College Admissions Essays: What to Leave Behind and What to Keep

Posted November 03, 2014 by
Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge

An entire book could be written about your life. Regardless of whether or not you think it would be a particularly interesting book, the fact remains that you’ve had a lot of experiences that you could include in your admissions essays. Deciding on which parts of your life to highlight can be difficult, so follow these steps to guide you as you write your essays.

To make things easier, let go of the bad stuff first. Here’s what can be left behind.

1. Blame

Because schools want to read about the significant moments in your life, they may ask you to write about challenges you faced, obstacles that you needed to overcome or even ethical dilemmas where the right choice wasn’t perfectly clear. Often, these situations were not of our choosing, and we found ourselves in predicaments due to the actions of others. Even if this is the case, don’t spend time in your essay criticizing the other person. Simply state the facts as they were but stay focused on your own responses and how you emerged from that situation.

2. Doubt

Your admissions essays are not contracts. Attending college is a time of growth and exploration, and your specific goals might change as you progress in the program. Admissions officers know this, so there’s no need to state that you don’t have a crystal ball. Writing things like “wherever the path may lead” can make it seem like you are not focused or committed.

3. Arrogance

Sadly, the very people who most need to read this probably won’t. However, this isn’t for them. It’s for you: The person who never intended to seem arrogant in the first place. In your essays you’ll need to strike a balance between seeming doubtful and seeming overly confident in your goals. Being too sure of yourself will make you look either arrogant or naive, neither of which are the qualities that admissions officers are seeking in applicants.

So, what’s left? The good stuff! Here’s what you need to include in your essays.

1. Meaning

Instead of writing about things that you think might impress others, write about the experiences in your life that have left the biggest impression on you. These were the times that have caused you to reflect on your life, who you are, and the way you want to live. This is the information that admissions officers want to know because it gives them insight into your character and potential to succeed in their program. Moreover, your passion in writing about these experiences will catch and hold their attention.

2. Sincerity

Writing with sincerity is what will create the connection between you and the reader. No matter how impressive your background is, you’ll need to make a connection if you want to be remembered. Also, if everything about you seems a little too perfect, the admissions officers will become suspicious that you’re not being completely honest. Yes, you need to place yourself in the best light, but doing so with honesty will show that you have character.

3. Optimism

Life is not perfect. However, you need to show that you believe in a better tomorrow. If not, then why are you trying to get into college? Even if your career plan is to attempt to tackle the seemingly intractable problems of the world, apparently you have at least some hope that things can get better. There’s no need to pretend to be ignorant to the realities of the world, but you need to demonstrate that you have a vision for success.

By Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Petersons & EssayEdge

About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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