It's too late to improve your grades. Your ACT score is in the books, and you've listed all your extracurricular activities. The essay is the only thing left on the application to your first-choice college. Can a great essay put your application over the top?
Yes, according to many college admissions directors.
Whether students are asked to write a multiple-page argument or share a brief personal testimony, admissions personnel generally want students to accomplish the same four goals: answer the question, stand out, show insight and be personal.
Answering the essay question is, obviously, the most important goal. That should be simple enough, but many students get so wrapped up in writing an interesting essay that they unintentionally stray off topic, losing sight of the most important goal: answering the question directly.
Writing an essay that stands out simply means taking a different ap-proach, as you'll see in the examples that follow. Showing insight means demonstrating that you're a perceptive, thoughtful person who belongs in college. Being personal means letting readers get to know you by revealing some of your personality, interests and achievements.
To get a better idea of what makes a great college essay, we asked admissions directors at three Christian colleges—Biola University, Toccoa Falls College and Wheaton College—to share some of their favorite essays from recent student applications, and to describe what makes those essays work.
Essay question: "Using specific examples, describe your spiritual growth during the last three years."
Shalini Trehan's answer meets all four goals, according to Biola admissions director AndrÉ Stephens. Shalini's essay describes how she gained a new perspective about godly priorities through the hymn "Be Thou My Vision." She begins:
No one perceived the tears that were streaming down my face as our SUV's headlights pierced the darkness of the lonely Birmingham, Alabama road. I was relieved that my tears escaped notice because it would be impossible for my friends to understand.
Stephens likes the fact that Shalini started out by telling a story. "She's using narrative," he says. "She's drawing us into a great story, and the first couple of sentences are the hook. It just flows. In other student essays, often there are just two or three sentences about 'I have grown by going on a fill-in-the-blank mission trip.'"
Notice how Shalini shows insight and personality in the same paragraph, while staying focused on the question:
This hymn ["Be Thou My Vision"], my favorite since that November night, also gave me a different perspective on life: school, activities and relationships. During debate tournaments, I would recite the second verse, which reminded me that God is always with me and will give me the words to speak. The third verse has changed the way I view my successes in life, such as winning the 2001 Lincoln-Douglas National Debate Championship or earning good grades in my West Valley College courses. It tells how man's praise is fleeting, but that God's love is an inheritance that will last forever.
"She's mixing in her own achievement, and adding a little more of how she has grown as a Christian," points out Madelyn Mendoza, Shalini's admissions counselor at Biola. "Part of her maturity is that she has obviously done well, but she is reminded that praise is fleeting, while God's love is lasting. She's not self-absorbed."
"She is looking to God as a source of strength and comfort," adds Stephens. "She's showing strength and maturity. She recognizes that it's not all about the rÉsumÉ. She's saying, 'There are a lot of successes that the world has to give, but my perspective comes from this song. It's a reminder that my first love is God, and what I really value is his love for me.'"
Shalini's essay also stands out because of its attention to detail. There are no spelling errors and no grammatical mistakes. Stephens says that's rare.
"You usually find a lot of typos," he says. "This is an online application, and I sense that people are zipping through it, or maybe they are not able to use spell check. But if it's a borderline student, spelling and grammar have a great impact."
"A lot of essays look like the student typed it in five minutes," Mendoza says. "We're a university, and we should have high standards. When you apply, check your spelling. Sometimes when reading these, I think Don't you care? Good grammar and spelling show that you do care."
Essay question: "If you could spend an evening with any person, other than Jesus Christ, who would it be and why?"
When Brian C. Griswold answered that question, he turned to characters both real and fictional—Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, and George Bailey, the hero of the movie It's a Wonderful Life.
Brian's essay begins:
There is an old story, written by Leo Tolstoy and retold in William Bennet's The Moral Compass, of a king who wanted to know how to rule perfectly. He funneled all of his pondering and musings into three questions. He wanted to know when the right time to do things was, who the most important people to deal with were, and, most of all, what the most important thing to do was. He realized that if he knew the answers to these three questions, he would always succeed in all of his undertakings.
