52 Weeks to College: Week 23

Here's how to make your writing stand out...
June 7, 2021

You want to know a secret?

Admissions officers WANT you to have an amazing application.

I know many of you think that admissions officers are basically evil trolls looking for some reason to deny you, but they aren’t.

What they are really looking for is a reason to admit you.

A reason why you stand out from the million trillion other applicants that — on paper at least — look just like you.

Most of you think that the way to stand out is to have better credentials, but spoiler alert, there are over 27,000 high schools in the United States, so that’s also the minimum number of people who graduated first in their class; pre-COVID, about 40,000 students a year scored in the top 2% of the SAT (that’s not even counting the top ACT scorers); and more than 180,000 applicants were good enough athletes that they registered with the NCAA clearinghouse in order to be recruited.

Get the picture? Good credentials are essential, but they aren’t enough. That extra special something that causes you to be a stand-out requires you to let the the admissions officer see your personality, your values, your motivations — the things that make you YOU and nobody else.

That’s why you have to seize every opportunity you are given to reveal essential aspects of yourself. One great opportunity comes in the form of the Why College X essay – the most popular supplemental essay (at last count nearly 50% of the most selective colleges have some form of this essay on their application).

Tragically, most of you blow it when it comes to this essay. You give some “blah, blah, blah” regurgitation of the college’s own marketing materials, or worse still you give an answer that demonstrates you actually know nothing about this college. Are there real access and equity issues around these kinds of essay prompts? Certainly. We want to level that playing field as much as we can by showing you how to conquer them even without a travel budget. We promise: you can write a great Why College X essay without visiting the college in person.

This summer, you can get the information you need to write great Why College X essays. It’s also the perfect way to get started on your college applications because it gives you some essays that are ready to go AND it helps you narrow your college list. Don’t be surprised if you find that once you really, really think about it, a few of the colleges that you thought you wanted to apply to end up falling off your list. Honestly, if you can’t write a genuine Why College X essay for a college, why would you go there?

Not all colleges require a Why College X essay. But even for the ones that don’t, it’s a good exercise to go through in case you’re able to do an interview with an alum, for example. You’ll want to sound well informed and enthusiastic about that college.

A great Why College X essay is mostly about having specific and thoughtful content.  Follow these three rules for developing your content and you’ll be able to write a Why College X essay that makes you a true stand-out!

Rule #1. Your content needs to show that the college is a match for you.
That means that your content should be focused on showing the match between what you want in a college and what College X has to offer. You and the college should be a match on three critical dimensions:

1) academic/intellectual dimension|

2) extracurricular activity/work dimension and

3) life/community dimension.

Here’s an example: You want to attend a college where you can major in biology (academic/intellectual), be part of a volleyball team (activity), and live on campus all four years (life/community). The core of your content is as simple as that.

Rule #2. Your content needs to be specific and demonstrate that you have taken a deep dive into the particulars of College X. Continuing with our example from above, do you have any guess as to how many colleges offer a major in biology? That’s right – almost all of them (although not every single one, so you should double check). Your content won’t be specific enough to make you a stand-out unless you take a deep dive into biology majors at College X. What makes it especially appealing to you? A particular faculty member? A sub-specialty within the major? Research opportunities? A living-learning community? The more specific you get, the better and more stand-out your essay will be. Do a deep dive for every one of the three critical dimensions. Check their website, talk virtually to faculty and staff at the college and current students and alumni, read the school newspaper online, attend the school’s online information sessions, and follow the schools’ social media. It will take some time, but it is time well spent.

Rule #3. Your content should be honest, but steer clear of the less persuasive reasons you want to attend College X. Admissions officers are not stupid. They will see right through you if you are dishonest in this or any other essay. And really, why would you be dishonest in this particular essay? Presumably you have good, solid reasons for why you want to attend College X. If you follow Rules #1 and #2, you don’t need to make up reasons that you think “sound” better. That being said, you may have personal reasons for wanting to attend College X that would not be persuasive to the admissions officer. You want to leave those out. For example, you may want to attend College X because of its stellar reputation as a party school. That might be fine for you, but not persuasive to an admissions officer. So just don’t mention it. Okay, okay, so you probably know that. But what you might not know is that it is also not persuasive to say that you want to attend College X because it is the college highest ranked in US News and World Report that also has a volleyball team. News flash: Rankings don’t reveal anything about why you and the college are a match. In fact, as admissions officers see it, depending on rankings to tell you what colleges are a match for you is actually a very lazy and ineffective way to identify your right fit colleges. (Should those same admissions officers stop marketing their own rankings in that case? Yup. But they’re the boss of this process.) So even if you honestly want to go to a particular college because of its ranking, you should never include it as a reason in your answer.

Now that you know our three rules, get cracking on your research. Amazing essays will follow!

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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