How to Write a College Essay — Interview With Eric Eng, Founder and CEO, AdmissionSight



TUN sits down with Eric Eng, the founder and CEO of AdmissionSight, to discuss tips on how to write a college essay to help you get into your dream school.

TUN: Eric, thanks so much for joining us. 

ENG: Thanks for having me. 

So, to start off, how important are essays in the college admissions process? Can they make or break a candidate?

You know, essays are really important. I’ve always said, an applicant is really the raw profile on paper, and they really come to life through the essays. 

Before the essays, your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities really just paint you as another applicant, another statistic. But, all of that comes to life when the admissions committee finally gets to read the applicant’s essay and really understand the voice, the personality, the personal qualities, and who this applicant really is. It’s almost like an admissions interview. 

So, I’ve always said that a strong essay could get a weak applicant in, and a weak essay could also keep a strong student out. So, the essays are really important. I’d even go as far as to say they are probably the most important process in this admissions ball game. 

Great. So, students typically have a few essay prompts to choose from. Do you have any tips to help students decide which prompt is best for them?

There are a lot of different prompts, especially for the main Common App essay where you have a lot of options to choose from. 

I would say, pick the prompt where you get to bring out the best of your profile as opposed to trying really hard to answer a specific prompt that may not give you an edge in terms of getting in. 

For example, the Common App essay has a prompt that asks you to recount a failure that you encountered and the lessons that you drew from it. So, when you talk about a failure, you don’t want to paint yourself in a negative light that would hurt your chances in the admissions process. So, I would say, pick a prompt where you get to bring out the best of your profile. 

These prompts are open-ended. Even in the main Common App essay, there is a prompt that says pick a topic of your choice. So, it is open-ended enough to let you bring out the best in your profile. That could really help you stand out among the pool of applicants out there. 

Great. So, each year, there are millions of students that submit essays. Do you have any tips to help these students come up with creative ideas that could separate them from the pack?

I think a creative essay really starts with your personal story. What are the personal stories that affected you in your life? What are the personal moments that you could bring out that make you unique compared to all the other applicants out there? 

I would make a list of your academic interests, your extracurricular interests, what you do

outside of school, your favorite movies, and your favorite tv shows, because those are the things that make an applicant unique. 

When you can bring those out, then you can really craft together a compelling story that’s going to set you apart from all the other applicants out there. 

So, I would really think deeply about who you are, the values that define you, and what your personality is. Are you a quirky person? Are you more shy? Really use those elements to craft together a narrative and help yourself shine through in the application. 

Great. So, it’s always a good idea for students to outline their essays before getting started with the writing process. Is there a specific essay structure that you would recommend?

I wouldn’t say there is a particular structure. I think keeping up your voice is really important when it comes to the essay. 

Certainly, there are those time-tested methods where you want to hook the reader into the essay in the beginning. But, we’ve also had students start off the essay with very simple sentences like, “I’m a bookworm. I live and breathe sentences.” So, things like that capture a reader in a way that is different from all the other applicants out there. 

But, I wouldn’t say there’s a rigid structure that you have to follow. It’s more important to allow your voice to shine through as if you’re talking to a normal person. 

But, the difficulty is really putting that on paper and using a language and dialogue that could really allow your voice to shine through. 

Great. So, each student’s writing is going to be unique, but do you have any specific tips that could help students throughout the writing process?

So, usually, when we work with our students, we have them fill out a questionnaire, and we ask them very challenging questions. For example, we ask them a question like, “What is something that you believe that very few people would agree with?” 

By asking these questions, we’re able to tease out all these nuances in an applicant and determine the belief systems or values that define them. So, I think the trick here is really to be thoughtful. 

There isn’t a black and white science that says, “Hey, you have to write the essay this way.” But, you really want to be thoughtful, introspective, and really capture the values and lessons that you learned as well as the shift in your perspective. That’s ultimately what they want to see. 

So, it’s part art and part science. But, at the end of the day, if you can be thoughtful and introspective in your essays, they will be winners.

Great. So, are there any things that students should try to avoid when they’re writing their application essays? 

I do think there are some topics that you should avoid. For example, politics and religion, especially with how divisive our country is right now, you really want to stray away from those types of topics. 

I’ve also seen students try to be overly creative in their essays. For example, there was one student who reached out to us for help with his transfer application. He was a really, really strong student, but he still got rejected from many of the top universities — all of them, in fact — because he tried to be overly creative. He actually wrote his main essay about boxing, which is funny because he’s never done boxing. It’s not reflected in his profile, but he thought he could be unique that way. 

So, you want to be unique and creative but not overly so. And, you want to make sure it’s reflected in your extracurricular activities and your academic passions. And, of course, you want to allow your voice to shine through. 

Check TUN’s interview with Marcus Cooper, program director with College Advising Corps at Texas A&M University, for advice on the common mistakes students make on their college applications and how to fix them.

Great. So, once students finish their drafts, what should they do next? Do you have any tips to help students with the editing process or advice on who they should reach out to to read over their essays?

I would say, seek professional help. We’ve worked with a lot of students. We do have a lot of experience in this arena. You could ask family and friends as well. I do think that’s helpful to a certain extent. 

But, when you ask 10 different people, you’re going to get 10 different opinions. And 10 different opinions may not help your chances. Some may be valid and some may not. 

I think a common opinion we get is, “How do I highlight my accomplishments in my essays?” The essay is really not your place to highlight all your accomplishments. They see that in the application. They see that in the extracurricular activities section and the honors and awards sections. The essay is really for you to be introspective, and so I would be wary about who you’re asking to help on your essays. 

I think getting feedback is fine, but I would always recommend seeking professional help if you’re really stuck. 

Great. Thanks, Eric, for joining us today. 

Thanks for having me, Jackson.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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