09/20/2011 01:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

Confessions of a Common App Reader

Some Thoughts on Reading College Applications

It's September and the crunch is on. You've read and re-read the Common Application (aka the Common App.) directions, browsed a myriad of sources about Common Apps, and you still feel stressed out about writing your college admissions essay.

It may be some comfort to know you share such anxiety with other college applicants, but at the end of the day, you remain alone with the quandary of condensing and packaging your own unique life story, hopes and dreams into a couple of pages.

As a college application reader at several elite universities, I hear many concerns from students and parents about the process. Here are a few suggestions from the other side of the table.

First: The whole point of the Common App.

Thirty-five years ago the Common Application became the primary vehicle for undergraduate applicants to submit their writing statements to college admissions boards. To date 456 member colleges and universities in the United States and various other countries use the Common App, which is managed by a nonprofit. Only universities that use the "holistic admission" process are allowed to participate, as the idea is to encourage students to reflect subjectively about their worlds and provide insights not immediately clear from test scores and grades.

When universities "holistically" review your application they seek a clear articulation of your character and your unique role in your community so far.

Second, to better articulate your character concisely and directly, look closely at the questions and the wording. All the questions are evocative and produce good essays, but let's consider Option #1 here for example:

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

The salient term here is "evaluate," which means describe in detail the moral or ethical value of an experience you have had. Showing how you evaluate also reveals your character to the readers. You should do this immediately in the opening paragraph by providing an image or tangible item that characterizes who you are.

Since you cannot possibly capture the essence of your whole life in real time from your earliest memory to now, it's best just to provide a snapshot of you in action. The most successful images are not from your deep past, but rather from the recent years of your academic life.

Have you volunteered or been part of a community and attempted to help others? How have you solved problems and conflicts you have encountered? Were there challenges that made you better as a person?

Over the years I have been at turns deeply impressed and moved to tears by thoughtful, emotionally honest self-depictions. These aren't necessarily brag-worthy moments, just images of you and your life in action.

One student wrote about how frightened he was taking off his mask and gloves to hold the hand of a terminally-ill cancer patient, but that jumble of feelings allowed him insight into his future dreams of being a doctor.

Another told a story of a conflict with a brother, who had refused all of the applicant's attempts at reconciliation until one day when the wayward brother was simply ready. Readers learned less about the brother than about the efforts of the applicant in the face of a mysterious rejection.

Still another memorable application began with a description of a prized mahogany and brass Swiss cuckoo clock that stood in the entry to the home of Chinese-American applicant. For the student, this clock embodied the cross-cultural imagination of her family.

Sometimes your own academic struggles are worthy of elaboration. No, it's not time to bring out the violins and beg for sympathy. But the Common App remains indeed one of your only chances to explain circumstances you have experienced that may have impacted your academic performance.

You need not bemoan every mistake and misery in your life. Nor should you say how much you value your special talent over academia in hopes of explaining a blemish on your transcript. In fact, it's best to keep the tone positive, never complaining nor speaking negatively about yourself or other people, especially not teachers and institutions.

That said, admissions readers are open to any self-clarifications that sound honest and for which you too can take responsibility. It is not enough to say you suffered because you have divorced parents or other familial stresses. Readers want to know how you got it together and overcame these obstacles.

Many universities are no longer allowed to assess your background. For example, after Proposition 209 in California, public institutions cannot ask about race, ethnicity or sex, but often readers want to know something concrete about you and your community. So provide this information as it seems relevant or important to you.

One most effective and widely discussed essay last year avoided telling readers the student's race, and offered instead a beautifully written essay elaborating on how the student climbed the academic ladder having begun life as a "remedial reader" from a poor family.

In sum, the approach you need to take is one you've practiced forever in high school: The emotional appeal, also known in college rhetoric as the "pathos appeal." Don't overdo it, just use compelling images and good verbs to vividly describe yourself in a way that will move your reader.

Third, something to consider: if you wish to write about an expensive trip either for enjoyment or even to help others, try to emphasize your encounter with the world--not the cost of the trip. The point of the college applications is not to discover who is richest and has had the most opportunity to pad his or her resume, but rather to identify students with a will to succeed, who show eagerness to become active members of society. That trip to some far away place on an exchange program is weighed the same as the after school job working in the fields or at the YMCA. Readers look for consistency in your efforts: Did you work or volunteer or play a sport just once? Or was this a sustained commitment?

Fourth, while there are many helpful college application "coaches" and services, you will also be happy to know you can forget those that claim to package your essays for you. Bad intervention by these expensive, often-misguided "helpers" and "handlers" is immediately recognizable and elicits cringes from the readers. If you feel visiting one of these services relieves some anxiety, then perhaps they are worth the money for you, but make sure you get to write in your own voice. There's no such thing as having your statement "fixed" or made into some non-existent "correct formula."

In the end, you are best off if you write the statement yourself and then have a family friend, college grad or high school guidance counselor read it. You can also look at sample essays from former students, who have been accepted. Your guidance counselor on campus should have a file. Nothing opens college doors so quickly as the fresh words of an eager young writer.

Let us readers hear your voice, and know that your own gifts will guarantee you a place in higher education.