Admissions Essays Are the New ACT/SAT Scores

April 10, 2021

Even though a vaccine for COVID-19 is coming sooner rather than later, the virus’ impact will continue to affect high school and college life in the coming year. One effect we at myKlovr noticed last spring was that more colleges and universities were becoming test-optional due to cancelled ACT and SAT test dates and the uncertainty around online testing.

This trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down for the fall 2021 college admissions season. Even if most of the United States receives a vaccine by the fall ACT/SAT test dates, it will be impossible to host 100% safe test sessions by then. As a result, colleges are making a safe bet by remaining test-optional in fall 2021.

Standardized tests were never a perfect way for college admissions counselors to measure applicants’ academic potential. But without them in the picture in fall 2021 – students who want to qualify for institutional scholarships will still need to take these tests – what will take their place in a college application portfolio?

The answer is something nearly all colleges and universities already require from freshman applicants: essays.

Yes, many schools are making admissions essays a more important part of candidates’ college application portfolio. That’s not to say that the essays were not essential in the past. They have always allowed prospective students to introduce themselves and argue why they should receive an offer of admission.

With essays the ‘make or break’ factor for many college applicants in fall 2021, this article will cover some no-nonsense and advanced tips to make your essays the best they can be

The Easy Stuff

Let’s review the easy stuff, three pieces of advice you’ve likely heard more than once regarding admissions essays.

Address the Prompt

Unless the prompt is ‘introduce yourself in any way you see fit,’ you need to address it to the best of your ability. Granted, your first draft will likely go off topic. That’s the point of a first draft. You have the chance to read each sentence and consider two vital questions:

  • Does this sentence address the prompt?
    • If ‘no,’ cut it out.
  • Is this sentence necessary to get across what I want to say?
    • Can I get rid of it?
    • Can I shorten it?

Have Someone Else Proofread it

As an English teacher, it was my job to catch students’ grammar mistakes and provide feedback. Admissions counselors, too, will notice any mistakes you make. As you know, each one isn’t going to do you any favors. The best way to avoid mistakes is to edit to the best of your ability before passing off your essays to a parent or teacher. Select an adult you know well. They will not only catch mistakes but also tell you if the essays are in your voice.

Also, if you ask your teacher, it doesn’t hurt to give them a little $5 gift card when they’re finished. They’re busy folks who didn’t have to critique your essays, after all. 

Don’t Be ‘Clever’

I’d bet that many smart and worthy college applicants didn’t get into their dream college because they tried to be ‘clever’ in their essays. In this case, ‘clever’ refers to trying to sound funnier and smarter than you actually are. Too much self-confidence and a big ego also fall into this category.

Avoiding the ‘clever’ trap involves writing the first draft from the heart. Try not to overthink as you address the prompt. If you can produce a draft that contains who you really are, feedback and editing can help you create an outstanding final product.

The Hard Stuff

Now that we’ve covered some admissions essay fundamentals, let’s look at two advanced tactics that will help your essays stand out from the competition.

Getting Started

As someone who writes for a living, I can attest that getting started with a piece is the hardest part. There will be a million thoughts spinning around your brain when you stare at that blank page for the first time. Those thoughts can lead to indecision and stress. The latter can make you feel that you’ve written 1,000 words even if the page remains blanks.

Here’s my plan for you.

I want you to get some actual paper and pens out. Write the essay prompt at the top and then put away the computer and other electronics. Listening to music is fine, as my experience as a teacher revealed that it helps some students concentrate.

What happens next, that depends on you. Brainstorming can take numerous shapes: word storms, mind mapping, and word banks, just to name a few. No matter which one you select, the point remains the same – getting your initial thoughts down on paper. No one will see them but you, so try your best to let go of excess anxiety.

I want you to fill that page up and then set it aside until the next day. Come back to your ideas ready to hunt for the best ones. Those ‘diamonds in the rough’ are your essay’s core. Use them to start writing the first draft.

The Final Edits

Imagine that it’s January-March 2022. At colleges and universities throughout the country, admissions counselors are reviewing applications. They must take extra care in reading essays, meaning that each decision takes longer than in years past. However, they must ensure that all prospective students receive a reply by early April. It’ll be a stressful time for them, to say the least.

Why bring this up? Knowing that essays are more important in fall 2021 means that you need to take a new look at the editing process, specifically when your essays are about 95% ready to submit.

At the 95% percent mark, you’ve accomplished the following:

  • Brainstormed
  • Wrote a rough first draft
  • Edited the rough first draft yourself
  • Asked an adult to provide feedback
  • Incorporated feedback into your essays
  • Made additional minor tweaks you think are necessary

In previous years, completing all of these steps meant your essays were ready to submit. But it’s 95% in fall 2021 because admissions counselors feel the time squeeze. That means your essays need to lose a little weight, even if they already come in below the maximum word count.

You should shave approximately 5% of the word count from your nearly completed essays. Shortening your work without losing any meaning makes admissions counselors’ job easier. They’ll also be impressed that you can write concisely.

When completing this stage, consider the following question when examining EVERY. SINGLE. WORD. Does this help get my point across? Maybe you don’t need that introductory clause, transition word, or brief aside.

When you take something out, reread the paragraph out loud. If it sounds fine, then you made the right choice. If it sounds off, err on the side of caution and put back the word or phrase.

Final Thoughts

College admissions essays are more essential than ever in fall 2021. But if you follow my advice, the writing/editing process can start and finish on a high note. Your essays will act as your loyal and eloquent ambassadors in the college admissions office.

Between now and next fall, practice writing any chance you get. Also, read a few good books. They’ll help you hone your writing and communication skills in more ways than you know.

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