this one essay to all the schools on your list. So, you don’t have to name drop a school.
You don’t have to say, and therefore, this is why I want to attend Brown. You can really just kind of talk about yourself, tell a story. There are also supplemental essays. So these are smaller essays and on average sometimes they are actually just as long as the personal statement, but typically they’re smaller.
They’re school specific essays and they invite students to write about, you know, a variety of topics. They, they could ask you why, you know, why do you want to attend the University of Michigan or why are you interested in studying biology? Again, unlike the personal statement, the supplemental essays are required only by some colleges and universities.
And they’re often used to highlight fit, right? So, how are you a good fit with our institution worth the alignment? And then last but not least is scholarship essays. Although these are less common, um, there are also opportunities for students to write for merit based competitions where you might apply, you’ll get a link to a portal, and then there’s an opportunity for you to apply to various, um, scholarships that you might be eligible for, right?
So sometimes you might receive an invitation, hey Aya, based on what you, you know, selected as your intended major. We would like for you to apply for this scholarship, right? So again, not as common, but they do exist. So those are three of the major, uh, types of essays that students will find themselves encountering in college applications.
I also will point out that I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the majority of applications, or excuse me, the majority of colleges, universities, um, on the common app actually do not require a personal statement. Now that may shock you because we are inundated with conversations about the college application, specifically the personal statement.
But the majority actually on the common app do not require it. So actually most universities in this country do not require you to submit a college essay. Fun fact. So with that in mind, let’s kind of dive in and talk about the significance of said essay. So the application, it has several components, right?
We have the grades on the high school transcript for schools that require centerized testing. We have test scores. Uh, we have extracurricular activities or activities lists. Letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors or, you know, people in your community. Um, but in a lot of ways, those things are speaking for you, right?
So the essay allows you to speak directly to the admissions officers yourself. Um, it provides an opportunity for you to tell your own story in your own words. It also adds qualitative information to your app, right? So we talked about there’s, there’s grades, right? And the transcript is a record of achievement from the past.
Um, so it allows, you know, that’s already done. You can’t change that. You also have standardized testing, right? That is how you performed in a particular environment at one sitting or multiple sitting. Um, but you can’t change that once it happens, right? So the essay allows you to provide qualitative information where you can use your words to talk about who you are, Bye.
Where you’re from, your why, your values, et cetera. It also can provide important additional context about your background, your identity. Your passion and circumstances that might provide some source of explanation about, again, what makes you, you, how did you get to this point in your life where you’re interested in even applying to college or applying to these types of colleges or applying to for this major, right?
So it gives you an extra opportunity to talk about your, your why and your motivations. Now, what factors make for a great college essay and how can students stand out? I often say that sometimes I think students are a little too worried about standing out. Um, and it’s just really important about, you know, standing within.
So being truly authentic is the most important value. You know, with that in mind, a great essay is prevent. It presents information in a very focused and thoughtful manner is specific. It’s concrete. He gives examples, right? It’s not you just broadly or vaguely talking about an instance. You’re telling us you’re taking us through a story, right?
What happened? Why is this important? And you want to answer, you want to ask yourself as you’re writing your essay, what, why am I telling this particular story? What do I want them to learn about me from this particular story or from these particular instances, right? What am I trying to convey to the admissions officers or the admissions team?
If I tell them this story about being the Girl Scouts, why, what’s the motivation behind that? I want them to know what about me. I want them to know that I’m thoughtful. I want them to know I’m a team player. What exactly are you communicating? A great college essay, again, is telling admissions officers about themselves, you know, you’re talking about personal triumphs, your challenges, your leadership, experiences outside the classroom.
Not exclusively, you can also write about experiences in the classroom. Students do it all the time. And of course, you want to demonstrate good use of grammar. No one is expecting you to write like you are a college professor, right? But you also want to be able to demonstrate, you know, you have an understanding of grammar.
You are not being thrown out into the rejection pile if you forget a comma. Or, you know, typos happen. Admissions officers are reading thousands of essays. They’re not nitpicking like that. So I know sometimes I read those types of things and it’s like, Oh my God, I forgot a comma, or there was a really weird lie indication I’m going to be.
No, that’s not. So in addition, what factors make a great essay? You really want to ensure that you’re answering the question. Excuse me, just get a sip of water here, but you want to ensure that you’re answering the question. And you want to effectively describe how the experience’s detail has led to personal growth.
This is really, really important. You really want to demonstrate maturity, open mindedness, and really just show not what happened to you, but how did you come out on the other side. You want to make sure that, um, that your essay reflects your student voice. It should be polished. Again, it should be free from major errors and typos.
Um, and you want to use specific examples. Talk about the present speaking.
So you really want to, um, forgive me, I’m getting over a coat. Uh, one second.
Sorry about that. All as well. Right. So you really want to ensure that it’s reflecting your voice. And again, I want to point out that you should focus on examples of the near past. I mean, near past and present. What I mean by that is sometimes students will say, this incident happened to me when I was in the second grade.
That is great. That could be monumental, of course, but you also want to talk about what’s happening now, right? What’s in your orbit? And again, I have had students write about an experience where they moved to China with their family in the middle grade and they learned about language and culture. That’s fine, but you also want to make sure you’re focusing on the near present.
Okay, forgive me. I’m violating code. So, um, so what are the common mistakes to avoid in college essay? This is really important. One, avoid writing essays that focus on other people. For an example, writing essays that tell stories of a grandparent without centering Your personal experiences. Also, we have students who, um, write about overly common or controversial topics.
