Google the phrase “college admissions essay,” and more than 6 million results come back. At the top you’ll find countless samples of “essays that worked” and all sorts of tips on what to do (and not do) in order to get that acceptance letter in the mail.
What if we were to tell you to ignore all of those confusing and contradictory tips and finely polished samples?
Scary? Yes. But that’s what we’re about to do.
What to write about in your college admission essay
Every student is different. What worked for one may not work for another. It’s vital that your personal essay reflects who you are, not who you think admissions officers want you to be. They’ve been doing this job for years; they’ve seen thousands of essays. They know a fake from the real deal. Don’t go there.
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Lacy Crawford, who has spent more than 15 years assisting students in “figuring out how to write effectively about themselves” in a way that is compelling to admissions officers, says the college essay “is not a résumé; it’s five or 10 minutes inside a kid’s brain and inside their heart.” Crawford, author of Early Decision, a novel that focuses on the anxiety-riddled world of SATs, essays, and college applications, counsels that the most successful essays are those in which students “write who they are.”
But how does a high school student even know where to begin? Most teens are still finding out “who they are.” How do they choose a topic and then figure out how best to put that story across?
Contrary to what most students and their parents assume, emphasizing one’s strengths isn’t always the way to go: writing about why football is your life or how you came to love playing the violin is unoriginal and unimaginative. Crawford says schools are looking for candidates who are “able to think of themselves and write effectively about what matters. It’s more about, ‘who is this person?’” she says. And the first, most important step in answering that question is for students to open up, be honest about themselves, and convey what’s really going on inside their heads.
“Every single adolescent on earth – when you get them feeling safe, and they talk, it’s fantastic,” Crawford says. “They say great stuff. This is why everybody loves The Catcher in the Rye. We love hearing that voice, that honest kid voice. They are just on the cusp of adulthood, they’re full of dreams, full of passion; they love and hate themselves at the same time. If they can speak in that voice, it honestly does not matter what they say.”
Sometimes, Crawford, says, the perfect topic might be one the student never seriously considered. “When a student says, ‘I know I could never write about this but…’ 99 percent of the time, that’s what they should write about,” she says. Crawford remembers being contacted by an Asian immigrant who was stalled in the essay process. He told her a tale about well-meaning neighbors who gave his family a box of Christmas ornaments that turned out to be cat toys. “It wasn’t malicious but they carefully hung these cat toys on their Christmas tree. And he said, ‘You know what? We still do. We do it with pride and with humor, and this is how we hold who we are in this country.’ It was an amazing essay. He has a full ride at [his college] now.”
Writing the college admission essay
With the topic chosen, a student may feel compelled to go online or to the library and read essays that other students have written. Not always a good idea, says Crawford. “If they’re good, they make you feel horrible. If they’re bad, they’re misleading. Sometimes the better thing to do is read high-quality, first-person op-eds in top newspapers, not because you want to write an opinion piece but because they’re short, they’re tight, and they’re smart.”
Another must-avoid: Allowing one’s parents to edit or otherwise put their stamp on the essay. It’s fine to get advice and opinions (Crawford suggests asking English teachers to take a look at drafts); just don’t let the adult do any actual writing. “There are all of these hyper-polished essays where you can practically see where the dad was using his eraser,” Crawford says. “There are phrases that creep in there that simply aren’t in the vernacular of a young person. Admissions officers aren’t dumb.”
However, says Crawford, the student must understand that the essay is a well-established form of writing, and it can’t be sloppy – it may take from five to a dozen or more drafts until it’s ready to go into the envelope or be submitted to the college online. “This is not a text message. This is not a caption under an Instagram [photo],” she says. “It’s a form of communication, the essay, that has been practiced for hundreds of years. There’s a body of work, and you’re working in that tradition and you need to take that seriously.”
Not only will that commitment result in a better-written, more personalized college essay, but it could also change the student’s perception of the value and function of writing. Win-win.
Three things you need to know before writing a college admission essay
- When all is said and done, this essay has to be for you. Do not sell yourself out hoping that will get you in. Write an essay that you are proud of and that is true to who you are, and let the chips fall where they may.
- That doesn’t mean you don’t work your tail off. No first drafts, no third drafts.
- Admissions officers actually want to hear you think. They need to fill those classes, and they want to fill them with kids who are going to hit the ground running. Show them where your heart is and how you think about things and what you’re going to do.
Jeff Tamarkin is a freelance writer/editor. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.
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