How to Write a Killer Essay
New York Times Upfront , Dec 13, 1999 by Glenn C. Altschuler
An Ivy League dean offers six tips to steer your admission essay in the right direction:
1. Write about your world and your experiences. A 17-year-old inhabits a foreign country, and adults who work in colleges are curious about what it’s like to live within its borders. Essays about a friendship that was forged or one that failed, buying a pair of sneakers, an afternoon working at Dunkin’ Donuts, or getting robbed on the subway can provide glimpses of your ideas, values, and passions.
2. Avoid writing about national and global issues. You’ll sound like a teenager trying to sound like an adult.
3. Describe, don’t characterize. Minimize adjectives and adverbs. “The Coach Who Changed My Life” may be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but these qualities can best be conveyed in a narrative of what he actually said and did. In “Ode to Dad,” a Cornell applicant explained her father’s values by describing his hands, encrusted with dirt from a career as a truck farmer. It worked.
4. Resist the temptation to let others speak for you. A quotation from a philosopher, poet, or politician may appear to be the perfect opportunity to parade your erudition. More often than not, however, you will impress no one.
5. Establish distance from your subject. Distance discourages essayists from drawing the cliched moral. Every semester I yearn for the applicant who will declare that organized sports are not a metaphor for life, that the race is not always to the swift. Years ago we admitted a student whose essay, “Riding the Pine,” found that no enduring truths came from sitting on the bench for an entire baseball season. It’s OK to be just a bit confused, to find the meaning of life elusive.
6. Know yourself. Selection committee members are pretty savvy. They have learned to look for authenticity, not profundity. But knowing yourself, on paper, takes imagination, reflection, and time. Start early, let parents and friends read it, and then revise. The voice you find may be your own.
GLENN C. ALTSCHULER is a dean and professor at Cornell University.