Writing it right

High school seniors stress over college essays


Photo by Emma Harper

Julianne Schultz, senior, works on her college essay in the learning and innovation hub. She hopes to major in musical theatre and must complete pre-screen auditions and possibly in-person auditions in addition to the essay.

The college essay is a difficult part of the college application process, according to a Bear Facts Student Media survey of 252 students, with 52.9% of seniors citing college essay writing as the most stressful part of their applications. This stress is reflected in the amount of time and importance seniors place on their essays.

Bryson Turner, senior, who has already applied to many colleges and plans to apply to more, places a high value on college essays.

“I think [college essays are] the number one most important thing. It tells the college admission officers what you’re feeling right now and what you hope to accomplish in the future,” Turner said. “They tell everyone why you are who you are and I think that grades, scores, and extracurriculars are all extremely important, but essays are really telling the college admissions officers who you are.”

Some seniors applying to more arts based programs believe the essay will not have as much of an impact on their admissions process as they might also need to submit pre-screen audition videos or portfolios with examples of their work.

Julianne Schultz, senior, who is going to major in musical theater, said, “I don’t think that they’re the biggest factor for me. I think they’re a bigger factor for people who are doing a non arts based program. But I definitely think that they’re still important in terms of my academic admissions so that I can stand out more from all the others.”

Meghan Richardson, regional admission counselor for University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has a similar perspective, and believes that essay importance varies based on major.

“A lot of the time [for our more competitive programs like business, engineering, and computer science], it comes down to the essay. For all the other [programs], the essay’s important, but I wouldn’t say it’s as make or break as if you’re going into business or engineering, so I wouldn’t stress too much. Have a good essay, but it’s not the end of the world,” Richardson said.

Getting feedback on an essay is one way students try to improve. Not having an essay proofread is an easy mistake to avoid, Richardson said. Turner avoided this mistake by having his essay proofread many times.

“I had two or three people read it, but I just kept going back to those two or three people. I have a friend who has like 50 people on his essay just checking it all the time. I think I wrote it four or five times over, and then I finally got it and then I was done,” Turner said.

The editing and revising process can take many months, Turner said.

“I started my common app essay in the summer, so I managed to finish it during the summer,” Turner said. “But that took a while, there were a lot of drafts, and a lot of editing.”

However, not all students start this early, therefore, they have to worry about meeting deadlines with their essays. 18.8% of seniors believe hitting deadlines is the most stressful part of the application process according to a Bear Facts Student Media survey of 252 students.

“There’s just a lot to do and it’s all really tedious. You have all of these deadlines to meet and [you have to work] on the application and the essays on top of also doing schoolwork. It’s really hard to find time for all of that. Plus, even when you finish your application then you still have the fear of being accepted or not,” Schultz said.

Turner believes that the hardest part of the essay is starting to write and trying to find what is “unique” about you as an individual.

“You are trying to get a college to see why you are the best person [to accept], and you want to show the best parts of yourself [in your application]. So I think the hardest part is trying to get the idea down on paper and [deciding] what you want to write,” Turner said.

Ian Silverman, English teacher, who often edits his students’ college essays, believes that students’ biggest mistakes are writing too broadly and not making themselves stand out in their essay.

“If I finished that paper and I couldn’t distinguish you from 1,000 other students that I have taught, then there is no way that the admissions person who is reading it can distinguish you from the 5,000 other people who are applying,” Silverman said. “Speaking vaguely, just saying that you have a strong work ethic or you have had a lot of adverse experiences [is a mistake]. You have got to talk about yourself. You have got to make them see you as an individual. And if you can not do that, I do not think it is going to be a very strong letter.”

Richardson also believes that the content of essays are important and that not only should they be unique to the individual, but should be related to a potential major in some way. The supplemental essays especially should include specifics about the school and what a student hopes to accomplish at that college that they would not get to do elsewhere.

One big mistake that some seniors make is writing “[an essay that is not related to the major they are applying to] at all; if you were like ‘oh my gosh’ I want to perform on Broadway and then the program you are applying to is business,” Richardson said. “I would say it’s a lot of holistic reviewing, as long as your essay is fine and the rest of your portfolio is fine [it is going to be okay].”