College Essays Poems

Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.

Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.

Forget “writing from the heart”

Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.

Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:

  • Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
  • Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
  • Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
  • Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
  • Overused metaphors
  • “Let me tell you a story”
  • Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
  • Talking about the university instead of yourself
  • Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
  • Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)

Don’t be interesting. Be interested

Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.

“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”

But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.

Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.

Pull out unflattering memories

It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.

You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.

Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.

Tell a story—however you want to

When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.

“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”

You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.

Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.

Proofread

Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.


Read this next: How to go to college for free in America

College Application Essays

Yes, You Can Go Too Far

 

Colleges are encouraging students to get creative with their essays.

This is great.

However, I think students should be careful of trying too hard to showcase their creative writing skills.

Rather, I believe they should put those creative writing tools to work to write an engaging, meaningful essay.

There’s a difference.

Some people think creative writing is a goal in itself.

They think it’s when a writer gets kind of wild, breaks the conventional English language rules, and cuts loose with what they have to say and how they say it.

The essays start to read more like rambling poetry.

The goal of a college application essay is not to create a “piece of creative writing.”

Instead, the goal is to use creative writing techniques to express yourself better. 

I advise students to use what is called a narrative style essay to write their personal statement or core application essays. That just means that you write in a story-telling style and voice. In my opinion, this approach injects plenty of creativity into your essay.

When you craft an anecdote, you use creative writing tools to re-create and relate a mini-story, or moment or incident, that happened.

With “creative non-fiction,” you use sensory and descriptive details to set the scene, snippets of dialogue, bend rules to strike the right tone, write like you talk to find your voice, and wield similes or metaphors only when they strengthen your point.

Yes, you can bend the rules–especially when you are telling about something that happened (an anecdote).

Just don’t break them only to show you know how.

Avoid bizarre formatting or punctuation.

Don’t try to force in literary devices just to appear creative.

Express your creativity in the topics that you choose to write about, and the ideas and insights you share in your essay.

Resist trying to impress with fancy writing.

If you start with an anecdote, your essay will have a creative feel to it, but it will still have a structure, flow and meaning.

If this helps you visual thinkers out there, these paintings might give you an idea of the creative spectrum.

The first is conventional, sticks to the literal and reality.

It almost looks like a photo. (And can border on the dull, right?)

 

The second is what I would call inspired, in that the artist puts her or his own individuality or expression into it (manipulating light, value, composition, etc.).

It’s a unique interpretation of the scene, but you can still recognize what’s in it.

 

The third is abstract, and even though some of us love this style, many have a hard time knowing what to think about it.

(When it comes to writing, abstract painting reminds me of poetry.)

I believe you should aim for the second type of expression in your college essay–use your creative writing skills to put your mark on what you have to say.

It’s still creative, but most people will still know what you are talking about.

 

 

One caveat: If you want to be a creative writing or poetry major, your essay could certainly be more out there. Just remember who you audience will be.

If you want help starting a narrative essay using creative writing techniques, check out my ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!

 

 

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