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3 Common Obstacles in College Admissions Essays

Posted in Test Prep on September 16, 2010 by

This week’s college admissions tip comes from Dan Stern, founder of College Essay Organizer. His product is designed to streamline the essay process, and so will his tips below.

Here are the 3 most common obstacles that students encounter when writing college essays:

Obstacle #1: I have not accomplished anything all that great and therefore have nothing special to write about.

This is a common concern among applicants. They think, “Well, I haven’t cured any major disease or brought peace to the Middle East, so what could I possibly write about to sound interesting?” The truth is, it’s the little details about individuals that make for the most compelling stories. I remember one student who spent weeks brainstorming ideas and came up with nothing until I encouraged him to explore his passion for stamp collecting. He insisted it sounded like a corny topic, but when he starting writing about why he loves collecting stamps, this incredible piece emerged about his fascination with certain periods of history and his desire to connect to the past in a heartfelt way. His essay was one of the best I’ve seen.

Obstacle #2: How do you brag about yourself without sounding arrogant?

You want to shine, but you don’t want to come off as too cocky. So what’s the middle ground? It involves understanding the difference between stating that you’re just so fantastic because of all the great things you’ve done and letting your unique accomplishments speak for themselves through a well-told story. This goes back to one of the prime rules of writing: Show, don’t tell. Evoke sensation in the reader. Plus, put your story in a broader scope. Don’t just tell us you are great at chess and that it means you have a unique brain; instead, take us through your thought-processes as you play a match, and perhaps convey how playing chess relates to the way you see the world; after all, in both chess and life you have to balance the things you can control with the things you can’t.

Make sure to use specific details. They will morph your words into a colorful story that lets the reader learn on her own who you are. And details also make for a more enjoyable reading experience. Which of these examples pulls you in more?

General: My uncle Mike has been a huge influence in my life. I could not have become who I am today if it were not for him.

Specific: My uncle Mike was the man who told me my brother had broken both his legs skiing in the Alps. Mike was the man who took me to the father-son picnic when my dad was ill. And when I found myself in need of help that late Friday night that would forever change my life, it was Mike’s number I dialed.

Obstacle #3: How do you explain why you are applying to a college without regurgitating the school’s own brochure?

Your college essay is a love letter demonstrating why you want to be with that school. In a love letter, you don’t demand, “Be with me! We’re perfect! Can’t you see that? Why, for the love of God, can’t you see that?” You come off as, well, a little crazy. Beyond that, it sounds needy and turns the person off. You write your love letter by simply expressing your own feelings for the other person. Similarly, you do not want to try to come off as a college’s prototypical student but rather want to craft your essay from the heart and with subtlety. Let the college itself say, “Hey, this person is perfect for us. We need her here.” In essence, let them come to that conclusion on their own. You do this by showing, not telling.

One great way to approach such a question as “Why is our college a good match for you?” is to write about your intellectual and personal interests, and then explain how that college will help you cultivate those interest. This way, you are writing about your own individuality, and relating it to the college’s own particular strengths.

To keep track of all the essays in your college applications — and to make sure you’re only writing the ones you need to — check out Knewton blog readers can save 20% on their Essay RoadMap package with promo code knewton123.