The college essay can strike fear in a student’s heart, and for good reason. It’s a pretty critical piece of the college application process, and there’s no formula for getting it just right.
“The essay is such a hang-up for students. This is something that they really haven’t done before,” said Karen Collins, a a senior education and career counselor at Granite Edvance.
With more than 25 years’ experience in college counseling and admissions, Karen is skilled at taming essay fears and helping students find their voices. As she prepped for a series of essay writing workshops earlier this year, she shared some advice.
How important is the college essay, really?
It varies somewhat between schools in how they’ll use the essay in the admissions review. I think with SATs becoming optional at some schools, this has kind of bumped up the importance of the essay. It’s their biggest chance to get to learn more about the student’s passions and see how well they can write. Some schools take a ‘holistic’ approach to admissions. These schools definitely put more emphasis on the essay.
I hear a lot of people say, ‘I’m just not a writer,’ and I suspect you’ve heard that too. What do you say to encourage someone who has that mentality?
This is totally different than writing an English essay. There’s not that specific format of the introduction, the three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. It’s much more creative, and it’s much more about being yourself. Be open and honest and authentic. Certainly have somebody check it for grammar and spelling, but it’s much more important to tell admissions something about you that only you can tell. Have confidence! You can do that.
Getting started is often the hardest part, right? How do you help students with that?
They have to write about something that they love, or it’s just impossible. One of the things I have them do is pretend it’s their first day at college, and they meet someone new. What’s the one thing they want that person to know about them right away? When admissions counselors are reading essays, they’re trying to create a community. They’re imagining, ‘Would this person be a good roommate and would they be an active member of the college community?’
In your work with hundreds – thousands?—of students over the years, what would you say is one thing almost everyone could improve in their essay?
Being vulnerable. Being more willing to share their feelings and how they’ve grown from the experience rather than just sharing a story. That critical thinking piece is so important. When I read essays, I write down the one thing I get from it and then ask, ‘Is that what you wanted me to get?’ If not, they probably need to keep working on it.