Saturday, March 13, 2010

Writing a College Essay

College Essay Writing

Applications for college admissions usually require one or more autobiographical essays. Essay questions may vary but all serve the same purpose, to evaluate the fitness of a candidate. The essay portion of a college admissions application is an important tool for deciding your worthiness as a candidate. It is a tool that admissions officers use to get to know the applicant better and to separate candidates from numerical scores. This is the time to prove yourself and to be able to stand out among the other applicants.

Each year, Harvard rejects four out of five valedictorians and hundreds of students with perfect SAT scores, leaving applicants and parents wondering what went wrong. While there is no secret formula for gaining admission to a top school, there are many ways to ensure rejection, and the most common by far is taking the admissions essay lightly. Whether you are applying to the Ivy League or to a state school, your job is the same. You must distinguish yourself from hundreds or even thousands of applicants with similar grades, activities, and SAT scores. To achieve this, your essay must not only demonstrate your grasp of grammar and ability to write lucid, structured prose, you must also paint a vivid picture of your personality and character, one that compels a busy admissions officer to accept you. The college admissions essay plays a very important part in terms of setting the tone for the rest of the application. It is where the committee starts to evaluate the applicant on their minds and try to decide whether you will be a positive asset to their school. Although academic performance is the most important variable and no one is admitted on the basis of an essay alone, the essay can many times make or break the student. The more competitive the institution is in terms of gaining admission the more chance there is that the essay will have greater importance in the admissibility of students. When numerically everything else is very comparable from one candidate to the next, the essay is going to be the component that makes the difference. It is apparent to admissions officers when somebody has written their admissions essay a few minutes before the deadline and that can hurt not only a marginal candidate but also a candidate well into the admissible range on the basis of more objective criteria. A poorly written essay makes admissions officers skeptical about an applicant’s level of seriousness on applying to their college, and can serve to be the reason why a student does not get admitted.

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Having an understanding of the importance of the admissions essay, the next step is to know what makes an outstanding essay. Many students think that the committee is looking for essays that are crammed with pretentious vocabulary and deep philosophical discussion or debates. In truth, rather the opposite is true. The most important thing for students to realize is that colleges are not just trying to admit people who are smart enough to do the work; they want to admit interesting people who will make a contribution to the incoming class. The biggest mistake that students applying to top colleges make is thinking that good academic credentials are all they need. Although, in the most basic nature the essay is used to check a student’s writing style and his use of language and the organization of this thoughts and ideas, it goes beyond that. Through your essay the admissions officer is trying to understand the applicant’s values and events and experiences that have impacted his life. Personal experiences and relationships are all vital elements of a good essay. The admissions committee does not just want a regurgitation of a student’s activities and honors structured into a prose format. They want to read an essay that will allow them to know you as a person, an essay that has a touch of personal sensitivity and honesty. Many applicants will write about a trip they have taken and create a travelogue, and that is not what an admissions committee wants to read. Instead, discuss the significance of the trip and what you learned from it. It is vital to remember that although many applicants may write about the same event or experience it is your personal approach on the subject that will set you apart from among the rest of the applicant pool. Do not be afraid to use your imagination and be creative, this is the only part of the application where you have complete control. Take advantage of this opportunity to speak from the heart and allow the admissions committee to have a peek into your personal life. In addition, the applicant should remember that it is okay to be humorous or witty in your essay, as long as it flows naturally and is not forced. It is also wise to keep in mind that sometimes people’s senses of humor do not always match. Someone may think something is funny while to someone else it may be completely inappropriate and derogatory. Overall, then the tone of your essay should be serious, mature, and confident and most importantly it should be yours.

The extraordinary rise in the number of qualified students seeking admission to better colleges and universities today presents a challenge for students to even better demonstrate their individuality and accomplishments. Thus, marketing yourself becomes essential because your objective is to force the committees to select you, because you have made them aware of your individuality and the positive influence you will have in their community. The college essay is then very similar to an ad, and through this vehicle the applicant (product) has to show their value and create a lasting impression in the minds of the admissions officers (consumers). What makes an applicant stand out is the approach he takes in presenting himself to the admissions officers. Your essay then should be positive and reveal qualities that are appealing to the audience that reads it. Highlight your strengths, values, and special qualities. Being the captain of your football team and pulling straight A’s are not unique. You have to dig deeper within yourself and think about the positive discoveries and impacts you have made in your life and the lessons that you have learned as a result. These are the aspects that will make your essay unique and stand out among the crowd. The two basic appeals an applicant should use are the factual and emotional approach. In terms of the college essay a factual approach is being able to prove your commitment and seriousness about something with some factual evidence. Statistics and performance are the foundation of the appeal to the admissions committee. However, a factual appeal is bland and boring and needs the support of an emotional approach to be appealing. An emotional appeal is a critical aspect of your essay because it appeals to the audience’s values and virtues. Through an emotional appeal you are communicating to the admissions officers what you believe and stand for. You are letting them know your stance on issues and why you are a qualified candidate who will succeed at their college. If this is done correctly then it is far more appealing than reciting your grade point average or number of AP classes taken. A combination of factual and emotional appeals needs to be complemented in your essay in order for it to be effective. Utilizing only one source will leave your essay incomplete and admissions officers will not be able to draw a whole picture of you.

In marketing yourself to colleges your essay, in addition to being both factual and emotional, should also contain five essential elements: “something to grab the reader’s attention, simplicity, realism, sincerity, and surprise” ( Mason, 77) In order to captivate the attention of admissions officers the topic that you chose should not be typical of everyone in the world. It should focus on you and your life, an element, which is unique only to you. The opening sentence of your sentence should also be direct and challenging; something that instantly dives the readers into your essay. “Anything that has happened to you that taught you something or anything that reveals your sensitivity to the experience of your life is unique and special to you. These kinds of insights described in your essay will give you a special quality that is far from typical. At the same time, they will add emotional impact to your material” (78). The more real you are in your essay the more it will shine out and appeal to admissions officers. In being yourself in the essay it is important also to remember to express yourself in a conversational manner. You should not be using archaic words that appear in the SAT because that will make your essay look unnatural and indicate that you are trying to be someone you are not. In addition, the volume of information your essay contains should be simple and direct. The reader should not feel weighed down by useless details and facts, which stray away from the point you are trying to make.

“Concentrate on no more than five key ideas and develop them with solid details and examples. Impact is your intention” (79). In being simple , you should also remember to be real because it speaks the truth. Your college application essay communicates who you really are besides a number and that means that you must communicate real feelings , thoughts , events, and experiences. It is easy to decipher when someone is not being himself because those genuine feelings are lacking. Do not try to be euphoric or romanticize your essay because that will not hit home nor will it make an impact. Sincerity is an aspect that is crucial to your college application essay. Your tone of voice will send the message of sincerity in the essay and that means you have to sound like who you really are. Your sincerity should shine through the words and that means your tone should be clear, honest, and truthful. The final element to remember is the use of surprise. In your college application the best way to use the element of surprise is through transitions and the leads of your paragraphs. Incorporate surprising facts , thoughts, and quotes into your essay, so that your audience wants to know more. “Once you have the readers’ attention , you can take them “simply” , “realistically,” and “sincerely,” through the development of your topic” (81).

College essays that stand out focus on detail and little things that mean something special. Most college application essays lose the element of surprise by using pseudo-intellectualism and being too boastful. In order not to be predictable and common it is important to look for topics that reveal “the little moments and “taken-for-granted” instances in your life that say something special about you” (83).

The college admissions essay is a vital component aspect of the admissions process. It is key to remember to take it seriously and make sure you edit and revise at least three times. However, the most important part to know is that this is your opportunity to tell the admissions officers who you are and what a great asset you will be to their college. So do not be hesitant to show your true personality and let yourself shine!

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