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Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.




Have you ever thought about what happens to your college applications and essays once you send them off? There are real human beings reading (and skimming over) every word on your application. The sentences that you wrote and re-wrote, the witty jokes that you inserted, the catchy introduction that you stressed over—they will all be read by an admissions officer….a tired, weary admissions officer who has hundreds of applications in her office waiting for her attention.

So how can your essay make you a memorable and attractive candidate? Here’s our best advice:

Write the essay that only YOU can write.

Our friends in admissions tell us that there are some essays that they seem to have read a thousand times already. There are many students who participate in athletics or are involved in trips or community service projects abroad. While it doesn’t mean that these topics are completely off-limits, it does mean that you should try your best to brainstorm other ideas. Failing that, you should think long and hard about how to personalize it to your situation. Here are some clichéd themes that we’ve seen over and over again that students use when writing about these experiences.

  1. The big game: It doesn’t matter whether you won or lost, it only matters that you tried hard, bonded as a team, learned endurance, etc. Alternately, as you crossed the finish line (or scored the winning goal or basket), you realized that all the early hours spent sweating in the gym was worth it.

  2. The trip: Traveling to India (or any other country) gave you a whole new perspective. Alternately, you realized what true poverty is and now you’re grateful for all of your opportunities. Or, you thought you were going to teach the kids/orphans/refugees but found instead that they taught you valuable lessons.

  3. Another topic that we often advise students to steer clear of is what we call the “The Three D’s: Death, Divorce, and Depression.” The mistake that many make when writing about these experiences is that the focus tends to be on the “dramatic event” versus on how the student grew and changed from the challenge. So we will often read sad and moving tributes to a beloved grandparent or a parent who passed away too young, but that type of writing tells us very little about the student himself or herself. Alternately, a student will dwell on their traumatic experiences with divorce (statistically, around 50% of American students have had this experience) or on a bout of depression (surprisingly common) without realizing that many others have unfortunately had the same struggles. If you must write about one of The Three D’s, make sure that your essay is focused on your own growth through the challenge.

And finally, there are two types of essays that you should avoid at all costs.

  1. My life story: Chronicles detailing your entire timeline will cause already tired eyes to glaze over. For example, “I was born in a small town in Mississippi to military parents. Two years later, we moved to San Diego, California, and I spent a lot of time on the beach. When I was five, my parents were transferred to Ohio, and I started kindergarten, which is also when I started playing soccer, etc. etc.” Does this make you want to keep reading?

  2. My love story: We understand. Your breakup or the story of how you got together with your boyfriend or girlfriend is probably the most dramatic, challenging, interesting (to you), or emotionally vulnerable experience of your life so far. However, this type of essay has no place in a college application. These types of essays tend to read not only as self-absorbed and unaware but also inappropriate. One Stanford admissions officer I’ve met has even cited an essay about a breakup as the main reason a top student from a prestigious private school was rejected.

I don’t mean to make fun of these topics, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t write about your significant experiences. But if you do write an essay on one of these clichéd topics, ask yourself: can someone else have written this essay? What makes this essay MINE? What unique character trait or quirk does it showcase?

Believe it or not, writing college essays can be fun! If you’re able to reflect on your life and tell your story well, it will also make a difference in your admissions results.
Of course, ILUMIN Education can help - reach out to us to set up a free consultation and we can help you get started on writing the right essay that will tell your genuine story and help you reach your college goals. Click HERE to reach out and set up an appointment!