How To Set Up College Admission Essay

I used every single one of my fast waning powers of influence to get my oldest son to cut his hair. I begged, bribed, teased, and—eventually—grew to ignore it. Not only did it stand out like a sore thumb in Fairfield County, Conn., it stood in stark contrast to the hair of our friends’ sons, which was closely cropped and perfectly shaped.

Somewhere in the tangle of my son’s nine-foot afro, I learned an interesting lesson about how parenting for conformity can make the college application process a lot more difficult.

I am not proud of it, but watching the other toddlers crawl, I worried when my first child showed little interest in crawling or walking even though he spoke like he could deliver the nightly news.

Now, as a college consultant, I have to convince other people’s children to recognize and embrace what makes them different. After all, there is really only one essay question when it comes right down to it, and it is:

“What can you bring, teach, or offer to other students on our campus?”

Therein lies the difficulty of this process. “Difference” for many parents and students has been an obstacle, even the enemy. Now, when difference is to be celebrated and prized, it’s not so easy to uncover. Ahead of our brainstorming meeting, distraught parents will drop their student off at my office and announce in exasperation, “Good luck brainstorming about what to write for the essay. We got nothing!”

Here are a few tips to make it easier to find the right long essay topic for you:

Tip #1. Do Not Read the Long Essay Prompts

This sounds counterintuitive, I know. But the prompts give you enough freedom to write whatever story you want to tell about yourself. So don’t restrict yourself by reading them until after you write your story. Write first, and then choose the “right” prompt.

Tip #2. Think of Your Essay as a “Slice”

The essay should not and cannot be about every moment you’ve existed on God’s green earth. Choose a slice of your story that represents you at your very best and tell it in excruciating detail. (You can always address word count and trim the details later.)

Tip #3. Avoid These Four Over-used Essay Topics

  • Writing about someone else (such as a relative or a coach)
  • Writing about your mission trip
  • Writing about how you made “lemonade” from a sports injury “lemon”
  • Writing about your time at camp

If you feel you simply must use one of these topics, know that you will need to make your essay extra compelling.

Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.

A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.

For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere

While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.

Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.

A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.

Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.

10 Things Students Should Avoid

REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”

LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”

THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.

YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.

SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!

ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.

CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.

WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.

RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.

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