Perhaps the most elusive part of a college application is the essay. “The essay,” or the Personal Essay as it’s officially titled on the Common Application, is different than most. There is no required reading, no maximum or minimum number of quotes to be used, no textual or numerical analysis necessary. Make no mistake about it, writing this essay takes hard work. I have memories of writing and re-writing drafts of my own college essay. More than anything else, I remember my frustration when my counselor told me to start over (twice) after I handed in two different drafts that, quite frankly, I thought were excellent essays. The draft of mine that she ultimately supported was one that I cared very little for at first; then, as I put more and more of myself into it, that topic, too, became my favorite.
What should I write about? What are the do’s and don’t’s of college essays? These are questions that everyone in our office has heard more than once. It’s only natural to feel challenged by the essay, but the single most important do is to let who you are come through in your writing. The main don’t? Avoid writing an essay that you think an admission officer wants to read. Submitting an essay that says very little about you, while trying to impress us, is a hazardous move. Instead, consider what the intrinsic elements of YOU are. (Hint: your transcript and test scores won’t help us much with this!) Use these few pages of writing to give us an additional window into you as a person. This might come in the form of writing about a success, a failure, a mentor, a hobby, a location, an event…and there are many more topics out there! Be thoughtful with your writing–have a teacher or another individual you’re close to read it over. But let your voice come through in style and vocabulary; this is your writing, and no one else’s.
And know, that ultimately, this is just a piece of the puzzle. We have a holistic view of applications for a reason: you are more than just your writing, or your test scores, or your GPA. It’s the real, live people who make this community what it is.
For admission officers fall is travel season and winter is reading season. At Whitman two officers read each application, scrolling through 30-pages on laptops and writing comments on the electronic “vote sheet”. We review apps “holistically”, meaning that we take into account a student’s transcript (curriculum and grades), writings, passions and activities, letters of recommendation and—lastly—test scores.
My favorite part of the application is the Common Application Personal Essay, which gives a student multiple subject options. An excellent essay makes my day and distinguishes the student from other applicants. I have a file of “essay keepers”, writings that knocked my socks off and that I keep to re-read when times slow down.
Memorable essays are always well-written and can be on any topic. The best ones tell me who the student is, what makes them tick, what they’re passionate about, how they interact with peers, parents and pariahs. Some are humorous (but it takes a talented writer to nail humor), some take a surprising turn, some are heart-felt, some make me shed a tear (but don’t try to make me cry!). Don’t try to impress, just be honest. Don’t tell me what you do unless it explains who you are. Don’t use big words when little words better convey what you have to say. Conciseness trumps verbosity. When in doubt follow Mark Twain’s advice:
“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English….don’t let fluff and flowers creep in. [Adjectives] weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective, a diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” (Letter to D.W. Bowser, March 20, 1880)
Often students wonder what to do during the summer to improve their chances of getting admitted to a selective college. I understand but am mildly aggravated by this preoccupation. Sure, you can find a cure for cancer or save the world from war and famine but you can also spend time with friends, read some books you didn’t have time for during the school year, mow the lawn, paint the trim, get a job, or find a worthwhile volunteer opportunity near your home: One does not need a passport to do community service. Remember the bumper sticker: Think Globally, Act Locally. And if these ideas sound a bit too pedestrian think of the essay you can write: How I Saved the World by Reducing My Carbon Footprint by Riding My Bike to Work/Library/Food Pantry.