The Importance of the College Essay

It happened again. Almost every year I have an amazing student who doesn’t get into any of his top college choices. This is a student who scored a 2300 on his SATs, has close to a 4.0 average, went on community service trips to build homes in Ecuador, volunteered at a children’s center and played a sport. Yet, all the Ivies and top tier schools closed him out. I was shocked; the verdict all around was NO. Surprised and curious about this seemingly impossible situation, I asked to read his college essay. The intelligent boy I knew could not have written this paper, I thought, as the image of a pompous and arrogant student formed in the essay. Now I understood how all these schools could reject such a promising top candidate. The essay was the key.

Don Dunbar, author of What You Don’t Know Can Keep You Out of College, picks apart a sample college essay. Oh, how I wish my student had read this earlier! Here is an adaptation of his advice on tackling the personal statement:
Seven deadly mistakes in the following personal statement:

At my highly regarded private school, I am being prepared to excel at a superior college, which will hopefully bring me success and happiness in the future.

1. DEPENDENCY: This applicant introduces himself in terms of his prestigious school. He sees himself as “Mr. Highly Regarded Private School”. This makes him sound dependent on the school’s reputation for his own self-image. He introduces himself in the passive tense, “I am being prepared to excel which will bring me success.” This student appears to see education as something delivered, like pizza, rather than a goal he will pursue actively and independently.

2. LACK OF LEADERSHIP: He describes education as a passive experience, “will hopefully bring me success.” It’s hard to imagine him contributing much to his classes and college community.

3. EXCLUSIVITY: This statement emphasizes his sense of entitlement to a special place in an elite school, “at MY highly regarded private school.” This impression of elitism gets worse when he talks about going to a “superior college” which suggests that in his mind, schools (and people) are divided into the superior and the inferior.

4. SEEMING LIKE A THREAT: He describes his high school experience this way: “I am being prepared to excel…” Admissions officers are always concerned by students who seem too focused on just excelling or ‘being the best’. If this is the student’s sole motivation, rather than innate learning, they wonder, then how far will that student go to reach his goals?

5. LACK OF INTELLECTUAL PASSION: Describing his goal as excelling at a “superior” school, he suggests that his focus is on his class rank and not on what he learns. There are no particular subjects he wants to study and he lacks the passion to pursue his education.

6. SOCIAL INSENSITIVITY: His description of the life path he expects for himself implies a very limited view of how people live their lives. He goes from a “highly regarded private school” to a “superior college” and then on to “success and happiness” without any regard for what goes on in between. Sounds like a snob to me!

7. SELFISHNESS: His emphasis on his own “success and happiness” seems to say that all he wants out of college is personal gain. The word “success” renders images of selfishness and greed.

Even if you are a brilliant superstar genius, a lackluster essay can be extremely detrimental. Test scores and grades do show potential in a student, but the essay is the real gauge of character. There are so many applicants these days that have perfect grades and SATs; your essay must set you apart from a potentially homogenous group. Falling into the trap of any of these fatal mistakes can negate great scores and GPAs. Colleges want to accept a person—not just a number.

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