Imagine a writing assignment that ultimately is all about you even if you’re writing about someone else. You need to be sure you neither boast about your triumphs nor dwell on your misdeeds, that you reveal yourself without straying into “too much information” or discoursing at length about controversial issues, that you establish yourself as someone the reader can relate to but whose experiences aren’t overly commonplace. And you’re writing for an audience that already has read hundreds of attempts at such a composition in a very brief span of time.
Oh, the charms of the college admissions essay. A bad one can make you look incompetent, careless, foolish, or immature, while the consensus among experts is that a good one usually isn’t enough to offset a mediocre academic performance, according to The Washington Post.
Still, that well-wrought essay can make the difference in a borderline case, and with so many students competing for a limited number of spots and being judged by admissions officers who take into account grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and a host of personality traits that aren’t always easy to define, almost any applicant is in danger of being a borderline case for one reason or another. A weak essay or a tepid, play-it-safe offering isn’t a good idea for anybody.
It’s not even enough to be an outstanding writer in the technical sense. As one dean of admissions told the Post, “I’ve seen rough essays that still powerfully convey a student’s personality and experiences. And on the flipside, I’ve seen pristine, polished essays that don’t communicate much about the students and are forgotten a minute or two after reading them.”
There is no formula for success, which is the whole point. Colleges want to know what sort of judgment the applicant has, how s/he approaches a task when given considerable latitude, the depth and breadth of the applicant’s thinking, and the applicant’s capacity for original thought. They can learn quite a bit about you from imposing the torments of the admissions essay–or at least they can learn what you choose to reveal. Because–let’s be honest–for the applicant the essay is one more component of the self-marketing exercise that the college admissions process has become. As one counselor bluntly puts it, the entrance essay is about “presenting an image of oneself.”
The single most important element in producing a winning essay is selection of topic. Rachel Toor of The New York Times recommends choosing a topic that really matters to you, on the grounds that if you don’t care much about it you’re likely to produce something the audience doesn’t care about reading.
Unlike the typical academic essay, Toor explains, the admissions essay need not take a particular side of an issue and argue it to a resolution. “A good topic will be complex.” She cautions that boasting about achievements is less effective than dealing with your failures or shortcomings and being as hard on yourself as necessary.
“And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter,” Toor says. “Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.”
What excites an adolescent might not excite an adult, and not all excitement is good. Having been an educator in essay-intensive subjects and a news editor dealing with young contract writers, I can tell you that the expression “Oh my goodness! You have to see this!” is not always an invitation to read something astute, admirable, or appropriate. Composition instructors and editors love people who learn from their mistakes, but there will be no “next time” with the admissions officer.
Remember that your selection of a topic can tell your audience quite a bit about your powers of judgment. In a 2015 article for Prepscholar.com, Anna Wulick provides an impressive list of ways to impress admissions officers negatively:
Failure to appreciate boundaries can do your cause considerable harm, as with topics that involve graphic treatment of your love life, bodily functions, and strange desires.
Other subjects of questionable merit involve the applicant’s criminal behavior or substance abuse, or dwelling on personality flaws to the extent of making them unflatteringly prominent.
Overconfidence plays badly, as does overestimating the significance of an achievement. An essay about an experience common to a great many people says “boring” and “unoriginal,” while a one-sided screed about one of the great issues of the day is likely to incur the displeasure of at least one person who can make or break you. Athletes like to write about sports. Don’t, Wulick says. Your sport is on your resume; admissions officers want to know about other things.
Writing about someone or something else is a good way to avoid appearing self-consumed, but it’s essential to bear in mind that the essay ultimately is meant to inform the reader about the applicant. An essay about your grandfather the World War II veteran or about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony should tell the reader how Grandpa or the Ninth has affected you, rather than merely lauding Grandpa’s achievements or discussing the merits of the music.
When it comes to execution, a college admissions essay isn’t so different from other forms of writing.
Maintain an appropriate tone. It’s fine to try to be funny if you’re actually good at it and have sound judgment about which situations do and do not lend themselves to humor. Otherwise, don’t try to be a comedian.
Don’t overwrite; complicated expression isn’t necessarily good expression. It’s better to keep your vocabulary and sentence structure simple but correct than to overextend yourself and appear incompetent or pretentious. Do your best, but stay within your abilities.
Write in standard English, avoiding slang and jargon. Sometimes a colloquialism will add a dash of flavor, but your college admissions essay is like so totally not the time to like degenerate into like teen-talk and stuff like that, so yeah.
Don’t talk down to the reader, but don’t be weak. You don’t want to be arrogant, but you do want to appear capable of standing up for your viewpoint when the occasion arises.
Use an outline. Please. Writing one takes only a few minutes, and it will help you stay on topic, promote smooth linkages from one idea to the next, and save you the mental strain of simultaneously composing and trying to remember where you’re headed.
This is a dying art. Most people nowadays appear allergic to it, but submitting your work without proofing it is borderline insane. Proofing is just basic quality control. Read back over your essay with care. One trick is to read it aloud, slowly, in the dullest monotone you can achieve.
If possible, have someone else look over your essay, someone who really knows how the English language works. Doing so requires some humility, but there’s nothing like having another set of eyes on your handiwork.
Be willing to rewrite. Sometimes another draft is the only solution.
Oh, and make sure it is your own work.
“It’s very obvious to us when an essay has been written by a 40-year-old and not a 17-year-old,” one college official told the Post. “I’m not looking for a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. And I get pretty skeptical when I see it.”
The college admissions essay can be a nasty beast, a unique challenge. While a strong one might not offset an overall weak position, it could provide the nudge that pushes a marginal candidate through, while a poor essay could do serious damage.
Notwithstanding the difficulties involved, the admissions essay does present an opportunity to stand out, a time to shine, a time to take charge and live by your own decisions. Handled properly, it can be a victory even for the applicant who isn’t the most brilliant writer.
Paul Culp has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University. A former journalist, he has also taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level, and now writes for The Coaching Educator team as well as running his own firm, Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS).