College & Scholarship Essays

John Williams, academic life coach and author of Future-Proofed, joined us to share the do's and don't for putting together a winning essay for college or scholarship applications.

What parents need to know at this point in the college application:

  1.  In most college applications there is one main essay - usually from the common application - and several shorter supplemental essays given by the college. The main essay is wide open and 500 words. The supplemental essays are shorter, usually 250 word max, and specific to the college.
  2. At this point for Seniors, the essay is really the most important piece of the application and it's the one piece that they can completely control. Knowing how to put together a compelling essay is essential.  Students who know how to put together a great essay over-perform their class rank and standardized test scores. Colleges really are shifting to putting more emphasis on good writing and the softer portions of the application.
  3. Putting together an essay is really an art form. And a student needs to look at their application from the point-of-view of making sense to the admission officer. We like what makes sense to us. Students need to be likable. Likability is tricky, no doubt. But the foundation is being clear and straightforward. It's ideal to be able to pick a specific story, much like a news report, that focuses on one example or experience in your life that illustrates a certain prime characteristic of your personality. That's the ideal.
  4. Students generally want to stay away from stories about sports, an injury, someone close to them who passed away, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a trip that they took to another country that made them realize how lucky they are to live in the US with so much material comfort.
  5. The other pieces of the application are letters of recommendation and an activities sheet. A student's transcript and standardized test scores are pretty much set at this point for Seniors. If your child is a Junior or younger, it's a good idea to look at studying for the SAT starting in February and taking the test both in the Spring and the Fall.
  6. The summer before the Senior year is also a crucial time when students can demonstrate a focus on one particular interest, which college admission officers are looking for. They are looking for evidence of a particular skill gained, a certain level of mastery that shows a student's dedication as well as aptitude outside the classroom. If Seniors can show THAT via their essays, letters of recommendation, and activities sheet, they've hit a homerun.

For more information, visit John's blog.

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