College Application Essays
Hot Writing Tips from The Other Side!
If you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of opinions about what makes a great college application essay.
But who am I?
I’ve never been an admissions officer, so how do I know what they like and want?
I thought it was time to ask a real live, breathing admissions officer who reads thousands of these essays–and uses them to decide who’s in or who’s out.
To find a great source, I went back to when I started tutoring students on these essays, and my very first client–my daughter.
When Cassidy was an incoming high school senior during the summer of 2008, I helped with her essays.
We had read the guide on finding terrific small liberal arts schools that are off the radar, called 40 Colleges That Change Lives, and she ended up going to one from that book, called Hendrix College in Arkansas.
Cassidy just graduated this spring, and her small college was every bit as wonderful both academically and socially as the book described (Five years in a row Hendrix has been on the “Most Up and Coming Schools” list for U.S. News & World Report).
I decided to ask their admissions officers how they select students using these essays. (more…)
If you are working on your Common Application, you have five prompts (or essay questions) to choose from for your essay.
The challenge is to pick the prompt that you can answer to write your best, most effective essay.
In previous years, you had the option to write about anything you wanted, called “Topic of Choice,” or number 6.
But that’s no longer an option. The new challenge is to find the prompt that gives you the most freedom to write about what you want—-in other words, make it your “topic of choice.”
This decision, however, can be like walking a tightrope.
It’s possible, but challenging, and above all, you must try hard not to fall off.
If you push your answer so far out there, and it no longer appears to actually “answer” or address the prompt, that’s not a good thing.
College admissions officers, especially those at the most competitive and elite schools, are often looking for reasons to bump your essay.
It’s not that they don’t want to be fair, but there are so many applicants and essays to read and everyone looks so equally attractive these days.
They only need one reason to make their pile smaller. So make sure not to give them one!
It’s a hard call. In order to standout from the crowd, you need to take some risks with your essay’s message, style or voice.
At the same time, you need to stay within the parameters of the prompts or you will be weeded out.
Here are my suggestions for how to stick the tightrope:
1. Spend enough time brainstorming ideas for each of the five prompts before you decide upon one.
If you can find the right prompt, which inspires you and you find a great topic to write about, then you are already closer to writing a standout essay that doesn’t cross the line.
2. Once you pick a prompt, try to find a creative way to respond to it.
Don’t just answer it directly, but use it as a springboard to develop other related ideas and express other ideas and opinions. Put your own spin on it.
This is how you expand your essay beyond the narrow margins of the prompt, and show how you are a creative, original, imaginative and resourceful thinker and writer.
This is how you standout. But if you push it too far, you risk sounding as though you have ignored them.
My suggestion is that no matter how far out you take your story, ideas or opinions, link them back to the prompt by using some of the prompt’s words or language.
This will flag the reader that you are still addressing the prompt, even if you have taken your essay in an inspired direction.
I have copied the new Common Application Prompts, and bolded key words in each one that you could include in your essay to keep it connected to the prompt:
Here are the new prompts for the Common App (click each prompt to find my post on how to respond to it!):
- Some students have a background, story, interest or talent that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
3. Once you are done with your essay, have a friend or parent read it and get their opinion on whether it’s clear that your essay answered the prompt you picked.
You could even have them read your essay and then see if they can pick which prompt you wrote about.
If they don’t think it’s evident, and you agree with them, try to work in some language that links it to the prompt.
If you want help finding a great topic, check out my Jumpstart Guide
. Best of luck!
If you have time, this essay (How to Say Nothing in 500 Words) is packed with invaluable advice that will help you make your college essay sing–and NOT bore those college admissions folks. An English professor wrote it in the 1960s after reading probably a zillion mind-numbingly dull essays during his long career. It’s long–and ironically a little yawny in places (revenge?)–and I mainly skimmed it for the juicy stuff.
Here’s one of my favorite parts, from the section called, “Slip Out of That Abstraction,” that describes why you should “show” instead of “tell” your points, and how to do it:
Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. If he is writing on juvenile delinquency, he does not just tell you that juveniles are (it seems to him) delinquent and that (in his opinion) something should be done about it. He shows you juveniles being delinquent, tearing up movie theatres in Buffalo, stabbing high school principals in Dallas, smoking marijuana in Palo Alto. And more than likely he is moving toward some specific remedy, not just a general wringing of the hands.
It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I like certain kinds of popular music very much.” Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Sprinklittle play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.” By Paul McHenry Roberts.
(I also highlighted the strong verbs Roberts used here. In your college admissions essays and personal statements, go easy on the adjectives and adverbs–the ly’s–and push hard on those gritty, action verbs!)
College Admissions Essays:
How to Connect with Your Reader
I’ve talked about this already, but here is more scoop about your college application essay “audience,” and it’s a tough crowd: college admissions officers read zillions of these college application essays and most are BORING, and get tossed in the boring pile!!!
If you don’t believe me, here are some quotes from some honest (notice they weren’t quoted by name!) admissions folks gathered by an inspired, veteran English teacher named Jim Burke.
As an English teacher, Burke says he often is asked to help students on their essays, and he understands that many of them are either way too long, do not answer the prompt and/or are just like all the other essays.
He quotes in a Web appendix to his book,The English Teacher’s Companion:
“Another admissions officer I interviewed said: ‘There are three things you don’t ever want to watch being made: one is sausage, one is legislation, and the other is college admissions because the process is sometimes so random, given the number of kids that come across our desks.
I read a thousand applications, each one of which has to have an essay, and I give each application about ten minutes in the first read-through. Anything kids can do to connect with me as the reader, to make them stand out in that essay, which in many cases is the most important piece of the puzzle, helps me.’
‘When we read them, though the scale is 1 to 10, we mostly calibrate it to a 2, 5, and 8: 2 means the essay negatively affects the student’s application; 5 means it does nothing to advance the application; 8 means it moves it forward toward acceptance, though other factors are, of course, considered.’
If you want help bumping up your college application essay or personal statement, read my post on How to Bump Up a Dull Essay. Or, if you are just getting started, use my super helpful Jumpstart Guide.
The person reading your fabulous college admissions essay most likely has already read about a dozen or more, and still has an equal number or more to go. By the 20th essay, they are having trouble focusing. Their heads are nodding off. They need more coffee.
So how will this person feel when they read the first sentence or two of your essay? Will they groan silently to themselves? Or will they perk up and pay attention?
The “audience” or readers of your essay most likely will be comprised of at least one or more members of an “admissions committee” from the college or university. They have been selected either because they are considered strong writers themselves, or have a heightened sense of who their school is looking to admit.
I would say, don’t waste your time targeting your piece to any personality or demographic. Basically, think of your reader as someone with a mature, intelligent sensibility who mainly wants to read an interesting piece of writing that also tells them about an equally interesting person. Picture one of your teachers. A friendly one!
My main suggestion would be to keep in mind that these college application folks have read zillions of these college admissions essays–so whatever you can do to engage them is worth a shot! If you need help getting started, try my Jumpstart Guide.