On writing your college essay

As we enter July, rising seniors should be giving serious thought to the college application. Many of you will not find this a happy thought, since starting the essay seems so intimidating!

There is certainly no shortage of good advice on the topic.  On the College Board‘s website, for example, Dean Schmill of MIT advises you to be honest in your self-presentation and to read the instructions.  Dean Brenzel of Yale reminds you to be authentic and to have your essays read by others who know you well. Dean Merrill of Connecticut College reminds warns that crafting a good essay takes time and you should make good use of the summer.

This last bit of advice is particularly important.  Students dream of an endless summer, but the break in your exhausting routine of homework and activities is actually short-lived. July is therefore a good time for some tips on writing your college essay:

•    On choosing a topic: For many of you, identifying the topic will seem the hardest part. The Common Application gives you six prompts to choose from, including a “topic of your choice.”  In other words, you can really write about anything under the sun because the topic is merely the vehicle for a larger story: what to tell an admission reader about yourself.  Whether you choose to write about a book, a person or an event, the admissions committee has at best passing interest in that subject, and will instead try and decipher what the essay tells them about you.

•    On controversial subjects and funny stories: Admission officers reassure students that they are free to write on any subject as long as it is honest and authentic, but there are clearly some subjects that will not work as well as others.  Few teenagers are deft enough to handle controversial subjects like their positions on abortion, presidential politics or foreign wars, with more depth than dogma.  Funny is good, but it works best if your unknown reader actually shares your sense of humor.  As with any writing, keep your audience in mind: admission officers are educated adults who are unlikely to share the social tastes of teenage girls and locker room boys, experienced enough to have read countless essays on every topic under the sun, and are above all led by the needs of their institutions.

•    On writing well: It is hard to separate what you are saying from how you say it.  With a college essay good writing is especially important since admission officers are also trying to gauge something about your academic preparation and intellectual depth.  This is not the moment to try and impress by choking out long words and unfamiliar phrases, and you are well-advised to follow the advice of William Zinsser in his On Writing Well, when he warns against the tendency to “inflate and thereby sound important.”

The American personal essay is unique in the world of university admissions. It is not as important to selective colleges as a student’s academic performance – as admission officers like to say, a good essay can help heal the sick but it cannot resuscitate the dead.  It is nevertheless hugely significant in applicant pools where many students share similarly high achievements and equal evidence of hard work. And in the process it gives young people with very busy lives a moment to reflect on the opportunities and meaning of those lives.

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