College Admissions Essays:
How To Fine Edit Your College Application Essay
You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:
- Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
- Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
- Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
- When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!
I just went back over college essays my clients wrote over the last several years.
Despite the classic list of what not to write about (see previous post), I would say many wrote about mission trips, volunteering activities and sporting experiences anyway.
Some pulled it off, however, because they focused in on specific incidents and what they learned from those.
Others, however, were pretty flat.
My favorite essays, I noticed, almost always involved something unexpected, whether it was something that happened to the writer or how they reacted and learned from it.
They also included anecdotal leads. For example, here are two topics that resulted in strong essays:
1. One student wrote about how things always went his way, and how he was always top of his class, the star athlete and picked for leading roles in the drama program.
His essay told the story of how he expected to get the star role in his senior play, and was stunned to learn he got a lesser role. (this was the “unexpected”)
In his essay, he developed what he learned from that experience.
In a natural way he was able to highlight his talents, yet come across as humble and likable at the same time.
(He also started his essay with a simple anecdote of the moment a friend shouted out to him that he did not make the lead role. This short, narrative introduction included dialogue and captured with high emotion his huge disappointment. A perfect “grabber” intro!)
2. Another student wrote about how she injured her ankle playing soccer on the varsity team, and was out for the entire season, yet learned more sitting on the bench that season than she would have playing. (also, the “unexpected”)
Her essay focused on how she discovered a new perspective on her team and the game by simply watching.
Again, she showcased her talents, but showed how she was able to turn something negative into a positive.
(she also started her essay with a short narrative anecdote—with strong imagery on the setting, dialogue, etc—focusing on the moment she was injured, which added emotion and drama to his essay.)
What these effective essays had in common:
- They both included something unexpected and how the writer learned something from the experience.
- They both focused on one incident and expanded that into larger lessons learned.
- They both pulled the most intense moment to describe in their introductions, which made their essays full of lively writing (vivid details, descriptive language, colorful dialogue, etc.) highly readable.
What is unexpected about you?
(for this to make sense, you probably need to read the previous post)
Once you get the idea of how this Ladder works, now find some sample college admissions essays that you like. See if the writer shifts back and forth between the specific and the abstract. (Just jot down “show” when they are specific, and “tell” when they get abstract.) In general, the major shifts will occur between paragraphs, but you can vary within sentences as well.
When you go to write your own essay, review your outline and rough draft to make sure you are making the shifts. If you start with a specific incident or describe something, then make sure your next paragraph or so you shift into the abstract to explain it or reflect upon it. Then make sure you shift back to the specifics. And so on. If you start with a broad, general statement or paragraph, make sure you quickly shift into specifics.
In general, the specifics are the juicier writing. Who doesn’t like a good story, or a vivid example or a powerful description? The abstract, however, may take a bit more patience, but that is what gives meaning to your juicy writing.
Sorry, here’s another metaphor: The specifics are like candy, they go down easily and quickly, whereas the abstract is more like ice-cream, yummy but very rich. Too much of either and you can start to feel sick.
It’s really a matter of balance. Too many specifics and you get overwhelmed, buried in the details. Too much abstract discussion and you start to float away in the clouds, and drift off to sleep. The best place is to just keep moving—up and down that ladder.
A new client, who I will call Sarah, met with me for the first time to talk about topic ideas.
When I pressed her about her interests, her hobbies, her passions, she kept insisting that she was a well-rounded, strong student, but didn’t have any one thing that stood out about her.
It’s a common obstacle in writing these essays.
Students think they need to have climbed Mt. Everest or invented a better paperclip to justify a strong topic.
These students just need to slow down long enough to see what is right in front of them: the often mundane (ordinary; everyday), yet fascinating qualities, habits, goals or characteristics that make them unique.
I gave Sarah a few examples of this idea: the student who wrote about her wild red hair; the girl who liked riding the public bus system and used that to “show” her sense of adventure and openess to all types of people; the student who wrote a tribute to his TI-83+ calculator; the girl who wrote about her prowess as a karaoke queen.
After listening to these ideas, Sarah kept insisting she really didn’t have anything special to write about herself.
She thought for a few more minutes and then said quietly, “I smile a lot.”
I had only spent about ten minutes with Sarah, and I had noticed she easily broke into a wide, beautiful smile.
Sarah even smiled when she talked.
It was as though she couldn’t stop herself.
“My mom says I’m always smiling,” she added, smiling.
What a perfect topic for an essay.
Sarah’s constant smiling obviously was a big part of who she is, and all she had to do was explore what this meant to her, how it affected her relationships and experiences with others, maybe develop some metaphors to her smiling and life, and she had a makings of an engaging essay.
As with Sarah, sometimes the best essay topics are so close you don’t even see them. Just keep looking!
If you still don’t believe me about the power of writing about everyday topics for college admissions essays over those you think might impress your college(s) of choice, read this comment from a veteran college admissions counselor (this was posted in the comments section in response to an article called A Few Essays That Worked in the The New York Times‘ blog on college admissions called The Choice):
“I am often asked how to compose memorable application essays out of “ordinary” teenage lives. High school seniors who haven’t won international awards or lived on houseboats or in homeless shelters can feel as if their essays have little to offer. They’re terrified that they will make the same “mistakes” that are highlighted here in “The Choice” (and no wonder … even I–an admissions professional for three decades–had a tough time differentiating between the “good” and “bad” ones!).
I always reply that, during my 15 years of reading application essays at Smith College, many of the most memorable submissions were on mundane topics. One of my all-time favorites was about a laundry mishap at a summer school. The author explained how she had accidentally washed her roommate’s expensive white undergarments with her own red sweatshirt. Of course, the essay wasn’t really just about laundry … it was more about the boundaries of friendship. Other wonderful essays I recall include a hilarious one on playing in a truly terrible school band and another called “Why I Shop at Wal-Mart.”
While there are lots of books out there that serve up samples of “successful” essays, there are two that I especially like that offer helpful suggestions on how to craft your own. “On Writing The College Application Essay: Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer,” by Harry Bauld (which I’ve recommended for eons) and a newcomer called, “Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays,” by Robert Cronk, both lead students through the composition process and never lose sight of the fact that 17-year-olds can rarely report triumphs—or traumas—that might help their essays stand out in a crowd.
Admission officials really DO want to read about their applicants’ experiences, no matter how “typical,” and they are eager to view them through the writers’ eyes. Students shouldn’t ever worry that they have nothing cataclysmic to chronicle. After all, what could be more “ordinary” than laundry?”
— Sally Rubenstone, Senior Advisor, College Confidential
From article in the New York Times:
June 23, 2009, 12:22 PM
As an inaugural post, Martha C. Merrill, the dean of admission and financial aid of Connecticut College, and a graduate of the class of 1984, encourages incoming high school seniors (with her 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.
Here’s an interesting article by the Wall Street Journal about college presidents from 10 prominent colleges and universities (Reed, Carleton, Wesleyan, U of P, Barnard, etc.) who were asked by the newspaper to answer their own college admissions essay prompts. There’s something satisfying in that…
Click here to read article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124155688466088871.html
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!