Nov 12, 2015
Dear Applicants: The College Essay
How can you describe your essence in 250 words? 100 words? Every word is precious. Every sentence is about who you are. You’re putting yourself on paper. Recognize the things you did and fell in love with. The traits that make you whole.
Does that sound scary? To me it did. I doubted each one of my essays. Re-wrote drafts. Edited the main essay so many times that, by submission time, it did not even make sense.
Here are some essay tips to consider (in no particular order):
- Don’t apply as a fictional character. You know, the one with the pure 4.0, 2400, 36. The Captain, President, Leader. The one dedicated to excellence and service. Decorated with medals and ribbons on graduation. You've heard of them, haven't you? Do the stats and titles make you want to be their friend and classmate? Don't invent a character. Describe yourself. (from part 2)
- Be authentic. Be original. But if you need to choose, be authentic. A Yale admissions officer said that once.
- Write strong. Be confident. Use the active voice. Avoid “I think” and “I believe.” Don’t try to explain yourself, either. There isn’t space or time for uncertainty. The college essay is yours. For more, see this writing advice from Chuck Palahniuk.
- Highlight what constitutes you. Highlight teamwork. Highlight passions. Highlight quirks. You can’t fit everything into a college essay, so select what matters most.
- Escape the "five-paragraph essay" prison. The college essay is personal. It’s not English class anymore. Let loose your creativity and passion. Don’t make it "persuasive" or "compare and contrast."
- Use the personal pronoun "I" with caution. I know that's hard. I also know that I dislike using “I” just as much as I dislike putting prepositions at the ends of sentences and phrases. See how annoying I sound if I use “I” too much? The essay is about you, but it’s also about the people and the places that made you yourself. MIT wants to create a team (proof here) And, really, you couldn’t have done this “life thing" alone.
- “Don’t write about your time in prison.” I heard this in a video once. There are plenty topics and stories you can choose. Most of them work. But there are some you can’t (or shouldn’t) pull off. That doesn’t mean you should strive to be original above all. But be aware: if you’re trying to describe overcoming illness while mentoring the young as the captain of the swim team every Saturday morning, you may not be on your own.
- Don’t read the “top 50” college essays. I did that too much. As if comparing my work to the work of those accepted to the Ivy Leagues could help me determine my chances. Who selected the top 50 anyway? Not the admissions officers. Not the students, because no one has access to all admitted applicants' essays. Don’t read the anthology. It won’t help at all.
- Find a voice that is both personal and professional. A formal and dramatic tone is not required. For example, my Common Application essay ended with “weird is the greatest compliment.” It told future me that “it’s best to be excited.” It had one paragraph dedicated to parks in the fall and one dedicated to hugs. Now, what will you sound like?
- Don’t indulge in exquisite words. Leave them on the SAT. You’re writing a personal statement and, personally, you will probably not call a fire “conflagration” and a colleague “confrere.” Use the gorgeous and the fanciful in moderation. Your statement should sound natural, not ancient.
- Reuse and recycle with caution. Odds are, if you apply to, say, ten colleges, you will eventually try to reuse your essays (even though that’s not advisable, officially). Make sure you adjust the essays for every use. All colleges value different qualities. Your supplementary essays can’t be applicable to every institution.
- Cut, cut, cut the extras. Extra words are wasteful in a 150-word essay. Consider this sentence, for example: “The sun was painfully bright and brutally hot as we went down the cobbled streets and its scorching rays had the intention to burn us to a cinder.” It’s a little too much, right? Minimalist applicants are at an advantage.
- Don’t over-describe. That shiny red coat with golden buttons you wore on the day your life changed forever may be essential to your memory, but not your essay. Place yourself in your reader’s position. Do you want to know everything the character wore/saw/smelled? What do you want to know?
- Mind the flow. Every tale has a rhythm to it. Sentences vary in length. Some are short, especially those with an essential point. Others are long, descriptive. Words grow and shrink. Paragraphs contain one sentence (forget English class rules) or five. Feel them flow and blend within your story. “Flow” is a feeling you get as a reader. Sense it as a writer as well.
- Keep it simple, structurally. One sign your statement is not simple: semi-colons. If you want to use them, learn how to here. But consider what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”
- Avoid repetition. Make friends with a thesaurus. Monitor word usage (especially for common words like "say" or "student"). Replace repeating words if necessary. Try not to use a word more than once. I used the word "word" six times already. Don't do that.
- Grammar. Spelling. Punctuation. They. Are. Important. Check that: (1) your essay is written in a consistent tense (“I sat on a cow. She moos.” → “I sat on a cow. She mooed.”); (2) the following are all correctly used: your vs you’re, they’re vs there vs their, it’s vs its, effects vs affects, etc; (3) you did not apply “that” to living beings (“She’s the one that got accepted.” → "She’s the one who got accepted.") (For more, heed the wisdom of The Oatmeal here)
- Get inspired. Some of my favorite (and most helpful) advice writings: (1) The excellent "College Essay: Yogurt Edition" blog post from Chris S. '11 here; (2) David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" speech here; (3) Chuck Palahniuk's essay on minimalist writing here. Who are your favorite authors?
- Practice. Polish. Start again. Discard the essay that doesn’t sound quite right. Choose a different story. Experiment. Even if you spend hours on one piece, it may never be fixed. So start over. Write in a flurry of inspiration. Edit. Let go...
This list is by no means complete or comprehensive. Read advice from other sources, especially from your favorite writers. Ask your friends, family, advisors, and teachers for feedback. When inspiration strikes, write. Tell us your tale. May the muse be with you always!
Your story is now part of MIT.
(P.S.: Thank you, Gayle from the Bay Area, for inspiring this post!)