Successful essays draw on personal experience, experts say
STUDENTS PICK OUT colleges. They fill out applications. And then they have to write essays.
And University of Minnesota Senior Admissions Counselor Steve Baker says students stress out way too much.
The essay is only one piece of the college application puzzle, and Baker encourages students to draw on their personal experiences. Experts say a good college essay should be honest and tell a story of a defining moment in a student’s life.
A good essay “tells your story, and gives us context into your situation, about you as a person, about you as a student, your work ethic, your grit,” Baker said. “Essays that tell that story are helpful for us.”
Every year the University of Minnesota receives more than 46,000 applications. Most of them come with essays, although the university does not require one, Baker said. Admissions officers read all the essays from beginning to end.
“Any material that students submit as part of the application process is given very careful consideration,” Baker said. “We read and review every statement, every essay, all the way through.”
During the 2014-15 school year, Cori Paulet helped St. Paul Public Schools students write essays that stand out. Paulet, then a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas, taught personal narrative writing at Johnson Senior High School and Harding Senior High School as part of a ThreeSixty Journalism project funded by the St. Paul Foundation.
“I remember spending a lot of time on it,” said Paulet, thinking back on her own stressful college application essay process.
Paulet met with students regularly to help them write college essays and guided them through peer editing and revision. Other professionals also helped students craft their essays during their project.
Writing the essay can be challenging, Paulet said, because students tend to restate questions, write academically and not let their personal voice come out.
“A lot of the students had a really hard time writing about themselves,” Paulet said.
However, students shouldn’t worry too much about overselling themselves, Baker said.
“That’s what I always encourage students to do as I’m working with them through the writing process, is don’t be bashful,” he said. “Brag about yourself.”
Baker added that a common mistake among students is being too general in their essays. They should be the experts on what to write, because they are the subject matter.
“For us, what is helpful in essays is to get context about you as a person and about you as a student,” he said.
Baker said he looks for students to demonstrate their writing and other skills they need in college. But an essay may not save a student with a poor grade point average or test scores, he said.
“We are not basing an admission decision on just a college essay,” he said. “A student is never going to be admitted or not admitted because of one factor.”
Both Baker and Paulet emphasized revision. Looking at the essay multiple times, reviewing it and even bringing in another person to look at it can be helpful, Baker said.
“… It’s about revise, revise, revise,” Paulet said.