The most constructive advice that can be offered about the essay is not to worry about what you think the college wants to hear. There is no perfect or correct essay. In fact, essay topics that result in hundreds of different responses are purposely chosen so the admissions staff will not have to read the same thing in each one. Your task is to make yours stand out.
Essays that are most effective seize a topic with confidence and imagination. There is no question that an honest, personal essay is much more effective than an essay that recites a list of high school achievements (which are already listed elsewhere on the application anyway). A good topic is one you want to write about, not one you think you ought to write about. The very best essays are the ones that truly do come from the heart; they don't come from a list.
While the specific directions will vary from college to college, all will basically ask you to "tell us about yourself" in a well-written essay. You may even have the choice of a variety of questions. If so, choose the one that feels right to you - trust your instincts. With your essay, you want to prove two things: that you are a decent writer and that you are an interesting, mature person. A well-written essay can help to tip the scales in your favor. Unfortunately, many are drab and have a distinct ring of "what I think they want to hear." Many essays are - to be blunt - dull. A few are downright bad, and keep an otherwise admissible student out. But thankfully, there are a few essays each year that really are good and do make the difference in a students admission.
"Can I use the same essay for several different applications?" you ask. Of course, although you have to be certain the essay fits the question. Make absolutely certain if you mention a particular college's name in the essay that you don't send the wrong essay. It's not impressive to tell Niagara University that you would be a great addition to Ithaca College. That really does happen each year.
Colleges use the essay to determine who you are and what sets you apart from the other applicants. They want to know what kind of person you are, what you've been doing, and what is important to you. Colleges want to know whether you will be bringing a unique background to the college. In short, are you interesting? The following are some comments and suggestions offered by admission officers:
- The person writing the essay should be the only person in the world who could ever possibly write it.
- Essays are too broad in scope. Describe brushing their teeth. The brushing of your teeth description is usually detailed, descriptive and involved. Narrow your focus....that always makes a better essay.
- Don't tell me about Aunt Sally's death. Tell me about how Aunt Sally's death affected you.
- Have a stranger read your essay and write three adjectives that describe the person who wrote it; do they put curious, compassionate and eager? Or boring, stilted and full of themselves? Which words do want to be used to describe you?
- Tell a story only you could possibly tell.
- Don't tell me about the action, tell me about your reaction to it. This holds true for the interim trip to India, the Habitat for Humanity trip, the death of a grandparent, the loss (or win) in the championship game, etc.
- Write about something personal that you can be passionate about.
- The best essays take me out of my office for five minutes.
- If it's the first time you've thought about it, don't write your college essay about it.
- Don't give me a travelogue; give me an interior monologue.
- The goal line (goal or homerun or whatever) means nothing to me. I want to know how you got there.
- Don't write what you think others want to hear. Answer the question honestly.
- Your essay should be about you. It should be of you.
- Show AND tell. Don't simply write that you are a leader; show us how you lobbied the administration to change the study hall policy.
- Essays show who you are, not simply what you've done.
- Don't ask, "What does the admission committee want to read?" but instead ask, "What is it about me that I want to be sure the college knows?"
Topics to Avoid
There are some topics you should probably avoid. Some are simply bad topics that are inappropriate for college applications. Others are extremely popular and have been written and read thousands of times before. You are best off avoiding the following:
- Your relationship with your girlfriend or boyfriend.
- Your religious beliefs unless you're applying to a college with a strong religious orientation.
- Your conservative (or any other) political views.
- The evils of drugs. They are evil, but essays tend to sound contrived.
- Your SAT scores. Never ever mention your scores no matter how good or bad they are.
- Any topic that doesn't appeal to you but that you think will appeal to an admission officer. They have built in phoniness alarms.
- Anything that will make the reader, who might be a grandmotherly type, blush or be embarrassed.
- Anything that will reveal that you are a poor college prospect such as how you hate to study.
- Big or general ideas about how you will help the world live together in peace and harmony. Stick with details.
- Any topic that draws attention to your academic weaknesses.
- How you saw very poor but very happy people on an Interim trip and realized how lucky they are or you are.
- How you helped the team win the big game.
- Anything that makes it sound like you're going to college for the sole purpose of learning how to make a lot of money.
- Any topic specifically mentioned as a great essay topic in one of those how-to-get-into-college books. Several thousand other students read the same book and will write on the same topic.
Terrible Opening Sentences
The following would be unwise to use as opening sentences for a college essay (borrowed from the Washington Post):
- When I told my friends I was applying to Whatsamatta U, they were, like, no way, and I was, like, yes way. And they were, like, way cool. And I was, like . . .
- My mother has probably already written to you, spreading her lies.
- I am a vegetarian and all I demand is that any vegetable I eat be pureed or finely chopped so it in no way resembles its original self before it was murdered. I am sure your dining hall . . .
- First off, coach said there wasn't going to be no writing. If I have accidentally sealed this envelope with cash inside, well, finder's keepers!
- I'm grounded until I complete this application. So here goes . . .
- Because my girlfriend is applying to your school (actually, she is not really my girlfriend yet, since I have not spoken to her, but I know everything she does) I have decided . . .
- To demonstrate my love for your school, I have spray-painted your logo on my town's water tower.
- I study the English since two annuals, so can right the many pages insuing with no difficult.
- I do not take drugs, drink, smoke, read pornography, eat fatty foods, watch TV, speak, bathe . . .
- College is probably the last place they'll look for me, so . . .
- Stardate 590217. Dear Starfleet Academy . . .
- Dear Morty: I am sending you this e-mail while taking a break from filling out State U's online application form, which was obviously designed by idiots . . .
- Sure, lots of kids like to start fires, but how many of them have a propane torch, gallons of accelerants and a basket of dry rags . . .
- This is Shanda writing, one of the 25 personalities possessed by Ellen Kurtz, who is the nominal applicant for admission.
- . . . among the many things that are the result of imperialism racism and kapitalism are standard punktuation grammar and spelling which all serve to put the entire human race into a sausage machine . . . .
- How's about I write page 342 of YOUR autobiography: "After flunking out of medical school, Kermit Dowling decides to pursue a career in college admissions . . . ."
Keep It Brief
Each admission officer will have a huge numbers of applications to read (often 1,000 or more) and will only spend a few minutes reading each essay. Your essay should never be longer than requested, should be in a normal 10 or 12-point font, and should look pleasing to the eye. Single spaced text with a double space between paragraphs usually looks best. If there are no guidelines on length, it should be one to two pages. Have you ever read 100 essays in a week? Do the admission officers a favor and be brief.