The College Application Essay

The College Application Essay

In this interview, Signet’s CEO, Jay Bacrania, talks with Dr. Sheila Akbar, Signet’s Director of Education. Sheila oversees Signet’s admissions team and also works closely with students to guide them in writing their college essays, including designing comprehensive curricula for students and families. Sheila has reviewed nearly all of our students’ applications and essays. In short, Sheila knows what makes a great essay!

Sheila and Jay discuss which essays are required, how essays function in an application, what makes a great (or bad) essay, and how to go about the writing process.

What essays are required on the common application?

78% of Common App Members require at least one main essay, which we call the personal statement. This essay goes to any college to which you are submitting the Common Application. These prompts can change from year to year. This year there are seven; the full list of prompts for 2018-2019 can be found here. The personal statement can be a maximum of 650 words long.

One of the prompts is “Pick a topic of your choosing,” so essentially you can write about any topic. The other prompts are meant to elicit personal responses from students, to get them to tell the kind of story admissions officers find meaningful. Some students feel more comfortable responding to something more specific, and some students feel the prompts are limiting; regardless of which type you are, there are now choices for everyone on the Common App.

Supplemental essays are extra essays that a college may require; not every school requires them. Whether or not it uses supplemental essays doesn’t speak to the competitiveness or quality of a college, but it does give information about how a school might read applications. These essays could be 650 words like the Common App essay, or they could be shorter, e.g. 100-200 words on a more specific topic. Often the topic is “Why do you want to go to this school?” Students are expected to write about their own interests and how those match up with what the school has to offer.

What exactly is the personal statement?

The personal statement is really about telling a story. It’s different from the “5-paragraph” format students work with in school. You do have a message you want to convey—a thesis—but it’s not an analytical essay. It should involve some kind of narrative, which may only be one paragraph. There should also be some reflection on what the story means to you, or what you’ve learned from it as a result.

Teachers say show, don’t tell, and that is extremely applicable to this essay. Instead of saying “I’m a hard worker,” tell a story about a time when you demonstrated that quality; admissions officers will absorb that character trait from the essay.

Why is a personal statement necessary on the Common App? Isn’t it a really subjective criterion for admission?

The essay is somewhat subjective, and that’s actually the point. I think about it this way: Everything else on your application is a number, a list, or someone else’s view of you such as your grades and classes, your activities, your experiences with teachers and counselors that lead to recommendations, and your test scores. In this way, they’re more objective.

But the essay offers a chance for the student to tell more about themselves as a person, what they value and who they are. It’s a good thing that it’s subjective, because each student can show who they are in their own words. They’re not being represented by a course title or SAT score; they get to speak in their own voice.

How do admissions officers use the essay in evaluating a student’s candidacy?

It varies by school and also by admissions officer. Some officers read the essay first, and then refer to other information in the student’s file. Other officers read the essay last, because they want to know the grades and test scores before being swayed by the personal story.

The NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling) puts out some good research on how important the essays are in the application process, based on a survey of 300-400 schools. Some are community colleges, some are state schools and public institutions, some are private and very competitive. They identified the four most important elements of the college application. The first is GPA in college prep courses, the second is rigor of the curriculum, the third is overall GPA, and the fourth is standardized test scores. So the essay doesn’t make it into the top four. That said, it is still important.

Many of our students will be applying to top schools. Do those statistics apply to more competitive institutions?

I think the answer to that question depends on the student and the institution. At MIT, for example, you hear that many students have an 800 Math score on the SAT. So while SAT score may determine who gets a deeper look, an 800 is not that meaningful at MIT, because it’s so common. In those cases, the essay can make a bigger difference, and give depth to a person who according to grades and test scores might look the same as everybody else.

I don’t think it’s common for a student without the grades or SAT scores expected by a particular school to have those factors overlooked because their essay is so amazing. The essay is not magic. It can, however, be the difference between acceptance and rejection if the school is unsure about a particular student.

It sounds like the function of the essay is to bring the student alive to the admissions officer.


You have a great metaphor for the application. Can you share it with us?

I think of the application as a painting of a student. Each element adds some shading, fills in a section, and makes it more lifelike. We are trying to turn the painting from a cartoon into a realistic portrait. So by going over your grades or activities in your essay, you’re tracing the same lines over and over again, but not adding any additional nuance to the picture.

What makes a good essay topic and what makes a bad one?

The only truly bad topics are ones that are inappropriate: lewd, or expressing hatred or discriminatory opinions. Other than that, there are good and bad essays. You could take the most cliché topic and write an amazing essay that gives a totally unique perspective on that topic. That’s what students should think about: not what am I writing about, but how am I writing about it.

Could you give some examples of bad essays?

