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Why it's important and how you can help

Your students’ college essay is their opportunity to reveal their best qualities and to show an admission committee what makes them stand out from other applicants. Work with your students to help them with this important piece of their application.

How important is the essay?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2011 State of College Admission report found that while grades, strength of curriculum and admission test scores are the top factors in the college admission decision, a majority of colleges and universities believe the essay to be of considerable or moderate importance in determining which academically qualified students they would choose.

In other words, when all else is equal between competing applicants, a compelling essay can make the difference. A powerful, well-written essay can also tip the balance for a marginal applicant.

What the essay can do for an application

While an essay will rarely take an applicant out of consideration at a college, it certainly can elevate an applicant in an admission committee’s eyes. The essay draws distinctions between your student and other applicants, something that selective colleges especially rely on.

Furthermore, the essay can show that the applicant has thought carefully about where they are applying and why they are a good match for that college. It can explain the applicant’s commitment to learning and their willingness to be a contributing member to the college community.

What are admission officers looking for in an essay?

  • Colleges want to see that the student has a command of the basics of good writing.
  • They also want to see that the student can give a direct answer to the essay question.
  • A strong opening paragraph that captures the readers’ interest is important.
  • The student should have a comprehensive argument or narrative—they must make a point and stick to it.
  • The writing style should be comfortable for the student, so advise them to avoid overusing the thesaurus to sound impressive. A style that is natural and appropriate for the subject matter is key.
  • Of course, correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling is essential, so proofreading several times is necessary.
  • Finally, admissions officers value succinctness. Tell students to pay attention to the recommended length.

Counselor tips for the essay

Revise, revise, revise

Students must take the time to reread and revise. This process will help the student develop a strong opening and a solid direction, and refine what they are trying to express.

Show, don’t tell

Give readers such convincing evidence that they will come to the conclusion that the student wants. They should provide detailed examples instead of providing a list of things.

Be authentic

Tell students not to stress trying to write what they think colleges are looking for—just showcase who they are!

Just get started!

Writing something meaningful can be a long process, so advise students to get started right away to allow for time to draft and revise. Stress that the essay should be written long before the deadline.

How much help is too much help?

According to the College Board report Admissions Decision-Making Models, admission officers have expressed concern about how much assistance students receive in preparing an essay. Many institutions now ask applicants to sign a statement avowing that the essay submitted is their own work.

What can you do to help your students within the guidelines of your job?

  • Help your students overcome their nervousness and encourage them to start writing.
  • Suggest that they seek essay advice from teachers who know them well.
  • Make sure that your teachers and colleagues understand the role of the essay in college applications.
  • Look over the student's essay for signs that a parent "helped" too much.
  • Give general feedback on a finished or nearly finished essay. You may point out areas that need revision, but you cannot rewrite or edit — the essay must be the student's work.

Your encouragement, ideas and overall support can go a long way in helping your students write their essays.