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The College Application Essay Part I: Answers from the wizard in aisle 9c

Posted by on Thursday, September 11, 2008 in Application Process, College Application Guides, File Reading Explained, The College Essay.

My two year old son likes to ask me to tell him stories right before bedtime.  I weakly protest but ultimately acquiesce in the effort to get him off to dreamland.  Quite candidly though, I suck at it.  He is a tough, but forgiving audience, mostly finding a matchbox car more entertaining after about two lines in to the tale.  Once I became so bored with my own story that I began plagiarizing the plotline of The Wizard of Oz, passing it off as my own.  Don’t judge me, okay?  You try and concoct a story that will keep a toddler’s attention.  Oh the great divine irony then that I work in a field that demands that students tell us a story about their lives in the form of the application essay, and then passes judgment on the merits of that story.  I just hope we have a slightly better attention span than a two year old. 


The application essay is perhaps the most common grist for the anxiety mill that is the application process at highly selective colleges.  I get why it’s a little daunting to applicants.  It’s a task which is nearly completely in your control, including the overall direction of the content, and most importantly, the decision of when that task is successfully completed.  At some point, your grades are on paper in the transcript, the standardized tests are taken, and there you are, staring at the rhythmic blinking cursor on the screen, almost like it’s a tapping foot.


What I don’t get is the cottage industry of “experts” who crank out guides to writing said admissions essays that “can’t miss.”  So in the effort to do research (and get out of the office for an hour) I have taken a pilgrimage to the local mega-bookstore to seek the collective wisdom of the great Oracle of College Decisions (for short, we shall call it OCD) on the admissions essay.  Here’s what I learned:

  • You must package yourself in every way, “just being yourself” and “just being honest” isn’t enough.  One “expert” even lists these as “fatal errors” in the essay writing process based apparently on one student’s experience of writing an essay on her honest assessment that her effort level in her high school studies was lower than it could have been, as her academics seemed to come naturally to her.  She had to *gasp* “settle for her 4th choice school.”
  • If you are a graduate of a highly selective university you apparently can write books about how to get into those colleges.  Nevermind that this logic is akin to me saying that I can be a real estate agent because I applied for and got a mortgage.
  • Under no circumstance should you write an essay that someone else could have written.  Since the number of students applying to college is nearly 2,000,000, each applying to an average of 6 colleges each, your essay must then be one out of 12,000,000 in its uniqueness.  Yeah, that’s reasonable.
  • The café chairs in mega-bookstores are really uncomfortable.

The essay is a chance for you to speak directly to the individuals reading your application.  It’s not moderated through someone else (like a guidance counselor or teacher letter of recommendation or the SAT or ACT companies), it’s just you.  In the college application essay, we are trying to assess two major things (one that I will address today, and one that I will address tomorrow):


1.       an understanding of your voice, and

2.       an evaluation of how your mind pieces together thoughts and concepts


The science of writing an essay is no different than what you’re taught in your English composition classes:

  • A clear, coherent message/thesis that is consistent throughout the essay
  • Great proofing and grammar, and please go beyond spell-check which will not catch that you “did the loin share of the work on the lab project”  
  • Use examples and imagery rather than simply stating things (show me, rather than tell me) – more on this tomorrow
  • Answer the question (seems simple, but you’d be surprised)
  • Use precise word descriptions

The art of writing the essay is found in the voice.  I know you’re reading this now and perhaps rolling your eyes at the very ethereal notion of “hearing your voice,” but stick with me here.  Your essay, and the topic can be ordinary, oddball, simple, or complex, so long as it is genuinely you, it tends to work.  The reality though, is that we all have multiple voices.  Put another way, we all have various wonderful facets of ourselves, be it a thinker, a leader, a friend, etc.  So which one should you accentuate in your college essay? 


To answer this, humor me with a quick exercise on a scrap piece of paper.  First, write your name using your dominant hand.  Easy enough right?  Now write your name with your non-dominant hand.  A lot harder right?  Took longer?  Looks pretty bad too, huh?  Trying to write an essay in which you are trying to package yourself for some unknown admissions officer is no different than trying to sign your name with your opposite-hand.  It’s going to take forever and the product of your labor isn’t going to look all that familiar to you.  I don’t care what the OCD tells you.


If you’re a naturally funny person, that should come out in your essay.  If you’re known by your buddies as being introspective, always thinking about tiny, sometimes odd details, consider letting that voice come through.  Try this test to see if your essay clearly aligns with your voice.  Take your essay and remove your name, or any obvious self-identifying elements within it, and put it in front of 10 people who know you best.  They should be able to identify you as the author by its contents.  The college admissions essay should amplify your most natural, and thus strongest voice, not mimic someone else’s.


Tomorrow I will tackle the second dynamic we gleam from a college application essay: how you piece your thoughts together.

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  • Cheap Mort

    May 31st, 2011

    I like reading this, becouse financial part of getting to college is big issue to most of us. My parrents had to take mortgage to get me in and belive me, finding cheap mortgages is not easy task to do.
    I hope i will make it, so my parrents would not spend their money for nothing

  • Charls

    May 31st, 2011

    I agree with you… I had similar problems and my parrents risked all for me. Luckly i have finished and got my degree, so hope to pay them back some day