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Chris S. '11

Nov 11, 2008

The College Essay: Yogurt Edition!

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Freshman Applicants

I think the college essay is a lot like froyo. It comes in a variety of flavors, you get to customize it, and experimenting with new flavors either yields blissful joy, or, sometimes, yucky disappointment.

When I applied to college 2 years ago (2 years! I'm old :( ), I wrote over a dozen unique essays to all the colleges I applied to (btw - applying to 15 colleges - not such a good idea. it's tiring, it costs a ridiculous sum of money in application fees, counselors get mad at you for making them work so much =p, and you have to narrow your list down after you get the acceptance letters anyway). I didn't believe in the "one size fit all" approach when it came to the college essay, and so I strove to write an unique essay for the differing prompts that each college required (there were some exceptions - I submitted my MIT essay for Columbia; I still applied via Common App for a couple schools so there were overlaps there...but for all additional essays I tried to tailor them individually).

okok. enough rambling. =p

1. Froyo is meant for experimenting. So it is the same with the college essay.

Ever walk into a shop with one of those glass cases with all the toppings laid out in a symphony of delicious colors? Sure, it's safe to get strawberry (that's what I always get. XP) But why always get the same?

College admission officers read upwards of tens of thousands of application essays in one application cycle, so how is your essay going to be different than the myriad of other competing essays?

Too often, I notice students get caught in a rut when they're writing the college essay. Many feel that there always needs to be a "moral to the story," and so inevitably all essays end with some variant of these sentences: 1) "I felt that I grew a lot from the adversity present in this situation and it really shaped who I am today," 2) "Having spent all four years of high school doing this activity, I feel like it became an inseparable part of myself," 3) "Having been through so many things and having all of the qualities described above, I feel like I'm ready to tackle whatever will come my way."

I feel like the most beautiful college essays are the essays that don't hand the reader its moral (or "point" - so to speak) explicitly on a silver platter. The most compelling essays I feel are those that sufficiently paint the picture for the reader, and then leave him on his own to reach his own conclusions. Just look at the Mona Lisa - did da Vinci write, in golden font at the base of the painting, "Look at her enigmatic smile. It's beautiful!"?

"But-but-" you ask, "Aren't we trying to answer a question? If we don't conclude, how are they going know that I addressed the question?"

Throughout your years of schooling, the standard introduction-body-conclusion system is ingrained into your mind. You were trained to begin an essay with a well-defined introduction with a thesis sentence, proceed into the body with topic sentences for each individual paragraph, and close with a conclusion that restates the thesis. Works for APUSH essays - works for research papers - but the college essay?

Boring.

Yes - most college essays will ask you to address a topic (like the MIT main essay) - but don't approach it in the same way as you would with a research paper. A research paper is structured thus because you're trying to provide a well-organized collection of facts to a reader that may or may not be interested in what you have to say. With the college essay - you're trying to convey a slice of your life, and thus you can take liberties in straying away from the conventional structure.

Experiment with your writing style. Approach it differently from how you would typically start an essay. Write it - and then at the end come back and ask yourself "did I convey my point across effectively?" If the answer is a resounding "yes!" - congrats!

"But- how do you do that?"

Read on ;)

(btw, strawberry-kiwi-mango = loveee. it's tri-colored too! =p)

2. Marshmellow-butterscotch-blueberry-oreo-mango-pineapple-waffle? Not cute.

Consider the following examples:

"At times, it appeared that we were surmounting an impassable obstacle. However, through the camaraderie and the solidarity of our aquatics team, we triumphed over our defeats and inevitably reached the pennant of victory."

"Back in July, my friends made fun of me when I told them that I was going to start a swimming team. Laughing, they told me to return to my math problems. Today, standing in the limelight, I look over at my teammates and can't help but marvel at how far we've come."

Two sentences - notice a difference? Which one draws you closer to the author?

It's not surprising that you may find the second sentence to be a lot more "down-to-earth." The simple reason is just because the sentence is conveying a narrative in an everyday tone, rather than adopting pedantic verbiage.

Another problem that I see a lot in my peers back in the day when we were all applying to college is that people would try really hard to make themselves sound "educated" by trying to use all of these advanced vocabulary in their essays. Not satisfied with "improved?" Try "ameliorated." "Common" sounds too simple? What about "pedestrian?" Often, their essays end up turning into a convoluted amalgam of abstruse discourse, confounding the audience in a valiant embellishment of protracted circumlocution.

