How Not to Write Your College Application Essay
Article by: Tal Aviezer, Inside Track Writing Consultant
The Essay Is An Extension of You
It’s no secret that college essays can be one of the most daunting aspects of the application process for some students. What topic should I choose? What questions should I answer? What kind of tone should I take? Is it okay to be funny? What do I want to say about myself, my accomplishments, and my future goals?
It’s also important to keep in mind that editing is a big part of the creation of your essay. The process doesn’t end when you write the last sentence. Your first draft is like a “rough cut” of a film. As an editor, it’s time for you to review your work, and decide what is valuable in telling your story, and what should be left on the cutting room floor.
Here are five general guidelines to use and pitfalls to avoid:
- Details and specificity are better than broad generalities. College admissions staff read a lot of essays. The inclusion of a few choice details can lend your essay specificity and help you stand out from the pack. For example, instead of broadly stating that you “Enjoy volunteer work and love to help others,” include mention of specific work you have done and specific situations: “On Saturdays during the fall of my freshman year, I volunteered at the Parkville Senior Center and became close with Mrs. Frankenhoffer, one of the residents. She taught me how to play bridge and I taught her how to use facebook.” The details included in the second version help make a stronger impression.
- Demonstrate your maturity. Your readers appreciate wisdom and a sense of perspective. Look for ways to demonstrate emotional and intellectual growth and lessons learned. Avoid describing events such as losing a JV soccer game as “the worst pain and misery I have ever felt in my life.” Avoid blanket unrealistic pronouncements such as, “I have determined that from now on, for the rest of my life, I will never lose at anything, no matter what.” Statements like these demonstrate a lack of life experience, maturity, perspective, and acquired wisdom. Instead, you may want to focus on drawing wisdom from defeat. Maybe it turned out you didn’t need the affirmation of being part of the Homecoming Court in order to appreciate your self-worth. Perhaps in losing that debate you gained insight into areas where you can improve your skills. Although it was very difficult when your relative passed away, maybe you discovered your gift of lending comfort and council to others in grief.
- Avoid hyperbole and clichés. Did your redesign of the fashion page of your school’s yearbook really make it “a thousand times better”? Really? A thousand times? It might be better to talk about how fashion is an important form of self-expression for high school students struggling to define themselves, and your layout redesign helped to capture the key looks and styles of your graduating class. And about that solo you sang at the big concert? Instead of saying you “reached out and melted the hearts of the audience”, talk about exactly why you chose that song, or quote a specific compliment you received about your performance.
- Don’t be afraid to be funny. Everybody appreciates humor, and wit can greatly enhance your essay. Just make sure not to sacrifice the essential substance of your piece for the sake of excessive jokes.
- Share your work with others. You don’t have to work in a vacuum! Show your essay to others whose opinions you value. You may or may not agree with all of their feedback. As a general rule, if you hear a piece of criticism from one person that doesn’t seem correct to you, you may be safe in dismissing it. But if the same or similar comment is made about your essay by three or four different people, it’s certainly worth considering the consensus opinion and deciding whether a change might be warranted.