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Matters of Opinion, in The Spotlight

Application Essay is Powerful

To me, nothing is more exciting than helping high school seniors fire their spirits to write the college application essay. If they can galvanize their imaginations to write in an authentic, enthusiastic voice about an endeavor which has moved their hearts and focused their energy, they will be one step closer to acceptance at the college of their dreams.

This process can take as little time as 2 one-hour sessions of concentrated effort and can result in a phenomenal product.

Obviously the college essay is not the top determining factor in college acceptance. However, research shows that a great essay is at least the fourth top factor in a student's candidacy. When a student generates a compelling idea that reveals his or her most genuine side and then writes in a clear, fluid style stamped with originality, he is she is speaking directly to college admissions officers. What better time to shine? And the best part is-- this is the one area over which students have complete control. In a tight field of applicants, many of whom have almost the exact same excellent credentials, a terrific essay can tip the scales in favor of acceptance.

Knowing that an admissions' officer will have a mere 2 minutes to read a student essay, each individual should try to create an original, yet clear and specific response.

Over the years I have compiled some of my favorite college essays. I have sat with many students, watching them mull over their lives, wondering which seed might grow to the proper dimensions to qualify as a good essay. I have encouraged them to remember that their writing should be as individual as a fingerprint and as fresh as the spoken voice.

I recall the daughter of a friend in my neighborhood who asked me timidly if she could send me her final draft so that I could critique her prose. Although I knew she was an excellent writer, I was not prepared for my powerful emotions when I read about her struggle with joint pain that made holding a pencil impossible for her. The point of her response was optimism and joy. She refused to give in to the debilitation of her condition and felt the need to encourage others to find brightness in their conditions and also think "outside of the box".

I was equally moved by a young woman in Boston who wrote of her long-term commitment to sustainable agriculture and her years of service to various social justice organizations. Her personality sparkled in her essay when she spoke about 70 year-old Honorio, the unofficial "mayor" of a Boston neighborhood, who accompanied her on her weekly jaunts to educate residents about lead-free gardening.

Recently, a local young man wrote of how much he enjoyed playing the piano every Sunday for half a year at a nursing home for Alzheimer patients. He was astonished to find that his music made a difference in the lives of the patients who sang along or tapped to the tunes and then gratefully applauded at the end of each session. He decided to continue this weekly activity because he was so happy with the response, changing him as well as the guests.

Right in the middle of this close election season, I helped a student write a powerful essay that examined his political views that are unpopular in his high school. He spoke about the students in his English class mocking his beliefs. Then he passionately described the development of his convictions as an eight year-old child watching history shows on television with his father, starting a conversation and a bond around politics and morality that spanned the last ten years.

Many students approach the essay with fear and a reserve stemming from the belief that they have nothing to say or don't know where to start. Many feel they do not
have compelling stories to tell. These feelings are always groundless. Students must first start from a point of brainstorming and free-writing to understand the experience or activity that they might want to discuss. Then the rules for composition will feel less daunting. After students write their first draft, they should leave the draft alone for a week and then approach it later with fresh eyes.

How exactly does a writer maintain that pitch-perfect tone of desire and enthusiasm while still maintaining humility? He or she may also wish to comment on
career goals and the role that the particular college could play in the fulfillment of those desires. Colleges are looking for students who want to contribute their passions and
service. In doing all this, it is important to keep in mind the following points:

  • When brainstorming about possible topics, it is always better to augment your college application information, rather than repeat what is already there. Say something new. Because you want to illuminate your personality or a moment that you grew in some way, consider discussing a time that your opinion changed. What happened? How did you learn something new, either about yourself or others? How can you be distinguished from others? What attribute or skill makes you unique and different from your friends? What is your favorite book, sport, or movie? Why is this central to your life, and how does it express your hopes and desires?

  • Consider the interesting work you have done, paid or volunteer. Make sure that you buttress any accomplishment with real support rather than just broad and general statements. Details always help to sell the applicant. If you cannot produce concrete examples, perhaps the topic is not workable.

  • Use your own voice. Admissions officers can spot a false tone, and students should take pains to be completely honest and authentic in their language while also being creative. Simple, clear, and lively prose is always the best idea.

  • Spend time on your introduction. This must grab a reader immediately and therefore should set the mood and draw the reader into the scene, while creating a bit of mystery.

  • Follow with an organization whose coherence is established with a beginning, middle and end. Make a clear point and stick to this focus. Show what you learned or how you changed.

  • Finally, proofread your essay. You should edit for perfection and ask others to read it to spot any errors.

As we know, grades, recommendations, a rigorous program of studies, and a balanced life of activities matter greatly to college admissions committees. In many instances, SAT scores factor in to establish a baseline of eligibility. But to my mind, nothing is better than revealing a bit of one's heart and personal history through the essay. Those few paragraphs may very well seal the deal.

About the author: Marea Gordett taught in the English departments of Boston University and Tufts University for many years. She founded and runs Big Mind Learning, serving elementary through college-age students throughout the region.