Approaching the Dreaded Application Essay

Not all college applications are created equal. Some are really scary – and not just around Halloween. For many high school seniors, the college essay is a real bugaboo, a requirement that turns many otherwise diligent students into nervous procrastinators.

My daughter Clara, an Edina High School senior, has completed several applications, and has already received favorable answers from two major universities – neither of which requires an essay to apply. For weeks now, Clara has gone round and round with her mother and me about what to say in her college essays. While she hasn’t lost sleep yet over the task at hand as application deadlines approach, she probably will.

Why does writing college essays scare the daylights out of so many students? Lauren Eierman, Marquette University’s recruiter in Minnesota, says that “students feel pressure to write the best essay of their high school career.” Unlike grades or standardized tests that have numerical values, “the essay is an open-ended question. It’s a question mark” that isn’t given a precise score.

For all the anxiety the essay causes, it counts for relatively little with the college admissions officers who read them. Aaron Cloud, admissions counselor at Drake University in Des Moines, reads close to 1,000 essays per year. He ranks them as slightly more important than recommendations, but of far less importance than a student’s grade point average, course rigor and test scores. Drake offers students the opportunity to sit for an interview instead of providing a test score, and gives much more weight to that than to the essay.

Cloud says that the “essay is really something to add to the application, a chance to tell the admissions office about yourself.” He adds that with the essay, some “colleges are looking more for ways to say, “No,” rather than to say, “Yes” to an applicant. Both he and Eierman agree that submitting a sloppy essay, one with misspelled words and grammatical errors, is more likely to hurt an applicant’s chance for admission than anything in an essay that is written carefully, no matter how boring the topic.

The Common Application, which more than 600 colleges now accept, gives students five essay prompts, or options, to choose from. Each prompt allows students to write about an experience in their lives that has helped to shape their thinking and who they are. Some colleges require essays that ask why a student wants to attend their institution. The Marquette application, for example, asks students to answer the question “Why Marquette?” The Milwaukee school advises students that they don’t have “to say you’ve wanted to attend Marquette since kindergarten,” but to write an essay that lets “your true self come through.”

While the content of an essay is subjective, the word count is not. The Common Application asks for 650 words; individual colleges typically require students to stay under 250 or 300 words. Whether your high school transcript includes a class in Shakespeare or not, it’s best when writing essays to keep his words from Hamlet in mind that “brevity is the soul of wit.”