Essay advice from a former freshman application reader


1. What are some elements that make a memorable essay from your experience as a freshman application reader? Topic, tone, and tenacity are elements for getting the job done. The most memorable essays convey self-awareness. Prompts can be broken down into these questions: What happened? What do you think about it? What is the impact of the experience on you? How a student answers these questions could be first-hand examples of some of the character qualities found on the Common Application’s Teacher Evaluation Form: quality of writing, maturity, motivation, and perhaps more. Avoid whining.

2. Are anecdotal essays the best? Mind the prompt. “Experiences” wants a resume; “experience” wants detail. Anecdotes in essays can be pivotal revelations that the student applicant is ready for a higher level of learning in college or life as a responsible adult. Examples of unsupportive essays are those disparaging others, engaging in foolish risks, or describing group travel tours. Anecdotes can also provide nuance to concepts that could be otherwise vague.  Anecdotes must be unique to the individual. The thoughts in the essay must be those of the applicant and not of the parents, counselor, or other advisors.

3. What’s the best strategy when it comes to editing an essay? Time is the best strategy, and essay prompts are often available early in the summer, well before the applications appear online. Good writing is re-writing; editing is a continuous process as one thinks of better content and better ways of expression. Take breaks during the writing process; a clear mind and fresh eyes are critical for editing. With respect to proofing, print a hard copy. Read it aloud so the ear can catch awkward phrasing. Read it backwards (silently) to catch misspellings. Do not rely on spellcheckers. Ask an advisor or teacher to review your essay.

4. How can you help students when it comes to finding their story/crafting the best possible essay they can? The most memorable experiences, good or bad, tend to be the best essay topics. As an advisor, I point out logic gaps or question word choices. Recasting a sentence from passive to active voice can not only tighten up the writing, but also clarify thinking. I like to work with students during their high school years and encourage them to try different activities: For example, the math nerd who is also the musical lead in the school play or the unexceptional student whose summer internship connects to a career vision and a college major. An excellent story will have substance relevant to the applicant.

5. What are the best ways to succeed at a short-answer essay? Besides adhering to the character or word limitations, cut to the chase. Don’t repeat the content found elsewhere in your application. Have a reason to write the short essay in the first place. Remember, you are introducing yourself to college admissions.  

Kim Glenchur is an Educational Consultant at CollegeGPS. She is a former freshman applications reader at The University of California at Berkeley.

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