What is a Great Essay?: College Admissions Essay Help (page 4)
What exactly makes an essay great? While there are variations in taste between admissions counselors, there are many points on which most agree.
It's All About You
A great essay should be personal. Many of the Common Application topics prompt you to explore something external, whether it's a work of art, a heroic figure, or an era in history. But your goal shouldn't be to write a term paper—it's to reveal something important about you. You don't need to sound like Hemingway, provide unique insight into the Obama administration, or explain why your high school's debate team should have won the National Championship.
The bottom line is that the essay is meant to give admissions officers an idea of who you are. Period. Do anything else with your essay, such as explain why Michael Jackson was the greatest entertainer of all time or why the life of Mother Teresa was inspiring, and you've blown your chance. Remember, schools are cutting back on interviews and record numbers of students are applying to college, so writing an essay that provides a glimpse of who you are is more important than ever.
Of course you will be judged on the quality of your writing. You'll need to show that you have a good grasp of language and essay development. But just as important is your message. Your essay must not only make you come alive, but also help your reader(s) to connect with you. Therefore, choosing your message—the story you tell about yourself—is as important as good grammar and vocabulary.
A strong essay also has a clear focus. It doesn't try to showcase everything you've achieved since your first day of freshman year. Most of that has been listed else where on your application. With only about 500 words to tell your story, a lack of essay focus means that you'll end up with a laundry list rather than a personal, in-depth look at who you are. Here are some examples of essay topics and how they can be focused:
- A volunteer position at a hospital. Instead of a wide-ranging description of all the good you do (and to avoid sounding conceited), zero in on a positive interaction with one person, or one memorable aspect of your position.
- A love of long distance running. Ditch the cross-country team victories and defeats—they're not as personal as a description of what you see on your favorite route, what you listen to, or how running helps you stay centered.
- An award-winning photography series. Awards are already mentioned elsewhere on your application (as is the volunteer position and the cross country team). Take this opportunity to discuss what you've learned by looking through the lens of your camera. Get specific—clichés not only bore readers but also ruins your chance to make a positive connection.
The Myth of the Well-Rounded Student
Many students fall into the laundry list trap because they mistakenly believe admissions committees are only looking for students who are extraordinarily well rounded. The myth of the well-rounded student may have started because of the large number of categories on most applications. There are places to list your academic, sports, music, leadership, work, and volunteer achievements. But the reality is that most students don't have things to brag about in every category. Instead, they focus on excelling in a few key interests.
What college admissions officers are really seeking is a well-rounded freshman class, not just a group of renaissance students who can do it all. In fact, long lists of varied activities can backfire and be interpreted as a warning sign: is the list of activities just a stab at impressing them, with busyness masking the fact that the student has no idea what he or she is really interested in?
Ron Moss (http://www.mycollegeguide.org/read/real.html), director of enrollment management at Southern Methodist University, speaks for hundreds of schools when he notes the variety of students he and his admissions committee are seeking:
"We need geniuses in our class to ensure academic pace. We need an occasional eccentric to balance our cynicism and remind us of our individuality. We need artists and musicians to represent the richness of our pilgrimage. We need leaders who can provide vision and inspiration. We need active members and doers who can make the vision come true. We need athletes and 4-Hers and math whizzes and ultimate frisbee and quiz bowl champs, and travelers of foreign lands, and givers of themselves."
When you lose the urge to cover it all, you can use your essay to focus on something that's important to you and isn't already mentioned on your appli cation, or something that's mentioned very briefly but is worth examining in depth. Explaining what being on the tennis team means to you can be a waste of an opportunity. A great essay goes beyond this, and offers a glimpse of who you are—a person with passions, emotions, and a life beyond grades, test scores, and games.
Who Is Your Audience?
No matter what you're writing, it's important to keep your audience in mind. The term paper you craft for your English class doesn't sound like a text message to a friend because you know the expectations of your audience. Writing an effective application essay is no different—you need to understand something about the people who evaluate them in an admissions department.
It's not easy to describe a typical admissions officer because most schools hire a diverse group of individuals: young and old, male and female, scholar and jock, conservative and liberal. However, some things they do have in common are an ability to spot good writing and a willingness to make a connection with their applicants. Your job is to try to appeal to one or more of them.
Average college admissions offices are staffed by between 10 and 20 people. However, some large universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, can have up to 40 employees or more. There is usually a Dean, or Director of Admissions, who leads a team of Assistant or Associate Directors. Some schools even hire senior interns, who are still working toward their degrees, to evaluate applications.
Each admissions officer is typically in charge of a specific geographical area of the country, or even of the world if the school attracts, or wants to attract, a large number of international students. They travel to these target areas to attend college fairs, conduct interviews, and speak at secondary schools. They are available to applicants to answer questions and give a better idea of what the school they represent is like (especially if they are alumni).
When admissions applications are submitted, the work of the committee goes into high gear. Some schools receive hundreds or even thousands of applications for each spot in the freshman class. Others are less selective, but still must evaluate each application they receive. Everyone on the committee gets many essays to read, which often means they can spend an average of just a few minutes evaluating each one.
Admissions directors do not simply read essays with a highly judgmental eye, ready to circle every dangling participle or toss your essay if they find an unclear pronoun reference (but that doesn't mean you can skip the editing process). Instead, they look to find essays that they connect with. It can be that they sense, through your writing skills, that you are capable of handling a college workload, or that you'd be a great asset to their school's community.
What Not to Write
Because you're writing a personal essay, it's important to differentiate between what's appropriate and what you need to avoid. College counselor Chris Ajemian makes it simple:
"I tell my students to avoid the 4 D's: death, drugs, diseases, and disorders. To admissions officers, you're a potential investment in their school's future; you are more than your disorder or your disease. Allowing those things to define you can be limiting. Let them get to know you as a person in a broader sense."
Admissions officers note that the worst essays usually fall into one or more of three categories:
- overly depressing or negative
- painting an unflattering picture of the applicant
- completely impersonal or unoriginal
They also report an increase in the number of these types of essays submitted. While there are a number of reasons why students are so revealing about negative aspects of themselves (i.e. discussing the influence of reality television, Facebook, and other outlets, where telling it all is encouraged, etc.), it's important to understand that the personal level that you use to communicate with friends is not appropriate for your essay. College counselor Susan Goodkin explains:
"Schools are really interested in students who are going to have a positive impact in their community. They don't want to be in the headlines because of something negative a student did. So think carefully about your essay. Your sense of privacy, probably because of Facebook, is different from an adult's. What's amusing or clever to your friends, like posting the lyrics to a dark song, can make an admissions officer cringe. Don't offer a reason to reject you by writing something dark. Keep your audience in mind at all times."
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