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?
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).
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! :)