So, this is an interesting take where I’ve really evolved on. At one point, I would talk to admissions officers, and again, I myself worked in admissions. And we would say, please stop writing about sports because we read thousands of essays about sports. I think we’ve really grown on this where it’s not necessarily just, you know, stop writing about sports It’s just making sure that you know, there’s stories that we hear repeatedly students who’ve been injured students who got cut for the team Students who missed the gang winning shot.
Those are very common So we just kind of get inundated with those if you write about sports that does not mean you’ll be rejected immediately But just know we’re going to hear it a lot Politics is an interesting one as well. We understand students want to study politics, government, political science.
Some students are motivated for their careers, law, excuse me, international relations because of politics. However, you just want to be mindful that you don’t know who’s on the other side reading your essays. So if you’re taking a strong stance or condemning a certain political party or politician, just know that there are humans on the other side.
That could be offended by that. So just being mindful, it is a hundred percent. Okay. So I am motivated to, I want to go to Georgetown again. That’s where I went to college. I went to college with hundreds of people who wanted to be politicians. Um, and they wanted to do it. They want to come to D. C. Because of that, their favorite politician may have went, you know, Georgetown.
Um, so it motivated them. They wrote about that. That’s fine. But just be mindful that again, humans are on the other side of any desk processes. Okay? So just keep that in mind again to clarify. You can write about sports. You can write about politics. Students do it all the time, and I’ve seen it done effectively.
But recognize there are humans here. We read a lot about, um, Yeah. Uh, missionary trips or students who’ve gone abroad to volunteer, um, and countries that are developing. So that is a common motif as well, um, often heard from students who have more resources. So just think about, you know, we are transferring these essays, you know, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds in some schools, thousands and thousands, ten thousands.
So we do start to see similar topics again. You can write about them, but you just have to be thoughtful, okay? You also want to be careful that your essay wasn’t written by, you know, your parents, which again, there’s a certain prose and voice that students have that reads differently. So just want to make sure that you yourself are writing your essays and that you’re not, you know, avoid mentioning experiences without describing them.
So that’s one thing I’d say. I went to a summer camp. It was great. You know, I learned compassion, teamwork, teamwork, hard work and integrity, but you don’t give one story that demonstrates any of that. How? Okay. We’re so we’re just listening to what you’re saying, but you’re not painting a picture for another set of common mistakes.
Again, in your personal statement, you don’t have to name a university. Okay. That personal statement is going to all the schools that you’re applying to that requires it. So if you’re applying to Michigan State, you shouldn’t, you know, your personal statement shouldn’t say, you know, uh, if you’re applying to Michigan State, University of Michigan, and, you know, Ohio State, it shouldn’t say, and therefore I want to go to Michigan State.
No, you’re going to send that to U of M and Ohio State as well. So you just want to make sure you’re not naming the university in your personal statement. You also want to avoid overly using a thesaurus. I understand students want to use, uh, you know, words that they feel like might appear to be more sophisticated.
That’s not always the case. Um, sometimes students use words that are not appropriate. They may sound similar, but they’re not, you know, they’re not used correctly. Um, so do not overly rely on a thesaurus. Also, I see this a lot on myself, despite my current presentation. Could be, you know, very loquacious. So I write all the time, you know, writing a dissertation right now for the PhD.
And I’ve had synthesis that were really long. So you really want to ensure that you’re not writing an entire essay or personal statement, that’s one or two paragraphs, right? Make sure that your sentences are not too long or complex. It’s okay to break down those sentences. Okay. Um, try to use present voice.
That’s a current practice, especially in the, you know, the high school system, they’ll try to say, you know, try to use active voice. Okay. Is again, it’s not a deal breaker, but you really want to kind of take advantage of the action right in your essays and I have to say this because of the time we’re living in I would avoid using ai artificial tools Such as chat, GBT to write your essays.
A caveat here is, you know, I, I’ve seen people use it to outline, I’ve seen people to, um, if there was text that they had, you know, wanted to get more clarity upon, I think that’s fine. But a complete essay written by chat, GBT is just inappropriate. First of all, it’s only 650 words. If you can’t write an essay talking about yourself, that I would be concerned about your ability to write thoughtfully in college.
Also, you really want an opportunity to speak directly about your lived experiences, right? ChatGPT will spit things out, and they fill, oftentimes, void. I’ve seen various iterations of ChatGPT. I find the pros to be a bit predictable. I can, at this stage, spot a ChatGPT essay, usually. So, just keep that in mind.
Use it to help outline. Maybe you want to use it to help you clarify something, but do not allow it to write your entire essay. All right. I will give your voice a break and let you have some water, Aya, as we walk into our next poll. Um, so just let us know where you are in the application process, if you started, if you’re researching, if you are obviously working on your essays.
Um, as we’re waiting for Aya to come back, I will agree that chat GBT is. Definitely an interesting resource, but can also weaken essays. I’ve had a few students actually share essays with me that I could very obviously tell were written by AI, um, because they were very, as she said, passive, empty. There were no real details.
It was kind of these very overarching themes and things like that. And so I think that that is honestly the strength that comes when you are writing an essay, honestly, is that you can add those details, you can add those stories, and, and the whole thing becomes, I think, stronger and more authentic. So, um, yeah.
