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How to go about writing your college essay? We ask the expert

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

By Adarsh Khandelwal, Co-Founder, Collegify

When I work with students writing essays, they ask me a lot of questions, many of which revolve around “can I write about getting top marks”, “should I copy this essay my friend is writing but with my own name”, and of course, “why are you making me do so many drafts?” (The answer of which is of course no, NO, and because writing IS re-writing). But the question I rarely get, which I wish I got more, is why does the college essay matter? That inquiry is at the heart of the college essay writing process, and digs into the bedrock of one of the primary fundamental differences between the US and Indian educational systems.

I know how difficult it is for Indian students to be applying for college in a system that is wildly different from the one they someday hope to enter. You are forced to become servants of two masters, achieving for both Indian and US standards, sometimes worrying that you are, in fact, failing both by trying to please either. I know that is stressful, and difficult, so I want to break down the college essay process and application process in the next few blog posts by going into the whys of the process, not the hows. The whys, in fact, can dictate thehows, and yet I rarely hear anyone asking about them. So I’m going to give voice to the questions you didn’t know you had, far more important than “can I talk about my Model UN victories?” and hopefully that gives you a jumping off point to start thinking about the future.
So why does the college essay matter? Is it just another one of the many hoops you have to jump through to get from where you are to a college acceptance letter? The short answer is no, although it’s often treated by the students I work with as such. The college essay is an admission requirement for many reasons, and it carries a lot of weight in the admissions process, especially for International students.

While students in the United States tend to bring full-to-bursting portfolios to the proverbial admissions table, it is an unfortunate reality that most Indian students don’t. While you might think that your two or three extracurricular, one internship, and handful of test scores make you a hypercompetitive applicant, they are a drop in the ocean compared to what many of your American counterparts are revealing in their applications. Many admissions officers I spoke to agree that the one thing they find difficult when reviewing applications from India is that Indian students aren’t as good at representing or expressing themselves as their international counterparts, which makes it much harder for an admissions officer to gauge their qualifications for admission and fit for the school. Simply put, the harder it is for an admissions officer to get to know you quickly based on your application and the ways it’s not ticking the same boxes as scores of other applications, the harder it is for you to get into college.

But here is the good news, you have a secret weapon, and that’s the college essay. The point of the college essay is not for you to trot out some fancy vocabulary that you would never use in real life, although Indian students tend to think that’s a requirement, and list your grades, scores, and the competitions you’ve won. It’s for the school to get to know you in a real and essential way, to understand something about you that they can’t find anywhere else on your application. This is the place for your passions and desires to take center stage, because that’s what the readers of your essays are looking for, creative thinking, innovative problem solving, or even just the desire to pursue both writ large in your life.

So when you are thinking about how to start your college essay, think about why you have to write one at all. This isn’t some fiendish plot cooked up to make you feel bad about your writing abilities, and there isn’t, I’m sorry to inform you, one formula, one perfect essay that if you can just figure out the template for you will get in wherever you want. And while you might have friends who get other people to write their essays for them, those people are at a severe disadvantage, not to mention a supreme breach of ethics. You are writing this essay to show the college of your dreams who you really are, what you bring to the college community, not what your grades say or your scores tell them, because frankly, that’s not all that much. You are writing to show what you bring to the table as a person, not as a list of accomplishments. Your sensibility about the world, your passion, your interests, the lessons you have learned from what you have done, not what you have read or been passively taught, that is the you you want to show on paper.

And yes, it takes a lot of work to do that. But in the end, you’ll be glad you did. That’s the realwhy of the college essay. You are writing to show the reader who you are, and who you will be. You are more than your grades, your scores, and your competitions. This is the place to show that.

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