Sept. 4, 2020
College essay season is upon us, which means students have the perfect opportunity to share information about what makes them unique and interesting. But for many students, essays can be a chore, as they stress over which topics will be the most compelling for them to cover.
To help you navigate the essay process, College Confidential sat down with Carolyn Allison Caplan, also known as Admissions Mom, educational consultant with Admissions Journey and author of the book Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. Check out the advice she shares about creating a winning college essay.
College Confidential: What do you say to a student who tells you they have absolutely nothing to write about?
Carolyn Caplan: Everybody has something they can cover. The personal essay is all about what's inside you, and everyone has a topic in their mind; they just might not have tapped into it yet, and that's the goal — digging in and figuring out that one important thing about inner you that you want to share. I call it finding your inner Shrek — you just have to peel back those onion layers. When students tell me they're stuck, I ask a series of around 80 questions about themselves, and then they'll notice which themes come up repeatedly.
Also, I advise students to try The Most Dangerous Writing App, which encourages free writing without stopping. When they do that, 99 percent of the time they'll end up with an essay, because they stop stressing about what to write about and instead they write what they value and think and believe. It forces them to write what they're thinking about and get out of their heads so they can get into their heads — if that makes sense. Students are often focused on having an idea about what to cover before starting. But instead of worrying about ideas, let's talk about what students feel, think and value. No matter what machine or theme or element you use to share your message across the screen — the topic is you.
College Confidential: What's the biggest mistake you see students make when they write their essays?
Carolyn Caplan: They feel a need to be unique and stand out, but in an effort to do that, they write essays that build walls between them and the reader because their natural personalities don't come out in their words. I tell students, "Build bridges instead of walls, so you can make a connection with the reader. Focus on more expressing, less impressing." Students should be vulnerable instead of trying to share all of their accomplishments. When I'm reading essays, I find that the students who are trying to impress the reader end up creating the most difficult essays to get through. I'll often say, "I'm not learning anything about you other than the fact that you're trying to impress me."
College Confidential: What's the number one tip you have that helps students write quality essays?
Carolyn Caplan: I ask two questions that bring about the best essays. The first is, "If you could have any superpower, what would it be?" That shows what is important to the student and what they would do in life if they could do anything. Sometimes they figure out they already have that, or that it isn't so great and that they don't need it after all. The second is either "What do you think about just before you go to sleep?" or "What keeps you awake at night?" I find that a lot of students have never been asked that and it encourages them to investigate what they feel deep down. I get a lot of students who talk about fear of growing up, their worries about being authentic, or finding out their friends aren't authentic, and I have them take those thoughts to the Most Dangerous Writing App, and it can be the basis for a great essay.
College Confidential: What should a student do if they're really happy with their personal essay but they feel they've strayed from the prompt?
Carolyn Caplan: When it comes to the personal essay, I advise students not to worry about picking one certain prompt. Instead, I encourage them to read through all the prompts and identify the important words, like: background, identity, interest, your story, obstacles, challenge, setback, failure, challenged a belief and more. You can always use Prompt 7, which allows you to write about the topic of your choice. If you write about what you believe, what you value and what excites you, that's the most important thing. The topic is you and not the prompt.
College Confidential: What's the most compelling thing a student can put in a "Why do you want to go to this college" essay?
Carolyn Caplan: The college wants to know specifically what you'd be bringing with you to their campus, so this is not an essay that's interchangeable between colleges. This is an essay that only you can write about only this school. If any sentence doesn't fit that formula, it needs to be deleted. They want to see the person you are, the experiences you've had that you'd bring to the school, and what your interactions would be like with their professors, clubs or campus features based on your interests.
If you've seen things that were compelling to you in their school newspaper or on the college's social media channels, you can mention that, in addition to anything you've heard in information sessions. You can also mention how you'd be involved on campus outside of extracurriculars and academics, like factors involving the dorm or the cafeteria. You could share ways that you'd create a camaraderie even in extreme circumstances such as our current situation of social distancing. In addition, some schools want to ensure that you'll be okay in their city. For instance, if you're applying to Tulane, you might want to share how comfortable you are in New Orleans and the things you like about the area. That can be important if a city environment is a big part of a school. But most importantly, be super specific in these "why this school" essays. Your job is to paint a picture of yourself on their campus.
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