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Countdown to college: What are colleges looking for in essays?

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

It is no longer uncommon for colleges to receive 30,000-50,000 applications a year. In fact, the University of California, Los Angeles, received more than 111,000 applications in 2020. UCLA has four required essays, so admissions officials there are looking at reading more than 400,000 essays. Yikes. How do students set themselves apart with those numbers?

Here are some suggestions about what colleges are looking for in essays. They are trying to build a campus with a sense of community, and they need participants. If you think about the essay in terms of “How will I be able to impact their college community?” and ask yourself what you’ve done that demonstrates the following characteristics, your essay will stand out.

1. Contribution

Ask yourself how you have made a difference in your school and your community. What activities have you been part of that have had some kind of impact? Contributing students make any group better as a result of their involvement and actions. Groups can be organizations, activities, a school, a community or even peer groups. Colleges love contributors because they greatly improve the college’s community.

2. Intellectual curiosity

Yes, “intellectual curiosity” is a college buzzword. If you’re passionate, then share that passion. If you’ve gone that extra mile on a research paper and had an internship or job-shadowing experience, let colleges know about your interests. Colleges do love curious students who spend their free time learning just for the fun of it. Students who dive deep into topics and subjects that interest them make a college campus more exciting and intellectually richer. Intellectually curious students are more likely to do well in their classes, and they’re likely to succeed in whatever they choose to do in the future.

3. Depth of involvement

I often talk about how in the old days, colleges were looking for well-rounded students who had a laundry list of activities, demonstrating that they were busy. Today, colleges would far prefer a student who has focused on one or two extracurricular activities. This is now referred to as the “angular student.” My advice is always to go deep, not broad. Get engaged in an activity, go for a leadership role, make change, make a contribution.

 

4. Diversity of experiences

Colleges are trying to build a well-rounded class made up of students with different life experiences, different interests and different ways of thinking about the world. Diversity adds unique perspectives to the student body and enables a college community to thrive. Additionally, diverse students will do a variety of things after they graduate, enabling the college to fulfill its mission of having a positive impact across many parts of the economy, society and the world.

5. Drive and perseverance

Another buzzword today is “grit.” Colleges want driven students who push themselves to succeed no matter the odds. Students who can demonstrate that they’ve gone through difficult and challenging situations and come out better are appealing. Driven students take action to make their situation or the situation of others better. They are more likely to be successful in college and beyond because they’ll persevere through any challenges they encounter.

6. Initiative

Students who take initiative are entrepreneurial and not willing to accept the status quo. They’re always thinking of ways to improve whatever group or organization they are part of. Colleges love students who take the initiative because they’ll be more likely to improve the college’s community, become leaders and make everything they touch better.

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