A note of caution here: I'm not trying to say that you should tone down your writing if you use a lot of vocabulary in your writing - but be careful of what the "voice" in your essay sounds like. Does it sound like you, or does it sound like someone that's trying too hard with a thesaurus? At the bottom line, the essay should be about you - so don't be afraid of showing your own voice! (believe me - an essay that "tries too hard" is very easy to spot)

(I'm going to segue into something cool that you can do with your essay here, but please don't solely use this test to measure how "good" your essay is! That is something no machine can tell you. You've been warned. Click.)

3. The first and last spoonfuls are the sweetest.

Sometimes I steal a bite of my friends' froyo (instead of buying my own -____-| | |) cuz I think one spoonful with all the icy yogurt-tangy goodness is heaven enough.

And so it is with the college essay.

Consider your lead-in and your ending (namely, the first sentence and your last sentence, but more broadly, your first paragraph-ish and your last paragraph).

When you took the SAT, you were probably exhorted to use an engaging opening sentence in your essay, since the graders will spend no more than a couple of minutes on your essay, and sometimes the opening sentence is the most important factor in "luring" the reader in. The college essay is very much the same way - the adcoms have thousands of them to sort through, and a banal essay would probably begin with something like "An experience that changed my life is..." "Someone that I looked up to is...because..."

Be engaging, be active. Paint a picture for your audience.

Personally, I liked telling stories in my essays. I nearly always began each essay with a short narrative, since it makes the "lead-in" a lot easier (you can basically just segue into whatever you want to talk about through the little story that you've laid out).

As for the conclusion, my AP Literature teacher was fond of saying that a great essay always contains something at the end for the reader to think about. For example, classics in world literature rarely resolve their conflicts and plot in a single, sweeping chapter that encompasses everything that you possibly would like to know about with each and every character afterwards. Usually, classics end in such a way that give you pause after reading the last sentence of the last paragraph, and let's you consider the implications of the hundreds of pages that you've just read before.

What does this mean? No "happily ever after" endings, no trite endings like "joining the aquatics team had truly made me a new person." Some good things to consider though, are: offering the reader something to think about (doesn't have to be in the form of a direct question) or a tie-back to your beginning narrative (the second part of the story in your intro, for example - I tend to utilize this pretty often - drawing the reader back to the scene I've painted in the beginning). Avoid unnecessary puns or wordplay, moralizing statements ("I have truly discovered the meaning of courage"), and lame witty comments at all cost, although for some odd reason I've read dozens and dozens of SAT essays that end like this (through grading the exams for the SAT Prep program I direct).

4. Making great yogurt takes time.

Did you know that because frozen yogurt melts and freezes much slower than ice cream because yogurt has a higher heat of fusion than milk? (!!! I was amazed when I discovered this)

Take your time when you write your essay. Your essay should never be churned out hours before the application deadline in a desperate struggle to complete your application (although I was guilty of that for one essay). A well-written essay takes time to distill in the back of your mind, and can't be "forced out" by hours of sitting in front of Microsoft Word.

Something I like to do when I have to write an essay is that I'll actually Scotch-tape the prompt on top of my desk as soon as it's assigned, and just leave it there until I begin writing my essay. I also try to remember the gist of the prompt, and think about possible approaches and content during the "down-times" of my day (waiting for the bus, being bored in lecture, shopping at the supermarket...etc.). Note that this kind of "thinking" isn't like "okay-I'm-going-to-sit-down-now-and-only-think-about-the-essay" kind of thinking, but rather an ongoing process in the back of your mind. If you get used to thinking like this, you just automatically begin to process things in your mind all the time without meaning to do them. For example, my lead to the Stanford essay came to me when I was showering; Caltech, when I was walking to a convenience store. Now, if I have a particularly pestering pset question that eludes my attempts at trying to rationalize it, I'll store it in that "thinking" compartment in the back of my brain and chances are I'll discover a new lead to doing the problem at some random time during the day.

This is why a good essay takes time. Just like making good yogurt takes time for all the bacteria to happily multiply in warm milk. A "brute-forced" essay, like its counterpart in mathematical proofs, should be the last resort, simply because there is no elegance to it. Therefore, if you haven't started thinking about your Regular Action essays, start now! You will thank yourself later :)

5. One word - Passion.

When it comes to writing to college essay, I think it really boils down to one word. Passion. The essay should almost be "an extension of yourself - what you like to do, your dreams, and what defined you as a person through high school."

Speak to the audience. Paint a picture in words. Share with them what you really loved in high school, your ups and your downs - what defines your life.

I look at the college essay and I feel like it's the only expressive part to the whole application that you get (well, aside from the interview). It's the only opportunity where you would be able to share with your readers a slice of your life away from mundane test scores, GPA, and lists of activities. Why not capitalize on this opportunity and really try hard to present who you really are?

