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Dreading Writing Your College Application Essay? Tips From the Pros

Writing your essay doesn't have to be a panic-inducing experience, say the pros. Think of it as an opportunity to show off what you have to offer.
To close out Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, here are six emerging Pacific Islander poets.
To close out Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, here are six emerging Pacific Islander poets.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

One of the most intimidating elements of the college application for many students is the essay or personal statement. As students begin their applications, here are some tips from the pros to make the process a little less panic-inducing.

Don’t necessarily write to the prompt.

“Most students focus too much on the prompt,” Ethan Sawyer, founder of the website College Essay Guy and author of "College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay," told NBC News. “I think that's backwards. I tell my students, focus on what you have to offer — in other words, tell your deepest story first — then decide which prompt is closest, rather than the other way around."

Take your time choosing your topic.

“Students should spend just as much time thinking about the topic for their college essay as they do writing about it,” Sara Harberson, a former admissions officer and private college counselor, told NBC News. “Admissions officers may not remember every last lesson learned in an essay, but the topic stays with them.”

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Harberson added that when she was an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania and later the dean of admissions at Franklin and Marshall University, she loved reading essays about topics not covered elsewhere in students’ applications.

“It allowed me to understand the student on a wholly different level,” she said.

Don’t treat the essays like term papers.

University of Virginia Associate Dean of Admissions Jeannine Lalonde advises students choose their words carefully. In UVA's admissions blog, Notes from Peabody, Lalonde wrote that word limits on the essays are there “so you know that we are expecting short statements, not term papers.” Her advice: “Be concise and thoughtful in your statement and try to convey your voice and style in your words. This is the one spot on your application where your personality gets to shine, so don't treat this like a formal school assignment.”

Related: Introverted? How to Make Your College Application Shine

Be specific.

Many of the supplemental essay questions from colleges will ask the student why they are choosing to apply to that college in particular. That question can generate a lot of generic responses from students, said Sawyer of “College Essay Guy.” Don’t be generic, he said.

“Think of it like a second or third date: If the person you're with asks, ‘Why do you like me?’, you can't just say, ‘Because you're hot’ or ‘Because your student-to-faculty ratio is 12:1.’” Be specific in your reasons, with concrete examples.

Understand what purpose the essay serves.

As students write their essays, it might help to keep in mind why colleges ask them for these writing samples in the first place. In a podcast on college essay advice, Ralph Figueroa, current director of college guidance at Albuquerque Academy and former admissions officer at Occidental College and Wesleyan University, said the essay is to demonstrate writing skill as well as who students are as people.

“Whether [a] student becomes an actor, a poet, a doctor, or a musician, they need to have the ability to communicate effectively with the written word,” he said. “They need to be good writers, and they will get better in college."

Related: What You Can Do Now to Ease the Pressure of Applying to College

What does the college application essay teach the reader about students? “This is an important question,” he said. “A former boss of mine used to ask during committee discussions, ‘Would you want to be this kid’s roommate?’ College admission offices think about these issues seriously.”

The college essay is one of the only places on an application where a student can let the admissions committee hear their authentic voice and one of the only places for students to differentiate themselves from an ever-increasing pool of applicants, Doug Christiansen, Vice Provost for University Enrollment Affairs, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Vanderbilt University told NBC News.

“Most highly selective schools, such as Vanderbilt University, are looking for students who have learned from a personal experience and then utilized that knowledge to somehow make a positive difference in the world around them,” he said.

“Leadership during personally challenging times is important, but so is being part of a team working together to create something positive," he added. "At the end of the day, we want to know who you are and how your experiences have shaped you and the world around you.”