Essay Tips and Tricks

Scene: You’re sitting glassy eyed, staring at your laptop. The curser is blinking and all you can think is “Admission officers read thousands of personal essays every year, how do I make mine stand out?” Well never fear young grasshopper, the Office of Admission at Whitman College is here to give you a few tips to help you find a great essay topic.

Reading personal essays is my favorite part of the application review process. It is the only time when I hear about the student directly from the best source, you! Thus, use this opportunity not to impress, but rather to enlighten me with something that you are chomping at the bit to share.

Some of my favorite essays over the years have been on topics that I personally have no interest in learning about, such as Star Wars, minor league baseball and snakes. But the student who wrote these essays were not trying to impress me with their Jedi knowledge or their pitching speed, instead they were sharing why these topics mean something to them. Admission officers typically do not read essays more then once, there just simply isn’t enough time in the day, but if an essay truly stands out we find the time to read it again, simply for the enjoyment of reading. This was the case with the three topics listed above even though I try to spend as little time thinking about snakes as possible!

Whitman College suggested Dos and Don’ts for College Admission Essays:

–  Do risk sharing something important to you; it will pay off in the end.

–  Do refrain from writing how you talk to your friends. Let your own voice speak through your essay.

–  Don’t just tell me you went on a mission/community service trip; tell me why you went and what you discovered.

–  Do write about a topic you’re interested in, it sure makes the writing process easier.

–  Don’t write non-fiction or creative pieces for your personal essay. If you want your creative writing viewed as a part of your application, include it as additional information.

–  Do have a friend, teacher or counselor read your essay once before hitting submit.

–  Don’t try to impress me, simply be honest and you will make an impression.

If after reading this blog you still find yourself stuck without a great topic I offer one last suggestion. Answer the following question:

If your house was burning down and you only had time to grab one thing from your bed room, what would it be?

Now think about that item, why did you pick it? Consider its significance to you, and if it’s something you would like to share in an essay. I asked a student this question last fall and she responded with the following, “I would grab a picture of my younger sister.” When I asked her why that picture was important she responded, “Because I’ve grown up in a single parent household and I’ve had to look after my sister.” This student’s essay topic ended up being about how she looked up to her Mom for raising three successful children on her own. We got all that from a picture of her sister. Let the item steer you down different paths, one will lead to your essay topic.


2 responses to “Essay Tips and Tricks

  1. Dear Katie,
    Thank you for the tips. We live in Vancouver, BC and we heard very little about LACs in the US. Only a few students at my son’s IB class in Sir Winston Churchill Secondary talked about Ivy leagues or Oxford/Cambridge, but the majority is simply waiting for the effortless move to UBC. My son’s friend in UK recently talked to him about Whitman and encouraged him to apply. As his high school set a limit of three applications to US colleges at maximum, he has to be very choosy. We wish we had heard about Whitman much earlier so we could drive down to Walla Walla to visit the campus. Now time is running seriously short. I just found your blog and passed it to Dean. He is preparing his essay now. We are a Chinese speaking family and my English is self-taught. I can only hope he come up with something decent. We all love what we heard and read about Whitman. It would be a dream school for Dean.
    Thanks again

    • whitmanadmission

      Thanks so much for the comment! I’m glad you found the advice to be helpful. While visiting colleges before the application deadline is something that many students do, families can still visit after the application deadline or an offer of admission. The important thing is that you and your family get a sense for the college before making a final decision. There is still time to get down to Walla Walla! Good luck with the application process!

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