When I give writing workshops to students on college application essays and what makes them effective, I love to show this short video on YouTube.

It’s just over two minutes long, but in that brief time, I believe many students quickly get a sense of what they need to do to craft essays that will be engaging and memorable.

Take a couple minutes to watch this video, which brings you around a table of college admissions officers at Amherst College, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, as they sort through applications.

In the process, they share snippets of essays and and discuss the merits of various applicants.

Don’t let this video freak you out, especially when they start talking about some highly qualified students. (It’s obviously heavily edited; but I think it’s still a pretty honest representation of the process.)

What I want you to notice are the parts of college application essays and student backgrounds that affect the admissions officers.

See when they react and seem moved by some of the information in the essays.

college application essay

Notice how the student who shares the most intense personal stories gets the strongest response. These admissions officers, who are from various backgrounds and ages, are instantly in his camp.

They can’t help but like that student.

That’s how it works.

Got problems? Well, so have most of the rest of us, at least at some point in our lives, so we can relate and then want to cheer you on.

The main takeaway?

Make sure your essay is personal.

That means that you write about yourself, and your background and feelings, even if they are not impressive.

Don’t be shy about sharing problems you have faced. No one will think you are whining or complaining.

The goal is not to write a sob story.

But if you faced major challenges and obstacles, share them in a direct manner.

Even better, include a mini-story (anecdote) about a specific moment or incident that illustrates the larger problem.

Often, in order to understand your accomplishments and achievements so far, we need to understand any hardships that got in the way to fully appreciate them.

I talk a lot on this site about including problems in your essays, and why they work so beautifully.

I also talk about ways to get personal in your essays, and why that’s so important to connect with these admissions folks.

Now I hope you have seen for yourself the power of opening up, and getting personal.

These college application essays, especially the Common Application prompts, are called personal statements for a reason.

They need to be about you, and not just the things you have done and learned.

college application essay

Photo by GotCredit

You must share how you feel, think and value.

Remember how the one admissions officer confessed that sometimes he didn’t even know why he raised his hand to admit a student?

Well, we know why.

That student touched him somehow, both his head and heart, and good chance it was something in the college application essay.

And I bet it was personal.

Make sure your college application essays are, too.