How to make those college essays POP!

For many years, private colleges routinely granted interviews with admissions officers to prospective students. As the number of students applying has dramatically increased, many colleges have been unable to keep up with such demand and are not interviewing at all or are often providing alumni interviews.

As colleges tend to have many applicants with high standardized test scores (SAT and/or ACT) and impressive academic grades, it inherently becomes harder for schools to effectively differentiate among students. Many colleges, as a result, are looking more closely than in years past at the application essays, extracurricular and community service "resumes" and summer activities. Admissions teams want to get to know the students, their passions, social skills, versatility and level of confidence, and so they are looking to the essay for the student's humanity and personality.

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They also want to learn about the student's character. The essay becomes nearly the only way to gauge this. It effectively becomes an "interview."

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Just like there are fashion trends, there are trends in the style of the essay. Conversational is "in." This is a significant trend.

An effective technique is for a student, prior to writing the essay, to record what he or she wants to say then listen to it carefully and make verbal edits before writing it on paper. By talking through your thoughts and ideas, it can help to determine which subject to write about, as well as to find a better sense of voice. This can result in an essay that is more conversational in tone and thus very appealing to admissions officers.

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After writing the essay, the student should read it out loud again to a relative or family member. Reading the essay out loud can help the student catch any awkward sentences and receive feedback from the listener. Of course, be sure to spell-check and proofread your essay.

Here are some tips to help students make their college essays stand out:

  • Pretend you are talking in a conversational tone to your favorite relative in the living room. For example, recount a story as you would to a friend or relative including quotations from the dialogue that took place.
  • Your opening few sentences are key. Admissions committees do not have much time to read each essay and if they are not captivated, they may not read further. Put the reader "in the scene." For example, if a student is discussing the challenges of working at a summer job, he or should could describe the first day: "When I first arrived ..."
  • Write as though you are telling a story and use anecdotes. Anecdotes make the essay more compelling to the reader. For example, "I never felt more gratified than when I was able to teach David to ..."
  • Try to convey why professors at the college would want to teach you.
  • Demonstrate what positive impact you will likely make on the college both inside and outside of the classroom. Extracurricular and community service aspirations can be mentioned. Let the reader see the connection between what you have done and what you intend to do. For example, if you've been a camp counselor and want to major in psychology, demonstrate the connection between the two. What aspects, specifically of the camp work, make you want to explore these issues further in the classroom?
  • Show passions, goals and interests and write in an emotionally connected and lively tone.
  • Be sure that your essay addresses the question being asked.
  • Use distinctive details to paint a vivid picture for the reader.

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In the digital world we live in today, people tend to be speaking less and conversing more electronically. Since the essay requires "speaking" with emotion, it is a different style from the more truncated language students use in texting. It can be refreshing for colleges to have students apply who also add the "opposite" dimension. It is very important for prospective students and families to know what colleges want and vice versa. After all, the reciprocal fit between the student and the college is truly the most important aspect of the process.

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— By Eric Greenberg

Eric Greenberg the founder of the Greenberg Educational Group, which specializes in college advising, test preparation and academic tutoring. Follow Greenberg on Twitter @GreenbergEdu.