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Students Dig Deep with the College Essay
college-essay essay

Mary had a rough junior year.  Her mother was ill, spending a lot of time in the hospital.  Mary was worried about her mom. This showed in her final semester grades.  Jorge loved being involved with FBLA. He had been a part of it since freshman year.  He ran for an office at the regional level and barely lost. He contributes hours of time to the organization.  Sonali is the first one in her family to apply to college. Her parents immigrated to the United States when she was young, to give her more opportunities for education her, rather than back in her native land of Pakistan.  She grew up helping her parents navigate the American educational system; translating for her parents at school meetings, helping her younger siblings do homework, working in her family restaurant. Each of these students has an opportunity to share important information about their personal stories in their college or scholarship application essays.


What College Want in Essays

College admissions officers are not reviewing student college essays in a vacuum. They are reviewing them as a part of an entire application to their institution.  It is important to keep in mind all parts of the application you have completed when you write your college essay. The college admissions officer reading your essays will consider your written statement in light of all the other parts of your application. There are three principles to keep in mind related to your entire application when writing your personal statements.  If you follow these principles, your college essay will have the impact you want in the college admissions process.


  1. Answer questions your application raises.  

When an admissions officer reviews Mary’s application, they will notice her grades have dropped the junior year. This will raise a question in their minds as to “Why” did this happen?  If Mary does not answer the question in her essay, the admissions officer will come up with their own answer. Mary may not like the answer the admissions officer generates. If you have any of these situations in your application, consider writing about it in one of your college essays.  This is usually a good use of the “Additional Information” essay.

    1. Change in grades: increase or decrease in grades or GPA should be explained. Was it a hard class for you?  Did you miss a lot of class due to sports? Did you move schools? Was someone sick in your family?

    2. Lack of rigor.  No honors or AP courses?  Were they not offered? Did you have conflicts?

    3. Low test scores. Do you need extended time to do better? Did you find you preferred one test over another? Were there problems with one of the tests you took?   

    4. Low grades or no grades.  Does your school have notoriously low test scores?  Is your class size small? Or are you homeschooled and don’t have grades at all to share.

    5. Disciplinary actions. If you had any disciplinary actions (especially a suspension), you should acknowledge it and explain the circumstances. The officer will see it on your school record, so you want to ensure they have the full story.


Mary needs to include in her essay information about her mom’s health, and why her grades dropped her junior year. This will be very helpful for the admissions officer to know and understand about Mary’s situation.


2.  Give further insight into parts of your application.

When the admissions officer reviews Jorge’s application, he will see in the activity section Jorge’s involvement in FBLA, and his school commitment.  What may not be shown there is the time and effort Jorge put into running for a regional office he did not win. Jorge needs to let the admissions officers know, through his essay, his passion for business, his involvement at all levels of FBLA, and how he plans to continue being involved in a similar organization when in college.   Although FBLA shows up on his application, Jorge needs to add more information through his essay, to let the admissions officer know his level of interest and commitment, not only in high school, but in college too. Consider including in your college essay information in the following area:

  1. Extra-curricular activities.  Tell the college admissions officer what a particular activity or event meant to you.  Give them more than the hours you spent. What is significant in the activity? What made it special to you?

  2. Favorite classes or subjects.  Love math? Love Civics? More of a science or language person.  Use your application to explain more about your favorite subject, or challenges you may have in certain subjects.

  3. Community service. Use the essay to explain in more depth about the community service activity you participate in, or the interests you are pursuing in the community.  How did you get involved? Why?

  4. Not just high school.  If you have been playing the violin since five, or played soccer since you were eight, and it is still an important part of your life, include it in your essay.  College application typically focuses on just your high school years. Use the college essay to share more.

Jorge needs to include in his application about running for the sectional office and losing. It shows his perseverance, and quality of character that he did not let a defeat pull him down or stop him from being involved.


3.  Tell the admissions office what they can’t learn just from your application alone.

There is not an obvious place for Sonali to include information about her family or background. Being the first generation, translating for her parents, and spending hours in her family restaurant instead of being in lots of extra-curricular activities would be something all colleges would want to learn about Sonali, but may not even appear on her application unless she writes about it her college essay.  Some topics that make great topics to write about are:

  1. First generation college student.  First in your family to go to college? Write about the challenges of being first in your family.

  2. Cultural roots. If you have roots in another culture, share it in a written essay.  Write about holidays, family gatherings, special foods or dishes you enjoy, and why they have to mean.

  3. Bilingual or more. If you hear languages other than English at home, write about it.  Are you also bilingual (or more)? How do you feel about listening, speaking and writing in other languages? Are you good at it? Do you want to learn more?

  4. Family ties.  Do you live in a rural area, far from school?  Or an urban area with unique challenges? Write about where you live and how it has shaped you.

Sonali should include a lot of information about her culture, her involvement with her family and how that limits her activities at school.  The college admissions officers will take that into consideration when reviewing her entire application.


Many Parts Equal a Whole

Applying to college is a lot of hard work. It is a personal portfolio of the last four years of your life as a student and as a person.  Use the college essay to give the college admissions office a complete picture of your portfolio. This will result in more college admissions offers and more scholarship offers too.


