Category Archives: Essay

A Closer Look at a Winning Application

“I love essays that demonstrate all of the elements of good writing—clarity, organization, correct spelling and punctuation, and engaging prose—not to mention the flare of vivid descriptors, unexpected verbs and inspired narrative flow. When I encounter an essay that is clearly the product of someone who cares about their writing, it is a treat.”

– Greg Orwig, Vice President of Admissions and Financial
Aid, Whitworth University

In the last chapter, we looked at what the college essay is all about (and not about). Now, we’re going to take a look at how a young man we’ll call Ben—who has since graduated from his dream college and is starting his career—made the most of the College Essay Yes-Yes’s in his own winning application.

Never, Ever Do These! Essay Writing Tips

1) Don’t give them the “five-paragraph special”

Just in case you didn’t think I was serious. . . Nope. Don’t do it. Get that five-paragraph mold out of your mind. Is it gone? Like really, really gone? Good.

2) Don’t rehash all the information from your application form

That’s what the application form is for. You don’t have to squeeze in every last detail of your activities and coursework in the essay. In fact, if you do, admissions counselors will think you’re just made of what you do instead of who you are. This is important. Schools want human beings, not accomplishment machines, joining their communities.

3) Don’t list all the reasons you’re awesome

Show, don’t tell. You’ve heard it your whole life. And it applies to this essay process more than anything else. Instead of listing all your qualities (and I know you have a lot), choose one or two to illustrate with narrative. Stories, not abstractions, will stick in your reader’s brain grooves.

4) Don’t be a kiss up

Yes, you want to make connections between your life and your prospective school. But don’t just flatter them. Beautiful campus,
cutting-edge facilities, award-winning professors? Skip it. If your essay sounds like a brochure for the school, you’ve got an audience problem. They’re already convinced. Keith Gehres, Director of Outreach and Recruitment at The Ohio State University, agrees:

“You can tell by the tone and language when students are writing trying to guess what we want to hear.”

But in those misdirected attempts, the genuine voice is lost. “I’ve read some essays,” Gehres continues,

“that I personally disagree with but have the authentic student’s voice come through. We want those voices here. We need those voices here. We are a diverse student body.”

5) Don’t beg for mercy

You might have a moving, even sad, story to tell. That’s okay, as long as the end goal of telling that story is showing the admissions department character, personality, and maturity. Telling a sob story, or, worse, coming out and pleading for admission, is off-putting to any college.

So What Kind of Writing is Custom Essay?

“We should be able to pick your essay up off the floor and know it’s yours.”

– Mary Henry, Communications Manager for Enrollment
Management, Purdue University

I know what you’re thinking. Custom Essays. Introductions opening with rhetorical questions and ending in thesis statements.

Three body paragraphs, each supporting a main idea. A conclusion
that sums it all up with a bow on top. Don’t you dare.

First of all, a custom essay like that, even with the fancy bow, is hardly a “gift” most human beings want to unwrap. Second of all, this is not the kind of custom essay which admissions counselors find helpful.

Sure, formulaic five-paragraph essays have their place— when you’re first learning how to structure an argument as a beginning writer, for instance—but they aren’t the only kinds of custom essays people write.

If you’ve had a chance to read the short custom essays you will have discovered the engaging, surprising world of short personal narratives.

With rare exception, colleges are looking for this kind of storytelling arc in your main personal custom essay, not a cookie-cutter formula. Some of the best essays, according to Todd Iler, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Purdue University, “are written like a movie.”

But, of course, it’s not enough just to tell a story. If you strive to merely entertain your readers, they won’t get a sense of your ability to analyze and reflect upon your experiences, the part of your custom essay that demonstrates your personality, maturity, and fit for the school.

So I do not believe in a college custom essay formula, of course.
But I do believe in some pretty important guidelines. Let’s start with what you should never, ever do.

Feel Yourself as a Writer

Finally, and importantly, schools want to see that you can write an essay.

Surprise: even if you’re dead set on becoming a computer engineer and don’t plan on reading a word of Austen for the rest of your life, you’ll have to write essays in college. A lot.

The admission essay gives colleges a chance to see not only how well you put your sentences together but how cohesively you can organize information and stick to a theme. Not all schools take the SAT and/or request the optional ACT essay, so this personal statement may be your only chance.

Besides, standardized test essays are written under a time crunch. The application essay can be polished to a shine.

“But wait!” Thou protesteth. “You just said this is about being 100 percent me! Shouldn’t I just ‘be myself,’ write out my thoughts, and submit?”

As you’ll discover in later chapters here, being yourself includes working hard on your essay writing. You can and should showcase your individual style, but you should also take the time and care to make it your very best.

Stress? No. Work? Yes. But with planning, strategy, and plenty of time, you’ll find this among the best work you’ve done.

College Essay Writing Advice

Students often see the essay as a persuasive tool to somehow talk a school into taking them. But have you ever thought that you might not want to be taken?

When you write a college essay that is 100 percent you—quirks and all—and a college accepts you, you know you’re headed to the right place.

But when you contort your personality and words into a college essay tailor-made for a school, stripping any semblance of your true self, you might find yourself a stranger in a strange land when September hits.

Imagine you spend days getting ready for a party. You know one of the “cool kids” is going to be there, so you shop for clothes you don’t normally wear, create playlists of bands you don’t normally listen to, and get all the dirt on the people he doesn’t like. You fake your way through the party and get his attention. Great! Now he wants to hang out.

The problem is, he’s not really hanging out with you. Before long, you’ll grow exhausted trying to fit into his world and return to the world you know and love—the world that loves you for who you are.

If you’ve done all you can to let your best self shine on the page, but you don’t make it into that “dream” school, maybe that school wasn’t so dreamy in the first place. For you. It could be perfect for your older sister or lab partner, but these four years are not about them.

They are about (getting the theme here?) you.