This may be your only chance to address an admissions officer directly. They’re going to turn down lots of highly qualified applicants, so your essay could be critical if the choice comes down to you and another, similarly qualified applicant. That said, your essay probably won’t actually hurt you as long as it’s reasonably literate (which it will be). So relax.
- DO have a goal for your essay. You should be able to answer this question: What does this essay say about me?
- DO tell a story; your college essay will be more similar to your creative writing or journal assignments that to your persuasive essay. Use the story or stories you tell to illustrate a larger, more abstract point.
- DO make it personal & specific, not generic or abstract. Don’t write about racism or poverty or global warning in the abstract: if you want to address these topics, write about your personal experiences with them. Your college essay should be primarily about YOU.
- DO show that you can be introspective & reflective about your experiences; don’t be afraid to reveal something personal or admit mistakes (but see warning in Don’t #2).
- DO consider putting a unique spin on an everyday topic.
- DO consider focusing on a single moment in time rather than a longer event.
- DO take risks – go out on a limb with an attention-grabbing first line or unusual topic.
- DO start strong: I know a former admissions officer who claims that she & her colleagues gave an essay 30 seconds to interest them.
- DO show rather than tell by using specific details & images.
- DO use humor, if appropriate to your topic.
- DO keep it short – I’d suggest two double-spaced pages.
- DO spellcheck & proofread. Several times.
- DO be yourself – your essay should sound as if it could have been written by no one else.
- DON’T rehash information that is already in your application. The goal of your essay should not be something like “to show I’m co-captain of the soccer team.” They already know that; you need to tell them something new.
- DON’T reveal something you would never consider telling your parents – while honest essays can be strong, your college essay is not the place to admit to shoplifting or drunk driving.
- DON’T tell a story (or include any details) that doesn’t have a clear point or goal.
- DON’T criticize others – remember that your essay should be about you.
- DON’T be pretentious or overly formal –this is not the time to play the role of Albert Einstein or Mother Teresa if that’s not who you are. Resist the temptation to portray yourself as a saint with a 4.0–you’re better off presenting the real you. Really.
- DON’T write a 5-paragraph essay (see Do #2).
- DON’T overdo the descriptions or vocabulary – keep your style straightforward & natural. Carefully chosen, vivid, simple details & words will make a better impression than lots of overly-poetic description and four-syllable words.
- DON’T let your tutor or your teacher or your parents take over your essay. The resulting essay will not reflect you and thus will not accomplish its goal, no matter how “good” it seems to be.
Topics to consider:
A moral choice: when did you have to make a hard decision?
How you learned from a failure or obstacle
How a minor change or experience in your life turned out to be significant
Topics to stay away from (unless you’re sure you have a unique angle):
What Admissions Officers Say: (from www.princetonreview.com)
Jennifer Wong, director of admissions at Claremont McKenna College: Please use your own "voice," especially when writing your personal statement. This should not be an exercise in packing in as many SAT-prep words as possible! Write about something that you care about, something that gives us a window into your perspective/experience. Students who take some calculated risks in their essays, and in doing so, really show their personality.
John Latting, director of admissions at Johns Hopkins University: Get your pen and paper or saddle up to the word processor; the important thing to keep in mind is, don't write as if there is a correct answer. Don't be too cautious. It seems to me that we work hard to craft questions that prevent that, but we see students who are too cautious. Be adventurous intellectually-write unconventionally. Applicants have more freedom than they think, and it's in their interest to use that flexibility.
Lorne T. Robinson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College: Be yourself. Use your own voice. "Own" your essay rather than letting someone else tell you what to write. Address any questions the admissions committee may have about your application up front. Tell your "story," if you have one.
Alyssa Sinclair, assistant director of admissions at Middlebury College: Most students should "write what they know," and not worry about being completely original in their subject matter. In most cases, we care more about how a student writes about a topic than the topic itself. Ideally, we love to see truly fine writing that reflects mature thought, a mastery of the language and mechanics, and a topic that reveals a great deal about the applicant simply because it tells a good story. Essays of that caliber are fairly rare, so we also enjoy pieces that possess the elements mentioned above but may not have them in equal share.
