Interview: Insights on the College Essay

June 12, 2018

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In an admissions off-season where many components of the college application are being evaluated and examined closely, the college essay maintains a steady presence in the application process… at least for now. But what is the future of the essay in a rapidly changing admissions landscape? And how can we help all students take their approach to the essay to a higher level?


To explore this further, we sat down with Brad Schiller, founder of Prompt, an essay strategy training platform to discuss the college essay, changes in the application process, and the importance of the essay.


Channel CCR: Is the college essay becoming more or less relevant in the college application process?

Brad: More. Essays are one of the few places where a college can get a good sense of who the student truly is and serve as a differentiator between applicants. For many colleges, test scores, GPA, and even the number and types of activities tend to be similar across a college’s applicants. The essays help students shine and can help provide context for other parts of the application, making up ground for students with lower GPAs, lower test scores, and fewer activities. The essays become even more important for test optional colleges, a trend we expect to continue. Finally, powerful essays play a critical role in merit-based scholarship awards.


Channel CCR: How has the essay changed in the last few years? How will the essay change in the next few years?

Brad: I believe the importance of essays is increasing. We’ve noticed an increase in the quality of essays as students are seeking out resources on how to write better college essays (e.g., College Essay Guy) and more students get feedback on their essays from their teachers, counselors, or professionals. More and more, high schools are teaching the college essay as part of their curriculum or doing college essay workshops with students. Many colleges have experimented with alternate means of getting a sense of who the student is such as video, ZeeMee profiles, and allowing students to include URLs in their applications. However, none of these have been able to replace the essays as essays are a succinct way of quickly understanding who a student is and judging writing skills.


Channel CCR: What's your favorite essay prompt? Why? 

Brad: I have a bunch of favorites (and many I dislike), but I’m going to focus on two of the more common prompts here.

First, for the Common App, I love #6 – “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” We find many applicants have a strong passion for a given subject or area of interest; yet, most students don’t write about the interest because they don’t realize it’s compelling. Colleges love students who are intellectually curious and enjoy learning on their own – this is probably the single strongest indicator of student success in college.


Second, I’m a big fan of the “why us?” essay prompts. It’s the perfect opportunity for a student to showcase why they belong at a particular college. Most students do a poor job of writing it, so it can be a critical differentiator as colleges want to know you fit with what they are trying to accomplish (e.g., culture, academic interests, learning styles) and are likely to attend if accepted.


Channel CCR: As someone who's dedicated their professional career to writing, why do you feel this is so important?

Brad: College essays are a perfect opportunity to teach writing skills. As we always say, college essays are one of the few times in a student’s life where the stakes are high enough that the student will seek out help on how to develop and structure their content as well as get feedback on their essays and act on it. Working through the writing process for college essays sets students up to be more successful in college and beyond.


Channel CCR: You've probably read a few essays in your day. What are some of the most common things that students struggle with in their essays?

Brad: If by few, you mean thousands; then yes, I have read a few. Most essays, especially first drafts, leave me confused, uninspired, or wanting more. This is good news for applicants as the essay represents a land of opportunity to truly differentiate themselves. Students tend to struggle with every part of the essay; I’m going to focus on the content and structure of the essay here. For more detailed information on how to fix the most common college essay mistakes, you can click here.


Content – Many students don’t write about the things that are most compelling about them. We find this is because most students don’t understand what colleges will find compelling about them. There are four basic things that can make for a compelling personal statement – a time of personal growth where the student went through an experience that changed who they are, something(s) the student is passionate about, a sense of the students values or personality traits, and what the student hopes to accomplish in the future. We find many students just write about their family history or their personal background which doesn’t provide enough context about what type of person the student is.

Structure – Essays need to control what the reader is thinking at each point of the essay while also keeping the reader engaged. Most essays have me thinking “what is the point of this story?” as I read the essay. Then, magically, I might get a sense of the answer in the last third of the essay. This is not good as my mind is already set to “reject.” Instead, essays need to start strong by “hooking” the reader and providing a clear sense of where the essay may be heading. In addition, essays need to cover not just a single moment or experience in a student’s life but also provide context for who the student is before that moment and who the student now is today as a result of that experience. We find there are two effective structures for personal statements – “the journey” structure which is more of a narrative and “your passion” structure which is more of a montage of many events and experiences. You can learn more about these two structures from this article (click here).


