"Oh, I’m not worried about my college essay writing—I already get straight A’s in English." I repeatedly hear such declarations from incoming high-school seniors as they begin to ponder their college application essays. Others have reached out to me with the preface, "I just need someone to proofread my personal statement." Unfortunately, many students and families aren't aware that exceptional academic writing doesn’t necessarily translate into memorable Common App personal statements or effective college supplemental essays. Sadly, other students don’t realize this until they’ve been rejected by their favorite schools. Most don't understand what it takes for their writing to excite a weary admissions reader who may spend no more than 5–7 minutes total reading each student's personal statement and supplemental essays—all before deciding whether it’s worth fighting for that applicant’s acceptance. These mere minutes spent reading essays are juxtaposed with the weeks spent writing and the years spent accumulating the stories worth telling.
Many high-school students earn straight A’s analyzing Shakespeare based on a rubric given out in advance. Academic writing in school assignments tends to favor analysis over creativity and storytelling. For instance, assignments may involve debating a historical event or providing textual evidence for literary devices used in a piece of classic literature. Yet none of that prepares students to showcase their unique experience and voice. When it comes to college admissions essays (and the entire application, for that matter), admissions readers aren’t trying to determine the difference between A, B, and C essays. They're trying to decide whether someone is worth accepting. College essays should indeed present a compelling argument—more than simply what a student has done or experienced. While today’s students learn those essential elements (e.g., thesis, supporting claims, and conclusion) for an argumentative essay, their writing is still too stilted. And it shows in these all-important essays.
Your persuasive argument shouldn't be: “Here is everything that I’ve done in high school that a good number of high-school students have already done, too.” Instead, your personal statement and supplemental essays should persuade the admissions reader that you would be more successful at making an impact at that particular college—and later, on behalf of that particular college—in your future communities, workplaces, and worlds if admitted over other promising high-school seniors.
In September, English teachers and guidance counselors approve their students’ Common App personal statements, but few have served as college admissions readers, and even fewer have done so for a highly selective college. For those selective colleges, dazzling application essays might help an easily overlooked student overcome a less rigorous curriculum, a marginal GPA, an average standardized test score, or possibly even a vague application persona.
Last year, out of all the new students who waited until the fall to start with me, all but one student decided to rewrite the personal statement that they had drafted over the summer. The previous year, all but one as well. And once the entire college counseling process is done (which can be many sessions later for students who haven’t done enough to realize their own uniqueness before meeting with me), many former clients have confessed, “I can’t believe that I thought my initial 'final' drafts would ever be good enough compared to the essays that you helped me write.”