Joel Bauman, dean of admissions at New College of Florida: Once you've written your essays, let them sit for a few days. It's very tempting to hit the "send" button or drop them in the mail, but it's definitely a good idea not only to proofread for mechanical errors, but also to consider whether there is a real point to each essay. Are they well developed? Do the ideas flow logically? Our college writing consultant points out that she can teach someone how to use semicolons, but she can't teach them how to think. We're looking for some sort of organized, well-reasoned argument, without typos or grammar errors-looking for the ability to reason and think clearly and make a reasoned argument on some topic. The greater the evidence of thoughtfulness, the better. The essay should show some level of sophistication, technical skill, and reasoning ability. We love to see a clear sense of engagement-that the student hasn't just fulfilled her or his obligation to submit an essay, but has really thought about it and obviously cares about the topic. We also get a big kick out of colorful metaphors-although these, in and of themselves, will probably not make the difference in an admission decision.
Carol Lunkenheimer, dean of admissions at Northwestern University: Answer the whole question. For example, we have a question that asks what an applicant would do with five minutes of airtime; what would you talk about and why? Kids don't answer the why part, they go on about the subject but there's no analysis, no reflection. In addition, we like writing with a natural voice. Don't be formal if you're not formal. If you're funny, be humorous. We're trying to get a sense of what you're like; stay with your natural voice.
Jim Miller, dean of admissions at Bowdoin College: Keep it narrow, get readers' attention right away, and stay on task, on point. We like to see things that are personal and simple. People try to get complex. Things that are meaningful come across that way as you read them.
Janet Rapelye, dean of admissions at Wellesley College: I'm a complete sucker for the grandparent essay, i.e., what I learned from them, what they taught me, what they taught my family. In my 22 years in admissions, I haven't read a bad grandparent essay. I like to hear about gratitude for someone in your life, such as a family member or favorite teacher.
Top 10 Essay Cliches (from EssayEdge.com) Avoid these and other clichés in your college essay:
1.I always learn from my mistakes.
2.I know my dreams will come true.
3.I can make a difference.
4.________________ is my passion.
5.I no longer take my loved ones for granted.
6.These lessons are useful both on and off the field (or other sporting arena).
7.I realized the value of hard work and perseverance.
8.___________________ was the greatest lesson of all.
9.I know what it is to triumph over adversity.
10.______________ opened my eyes to a whole new world.
A survey of our students has revealed that one of the most feared and most difficult parts of the college application process is the college admission essay. This is hardly surprising – after all, the college essay is unlike any other writing assignment that most students have come across. English courses tend to overlook narrative writing, leaving many students confused about how to craft a truly outstanding application essay. We’re here to help!
Put yourself in the shoes of a college admission officer. Imagine that you spend three months of every year reviewing applications, reading essay after essay after essay. The average admission officer will read thousands of essays each year.
I’ve read a lot of college application essays, giving me some small idea of what an average college admission officer goes through each year. After reading several hundred college admission essays, you find certain themes that an overwhelming number of students seem to rely on. Because these themes are so common, they quickly become clichéd. For an admission officer, these clichéd topics grow tiresome – not an adjective you want associated with your application!
To craft an essay that will help you stand out, you’ll need to avoid clichés. Here is our list of the top 5 essay clichés:
NUMBER ONE: The Amazing Epiphany
These essays follow a formula: struggle + success/failure = epiphany. Maybe the struggle is passing a really tough class, or maybe it’s overcoming shyness. In these essays, no matter what the struggle is, and no matter whether the student ultimately succeeded or failed, there’s always a magical epiphany at the end.
These essays go something like this: “I worked really hard to pass math/become class president/make friends/win a hotdog eating contest/etc., and then I succeeded/failed. Suddenly, I realized…”
If you find yourself writing “Suddenly I realized…” (or any other synonymous phrase), STOP! You’re becoming a cliché!
The problem with these essays is twofold: First, the way in which most students approach the big realization is about as subtle as a ton of bricks hitting you in the face; second, the realization is usually a pretty far reach compared with the struggle the student has overcome. These huge realizations feel forced – the reader can tell that you were trying really hard to come up with the magic lesson at the end of your story, which makes your essay less powerful. Unless your epiphany is particularly insightful and meaningful, or unless you are a particularly strong writer, it’s best to avoid the big epiphany.
