The College Essay

Posted by: Claudine Vainrub, Principal of EduPlan on Aug 9 2010 / Comments (0)

The College Essay

One of the most important differentiators in college admissions can be the essays. How do adcoms choose between two college candidates with the same SAT scores, similar GPAs and great extracurricular activities? There is the interview, the rigor of the high school attended, the communications with the schools, but mostly, the essays. This is a tool that sells you to the university, but unlike junk mail, it has to be credible, believable, honest, interesting to read and depending on which university you’re applying to, targeted.

The goals of the essay are as follows: 1. Persuade, develop and maintain a well-reasoned argument. 2 Communicate in an interesting and professional way. 3. Display honesty and maturity. 4. Show in-depth understanding of the Program and of your potential contribution.

Unlike hotels and cruises, universities aren’t in the business of accepting anyone that applies. They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and in academia the last thing universities want are students that will weaken the reputation of the school. Even so-called “party” schools need top students getting straight-A’s to increase their collective GPA’s.

Who are you writing for?

If you hate reading something boring, imagine the admissions officers at universities who read hundreds of essays every day as part of their job description.  In that environment, your challenge becomes to stand out from the pack. How do you do that? 1. Use believable ideas of where you are headed. 2. Use convincing evidence of your intellectual, managerial and leadership abilities without being dull. 3. Describe your career plan – colleges love people who know where they’re going. 4. Keep it organized, concise and error free. 5. Gain and maintain credibility by not exaggerating or lying.

Think of it as a job interview, would you hire someone who says he’s a great mechanic or someone with 5 years experience fixing cars? The answer is obvious.

Plan before you write:

Novelists don’t write hundreds of pages trying to figure out what they’re writing about, they already know! They have made outlines and thus their job is to fill in the blanks. Before pouring your heart and soul on a college essay you should plan before you start to write, think about what you should say, develop your material and make it interesting without being shocking,  and most importantly brand yourself (differentiate yourself from others and understand your uniqueness).

Essay Questions

Unless the school you’re applying to gives you specific topics to write about, chances are you will be developing your own. There are websites with dozens of essay questions you can use, consider the following examples:

–  Describe a significant interest or experience that has special meaning for you.

–  How have you grown and developed over the years?

–  Life is short. Why do you want to spend 5 or 6 years at a particular university or college?

–  What do you plan to do with your college degree?

–  Why have you chosen this career or profession?


So let’s say you want to write an essay about “Why you have chosen this career or profession.” One way to approach it is with the EduPlan developed DIGAS™ method.


D          – Divide the question

I            – Idea Organization

G          – General to specific

A          – Answer with return to intro

S           – Share your inner-self

  • D –Divide the question: Divide the question in several small questions, answer EACH one of them.
  • I – Idea Organization: Write the sequence of your answer – i.e.: In the first paragraph, I will write about XYZ, in the second, I will write about ABC…, third paragraph about…
  • G – General to specific: Go from general info to specific providing examples on what you are confirming.
  • A – Answer with return to intro: The essay conclusion needs to recapitulate the original statement in some way, confirming it while not repeating it exactly, but closing back with the original idea exalted.
  • S – Share your inner-self: Be true to yourself and your thoughts, ideals, experiences and individuality – universities seek students with diverse viewpoints, interesting and unique, that give back and enrich classes with their own ideas towards development. Do not fear demonstrating who you are, what you know and how you learned this, do it with pride!

Let’s take an example of an essay that poses the question – What are your career goals and how do you plan to accomplish them? With an example career choice of Criminal Justice, here is how the DIGAS method is applied:

– D Divide the question: What are your career goals and how do you plan to accomplish them? These are two questions in one – Divide them into: 1- What are your Career Goals, and 2- How do you plan to accomplish your Career Goals. Both questions need to be thoroughly answered to write a great essay.

I Idea Organization: Index your answer. To do this, take each question and make a list of the things you will discuss to answer it. For example, in this case, when answering Question #1 – What are your Career Goals, the following list could derive: 1- Criminal Justice as a career goal, 2- The type of things I would like to do in criminal justice, 3- What is happening with Criminal Justice nowadays in the workforce, 4- How my career choice of criminal justice will impact me, 5- And so on…

G General to specific: Each idea in your new index is to be expanded on, however, what should be the used structure? Let’s take the second idea – The type of things I would like to do in criminal justice. To go from General to Specific, we can start discussing that Criminal Justice opens many career paths including law enforcement, law itself through the court system, and also corrections. In my specific case, (going more specific), I plan to pursue the law of courts, by eventually becoming a lawyer, and more specifically, one day I plan to become pursue criminal/penal law, representing cases where crimes like murder are questioned and the government is involved.

A Answer with return to intro: Always draw an introduction and a conclusion. The intro should provide a brief summary of the topics of most relevance in the composition. The conclusion will return to the intro, confirming its validity to the writer and the reader, and stating something additionally that will tie it all together. Example of a conclusion: Becoming a criminal defense attorney is my goal as I seek to uphold constitutional rights in my work; defending crime victims will not only support my interests, but will help me become a contributing member of society.

– S Share your inner-self: It is very important to display your uniqueness in your essays and represent yourself, your thoughts and who you are to the fullest. Essays are meant to help adcoms get a better picture of the candidates, their interests, background, points of view. Don’t give the “right” answers unless they are your answers. Support your case and, if you are honest,  schools will recognize if you have a good fit with their program, increasing not only your admission chances but also your success chances, once you are a student at a particular college/university.

Once you complete the five stages, review the essay to ensure all steps were taken, revising anything that might have been overlooked. The beauty of the DIGAS™ method is that if you follow it closely, the essay will flow, helping you successfully complete the writing process when discussing college admissions.

Example of Great Writing
Use vivid and specific facts with your main idea.

  • Bad: “I like to be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests”
  • Good: “During that night, I sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he’s Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I ever wanted to know about some woman’s gall bladder operation.”

Be Specific
Try not to use clichéd, predictable and generic writing but rather vivid and specific details.

  • Okay: “I want to help people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate; therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others.”
  • Better: “My Mom and Dad stood on plenty of sidelines ’til their shoes filled with water or their fingers turned white, or somebody’s golden retriever signed his name on their coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I’d like to bring to working with fourth-graders.”

Did you know all famous writers edit their work BEFORE sending it to an editor? In the cases of books, we’re talking 300 to 500 or more pages. So in your case, what’s the big deal about 500 words? Plenty. Editing will allow you improve your draft, fix errors, and get another pair of eyes to give you feedback.

  • Let It Cool: Take a break from your work and come back to it in a few days. Does your main idea come across clearly? Do you prove your points with specific details? Is your essay easy to read aloud?
  • Feedback Time: Have someone you like and trust (but someone likely to tell you the truth) read your essay. Ask them to tell you what they think you’re trying to convey. Did they get it right?
  • Edit Down: Your language should be simple, direct, and clear. This is a personal essay, not a term paper. Make every word count (e.g., if you wrote “in society today,” consider changing that to “now”).
  • Proofread Two More Times: Careless spelling or grammatical errors, awkward language, or fuzzy logic will make your essay memorable—in a bad way.

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