I’ve had several friends and family members mention their children are working on admission essays for college right around now, and it’s made me nostalgic. Back in the day, I moonlighted as an admission essay advisor. (Actually, I checked to see if my old company is still kicking around, and it is. They specialize in law school applications, and they’re now charging $895 for the full service. Honestly, when you consider how important it is to some aspiring lawyers to get into “the right” law school, and what that might do for them long term, I think it’s a pretty good investment. They end up with some pretty stellar essays, if I do say so myself.)
I won’t go into detail about what we would talk about during the drafting process. It’s too complex to really get down into a blog post, probably because in many ways, it felt much more like therapy than it did like simply drafting an essay. I think many people expected us to just say “write this,” but we’d start right at the beginning with coming up with the proper topic. Something that represented the person and was compelling. That’s harder than it sounds (and it sounds pretty hard.) We’d ask them to do a ton of free writes on various topics, and then we’d sift through those free writes for nuggets that could be used later on.
I did that for a few years. I was never as good at is as the founder (who was just fantastic), but I think I did an okay job. And from my experience with it, I do have a few recommendations for people who are looking to write a good essay for a college application.
- Be yourself. Honestly, I think this is one of the biggest principles people should keep in mind. The rest of your application will detail all about how smart you are, the classes you took, your extracurriculars. The essays are a chance for you to literally show the committee who you are beyond those facts and figures. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. Everybody’s doing that. I know you might not think you’re unique. You’re wrong. It’s just that it can be hard to see yourself accurately enough to realize the things you do that are really you.
- Don’t fall into the rut of just rattling off the first topic that comes into your head. These usually fall into tropes that a whole slew of people are also writing on. The Big Sports Game. How Hard My Life Is. How I Overcame That Hard Thing. I’m not trying to say you can’t write on those topics, but if you do, you raise the baseline of how good your essay needs to be to stand out. Think of it like this: the committee is reading through hundreds of essays. Which will be easier to stand out with: one of a hundred essays that talk about The Big Sports Game, or one of the only ones that discuss how hard it was to give up your addiction to broccoli? I guarantee you one of those will be more memorable than the others.
- Show, don’t tell. I know, it’s a principle that’s been repeated so many times it seems trite, but it’s repeated because it’s true, and it’s a huge key for a good essay. Here’s the thing. The committee doesn’t know you. If you use your essay to tell them who you are, then they are liable to question your claims. If, instead, you show them who you are, then they will believe it so much more easily. I could tell you I’m a hard worker. Great. You might or might not believe me. But I could also tell you that I worked sixty hours a week for a charity drive for the last three months of my junior year, all while keeping straight A’s and taking care of my ailing French poodle. (Note: not actually true.) But if I tell you that story, you will likely come to the conclusion that I am a hard worker. If I don’t have to come right out and say it, it’s so much more powerful.
- Provide details. This is connected to the Show Don’t Tell principle. Get specific. Don’t tell me the room was messy. Describe the mess. The smell. The way the molding potato chips squelch under your feet after three months.
- Keep it focused. Decide what you want the takeaway of the essay to be, and then make sure that’s what it’s centered around. You don’t have a lot of space. It’s going to have to be tight to have it be good. Too many people try to throw in everything they can think of to try and fill all that space. If you’re doing it right, you’re going to be bemoaning how little space you have to get it all done.
- Take time. When I was working with clients, I would work with them for weeks. Months, sometimes. Lots of people sit down and try to bang out an essay in an hour or two. If you wait until the last minute to do it, then that’s what you’re stuck with. If you start well ahead of time, you have so much more time to get it done right.
- Don’t worry too much about the prompt. Most of them are pretty generic on purpose. Write a great essay, and then tailor it to the prompt if you absolutely need to. But they’re almost all there to try and get you to show who you are. Start with that.
- Be careful about what you include. The wrong sentence in an essay can stick out and erase everything else you had in there. You might have a gorgeous essay that’s just incredible, but if you throw a quote from Hitler or Stalin, that’s going to be the one thing the committee ends up remembering about you. “Do you remember the kid who quoted Hitler?” (Hint: that’s not a good thing.) In other words, watch out for sexist, racist, elitist language.
Honestly, this is a topic I could probably write three or four more posts about easily. I think the biggest takeaway is to remember that the essay represents who you are individually. It’s your chance to show the committee why they simply have to have you come to their school. So many people will be trying to just wow them with the same themes, over and over. Make yours unique and well-crafted, and you’ll really stand out as an individual.