NUMBER TWO: Lessons from the Less Fortunate
In an attempt to bolster college applications, tens of thousands of students participate in community service projects of all kinds. This is awesome. It becomes somewhat less awesome when students write about their community service projects without fully considering how their essays might be misconstrued.
This type of essay describes some sort of service project – often volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or going on a mission trip to an undeveloped country. The essay concludes with the lesson that the student learned by working with impoverished people. If you’re a really good writer and you’re willing to get lots of input from teachers, tutors, counselors, or other third-party readers, then you can craft a truly excellent essay on this topic.
Sadly, many students fail to consider their essays from the point of view of someone who has never met them. These students not only use politically incorrect language (I’ve seen more than one student refer to “the poors” – not a good idea), but also tend to write about their experiences as if they were previously unaware that poor people suffered. This can easily make students seem hopelessly naïve or, worse yet, self-entitled. Students who have never experienced poverty must approach the topic carefully, making certain that there is no possible way for a reader to misinterpret the essay in a negative light. That can be very tricky!
NUMBER THREE: Coming to America
Application essays ask students to discuss the most life-changing events of their young lives. For any student who immigrated to the U.S. from a non-English speaking country, that life-changing event is probably their immigration experience. Unfortunately, life-changing though it is, this experience is not unique. Every single day, thousands of people do it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.
These essays go like this: “My family decided to move to America, and I hated it because I had to struggle to learn English, but I worked really hard, and now I’ve proved that I can do anything.” The details differ slightly, but the basic plotline is the same. And sadly, even the most well-crafted immigration story can be rendered cliché by the sheer number of immigration essays submitted to colleges each year.
Unless a student has a particularly unique immigration story, it’s probably best to avoid this topic.
NUMBER FOUR: The Confessional
The college application essay is not the ideal forum in which to confess all of your past crimes, failures, and misdeeds. This seems like common sense, but a surprisingly large number of students do this every year. They think they are writing a story of redemption and reformation, but usually they are simply confessing to things the college never would have known about in the first place. I’ve seen students confess to racism, sexism, and homophobia. I’ve seen students go on at great length about the one math test they failed in 9th grade. All of them redeem themselves by the end of the essay, but first they give the reader a negative image to hold on to.
Applicants should never write about anything that can reflect poorly on them. It’s a bad idea. The entire purpose of the application essay is to present your strongest self; confessing to past prejudices, academic failures, or – worst of all – illegal activities isn’t usually the best way to accomplish this task.
NUMBER FIVE: The Resume
Students spend their entire high school lives building a list of impressive accomplishments and extracurricular activities, so it’s little surprise that many students write about this in their application essays. Since you should have already listed your extracurricular activities, leadership positions, awards, honors, and recognitions in the appropriate space in your application, you don’t need to write about all of them in your essay. It’s repetitive and it often fails to tell the admission officer anything new about who you are.
A good application essay should be an intriguing story, so it’s okay to pick ONE activity/award/honor to write a story about. Maybe you want to write about your campaign for student council – that’s fine. Don’t write about your campaign for student council, the various other positions you held in student council, that time you interned at the mayor’s office, and the leadership award you won. The message that a resume essay sends to a reader is: “I have nothing of any depth to say about any of the stuff that I’ve done, so I’m just going to list everything I’ve accomplished and hope that you think I’m great. ” Your essay is not a resume – it is a story that reveals something unique about who you are and why you would be the perfect person to have on a college campus. Use this opportunity to demonstrate that you are more than just a list of accomplishments — you are a dedicated and talented student with passion and interests and a superb personality.
BONUS TIP: Proof Read!!!
This essay is not only your best chance of helping to separate yourself from the other applicants, but also your opportunity to demonstrate your supreme writing skills. Nothing will turn off an admission officer faster than a poorly edited essay! The people reading your essays are educators. They like grammar and spelling. They know their stuff. Don’t make yourself look lazy or uneducated by submitting application materials riddled with spelling or grammar mistakes!