In my years working in college admission the part of the application I am asked about the most is the essay section. Over 15 admission cycles for three different universities, I estimate I have read upwards of 20,000 application essays. For me, the most enjoyable part of an application is the essay, as it is chance for the applicant to share their personal voice. However, it is also the part of the application that can cause the most anxiety.
Students concern themselves with the wrong questions, such as what is the perfect topic, what are the beliefs and values of the people reading your essays, or what does the Admission Committee want to read. Instead, be concerned with how to reveal your true self in less than 500 words. What is important to you? What do you value? What are your passions? What are your aspirations? Who are your inspirations? The common word throughout is YOU. We want to hear your voice – candid and authentic – through your essay.
Here are a few nuggets of advice I have collected over the years. This is no way is the gospel about college admission essays, but rather a list of strategies that I believe work:
- Don’t think of it as an essay assignment, but rather a personal statement. The term essay is the wrong term to use because this is not an English term paper. Your college statement needs to be personal, and it needs to be thought of in a creative and original fashion. Yes, we care about your writing ability; but what matters more is what you reveal about yourself.
- 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. We review thousands of essays each year and have become experts in telling when students are not being true to themselves.
- Do not over-think the essay prompts. These are not trick questions. In fact, they are open-ended, allowing you to create personal statements and providing the flexibility to go in any number of directions. The most impressive essays I have read often are about the most ordinary topics.
- Make sure to answer the question, and know the word limit. Though essay prompts provide freedom in the direction you take with your answers, make sure to follow the instructions carefully.
- Proofread your essays. An obvious tip, but still very important. Proofreading does not mean just running a spell-check. Incorrect word choices can kill an essay. Don’t be careless.
- Take risks. The introduction and conclusion are crucial. You want to catch the reader’s attention and be memorable. Write naturally, and be yourself, but do spend time thinking about how to be impactful with what you write.
- Ask “Is this me?” When you think you have your final draft, make three copies and distribute them to a parent/relative, a teacher or guidance counselor, and a close friend. Ask each person to read your essay. Instead of providing suggested content edits, ask them to answer the following question: “Does this essay represent me?” If a related person, educator, and friend all answer yes, then you have written an excellent college admission personal statement.
I decided to ask members of the Emory University Admission Committee to share their best pieces of advice with you regarding essays, too. Enjoy!
Scott Allen, Senior Associate Dean of Admission, has spent more than twenty years reading application essays for Emory University. In that time, he has come up with the following mantra:
Be yourself. Be confident in what you have to share. Be joyful that you have something to say. Be focused on sharing perspectives.
Associate Dean of Admission Giselle Martin shared some excellent advice regarding how to overcome essay anxiety:
So often I hear students fretting over their essay topic, not because of the question itself but because they are so focused on the reader or the admission committee. I wish there was a means to express to students that the essays that “speak” to us most are the ones where our own thoughts are silenced because a student has opened their personal Pandora’s box, or imagination, or have stood their ground on a topic that gives them the power to speak their values and personal creed with meaning, intentionality, & conviction. Those students who dive deep into their inner thoughts, who are not afraid to be bold in their convictions and go below the surface of conventional or tacit norms, come alive in their applications. Yes, we know this is scary sometimes, but we have tremendous respect for the students who choose to consider a place like Emory. Be you, 100% authentic, no artificial flavors added, and no Photoshop needed. If you do this, there’s no doubt you will end up in the community that is the best home for you to nourish your spirit for life.
Here are a few tips from seasoned staff on how to approach writing your essay:
I tell students to let their personalities shine through in their writing. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re serious, be serious. There’s no right way to write a college essay. We want to know what makes you tick and what you’re passionate about. The essays that are truly genuine to one’s self truly do stand out. – Senior Admission Advisor Sarah Darden
The personal essay should be a story which tells the reader a little bit about who you are. Anecdotes make wonderful personal essays. I often encourage students to think about their essay in the context of the rest of their application since as admission officers, we have read most of your application by the time we read the personal essay. The essay does not stand by itself but in the context of the larger application.
– Associate Dean of Admission Mark Butt
The essay is the student’s opportunity to communicate directly to the admission staff. It is more than an academic exercise–the essay is where the student’s voice is heard. Tell us your passions, dreams, struggles, and desires. In doing so, above all else, be authentic. – Admission Advisor Will Canon
I also have a few tips from new additions to our staff who are looking forward to their first reading season this year:
A good essay does not read like a response to the dreaded first question of an interview, “Tell us about yourself.” Forgive my English major metaphor: Instead of casting a torch dimly over the entire tapestry of your life, bring the torch closer to just one part. Create a vivid impression of a moment, experience, or quality that can lead your readers to close our eyes and picture you as if you were before us – resilient, expansive, and ready for the pleasures and challenges of being a part of our diverse community. – Admission Counselor Joel Dobben
The essay portion of the application is our best window into who the student is and what makes him or her unique. Admissions is about building a class and choosing students that are right for this specific school. In order to find students that embody the Emory spirit, we need far more insight than SATs and GPAs can tell us. The essays are the students’ opportunities to show us who they are, which may require that they spend some time trying to figure that out. This doesn’t mean that they have to have a 10-year plan, but at 17 or 18, they should have had some life experiences that they can analyze. Correct spelling and grammar doesn’t hurt either! – Admission Advisor Louisa Pinto
And I thought we would finish with Nicholas Missler, Assistant Dean of Admission, who shared about the best essay he has ever read:
Perhaps the best essay I read was a few years ago, and the student wrote about his tennis shoes. He mentioned that his parents bought him a pair at the beginning of his freshman year and he wore them all throughout high school. Now, no doubt this was a bit of creative liberty – who wears the same shoes every day for 4 years – but that was just fine since this detail isn’t critical to the point. He wrote about how the shoes reflected his time, efforts, and values over his high school career. They were worn from running cross country, paint splattered from Habitat for Humanity projects, stained red from mud when he and his family hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, and had a hole burn in the top from a bonfire he had with his friend before senior year. Using his shoes as a vehicle, he shared the experiences that led to his development into the mature, college-ready student he is today. I enjoyed the stories and learned a great deal about him in the short essay. If you can manage to balance a good story with details about your life, while keeping yourself as the focal point of the essay, you’ll capture our attention and teach us about you in the process.
I hope all this advice assists you as you finish up work on your Common Application and Emory Supplemental essays. As best you can, enjoy this process and know that all members of the Emory/Oxford Admission Committee are eagerly awaiting the chance to read your words.
Daniel G. Creasy
Director of Communications
Office of Undergraduate Admission