College Essays Demystified

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This is another in a series of posts about some memorable applicants, their essays, and how we found them together.

Generally speaking, there are several topics applicants should avoid writing about in their personal statements. Politics for one. Religion is another. You just never know who will be reading your essay. It could be someone deeply religious, or someone who is agnostic or atheist. The last thing you want to do is alienate the AO reading your essay. Zoe’s story was an exception.

Zoe comes from a deeply religious family in the south. Over the years, she felt that she was just going through the motions, like she had been with her violin lessons. It wasn’t that she hated religion, it was just was that she felt she was attending services and practicing the rituals out of loyalty. One day in her English class, the subject of religion came up. As Zoe’s fellow students – some Catholic, some Jewish, some Hindu – were proudly singing the praises of their religions, Zoe sat in the back of the room, slightly embarrassed that she didn’t feel the same passion for hers that her classmates did for theirs.

That night, Zoe broke the news to her father that she no longer wanted to go to church and pray like she had done since she was a little girl. Needless to say, her parents did not take the news well. Her admission caused a deep rift between her and her parents. They did not speak for several weeks.

Over those few weeks, Zoe started to realize a few things about herself. Zoe started to see that she was a strong-willed young woman, capable of making decisions for herself. She also realized that all the time she had been attending church with her parents, she had been denying herself other extra curricular activities that she would enjoy. Zoe joined the debate team, she tried out for the tennis team, she even started doing some service projects she now had the time for. Zoe expanded her interests, made new friends, and found that she loved her new life.

After a while, Zoe and her parents started to speak again. They were still not happy with Zoe deciding against attending church, but they came to respect her decision.

One day, Zoe’s mom invited her to a service. Zoe had not been to church in months and months. She saw the look of hope on her mom’s face and decided to attend. Together, Zoe and her mom drove to church, not because she felt a strong sense of belief in the faith, but as a way for Zoe to let her mom know that she respects her decision to practice her faith.

What made this essay so powerful? There are several reasons for this. 1) Zoe stood up for herself, and made a decision that was best for her. 2) Zoe used the time she had not going to church to expand her horizons and try new things at school and make new friends. And 3) Zoe discovered a newfound respect for her mom.

I felt Zoe should write about this because the risk she would alienate admissions officers was mitigated by what they would learn about her. I am proud of Zoe, her essay, and that she was accepted to her top choice school.