Yeah, someone had asked about in the questions passive versus active voice. I’m not going to ask you that right now, but I’ll just tell the audience that I’m going to go ahead and drop some links to some resources for that. If that is a question. I’ve seen that come up a lot in students writing of being able to differentiate between active and passive voice as well.
So, um, I was trying to give you some time to, to catch up. Um, but I will go ahead and close our poll. And just so you know, the majority of folks are in the process of researching schools. Um, a quarter have not started and that’s totally fine if you have not started, especially for the folks in ninth and 10th grade.
Um, and 2 percent almost done. I hope that those are the seniors that are closing in and almost getting ready to finish up. All right. I will stop talking, hand it back over to you. I’ll be back a little bit later for our Q and a. Fantastic. Thank you so much. All right. So, and I’m also happy to hear that you all are in the research school phase.
Very important. I often hear students like, who ask the question, what are the best schools for business? And I’m always kind of dumped on it because I’m like, here’s a wealth of resources online, right? You know, start, you know, researching the schools. There’s Google searches you can do, create a spreadsheet that lists your schools, what you like about them, the locations, the cost of attendance, the pros, the cons, etc.
so much. But nevertheless, going back to the essay, how can students write creatively about themselves and be clear and concise? Important question, right? So it’s all about balance, right? Again, use specific concrete examples that convey your points. Again, focusing on the present and near past. What I will put, I prefer students to limit flowery abstract language that does not communicate substantive meaning.
This does not mean your writing needs to sound robotic. I’ve worked with students who are creative writers. They love to tell stories, paint pictures. I think that’s beautiful. I encourage it, but you don’t want your essay to be so meta that people cannot follow. I often get questions or we often get questions about, can I write an entire essay like a poem.
I wouldn’t recommend it personally. You can, no one is going to say absolutely not, um, but I think you, um, writing and, you know, the entire essay and the prose of a poem, or a recipe, I think those are overdone, and I also don’t necessarily think, um, they, the pro, the type, the poem may not translate to the reader.
in a way that you, uh, want it to. So just keep that in mind. Incorporating elements of culture, language, expressions that define or reflect distinct cultural experiences, a great way to be creative and, um, and really talk about yourself. Um, and I really love, I’ve seen students incorporate different languages.
So students who are bilingual, you know, someone, I remember working with a student who was Greek, So she incorporated some aspects of her Greek culture, talked about the types of food she grew up eating. And again, it was a really way to be creative and talk about who they are, um, who they were. Um, and while also still being concise.
Also, I encourage students to try to define well, less known terms or expressions in your essay. So if you do want to, you know, get funky and creative. If you say something in Arabic, assume the reader will not speak Arabic. So make sure that’s translated, right? So yeah, there’s ways to, you know, be creative, to talk about yourself, but don’t think about like, I need to be so far out the box.
It needs to be something that they’ve never seen before because unfortunately, I don’t really know too many things that just we’ve never seen before ever. Okay, so just again practice being Or focus on rather being authentic now, how can students edit their essays effectively tons of tools? I’m a little old school when I when I say microsoft word.
I know someone you so many use like google. Um, Which I think you can have a plug in for google docs, but I love that read aloud feature We’re going to your uh, your microsoft word document It And you can just press there’s a letter a and it’s like a little sound icon And they’ll read your document for you I use it all the time because sometimes it’s hard to catch stuff with our eyes Especially if we are the ones writing it or we’ve been staring at the screen for too long Um, and it really helps for things like this.
So, you know, you’ll see proofread here Um, and I like to use this example, but say you’re writing your essay. I enjoy torturing animals I volunteer torturing animals at a local shelter since eighth grade You And the experience has solidified my desire to become a veterinarian. Um, naturally, right, at least I would hope, this student does not truly enjoy torturing animals.
Uh, and they repeat it twice in this sentence, in this small little paragraph here. What they meant to say is they were enjoying training animals. Uh, and of course, torturing is spelled correctly, so it’s not like it’s a typo, but it’s just a, it’s a word written correctly, but used inappropriately. Um, so sometimes those Microsoft Word, uh, features of proofreading, it’s really, really helpful.
Also, having, uh, someone look at it, teachers, counselors, someone you trust, review the statements. Very very important. I do say limit the amount of people you have reviewer essays There is a such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen There is a such thing as being edited out of your own essay where your teacher your counselor your parent your mom your sibling your friend The college prep folks to teach like non profit leaders, etc And by the time you get your statement back, it’s like who wrote this, you know, so it’s okay to just have Two people or one person that you go to, to help take, just take a look at it.
Consequently, it’s very important that you do not procrastinate. And I know some people probably just roll their eyes. You know, I, in high school actually was a bad procrastinator in college. I actually wasn’t, but. Wait until the last minute. It’s just unnecessary stress, pressure, you know, the cat chews through the court, computer charger dies, can’t plug in, you lose power, there’s a thunderstorm, you know, an earthquake.
I mean, who knows, right? Especially the times we’re living in now. So really, really important that you take advantage of finishing. I say a week early. Okay, I know some people are like what a week early because you really want to give yourself time to like look at it with fresh eyes Before you press submit, you know, you don’t want to work to the last hour and you’re so done with it You’re so overwhelmed.
You did you wrote 10 essays in Two days, so you’re like I don’t care anymore. I’m just gonna submit right that doesn’t give you enough time to truly review it Okay, so give yourself it says take 24 hours before reviewing it again You With that, I’m saying, submit, try to finish their essay a week before your deadlines.