I’ve seen essays where students just make the argument about why they’re qualified for a particular school. They rehash their grades, extracurricular activities, projects, and hard work in the classroom. These end up being bad essays because they’re not telling us anything we don’t already know from reading the rest of the application. That’s a wasted opportunity.

I have also seen cringeworthy essays where the student is trying too hard to be clever. One that comes to mind is a student whose essay was about different family members suggesting possible essay topics to him. He alluded to various stories in his life that could have been really interesting, but never actually told any of the stories; instead, the essay seemed like “name-dropping” his accomplishments, and the student came across as indifferent.

That essay was bad because the student never actually spoke for himself. We don’t know why or how his experiences were meaningful to him. We don’t get to hear him speak in his own voice.

Another kind of bad essay is the one that just repeats clichés. Students are writing in ways they think will impress a college, and they end up writing about a person who doesn’t really exist instead of themselves, or write a generic essay that could be about anyone. I often see the “sports essay” and the “travel essay.”

The sports essay is about how teamwork is great, and you might feel depressed that you didn’t perform as well as you hoped, but you’re committed for the good of the team. It’s the same essay for every single student.

The travel essay comes more often from well-off students who had an amazing opportunity to travel to a developing country and do some volunteer work. They talk about the terrible conditions in the place where they went, how they were able to help, and how it’s changed their own lives in some magical way. I can promise you that colleges are tired of hearing this story.

Again, these are not necessarily bad topics. It’s about how you approach these experiences. If you’re writing an essay about volunteering in another country, don’t paint yourself as a savior, for example. If you truly had a transformational experience, dive into the details of it so you aren’t telling a cliched story.

To help students understand how specific they need to be, I offer this: If you printed your essay without your name on it and dropped it in the hallway of your school, somebody who found that essay should know to return it to you.

How about examples of good essays?

I had one student who didn’t start with a great essay, but by workshopping it, we got there. She was telling the story of how her mother had passed away, and how her mother’s last words to her were “Be somebody, baby.” The first draft was mostly the story of who she wanted to be, ending with the story about her mother. It had a lot of exposition, when much of what she wanted to say could be summed up in that single story. We worked together to put that story at the beginning of the essay, and it provided context about the challenges and difficulties that were present for her. The rest of the time, she got to talk about herself and what she wanted. The final product had an intense emotional impact, because it was told sincerely.

What made the essay great was that as she was writing it, she was not afraid to put her feelings down on paper. That’s what allowed me to see the potential in that essay. She didn’t write a perfect first draft; she worked with a couple of people to get it where she wanted to be. Students don’t usually have to be this honest in their schoolwork, so it can be challenging to express themselves in the personal statement. That’s really hard, especially for teenagers! But this student’s draft was open and honest, and she was clear in what she wanted to convey: that she had been through a lot, she could handle difficult situations, and she had a tremendous fire burning within her to be who she wanted to be.

What are a few DOs or DON’Ts for writing a great essay?

For students, DO have a conversation with your parents or family members about what their boundaries are around the college application process. Students often feel tension between what they want to put in the essay and what they think their parents want in the essay. They might be afraid to tell a particular story or add some detail that they haven’t yet shared with their parents. Or maybe their parents have a higher standard for their writing than the student thinks is realistic.

Some parents are fine never seeing the essay; they trust teachers or counselors to offer support. Other parents are not that comfortable. In those cases, the parents and students need to negotiate some rules around the essay. It can cause writer’s block for the student and add unnecessary tension around the process if it hasn’t been discussed.

Another DO is to ignore the prompts when you’re starting the process. If you met somebody and wanted them to be your best friend, what are the top five things you’d want them to know about you? It’s not your grades or what classes you took. They may care that you think deeply about conservation, or really love animals, or have a great relationship with your grandmother. I encourage students to think in those terms first. Identify a story about your life that speaks to you, and then look back and determine how you will structure your essay as a response to one of the prompts.

DON’T start with a blank Google or Word Doc; the white space can be intimidating. DO get yourself away from the computer: write on index cards or record a voice memo on your phone. Record a conversation with your best friend and then transcribe it later. You’ll be much more connected to the way you speak and what stories you want to tell.

DON’T ever falsify information. If you’re accepted somewhere but have provided false information, your offer will be rescinded. It’s just not worth it.

Do you ever see students who try to gear their essays toward acceptance at a particular college?

Yes! Students often think that everyone applying to an Ivy League school has to have saved lives, started a business, and written a novel. They imagine the person who goes to Harvard speaks a certain way and does certain things with their free time. So they use a thesaurus and write in an overly formal style that doesn’t sound authentic. That’s a big mistake. You’re hiding who you are, and I guarantee that admissions officers don’t want to see that. Your essay should sound like you.

What does a good timeline look like for drafting the personal statement?

The Common App confirms its essay prompts in late spring, so students can start to think about the essay as early as the spring of junior year.

