Write a College Essay That Brings a Smile

This week, during an information session for prospective students and parents at New York University, I asked Assistant Dean of Admissions Julie Kling what makes her smile when she reads an essay.

“Be truthful and write in your own voice,” she said, adding, “We can tell when it is not written in a 17-year-old voice.”

At Wow Writing Workshop, we spend a lot of time discussing the application essay with college admissions counselors, and we keep hearing the same things: The high school transcript is one of the best indicators of how a student will perform in college; extracurricular activities matter; test scores count more at some schools than others; the essay is significant.

Why is the essay so important? College admissions decision makers want to know who you are, why you want to attend a particular university and whether or not you can write. (Of course you can!) The essay tells them something about you they may not know from your high school transcripts. Most schools do not conduct undergraduate interviews, so the essay gives them a glimpse into who you are.

I met privately with Kling after the session ended to talk more about the essay’s role. Like many universities, NYU accepts the Common App and requires applicants to write a few additional short answer essays. Kling said the student who might fall below the school’s academic profile could push himself up in the pile with an essay that stands out, but assured me that an outstanding essay alone will not get a student admitted to NYU.

And how does Kling, who reads about 3,000 applications each season, recommend a student stand out in the essay?

1) On the question, Why NYU?: She said many students write about the larger NYU or their desires to live in New York City, yet they fail to mention a specific program at the school, or why they might want to take certain classes or study abroad. “Write about a program that interests you,” she said. “Find a hook that is special. Name the program; use the name of your tour guide in the essay.”

2) Hook the reader early.  “I look through every essay, but if the first paragraph doesn’t hook me, I might not spend as much time on it as one that does.”

3) Make sure the story is about you. Kling said she reads too many essays about people students admire. “The essay is not about them at all.”

4) Make sure you answer the prompt.

5) Write about something you do that will show admissions officials who you are when you are not at school.

Think of it this way: Your goal should be to write an essay to make the person reading it smile.

“I want to know what is meaningful to you,” said Hillary Teague, the assistant dean of admissions for Kalamazoo College. “That makes me happy.”

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t know where to start? Contact Wow Writing Workshop. Wow’s  college essay writing coaches are ready to help you to tackle this task so you can stand out from the crowd.