Okay? Because it just gives you so much more breathing room, so much more time to tweak a little things and then press submit. Okay? So what are essays that have stood out to me? Um, I love essays where students are reflective, right? So essays that reflect students ambitions and growth, essays that highlights student tenacity, uh, essays that paint colorful photos of the human experience.
And I often say, okay. I’ve worked with a lot of students who have jobs, right? So, and jobs like working at Starbucks or Jimmy John’s as baristas or drive thru window attendees. And they just talk about, you know, they write these essays about the customers they encounter or the people they worked with.
You know, uh, there was a student who talked about working with someone who, he was like in his seventies, right? And this is a 60 year old, 70 year old kid who’s befriended this 70 year old man who. was retired and really just kind of wanted a job, you know, to fill the time to have purpose and they became buddies, you know, and just like what that relationship was like and what they learned.
Uh, there’s something really precious about that that I’ve appreciated. I have students who talked about their family and some familiar with sacrifices. Um, some students who’ve talked about their families who’ve worked on farms and picking tomatoes and just like the level of tenacity and growth and like what they learned from watching their family do that, how that affected them.
What they desire to pursue academically, but also how to understand hard work, how to redefine what hard work look like for their parents who did not have college degrees. So, those types of essays have always stood out to me. Um, and I also like, um, I think one thing, it’s part of the discourse and actually part of my research where I study trauma narratives, is some students think they have to write about the most traumatic, the most painful experiences in their life.
Not true at all. You can take a light hearted approach in your essay, right? I remember a student who was a stand up comic. I rarely ever encounter students who are comedians, right? And they talked about some of their jokes. Now, comedy and humor can fall flat, right? So you have to be mindful of that, but that student was a little or confident because they did, you know, stand up comedy.
So just thinking about like, you can take a lighthearted tone of your essay too. It does not have to be this very serious, dark tone. Okay. So keep that in mind. Uh, final tips, um, as we kind of near the question, uh, portion of our conversation as far as show don’t tell. So instead of saying I learned a lot volunteering at the cleaning animal shelter, try while feeding the sick puppies with the other shelter volunteers.
I learned the importance of teamwork and compassion. Okay. So, the first sample, you know, example, they’re just saying they learned a lot at this place. It’s like, okay, thank you for sharing. But, you know, well, how did you learn those things? You know, what did you learn exactly? So, the second sample, example, sentence, rather, gives you, you know, more specificity.
It doesn’t want to share lessons learned. It’s just not enough to detail experiences. It’s like, okay, again, thank you for sharing, but you wanted to say, you know, what, you know, write about how this informed your future, who you are, who you want to be, what you plan to do. Okay. Um, your personal statement does not have to talk about your future aspirations.
I do want to put that out and to clarify that your essay does not have to say, you know, I want to be a physician, etc, etc. This is why, you know, if that’s not the essay you want to write. That’s not the essay choice you choose. That’s okay. Um, you can write about a particular instance without talking about your future goals.
Okay? Students do that all the time. That’s perfectly fine. But you do want to talk about what you’ve learned from any story. You just don’t want to write about, you know, taking a If you say you write an essay about taking a walk every single day. I take a walk every day. Um, but I just can’t say I take a walk every day.
I love taking walks. Taking walks make me healthier, more stay fit. Um, I get to meet people. Okay. So, but what is important about that? Why should we care? Again, you want to be asking yourself, why should the admissions officer care about this? Okay, that’s important. Again, proofread. Use the read aloud feature on Microsoft Word.
Ask a friend to, uh, someone you trust, a counselor, a teacher, a mentor, your parent. Review your essays. Proofread, okay? You also want to tell your own story. I didn’t emphasize this earlier because I think I was coughing, but this is really important. Sometimes we have students who write essays about they didn’t want to become a dentist because their grandparent was a dentist and they They really look up to their grandparents, which I think is beautiful.
I love my grandparents as well. But the whole essay is like, you know, my grandpa was like the most amazing dentist in our city, in town, in Georgia. And he worked on everybody from, you know, teeth and etc. And he did this and then this. He was a veteran. He was this. He was the first dentist to do this. And the whole essay is about how wonderful grandpa the dentist is.
Which is beautiful, but then I walk away wanting to admit grandpa, but I’m not trying to make grandpa. I’m trying to meet you So you do want to make sure that even if you want to talk about how others have inspired you, that you are still centering yourself in the story and kind of talk about, okay, why are you telling the story?
What are we learning about you from this? Okay. So making sure that you’re writing about your own experience and that is very important. Okay. All right. so much. I, especially for going through it with your cold. Um, all right. So we are going to move over into the Q and a portion of our Q and a. A webinar tonight.
I hope that you found the information that I have provided helpful. Just a reminder that you can download the slides under the handouts tab. The way that our Q and A will work is that you can go ahead and submit your questions under the Q and A tab. I will read them aloud and give Aya a chance to respond to them.
And then I will also paste them in the chat so that others can see. Just as a heads up, if you’re having any challenges with Submitting your Q& A, you might just have to log out and log back in and make sure you’re logging in through the website, through the email, sorry, through the link you received in your email and not through the website page.
All right, my first question for you, Aya, is a timeline question, and I don’t think you spoke to it. So when should I start on my admissions essay? Yeah, great question. Actually should be a slide about that. Um, yeah, so, um, we have a lot of juniors here. A lot of juniors actually, let me not use a lot. I, I know several schools now increasingly have their students write a sample college personal statement the 11th in their 11th grade English class.
