Why the College Essay Matters More This Year Than Ever—and 5 Things You Can Do About It

The coronavirus has changed a lot of things in our world. We’re stuck inside and wearing masks outdoors. No one can travel or gather with friends. We’re doing school at home. 

By now, these things seem almost regular. For colleges, though, the adjustments are just beginning.

If you’re a senior, you already know about the mess of SAT and ACT scheduling. With 770,00 students who planned to take the test this spring unable to do so, the demand is high. And with social distancing, the capacity remains low.

So colleges have adapted.

For many schools, this means going test-optional for the admissions process this year. According to a report from nonprofit organization FairTest, this includes 85% of the top 100 liberal arts colleges as ranked by the U.S. News & World Report. Seven out of the eight Ivy League colleges have joined them, making Princeton University the only Ivy to require standardized tests for 2021.

Without standardized tests, how will schools select applicants from the multitude of applications?

On NPR, Shawn Abbott, vice provost of admissions at Temple University, explained: “[students are] going to get a closer look and a chance to stand out in [the] admissions process through other attributes.” As he put it, “We’re thinking about how we might extract characteristics that we would value at Temple, something perhaps like citizenship, or social justice, or tenacity.”

That is, they will be looking for student characteristics in other parts of the application. Because standardized tests are optional, everything else will matter more.

This doesn’t really affect most of your application. It’s too late to change which clubs you joined or how many hours you volunteered. But it’s everything for the essay—or the essay has become everything in how you can affect your chances of getting in.

What You Can Do

This is important to know, but not very helpful unless you can take real action to use this opportunity. So, now that you know the essays matter so much, what should you do?

1. Find a College Essay Tutor.

This almost feels like cheating. If you find an essay tutor, you don’t have to read the rest of this post. They’ll guide you through the process of writing your essay and make sure it stands out in the overflooded applicant pool.

They can help with brainstorming, with choosing topics, with writing first drafts, and with bringing each moment to life. They’ll be able to make suggestions for revisions and encourage you through the process. When you get to the final edits, they’ll be your personal spellcheck and tell you which words to cut to get down to 650.

Essentially, they’ll guide you every step of the way.

If you find a good one, they’ll also give you tips and tricks for the supplementary essays. They’ll make it all go faster and smoother and the final drafts will be incomparable.

If you don’t find a tutor, though, the next steps can start you on the process independently.

2. Research Your Dream College(s).

You should be researching your dream schools anyway. Not because anyone told you to, but because you should be excited. You’re starting a whole new section of your life, and you get to choose where.

Research lets you see what different schools value, what they emphasize, and what programs they offer. It is a window into one possible life you could have. Take the time to think about what you want and what each school would bring.

Maybe internships really matter to you, or research or study abroad. Maybe you want to transition straight from undergraduate into a graduate or medical program. Some places emphasize learning across disciplines, while others invite you to specialize. Plus the culture and the places, the student groups and the cities, what weather and sports teams and professors you want to have.

Beyond personal planning, research gives you an idea of what different schools may be looking for. A liberal arts school may want a broad love of learning, while a research institution may prefer dedication to a single career. Some prioritize creativity while others prioritize competition.

Whatever the priorities, these schools are seeking to build a community. They all want caring future members who are excited to contribute and grow. 

If you have one dream school, you can use your research to determine some of the qualities they may be seeking. Then you can speak to those in your personal statement and supplements. 

3. Build Your Own Brand.

We don’t usually think of ourselves as brands, but for the sake of applications it can be helpful. If you had a slogan, what would it be? If a stranger could only know one part of your character, what would be the most important one to know?

That’s essential what the college essay is: the only opportunity college admissions officers have to see you as a human beyond statistics on a page. So take some time to think about the kind of human you are—and the kind of human you want to portray yourself to be.

You could Google lists of values and circle the ones that matter to you most. You could gather the most important parts of your life into a drawing or collage. I laid them out as an idea board across my senior bedroom floor: favorite clothes, favorite books, written characteristics, the belongings I could not bear to lose.

