An Admissions Dean Offers Advice on Writing a College Essay
Prospective students will often ask me if a good essay will really get them accepted. The truth is that while no essay will make an unqualified student acceptable, a good essay can help a qualified applicant stand out from the competition. A good essay just might be what turns a “maybe” into a “yes.”
The college application process takes time, preparation and creativity, which is a lot for any active senior to handle. Summer, however, typically offers about 10 weeks free of classes and homework and many of the other stresses that come with high school. The pressure of the looming college application deadline is still months away, which allows students the freedom to play around with different ideas, test different angles and solicit feedback from friends and family.
Another reason to focus your summer energy on crafting a quality essay: at this point in the admission process, it is one of the few things you can still control. This is your chance to show us what you are capable of when you have time to think, prepare, rewrite and polish.
While there is no magic formula for the perfect admission essay, there are a few things prospective college students should know. Here are my Top Ten tips:
- Write about yourself. A great history paper on the Civil War might be very well written, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the writer. Regardless of the topic, make sure you shine through your essay.
- Use your own voice. I can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior.
- Focus on one aspect of yourself. If you try to cover too many topics in your essay, you’ll end up with a resume of activities and attributes that doesn’t tell me as much about you as an in-depth look at one project or passion.
- Be genuine. Don’t try to impress me, because I’ve heard it all. Just tell me what is important to you.
- Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.
- Don’t rely on “how to” books. Use them to get your creative juices flowing, but don’t adhere too rigidly to their formulas, and definitely don’t use their example topics. While there are always exceptions, the “what my room says about me” essay is way overdone.
- Share your opinions, but avoid anything too risky or controversial. Your essay will be read by a diverse group of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, so try to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
- Tell a good story. Show me why you are compassionate; don’t tell me you are. Show me that you have overcome great difficulty; don’t start your essay with “I have overcome great difficulties.”
- Don’t repeat what is already in your application. If you go to a performing arts school and all of your extracurricular activities and awards relate to dance, don’t write about how much you love dancing. Tell me something I couldn’t know just from reading the other parts of your application.
- Finally, don’t forget about the supplements. The supplement questions are very important – you should plan to spend as much time on them as you do on your essay. A well-written essay won’t help if your supplement answers are sloppy and uninformative.
6 Terrific Pieces of Advice for Writing College Application Essays
By Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz
The Role of Essays in College Admissions
To that point, I want to say a little bit about what role essays have in college admissions. While student grades and test scores are critical factors in admissions, application essays can be an even more important factor, especially for private, liberal arts colleges and the more selective universities. Like nothing else, essays give readers a sense for how students express themselves and especially how they are unique and different from other applicants. Essays help students stand out from the crowd.
And, much to the surprise of many applicants and even parents, writing good application essays takes time... a lot of time, and drafts and editing. This is because although writing can and often is fun, it is also challenging. As someone with five published books, and ongoing involvement with a number of blogs, I admit that sometimes I love writing and at other times I hate it.
Personally, I am always looking for that magic piece of advice another writer has that will get me through predictable writing blocks, and the students I work with have also repeatedly asked for advice on how to get started or continue. So, here is what different writers have shared with me about how to spend more time loving rather than hating writing. I hope you find this as useful as I have.
6 TERRIFIC PIECES OF ADVICE
1. Write as if you are talking to the reader.
I think that the best advice I have ever received about writing came as a result of attending a writing conference. A publishing executive said at the beginning of her talk, "To write easily and well, simply be yourself. Be natural; write as if you are talking to your reader on paper." As soon as I returned home from the conference, I started doing what she said and never looked back. You can do the same with your college application essays. Remember, the purpose of answering the application questions is to help the college admissions officers get to know you. What better way of doing that is there than to write as if you are talking to them?
2. Offer readers a story.
When I attend college admissions conferences, I almost always attend sessions on application essays, where college admissions officers talk about what they look for. Inevitably it is revealed that they love reading applicants' personal stories and anecdotes. Frankly, the stories can be about anything ranging from a conversation with a grandparent, to the best or worst day of your life, to a special talent or involvement or something that changed how you think. Stories help illustrate points that you may be trying to make to your readers and help show more about who you are as a person.
Every child in every family has stories about themselves. If you have trouble coming up with some, try having a brainstorming session with your parents at dinner some time.
3. Use the first person.
Many writers tell me that in order to write authentically, they had to unlearn a lot of what they were taught in school. Among their most important "unlearnings" was to limit using third person pronouns (he, she, they, it), and start using the first person, I. Because college admissions people want to hear about you, you need to write in your own, unique voice. And that means saying such things as, "I have loved numbers ever since I was a little kid. My mother tells me that at the grocery store, I would sit in the cart and add up the item prices she placed next to me to see if I could come up with the same amount as the cash register." This is a lot more personal and interesting than saying, "Some students have known that they were good with numbers since they were little kids."
4. Show, don't tell. Be specific, descriptive and offer plenty of details.
Skillful writers say that the key to alive, good writing is to "show, not tell." Rather than saying that you love animals, write something such as, "Whether a tiny, slithery salamander or a magnificent Arabian horse, I am simply nuts about animals. Since I was very young, I have spent a lot of my time rescuing, raising, caring for and loving them." Author Natalie Goldberg says, "...a writer's job is to make the ordinary come alive."
5. Avoid generalities, clichés and philosophical or psychological babble.
It is so easy to fall into writing something that ends up saying nothing or is trite. To not do that, keep in mind the following:
- Generalities: Rather than saying, "I'm very hardworking," describe a situation that demonstrates how diligent you are. For example, "When it comes to special academic projects, I am the kind of person who both starts way in advance and at the end sometimes stays up all night to make sure that an assignment is the best that it can be."
- Clichés: Rather than saying, "I like working with people and want to save the world," how about saying, "I joined the Diversity Club at school because I wanted to get to know students from different cultures, learn about their families, religion, traditions and even their food. I also wanted to find out how we are alike and unalike. I believe that when people really get to know one another, they have a better chance of getting along."
- Psychobabble: Rather than saying, "I get really ADD when it comes to studying," say something such as "When I do homework in the evenings, I often find it difficult to concentrate, get easily distracted and don't seem to be able to focus." By the way, in case you didn't notice, the quote in the first paragraph about "being anal," is another example of Psychobabble.
6. Make sure that your essay is free of spelling, grammatical mistakes and improper use of words.
There are few things that negatively stick out more on college applications than errors. I cannot stress this enough! Grammar and punctuation errors are like a huge red flag on your application. Make sure that the final person to read your essay is a great proofreader, and ask them specifically to look for errors. Careless mistakes are one of the quickest routes to negatively impress application readers and may result in you're getting a rejection letter from a college.
College essays can reveal a lot about how you think and who you are, things that college admissions officers want to know. Students who take the time to pen original, thoughtful, well-written essays truly enhance their college admissions possibilities.