Stressing About College Essays? Take a Number


Keren Binderman, Freelance Writer

“Stressing About College Essays? Take a Number” first appeared in the spring 2020 print edition of The Communiqué. To view the edition in full, please click here.

That dreaded time to submit college applications rolls around — your final chance to finish, edit, kiss goodbye, and mail four years’ worth of high school. Transcript? Check. Recommendation letters? Check. Essay Supplement? Yikes. 

Interestingly, according to an Edswell survey taken by 14,000 high school students, 48.6% stated that the “college application essay” was the hardest part of the application process. This is more than double the percentage gathered for the second highest category — 21.2% said “standardized tests” were hardest — and far greater than even the percentage of those who found “choosing a school” to be the hardest — a mere 8.2%! But why? What’s with the apprehension over this written portion? It’s not like high schoolers don’t know how to write essays… right? As junior Mia Tamir says, “I’m just worried that I won’t be able to articulate what I want to say correctly so that it is just as meaningful to the admissions officer as it is to me.”

Maybe students get anxious because as soon as they Google college essay tips, frightening titles like “Bad College Essays: 10 Mistakes You Must Avoid” and “Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay: Step-by-Step Guide” bombard the once ever-so-stress-free screen. I mean, it seemed like an innocent topic to look up at first, didn’t it? But now, all you can think about is making your essay better than ‘good’ — it needs to be absolutely unforgettable. How can you possibly do that when there are millions of other applicants sending in millions of other essays? Senior Eugene Moon, who recently completed his college application process, recalls, “I just felt a lot of pressure to write something original. I must’ve rewritten [my essay] like 15 times.”

Maybe students get scared when they read that the National Association for College Admission Counseling found evidence that the essay is “the most important admissions factor after [components] related to test scores and coursework — more important than class rank, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, etc.” How can something so impactful be perfected for admissions officers to see in under 650 words? When asked about the anxieties of essay-writing, senior Allison Choi explains, “the process itself is just very overwhelming… it’s the ‘season’ where you have to really determine your entire future at the mere age of 17.”

Or maybe the fact that the application essay simply forces students to put themselves out there in a way that the rest of the application doesn’t makes high schoolers nervous. The essay is arguably the least mechanical part of the application process, and thus the riskiest and most open to interpretation. Students need to be personal, but personal how? Fresh, but fresh how? Not clichéd in the least, but not clichéd how? What can they write that reflects both self-humility and a healthy dose of self-confidence? And most importantly, what can they write that will guarantee a big envelope in the mail come April? 

The answer is surprisingly simple: Grace Cheng, director of admissions at Wellesley College, said, “We’re looking for real, thoughtful, genuine, teenager reflection… Show us your personality, tell us who you are… Treat it like a conversation.”

BE YOURSELF! Colleges just want to get a sense of the person behind the paperwork, grades, and extracurriculars! This has never been more obvious than with the recent trend of essay prompts — all of which seem to care more about the creativity and personality of the writer than the answer itself: 

  • “Winston Churchill believed ‘a joke is a very serious thing.’ Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.” – University of Chicago
  • “What do you hope to find over the rainbow?” – University of North Carolina
  • “To tweet or not to tweet?” – University of Virginia
  • “You have been granted a free weekend next month. How will you spend it?” – Yale University
  • “What matters to you, and why?” – Stanford University

None of these questions are earth-shattering. None of them expect students to give Pulitzer Prize answers. Instead, they are all geared to get students to open up and “be real”. So don’t worry! When that dreaded application time rolls around, enjoy the essay-writing process. After all, it’s only as difficult and stressful as you make it.