Director of Admission Shares the Truth About College Essays

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes, key messages, and mission statements. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition.

Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places.

Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

Georgia Tech

College Application Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway.

I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic. Sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure.

The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all!

My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

How to Write a Memorable College Application Essay

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average.

Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

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Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. In this role, he directs the Institute’s recruitment and enrollment efforts, manages the review and selection of all undergraduate applications, and leads the admission team. Under his leadership, the Institute has dramatically increased brand awareness, improved overall academic class profile, and exceeded goals for geographic, gender and ethnic diversity.

Over the last four years he has written a regular blog on the college admission process and topics regarding affordability of college. Rick is frequently quoted and referenced in national and international publications. He is the co-author of newly-released The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together. (September 10)

A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. He and his family live in Avondale Estates, Ga.

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