You could try writing your own obituary or deciding what you’d take if your house was on fire. You could make list of happiest moments and saddest moments and the words your friends or family or teachers would use to describe you. The more you brainstorm about who you are and how you see the world, the more material you’ll have.

Then, like any good brand, you’ll have to choose the most important parts of that brainstorming. If you were Nike, what would your “Just do it” slogan be?

4. Write Your Essays. Early.

This is what it’s all about. These are the essays that matter so much in the application process this year. Take the time to think of a topic you really care about, a moment you want to share, or a memory you cannot stop remembering.

Thoughtfulness, vulnerability, and growth are all essential to show. Whatever your topic, keep your own voice. These essays don’t have to be formal like the essays for school. You can start sentences with “but” and use contractions. The writing style is up to you.

Although the voice can vary, the strongest content is always rich in details. If you write about how you joined student government and learned from the experience, thousands of other kids will have written the same. Choose something specific: the moment you made a speech and stumbled on your words, or the campaign you started to address depression at school. The more specific, the better.

The most specific essays depend on scenes. Ultimately, around 80% of your essay should put the reader there with you in the moment. This both captures how you act in the world and makes your essay more interesting to read.

Don’t forget to ground in your body. What actions are you taking? What can you see or hear or smell? What can you feel on your skin, and where in your body do you feel your emotions? If people are talking, include dialogue. Make it sound as real as possible. Make it all sound as real as possible. By the capturing the details, the reader can experience the moment through you.

At this point, don’t worry about word count. Expect to write around 1000 words, and then you can cut it down. This means you’ll end up with only your best sentences. It also means you won’t have to worry about length while you write.

When you get to supplements, use details from your research about the colleges alongside details from your life. If you can include the name of a professor or a specific research paper, even better. This shows you care and also makes your essays unique, turn making them more interesting to read.

5. Revise. And revise and revise.

This is the stage where you get to cutting. Take the rough drafts of your essays and choose the most important parts. Highlight vivid details and essential actions. Reflections, in this process, are what get cut the most.

For each sentence, think about if you could say it in fewer words. Look for phrases that could become one word (“mull it over” and “consider,” for instance) and words that are actually optional (“that” is often optional, or prepositions like the “up” in “clean up”). Also look for places where you repeat yourself, or where you explain something that is clear if the reader has been following along.

The less explanation, the better. Trust the reader to do their work.

Beyond cutting, think about the final message you are sending. Spend some time on the conclusion. Make sure to smooth any transitions.

When you look back through, stay open to changing sections that may be weak. Sometimes, a big part of revision is re-writing.

Remember, as you’re working, it is worth the time. The college essay is worth all the effort you put in. This is always the case, but especially so for 2020-2021.

Because it is so important, do not rush the process. When it feels close to done, take it to someone else to read. If you have a tutor, ask their opinion. Ask your parents or a teacher. Gather as much feedback as you can. Then decide which feedback is true and which you can ignore.

Ultimately, the essay is your own. Only you will know what revisions are right.

When you’re at the final draft, read it out loud. Look for any places that sound awkward or not like your voice. Change them. Read it aloud again. This is one of the best ways to edit (I’m reading aloud to myself even now as I write). 

Final Thoughts

This fall will be stressful for everyone. For most students, classes are remaining virtual. Classes in person risk coronavirus spreading and infection. The world remains far from what it was before the pandemic. As the semester ramps up, the work will only increase.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or just looking for extra support, we offer one-on-one college essay tutoring as well as small group workshops on the college essay and the supplementary essays. Not to mention SAT/ACT test prep services and college admissions counseling. We’re a one stop shop when it comes to college admissions support.

Whether you work alone or with a tutor, remember that the sooner you finish your essay, the less you’ll have to do when finals and midterms come around. Give yourself the space to focus on college essays while you have the time. This year, the essays matter more than ever. Make sure to capture your character—and the reader’s attention—by writing essays that will stand out among the crowd.

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