PREPARING THE COLLEGE ESSAY
Maryland Higher Education Commission Offers Advice on
Completing the College Essay
Annapolis, MD (November 29, 2006) -- For many Maryland high
school seniors, preparing the college essay creates a great
sense of anguish and panic, but it doesn’t have to,
according to academic affairs experts at the Maryland Higher
Education Commission (MHEC).
“It is natural that students are anxious about preparing the
college essay,” said MHEC Secretary Dr. Calvin W. Burnett.
“The essay is what sets the student apart from other
students with comparable grade point averages and SAT
scores. But knowing what and how to express ideas is what
gets you in or keeps you out.”
Barbara Gill, Admissions Director at the University of
Maryland, College Park, agrees. She reads thousands of
essays a year and makes the following recommendations to
students: write clearly and concisely and write about things
that interest you.
“Too often students write for the reader of the essay and
who they are gets lost. We want to know who the person is.
This is not the time to be shy.” She also recommends that
students stay away from well-worn topics like sports and
scoring the winning touchdown or basket or essays about the
loss of a loved one. Gill also advises students to be
creative without being too cutesy, where it can be
interpreted that they didn’t take the essay seriously.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling,
an education association of secondary school counselors,
college and university admission officers and counselors,
makes the following recommendations:
Start early. The more time you have, the less stress you'll
have. And you'll have plenty of time to give the essay your
Be yourself. Take a moment to think about what interests
you, what you love to talk about, what makes you sit up and
take notice if it's mentioned in class or on TV. Then write
One of the biggest mistakes students make is "writing what
they think others want to hear, rather than about an issue,
event, or person that really had significance for them,"
says Richard M. Fuller, dean of admission and financial aid
at Hamilton College (NY). An essay like that is not just
boring to write-it's boring to read.
Be honest. You're running late (see #1), you can't think of
what to write -- and someone e-mails you a heartwarming
story. With just a tweak here and there, it could be a great
essay, you think. It's what you would have written if you'd
just had enough time.
Don't be fooled! College admission officers have read
hundreds-even thousands-of essays. They are masters at
discovering any form of plagiarism. Adapting an e-mail
story, buying an essay from some Internet site, getting
someone else to write your essay -- admission people have
seen it all. Don't risk your college career by taking the
easy way out.
Take a risk. On the other hand, some risks can pay off.
Don't settle for the essay that everyone else is writing.
Imagine an admission officer up late, reading the fiftieth
essay of the day – yours. Do you want that person to nod off
because he or she has already read ten essays on that topic?
"The danger lies not in writing bad essays but in writing
common essays -- the one that admission officers are going
to read dozens of," says Scott Anderson, associate director
of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy (PA). "My
advice? Ask your friends what they are writing -- and then
don't write about that!"
Keep in focus. This is your chance to tell admission
officers exactly why they should admit you. Unfortunately,
some students try to list every single reason-their stellar
academic record, their athletic prowess, their community
service -- all in a page or two. When that happens, the
essay looks like a grocery list.
Instead, read the essay question carefully and jot down a
few ideas. Then choose the one that looks like the most fun
to write about. Stick to that main theme throughout the
essay. You don't have to list all your achievements --
that's what the rest of the application is for. Use the
essay to help the admission officers get to know you as a
Write and rewrite. Don't try to write a masterpiece on your
first try. It's not possible -- and all that pressure is
likely to give you writer's block. For your first draft,
write anything that comes to mind about your topic. Don't
worry too much about grammar or spelling. Just get it down
on paper (or computer screen). Then let it "rest" for a few
hours or a few days.
When you come back to the draft, look for ways to make it
more focused and better written. Some people are "fat"
writers: they write long, wordy first drafts that need to be
shortened later. Others are "skinny" writers: they write
short and simple first drafts and then need to add details
or examples to "flesh out" the skeleton. Either way, don't
be afraid to make major changes at this stage. Are there
details that don't really relate to the topic? Cut them. Do
you need another example? Put it in.
Here are two other things to try, suggested by college
counselor Marti Phillips-Patrick.
Remove the introductory and concluding paragraphs,
and then see if your essay seems stronger. These
paragraphs are often the most likely to have
Go through the essay and cut out every "very" and
every "many." Words like these are vague, and your
writing is often stronger without them.
Get a second opinion. Even best-selling novelists ask
other people to read their manuscripts before they're
sent to the publisher. When you've rewritten the essay
to your satisfaction, find someone who can give you
advice on how to make it even better. Choose a person
you respect and who knows something about writing -- a
favorite English teacher, a parent, a friend who writes
for the school paper. Ask them to tell you what they
like best about your essay -- and what you can do to
Criticism of your writing can be tough to hear, but try to
listen with an open mind. You don't have to make every
change suggested -- after all, it's your essay and no one
else's -- but you should seriously consider each suggestion.
Proofread. Finally, you're ready to send your essay. Not
so fast! Read it over one more time, looking for those
little errors that can creep in as you write or edit. If
you're using a computer, also run a spell check.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to catch minor typos --
you've read the essay so many times that you see what should
be there rather than what is there. To make sure you catch
everything, try reading your essay out loud or having
someone else read it out loud to you. Another strategy is to
read the essay backward, from the last sentence to the
first. That makes it just unfamiliar enough for errors to
Don't confuse applying online with sending e-mail.
Applying online is just as serious as applying "the
old-fashioned way." It may feel like you're sending e-mail,
but you're not.
"One thing I've often seen is that students who apply online
submit sub-par essays," says Palmer Muntz, director of
admission at Oregon Institute of Technology. He has found
that essays submitted online tend to be much shorter than
those submitted on paper. In addition, students often use
e-mail language -- no capitalization, or abbreviations such
as BTW or "thanx" -- which are not appropriate to a formal
document. Make sure that you put as much effort into an
online essay as you would if you were sending it snail mail.
Don't expect too much from an essay. The application
essay is important, but it's not the only thing that is
considered. "Can [the essay] make a difference in getting
the 'thin versus thick' envelope? Absolutely," says Fuller.
"But that is the exception rather than the rule."
That's because admission officers look at the whole package
-- your academics, extracurricular activities, standardized
tests, and other factors. A great essay rarely makes up for
a weak academic record. On the other hand, a mediocre essay
won't necessarily consign your application to the "deny"
list. So make your essay as well-written as you can, but
don't put so much pressure on yourself that the rest of the
application fades in importance.
For more information about higher education in Maryland,
contact the Maryland Higher Education Commission at
410-260-4500 or 1-800-974-0203.