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Decades ago, I wrote my college application essays, and then went through the process again—twice in fact—when I applied to two different graduate school programs.
While things have changed over the years—the numbers of applicants have exploded, thanks to the advent of the Common App, and the internationalization of the applicant pool—one thing has remained the same: the importance of writing well-crafted essays that tell your story in a compelling way, in a way that sets you apart from the thousands of other applicants vying for a spot at the school of your dreams.
To understand what it takes to write a successful college application essay, I spoke with Dr. Aviva Legatt. Dr. Legatt is the founder of Ivy Insight Group, where she advises high school and college students on getting into competitive colleges and graduate programs. She holds a Doctorate degree in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and once worked on the admissions committee of The Wharton School.
Dr. Legatt is also the author of the brand new book, “Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self” (St. Martin’s Griffin).
In her Writing Masterclass, she explains how the college application process has changed over the years, and she shares some frameworks and tips for writing essays that could help you gain an edge in the college application process.
Pressed for time? Watch (or read) a few quick excerpts from our conversation!
Finding Your “X Factor”
What I encourage people to do before they apply is to find what I call their “College admissions X factor.”
“X factor” stands for experience, expertise, and exponentialism. Experience is when you get that initial exposure to a subject that you are interested in, curious about, and then you get some data and feedback for yourself. Do I want to continue with this, do I want to try something else?
Assuming you want to continue with this activity, you want to go to the next level which is expertise. That’s when you find a niche area in whatever this topic is and you go deeper. For example you can do a research project around let’s say your interest in language. You can do a linguistics research project and learn about one aspect of language, through that research.
Let’s say you have that expertise, then the next layer is exponentialism. That refers to the overall impact and the positive return you would have for the greater good. That sounds abstract so here’s what I mean by that.
Let’s say you’re that person who has this linguistics research paper, you then decide to create some kind of linguistics professional student organization, or you build a linguistics related app that other people can download and you have a team. Or you decide to write a book, like one of my students did, and form a peer group to help you with that process and publish that on Amazon.
That’s when you get exponentialism; that refers to when you can impact many other people with your expertise and experience. It’s not just about what you’re gaining but it’s about what you’re offering to other people.
Understand the Purpose of Each Essay
You have to recognize the purpose of each of the essays on the application. Back when you and I were applying there was probably one essay, and now there are multiple essays.
You have to really be mindful of interpreting the question and what its purpose is. For the main personal statement, you want to talk about a story that says something about your character. You want to show who you are from a small event or an anecdote. Something that you can share that’s not necessarily an academic related story, but something that demonstrates your character. The college will use that to infer how you might contribute from a personality standpoint.
The other kind of essay is the supplemental essay; those are the college-specific essays. While the topics of those essays can vary, many colleges have a “Why this school?” essay. This is your chance to make an emotional and persuasive case about why that college, here’s who you spoke to, here are the majors they have, here are all the reasons it fits you based on your own experience, and how that led you to where you are today.
If I have to sum up the essay, it’s knowing the purpose of the essay, whether it’s a character story or a persuasive one, and then who the audience is on the other end.
Do Your Research Before Writing Your Essays
People are sort of treating it like a lottery ticket, which is not necessarily the right approach. You want to really have a personalized approach to the college.
You know this intuitively: if you’re applying for a job and you submit 50 random applications and don’t adjust much, you’re probably not going to get a lot of good feedback about that, unless somebody is desperate.
But if you put in a very personalized application where you have names that you can drop, stories you can share about that college, then your application is going to be a lot more impactful. Even if you submit less, your chances of getting admitted are actually higher.
It’s important for students and families to be very mindful of what choices they’re making, and make sure those choices are well researched.
I also advise looking at the motto and the mission statement of the school, speaking to folks at the college. Also, look at where donations are made. There are some resources you can look at to see who is donating money toward entrepreneurship, for example. Where is that money being donated? You can infer from that they will take in more students with an entrepreneurial background.
That’s how the process has changed, and what you have to keep in mind with the essays. You have to really focus on yourself, who you are, what you want, and your goals relative to that college.
Start Writing Your Essays Early
Some of my kids are starting to write their essays now which is a good time. A lot of people do wait until the last minute. I don’t advise waiting until the last minute, because a story that’s really important and worth sharing is worth reflecting on before you write it.
Make sure that you start early with your applications, as early as possible, so you can brainstorm, get feedback, outline, and just have as easy of a process as possible.
In the coming weeks I will roll-out a series of in-depth Writing Masterclasses on how to write and market your first book. To get access to the complete suite of content from this forthcoming series, please consider becoming a paying subscriber.
While you can listen to the complete podcast conversation with Dr. Legatt in Write With Impact Academy right here on Substack, if you prefer listening to your favorite podcasts on Apple Podcasts, just click here and subscribe to Write With Impact!