Your College Admissions Essay: Get Real

College admissions essay -- Get real. -John CarpenterJohn Carpenter, Director of Admissions and University Counseling at the United World College, UWC Costa Rica, responded with this guest post to one of the takeaways from NACAC about what college admissions officers are really looking for in a college admissions essay. The full text of this also appears on his blog: We encourage students to ask college admissions officers about what they are looking for when reading an applicant’s essay. When should students ask about this? While on the college visit, of course!

Colleges Want You to Get Real in the College Admissions Essay

by John Carpenter

“What is real?” asked the Rabbit. Does anyone remember that question from The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams?

It was one of my favorite books when I was younger, but it really didn’t speak to me until I was already an adult.Being real is a good thing to think about–especially as you’re cranking out college essays and applications. The temptation is to try to make yourself appear super amazing, and nobody is going to blame you for trying to do that either–especially when it seems that every other kid applying to college has created her own business, won a national debating trophy,opened a homeless shelter for abandoned children, and cured leprosy.

However, the very best way to grab an admission officer’s attention is to be the person you are. Seriously. In other words, write about whatever is important to you, but in your own REAL voice.
“Real isn’t how you’re made,” replied the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you.”

Happens to you? Holy cow, what does that mean? “What has happened to you” can be exactly that–something that you’ve sustained or overcome, but more often than not, being real comes from something that you’ve noticed or learned or paid attention to. In other words, it’s whatever it is that made you into the person you are now–the thinking, questioning, maybe uncertain-about-some-stuff person that you are. Write about that.

So maybe what has happened to you is that you’ve thought about something in a new way recently. That’s real. Or you’ve gotten disgusted about something at your school, or on the news, or in your family. That’s real. Or maybe you’ve just been afraid of not having anything to say about yourself on a college application. That’s real, too.

Forget trying to impress someone you’ve never even met with your application, resume,and college admissions essay. Just tell the colleges who you are. Dirt and all. Well, maybe just some of the dirt–but the point is, you don’t have to “do” things to make a good impression. All you have to do is be real.
John Carpenter is the founder of, an independent on-line admissions resource for students and families. For more than 30 years, John has guided students through selective admissions in the US and abroad. He is also author of Going Geek: What Every Smart Kid (and Every Smart Parent) Should Know about College Admissions  which is available through Amazon.

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