Born and raised in Minnesota, Priya George wants to expand her worldview by attending college in another state.

Heading into her senior year at Wayzata High School, the 17-year-old is preparing to apply to top-tier colleges, including Boston University and Duke. She’s exactly the sort of student they’re looking for: excellent grades, an impressive ACT score and a résumé loaded with activities — speech and debate club, roles in school musicals and the co-founder of a school club that addresses mental health.

All she needs to seal the deal is a killer essay.

“I’ve been digging deep to try to decide what to write about,” she said. “I feel both nervous and excited when I think about it.”

Many schools consider the essay to be among the most critical aspects of an application, and if that’s not putting enough pressure on the writer, there are plenty of other concerns to keep in mind.

The essays need to be short but still convey a complete sense of the student. They must stand out from the flood of other submissions — last year, applicants wrote 800,000 such narratives — without having the author come off as a blowhard. And while the writing should be well-crafted and polished, many admission officers balk if they sense too much professional polish.

Sounds like the perfect setting for writer’s block, but that’s not the intention.

“The essay is not meant to burden the student, but to give them an opportunity to show the admission committee something authentic,” said Rachelle Hernandez, director of admissions at the University of Minnesota, where essays are optional but encouraged.

Across the country, “rising seniors” — they’ll be in 12th grade when school starts in the fall — are spending their summers coming up with the themes of their admission essays, a mandatory part of getting into many institutions. Today’s Common Application provides five prompts of topics for students to choose from for essays that can be submitted to 600 colleges.

The requisite length is 250 to 650 words. Typically, that boils down to 10 paragraphs to explain and explore a student’s unique identity.

“We look at a lot of numbers and letters in our job,” said Rhemi Abrams-Fuller, senior assistant dean of admissions at Carleton College in Northfield. “Essays give us a glimpse into a student’s personality.”

At Carleton, which accepts a mere 20 percent of applicants, every essay is read by two team members. Not only are they sieving for stellar students, but they’re looking at how the incoming class comes together as a whole.

“We believe in the mission of creating and crafting a class. We want a plethora of ideas and backgrounds in the classroom and the dorm room, so we want to hear what they’re passionate about,” Abrams-Fuller explained. “I say, write about what lights you up. You don’t have to cure cancer to write a great essay.”

Composing the essay presents a sophisticated challenge. Students must produce a cogent, succinct story that highlights their personal revelations, decisions or accomplishments — all without sounding boastful.

“It has to be in the student’s voice. Colleges are very good at spotting someone who has gotten too much help,” said Linda Rue, a private college admission consultant who believes the importance of the essay can’t be overemphasized. “They want to know how you’ve lived your life. All colleges are looking for engaged students.”

Admission offices aren’t looking just to be dazzled by descriptions of amazing accomplishments, the U’s Hernandez said.

“We pay attention to whether the information in the essay meshes with and supports the other components in the application,” she said. “Does it refer to an area of interest, a class, a job, an experience they’ve had? It can connect the dots to show what’s important to them.”

Learning the ropes

Parents and older siblings who have been through the process can be a big help, but not everyone has that advantage. The ThreeSixty Journalism program at the University of St. Thomas levels the playing field for these applicants.

Over spring break, the program, which works with promising low-income students, offered its first College Essay Boot Camp for three dozen juniors from Minneapolis Roosevelt and St. Paul Harding high schools. Working with volunteer writing coaches, they brainstormed ideas, scratched out first drafts and then refined them to complete a submission-ready essay.

“It was a relief to get some help. For sure it flows better than what I would have come up with on my own,” said 16-year-old Randy, who requested that his last name not be used to shield his family from public scrutiny.

His pithy, 545-word narrative begins with a description of the morning that he came to breakfast to find his mother weeping. He learned that his father had been deported.

“That moment was a turning point for us,” said Randy, who excels in science and math and wants to pursue engineering. “My life changed. My family’s life changed. I watched my mom, now a single parent of four kids, with no college education, struggle to provide for my family. She now had to work three jobs to barely keep up with rent, which meant we rarely saw her,” he wrote.

The workshop encouraged students like him to expose incidents that they often keep hidden.

“These students have been marginalized and are not proud to tell their stories. We have to empower them,” said the program’s engagement coordinator, Bao Vang. “We know that colleges respond to these stories. They say, ‘We want this resiliency on our campus.’ ”

Vang, 31, grappled with some of the same issues as the students she’s helping. She was born in St. Paul after her parents fled Laos.

“I was embarrassed about growing up poor in the projects; I didn’t want anyone to know how unfortunate we had it,” she said. “It wasn’t until I started writing my own stories that I realized they were worth hearing. These essays help our students to better understand their own experiences and show them they have something powerful to give to this world.”

While some college-bound students inevitably will push the admissions deadline, procrastinating is strongly discouraged by Jen Landy, a guidance counselor at Wayzata High School.

“I say, start in the summer when things are less stressful,” she said. “I remind them that it’s a process. Few students are so gifted that they can sit down and write it in one day. A good essay is developed over time.”

Wayzata student George is taking that advice to heart. Over the summer, she will spend a week in Costa Rica studying leaf cutter ants, and she wonders if that might provide essay fodder. The daughter of parents who immigrated from India, she’s also considering her appreciation of her heritage as a topic. Or perhaps she’ll use something music-related; she loves to sing.

“I auditioned for ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice’ and ‘The X Factor,’ and I really wanted it but I never made it through,” she said. “Maybe that’s it: how you learn from failure as well as success.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.