ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Applying to College / Thoughts on Application Essays

Thoughts on Application Essays

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Aug. 26, 2013

Before you start working on your Common Application essay and the associated Common Application supplements that colleges just love to throw your way, you need to start seeing yourself in the proper perspective in regards to being an applicant to your candidate colleges. This stratagem applies even if you’re not aiming for the top, as with the Ivies and other elites. Knowing who you are and how you think, plus being able to express that in an articulate statement, will go a long way in advancing your admission chances, regardless of where you are applying.

Here’s a little exercise that may help you understand what I mean:

Try to imagine that you have a cold and don’t feel well (I hope that’s not true). So, you head to the CVS pharmacy looking for something to make you feel better. When you walk in, you scan the signs hanging from the ceiling and see one that says, Cold Remedies. Ah, just what you need! So you walk over to that aisle and suddenly you are confronted with what seems like a million different products, all of which, each in their own way, are clamoring for you to buy them. What to do?!

You begin to read the labels and blurbs on a few and become even more confused. You’re about to leave in frustration, when suddenly you see an interesting looking package that says, “A different kind product to fix your cold!” You pick up that package, read its blurb, and–voila!–you’ve found your medicine! So, you take it up front, pay for it, and head home, satisfied that soon you’ll be feeling better.


Okay, believe it or not, my silly little story has a point. The analogy to college admissions (especially the Ivies and other highly competitive schools) is that you and your head cold are the admissions committee. All the cold remedies trying to get you to buy them are the applicants to your school. The “applicant” (product) you “admitted” (purchased) is the one whose “application” (product marketing pitch) that most appealed to you, even though in reality there may have been betterproduct on those shelves. Sound crazy? Read on.

Over the decades, one of my fundamental approaches to helping applicants get into selective colleges has been what I call “student profile marketing.” The thrust of that is: “You are unique, so tell the admissions committee why they should pick you instead of all the rest.” This goes back to that cold-medicine packaging I mentioned. Your “package” has to be special and outstanding, in order to “jump off the shelf” from among all those others clamoring for attention. I’m sure you get the concept by now.

Anyway, back to essay specifics. I’d like you to consider your application campaign in two categories: (1) “general” college applications (the Ivies, elites, and other selective schools) and, perhaps in your case, (2) “specific” applications (specialized programs such as BS/MD, Penn’s Huntsman, Wharton, etc.). The Common Application essay, its related writing requirements, and those non-specialized-program-related college supplements fall into the general category. Obviously, the combo-med and other special supplements are in the specific category.

“So what should I write about, Dave?” you ask. Well, here’s your challenge for coming up with an idea for your Common App essay, in order to maximize your profile marketing and to get Harvard, Stanford, and all the others, to take you to the cash register: Identify some thing, event, or thought process that sticks out in your mind that would reveal to your colleges who you are and how you think. One of my clients from years past wrote about her theories as to why certain classmates sat in the seats they did in certain classes. It was a fascinating glimpse into how this young woman observed the world around her. She went to Harvard.

Here’s another exercise that can help you set yourself apart in your essay(s):

Look around your room and see if anything in there inspires you to write about an aspect of your life that colleges won’t be able to discern from the rest of your application. Do you have any weird hobbies or habits (Making chess pieces out of Corn Flakes? Painting corporate logos on old car doors? Taking pictures chipmunks running from cats? Autographing yellow lines on the roads near your home? Get the idea here? [Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect here.]) that seem really crazy and that you may be too embarrassed to mention? These are the kinds of activities that make wonderful “anything else” essays!

My son, who went to Princeton, answered his Princeton “anything else” prompt by discussing his sense of humor and citing some of the crazy things he did with his friends. His essay started out something like this: “You have already seen that I place a high value on academics and meaningful extracurriculars. However, I want you to know that I’m not all work and no play. I love to laugh and sometimes do things with my friends that others may think are weird, but they appeal to my sense of humor . . .”

So, keeping all this in mind, construct a list of “little known habits, hobbies, and other weird stuff ” about yourself.  Then, work to shape an aspect (or aspects) of that list into a winning  statement. That shouldn’t be too hard. Plus, you’ll have a lot of fun discovering why you will become the cold cure of choice for your first-choice college!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

More on Applying to College

See all
typing at computer- karolina-grabowska-6958506-resized

Authentic Voice in College Essays

That’s why you want to use your authentic voice when writing any college essay.

So what’s the problem? A student has shared an ess…


College Interview Prep Tips: Brainstorm, Research, Analyze, Generalize

I recently visited Washington University in Saint Louis and was lucky enough to set up an interview. By speaking with peers of mi…

campus gates

Academic Index Scores: Why They Matter and How They're Calculated

Note: Click here for 10 Summer Programs You Can Still Apply For or keep reading to learn more about academic index scores.

8 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

7 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

Podcasts can offer a wealth of information to busy students, particularly when it comes to the college admissions process. We…


Avoid College Application Regrets: Tips For Getting It Right the First Time

Decision Day occurs each year on May 1st and is the deadline for students to inform the college of their choice of their intent t…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship