You’re staring at a white Word processing window on your computer screen with a prompt of some sort. Maybe the prompt is Stanford’s, asking you to “reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.” Maybe you’re working on the Common App, where you can write about pretty much whatever you want as long as you talk about something and that thing’s impact on you.
Or, you’re curled up in the fetal position in the corner, crying, mumbling something about role models or inspirations or life-long dreams, wishing it all would end.
Now breathe again.
You’ve got this. Yes, really, you do. So long as you know what not to do when you’re writing those application essays, you can not only handle this seemingly impossible task, but you can show those essays who’s boss and churn out some gooood stuff. And then, you know, get back to what you really love … Facebook and those Kardashians.
1. Cramming everything in
If the prompt is as open as Stanford’s or the Common App, you can write about almost anything. Because of that, many applicants want to write about everything. But that’s not the best avenue. Talking about eight accomplishments per essay will actually water-down your story and make you less memorable. You probably have only 500 words for this thing, maybe fewer, and it’s important to really dig into what’s going on, making everything as clear and specific as possible. This is your chance to show the admissions committee who you are, so use that space wisely and use other parts of the application (other essay questions, your resume) to tell other stories. Focusing on one story in each essay will allow more of you to shine through, which is the real goal.
2. Answering half the question
In a lot of essays we read, people will only answer half of the question. For instance, people might talk about an experience that was really important to them, but neglect to tell us how it was important. If you’re writing one of those impact essays (like the Common App), be sure you explain both the influence and how it shaped you. We have to see how you’ve been shaped by what you’re writing about. That is the question, after all, and the last thing you want to do is make the admissions committee think you’re unable to follow directions.
Oh, and make sure that both sections of your essay relate to each other. All too often in drafts we read, the impact often seems unrelated to the topic at hand. If you’re talking about how you’ve been an actor since before you can remember, but you still have stage fright, the second part of the question might be about how you approach or prepare for these challenges, and how acting despite your stage fright has changed how you think about other obstacles. The impact shouldn’t be unrelated, like that you’ve learned to ask for help when you need it, or that you always evaluate all sides of an issue, discovering all you can about it, before you make a decision. That’s all great — but where did it come from? That’s what the committee’s gonna want to know, so make sure you tie it all together so there’s a reason for everything you say within that essay.
3. Trying to impress the admissions committee
Trying to impress a group of people who have likely read it all before is not the way to go, friends. Unless the way you want to go is to ruin your essay. Yeah, didn’t think so. We read essays all the time where applicants write about how much community service they’ve done, and how much they want to help people. Most of these essays quote someone like Gandhi or Mother Teresa.
Now, if your life really has centered around service, and it really is what you want to do, then that’s wonderful, and go for it. (But maybe leave out the Gandhi quote. It’s just been done too many times!) But more often than not, applicants are using something they only did once or twice to seem like it’s their raison d’etre. Admissions committee members read a lot of these essays, and as someone who has also read a lot of these, it’s easy to see when something is truly heartfelt. No matter what the topic, something that is genuine will always resonate and lead to a much better essay than something that is written primarily to impress the admissions officers.
Be yourself, not the person you think they want to see. Because, trust me, they’ll see right through that.
Bonus mistake: It’s not spelled “UC Berkley”!
This is a bonus bullet point, but it may be the most important. Make sure that the college/university you mention in your essay is spelled correctly and is the one you’re currently applying to. (You’d be surprised how often applicants make this mistake.) No Pomona admissions officer will be pleased to see you’re “extremely excited for the many opportunities at Haverford.” Make sure the university is in its correct location. Don’t write how you “can’t wait to attend Harvard, located in secluded New Hampshire.” Make sure if you mention specific professors that you’ve matched their correct gender. If you mention programs at the school, make sure they’re all spelled correctly. All little things that will have a huge impact if you miss ‘em.
The essay-writing process can be long and arduous, but if you stay the course and keep these important tips in mind (and keep a box of Girl Scout cookies nearby) your applications will get easier and easier to do. And then, before you know it, that box of cookies is done.
Erm … and so are those apps!
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