Navigating College Admissions
Episode 4 : Writing College Essays
00:01 Jack W.
This is navigating college admissions.
I'm Jack Wanberg.
I'm a recent alumni working in college admissions at the University of Chicago and in this show we're going to walk you through each step of the college admissions process and hopefully answer some of your questions along the way.
The grades are in the teachers have recommended your membership in the juggling club is accounted for and now it's time to sit down.
Put finger to keyboard.
Actually start writing those college application essays and most importantly not panic.
I sat down with Veronica, Deputy director of admissions at U Chicago, and Colin, associate director of admissions at U Chicago, to learn about the best ways to write great college application essays.
So I remember when I was working on my college applications, I spent a lot of time writing my essays and that just ate up most of the time that I spent on my college applications.
In general, how important is a college application essay?
did I need to spend all that time writing?
01:10 Veronica H.
Not all colleges will ask for essays as part of the application process that required materials, but those colleges that do are telling you that yes, they see value in the qualitative pieces, the subjective pieces, anything that's written so and essay a teacher recommendation, any kind of supplementary material that essays tell us a lot about.
Who you are and what you value, where you come from.
It first and foremost, the review will be academic, so we're really thinking about academic preparedness and profile, but essays tell us a lot about who you are.
01:45 Colin J.
And I would add that keep in mind that an application is really just a big form an you're just filling in blanks, so an essay and essays are your opportunity to add your own voice an interests into a really sort of generic form.
02:03 Jack W.
Kind of adding that human element.
Two exactly exactly.
02:06 Colin J.
Exactly exact form.
02:09 Jack W.
So I know that.
Applications like the common application will often include a personal statement as part of it.
What is the purpose of that?
What's the point?
02:24 Veronica H.
There are multiple layers to essay review on the college admission side.
We are thinking about quality of writing and thinking.
So there is an academic component to reviewing.
Essays, but there's also a non academic component, so once I know someone has college ready writing and thinking, I'm really hoping that I'm learning about who they are, what they value, where they come from.
So it's a personal opportunity, right?
Fill in that blank in this application process.
02:49 Jack W.
Let's say I'm sitting down to write this personal statement.
What do I write about?
Is it a law that I have to write about my mission trip or or something incredibly significant?
Or where do I start?
03:07 Veronica H.
I really think the essays that stand out most are the ones that show me what defines you or what distinguishes you from other people.
The college admissions officers and counselors who are reading your application files, read hundreds and thousands of essays.
They enjoy the work.
It's really fun.
Every essay can be really great in its own way, but because we're reading such high volume, I do want to think a little bit about.
Who is the student?
How are they different?
What defines them?
So I tell students to think of.
About the thing that would be essential for a stranger to know about you, to know who you are, what you value.
It doesn't have to be significant in terms of impressiveness to the reader, but it should hold weight in terms of something that's important to you, so is there something that colors the way you see and operate in the world?
Is there something that shapes the way people see and treat you?
Have you had some kind of significant experience?
What really is is at the heart of who?
04:01 Colin J.
You are, oftentimes, I suggest that a student just just start with a list of a few things that are interesting to you, important to you, and then flush out that list a little bit with OK.
Why did these things make the list?
And that really can help it?
It's really about getting you going, getting the pin flow and getting the fingers moving across the keys on the key.
The board that it.
Once you get it started a lot of that sort of writers block a lot of that sort of.
Uncertainty can just flow away.
04:43 Jack W.
On the subject of writer's block, I don't know if you just answered this question already, but if I start writing and the words just aren't coming, how do I get over that?
04:56 Veronica H.
I think students often make the mistake of diving right into the writing.
I think every piece of writing needs an outline, even if it's a one page college essay, I ask students to outline their thoughts clearly.
This doesn't have to be complete.
Sentence is right.
Even giving shorthand bullet points, but outline your thoughts first.
So thoughts, feelings.
Once you have a semblance of what could be an essay, then go ahead and put it in an order that makes sense.
All of that work should be done on any essay.
It's a one page, college essay.
It's your 8 to 12 page you know.
School essay, whatever it is.
Every piece of writing should start with an outline, so just outline your thoughts.
Throw stuff on paper.
Is that prewriting?
Phase that will help you move forward with the actual writing.
05:39 Colin J.
