Top College Admission Essay Myths Debunked

College essay mythsBy Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

It’s officially crunch time if you are a senior applying to college – most early admissions deadlines have passed; regular deadlines are just around the corner. But that’s no reason to get all worked up.

Get out your calendar, make sure you leave room in your busy schedule to get your college essays done right, and don’t forget to make time to proofread everything before you click send.

During this stressful time in your life, please remember to breathe! You’ve done all you can to up to this point to get good grades and tests scores. There’s only one thing left you can do to stand out: nail that college essay!

“It’s value-added,” said Michigan State University Director of Admissions Jim Cotter, a 30+-year industry veteran. “At a moderately selective school, the essay can pull a student on the cusp up. At a highly selective school, a poor statement can make the difference between being admitted or not.”

There is a lot of misinformation out there that can take you off track. Consider these college essay myths and facts before you get started:

Myth 1: No one really reads the essays!

Fact: Of course admissions officers read your essays. They wouldn’t ask you to write something they did not plan to read.

At Wow, we speak regularly to admissions professionals at top universities across the entire country, and we know what they are looking for. They don’t want you to write a story about something you think they want to hear. They do want to read a story you want to share with them. It’s your story. Your voice. Your words.

Last month, during the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference in Indianapolis, we polled about two dozen admissions representative to find out if they really read the essays. The collective answer: YES!

“Last year we received 25,000 applications, and we read 25,000 essays,” said Amy Hoffman, Assistant Director of Admissions at Miami Universityof Ohio.

Myth 2: An essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: You are impressive, not the topic. The subject is you; the topic is secondary. A college application essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. Colleges want to know what you learned, not what you did.

One student came to us confident that a trip to help the poor in Central America would capture someone’s attention inside the admissions office. A Wow writing coach encouraged her to talk about what she learned about herself. Turns out, her most important moment occurred when she was hanging out with friends during the trip. She overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water. That experience would have been meaningful whether it had happened during a service trip in Costa Rica or on a family vacation.

“The essay does not have to be about something huge, some life-changing event,” said Calvin Wise, the Associate Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Johns Hopkins University. “You can write about an aha moment, what defines you as a person. But it doesn’t have to be really extensive. Students think they need a monumental experience, but the essay can be about something small.

“What does it mean to you?” Wise asked. “That is what we want to know.”

Myth 3: Your college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Fact: Nope, admissions officers do not expect you to sound like a professional writer. The college essay is your story, and it should be written using your words, and in your voice. You are a high school senior, and you should sound like one. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your English teacher. And certainly not the writer down the street.

“I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17 year-old,” said Duke University’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag.“By the time (the applications) come to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized.”

Myth 4: Admissions officers will never know if a parent, tutor, teacher or college coach has “helped” a student with an essay. They won’t know if you plagiarized, either.

Fact: There is a fine line between getting help and letting someone write part or all of your essay. While parents and others cannot always tell the difference, admissions officers know when someone other than the student writes a story. They don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admissions committee can tell,” Cotter said.

Many schools, including the University of Michigan, will automatically reject a student’s application, even if they merely suspect plagiarism. The U-M website states: “Plagiarism is academic fraud and will cause your application to be thrown out of consideration. You know those great websites that will write your essays for you? We know about them too. Aah, the power of Google.”

Myth 5: There is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay.

Fact: Your best story will grow out of the process of writing your college application essay.

There are no tricks, and no shortcuts. You just need to trust the process.

The college essay does not need to be so daunting. That does not mean it will be easy, but it can be a little less stressful if you allow it to emerge from a process of discovery that includes brainstorming, free writing, revision, review and editing.

Keep in mind, there is no magic formula to help you ace this assignment. To stand out, tell a genuine story about yourself using your words and your voice, and show some reflection.

Myth 6: Only superstar students will impress admissions officers with their essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story!

You don’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or teach an autistic boy how to swim to impress admissions officers.

One Wow student wrote a fabulous college essay about memorizing the general intestinal track to ace his anatomy final. Another wrote a gorgeous story about finding her passion for nature while pulling weeds in a community garden. One boy focused on the moment he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His problem-solving skills impressed admissions officers, and one college sent him an offer of admission that praised his essay.

“I think sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer they have nothing to share,” said Vanderbilt University’s Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Jan Deike. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments.” personal. Be reflective. Move away from the English paper formula and write a first-person story that draws the reader in.

“There’s a misconception about what we do inside the admissions office,” Hopkins’ Wise added. “We are trying to predict future potential. We need to dig deeper where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student. The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office, and we want to hear a 17-year-old’s voice.

How do you do that? Be personal. Be reflective. Move away from the five-paragraph English paper formula and write a first-person story that draws the reader in.

For more tips on mastering your college application essays, sign up for free resources from Wow Writing Workshop. Wow students get into their dream schools year after year.