Writing a college admissions essay is a daunting task. Writing five seems impossible, especially with so many rumors flying around about how you should write them. This article is designed to myth-bust some of the larger tall tales about college admissions essays, and provide some simple, straightforward guidelines to writing an essay you can be proud of. Ready? Let’s go.
Myth #1: If you are applying to five different schools, you need five different essays.
Excuse me. What?! If all five schools have specific, different prompts, then yes, you’re going to need to write five different essays. But chances are there will be some wiggle room. Most schools will ask you a very general open-ended question like (to use a somewhat trite example) who the person you most admire is and why. If you think Andrew Jackson is the most kick-ass person ever, write your essay about him. And if more than one school asks that question, just click print twice. The schools are not going to confer with one another over each applicant’s essay topics. They don’t care if you wrote the same essay for another school, and they’re not going to know. If one school asks you to choose your own topic (and more are each year) choose a topic that another school assigned you. I repeat: They don’t know, and they don’t care. Consolidate where you can and save yourself the headache.
Myth #2: I need to use as many big words as I can to impress the admissions officers.
“The proceeding attestation is most erroneous. Obfuscation through verboseness is necessitated to be eschewed.” Is everything I wrote gramatically correct? Yes. Do the words make sense and translate neatly to,”The previous statement is false. Confusion from using too many words should be avoided,”? Yes. Did I sound like a pompous ass? Indubitably. Varying your word choice and sentence structure are excellent writing processes. Showcasing your vocabulary is also appropriate. But using large and fancy-sounding words nonstop for the sole purpose of impressing the admissions officers is one of the dumbest things you could do. If you happen to know and like the word erroneous (as I do) and find an opening in your essay begging to be filled by such a word, go for it. If you find yourself rereading your essay with a thesaurus, trying to replace as many words as possible with five-syllable counterparts, take a step back and ask yourself: Does this sound like me? Or does this sound like Gilderoy Lockhart, pre-memory damage? If it’s the latter, tone it down a bit.
Myth #3: I need to stand out, so if I’m completely off-the-wall, and turn in something brilliant that they don’t understand and weren’t expecting, I’m sure to get accepted!
Wrong. If they asked for five hundred words detailing your stance on immigration reform, a series of haiku about how immigration is like a butterfly, carved into a boulder from Home Depot and Fed-Exed to the campus is not going to impress them. It’s going to make them file a restraining order, or at the very least discard your application (and your rock). The cardinal rule of essay-writing for any assignment is to answer the question or do what the prompt asks. If they want to hear about your most profound moment in a seven hundred and fifty word essay, that’s what you write. If they want you to argue a side of the health care debate, do some research and begin the persuasion. Do what they ask you to do.
This, however, does not mean that you must sacrifice your individuality. If you need to choose a side regarding health care, choose one you can effectively argue because you care about it. Look for arguments that will support your essay, but which the admissions officers may not have heard before. Being unique by avoiding being perfunctory and expected will give you an edge. Being unique by convincing them that you’re a crazy person will turn the edge on you.
Myth #4: A good gimmick can hide the fact that I wrote a poor essay, or that I said nothing original.
True story: I once read about a boy applying to an Ivy League school. He sent in his application. He sent in his essay. He also sent in a leather wingback chair with a note attached. The note said, “I hope this reserves a seat for me at your school.” How clever. Needless to say his application was rejected because he didn’t spend enough time on his essay because he was relying completely on his “gift.” Also, I find it hard to believe that any of the Ivies are lacking in leather wingback chairs.
The point is, using gimmicks (or bribes) to get what you want only reflects poorly on you. It cannot hide a substandard essay. Furthermore, it can degrade a well-written essay by taking attention away from your talents and placing it on a bad decision. Save it for when you’re rich and famous and need a leather wingback chair of you own.
The Guidelines: Writing the Best Essay You Can
1. Answer the prompt.
This is pretty self-explanatory, as I’ve already covered this in Myth #3. Do what they want. I can’t stress this enough.
2. Focus on your strengths.
A lot of the time, you will be given some leeway in writing your essays. If you are good at persuasive writing, not so hot at expository, write a persuasive essay if you can. If not, breathe, and take a look at step five.
Another way to focus on your strengths is also pretty basic: Write what you know. Writing about things you understand and care about will make your essay sincere and powerful. Many students try to research a topic they know little about, but that they think will be impressive. But becoming well-informed through a Google search cannot fully hide that you have little or no regard for a topic. Writing about something close to you is much more effective (and in a much more positive manner) than trying to sound like a Nobel laureate.
3. Don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled.
Many times, an essay prompt will ask you to choose an issue that is important to you, and argue one side of the debate. Chances are that this question was asked not because the admissions officers particularly care whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, or pro-death penalty or anti-death penalty, etc. Chances are, they have asked you this question to get an idea of what kind of writer you are, and how effectively and logically you can argue. What this means is that you have free rein. An admissions officer won’t throw out your essay because you disagree with them over the importance of solar and wind power in the clean energy debate. An admissions officer might, however, put you in the “maybe” pile if you write a cookie-cutter essay expounding the exact same arguments as every other solar power essay that came to their desk. If you know that almost everyone is going to write that we need to cut down on earmarked legislation, you can do wonders for your chances of admission by writing a powerful, well-organized, and logical essay touting the value of earmarks and the good they have done for our country. A word to the wise, however: If you don’t think you can write an essay on the less-argued side of a debate that’s just as good as or better than one you could write on the more heavily-weighted side, don’t do it. Try to find arguments on the popular side that are usually forgotten, and discuss those. Don’t sacrifice your writing to stand out: These two components should work in harmony.
4. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Review, review, review. Proofread, proofread, proofread.
You literally cannot do either of these things too many times. My advice is to write your essay, run the automatic spelling and grammar checker, then not look at it again for 24 hours. After that time, go through your essay yourself and look for spelling and mechanical errors that your word processor might have missed. Then wait an hour or so–make a sandwich, watch some cartoons, whatever. Now go back and review your essay, looking for and fixing things like poor segues, weird organizational structures, wordiness, places that could use one more or less sentence of explanation, and sentences that just don’t sound right. Now print up a copy of your essay and ask someone else (someone you trust) to proofread and review it–let them mark all over it. If they find grammatical mistakes, fix them. If they disagree with you over style, consider what they have to say. Remember, it may make sense to you, but you are not everyone. You don’t have to rewrite the entire thing, but be conscientious of others’ constructive criticism. Make any corrections you plan to. If you wish, now would be the time to ask a teacher to review it. Remember, give them three weeks to read it and return it to you. Make any changes they have suggested that you agree with. Then proofread it one more time.
Now send it in. And breathe. You’re finished!
5. Don’t dwell.
I am the queen of waking up two nights after turning in a paper and remembering some thing I wrote that I am now second-guessing. Don’t dwell. There’s nothing you can do about it now. If you’ve done your best and sent it in, then don’t worry. No good can come from brooding over things you can’t change.
Now sit back, relax, and let the admissions offers roll in.