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College Applications 101: Boost Your Chances of Admission with a Strong Essay

Smiling asian undergraduate teen girl student study in library with laptop books doing online research for coursework, making notes for essay homework assignment, online education e-learning concept

By Linda Leavell | Contributor

College admissions have become increasingly competitive, and kids get only one opportunity to make a case for themselves in their own words to the people considering their application: the essay or personal statement.

Admission to Texas’ two flagship public universities is particularly tough. Students in the top 6 percent of their high school classes are admitted automatically to the University of Texas at Austin, while Texas A&M University welcomes those in the top 10 percent. All other applicants undergo what is known as “holistic review,” an examination of their transcript, test scores, extracurricular activities and essay.

The pandemic further complicated fall 2021 admission. Hundreds of schools made SAT/ACT scores optional, at least for 2021, meaning that a well-written essay was going to be more important than ever.

Social distancing limited in-person campus visits, which affected some essay prospects and the ability to show “demonstrated interest” in a particular campus. It remains to be seen how these challenges ultimately changed the admissions picture for 2021, and obviously, the situation for 2022 is far from clear right now.

Nonetheless, the essay submitted to a university or college as part of the application package is always 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 (like an extended illness that resulted in lost class time).
  • It may be the difference-maker when admissions officials are choosing between you and another student with a similar academic profile.

Unfortunately, the essay cannot 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. But a poor one definitely will keep you out.

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 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 tomorrow after the admissions officials read it today.

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

  • Academic pursuits or extracurricular activities
  • Career goals
  • Hobbies
  • Leadership opportunities
  • Moments of personal growth
  • Challenges or difficult decisions
  • Volunteer experiences

In general, making your essay about the impact that the coronavirus had on your junior year is not going to set you apart. (It happened to every kid you know.) Most applications offer a place for an optional brief essay to address whether the virus affected your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans or your education in any way beyond what would be expected.

What happens once you settle on an idea? Consider these points:

  • 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.”
  • Do not plagiarize or break the rules. Stick to the word count.
  • 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.

Parents often ask me, “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 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, which is an excellent time to get the essays written, before the busy senior year begins.

Most universities start accepting applications Aug. 1, and the application deadlines for competitive schools roll throughout the fall. The essay is an important piece of the application, so leave yourself plenty of time to do your best work.


Linda Leavell, the owner of The Write Coach, is an editor with more than 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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