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Poynter Institute faculty member Kelly McBride knows what makes a good college admissions essay.

She coaches students at Poynter and has talked to admissions officers and studied up on the topic.

The stakes are high, she says. A great essay can pave the way for admission, even if a student's grades and SAT score aren't the best.

We talked to McBride to get the low-down on what to do - and what to avoid - in admissions essays.

What are the biggest mistakes students make in their essays?

They show off too much, they overuse big, intellectual vocabulary words, they talk about ideas without rooting them in concrete specifics and then they don't proofread.

They talk about these themes or intellectual ideas, like the pursuit of knowledge or passion for politics, but they never show the admissions officer exactly how that has been applied in their own life.

What makes an essay good?

The most successful essays are rooted in a concrete story. And I think the best stories are the stories that talk about a moment when the individual struggled or even failed or got caught in sort of a challenging moment rather than a triumphant moment.

Can you give an example of this?

One of the best essays I ever read in an application . . . was about a student who was the sixth man on a basketball team and the pressure from the kid's father to become one of the starting players, and when that didn't happen, how he worked through that, intellectually and emotionally. What that showed me was a level of self-awareness and ability to grasp meaning out of an experience, and that's really important.

How does a student turn a weakness into something good?

They don't just tell the story of what happened to them, but they assign an intellectual and emotional meaning to it that shows the admissions officer that this is a kid who will grow if they bring them to their campus.

The best indication of your ability in the future is your ability to grow in the past, and that's really hard to gauge, other than in the essay.

So, we've talked about the content of essays. What about the writing style?

Prepare to go through several drafts before you get a final copy. Find a trusted adviser who can help shape and edit your essay, and definitely find a proofreader, because if you turn in an essay with grammatical errors, that looks really, really bad. It doesn't suggest that you're stupid. It suggests that you don't care.

Most essays take four or five write-throughs before they are in good enough shape to be sent in with a college application. . . . My sense is that a lot of people get bored with the process and think that this is good enough after the second or third write-through when in fact the essay is one of the few things you have control of when you are a senior. . . . We're not talking about weeks of investment. I'm talking about a couple of hours, five or six times.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at

Need inspiration? Check out our vault of college essays that worked at Read what local grads wrote that got them in.

The Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, offers a workshop on writing the college essay as well as private coaching. For information, call (727) 821-9494.