So some students kind of come in to their summer before their senior year with some type of idea of what they want to write about. But primarily students are using the summer and really thinking about like August. to start writing those college applications. August 1st is when the Common App updates the kind of the portal.
The Common App has already said that they are using the same essay questions from last year. So you can easily Google what those questions are and begin to think about that. So you can start today if you’re a junior like you we can literally start now. There’s no one nothing stopping you. Or just know that first essay that you write, or even that second essay that you write, or that third essay most likely will not be the final essay you submit on November 1st or January 1st.
But, I often say, use that summer to really start writing those essays. And ideally you want that person’s statements, if you could, finished by September 1. Especially, especially, especially if you’re applying to schools that require supplement essays. Because some schools require one additional essay, some require six.
So you really want to get that personal statement out the way. So you can start focusing on those school specific essay. So often say that summer before your senior is a great time, you know, the common application updates August 1st. You could have that draft, that 650 word personal statement by September 1, so you can really start focusing on those supplements if they’re required.
So that would be my time and recommendation. Yeah, I think that’s a great, my students, I hope none of my students are listening because I have made my sophomores start writing practice essays. Um, But I think, I think some of them needed it in order to practice the type of writing, which is narrative writing, because that’s not a type of writing they’re seeing.
Um, but yeah, I don’t, I think there is a too early, but there’s definitely a too late as well. Um, okay. My next question for you, um, you can’t speak to passive and active. I shared some resources. I don’t know if you can like give an example at the top of your head, but I dropped some resources in the chat.
What’s the question exactly? The question is, what do you mean by passive and active voice? Okay, so essentially it is when thinking about like just how you write sentences and the way you speak It’s just essentially what’s happening as far as where the verb is in the sentence So like when you write an active voice the subject so I am you know throws the ball That is active voice.
I’m the subject. I’m performing the action So you’re writing your storage you saying, you know You know, I, I went to the store, you know, and every day at the store I met with my grandfather and he told me how his account, uh, et cetera, whatever. Right. So you are the subject performing the action. The passive voice is just when the subject receives the action.
So it’s when you see a lot of like, you know, have head or, um, instead of saying like you performed it, you received the action. So what it does is the passivoid makes the subject, I’m sorry, the sentence longer. Often it’s wordier. And you just really want to get to the point. It just makes the synthesis or just a little bit more unnecessarily wordy.
And it kind of, you lose that punch because it’s like, Instead of you’re talking about yourself as the subject doing the action, you’re now receiving the action, you know, so it’s just a, it’s often something they try to drill in and particularly in the United States and they kind of educate the high school classroom.
Again, it is not a deal breaker, but it does help the writing flow a little easier when you’re writing an active voice. But there are some instances where passive voice is fine. If you have a Grammarly plugin, it often flags passive voice and active voice, or particularly passive voice. So Grammarly plugins can help.
I, you know, I didn’t reference Grammarly. I know that’s another AI that STEM students are increasingly relying on. That can help, uh, you know, with like editing and proofreading. And also they flag for passive voice. So essentially it’s not a deal breaker, but when you write an active voice, it really shows that you’re kind of leaning into it.
You’re performing the action versus receiving the action. And it, and the passive voice just makes the essays a little wordier unnecessarily. I feel like I, when I read passive voice as well, it feels like it’s students are trying to be extra formal. Like they’re trying to remove the subject from it as well.
Like, even to your example of like, I threw the ball. It was like, the ball was thrown and it was like, but who threw it? Where did it go? Um, so, um, but yeah, all right. Um, the next question, but like I said, I did include some links to, Some other resources as well in the chat under the Q and A. Um, the next question for you is, do you write a different essay for every college you apply to, or do you use the same concept or idea for every essay?
Um, you write the same personal statement, um, 99 percent of the time. So you write one essay in the common app, you submit it, it goes to all the schools. Now the difference is for schools like Georgetown, which is not in the common app, um, they have a separate kind of why or. They have their own personal statement, but you can use your common app essay for that application as well.
You don’t write the same supplement essays because they ask specific questions. They’re school specific. You know, your white Dartmouth essay, of course, is not gonna be the same of your white Georgetown essay. They’re very different schools. They’re different locations. They have different cultures. They may have different majors or describe their majors differently.
So, uh, again, that personal statement is simply sent to all the schools that a student applies for if the school requires the essay. So there’s one essay. You don’t have to change it. But those supplement essays tend to be different. However, um, one thing you I encourage students to do is, you know, you could pick and pull from your essays.
No one is saying like, if you’re in total, you know, Based on all the schools you apply to say you have to write 45 essays. No one is saying you have to write supplement essays. No one is saying you need to write 45 different supplement essays. If it, if a, um, if a supplement essay for one school says, you know, tell us about your greatest challenge.
You could also reuse that essay and tweak it for another school if they ask a similar question, right? Or if they say, what is your motivation for pursuing art history? You don’t have to like start from scratch if you’ve already responded to that at another school. Like if USC asks you that question, It’s okay to say, I’m going to tweak this.
I’ve already written an essay like that. I can use this for, you know, my Brown essay or my University of Michigan essay. Or if you apply to scholarships and they also ask, tell us why you want to study your major. Have you already written a supplement about why you want to study your major? It can pull.
No one is saying you need to start from zero every single time. That’s one of the beauty of starting early. So you could have, you know, I have my white essay. I have my why I want to study art history essay. I have why I have my greatest inspiration essay, you know? So it’s okay for you to kind of reuse material from different essays as well.