Mary had a rough junior year.  Her mother was ill, spending a lot of time in the hospital.  Mary was worried about her mom. This showed in her final semester grades.  Jorge loved being involved with FBLA. He had been a part of it since freshman year.  He ran for an office at the regional level and barely lost. He contributes hours of time to the organization.  Sonali is the first one in her family to apply to college. Her parents immigrated to the United States when she was young, to give her more opportunities for education her, rather than back in her native land of Pakistan.  She grew up helping her parents navigate the American educational system; translating for her parents at school meetings, helping her younger siblings do homework, working in her family restaurant. Each of these students has an opportunity to share important information about their personal stories in their college or scholarship application essays.


What College Want in Essays

College admissions officers are not reviewing student college essays in a vacuum. They are reviewing them as a part of an entire application to their institution.  It is important to keep in mind all parts of the application you have completed when you write your college essay. The college admissions officer reading your essays will consider your written statement in light of all the other parts of your application. There are three principles to keep in mind related to your entire application when writing your personal statements.  If you follow these principles, your college essay will have the impact you want in the college admissions process.


  1. Answer questions your application raises.  

When an admissions officer reviews Mary’s application, they will notice her grades have dropped the junior year. This will raise a question in their minds as to “Why” did this happen?  If Mary does not answer the question in her essay, the admissions officer will come up with their own answer. Mary may not like the answer the admissions officer generates. If you have any of these situations in your application, consider writing about it in one of your college essays.  This is usually a good use of the “Additional Information” essay.

    1. Change in grades: increase or decrease in grades or GPA should be explained. Was it a hard class for you?  Did you miss a lot of class due to sports? Did you move schools? Was someone sick in your family?

    2. Lack of rigor.  No honors or AP courses?  Were they not offered? Did you have conflicts?

    3. Low test scores. Do you need extended time to do better? Did you find you preferred one test over another? Were there problems with one of the tests you took?   

    4. Low grades or no grades.  Does your school have notoriously low test scores?  Is your class size small? Or are you homeschooled and don’t have grades at all to share.

    5. Disciplinary actions. If you had any disciplinary actions (especially a suspension), you should acknowledge it and explain the circumstances. The officer will see it on your school record, so you want to ensure they have the full story.


Mary needs to include in her essay information about her mom’s health, and why her grades dropped her junior year. This will be very helpful for the admissions officer to know and understand about Mary’s situation.


2.  Give further insight into parts of your application.

When the admissions officer reviews Jorge’s application, he will see in the activity section Jorge’s involvement in FBLA, and his school commitment.  What may not be shown there is the time and effort Jorge put into running for a regional office he did not win. Jorge needs to let the admissions officers know, through his essay, his passion for business, his involvement at all levels of FBLA, and how he plans to continue being involved in a similar organization when in college.   Although FBLA shows up on his application, Jorge needs to add more information through his essay, to let the admissions officer know his level of interest and commitment, not only in high school, but in college too. Consider including in your college essay information in the following area:

  1. Extra-curricular activities.  Tell the college admissions officer what a particular activity or event meant to you.  Give them more than the hours you spent. What is significant in the activity? What made it special to you?

  2. Favorite classes or subjects.  Love math? Love Civics? More of a science or language person.  Use your application to explain more about your favorite subject, or challenges you may have in certain subjects.

  3. Community service. Use the essay to explain in more depth about the community service activity you participate in, or the interests you are pursuing in the community.  How did you get involved? Why?

  4. Not just high school.  If you have been playing the violin since five, or played soccer since you were eight, and it is still an important part of your life, include it in your essay.  College application typically focuses on just your high school years. Use the college essay to share more.

Jorge needs to include in his application about running for the sectional office and losing. It shows his perseverance, and quality of character that he did not let a defeat pull him down or stop him from being involved.


3.  Tell the admissions office what they can’t learn just from your application alone.

There is not an obvious place for Sonali to include information about her family or background. Being the first generation, translating for her parents, and spending hours in her family restaurant instead of being in lots of extra-curricular activities would be something all colleges would want to learn about Sonali, but may not even appear on her application unless she writes about it her college essay.  Some topics that make great topics to write about are:

  1. First generation college student.  First in your family to go to college? Write about the challenges of being first in your family.

  2. Cultural roots. If you have roots in another culture, share it in a written essay.  Write about holidays, family gatherings, special foods or dishes you enjoy, and why they have to mean.

  3. Bilingual or more. If you hear languages other than English at home, write about it.  Are you also bilingual (or more)? How do you feel about listening, speaking and writing in other languages? Are you good at it? Do you want to learn more?

  4. Family ties.  Do you live in a rural area, far from school?  Or an urban area with unique challenges? Write about where you live and how it has shaped you.

Sonali should include a lot of information about her culture, her involvement with her family and how that limits her activities at school.  The college admissions officers will take that into consideration when reviewing her entire application.


Many Parts Equal a Whole

Applying to college is a lot of hard work. It is a personal portfolio of the last four years of your life as a student and as a person.  Use the college essay to give the college admissions office a complete picture of your portfolio. This will result in more college admissions offers and more scholarship offers too.


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