One thing that can help with that prewriting phase is you take a look at the application so far.
What information are you telling the school now just from the form?
Are there things that you think you know that are central to who you are that you think are just missing?
That didn't pop up in this again generic form?
And those are the areas that should you know, start shaping your ideas about what you want to.
You know, present in an essay.
06:15 Jack W.
In the miraculous event that I finish all of my essays and I have time before between finishing the essay and before I have to submit it, who should I ask to read over my essays?
How can I assess the strength or weaknesses of what I've read?
06:36 Veronica H.
I always advise students to 1st stay in house with the experts who know this process in your high school there is a teacher, a counselor, a coordinator, someone who knows the college admissions process specifically at the types of schools you're applying to, who could give you the right kind of editing your mom, your cousin.
Your neighbor, I mean these are people who know you well, almost too well, and so they're not ideal to edit your essays.
But if they have really not been involved in K through 12 or higher Ed, or they don't know admissions or counseling.
They're not always editing for the things that they need to be editing for.
If you are a member of a community based organization you work with the organization that is helping you with college prep.
There might be mentors or staff members there who could help you, but I think you stick with the experts who work in the field who know the process.
If you have that privilege of going above and beyond.
Right, it's OK to feel comfortable with that privilege and to say I do have the ability to get extra tutoring or support or help.
Just be mindful if you get help outside of school or outside of people who are working with you on this process normally.
Demand excellence of them.
What national or professional organizations are they apart of?
What in any way ties into this profession do they actually have?
The background that says that they can help you?
08:03 Jack W.
So I've done a lot of writing and my least favorite part of the process is proofreading.
Actually, going through everything after I've finished and making sure there are no mistakes.
I like to believe.
They make no mistakes.
Can you convince me to do that on my college essays?
Why should I?
08:27 Colin J.
Proofreading is extremely important no matter what you say.
If you don't say it clearly.
Competently. Your message is lost.
And so proofreading helps you.
Ultimately, get your message across.
08:45 Veronica H.
I would agree.
I mean I, I really want to delve into the topic, that's what that's going to make me excited about an essay.
But if I can't get to that essential story that you're telling if I can't understand what you're saying, if that technical piece is not there.
If I don't know you have college level thinking and writing.
Weird, yeah, I can't really dive into the topic because now I'm concerned.
Can this person?
Are they ready to hand in homework on day one?
Are they ready to really tackle the college work?
They're going to find on my campus so it's the editing the proofreading?
That's all very helpful.
It allows us to get to the topic to get to the message to dive into the part of the work that we want to dive into.
So it's key proofreading is key.
If you've gotten that editing, you've gotten that proofreading.
You don't need too many cooks in the kitchen, it's just too many eyes can be a bad thing.
Set the essay aside.
Give yourself some time to do other things, and then look at it with fresh eyes when you're ready to give it 1 final pass.
09:40 Jack W.
Do you have any tips on how to make it any less of a slog?
09:44 Veronica H.
It is difficult work. Writing is difficult work.
It's not like think about it.
It's so difficult to take what's in your mind and make so much sense to you and put it down clearly in written form so that another person can pick it up and understand it.
This is hard work, it's meant to be hard work, and we're evaluating it to know you can do hard work, but it's just got to get done.
And that's OK.
Welcome to college.
10:07 Colin J.
An here's a trick I don't know if if it's useful to other people, but if you read the essay from the bottom to the top going sentence by sentence that helps, that can help you a focus in on oh, the structure of each sentence, but also where's the logic?
How did I get?
From the sentence above to this one down here, wait a minute. Something's missing. You know that it can help expose those kinds of things. So that's a tip.
10:39 Veronica H.
I would assume that's also the easiest way to catch typos.
Simple typos, because you're not reading for understanding or content.
You are now just training your eye to look for things.
That's a great I think technique for catching typos.
10:53 Jack W.
Hey, I'm writing that down.
How do I write a college application essay for a College in America?
If English is not my first language, how do I approach that?
11:05 Veronica H.
I think that's where what we've said about outlining and editing really hits home, so making sure you outline your thoughts clearly and then from there you can move that into actual writing and making sure that the right people who know this process edit the thinking is what matters, right?
The thinking can happen in any language, that's just fine.
It's about outlining your thoughts clearly so the reader can then understand it as well.