Brian shifts back and forth between Tolstoy's story and George Bailey's story throughout his essay. He suggests that the connection between George and the king is that each was wiser than he thought: George didn't realize he was a hero, and the king didn't realize he already knew the answers to his questions.
That thinking impressed Sonja Hoden, Wheaton's assistant director of admissions. She notes that Brian "demonstrates his intellectual ability. He shows me that he has an understanding of the underlying concepts and themes of both stories, and shows me that he has gotten meaning from them. That demonstrates higher-level thinking, which is definitely something we want from a Wheaton student. This is someone I can see excelling in the classroom, taking his assignments and making the most out of them. I'm looking for something to make an essay stand out from the 2,100 others we read. This one definitely did that."
But while Brian earns points for uniqueness, his opening paragraph isn't flawless: William Bennett's last name is misspelled (there should be two t's), and the Wheaton counselors who reviewed his essay marked him down for awkward grammar. Hoden says the positive outweighs the negative, though.
"You're allowed to be imperfect. The fact that he messed up on William Bennett's name represents a minor thing in light of everything else. Students with three and four spelling errors have gotten in before—they just haven't gotten high marks on their writing."
Hoden says that even though grades and test scores carry the greatest weight on an application, a good essay can tip the scale. Hoden says an essay can reveal whether students "have thought about their experiences, or are able to critically evaluate their world. Often we encounter wonderfully creative students who don't have the grades or test scores, and the essay is what pushes them over the top."
Brian doesn't mention any of his interests or experiences in his essay. But he reveals personality and insight in passages like this:
It occurs to me that George Bailey is exactly what God wants us all to be. He is an example for us. He is a hero, my hero. Paul wrote to the Philippians that they should do nothing out of selfishness or empty conceit, but in humility consider others better than ourselves, just as Christ did.
And Brian meets the most basic essay criterion—answering the question—in his final section:
[God] showed [George] the difference his selflessness had made.
He helped my hero George understand the power of goodness.
And that, I think, would be immensely interesting to discuss over coffee.
Toccoa Falls College
Essay question: "You must submit a testimony of at least 250 words….Your testimony should describe your relationship with Jesus Christ, your personal experience of conversion, and your spiritual growth since conversion."
Many Christian colleges—like Toccoa Falls—don't require a traditional essay, but instead ask for a statement of faith. Still, Reuben James Gibson's response to the above question succeeds for the same reasons that Shalini's and Brian's essays do: it answers the question, stands out, shows insight, and is personal.
Reuben begins his answer by describing his relationship with Jesus as "progressive," then describes his childhood conversion, and finally describes his spiritual growth using a story that involves Toccoa Falls (TFC):
After graduating from high school in 1995, I had planned to attend TFC and major in church music. I was very excited about coming to a Christ-centered college and furthering my career in music. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond my control prevented me from attending TFC the following semester after graduation. Because of these circumstances, I was very confused, and—to be perfectly honest, hurt—at God because things did not happen the way I thought that they should have.
Reuben wrote that he spent the next couple of years studying engineering in secular colleges until he became convinced during a night of prayer that it was finally time to attend Toccoa Falls.
I believe with all of my heart that attending TFC this coming fall semester is exactly what God is leading me to do. Only this time, my major will not be what I want—Music, but what God wants—Counseling Psychology…
Through all of this…I have learned to trust God more and more. I have learned that His time is not my time. I have learned that His love and mercy are constantly abiding in my daily life, and that His grace is boundless and truly sufficient for every need that I will ever have.
Tommy Campbell, admissions director at Toccoa Falls, says Reuben's response stands out because of its personal nature and spiritual insight.
"We get a lot of responses that just say 'I grew up in a Christian home,'" says Campbell. "The way Reuben approaches it is more personal. What I really like about his response is that even though he'd always felt called into music ministry, he now senses the Lord redirecting him. He shows why he is pursuing Toccoa Falls College, and how he sees that fitting in with where he's headed in life. There is evidence that the Lord is working in his life, and that he
is aligning himself with what the Lord was calling him to."
Now that you've read parts of three excellent essays and heard a bit from the experts, you too can go and do the same. Happy writing! n