I actually encourage my students. Yeah. I try to tell students that they’re building a portfolio of essays. And so, um, I think the examples that you gave just. Being able to use it for scholarships, supplemental essays across different schools is absolutely effective. And if you keep it in mind that you’re building a portfolio of essays, you can use across a lot of different dimensions.
Um, you started to speak to this a little bit, so I’ll ask it now. How would you answer the why you or why us that are that are specific to a college? So how do you have advice on how students could approach the why this college essay? Yeah, I mean first think about like genuinely why do you want to go there?
Um, so always start there, you know Uh things to avoid is you are the you’re ranked number one. You’re Ivy League school. You’re prestigious I would that’s thanks for sharing. They don’t want to know that they know that already Um, but you know think about your motivations and I often say people in place So what about this particular place?
So for an example if you’re applying for a university in dc You There are a lot of reasons why students do so, whether they have interest in politics or government or international relations, or they have aspirations of being an ambassador, or I think D. C. has a presence of our Fortune 500 companies. Um, so that might be one of the motivations for, like, wanting to literally be in that area.
Okay? Also, a school might have a specific program that you’re interested in. It might be one of the few schools that have an international relations program for undergraduates. So you might want to, also there might be a professor doing a particular program. Research segregation. You would like to work in their lab.
You’ve got no idea why you’re there. Maybe your older sibling was there. Maybe your parent was there. Maybe you visited the campus to try out a summer program. Fell in love with it. That’s why you want to go there. Maybe the school is known for a certain type of culture of service. Uh, and you have participated in a lot of community service.
In high school. You want to continue that legacy of service. Contribute to it. That’s why you want to go there. Maybe you’re very globally minded and the school is known to have a very strong global emphasis, presence, study abroad program, so you can communicate that. So essentially you’re trying to connect what the school offers that aligns with your interests and values and kind of show like why it’s worth it and why this school is a good fit for you.
So it could be professors, it could be the students, it could be the culture, it could be academic programs, it could be the location, it could be majors, it could be a service opportunities. You know, you really want to use this time as many you are are already doing, which is great to do your research. If you can, and you have the resources to visit these campuses, um, talk to current undergraduate students while you’re on those campuses.
Um, because that’s how you really kind of make a strong white essay. Of course, you can Google these things, but really think about what are your interests, what are your values and how does that school align with it? Maybe they’re something really funky like, you know, Penn State has. Because this rule has a particular farming program and you live on a farm and you want to continue that so that you make that connection.
I love farms. You all have this farming program. I want to study environmental science and therefore I want to attend Penn State, right? I just made all that up. I don’t know if Penn State has a farming program, but I’m just giving you an example. So you really want to talk about your interests, your values, how it aligns with what the school is offering and really demonstrate you’ve done your research.
And that’s how you write a convincing why essay. I love that. And I love that you shared the the personal values. A previous job we used to have our students do a values exercise of identifying what your personal values are and then looking for those same values and alignment for the schools as well.
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So we will leave that QR code up on the screen and get back to our next set of questions. Um, I feel like you spoke to this, but I’ll ask it because I think it’s an interesting question. Someone said, how bad of an idea is it to write an essay about mental health? And I guess more so I would ask you to reframe it of like, what are effective ways that one could discuss mental health in an essay?
Yeah, thanks for asking that question. I often tell people this, if I’m being honest, 10 years ago, I felt like there were still Uh, a stigma in admissions about mental health, where, um, universities would feel a little uncomfortable about supporting, uh, like the mental health, uh, students. Like, there wasn’t as robust conversation or campus resources as there is now, where mental health was actually pretty taboo, I felt like.
Now, I feel like, unfortunately, because of COVID. COVID and just the world we live in and also students just having the conversations. We’re starting conversations earlier. It’s de stigmatized. There’s more visibility. We have better language around it. You know, you have college presidents talk about their own mental health, uh, where students are writing about it more.
It’s a very common topic actually. So students can write about mental health. Um, but like anything you want to talk about it in a sense of, oh, well, first let me say this. What, why are you talking, why are you writing about this? So as I said earlier, you always want to ask yourself, why should admissions officers care?
Like, what are you trying to convey by writing an essay about your mental health? And this is for anything. Are there certain values you’re trying to communicate? Are you trying to show something that you endure and overcame? Is there, are there specific moments that you think were transformational, uh, or transformative?
Uh, do you feel like this is need to know information? Is this information that you feel like comfortable sharing? Have you healed? Do you feel like you’re on a journey of healing? You know, just making sure you’re asking yourself, like, why am I communicating this? Why am I sharing this? You also, again, you want to talk about lessons learned.
You want to talk about growth. You know, so you want to talk about how you came out on the other side, um, things that you’ve done to address it. So, it’s really hard to say, like, emphatically, like, yes, emphatically now, without knowing specifically the topic and how it’s going to be framed. However, again, you just want to talk, think about, seriously, what are you trying to convey?
Is it a lesson learned? Is it, are you trying to give an example of personal hardship and your ability to overcome? You know, so just really thinking about that, but making sure that regardless of what you write about, there’s this lesson of, uh, growth in, in lessons learned. Otherwise it’s just a story. of a difficult challenge that doesn’t really show how you got to the other side.
And that’s really, really important. Um, you spoke to this a little bit, but I feel like it’s worth clarifying one part of that being asked in this question. How much weight do colleges put on essays? Does not submitting an essay affect the chance of admission? Well, if a school requires an essay and you don’t submit it, it will absolutely affect your chances.