Write from your heart - better yet, write with the energy and drive that is uniquely yours (I would write, "write with your soul" but I thought that sounded too cheesy. =p)

FAQ that doesn't really fit anywhere else:

Should I get my teachers/friends to proofread the essay?

For my very first college essay, I asked two teachers to revise it for me, since it was "omg-this-is-my-first-essay!" Although I was grateful for the work of my teachers, my essay turned into 13 rewrites and a final product that sounded nearly nothing like me. After submitting that essay for my Early Decision school, I quickly trashed it and proceeded to write the ensuing Regular Actions completely from scratch. Upon finishing an essay, I usually proofread the completed essay 10 times over the course of three days or so (you shouldn't proofread the essay all in one sitting, since your tired brain probably will be fried and you will just end up skimming through the same mistakes). And that's it!

Thus, I think it's all up to you. Try asking an adult to read it and see what they feel, although I definitely do not think that you must have had an adult read it to make it a good essay. At times, you risk losing your original voice from over-editing.

What about the essay prompts?

I addressed the explanations above generally to the prompt of "Tell us about an experience that shaped who you are" or one of MIT's essay prompts ("Tell us about the world that you came from."). However, one important thing is to pay attention to the prompts of your college essays. Some colleges are very free and you can pretty much attach anything you want (when I applied - Columbia and Harvard), while others are tailored and you have to answer their questions (Stanford, Caltech). If they ask for a specific response, be sure to address the prompt! (this is also the reason why I wrote so many different essays to each individual school).

Word count?

This is the old argument that I feel like no one can really address with the exception of the adcoms who would actually be reading your essays. I would go with the aged wisdom of following the instructions on the application essay. If they specifically ask you not to overdo it (like MIT), keeping it around 500 words seem reasonable. If they don't specify a word limit, then exercise your best judgment. Chances are that you should always be able to slim down your essay though. If it's really hard determining how much fluff you have in your essay, actually go through the entirely essay sentence by sentence and ask yourself, "what is the connection of this sentence to the rest of the essay? do I really need it?"

Can you post your essay?

In short, no. Be creative! I don't understand why people need sample essays while they are applying to college since the application essay should be completely and originally yours. How can you tailor someone's dreams and writing styles to fit your own voice?

Great links? Other questions?

I thought that the College Board's guide to writing a good essay is really well-written. Something else that I forgot to mention above but College Board does is this!

Don't Write a Resume Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn.

Also, feel free to leave a message if you have other questions about the essay.

Finally, what does this entry have to do with froyo?

Nothing really. I really wanted to write a blog on how to write the essay but I had to use froyo to lure you in (if you're still reading this very, very lengthy blog at this point). To compensate, I guess I'll leave you with some visual icy goodness. =p

On a side note, the bloggers are all getting together for froyo tomorrow! :)

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)

Wow. Great post Oasis =D Wow. Great post Oasis =D <3 CC

Posted by: llpitch on November 11, 2008

really a help full entry.....

Posted by: 0 on November 11, 2008

@Chris : That is a wonderful way to make your post 'interesting' (No big words from the thesaurus for me!) It's one the best one's that I've read. And thanks for those links..

Regarding the 4th point, I guess that's what Einstein must have been doing. He go some of his main ideas about the relativity theory when he was out for a stroll with his baby !

Posted by: Dhvanit - FIRST for the first time ! on November 11, 2008

Oops ! I missed it.. There weren't any responses when I opened this post and felt a bit lazy to check it once more before posting my response.. so, third !

p.s. This is embarrassing...

Posted by: Dhvanit on November 11, 2008

**got

Posted by: Dhvanit on November 11, 2008

Chris: Great entry; I wish you had written this last year! smile

For those who feel a little overwhelmed about college apps in general, I have a few pointers here:
http://blog.jwcxz.com/?p=233

Posted by: JWC '12 on November 11, 2008

awww i wish i had read this before submitting my early app to MIT...i can see parts of my essays that could use a little improvement. ah well. thanks for this entry! i'll use your advice for my reg decision essays =]

Posted by: hamsi on November 11, 2008

i lieks teh yogurt

Posted by: 0 on November 11, 2008

Strawberry froyo with strawberry ice-cream *in deep thought*...

I'm going to save this page till Dec 31. Thanks so much Chris!

Posted by: Ahana on November 11, 2008

Chris, you are absolutely adorable

Posted by: Gina on November 11, 2008

That does look yummy!!

