During the 2011 NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) national conference, over 5,000 college admissions officers and counslors gathered from all over the world in New Orleans to share the trends and insights on college admissions. The Choice Blog from the New York Times takes readers backstage to get the latest news from 2011 NACAC national conference.

Here’s one of the take-aways brought to you by the Choice Blog on how to craft a successful application essay. For a complete list of NACAC posts, please click here.

Stanford University’s application for admission includes a prompt directing students to write a letter to their future freshman roommates. The exercise is a good one for all applicants – regardless of their interest in Stanford – as a fun, fresh jumping-off point in the essay writing process, Rebecca Joseph, a professor of education at California State University, said on Friday.

“It’s all about loosening up,” said Ms. Joseph, who was on a panel called “Communicating Stories: Strategies to Help Students Write Powerful College Essays,” part of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors conference in New Orleans.

She quoted various students’ “Dear Roommate” pieces:

“If you want to borrow my music, just ask. If you want to borrow my underwear, just take them.”

“I eat ice cream with a fork, and I drink orange juice right after I brush my teeth just for the sour taste.”

“If you have anything other than a Dodgers poster on the wall, I will tear it down.”

“Using ‘I’ is scary,” Ms. Joseph said, but students must get comfortable with their first-person voice on paper in order to craft successful, resonant essays.
 
Erica Sanders, an admissions officer at the University of Michigan, stressed that writing style – something students may obsess over – is less important than “psychedelic” three-dimensionality and shows of authentic personality.

“We can fix that a student’s a comma fiend, that they don’t have verb-tense structure,” she said.

Other practical advice included:

  • Make a chart. An applicant’s first order of business, Rebecca Stover of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in Virginia advised, should be to outline all required essays – both main and supplemental statements. She suggested that students color-code those prompts that are similar, a strategy particularly effective for visual learners.
  • Read other applicant essays. Ms. Joseph of Cal-State referred students to Connecticut College’s Web site, which posts the essays of select admitted students as samples.
  • Write a résumé. Before selecting an essay topic, reflect on what you’ve done in and out of school, and what it’s meant to you, Ms. Joseph advised.
  • Make a list of personal traits. Write down the qualities you are proud of and want to convey in your essay, Ms. Joseph suggested. Then reflect on what experiences or activities best demonstrate those qualities, for example, optimism, empathy or innovative tendencies.
  • Start small. Ms. Joseph recommended that students completing the common application work on the short essay prompt before the longer personal statement, because “a paragraph is easier to toss out than a few pages,” and the early writing process may uncover a stronger topic for the longer essay.
  • Look for inspiration in the everyday. All panelists encouraged students to write about something meaningful, no matter how mundane.
  • Recycle essays. “If you’re not using your essay more than once, you’re missing a prime opportunity to focus on really good storytelling,” Ms. Joseph said.
  • Keep it short and specific.  “Colleges don’t want long opuses. They want short moments in time,” Ms. Joseph said. Ms. Stover agreed: “Students want to write about this whole room,” she said, gesturing broadly around the packed lecture hall. “But you need to be talking about the leg of that chair.”
  • Have an editor. All panelists advised having a close, trusted editor and an objective, outside reader.

Finally, for those overwhelmed by the prospect of writing essays, be assured that the process is finite. “Understand that you are entering a complex world that by Jan. 15 you’ll be done with forever,” Ms. Joseph said.

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