College Prep Experts Share Tips on the Search Process and the Art of the Essay

College prep experts share tips on applying to the right school for you.
St. Croix Preparatory Academy faculty member Elaine Bransford moonlights as a college essay resource for students throughout the Valley.

As St. Croix Preparatory Academy graduate Maddie Wilkinson began working on her college applications last year, she knew the personal essay was an important part of the process. But she says many people, including herself at first, often underestimate how much weight the essay truly carries. After her own hard work in high school and with the help of St. Croix Prep English teacher and independent education consultant Elaine Bransford, she’s headed to Duke University this fall to study computer engineering.

With the cost of college and the competitive nature of admissions on the rise, students like Wilkinson are seeking individualized help from private counselors. Chris Wills, president of college counseling company College Inside Track, says since college is now the second biggest purchase most people make in their lives (only a house is bigger), hiring someone to help navigate the process can save families a lot of stress and money. College Inside Track, which offers individual counseling and puts on seminars at metro area high schools, saves families it works with an average of $18,872 per year on college. One of the keys to these savings is school fit: “Think about who you are and what your strengths are, and align them with the college that’s going to really reward that,” Wills says.

When working on the college essay, Bransford says the most crucial aspect to get across is authenticity. Admissions offices are looking to really get to know the student, so presenting your honest self in your own voice is key. This means a parent or anyone making significant edits to the essay—even if they’re a great writer—should be avoided. While getting more eyes on an essay can be helpful in avoiding mistakes, students should make sure their personality and style stay intact. “You have to kind of watch the line between them helping you make your writing better and them changing your writing into something that isn’t yours,” Wilkinson says.

Bransford encourages applicants to go beyond what they think will sound good to admissions representatives and dig for experiences that are unique. College reps read many essays a day, so “it’s important to think outside the box and to be willing to take a little bit of a risk with the stories that you tell,” she says, adding students shouldn’t dismiss their experiences in their young lives as unimportant or unworthy of writing about. “Some of the best ones that I’ve read actually are about topics that seem fairly mundane.” Some common essay “don’ts” include rambling or lack of focus, writing with a thesaurus and forgetting to proofread the final version.

So when should students start their college process? Wills recommends starting the search no later than the spring of sophomore year. Bransford says the summer before senior year of high school is really the time to get serious about solidifying your list and putting your application together. Although the anxiety of the application process weighs heavily on many high schoolers and families, Wills encourages students to try to have fun with it: “Like anything else, it’s a journey, and you learn from it,” he says.