I think a lot about quality of thinking.
My college professors can help you with the writing.
We can get the writing there.
I want to make sure that the thinking is ready to go.
11:44 Jack W.
So I remember I remember when I was applying to colleges, a lot of colleges that I applied to had a why US essay A Why this school where you responded.
Usually it wasn't as long as some of the other essays.
But they wanted to know specifically why you wanted to go to that school.
How do I construct that essay?
How do I write an outline for that?
How do I begin thinking about why I want to go to one school over another?
12:15 Veronica H.
Those are such supremely important responses.
We have students who can tell the effort is in the main essay.
They put weeks or months into that essay they've gotten edited.
It's a really good example of where your writing can be when you've had time and help a lot of other responses, you can tell.
This is what, uh, students writing looks like when they are writing something.
Either at the last minute or just to quickly get it in.
Many of those essays don't get to the heart of the question.
I didn't ask you why you want to go to college.
I asked you why do you want to go to this specific College of the thousands of colleges out there?
Why this one?
It shouldn't be a plug in, so I shouldn't be able to remove my schools name and put another great schools name in there.
You should get to the specifics.
The heart of the type of institution.
How in the world did you pick this one to apply to and why do you think this one is the one you'll be the happiest at?
The one where you really fit in in and outside of the classroom?
13:12 Colin J.
An I'd say try not to spend too much time describing aspects.
Of the University of University X that the University already knows that's not the purpose of the essay.
What they don't know is why a particular thing or a particular subject or a particular resource that this University has.
Whih is that important to you.
How do you imagine yourself making use of these very specific aspects and making use of those and thriving in this particular at this particular college?
That is the unknown.
That is what we're looking to hear and looking to learn.
13:59 Jack W.
So we know a great way to learn about colleges and some of these resources that they have that could be meaningful to me.
A great way to learn about that is to go to a college and visit them and see what they have to say about themselves.
If I don't have the ability to do that, how do I learn about these schools enough to know why I want to go there?
14:19 Colin J.
The Internet is your friend.
14:23 Jack W.
Not all the time.
14:25 Colin J.
Well, it can be your friend, especially in in this sort of context.
In many ways, universities, ideally they're structuring their web pages to facilitate the student, the family.
The person that just can't come to campus.
You know you should be able to find all of the the goodies the nuts and bolts of the programs available of the curriculum that's available just from the website alone.
Really a visit is a great thing if you have the ability to do it.
But it isn't necessary.
15:09 Veronica H.
And there are layers to that, so it's the norm.
Most students aren't visiting all of the colleges they apply to.
That's totally fine.
We understand that that's going to be the norm.
Every college and University now has social media.
You can dig down specifically into the college admissions offices.
Social media accounts, see what they choose to share with you.
What do they think is representing their school?
So take a look at social.
Yeah, most college and University student newspapers are now available online.
I'm shocked at how many students don't dig into these layers.
So start with what we've given.
You start with the schools website, you know.
Go into official materials and then dig a little bit deeper.
That next layer of work.
Investigating is really going to make a difference.
This is really going to make it.
15:59 Jack W.
How can I tell if my essays are good?
16:04 Veronica H.
Good is such a scary word.
Is this good?
Is this good?
If you've done the process the right way, you will produce the best essay that you can possibly produce.
Essays will vary in terms of quality of writing and thinking and top I mean there will be variation.
Naturally, you don't have to outthink that, but you want to make sure you give yourself time.
You get that editing all of the pieces that we have.
Talked about if you do that, then you've produced the best essay you can produce and that is just fine.
That's where you leave it.
There will be variation.
We can't, you know, avoid that.
But if you follow the process then you're fine.
16:39 Jack W.
Some colleges have.
Unusual essay responses, or ones that maybe it's harder to prepare for. I know you Chicago's extended essay responses. Sometimes the prompts are really weird. How do I start writing an essay like that? If the prompt seems so unfamiliar?
17:02 Veronica H.
So many colleges will choose to have supplemental essay questions they may have in the main application.
A personal statement, a personal statement is about you.
You're sharing those values and who you are with the college now in the colleges supplemental essay questions.
It's about the college.
So how do you see fits with that college?
Uchicago, in particular.
These are wonderfully creative questions.
It makes the application reading process so fun everyday.