They will probably deny you. If it’s a requirement, you submit it. Mhm. You know, always. Okay. Um, so if it is a requirement, you need to submit it. Oftentimes you couldn’t even submit the app if you don’t complete all the portions, right? Um, so you want to submit it. Um, and then the second, what was the first question?
How much weight? Yeah. How much weight is it given? It really depends on the school. So does the school practice the holistic admissions? So, for example, NYU, they don’t practice holistic admissions. So the weight of the essay, uh, the weight is Much lower than a school that practices holistic admissions where, and to clarify, holistic admissions is when universities are taking in consideration of your, uh, not only just your grades and test scores, so your academic profile, but they’re taking in consideration.
Uh, qualities, leadership, background, identity, um, uh, values, uh, you know, geographical locations, et cetera. So they’re looking at you holistically and not just with, like, two pieces of data, which are the grades and test scores. Um, so for schools that practice holistic admissions, Um, it, it varies, um, just kind of based on their identified institutional priorities.
I’ll tell you this, for my dissertation, I interview admissions officers, and one question I ask them, uh, admissions officers at private universities across the country, and one question I ask them is how important, uh, is the essay from Miss Bella 1 through 5, and it’s overwhelmingly 3. of importance, right?
So right in the middle. It’s important if they ask you to write it, it’s going to be something they actually review. Um, but it’s also supposed to help the application, right? Um, the first, first and foremost, the most important piece of your application is often the high school transcript because it is the most, it’s the longest kind of record that they have.
It shows your rigor, it shows how you performed over a series of, you know, class periods. Um, So they’re always going to look at the high school transcript first. But the essay does have importance, but it really depends on institutional priorities. And if they have supplement essays, they want to read them.
You know, they are asking you to submit things that they are going to read and evaluate. But again, if they don’t require an essay, you don’t have to submit it. But if they do require it, absolutely submit it. Otherwise, you are essentially, you know, making yourself ineligible for their admissions process. I knew we were going to get a holistic admissions question as soon as you said the word.
So someone said, what do you mean NYU does not practice, uh, holistic admissions? What does it consider? Right. So holistic, as I mentioned, holistic admissions are universities that take into consideration, you know, not just grades and test scores, but other parts. So background, identity, geographic leadership, et cetera.
Um, if you look on NYU’s website, you won’t find the word holistic admissions. And it just essentially means they don’t look at an applicant holistically. They kind of prioritize specific aspects of the application. So for them, it can be grades and test scores. So it’s really just a different institutional priority.
It’s not a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. They just have different institutional priorities. And for their applicants, they really want to focus on grades and test scores. They may require an essay, but they don’t give it as much weight as other schools who do practice holistic admissions. Thank you. Um,
Maybe I don’t know. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I guess I haven’t worked with international students. I can’t think of any though. Yeah, I feel like I’ve worked with several for CollegeAdvisor from all over and they tend to apply. They tend to have the exact same essays and processes. I don’t think there might be different.
I don’t know for like scholarships. They tend to be the same. So they actually might be. Like, universities may not be able to have additional essays for, um, international students without facing some claims of discrimination. So, from my experience, our international students are literally applying via the same way, using the same application, answering the same questions.
When it comes to financial aid and etc., there might be some additional steps that our international students have to face, but generally they’re answering the same questions. And I buy the same application. My only thought about it would be there might be some additional, like you might have to do the TOEFL in addition to the SAT if you don’t get a certain score.
Like I think, um, or if you haven’t gone to, if you haven’t had, uh, instruction in English primarily for the last like two or three years or something like that. So I think it depends on if you are. Taking and studying in English as an international student. Um, okay. Someone asked earlier and I tried to answer it.
Someone said, if you were rejected in ED, can you make changes to your essay and send another essay to regular? I answered that by saying, if you were rejected in ED, you are just rejected, but you can, you can, You can write a letter of continued interest if you are deferred from right from ED to regular.
And then someone asked, I guess, generally, can you change your essay on the common app to different schools? Would you mind asking that first question again? You can ignore the first question. They were just more like, it was more like if I get rejected in ED, can I send a new essay for RD? No, if you’re rejected, you’re rejected.
So, yeah. But then the second question was, can you change your essay on the common app for different schools generally? Now, whether you can, I don’t recommend it. At all. I wouldn’t say do it at all. Um, I feel like I’ve heard this is not the first time I’ve gotten this question. So I think there might be a possibility that you can.
I don’t know why you will want to do that, though. I would not recommend it. But I think you might have the ability to do that. You do? Yeah, I know. I know that you can. I’ve seen it happen with students who do. Submit ed to one school and then find out that they don’t like their essay or want to write about a different topic or they wrote that essay very specifically for that school.
And so they have a different essay for the rest of the schools, but I think you have to submit the whole application first, and then you can go back in and change. the essay before you submit someplace else. It’s very complicated. I would also advise against it. Um, okay. A lot of folks have asked about brainstorming.
So once that one person said, what’s a good way to start my essay? Um, if I want to get my reader engaged very quickly, someone else talked about having writer’s block and looking for inspiration. So when, when folks are stuck or can’t get started, what would you advise? When you’re stuck and you can’t get started, I often say there’s a lot of different ways to do this.
I think we don’t often ask students or people what they love about themselves. So I would say, how about you just start writing about what you love about yourself? Just literally started open a Google document and start writing about all the things you love about yourself. Um, and that’s one way. Um, secondly, I also think having people similarly open a Google Doc and just start writing about your day.
