Oberlin Blogs

My advice on the college essay

November 24, 2008

Jesse Hernandez

For some of you, it's about that time: time to finish or start your college essay (insert loud boom of thunder and lightning flash here, possibly maniacal laugh if you so choose). This is often the cause of much stress for students applying to college, as they struggle to try and capture themselves in just a few pages of writing.

With seemingly so much at stake here, it's no wonder that one of the most common questions I am asked while talking with students, parents, and high school counselors is: What do you look for in a college essay? It's a very good question, and honestly, one of the hardest to answer. However, after having had to answer it more than a few times, I have managed to come up with what I think is about the best answer I can give. Well, the best answer I can give prefaced by a few key points:

1.I am Jesse Hernandez, a real person (at least that's what they tell me), and as such, I have my own opinion, background, ideas, humor, etc. Most admissions counselors are like this, with very few exceptions (I won't name any names). What I like may not be what another person or admissions counselor likes or prefers. This has been proven on more than one occasion when I have listened to multiple admission counselors answer the "college essay" question. The bottom line is, there is no "magic bullet" essay out there that will be a hit with every admissions counselor. So, my advice is not universal.
2.Building off of that, college admission offices often have their own culture that may have fostered a history of looking for or appreciating a certain type of college essay. I know that there have been a few edgy essays that most of the counselors in our office enjoyed, but we heard were not valued quite as much at another school's admissions office. So, like people, one office may have a slightly different opinion than another as to what makes a standout essay.

With the small print out of the way and my lawyers satisfied, on to the bulk of my answer!

The first thing I like to remind a student is that this essay is going to be accompanied by a whole file of other information about them. After all, isn't that ultimately what a college application is, a bundle of information about a person? Therefore, the person reading your application is going to have in front of them, and most likely already have read, a wealth of facts about you and what you have accomplished or been a part of in your life. My point here is to keep in mind what is already represented in your application and know what may or may not need to be expounded upon in the essay. If the essay doesn't give any more information to the reader than what is already in your application, than I feel that's a lost opportunity. I'm not saying that if you are a dedicated athlete, and sports are well represented in the application, that you couldn't write your essay about them. Just be sure that the essay enlightens the reader more about your athletic life and shows your personality, and doesn't simply restate what they just read in the application. See the essay as an opportunity to show something about you that the reader couldn't learn by reading the application alone.

When reading an applicant's college essay, I am primarily looking to see if they can write well and trying to get an idea of who that student is as a person. I want to hear that person's voice and character come through in the writing and get an idea of what their interests are, based on what they chose to write about. So how can you best make this happen? Glad you asked! This leads me finally to my most important advice for writing college essays:

Write about what interests you. Don't try to think about what the admissions counselor may want to hear, because that may not be what you actually want to write about, and the result could be a well written essay that's boring to read because it was probably boring for you to write. Believe it or not, we can pick up on whether or not the applicant was actually interested in what they wrote. So if you're only writing about that community service trip you took last summer because you've heard many times that topics like that look good to admissions counselors, stop yourself now. Be sure to make note of the trip somewhere in the application, but choose an essay topic that actually excites you. If you write about what excites you, then there's a good chance that your voice and personality will show in the essay (which is good because that's what I'm looking for, remember?). With this in mind, I'd like to redirect you to my prefaced point #2 above. You may ask, well, what if one school doesn't like my essay topic because while choosing a topic that excites me, I have written something that they don't appreciate? (You very well may not ask this, but just humor me for a moment.) My answer is: if a school doesn't like an essay that you enjoyed writing and feel represents you well, is that really a good place for you? Discuss amongst yourselves.

There is my advice, as best as I can give it. However, I do want to end by pointing out that the essay, while important, is not the be-all and end-all of the application. It is one piece of many that we use to put together a picture of you. Oberlin takes a holistic approach to reading applications, and no one thing will make or break you. So if you are currently locked in a basement somewhere with twenty drafts of your essay around you, pulling out your hair nervously and vowing not to emerge until you have written "the PERFECT essay," take a breath. Write a good essay, but don't worry about it controlling your destiny. It won't.

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