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.
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.
Parents and College Admissions Essays: In or Out?
In theprevious post, I gave “helpful” parents some pointers on how to help students with their college admissions essays. Now, it’s your turn to help your own parents. Here are some tips:
- First, understand that your parents are on your side. They just want you to have success, and think they can help you. It’s your job, however, to show them how to help.
- The best way to fend off pesky parents is to prove to them that you have it covered. Tell them where you are at in the process, and that you have put together a timeline for yourself. Simply knowing that you have started will relieve anxiety.
- Some parents, however, are certain they can help you write your essay. This is where you need to help them understand how critical it is that this is your essay, in your words and voice alone. Tell them this, nicely.
- Another way to shield yourself from parental intervention is to see if there is a place or specific role where they can help you, but not take over the process. No one knows you or your life like your parent. If you need help with topic ideas, ask them if they would brainstorm with you. Set a time when you both are in a good mood and not tired.
- Once you have a rough draft, and trust they won’t overtake your piece, let them read it and ask for feedback. Again, watch your moods. Ask them to just tell you what they like, and any places that are unclear or might need more work. Finally, it never hurts to have your parents read your final version to help check for punctuation, spelling and other errors.
- Writing is hard, and can make you grumpy. This is usually about the point where your mom or dad will come in your room to “help,” and you want to strangle them. Instead of yelling at them to “Back off!,” try just telling them that you are working on the essay, and will ask them for help when you need it. Say it nicely, and they will magically go away.
- Remember, no one else will care as much about your essay as your parent. If you let them help a little, they might not feel the need to help too much.
Ready to start writing your essays? Try my Jumpstart Guide!
I remember wanting to improve my writing in high school, and feeling frustrated by all the “tips” in the popular how-to-write books: “Be concise,” “Use action verbs,” and the all-popular, “Show, don’t tell.”
OK, but how do I write better?
Later, I came upon one writing book that made a little more sense, called “Writing Down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg.
Here is what she said about “Show, don’t tell,” that helped me:
“‘Don’t tell, but show.’ What does this actually mean? It means don’t tell us about anger (or any of those big words like honesty, truth, hate, love, sorrow, life, justice, etc.); show us what made you angry. We will read it and feel angry. Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them.”
And she goes on: “Some general statements are sometimes very appropriate. Just make sure to back each one with a concrete picture. Even if you are writing an essay, it makes the work so much more lively.”
One great way to “show” readers is to be specific with your writing and use details! I talk about how to be specific when writing your college application essay in this post.