College essay writing fills most students with apprehension and dread. For advice, we turned to Diana Blitz. She has been helping students write great college essays for more than two decades, first as a high school counselor, where she helped hundreds navigate the college admissions process each year, and now as an independent college consultant at The College Lady.
What is your topline advice for students on how to tackle the college essay?
The number one goal of the essay is for the reader to know you. When you submit your application, you are a compilation of data points – just GPA and test scores. This is your opportunity to let the admissions committee know who you are, what you care about. You could write about anything—I’ve seen great essays on why I love goats or why I want to have lunch with Michelle Obama. But the essay has to be about you. And ultimately, it needs to answer one simple question: so what? Imagine them saying: “Oh, yeah, I get it. That’s why this person chose to write about that.”
What is your particular advice for DC students? Are there any locally-specific opportunities or pitfalls?
Many local students want to write about growing up in a diverse environment and how they have been enriched by that environment. While celebrating diversity is great, the problem is that these essays risk falling into truisms. Students write about the diversity of their schools or their city, but not enough about who they are.
The diversity of Washington’s schools and its communities is profoundly interesting – but use it as a backdrop to write about you.
The other thing I caution about is the service trip. Many local students have the opportunity to travel abroad to amazing places, either for tourism or for volunteer service, and they’ve caught a brief glimpse of foreign cultures, poverty and massive global challenges. If you want to write about how you saved the word, you shouldn’t do it. But if you want to talk about the insignificance of what you’ve done compared to the vast depth of the problem, how you thought you could make a difference but then you realized it takes so many people touching a problem to make an impact, and how your world view has been enhanced by the experience – that’s the makings of a great essay. Again, you have to talk about YOU.
Are there any subjects students should avoid?
Admissions officers tell me they’re tired of hearing about how you won the game or lost the game for your team. Frankly, it’s not of interest to them and doesn’t tell them who you are.
The other subject to handle delicately is loss or tragedy. Colleges want to admit students who are ready to be successful members of their community. Whether it’s a death in the family, a break up or a struggle with physical or mental health, admissions officers want to know that you’ve faced this obstacle and somehow come out on the other side, that you’ve learned resilience, managed to put that challenge in its place and that maybe you rely on your experience as a source of strength. And now you’re ready for college. You have to show that you’re ready to launch.
What do you tell a student with writer’s block?
There are so many terrific free resources online – just google “brainstorming college essay” and you’ll be pleased with what comes up. Also, look at the Common Application essay prompts– one of them will speak to you, but you need to really read them. Kids are quick to eliminate a prompt, but I always ask them to go back and rethink. Brainstorm like crazy. Ask smaller questions around the prompt to get at exactly what you want to write about.
What about students who don’t feel they’re strong writers?
We all have stories to tell. Don’t worry about being someone else’s idea of a “good writer.” If you’re not funny, it’s not the time to be funny. If you’re not a good writer and don’t have a huge vocabulary, don’t use fancy words. Your ideas can be profound and can show deep insight into your character, even if they are told in simple, unadorned phrases. That said, you should absolutely get someone to edit for typos and grammar. Don’t just farm it out – learn from those writing lessons and use the essay to become more confident in your own voice. You can fix the writing and your thoughts will still be there.
Should a student address weaknesses in his or her transcript?
Not in the Common Application essay. The essay is the place to make a great first impression on the reader. They’ll be looking at that before the test scores. You don’t want to address your weaknesses, unless it’s a challenge you’ve overcome that reveals something powerful about your character.
What’s the most original and fun essay you’ve ever read?
I had a student once who wrote his essay about why Yoshi the green dinosaur from Mario Kart is the person he admires most, because they share so many qualities: I’m always in the support role, no one seems to know who I am, but Mario can’t succeed without me. There was a lot of self-deprecating humor, an original point of view and it conveyed his personality and character in a really likable, memorable way.
Finally, just how important is the college essay?
It all depends on where you’re applying, your grades and your test scores. If you’re applying to a large state institution, and your numbers are strong relative to their average student body, then you’ll get in on the strength of your four years of hard work. The bottom line is that they may be getting 25,000 applications, and they simply don’t have time to sift through essays and recommendations.
However, if you’re applying to an Ivy League school or a smaller liberal arts college, then they’re really looking at the whole package and the essay can be very important. At some of these schools, there are very few students who don’t have near-perfect test scores and GPAs, so how do you stand out? They’re looking at your essay, recommendations and activities to understand the whole picture of you.
Any parting words of wisdom?
The reality is in the world of college access, it’s become harder. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends, teachers, or a trusted adult for advice. Everybody needs help.