Sep 26, 2012
A Protocol for MIT Admissions Essays
I love writing. I love building on thoughts I can’t put words to, reading them back, and rewriting them until they feel true. I love knowing that I’ve said something I couldn’t say before and feeling like I’ve grasped a new emotion.
Admissions essays are intimidating. You’re condensing four years into 250-word essays. To do that you have to understand and acknowledge yourself and your growth, say goodbye to this stage of your life, and understand yourself as your own person. People who read your application will know you in a way you might not have known yourself.
Luckily MIT tells you exactly what they want:
- Alignment with MIT's mission to make the world a better place
- Collaborative and cooperative spirit
- Risk-taking, or resilience and the ability and willingness to handle failure
- Hands-on creativity
- Intensity, curiosity, and excitement, also known as passion
- The ability to balance your coursework with more interesting things, like labwork, hobbies, and sleep
- Being a good person
In other words, MIT wants to see from your application that you
- are academically qualified to handle the MIT curriculum. This part’s the easiest. It should be covered by the classes you took and your grades and your SAT scores. I won’t touch on it again. You shouldn’t need to touch on it again in your application.
- will like it here. Are you social, in the sense that you can build a support network and enjoy things that aren’t classes? Are you resilient? Will you fall apart at your first few Cs? Will you still give your all the semester after?
- will add to the student body. Do you have an interesting past, an interesting worldview, and interesting hobbies?
- will do cool things with your MIT education. Do you have hopes and dreams? Do you have the initiative and courage to make them happen?
Think about how the choices you made throughout high school reflect these qualities. Some of them are already in your application: the classes you took, the grades you got, and your extracurricular activities. Think about what the people you asked for recommendation letters might say about how you interact with your peers and teachers, and what your interviewer might say about what you’re like in person. For each quality, list what your application will already have. Any gaps will need to be filled in with your essays. For each quality, especially sparse ones, list experiences or ideas that highlight that quality. They don’t all have to be academic. It might be more interesting if some of them aren’t.
Read the application essay prompts. Notice that they are framed around those same qualities. Jot down the first answers that come to mind for each question, including stories and examples where possible. It’s okay to use snippets from essays you’ve written before, if they reflect your personality and are relevant to the question. Think about if and how the experiences you listed earlier fit into the list of qualities. If you decide not to include them, make sure you still cover the list. Before you start writing, look through your notes and make sure there aren’t gaps.
Write. This is the hardest part and the least fun, so do it fast. Last semester my friend Amy ’13 showed me Write or Die. It's helpful for writing fast. It saved my GPA last semester.
Take a break when writing gets difficult. I find it helpful to take a shower. I also like to read something short by a writer I admire to warm up my voice. If you can’t think of anything I recommend Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It’s concise, well paced, and creative. You might also listen to music that matches your essay’s emotion and isn’t distracting. I like writing to Lana Del Rey. She has a consistent beat, little variation in pitch, and words that blend into the music. She can be horribly depressing but she can keep me in the zone for hours.
Revision 1, as you write or immediately after. If it comes naturally, try to include stories, dialogue, and descriptions, and to use more specific examples and images than general statements. Minimize adjectives and adverbs; instead, pick nouns and verbs that come as close as possible to the meaning you’re aiming for. Use a thesaurus if you have to. Avoid any cliché phrases that you hear or read often. Avoid very, a lot, completely, and totally, which are usually meaningless. Minimize is, has, of, under, over, on, in, heavy words which slow the pace and make your essay less engaging. Control your use of maybe, possibly, it seems, and I think. These phrases make you seem less confident as a narrator, which is useful sometimes but not usually in an admissions essay. If you’re feeling bold, add some alliteration and parallelism to connect important, related ideas. Be careful: if it feels forced it will be counterproductive.
Pay attention to how you group words. There’s a certain power in a sentence that is more or less constant. Shorter sentences usually condense power, while longer sentences diffuse it. A separation between the subject and its verb will diffuse power: the longer the separation, the less power per word. Anything in the gap between the subject and the verb is less likely to have an impact on the reader.
If you want to diffuse power you can do it by slowing the pace. Create pauses with commas and use heavy words, passive voice, maybe even an adjective or two. It can be interesting to soften the apex of your essay: you can make softer emotions feel more genuine and sick things feel more horrifying by putting them in a long, diffused sentence.
On the other hand, you can condense power to shock or to exaggerate the apex of a paragraph or your essay. Use as few syllables and commas as you can and make sure that every word you do use captures your meaning perfectly. Do not separate a subject and its verb.
An exception is endings: the end is the most powerful part of a sentence, paragraph, or essay. It’s conventional to put background or context information at the start of your sentence, paragraph, or essay and to put the more important conclusions and new information at the end. Sometimes people put a powerful short sentence at the end of an essay or story to maximize its impact. Unfortunately this often backfires: a short sentence at the very end of an essay implies a very meaningful epiphany or plot twist; if you don’t deliver, the reader will be confused and your target emotion will disappear.
When you’re satisfied, leave your essays alone.
Revision 2, in a week or two. Reread your essays out loud. In this revision you are looking for what I call emotional lies. Catch and rephrase anything that sounds awkward or forced. Remove parallels and alliteration that feel forced. Make sure every word has the meaning in context you want it to have; use the thesaurus again if you have to. Follow the tone and the big picture as you read your application. Make sure it reflects you. It might not match the tone and big picture you envisioned in the beginning. The important thing is that it’s an accurate picture of you.
Quality Control and Safety:
I recommend you find one person to help you revise. I was lucky to have a mutual editing relationship with my dad. Try to find someone who knows you well, has read your writing before, and is a good writer. Preferably your editor will be more mature than you, not in your English class, and not involved in their own college admission process. Give them MIT’s list of qualities and start letting them read at the end of your second revision. Ask them to read after every revision. They’re there to catch awkwardness or emotional lies that you miss, and to check that the picture you’ve painted is true.
If you still have time, leave your essays alone again, for longer this time. Then reread them again to make sure they're still as good as you thought they were.
Good luck, and have fun. Please don’t spend Halloween editing admissions essays. =)
EDIT: I didn't realize it at first, but there are two texts that greatly influenced my writing and this blog post. If you'd like more (and better) advice, check out
- "The Science of Scientific Writing" by Gopen and Swan, which we read recently in 7.02 (Introduction to Experimental Biology and Communication)
- and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which has been recommended by many of my writing professors.
You should also check out Chris Peterson's blog post on writing admissions essays.