Like, what does your morning routine look like? Do you get up and make your bed first, and then you go brush your teeth, and then you go take your walk, and then you walk your dog, and then you get ready for school, or whatever it might be. Start with your morning routine. And then third, I mean, you can literally Google, like type in your Google search bar and say, what are some prompts to get to start writing a personal statement?
Because essentially the essays are all going to be responding to a similar vignette or similar type of prompt, you know What is your motivation about like what what do you want to study? And why you know, what do you love about yourself? Who’s your greatest hero? And why if you could have a conversation with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?
And why? So just kind of what is your favorite subject? What do you like to study? What do you like to read? And why? So just think about all these questions. That, that isn’t, you’re not answering a personal statement prompt exactly, but it gets your juices flowing. It helps you to start brainstorming. Also, as I mentioned, you can go online right now and look at the Common App questions, and they are all listed there.
Um, and essentially start seeing what, what are they asking you, right? What types of questions are they asking? And don’t overthink it. Just right. Um, so yeah, also again, you can Google prompts online. It’s like, what a great way to brainstorm. You can start with like, write about yourself, what you love about yourself.
Again, don’t overthink it. You know, you might love your hair. You may love your confidence and et cetera. Start there. I don’t think we can talk about what we love about ourselves enough. You can also start by writing and describing your day, your morning routine. That’s often a really, uh, that’s an exercise you often use to help students start brainstorming.
And also we struggle so often to write about ourselves, and that’s really important. So those are just like some fun tips to, to, to really kind of get the juices flowing, um, and to kind of help start getting those words. You just really want to start getting the words on the page. Okay. Um, uh, there are a couple of folks asking if you’ve heard these topics or if they’re too cliche.
So one person asked, is it cliche to write about the pandemic? And also have you read any essays about being a twin? I’ve read essays about being a twin. So, but there are a lot of twins. I mean, you would not be the first, you would not be the last, you would not be the only person writing an essay about being a twin or a triplet.
That’s just the reality of the way the world is. And that’s okay. It could be cliche, but it’s also, if you want to write about it, write about it. Just make sure it’s thoughtful and authentic. Um, it’s a cliche to rob out the pandemic. Um, no. Um, it’s so interesting the way discourse around the pandemic has shifted at one point.
I think the common app has now since eliminated the Kobe question from that mistaken. Um, so at one point there was a specific Kobe question, um, where students were able to provide context. Um, I’m seeing less, less, I see less essays now about the pandemic. Um, that I did say two years ago because of time has passed.
Um, but I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s cliche. I don’t necessarily think it’s absolutely the most, I don’t think you can’t write about it, but it will be interesting to how you frame it, especially since you writing about the pandemic, which was like starting something like four years ago, like today, um, you know, where were you then?
You were in middle school, um, in most cases. So how are you thinking about, like, how does that affect you now? Like what? How is that shaping how you understand your world now? So it’ll be interesting to see, like, that’s now that’s considered something that’s happening in the past. So I’m wondering, I would just be curious of how you frame that.
And if you think that writing about the pandemic is the best type of way to frame the story you want to tell. So just kind of thinking about that, because at one point all the essays were about COVID, you just couldn’t avoid it. Everybody had an essay because it affected everybody all over the world.
Yeah. Now I see, I feel like I see them a little less, but I would still be curious to know how one would frame the pandemic given that it kind of kicked off four years ago and you were in middle school and now you will be a high school student. So yeah, I, I think, I think that I’ve had students who wanted to write about it and it became a middle school essay.
And so we had to kind of like, how does it, how is this relevant to who you are today in high school? Um, so I think that’s the struggle of it of like, to your point, finding the context of it, something had to have happened, I think, around the pandemic. Um, someone asked, is it important for your essay to be super emotional?
Do you get points if your essay is sad? No, you do not have to be super emotional. And it should not, let me say, I, it does not have to be super sad, I know sad is relative, you know, some people can write about a dog and think that’s sad, some people can write about homelessness and that has a different reaction, um, yeah, again, I, I study trauma narratives, you know, that’s what I get paid to study, so I don’t think you have to write about trauma or sadness, there’s no that’s I don’t think it’s particularly advantageous, particularly for certain types of students.
Um, so if you want to write about something that you think is sad, but you think it’s incredibly important for you to tell that story, by all means, write about it. But I don’t think you should be writing to say, Oh, I’m gonna make those people cry. They’re gonna let me in. They’re gonna feel sorry for me and let me in because that’s that you could put your heart on the page and they can deny you.
And just for anyone out there, um, your admissions essay is not your diary. So please don’t read it as much. Yeah, no one’s getting a pity admission. Um, okay. We will have to end it there. Thank you so much. I know you’ve been fighting through a cold, so I appreciate you sticking it out with us and for delivering a consistently thoughtful session.
Um, thank you everyone for joining us. We do hope that you’ll join us for the rest of our session later this month, tomorrow, March 12th. Bye. We’ll have a session on time management and balancing schools, extracurricular and life with your college admissions work. So for folks who are getting started with us and wondering about your schedules, please join us then.
And on March 20th, we’ll have another writing session, this time focusing specifically on the common app personal statement. As we said, those prompts are now out. So if you want to start dabbling and experiment with those, we would advise you to do so. Um, we hope you, we hope to see you soon, but until then take care and have a great evening, everybody.
Thanks. Thanks everyone. Good luck.