"We're looking for a thoughtful, earnest presentation that shows complicated interests and thinking," says O'Neill. This can be achieved in stories reflecting on life's smaller slices—why you like helping your dad fix up old cars on the weekend, being the only boy in a family of seven girls, why you like to write birthday limericks. Liston at Montana-Missoula recalls reading one student's answer to the question "What was the most significant invention of all time?" It was "a very elegant essay on the spork," he says. "You left saying, 'That was quirky, that was funny, but that was well thought out.'"
Make sure your authentic voice comes through, avoiding the appearance of what Ingrid Hayes, associate vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions at Spelman College, calls a "manufactured essay." Adds Delahunty: "Sometimes, we'll say, 'Didn't the mom write a beautiful application?'... When you see the word heretofore, that's a clue." Far worse than parent-assisted essays are the ready-made ones available for around the same price as two tickets to the movies, a stratagem that will almost certainly go awry. Loyola New Orleans received the same essay—purchased online—from different applicants; they were, not surprisingly, denied.
A variation on the same rule: Don't exaggerate. "Always, always, always be honest," says Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy near Atlanta. "Maybe you're going to get lucky, but the real professionals on the other side—they're going to ask questions."
Be sure the inner self you expose is one you're proud to claim. Poorly chosen words can make a bad impression. One applicant "wrote about an argument during which he broke a wall," says North Carolina's Farmer. "Rather than writing what he learned, he justified his behavior. He came across as shockingly incurious [and] seemed unteachable. You thought, he's going to spend four years making speeches."
Show a little love. Although most students apply to multiple colleges, showing genuine enthusiasm for each school on your list is such a must that colleges have a name for it: "demonstrated interest." No college wants to play second or fifth or 15th fiddle. "We want kids who want us," says Jean Jordan, dean of admission at Emory University. Tailor each application individually, with concrete examples of why you can see yourself there. "If you can take out Rice University and put in Vanderbilt and not make a difference," says Chris Muñoz, Rice's vice president for enrollment, "that's not going to work."
As always, your presentation is crucial. "Writing 'I sat in Lorch Hall' doesn't help me feel like that student knows more about us," says Erica Sanders, director of recruitment and operations at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. "Saying 'Professor So-and-so's class helped me become even more interested' or 'made me realize I really don't know what I want to pursue' can make a difference." And do your homework. Claiming that you want to go to XYZ university for engineering when the school doesn't offer such a program will make your application memorable, but not in a good way.
Find your fans. If the application is your chance to talk about what makes you stand out, think of teacher recs as a way to reinforce your themes. The best choice isn't always the teacher whose class you aced, says Sanchez; better to pick the one who can describe what you're like as a person, or the one who saw you struggle and sweat and manage to pull a D up to a B. "Ask if they can write you a strong recommendation," advises Seattle-based educational consultant Judy Mackenzie. "If the teacher hesitates, back off." Once you've got an advocate, type up bullet points summarizing your activities, community service, jobs, and a few pluses the teacher might not know about. And plan ahead. A rushed writer is rarely as persuasive as one who has had mulling time.