All of the essays I pick up are going to be so different, so creative, so it's wonderful.
I want to make sure that a student knows how to see the question behind the question, so look at what the school is asking.
If I'm asking you where's Waldo, I I don't actually care where Waldo is.
I care that you can engage with open ended creative questions because that's how we think and learn at liberal arts colleges like U, Chicago.
Think about what the value is in that question.
Are they asking me about community engagement?
Are they asking me about some kind of specific academic?
Program, are they asking me about a value?
What's the question behind the question?
If you engage with the prompt and it gets you excited, you're excited to write the essay you're excited about what's represented in the values of that question.
That means you're excited about that particular place, and you might be a good fit for that school.
On the other hand, if you see a problem and you think how in the world do I answer find X?
What do I do with that?
It's OK to question it, but if you don't vibe with the question behind the question if you don't really connect with the values, it's OK to say this is a great school.
It may not be the school for me, so I know that when a student is looking at our extended essay prompts, if they're excited.
I've had students tell me like, oh, can I answer 2 these are such great questions.
I'm excited that this is different from other colleges.
If you are on that track, connecting with the supplemental questions, you're on the right track.
That school can be a good fit.
If you're not exactly excited and engaged, it's OK to think through, you know.
Is this the right place for me?
Is this the right kind of process?
It's OK to have that feeling once you understand what the school is.
Asking you and I would add that vibing in.
19:16 Colin J.
Engaging with a prompt.
The answer may not be overly creative. I mean, I think one of the stumbling blocks that some or maybe at the beginning point for writer's block for a student can be, oh these creative questions. I've got to have a creative answer. You might not have a creative answer you could be.
Totally engaged and excited to write a response to this particular prompt, but it might not be a story.
Might not be off the wall might not be.
Totally wild, that's OK, that's fine.
The point is to find a prompt that you resonate with and respond whatever that response is.
20:04 Jack W.
So after hearing all of this, I feel pretty prepared to start writing my college essays, but when should I start?
Do should I have started years ago?
20:18 Veronica H.
Kindergarden project number one.
I you know many high schools and organizations have a timeline.
They want you to follow.
So really I want you to follow what your counselors, coordinators, teachers, mentors.
What they're setting for you.
I've worked with schools and organizations that will start as early as partway through junior year of high school.
I've organizations that hold specific programs in the summer between junior and senior year to start thinking and writing.
Some students will do it as part of an English or writing class in school, junior or senior year.
So I do want you to, you know, follow the recommended timeline of the people who are helping you do this work, but know that you have to give it time and know that.
There could be multiple essays for a school that you're applying to, so when we're writing in these English classes or in these programs, they're often helping you with the main personal state.
And you may add a college to your application list.
They want a personal statement, but then no surprise, they have three supplemental questions that you're also going to have to answer.
So again, just give yourself time to make sure that in addition to that main personal statement, it's not a surprise that you have extra questions coming.
If you're getting asked by multiple schools, why are you interested in this school?
Again, these are not plug in responses.
You need to take the time to answer each one of them individually takes a lot of time.
This is a lot on top of what are already very busy years in high school junior and senior years.
No Joe keep.
There's a lot to do, but you have to give yourself that time.
21:45 Jack W.
All right, well that's all the questions that I had prepared.
Do you have anything you'd like to say on the subject of writing a college essay that I just didn't happen to ask about?
21:58 Veronica H.
I will say sometimes students ask me to read and review their essays, which I would love to.
I would love.
I mean if I could do that full time I would.
It's just not possible.
Many colleges you know we'd love to help, but it's not possible for us ahead of the work that's coming to read and review thousands of extra essays.
I'm always willing to talk through ideas with students, but again, I think that you know if you're working with the right people, they're going to help you with the thinking in the editing and the writing, so it's not usually an admissions counselor being mean, but they usually don't have time to read the essays, so it's OK if someone says no there.
22:34 Jack W.
All right, well thank you all so much for joining me, yeah?
22:38 Veronica H.
Always a pleasure.
22:39 Jack W.
Think that's a wrap.
Thanks for listening to this episode of navigating college admissions.
If you want to continue the.
College conversation, feel free to email us at college admissions at uchicago.edu or follow some Twitter at VU, Chicago and Instagram at Uchicago admissions.
Good luck and happy appin'.