Writing the College Essay

Straight-A students from some of the best high schools in the country become unhinged at the thought of crafting a 600-word essay in response to such a prompt: “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you. Describe that influence.” (Recent Common Application, Question #3).  It’s not surprising-- very few students learn the craft of essay writing. It’s become such a neglected art that Harvard, among many of the most selective schools, now requires all its undergraduates, without exception, to take an expository writing class.  Knowing that the state of essay writing is in the doldrums, what might you do to attack this very daunting task?

The most important piece of advice is to start early. We have students start the process during the summer between their junior and senior years. In the summertime, they’re relieved of the burdens of AP or IB courses, or extracurricular activities. They can think, contemplate, and experiment. The earlier their start, the better their essays are likely to become. Well written essays take time; they also need, sometimes, to be put aside for periods of time and then re-visited.

Just get started no matter what. Turn off self-criticism. Don’t manufacture an expansive outline, just begin writing. It doesn’t matter if you ramble, free associate, or rant, just get it down. You can always edit and salvage the best.

In fact, take some chances while writing the essay. Nothing is written in granite until you press the submission button. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to try out different possibilities in an essay. Throw in a reference to the Merchant of Venice, or allude to quote from FDR, and see if enriches your thought or idea. If it’s a good idea, go for it. If it messes up, edit it out. Play with the material, especially during a backstory and see what manifests itself. It might just prove brilliant. You will get further faster by trying out your ideas on computer (paper).

Harry Bauld, a former admissions officer for Columbia University, and the author of the classic book on the admissions essay, On Writing the College Application Essay, Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer, (1987), calls writing the college essays “a Rite of Passage.” (By the way, if you were to buy one book on the college essay, this is the one.) It’s the first time the student is asked to define herself and to ‘sell’ her image to a critical audience, the college admissions office. Additionally, these essays require, simultaneously, self-analysis with clear exposition, a task not easily accomplished by even the most seasoned adult writers. This kind of writing, by its very nature, can take a long time; this is another reason to get started early.

As with any type of writing, you should consider your audience. In many cases, your reader is the junior admissions officer. In all cases, this work is considered drudgery. Your reader gazes at dozens of these essays each day, Sundays included. If you make yours interesting, entertaining, and different, then you have a chance of engaging him or her. Once engaged, you’ve just gained a potential advocate for your application; that’s the essence of the exercise.

Keep in mind: it’s generally not the topic, but the execution of the essay that matters. Certainly, there are topics best avoided: death of a pet or the big tour of Outer Mongolia are two…but, for the most part, keep in mind the following:

Engage and entertain your audience—make him or her want more

Keep it loose and relaxed, and always entertaining

Michelle Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, advocates ‘slice of life essays’: “The most effective essays take a small, seemingly insignificant incident and elaborate upon it…The best essays are ones that help admissions officers understand your character better and/or shed light on any factors in your background that have influenced what kind of person you are.” (Hernandez, A is for Admission, 1997, p. 123)  If the essay brings you off the page in three dimensions, it’s done its job. The rest is up to you.