In my humble opinion, the single biggest reason quality applicants get rejected from elite colleges is their inability to understand and execute essays. When people ask me, “Dave, wha’s the biggest problem you see among today’s high school students?” I don’t have to think twice: It’s their inability to formulate and articulate a convincing written argument. Admission committees at these top schools aren’t looking to hear about your summer vacation to Europe or your plan to end world hunger. In fact, they are much more interested in hearing your observations about the frequency of cars running yellow lights at the intersection near your home or how many years it has taken for that oak sapling outside your front window to push up the sidewalk slabs next to it. You’re probably asking yourself why on earth anyone could be more interested in your intersection or oak tree than your great trip or humanitarian ideals. The answer is simple: Because the intersection and that oak tree can tell more about who you are and how you think.
Write thoughtfully and with authenticity. It’ll be clear who believes in what they are saying versus those who are simply saying what they think we want to hear.
Essays should have a thesis that is clear to you and to the reader. Your thesis should indicate where you’re going and what you’re trying to communicate from the outset.
Answer the prompt. We’re most interested in the story you’re telling, but it’s important to follow directions, too.
Be yourself. If you are funny, write a funny essay; if you are serious, write a serious essay. Don’t start reinventing yourself with the essay.
Tell us something different from what we’ll read on your list of extracurricular activities or transcript.
Open with an anecdote. Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
Chances are, the experiences that are most meaningful to you will make great themes for your essay. As Wellesley Admissions advises, “An essay about some small, even insignificant-seeming thing can be more powerful than the ‘How I’ll save the world’ essay.”
The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you. Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story. These would make very different essays, even though they’re on basically the same topic.
You don’t want your essay to read like a resume: it shouldn’t be a list of accomplishments. Remember that your essay needs to add something to the rest of your application, so it also shouldn’t focus on something you’ve already covered unless you have a really different take on it. Also try to avoid generic and broad topics: you don’t want your essay to feel like it could’ve been written by any student. As I touched on above, one way to avoid this problem is to be very specific — rather than writing generally about your experience as the child of immigrants you might tell a story about a specific family ritual or meaningful moment.
Make sure you pick an actual failure — don’t turn your essay into a humblebrag. How you failed at procrastination because you’re just so organized is not an appropriate topic. Also, don’t write about something completely negative. Your response needs to show that you got something out of your failure and that you’ve learned how to do better in other situations.
Avoid anything sweeping or general: for example, “How I plan to solve world hunger” is probably not going work. As I mentioned above, you want to stick to concrete ideas and solutions that clearly relate to your own experiences.
There is no single right answer to these prompts, and if you try to find one you’ll end up doing yourself a disservice. What’s important is to tell your story — and no one can tell you what that means because it’s unique to you.
Samples of Good Essays:
Voice is that elusive quality that allows your reader to hear you talking without the aid of your spoken words. Tha’s what makes the great novelists so great. Think about Steven King and D.H. Lawrence, or essayists like Andy Rooney, and even humorists like Dave Barry (no, not me; I’m Dave Berry). Once you’ve read these people’s writing, you feel as though you’ve seen the world through their eyes and, if you had the chance to meet them, they would probably talk just like they write. If you don’t believe me, just watch Andy Rooney’s spot at the end of 60 minutes some Sunday evening, then read one or two of his columns in the newspaper or one of his excellent essay collections. He sounds just like he reads. He reveals himself through his writing. Therein lies your essay challenge.
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