Even though some colleges may not require an essay under the new version of the Common Application, students — particularly those who’ve prevailed through difficult circumstances — should go ahead and write an essay anyway in order to distinguish themselves in the college admissions process.
That advice comes from a longtime college admissions expert who specializes in college admission essays.
“I think the essay is a huge opportunity for the vast majority of students to stand out from lots of people who look just the same,” said Carol Barash, founder and CEO of Story2, a company that helps high school students turn their life experiences into college admission essays.
“I think students are afraid that their essays won’t be good enough that they don’t even try,” Barash said. “But without the essay, you’re just one of a number.”
Students who take the time to write the essay fare much better, Barash said.
“The essay can really help an admissions committee understand who you are as a person and what you’ve gone through that makes you who you are and why they should believe in you,” she said.
Barash’s advice comes just as the new Common Application went live earlier this month. As many as 20 percent of the 600 or so Common Application-membership colleges will make the essay optional under the Common Application, although some may require essays as part of their own supplemental applications, according to published reports.
While some students have the benefit of college-access professionals who help them get a good start on their essays during the summer, Barash said many students are at a disadvantage because they lack a trusted adult with the expertise to help them overcome the challenges associated with writing.
Asked what she would tell high school seniors who comprise the Class of 2016 about writing the college admission essay, Barash offered the following advice:
· Believe in yourself: “The first thing I would tell them is [that] you have everything [that] you need to succeed in college admissions and in college,” Barash said. “You’re going to have to work. You’re going to have to use new muscles and ask for help but you have what you need in your experiences, in your brain, in your dreams and vision of the future. You have what you need to succeed.”
· Follow your dreams and passion: “As far as the essays are concerned, start with the things that are really simple and close to your heart. Great essays come from things you feel passionate about and things that you’re committed to doing, a sense of engagement and commitment and purpose to be shown through your actions,” Barash said.
Barash said if students aren’t engaged in things about which they are passionate, they should start to be. “You need a life of engagement and commitment and purpose. That’s why we’re here as human beings,” Barash said. “That’s what colleges are looking for. Not someone with an [outstanding] résumé but someone who’s going to really engage in college, engage in learning, persevere and push through obstacles, and get things done. Colleges want people who persevere. The world needs people who persevere.”
· Ask for help: “In 2015 you don’t have to do it alone,” Barash said. “There are so many resources to many people and places that want to help students succeed in college admissions that if you ask for help and keep asking for help, and are open to using the process to learn and grow, that it could really be a tremendous opportunity in and of itself to learn about who you are and to think about your commitment to the future.”
Barash said that there are other new features of the Common Application of which students and college-access professionals should be aware.
For instance, she said, one of the new essay questions that students can choose to answer on the Common Application states: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Barash had two takes on the new question.
On the one hand, she said: “This new question really allows students to reflect on their sense of pursuing a big idea, a problem they want to solve and what maybe they’ve already done to begin addressing that challenge or problem or question or issue. I think it’s really about aspirations and sense of purpose and where you’re going.”
On the other hand, she said: “That question is not user friendly for most teenagers. There’s a type of student with a sense of purpose that it really plays to.”
Although the Common Application allows students to edit their essays as many times as they like for different colleges, Barash urged students to tread lightly in that regard.
“There’s a really fine line between making it really shine and then like over-editing it, trying to make everybody happy, and it doesn’t sound like you anymore,” Barash said.
Barash said that the three most important things in a college admission essay are: a unique perspective, strong writing and the student’s authentic voice. She urged students to be selective about from whom and how many people they solicit help.
“If a student gets feedback from too many adults, all of whom have their own opinion, before you know, the student voice is gone,” Barash said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.