Students should expect that this will be a 2-3-month process, with regular work on the essays each week. There will be a back and forth process with editors/advisors as well.

I recommend dedicating the summer before senior year to writing the essay. I’ve seen some high schools that integrate this process into their junior year English class, and I’ll say two things about that. First, students should feel free to revisit the essay later, even though they may have “completed” it during class. Second, parents should not automatically assume that whatever a student produces in school isn’t good enough.

Can you give us a brief sketch of the writing process?

When you’re just getting started, don’t worry about the form, length, word limits, or prompts. It’s about the story, the message. The rest will come in time.

Spend some time brainstorming about the message you want to convey, and really take your time with this part of the process. You’re not going to come up with your final answers in an hour, or a day. Revisit your brainstorming multiple times. This will provide a lot of fodder for the story you’re telling, and give you plenty of material that can be edited down later.

Make sure that your essay adds materially to the application. It should not repeat (and definitely not contradict) other information that you’ve provided in the Common App.

After that, make an outline. Some students hate outlines, but I think it helps because it allows students to write the pieces that are easiest first.

Write in small pieces, beginning with what feels easiest. You don’t have to write the essay in order! Devote consistent time to your essay. It could be 15 minutes a day or an hour once a week. Once you have each piece written, stitch them together into a coherent draft.

Then go into the revision process. I like to start with a reverse outline to make sure I hit the marks I want to hit. For the personal statement, this includes finding the balance between narrative and reflection, and getting the student’s overall message across.

You might bring in outside editors, and you might also take some time off between revisions so you can view the essay with fresh eyes. Make sure it’s reviewed carefully for style, grammar, spelling, etc.

This is not a process that happens overnight. The more you can revise something to fit your vision, the better it will be in your application. The only warning I’ll give is to avoid aiming for some level of perfection that’s not achievable. At a certain point, your essay is done.

Turning to the supplemental essays, can you talk about when they are used, and whether they serve a different purpose than the personal statement?

Practically speaking, the Common App essay is specific to the story of the student. Since it goes to multiple schools, no one school should be mentioned by name. Supplemental essays, on the other hand, are specific to both the student and the school. Even though many schools will ask similar questions, you should not reuse your supplemental essays.

Tailor each response to each particular school; this will rely heavily on the research you’ve done on the institution while you were creating your college list. Identify the 3-4 things that motivated you to apply to the school. Write about those, and pair them with things that you, as the student, already do. You want the school to understand why you are a good fit for their student body.

For example, I had a student applying to Carnegie Mellon who had joined a local astronomy club in her town. She was not interested in astronomy as a major, but it was an important hobby to her. So her supplemental essay was about the telescopes at Carnegie Mellon, and why she thought they were so cool, and how excited she was to have the chance to continue to do this thing that she loved on campus. Her essay was able to illustrate something about her that she hadn’t already shown in other parts of the application and connect that to a resource that the university had. She made a clear argument about why she was a good match for that school.

Between the personal statement of the Common App and supplemental essay, is one more important than the other?

Generally, the Common App essay carries more weight, although it does depend on the school. For small schools, the supplement(s) can matter a lot. Many supplemental questions are more fun or a little more casual, and students have the opportunity to show their creative side more. Colleges generally want to reduce barriers to applications, so they only ask for elements that they use in meaningful ways in their admissions process. Students should try to maximize both essays, if required; don’t skimp on one.

What makes a good or bad supplemental essay?

Many of the same recommendations about the Common App apply. You don’t want to be generic. Don’t write about the great ranking, reputation, or architecture of the school; it doesn’t say anything about you. Unless, of course, you want to be an architect and you write about some obscure design element at the college that’s really attractive to you.

Steer away from things other people can say. Be specific about the school, and also about yourself. It’s truly an opportunity to demonstrate your match with the school, to convey why you and the school would mutually be a good fit.

Is there a method or process to approaching the supplemental essays?

Dig up your college research, or save it as you continue to research, and use it as a reference when planning your supplements. Sometimes schools don’t directly ask why you want to go to the school, but they definitely want some kind of story about who you are. Remember that their goal is to understand who you will be on their campus. Tell them something that is true, and keep making the argument that you’re a good fit.

Remember your audience as well. For example, Stanford always asks you to write a letter to your future roommate. That’s not really for your future roommate! They’re asking the question in that way to get an introduction to you in a way that’s not overly formal or trying to impress.

If you’re having trouble writing the supplement, is that a sign that the school isn’t a good fit for you?

Absolutely. I think Stanford has 12 or 13 questions, which range from 50 words to 400 words apiece! A school with intense supplemental requirements is looking to raise the bar. If you’re not motivated to write those essays well, maybe don’t apply to a school like that just to “see what happens.” For students where a school is the right fit, they’re really excited to write those essays.

More questions about crafting a great personal statement? Contact us! We love to chat!

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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