Mr. Gelb is the author of “Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.” He has written advice for The Choice on how to whittle your admissions essay and how juniors should prepare their essays during the summer before senior year.
For your college admissions essay, you will be asked to write 500 flawless words on a subject that is deeply personal under circumstances in which the stakes are very high. Now how could that not feel like a daunting task? This Tip Sheet offers some advice about the hardest part of the job: finding a topic.
There are a lot of strange theories about what constitutes a good topic. Some students are convinced that the personal statement has to be a “peanut butter” essay. (Apparently, that’s shorthand for any off-beat, attention-grabbing piece that focuses on why you love peanut butter … or smoked herring … or the Three Stooges.) I don’t subscribe to that theory. Your topic does not need to be a singular invention never encountered before.
For those who say that you’re not allowed to write about pets or grandparents or broken limbs (yes, I’ve heard such claims), I say bosh to that as well. As far as I’m concerned, the only taboo is shameless self-promotion. (As vice president of my class, I selflessly sought to install healthy foods in the cafeteria vending machines…)
Finding a good topic to write about can be a challenge, but let me try to help by offering these three suggestions:
- Understand the parameters of the assignment. The point of your college admissions essay is to connect you to the person who is reading it. In order to make such a connection, you’ll want to tell a compelling story that shows you as an authentic and caring human being, someone who merits a place in a college community. If you manage to do that, you’ll be in good shape.
- Acknowledge your constraints. You only have 500 words to work with — not a lot of space. You can’t tell us all about your summer building houses for Habitat. You can only tell a small piece of it. So what story is lurking within that larger story? Learning from an elderly volunteer how to correctly wield a hammer? That might be a good topic, showing you as a person who is open to learning from others. Through that focusing-down process, potential topics should start to appear and take shape.
- Ask yourself questions. Once you have a sense of the requirements and limitations connected to this assignment, you can start asking yourself exploratory questions that will help dredge up topics of some promise. What keeps me up at night? What in the world utterly fascinates me? Which of my relationships have I worked at the hardest? Make a list, answer them quickly, put them aside, come back to them, and see where you feel a magnetic pull. Those are the topics that are waiting to be written.
Remember: Everyone has a story to tell. It’s just a matter of discovering that story.
Do readers of The Choice have essay-writing advice of their own? Please share your expertise using the comment box below.
School's still out, but high school seniors are thinking about where they'll apply to college and how they'll get in.
What will it take?
For that, It's Only Money turns to Michele Larkrith, associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley. She spoke Monday in San Jose, Calif., to members of the National College Advocacy Group, a group of advisers, CPAs and others that help families plan to get into college.
Cal cost $32,000 last year to attend for on-campus, in-state students, the school says. Out-of-state students paid an additional $23,000. Only 17 percent of students hail from outside California, Larkrith said.
First, the basic numbers still matter, Larkrith said. Your grades in core high school courses, strength of curriculum, overall GPA and standardized test scores remain top factors at Berkeley, and probably most traditional colleges and universities.
Next most important will be the student's essays, demonstrated interest, class rank, recommendations from others and extracurricular activities, Larkrith said.
Put an emphasis on written sections. That's what Larkrith spent the most time discussing Monday. Here's why.
College might be getting harder to afford. But it's easier to apply. Increasingly, more schools are taking applications entirely online, which makes submitting them easier for applicants. That means it's even more important to submit an application that stands out.
“There's no single academic indicator that's going to make or break your ability to get in,” Larkrith said. “We're looking at the whole person.”
Cal-Berkeley got 63,000 freshman applications last year; 15,000 applications for transfers. Amazingly, Larkrith said, all got read. Twice.
“We read each and every one of them,” Larkrith said. “We figure the student invested that ($70) $65, they deserve to have it read.”
Cal hires 30 to 60 outside readers annually to review applications. Reviewers have about eight minutes to read each one.
But the personal statements – there are two, plus two “Additional Comments” sections students can use to add anything else they think Cal should know – are the places that can set a student apart from others with similar test scores and grades. Writing can also elevate a student with weaker scores or grades.
The 250 to 1,000-word essays are the places student can talk about their goals, achievements and special talents, she said. They need to focus on themselves, specifically, and how they've manifested their sense of self in the things they've done.
Certainly the essay should be well written and free of sloppy errors. But students still need to ensure their sense of self comes through. Have others read it over before submitting it. But anyone who edits it and, in the process, scrubs out your voice will make the essay less effective, she said.
“They should be more concerned that their message and their voice should be coming through than if it's grammatically correct,” Larkrith said. “Not always is it necessary for the student to take their essay to their English teacher and correct it because that's when the student's voice might leave.”
None of this means you should mimic someone else's essay online who claims it “got me into Cal-Berkeley!” It will become painfully apparent to Berkley's readers combing through 1,000 applications.
Last year, she said, “I saw so many students who said 'I was like a butterfly.' ... I started zoning out a little bit. It really needs to be something that engages me and is compelling.”
Cal looks at your extracurricular activities not for how many you have but for signs of leadership, Larkrith said. She wants to see students who've focused on few things where they've risen to be a leader. It's “anything that shows a student's ability to think independently and to lead others,” she said.
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