The college essay is the hardest part of the application process.
For many students, it’s difficult to get going: they feel pressured to sum up everything they’ve accomplished, everything they are, in 650 words—so where to begin? And, for many students, it can be just as difficult to conclude: how do you know when you’re done? At least the SAT, which produces enough collective nervous energy every year to power a small city, comes to an end after three hours.
As you face the ultimate college application challenge, keep these 3 tips in mind.
Keep it simple
The college essay is not a fiction writing contest. Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel.
And, the college essay has nothing to do with what the folks over at The College Board (whom you have to thank for the SAT) think constitutes verbal prowess. In other words, the college essay is not about showing that you have a thesaurus for a brain.
Write in the voice you use to discuss meaningful subjects with an interlocutor you respect. Avoid hyperbole—you will lose your reader’s trust. As much as possible, avoid extraneous adverbs and adjectives.
Remember that your ideas are far more important than your style. The hard part is coming up with a great story to tell, so spend time brainstorming different ideas. Once you know what you want to say, don’t worry about showing off your vocabulary (use the right word, not the fanciest word), and don’t oversell your story (no hyperbole, no bragging). Be straightforward and matter-of-fact.
The best college essays show something meaningful about the applicant who wrote them. They show personality—qualities and quirks. The best college essays show these things—they don’t come right out and say them.
Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, “And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,” she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet. Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to.
Spelling out the moral of a well-told story is like explaining a joke to someone who’s already laughed at it.
First off, you do not have to worry about giving your reader a complete picture of who you are. That would be impossible in such a short piece of writing. And remember that your essay is just one part of your application—admissions committees can see all your great achievements on your transcripts and your activities list. Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials.
After finishing your essay, your reader won't know you—not the whole you, anyway. Your job is to make your reading want to get to know you.
An essay can show a great deal of personality even if it doesn’t directly describe some terrific quality an applicant possesses (thinking outside the box, natural curiosity, intellectual passion, etc). Part of the importance of the college essay is giving admissions committees a sense of how you think and see the world. You can do this by focusing on the mundane realities of your life.
Terrific college essays have been written about breakfast routines, family TV viewing rituals, and Dad’s driving habits.
Now, I don’t mean to give you license to talk about just anything. For example, a great number of students decide simply to detail the various objects in their bedrooms on their college essays. (I'm not sure exactly where this idea comes from, but it is widespread.) I strongly recommend against simply describing what you can see from your desk. Inventorying the stuff in your room on a college essay is a little bit like reading all the billboards on a long car trip: it doesn’t show a whole lot of creativity (and it gets pretty tedious pretty quickly).
Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways. It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you.
As you brainstorm your college essay, keep asking yourself: could somebody else write this? If the answer is yes, keep coming up with ideas. Plenty of people have discovered their ability to overcome challenges by pushing through to the end of a sports event. Most people have bedrooms filled with personal effects. Spend some time thinking about what’s meaningful and particular to you.