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The College Admissions Essay:

A Powerful Tool to Differentiate Yourself

By Linda Leavell | Contributor

If you have a child in high school, or you are in high school, then you probably are already dreading the process of applying to college. College admissions is competitive, and kids get only one opportunity to make a case for themselves in their own words.

The essay (or essays, in a lot of cases) submitted to a university or college as part of the application package is a powerful tool. Why?

• It offers something specific that illuminates the reader about who you are.

• It demonstrates your writing and thinking ability.

• It allows you to explain flaws in your resume.

• It may be the difference-maker when admissions officials are choosing between you and another student with a similar academic profile.

What can the essay not do? It cannot boost your ACT or SAT scores, alter your class rank or improve the rigor of your classes. In other words, even a great essay will not get you into Harvard or Stanford if your academics are not already up to those universities’ standards.

Many colleges and universities use the Common Application, which gives you seven possible essay prompts and lets you choose one. Most Texas schools use the Apply Texas application and specify which essay prompt is required.

Whatever the prompt, the point of the exercise is to tell university officials why they should pick you. You are trying to illustrate several points:

• What do you bring to the table? What will you add to the next freshman class?

• What do you want them to know that’s not evident from your transcript?

• How is your story unique? You want yours to be the one that’s remembered after the admissions

officials go home for the day.

Ideas for good stories come from many places. Among your possibilities:

• Hobbies

• Travel

• Leadership opportunities

• Moments of personal growth

• Challenges or difficult decisions

• Significant achievements

• Volunteer experiences

Here’s a pro tip: Mission trips do not make good college essays. Almost everyone you know has been on a mission trip, which means it’s not unique.

What happens once you settle on an idea? Keep these suggestions in mind:

• Try to capture the sound of your own voice. Use words you would use every day.

• Understand the mission of the school you are approaching. If it’s a conservative, religious institution,

for example, make sure your essay isn’t out of step with the university’s values.

• Add details, like colors and facts. The girl who told me she had read 1,000 books in her dad’s library

was far more interesting than a girl “who likes to read.”

• Get someone other than a parent to read your story. If it fails to make sense to someone who doesn’t

know you well, it won’t make sense to the admissions officials.

One question I always get from parents: When should we start?

I strongly discourage kids from starting before the summer of their senior year of high school, for several reasons:

• The prompts change, so it would be a shame to write something that cannot be used.

• Waiting until that post-junior year summer gives kids the most time to develop emotionally and intellectually, meaning that what they want to write about as 17-year-olds is more thoughtful than what they considered important as freshmen.

• Juniors are distracted with AP exams, end-of-year activities and finals. They usually cannot focus until the summer.

Most universities start accepting applications on August 1, and the application deadlines for competitive schools roll throughout the fall. The essay is an important piece of the application, so don’t leave it to the last minute.

Editor’s note: Linda Leavell, the owner of The Write Coach, is an editor with nearly 30 years of experience and an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University. To learn more about college essays or to reach her for college essay coaching, see her website, www.TheWriteCoach.net.

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