And good advice...I like your excessive usage of =P

Posted by: Banerjee on November 11, 2008

Nice entry

I will keep these tips in mind while writing my essay

Posted by: Ivan on November 11, 2008

Personally, I liked telling stories in my essays. I nearly always began each essay with a short narrative, since it makes the "lead-in" a lot easier (you can basically just segue into whatever you want to talk about through the little story that you've laid out).

That's so me! All my essays start with a short anecdote(usually with dialogue). I LOVE writing essays. In India, to get into colleges, you have to do hard calc problems in 1.5 minutes each and everything depends on that. At MIT, you still do hard calc problems, but there's more to it than just that. I love the freedom. It also helps that I love writing. I'm trying to write a novel( not a good idea, coz I often end up writing abt calc:my other passion, apart from computers.)

Posted by: Monorina on November 11, 2008

Thank you for your time.

Posted by: Robert on November 11, 2008

Oh man... now I really want some froyo. ^_^

I don't have time to read all of this now (psets :-( ) but from the first half it seems like you have a lot of good points. Yay.

My MIT essay was actually kind of similar to this entry - I made some cutesy analogy that compared essay-writing to cooking muffins. My then-boyfriend told me my essay was fluffy, but clearly admissions was entertained. The essay was actually about knowing what I wanted to minor in (Linguistics) but not what I wanted to major in... as it would turn out, I was wrong on both counts - it turned out that I was closet Course 6 all along but I was afraid to just declare it because it might be seen as a 'default' major... and I never did minor in Linguistics (though I took 24.900, which is awesome) because there were so many other interesting HASS classes to take.

Posted by: Nicole '10 on November 11, 2008

Thanks for the Gunning Fog Index.

MS Word actually has an in-built Flesch Readability Guide and the Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level with the Spelling & Review tool.

I found out I write for 7th and 8th graders...

Posted by: Rishi on November 11, 2008

Bravo Chris smile Hehe stalking you. How long did it take you to write this?!?

Posted by: Jess Liao on November 11, 2008

@ Chris

Not sure if the Gunning Fog Index is correct.
My essay got a 15.01.

Didn't you say before that your essay was around 1000 words?

This place where you buy froyo, how far is it from MIT campus? Do you take the T to get there?

Posted by: Ivan on November 11, 2008

Hey, I just wanted to say my thanks to the admission staff. I noticed my recommendations were processed today, veterans day. I appreciate the hard work on this holiday and the fact that you took the time to work while many had the day off.

Posted by: littlebhawk on November 11, 2008

Incredibly helpful post, Chris! smile

Posted by: JY on November 11, 2008

i wish the froyo shop near harvard square would adopt me. i'd be the happiest girl alive living off of that stuff.

Posted by: Vicky ('15?) on November 11, 2008

Mm... froyo. A question concerning #4 - are you saying that if I crank out my essay in record time, it will end up even more delicious but will make the admissions officer reading it fat?

Posted by: Lexy on November 11, 2008

I wish I had this when applying to MIT last year. I practically broke all those rules AND wrote a long enough essay that I had to cut out all the nice words, making it look like one of those really bland yogurts with all the delicious goodness packed at the bottom. If the admissions officers didn't stir it around a bit, it would've tasted pretty darn confusing. No wonder I didn't get accepted. Hah, excuses, excuses. raspberry

Posted by: Muz on November 11, 2008

I'm guessing that I am not the only one who wants to redo their essays after reading this.

Posted by: Colton on November 11, 2008

Wow, someone should do something about the robot spamming...

Posted by: 0 on November 11, 2008

Spam is a rather annoying pain to deal with. I have Akismet for filtering spam on my own blog. Yet, I have noticed that a good bit of the spam that my blog received (and this blog was receiving too) began with "hi webmaster"

Posted by: Colton on November 11, 2008

Great advice! I love your posts. I will make sure to recommend this to my friends who are also applying to colleges right now.

Posted by: Bridger on November 11, 2008

Nice blog. I know it'll help a lot of the people applying for Regular Decision.

Butttt, I just wanted to say cause it always bugs me when people do it:

"how is your essay going to be different than the myriad of other competing essays?"

wrong usage of myriad. use it as if it's the word "several"

Posted by: ilikecheese on November 12, 2008

hey, good work. Thanks for the help.

Posted by: Hiral Patel on November 12, 2008

very good advice. this is the most helpful post i've ever read on this site!
& the froyo is nice too

Posted by: Mayur on November 12, 2008

Great post! Unfortunately I already submitted by part 2 for regular action. MIT is the most "user-friendly" university I have looked at. You guys really support applicants well. Thanks a lot!

