Applying to College: Use the Essay

By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED
AT A GLANCE The college essay offers an opportunity for applicants to leave a lasting impression on those making the decision as to who will be accepted and who won’t Aim to distinguish yourself from the pack while revealing something about yourself that may not be evident in the other parts of the application

2-10-13-college-essayFor aspiring college students, the essay may be the most challenging part of the application process. After all, by the time you apply, there isn’t much you can change: most of your grades are recorded; your teachers and counselors have formed their impressions of you; and your extra-curricular activities are set. The essay, however, is the one component over which you still do have control. It’s your opportunity to reveal to the admissions committee who you really are. It’s your chance to leave a final impression, and if your high-school record and test scores are less than stellar, it can potentially tip the scales in your favor.

To Divulge or Not to Divulge

For students with learning disabilities, there’s the added challenge of whether or not to use the essay to divulge your disability. What if the essay reader has inaccurate notions about LD? Does talking about your disability look as if you’re making excuses?

There are no right or wrong answers. If there are inconsistencies on your transcript due to your disability, the admissions committee is going to notice. Your job as an applicant is to inspire confidence by showing that you are academically prepared and, if accepted, will be an asset to the incoming class.

One way to do that is by using the essay to address how your brain works to your advantage (see below for other alternatives); for example, relate how your dyslexia causes you to “think outside the box” using specific examples.

Should you discuss how you’ve overcome your challenges? Some admissions officers say this impresses them, others say it is hackneyed. Perhaps if you have a particular theme to your compensatory strategies, such as a combination of various technologies, it would make a favorable impression.

Obviously, if you’re applying to a school that specializes exclusively in students with disabilities, divulging your challenges in your essay is safe. Still, forget self-pity, excuses, doom and gloom; keep your essay upbeat.

Essay-Writing Tips

Colleges receive thousands of essays. Your goal is to distinguish yours from the pack. Below are some helpful tips from college admissions officers:

  • Formulate your essay long before the application is due. You don’t want the pressure of having to muster extraordinary creativity during a hectic school year. Always start with an outline, then write. Put it away for a few days then read it aloud from a fresh perspective. Now, either edit or re-write it.
  • Be honest. Taking an idea off the internet and tweaking it is not original, yet colleges frequently receive plagiarized essays. Many colleges use software to detect plagiarism.
  • Be real. Show your personality and passion.
  • Be sure your essay answers the question and has a strong thesis statement.
  • Make your essay so personal that no one could have written it but you. Its purpose is to allow the admissions committee to see beyond your numbers and get a peek at the positive qualities that make you a student they’d want to accept.
  • Use an opening paragraph that is unusual, humorous, or thoughtful—but not overly dramatic. Hook the reader and make her want to read more. Rather than using the concluding paragraph as a summation, show reflective analysis that tells the reader what you’ve learned.
  • Stay laser-focused on a particular topic. Admission officers don’t want to read a laundry list of accomplishments, most of which likely appear in other sections of the application.
  • Take a risk in your subject matter, but at the same time, make sure it passes the grandmother test: If it’s something you wouldn’t want her to read, don’t send it to a college!
  • Use ordinary language. Essay readers are proficient at sniffing out candidates who use the thesaurus to impress.
  • Proofread! Remember, you can’t always rely on software for grammar and spelling checks. Ask someone you trust to review your grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and tone.

Finally, while you want to submit your finest writing, know that even students with superb essays can be rejected. Remember, admissions officers are looking at an entire package, and a well-crafted essay can only exert so much influence.

Options for Disclosing Your LD
  1. Use the “Additional Information” section to address your disability and its impact on your grades. Discuss how the accommodations you’ve received, as well as the extra effort you’ve put forth, have helped you compensate. This avoids the scenario of having an essay reader unschooled in the field of disabilities hurt your admission chances.
  2. Disclose your disability in an interview, assuming the college provides the opportunity.
  3. Ask that your learning challenges be revealed in one of your letters of recommendation. Someone with whom you’ve worked closely and who has a longstanding relationship with you is a good person to ask. He can address your work ethic and can-do attitude in spite of your challenges, thus inspiring confidence in your application.

Joan M. Azarva is a college learning specialist who focuses on the transition from high school to college for students with LD and ADHD.

Related Smart Kids Topics

  • College Application: Choosing An Essay Topic
  • Demystifying the College Application Process
  • The College Interview