Authenticity in the College Application Essay

The college application essay.  Perhaps no single component of a student’s college application receives more scrutiny, second-guessing, and general obsession than the application essay does.  And yet, in my experience, working at the college end of this process, most applicants are not as well served by their essay as they could be.  How can this be? 

I believe the main reason is that most applicants assume that the essay portion of the application is far more important than it is.  Do not get me wrong: I am not saying that the essay is not of value.  It is important or it would not be required by most colleges.  However, because the essay is one of the few components over which applicants can exercise direct and immediate control (unlike their grades and test scores), it can become even more momentous in applicants’ minds than the role it actually plays in the process.  Some students may be tempted to believe, for example, that a fabulous essay can, by itself, make up for a lackluster academic or extracurricular performance, although that is virtually never the case. 

That mindset also can make it much more difficult to write the kind of essay that may actually help applicants reveal themselves authentically to admissions officers – to help give a sense of what is important to them and what makes them different from others.  Instead, if the applicant attaches too much significance to the essay, it is all too easy to give in to the temptation to write what they think admissions officers what to hear and what they think will help them be admitted.  To ask oneself, “What are they looking for?” in this already-complex process is one of the most dangerous questions that any applicant can ponder.  Few things can interfere more with the process of revealing one’s true self to a stranger, as it can so easily lead to a contrived essay.   

In reality, the essay is not even the first part of the application that is reviewed.  Typically the essay is reviewed after the reader has gleaned a sense of how competitive the applicant is academically and in other ways.  In most cases, the admissions officer already has a fairly clear sense of the chances of admission at that point.  If the essay is well-written and revealing and from an applicant who already was looking strong in that college’s pool, it is like the icing on the cake and reinforces the direction in which the application already was going.  If it is the same excellent essay from an applicant whose other credentials did not look as compelling in that college’s pool, the essay will not, by itself, make that applicant admissible.  As one of my former colleagues at Harvard often says, “A strong essay may help the wounded, but it will never raise the dead.”   

So what makes for an essay that can help those applicants whose candidacy falls into that gray area where it could provide a small tip factor?  The best essays are those that breathe life into the application and paint a complete picture of what makes the applicant tick more than grades, scores and extracurricular lists can.  Usually that involves relating a story that reveals something important about the applicant, but by showing rather than telling.  In our work with students, we encourage them to step back and think about the personal qualities that lie at their core and then to think about anecdotes that illustrate those qualities.  Sometimes students believe they need to have experienced something truly life-changing to have the material for a good essay, but even the most banal moments in life can provide revealing descriptions of how we deal with them.  I am reminded, for example, of one of my favorite essays from the past, in which a student wrote very movingly about the day he discovered as an 8-year-old child that there is no Santa Claus. 

The good news is that the level of authenticity required to write an effective college essay is something that most CA students already possess, since ours is an environment that celebrates individuality and creativity.  CA students also get extra exposure to writing this personal narrative in the writing seminar they all take in the spring of the junior year.   The College Office has heard terrific feedback over the years from many admissions officers who read our students’ applications.  One of our primary goals in the college counseling process is to increase our students’ own self-awareness, since that leads to greater success and well-being in college.  Writing a revealing applicant essay can be an important step in that process and, at its best, can help strengthen the candidacies of our students at their chosen colleges.  But seldom, if ever, is the essay the deciding factor in the decision-making process. 

As college counselors we also spend many hours reviewing our seniors’ essay drafts, sharing them with each other in the office, and helping students submit essays that will give the college admissions officers who read them a clear sense of who those students are.  Parents can help in this process: Encourage your child to approach the college essay writing process primarily as one of self-exploration and self-discovery.  Doing so will very likely lead to a college application essay that is revealing of the student’s true essence –and that is the kind of essay that is truly meaningful.