Posted by: Amit on November 12, 2008

I think all of the bloggers' efforts to assist prefrosh with college essays is great, but as a current freshman at the 'tvte, this post addresses a different issue that is so dear to my heart: FRO YO.

Chris, you must help me. I hail from Los Angeles, where you can find hundreds of fro yo shops scattered throughout the city, sometimes even a few per block. And I'm not just talking about the big ones, like Pinkberry and Red Mango. Yogurt Zone (very cute, zen store tucked in the corner of a strip all in the valley) is my personal favorite.

Anyway, I would have fro yo all the time, and this past summer it got up to multiple times a week. And when I get to MIT, they think "frozen yogurt" is low fat ice cream! An outrage! I found Berryline in Harvard Square, but please enlighten me as to where else I can satisfy my fro yo cravings!
(P.S. My favorite flavor: original with strawberries, mango and MOCHI!)

Posted by: Sara '12 on November 12, 2008

@ Jess -
These kind of entries take me around 4-5 hours...it's the equivalent of a 7-8 paged essay (put it into Word and you'll see =p).

@ Ivan -
The Fog Index doesn't lie. And yes, my essay was around 1,000 words, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it because now, in retrospect, I think I gave the adcoms a lot of unnecessary reading. Also, that essay was basically entirely narrative so I thought it was a bit different than a traditional essay in the sense with word count. Anyways, I'm not mandating you what to do and what not to do. Do whatever you think would be appropriate.

@ Lexy -
?? Take the time to make your essay taste yummy. Don't worry, it's froyo so it's low fat. hah :D

@ Muz, Colton -
I didn't write this entry to make people feel bad! By all means, this entry is a guideline of sorts, rather than the end-all to college admission essays. So don't worry :D

@ Cheese -
I knew there was something wrong with myriad!! Before I submitted it, I thought there was something wrong with myriad but was too tired to think about it really hard. Haha thanks. smile

@ Everyone about froyo -
Haha, so ok I'm new in Boston too. I only know the one by Harvard, the one in Super 88 (Chinese supermarket in Brookline, there's a smallish store inside that sells froyo), and Ankara Cafe (where Matt orders from for the bloggers - but on second thought - the froyo there is starting to taste like low fat ice cream haha but it might just be me). That's it, lol - I really haven't been here enough to know even more froyo places.

Sara - I know what you mean about froyo and SoCal! There's practically more froyo stores in LA than Dunkin' Donuts in Boston. Ah geez - at least they have the weather to have froyo all year 'round. Just like Taiwan. =p

Posted by: Oasis '11 on November 12, 2008

Definitely one of the best "college essay" entries I've seen in quite a while =) I love how you present your opinions in a fun and lighthearted way; keep up the awesome work!

Posted by: Vivi '12 on November 12, 2008

Thanks for the information, Chris. smile

Posted by: Alex on November 13, 2008

Chris, you are adorable.

Posted by: Steve on November 14, 2008

Wow. I actually read the whole thing, and I did it not only because I have a thing for frogurt. I "have a thing" for good advice and clever writers, and your blog was exactly what I needed. The application essay process is taking an incredible toll on my patience and sanity, but your advice may have been the very perfect bit of encouragement. And your little html faces were cute. :p

Thanks,
Ashley

Posted by: Ashley on November 14, 2008

Thank you for all this helpful information. I was initially afraid that my "tone" of writing is rather unsophisticated, but now you have put my mind at ease.

Posted by: Victor on November 14, 2008

I really appriciate the advice. It has lead me to reconfigure my paper

Posted by: 0 on November 15, 2008

I think I made many of the mistakes you pointed out...

Posted by: Step on the Boy on November 15, 2008

hi chris, was wondering if i wanted to send pictures of my invention for the question 6 of part 2 application how do i do?? can i send?? did other previous candidates send??
thank you

Posted by: Anonymous on November 16, 2008

Oh, god. Not spam again!
And of all the spam, it just had to be the insultingly stupid kind. Better Markovs, you ******rs!


Anyway, cool post. I haven't even begun thinking about my essay.... May god have mercy on my soul.

Posted by: CAPTCHA spokesperson on November 16, 2008

@ Oasis '11 and everyone else asking about Froyo

Actually Chris, since you're also new to Boston, there's an AMAZING froyo place in Harvard Sq. called Berryline. 20 calories per cup! It's delicious, fat-conscious, and extremely popular! I just went there last week (followed by J.P. Licks which completely counteracts the low-fat Berryline froyo).

Posted by: Jess Liao on November 17, 2008

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