Why You Shouldn’t Let the College Essay Stress You Out

What makes a college admission essay stand out to these humanists in admission offices?
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There’s a humanist side to every admission officer—a side that prefers to focus on essay submissions from ambitious 17- and 18-year-olds around the world instead of grade point averages, class ranks, and test scores. It’s part of our jobs. It’s a way for us to study and discern the different threads that make up your unique life tapestry. And, I’d argue it’s the most humbling and least understood thing we get to do.

What makes a college admission essay stand out to these humanists in admission offices? Over the years, I’ve read dozens of articles and listened to numerous colleagues impart advice on how to craft the perfect essay, and what I’ve seen and heard is just the tip of the iceberg. If you were to Google, “How to write a good college admission essay,” you will get an astounding 17 million hits. It’d take you nearly half a century (500 years!) to sift through all the information, assuming you read about 100 articles a day…leaving you no time to actually write the essay in question.

Despite the amount of advice out there, much of it is the same. The standard advice points to the admission essay being an opportunity to tell a story that differentiates—or separates—you from the thousands of other students applying to college. Inevitably, many students mistakenly think this advice means their essay topic must either be unusual or unique—or perhaps both. In my experience, it is this notion—that each college applicant must find a topic that differentiates them from all other applicants—that causes angst, especially as teenagers reflect on the relatively limited number of experiences that have occurred in their lives. The challenge in trying to captivate readers with a once-in-a-lifetime story is not to be overstated.

Not to be flippant, but isn’t that what good writing is about? You needn’t have experienced a dramatic event in your life—like tearing your ACL during the state championship game or teaching indigenous peoples on a service trip to the Andes—to write a compelling college admission essay. Some of the best essays I’ve read are about the mundane. What makes these essays stand out is the writer’s superior syntax. In other words, if you cannot successfully arrange words and phrases to construct well-formed sentences, it doesn’t matter what you write about. And if you write well, it also doesn’t matter what you write about!

To be sure, the importance of the content of your essay shouldn’t totally be dismissed. The topic about which you are writing will provide some texture for me to relay to the Admission Committee, but the topic you have chosen to share with me in your essay is not the basis of an admission decision. I discern your fit based precisely on your ability to tell me about that experience in a clear and meaningful way. To do so takes reflection—something any student can do—and a firm grasp of the craft of writing.

Before you rack your brain to come up with the most unique admission essay ever written, I submit to you that for the vast majority of colleges and universities, the admission essay will not serve as the single make or break in the decision-making process. Rather, it will serve to validate a general direction of the overall read. There are colleges and universities for which the college admission essay may at times be the deciding factor, but these institutions are the exception and probably number fewer than a hundred. Yes, that’s right: the college admission essay may make a true difference in admission decisions for a fraction of 1 percent of all four-year postsecondary institutions.

Your application file is comprised of multiple other data points used in varying combinations, such as your demographic background, high school grades, classes taken, extracurricular activities, and test scores—all of these data points come together and are considered when I make my recommendations to the Admission Committee. When I read college admission essays, I am above all else looking for one thing: I need to know the students I want to push forward for admission are “syntax-literate.”

For those who find themselves anxious about the college admission essay, you are not alone. In my experience, your anxiety is born in part out of a feeling to write about something truly remarkable. Not every high school student has already had a remarkable life. An everyday story, told well, will help me get to know you and demonstrates that you’ll be able to communicate clearly with your faculty.

I leave you with this one final recommendation, one that is contrary to that provided by 17 million Google hits: please spend the requisite time on your college admission essay, but do not agonize over it. Remember that, as an admission officer, I simply want your story to be told in a compelling way. I am not looking for 17- or 18-year-old Nobel Prize winners (there’s been only one teenage Nobel laureate, by the way); I’m looking for those who might one day shape the world. When thinking of your college admission essay, therefore, don’t lament the lack of “extraordinary” in your life. Instead, embrace your experiences—whatever they may be—reflect on them, and focus on the craft of your writing. Then, let the totality of your application file speak for itself.

Nate Crozier is the Assistant Vice President of Admission and Marketing at the University of Miami.