Why do we spend four years preparing high school students for college admissions, yet neglect to teach them the application’s most taxing, time-consuming component? I’m referring to the college essay, of course.

Throughout high school, students master the five-paragraph essay, the topic sentence, the counterargument, the close-reading analysis, the thesis statement . . . the list goes on and on. Yet, when it’s time to sit down and write their college essays, too many students feel paralyzed. And far too many essays fail to illustrate what colleges really want.

I used to teach English at a boarding school in Connecticut. I loved working with high school juniors and seniors, teaching the likes of Whitman, Twain, Austen, and Fitzgerald. My juniors spent the year preparing to pass a school-administered essay exam. They learned how to analyze passages – fiction, and nonfiction alike – stating their arguments clearly and concisely, and never inserting “I” into their essays. And most of all, they learned to write well.

They were well prepared for the life of a college student, but unprepared for the life of a college applicant.

When seniors write their college essays, the temptation to produce an analytical essay can be too strong to ignore. They prefer Gatsby and Elizabeth Bennet, focusing far too much on these characters and far too little on themselves. They write about Grandma, or another influential figure. This is more comfortable . . . less personal and more formulaic.

College admissions officers already know about Austen. They already know about Gatsby. They don’t, however, know much about you. Give them a strong sense of who you are and what kind of person you’re going to be on their campus. Allow them to close their eyes and picture you walking from class to class, interacting with students and faculty. They’ll want to predict whether or not you’ll fit – whether you’ll contribute something meaningful, be it engaging conversation, thoughtful life perspective, or a unique story. If you don’t give them this image, who will?

Author's Bio: 

Cassie Nichols is a college counselor in Santa Barbara, Ca.

She is the founder and director of College Specific, a college consulting company that helps students and families navigate the increasingly complex college admissions process.

Cassie holds a Masters of Arts degree in Education from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Princeton.

She is the author of "How To Write an Appalling Bad College Essay".