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Frequently Asked Questions About College Application Essays

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Anna Smist, a Yale Admissions Officer, in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.

 

What’s Covered:

 

 

Can an Essay Make Up for Poor Extracurriculars?

 

Tests

 

Most universities look at an application holistically, meaning each part of the application serves as a piece of the puzzle that when put together make up the student. Regardless of a student’s ACT or SAT score, the admissions officer will look at everything submitted in the application and consider the student as a whole. 

 

To answer the question of if essays can make up for your extracurriculars―it depends. Each student is unique but, if some areas of your application aren’t as strong, your essays can help your application stand out. Essays are how the admissions officer gets to know who you are and see if you will be a good fit for their school.

 

Advice for STEM students

 

If writing isn’t your strength, it can be nerve-wracking to write your college application essays. The key advice to keep in mind is to write about yourself and your passions in a straightforward way. Essays aren’t always going to be the aspect of an application that gets someone in. They are just one piece of the puzzle and another way to evaluate if a student will be a good fit. 

 

If you are a student applying to a hard STEM major and all of your extracurriculars are STEM-focused as well, the admission officers aren’t expecting to read the essay of a creative writing student. The admissions officers are expecting to read about your passion for STEM and why you want to study it, so do your best and get the support you need to succeed but don’t overthink it. 

 

How Have Colleges Adapted Application Reviews With COVID-19?

 

Many students applying to college right now are worried they don’t have the necessary extracurriculars because of lockdowns related to the pandemic. Colleges are well aware of the environment students went to high school in, so they aren’t expecting you to have the same extracurriculars as a student who wasn’t in lockdown. Admissions officers are very understanding of students’ circumstances. 

 

What a student shouldn’t do in their application is include extracurriculars from a long time ago. If you are a 17-year-old applying to college, don’t include activities from when you were 10. You have become a very different person in those seven years, so when admissions officers read your application, they are wondering who you are now as a 17-year-old. If you are talking about something that happened many years ago, that should not be the bulk of your essay. 

 

What Are Some Common Pitfalls?

 

Be Careful of Your Verb Tenses

 

Another error students make is to completely use the past tense. It is OK to use this when you are reflecting on a memory or talking about a specific event, but make sure your entire essay isn’t in the past. Try to weave together the past and present in your essay and talk about how your past has influenced the present you. 

 

Show Your Exceptionalism

 

Exceptionalism refers to when people try to make themselves out to be different and very special. When admissions officers come across this in a student’s essay, it could rub them the wrong way. 

 

Some students like to compare themselves to their classmates or friends and then talk about their superior passion or work ethic. This isn’t fair because you are speaking for―and about―other people that the admissions officers don’t know and who aren’t relevant to your application. Ultimately, simply writing that you are exceptional isn’t the same as the admissions officer determining that on their own from the content of your essay. Show, don’t tell.


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At CollegeVine, experts host weekly livestreams on college admissions topics, including application advice, essay writing tips, and college information sessions. To register or check out more livestreams, visit www.collegevine.com/livestreams.