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From the pros: Best college essays hint at who you are

Posted by Leslie Anderson  October 24, 2013 03:59 PM

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The college essay: It is daunting. It can cause sleepless nights and stomachs to churn. Countless hours are spent trying to find the perfect subject, the perfect description, the perfect words to portray the winning experience that will green-light an application.

And yes, it can be the tipping factor that either gets you into a top school, or gets you a rejection letter.

John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, has a few words of advice for high school seniors working on their essay: Keep it simple. Tell a story.

“Create an image for me so I get to know the person behind the transcript,” he said. “I want to feel the heartbeat.”

That is also the key for Jennifer Desjarlais, dean of admission and financial aid at Wellesley College, and Gail Berson, vice president and dean of admissions at Wheaton College.

The three veteran admissions officers, with a combined 90-plus years of experience reading college-application essays, agree that the most important element is to tell a story that gives an impression of who you are.

While the essays are important, they say, it is the transcript that is the most important factor in deciding whether to admit a student .

The rigor of courses selected, how a student did in those courses, and standardized test scores are the first considerations.

Then, all things being equal, an essay can tilt the balance in either direction, especially at the more selective schools.

“The essay lets us know, who is this person behind the numbers? Will they contribute?” Mahoney said.

At selective schools, applicants are often very similar in academic achievements and extracurricular activities. In these cases, essays take on added importance, they said.

“We parse it for clues about what this student will be able to contribute beyond their academic prowess,” Mahoney said.

Desjarlais agreed, saying sometimes essays affirm an application, and sometimes “the essay is a plot twist,” causing them to take a closer look at the applicant.

“We care about learning who you are as a person; this is a very human process,” she said. “You don’t need to impress us through an accomplishment with your essay.”

Desjarlais noted that she always leaves the essay to the end, reading it only after she has looked over the entire application package.

“I’ve learned about [the applicant] from lots of other pieces of information in the file, and this is my opportunity to hear about her from her, in her own words,” Desjarlais said.

Don’t worry about trying to impress the admissions office through a grand experience or accomplishment.

And you definitely don’t have to have suffered through adversity to be able to write a poignant essay, the admissions officers say.

“Make it personal, and authentic, and well written,” said Desjarlais. “Write about what you know. It is the little details that can be most revealing.”

Desjarlais described a seemingly simple essay in which a student wrote about her daily 20-minute rides to school with her father, listening to National Public Radio.

“It was a wonderful window into her relationship with her father, it was insightful, it told a real story of who this woman was,” she said.

And perhaps most importantly, it didn’t try too hard.

“It was honest,” she said. “We’re looking for an experience that had an impact, and she was able to describe how these rides to school had an impact on her life.”

Berson described a similar essay as one of her most memorable.

It was about a student’s yearly trips to Maine.

“You were right there in the station wagon with the family, the smells, the scenes passing by. I loved it,” she said.

Mahoney recalls one from a student now at Boston College.

In the first lines, the student described himself as a football player, standing 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds.

“And that’s probably an exaggeration,” Mahoney said the student wrote. He had noticed that everyone at practice seemed to know his name, and figured he must be better than he thought if everyone knew who he is.

“So he finally asked one of his teammates why all the guys knew his name,” Mahoney said. “The teammate laughed, and said, ‘Because our names are all taped to the top of our helmets.’ ”

He was so short, he never saw the top of anyone else’s helmet, Mahoney said.

The applicant wrote that the cliche “size doesn’t matter” was probably written by someone who was tall.

“He wrote that he just recognized early on that he would always have to work a little bit harder,” Mahoney said. “It showed humanity, it showed humility, and it had a point to make.”

Not all subjects are appropriate, the officers warned.

Berson remembers a student whose transcript was excellent, but his essay about a violent video game written in graphic language landed his application to the Norton campus in the rejection pile.

“Everything about the subject was off-putting,” she said.

There are other things the three agree that students should avoid.

Humor is probably not a great way to go because it is very difficult to be funny in print. The same goes for trying to write satire or poetry, unless you’re particularly accomplished in the genre.

Mahoney cautioned that many students fall into the trap of writing about a hero in their lives.

“After reading these, we’d often love to admit Mom or Dad, but they’ve told us nothing about themselves,” he said.

Berson has a list of things not to do that she tells students during the many lectures she gives about essay writing.

She says it’s important to stay away from topics that would be difficult to expand on what has already been written, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, and 9/11.

“We want to see original material that tells us something about you,” she said.

She tells students to throw away their thesaurus and write with words they actually use, and to keep it simple.

“Don’t write a novel. It doesn’t need to be a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it does have to be thoughtful,” she said.

And yes, she said, spelling and grammar matter.

The three also say it is extremely important that students write their own essays, and that it is very easy for these professionals to spot something written by an adult.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I read about 1,000 essays a year,” Mahoney said. “There is a difference between a 17-year-old voice and a 45-year-old voice. There is a difference in the words they use, and how they say things.”

He also said “canned” or packaged applications are also easy to recognize. “They might be very well written, but they are missing the humanity, the voice,” he said.

While the admissions officers are leery of parents or other adults doing heavy editing of essays, they do suggest that students ask a trusted friend, teacher, or someone else who knows them well to read the essay, although they caution against letting a succession of edits strip away the student’s original language.

“Start looking at the questions and thinking about a focus well in advance,” Desjarlais suggested. “This is not something you can write the night before it’s due.’’

And at the end of the process, they want students to understand that the essay is one piece of the application package.

It is an important piece, but it is a piece under the student’s complete control.

“It’s probably not as important as they think it is, but perhaps more important than they’d like it to be,” Desjarlais said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at

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