Channel CCR: I often hear you talking about the importance of feedback. What do you mean by that, and why is it so important?

Brad: Getting feedback on an essay and then acting on it is proven to be the best way to improve writing skills. In addition, having someone else read the essay is critical to understanding how an admissions reader might perceive the content, and therefore, provide insight into how to best improve the essay. The keys with any feedback are that it needs to be instructional (i.e., the reviewer provides the rationale behind the feedback) and focused on the content and structure of the writing as opposed to just grammar. We find there are five critical questions to ask when providing feedback on a college essay – (1) What did I learn about the student?, (2) Is this compelling?, (3) What didn’t I learn that I wanted to learn?, (4) Is this essay well structured and how could the structure be improved?, and (5) what are the next steps a student should take to improve their essay? Feel free to click here for more detailed information on these five questions for providing great feedback.


Channel CCR: Help us understand the mindset of a college admissions official who is reading hundreds, if not thousands, of college essays. What are they looking out for?

Brad: Great question. Admissions readers are looking for a better sense of who the student is – What is compelling about the student? What are the student’s values? What sets the student apart from other applicants? How will the student fit in with their culture? Will attending their college help the student be more successful? Will the student succeed at their college (i.e., graduate and become a productive member of society)? Beyond the answers to these questions, it’s important to understand that admissions readers are reading 30+ applications per day. As such, a reader can only spend a minute or two on each essay. It’s important for the reader to be in the “accept” mindset from the beginning of each essay. That means an essay needs to catch the attention of the reader and control what the reader is thinking at each point in the essay – don’t make the reader have to “work” to understand who you are. Instead, make it easy for the reader to say “yes” to you. Once your reader is in the “reject” mindset while reading an essay, it’s nearly impossible to bring them back to the “accept” mindset.


Channel CCR: What advice would you give to high school counselors who are limited on time, but want to help their students improve their essay writing?

Brad: There are three critical roles you can play to help students write better college essays. We’ll focus on the personal statement here as that’s the most common type of essay a student will write. In addition, you’ll find links to more detailed content on each of these points.


Develop content – Help students understand what is compelling about them. Then, guide them to selecting a topic. You can do this within 15-30 minutes of class time. Here’s a guide on how to go about doing it.

Create a structure – Help students develop an outline for their essay. Once a student has identified their content, it’s helpful to guide them to develop an outline. As mentioned, there are two common types of structures for personal statements which form a great starting place for students. I recommend assigning this as homework or doing it in 15-30 minutes within a class. Doing an outline before the draft will save students a bunch of time revising and result in better essays. Here’s a guide on the most common structures for personal statements.

Help students get the right feedback – You may not have time to personally provide feedback on every essay, but you can provide guidance on how to get great feedback from a peer, teacher, or family member. I suggest providing your students with our guide to the five critical questions to ask when providing feedback on an essay – using this will help your students get the type of feedback they need to be successful. Click here for the guide.


Channel CCR: Is there something students can do right now before summer in order to be in better shape for their college essay?

Brad: Not really. I would say to write a lot on various topics to improve writing skills, but we all know most students won’t do that. An alternative is for students to get and act on feedback on the content and structure of their essays during class to get more used to the draft and revision process. That being said, I am of the view that once you start thinking about an essay, you should just write it and finish it. There’s no point in ruminating on it and stressing about it. Once started, a student should be able to develop their content and an outline within 30-60 minutes and have their first draft 45-60 minutes later. Once they have a first draft, they should seek feedback on it and then revise it the next day (and then repeat the process). We find the typical student needs to go through 3-4 drafts of a personal statement and 2-3 and that students benefit from working on their essays while the essays are fresh in their minds (i.e., touching it every day until it is done).


Channel CCR: Are there any free resources you would point counselors, parents, or students towards?

Brad: I’d recommend using the free resources from the College Essay Guy or using the free version of Prompt to help students get started with developing and structuring their content for their essays. Both have great content for counselors and students.


Channel CCR: Brad, thanks so much for sharing some insights and resources with our readers!

No problem! We love supporting the community and hope you all find these resources valuable. 

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