What Are the Components of a Successful College Application? Part One: The Essays

Whenever students and parents discuss the common application and other college applications, all they seem to talk about is the personal narrative and college-specific essays. While these essays are critically important parts of a student’s application, the truth is that there is a lot more to an application that must be addressed if a student is to successfully navigate the college admission process.

The Personal Narrative

The personal narrative is the essay that is common to all colleges that subscribe to the common application. As the name implies, it should reveal some personal characteristic or characteristics of the applicant. This is not a place to summarize or embellish on activities. In general, colleges want to know that you are a person of high character and high potential who will fit into the ideal college culture they are trying to create and support. The topic you choose to write about is at least as important as the quality of the writing and the level of insight that the essay provides.

One very important thing to remember is that, in most cases, what seems important to a student may be viewed as trivial or, even worse, immature to a college admission officer. For example, an essay about breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or an essay discussing the disappointment of not being selected for the varsity soccer team, would generally be viewed as trivial. Of course, there might be some aspect of these situations that is worth of writing about, but most students write very superficially about these kinds of experiences.

On the other hand, an essay discussing a particular instance of bravery or ingenuity would generally be considered very positively. Furthermore, an essay that addresses the implications of a seemingly insignificant detail could reveal a kind of thought process that colleges admire. To use a metaphor, it might be better to write about the rivet that holds a bridge together rather than to write about the bridge itself. In some cases, a humorous treatment of a serious topic can be very well received. Keep in mind, however, that bad humor can be really bad! In all cases, the essay must reveal some important characteristic or accomplishment of the applicant.

Recently, the Common Application added a very interesting new prompt and placing it in the #4 position:

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

What is particularly interesting about this prompt is that it should elicit a particularly multifaceted response. The key to this prompt is in the words: in a surprising way. To answer this properly and effectively, you must consider a time when you have had an unusual response to an encounter you have had with another person. An example of how you might effectively answer this question is to describe a situation in which you helped somebody, but you were the one who was thankful for the opportunity, perhaps because of the way it made you feel or respond, or perhaps because you learned an important lesson as a result. Whether you are responding to this prompt or another, make sure that your essay does in fact respond directly to the question posed in the prompt.

The COVID-19 or Community Disruption Essay

The COVID-19 (and other natural disasters) essay was introduced last year and is likely to be around for another year or even longer. Generally, it asks if the worldwide pandemic known as COVID-19, or some other natural disaster, impaired or otherwise negatively affected you in some way. The most common response to this essay is a discussion of hybrid or remote learning. We suggest that you stay away from this topic as an excuse. Furthermore, we suggest that you not use this as a place to make any excuses for poor performance. Generally speaking, colleges prefer students who rise above adversity rather than those who are negatively impacted by adversity. Even if you did suffer a serious adversity, we suggest that you apply some positive characteristic, such as how you learned an important lesson about life, or how you must rise above negative circumstances in your life. It is also important to realize that you do not have to respond to this question. You should definitely not respond with a superficial or trivial topic. If you have not been negatively impacted by COVID-19 or another natural disaster, you might be better served simply not responding to this topic.

College Specific Essays

College specific essays are potentially more important than the Common Application essay. This is especially true of top colleges such as those in the Ivy League and other top-ranked institutions. Generally, these colleges strongly consider your responses to their specific questions which are designed to delve deeply into your motivation for applying, your likelihood of succeeding at their institution, and whether you will make a positive contribution to their campus culture.

Some of these questions require you to do some research about the college you are applying to. The “Why us?” type of question, in particular, requires that you have knowledge not only about the college you are applying to but the area of academic interest that you are likely to follow in college. A superficial treatment of this question typically has a negative impact on the student’s candidacy. All top colleges want to know that there are important reasons you have decided to apply, reasons that extend far beyond the college’s ranking.