It’s the Essay of Your Life

But there’s no one path to success


By Victoria Goldman


The college essay: A five-hundred-word-plus, creatively composed piece of writing, whose sole aim is to get a nod from the dean of admissions, and land an acceptance to the college of your dreams. 

First off, there’s no one way or perfect time to do it, rather many ways depending on the student.  “Some need the rush of being in school,” said Bruce Breimer, the director of college relations and school principal at Collegiate. Others find summer, a time without homework or tests, is a good time to start writing.

 “The point is,” Breimer continued, “that each student knows their own writing habits best.”

Whether in class or not, according to a tutor at Advantage Testing, it usually takes time to come up with good ideas, so starting early is a good thing. “It’s amazing how many people forget, and freak out in the final hour,” she said.

What to write about?

“There are two different types of essays: the personal statement and why-X school,” explained Breimer.  He cautioned students before they start writing anything not to focus on the question.

“It’s not the question!” He boomed. “Don’t get seduced by the question. Rather, figure out what intellectual and personal traits you want to share with the admissions committee and pick the question that enables you to do that.”

The Advantage tutor recommended coming up with at least five possible topics, saying “Think of specific moments, experiences, and people.” She reminds her students that a college essay isn’t meant to be a definitive and exhaustive biography of their lives. 

Instead, she suggested, “The point, I think, is to provide a glimpse in to a student’s values, priorities, character, or sense of humor.” 

For students who want to expound on why they’d like to go to a particular school, advised Breimer, “You may have to wait until after you’ve either spent a night there and are more conversant about the school.”

The approach, whether it’s using humor, fact, fiction, or folly, isn’t as important as what you say and how you discuss a specific topic, any topic, even if it’s the most simple thing as long as it’s well stated and has a interesting point of view. 

“The biggest trap,” cautioned Breimer, “that most kids fall into unwittingly is being too egocentric and writing over and over again, I, I, I or me, me, me.  What they have to remember is that they’re applying to a residential community and that’s twenty-four/seven of living and learning together, which is dependent to the success of the community and the way kids relate to each other.  The key is to show in an essay how well one relates to others.”

Gardner Dunnan of Dalton fame, pioneer of The School at Columbia University, and presently Assistant Provost for Special Projects at Columbia University, echoed and added to the expert advise. “It is tempting to list all of the wonderful accomplishments of your high school career. Don’t!”  Dunnan warned. “Other parts of the application will make those accomplishments clear. The essay is an opportunity to focus on one or two points that may be accomplishments or failures, but who make you the person they are considering.” 

So whatever you decide to talk about in your essay, explained Dunnan, “The most important thing to keep in mind is to be authentic, and show how you have learned from the experience.” And, he added, if you can, “Be brief and funny.”

Clearly, the essays that get the most attention though are well thought out, well written; convey the essence of who you are, what’s special about you, and what you have to contribute. Without question, a well-written essay on almost any topic can be a ticket to admission assuming all else is in place.

Finally, try to put yourself in the place of the college admissions person reading your essay, someone who reads hundreds or more essays every year, and ask yourself if yours will stand out.  Be willing to write many drafts, ask many people to read it, get feedback, be open to criticism, but keep it yours. Polish it until it shines.