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 approach, 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 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."