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College essay requires thought, not personal drama

By Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

If you attended any information sessions during your campus visits, I’m certain you heard the word “authentic” in response to the question most typically asked by a parent – “What should the essay be about?” Telling students to “be authentic” and “demonstrate your passion” are popular buzz words in the admissions office. It’s sound advice, but unfortunately it’s not very meaningful to many 17-year-olds.

It’s easier to talk about what students shouldn’t write about in their college essays. Are there taboo topics? College admissions officers say any topic can be written about as long as the student’s own voice comes shining through. However, there are overused, cheesy topics that students should try to stay away from.

Avoid the 3 D’s: Divorce, Death and Drugs. What’s wrong with these topics? They are often too personal. Once students start writing about these topics, the essays frequently turn into diary-type missives where they are whining about their lives. Also on the no-no list are mission trip essays where students have figured out how to solve the world’s problems.

Educational consultant Parke Muth, a former admissions officer at the University of Virginia, shared this thought about essays:

“So if you haven’t created a startup that Gates is funding or haven’t climbed eight of the world’s top peaks, are you doomed? No: what you have are words. Your words are things you can control and work on.”

This year I worked with a very talented student who is passionate about music. Understandably, at first we assumed he would write his essay about one of his musical activities. But, as we rambled through our essay brainstorming session, he shared that one of his best friends had died in a car accident.

We both agreed immediately that talking about his friend’s death wasn’t a good idea. But I asked him how that death affected him and found out about an entirely different side of him. My student, along with a small group of friends, mobilized an entire town to have the road widened. They designed an awareness campaign, created fundraisers, met with the mayor and went all the way to the State Department of Transportation.

They were successful. That was going to be a good essay, but it got better. After a little more probing, my student revealed that there were many naysayers at his school and within the community whopestered him to drop his efforts so they could all find closure to his friend’s death. So rather than writing about all the road-widening accomplishments, he wrote about how he navigated the personal issues of friends who weren’t supportive of his efforts. Wonderful essay!

Students must remember to ask themselves “What is it that I want the college admissions officer to remember about me?

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to;

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