Essay Strategies That Work

A few weeks ago Dean of Admissions John Latting asked if I would attend an essay workshop at the Friends School in Baltimore since he would be on vacation. I immediately jumped at the chance for two reasons: I love Quaker schools and I love essay workshops. I know that they are both strange things to be so affectionate about, but after twelve years working in college admissions, I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. While preparing for the workshop I jotted down a list of points about the purpose and value of the admissions essay in the application review process and also a number of tips to best tackle the task. The workshop went extremely well and as I was getting ready to store my notes I realized that they would make a great blog topic.

You Don't Need This!
You Don't Need This!

So as many of you begin to take on the task of writing your college essays and short answer questions, I will present my advice on essay strategies that I believe work. This is in no way the gospel about college admissions essays, but rather a list of tips I have compiled over my years. After nearly 20,000 essays read in my career (and that is a low estimate I think), I hope you all will find my tips helpful.

– Don’t think of it as an essay assignment, but rather a personal statement.
I always start off any discussion of college essay writings with this re-imagining. The task of writing your college essay, I mean college personal statement, is not an assignment for your English class. Do not consider this a standard essay where you must have a thesis statement, supportive body paragraphs, and a conclusion that just re-hashes your original introduction. Your college statement needs to be personal and it needs to be thought of in a more creative and original fashion. In many ways we review these personal statements less for a true assessment of your writing ability (we have your English course grades for that) but more in terms of what you reveal about yourself.

– Essays do matter; in fact, they matter a lot more than you probably think.
For highly selective universities that practice a holistic approach to the admissions review process like Johns Hopkins, the personal statement and any short answer questions carry a lot of weight. In admissions committee discussions the most popular section that is referred to in making an argument for or against a candidate is the essay and other personal writings. This part of the application is the chance for students to share their own voice in their application, and that matters greatly when determining whether a student is a strong fit for your institution. You have little control over the rest of their application: your grades are your grades, your activities you have already chosen, your test scores are complete, and your recommendations are not written by you. Your essays are the area that you still have control over.

– Don’t gloss over short answer questions—they also matter a lot.
As I have been writing I have been directing my advice not just at college essays, I mean college statements, but also short answer questions. Most colleges nowadays have a supplement to the Common Application or Universal College Application, and the main part of these supplements are additional required writing statements. Hopkins is no different and this year we added a second short answer question that all of our applicants must answer. These are short answer questions with 250 word limits, but don’t assume because we are requesting a short length that we do not care about the answers you compose. We don’t just add questions to our application requirements to require you to do more work. If we are asking you for information there is a reason behind our inquiry and your responses will matter in the review process. One piece of advice—short answer does not mean one to two sentences. It stuns me every year how many applicants either ignore these questions or spend a grand total of two minutes compiling their responses.

– We want to hear (read) your personal voice.
I know I already mentioned this, but it is such an important concept that I thought it was imperative to repeat. Many admissions counselors think of the admissions review as a conversation with an applicant. As we move from section to section of your application we learn more and more about what makes you an individual and what is important to you. Your writings are your chance to share what is important to you directly with the evaluator. Your topic, the content, the tone, and the flow of your responses encompass the personalvoice we want to hear when looking through your application.

– Essays are about the all important concept of fit.
When evaluating applications of so many highly qualified students, the question of fit becomes paramount. So many of the applicants we evaluate have what we are looking for: they have the grades, have the test scores, have the leadership abilities, have the commitment to community, and have challenged themselves. Because of that, admissions readers have to delve deep into each application, and especially the personal statements, to determine which select students are the best fits for the university. This means that, while reading your essays, the evaluators are thinking about such fit questions as will this student contribute to Hopkins, will they benefit from attending a distinct school like Hopkins, will they make the most of their Hopkins experience, and will Hopkins benefit from having such a student. Though your essays should not address these questions directly, when choosing your topics and composing your content you should have these questions in the back of your mind.

Are you a fit?
Are you a fit?

– Present your true self.
I always say that one should present self-awareness and confidence in their writings, but most significantly one must present their true personality. Do not create a new persona in your essays as such a strategy will back-fire. In fact, don’t have a strategy but rather be yourself. If you are funny, then be funny. If you are not funny, then obviously don’t try to be funny. We read thousands of essays each year and have become experts in telling when a student is not being true to themselves. Also, remember we have the rest of your application to match up to your essays. It can be confusing, and detrimental, when reviewing an application and the portrait of a student painted in the recommendations, activities sheet, and transcript is completely different than what is presented in the essays.

– Do not over-think the essay prompts.
These are not trick questions to start. They are open-ended allowing you to create personal statements and have the flexibility to go in a multitude of directions with your responses. I have a folder on my desk with the most impressive essays I have read in my career. There are about 25 essays in that folder and what they all have in common … the topics of the essays are pretty mundane. There are essays about the big game, about the death of a grandparent, about friends, about family, about performing in the school musical—pretty much my favorite essays of all time tend to tackle the most basic of responses. It seems to me that students spend so much time stressing about the right topic that they don’t have the energy when ultimately compiling the content of their essay. Also, note there are no wrong topics to write about. Nothing is too mundane, nothing is too common, nothing is too political to not be attempted. Choose a topic that means something to you, but know in the end it is not the topic that makes an impressive essay, it is the content.

In addition to these suggestions, I also have a few additional bullet point thoughts that I often share:

  • Attempt to have a killer introduction and compelling conclusion. It is best to grab your audience right away and leave them with a powerful note at the end.
  • Be creative, be original, be yourself. Write these words down on a post-it note and stare at that often when composing your essays.
  • Take risks, but make sure they are calculated risks.
  • Avoid spelling mistakes. Obviously!
  • Avoid incorrect word choices. Not so obvious. Read your essays aloud and make sure you are using the correct their, there, they’re.
  • Avoid vulgarity, inappropriate language, and anything offensive.

And finally, my best piece of advice for when you think you have your final draft: make three copies and distribute them to (1) a parent / relative; (2) a teacher or guidance counselor; and (3) a close friend. Ask each person to read your essay and instead of providing suggested content edits ask them to answer the following questions, “Does this essay represent me? Is this me?” If a related person, an educator, and friend all answer yes to these questions, then you have written a wonderful college essay, I mean college personal statement.

I would be remiss if I didn’t finish this blog entry by promoting our wonderful “Essays That Worked” Web page on the Admissions Web site. Each year my colleagues and I select four impressive essays from the past admissions cycle and post them on the site for future applicants to review. In addition to posting the essay, one of the admissions counselor comments about why that particular essay “worked.” Check out the site and I hope you will gain some inspiration: http://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essays.html.

2 thoughts on “Essay Strategies That Work

  1. Thank you so much for posting such helpful advice. I will be applying to colleges next fall and posts like this make me a little less stressed. I greatly appreciate your insight!

  2. yeah,I would also like to thank you. The essays are quite challenging when it comes to answering them. Hopefully I will be able to attend this university:)

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