What Makes a College Essay Stand Out From the Rest? — Seth Allen

Seth Allen, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Pomona College, Claremont, Calif.

College essays carry far more weight than they have in previous decades. With a record number of students applying for college, admissions offices have become highly selective when considering student applications. While each school has its own criteria, schools typically look for students who demonstrate a high level of creativity and innovation. They want students who can express themselves and present interesting viewpoints on issues. Schools also seek out students who have the potential to take on leadership roles in some shape or form. One place they look for these differentiators is in the college essay.

These practical tips can help students stand out when writing college essays:

It’s OK to talk about yourself — The college essay is your opportunity to share great achievements and describe your talents and skills. Talk about things for which you are passionate and knowledgeable.

See the glass as half full, not half empty — The college essay portion of an application is not “one more thing to fill out.” It’s a chance to define your interests and goals while sharing some insights into who you are. Admissions counselors cannot meet every applicant, so they look forward to reading college essays to learn more about how a student thinks about an experience or an issue. In lieu of having one-on-one conversations with every student, the college essay is one way for an admissions office to determine whether the student would be a good fit.

Consider the questions before you start writing your answers — It’s important to think through: 1) what you plan to write about and 2) what you want readers to know about you from what you have written. Schools look closely at these answers for clues to discover what that student is all about.

Be yourself — One of the most important takeaways is to represent yourself truthfully. If you do not enjoy community service, then you shouldn’t feel obliged to talk about how you help others. Instead of trying to guess what you think would impress the admissions office, be yourself and tell your personal story with pride.

It’s the little things — What you write about doesn’t have to be the province of Nobel laureates or astronauts. Instead, it can be something ordinary, or it can be about a treasured experience that speaks volumes about you, your values, your interests or your talents.

There is no right answer to the question of what makes a college essay stand out. Like a thumbprint or DNA, each essay is unique, so stretch your self-actualization muscles and have fun with this part of the application.

Note: More than 3 million applications were submitted to colleges and universities in 2012 and 2013 through The Common Application. Through The Common Application, students can save a personal profile and submit an application to any of the hundreds of participating schools across the United States.

About Seth Allen

Seth Allen is vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Allen has been quoted extensively by members of the national media, including NBC’s Today show, CNN, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Allen has served on a number of national admissions committees, and he is a former president of the board of directors of The Common Application. Prior to Pomona College, Allen held leadership positions at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa; Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.; and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Allen earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University.


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The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of the BAM ALLIANCE. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.

© 2014, The BAM ALLIANCE

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