How to Ace the Essay with College Admissions Expert Dr. Brittany Maschal

Dr. Brittany Maschal is the Founder and Director of Brittany Maschal Consulting (and the Founder of Strategy Girl).

Here is what Brittany had to say when we asked her about college admissions essays: 

GenHERation®: Before you begin crafting your college admissions essays, how should you create your list of schools to apply to?

Dr. Brittany Maschal: There is a number, and that is different for everybody. Some students are comfortable with a small list if the schools on it have a range of selectivity, while others want a bigger list. My advice is to create a list that is balanced. You can start creating this list by talking to your school counselor and parents, and then doing your research. First and foremost, have foundation schools—schools with higher admit rates. From here, you can build and add your maybe and reach schools. I also want you to remember that it is perfectly acceptable to “fall in like” with schools—you don’t have to fall in love with everything about every single school on your list. 

GenHERation®: How should you select the best topic for the personal statement and supplemental essays?

Dr. Mashcal: Compile all of the essays you will have to write across all of the schools you are applying to. Look across the list. Are the essays academic or about your personal life? Get that landscape set and then start your brainstorm. Your brainstorm can be done by talking to your team—your parents, guidance counselors, admissions coaches. Think about the stories that are most important to you. What are your core traits, values, and experiences? Often, students enter the process thinking they know what they want to write about; however, when that’s the case, that original topic might not be the most unique or compelling topic (it might be too “easy!”). It is really critical to survey your essay landscape and then engage in introspective brainstorming. 

GenHERation®: How should you approach the “why this college essay?”

Dr. Mashcal: I really like this essay. It is helpful to remember that the number one reason for going to a school should be academic. Schools want to see this reflected in why school essays. If you are interested in psychology, open up with a personal anecdote rooted in an experience you had. Maybe you led a mental health club at your school or you had a family member who struggled with mental health issues. Then explain how this experience will make you a valuable addition to campus. Mention a specific program, class, or professor related to your academic area of interest. Really do your research. You shouldn’t be so generic that you can substitute in the name of any other college. 

GenHERation®: What makes an essay stand out?

Dr. Mashcal: I think everyone has their own flavor and style that stands out to the admissions officers—a robot doesn’t read your essays! For me, I keep track of the essays my students have written, and all of the best ones have a sort of genuine vulnerability. Usually, it’s rooted in a relatable human story that allows you to connect with admissions readers who have a completely different background than you do. Your resume is a great place to brag, while your essays give you a chance to open up and connect. 

GenHERation®: What are the best strategies for presenting a well-rounded set of application essays?

Dr. Mashcal: This is a really good point that goes back to that first brainstorming step. Take a full landscape look. Your application is read as a package. Know what the essay prompts are asking you, so you know how to respond. Maybe you have a longer story that should serve as your personal essay rather than a 200-word supplemental essay. I run into this a lot where a student must talk about their involvement with Model UN (MUN), so that’s what they plan to craft their Common App essay on. However, it is often more advantageous for this student to talk about MUN in an extracurricular essay instead of the personal essay. 

GenHERation®: When it comes to college admissions essays, what should you avoid?

Dr. Mashcal: I try not to say you should never write about x, y, and z because you can make any topic meaningful. There are cliché topics though, so try to avoid those, and also avoid resume to prose. Don’t just describe your resume. In the personal statement, avoid sharing something that isn’t offering anything new. Go toward those vulnerable (and appropriate) topics instead of those easy ones.

GenHERation®: What is the most important piece of advice you have for students as they write their college admissions essays? 

Dr. Mashcal: Don’t be afraid to tell the story that you might be afraid to tell. The stories that are the hardest to tell are often the most memorable. 

Dr. Brittany Maschal is the Founder and Director of Brittany Maschal Consulting (and the Founder of Strategy Girl). She spent the first part of her professional career working in higher education and held positions in admissions and student services at the University of Pennsylvania at Penn Law and The Wharton School; Princeton University (undergraduate) and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; and the Johns Hopkins University-Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. She has served on admissions committees with American Councils for International Education and the International Research and Exchanges Board; as an invited speaker to numerous programs in the US and abroad; and as an alumni interviewer and admissions representative for the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Brittany has almost 10 years of experience as an independent educational consultant, college admissions essay editor, and writing coach. The students she works with have earned spots at all of the Ivies, MIT, the most selective schools in Europe, art schools, conservatories, and everything in between. She is also an early career strategist, helping high school and college students explore career options, obtain internships, and eventually secure meaningful full-time roles. Dr. Maschal’s book, The Complete College Essay Handbook, is out now!

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