1 Start with the Guidelines (15 Minutes)
Don't Worry about the Topic Yet- First You Need to Know the Rules
Before you set out to write the essay, you need to know what the competitive colleges are looking for-what to write and what not to write-so you don't waste your time writing essays that will get you instantly rejected or deferred. In this chapter, you'll find most of the major rules. Read through all of them. This is really important, and it will take you only 15 minutes. After reading the rules, you'll find some sample essays-both good examples and bad. This will help you to see what colleges want and don't want. You'll notice that most of the sample essays in this book are shortened to save you time reading (your essay will be longer). You'll also notice that we keep referring to "Dreamschool College." That's the name of our pretend college in this book-the college we're all aiming for. And in case you're wondering, the mini essays used in this book are all based on composites and variations of actual student essay drafts. The following rules are listed in alphabetical order in case you want to refer to them quickly on another day.
NEGATIVE RULES (Or What to Avoid Writing, if You Don't Want to Get Rejected Based on Your Essay)
RULE 1: ADVERSITIES.Do not write about adversities that aren't adverse. If you're going to write an essay about how you have faced a risk or an adversity, make sure it's really a hardship. Not getting a brand new car for your sixteenth birthday is not an adversity. Nor is having parents who won't let you hang out with your friends on a school night, or who insist that you only attend adult-supervised parties.
RULE 2: ARTSY SUBSTITUTIONS.Do not send a poem or drawing or photo in place of an essay. If the college asks you for an essay, they want to see an essay.
RULE 3: BAD-MOUTHING.Don't write mean-spirited things about other people. Don't talk of "hating" this one or that one. Don't write in your application that you're smarter than everyone else at school, or that your principal is irresponsible, or that the guidance counselor is inexperienced, or that your whole town doesn't value education, or that your journalism teacher doesn't understand the First Amendment, or that the literary magazine adviser wouldn't know a good poem if she saw one, or that your science teacher plays favorites. High school politics should stay at high school. Don't expect sympathy from a college admissions committee.
RULE 4: BIAS.Make sure that there is no prejudice or bias in your essays. Colleges are trying hard to achieve diversity and balance among their students and faculty. Claiming or even implying subtly that you don't like this or that group is a sure way to put yourself out of the running. Don't put down others for tattoos, body piercings, sexuality, unusual hair color, race, religion, appearance, disabilities, or nation of origin. Don't refer to other people in your essays as "nerds," "geeks," "dweebs," "twits," "brainiacs," "eggheads"-even if you think you're doing so endearingly, or even if you're referring to yourself or your best friend that way. (For more about diversity and bias, see Chapter 7, The Diversity Essay.)
RULE 5: ESSAY SUBSTITUTIONS.Do not send an essay that you wrote for an English class or history class in place of the essay requested on the college application, even if you received an A on the essay, and even if your English teacher swears that it's the greatest work of literature he/she has ever seen from a high school student. Write a special essay specifically for the college application. (Exception: A very few colleges such as Union College have been known to request a graded high school paper in place of an essay.)
RULE 6: FAMILY SECRETS.Do not write about your family secrets, your friends' secrets, or even your teachers' secrets. College applications should not be treated as your big chance to tattle on the world (e.g., my teacher smokes in the faculty bathroom; my uncle thinks New Mexico is part of Mexico; my cousin deserves to go to prison; my nemesis cheated on the exam; my classmates all got drunk at the party). Tattling on the people around you makes the reader wonder how you choose your friends-and it ends up looking bad for you-even if you describe at length how you're different from your friends. This is not the place to discuss how you don't fit in with your family, or how your parents or siblings embarrass you, or how you yearn to get away from the annoying habits or rules of your household.
RULE 7: FITTING IN.Do not write an essay that presents you as "just like everyone else." Colleges are not looking to admit "everyone else." In fact, the most competitive colleges have been accepting fewer than 10 percent of applicants and rejecting "everyone else" (90 percent of applicants). Each college would prefer to find special students who specially want them for the programs and opportunities that they have to offer. In your essay, never refer to yourself as "a typical teenager" or even "a normal kid." If, for example, you choose to write about how you organized a car wash to raise money for hurricane victims, don't say, "...and we all washed cars, and we all got wet, and we all..." Tell the college, instead, what part you did that makes you stand out from the pack. Don't talk about the other kids in your "crowd" or "clique." Colleges are not necessarily impressed with kids who are confined to a crowd or clique.
RULE 8: FOOLISH RISKS.Do not write about incidents that portray you as foolhardy: taking stupid or dangerous risks that make you look accident-prone (for example, the time I got into a sky-diving accident; when I accidentally set fire to the house; wrestling with a rattlesnake; the lesson I learned from my own driving accident, etc.).
RULE 9: FRIENDS.Avoid writing about your friends and what they did and what they think. Instead, the colleges are interested in finding out more about you in your application. Focus solely on you. No, that won't make you sound self-centered or friendless. It will make you sound independent enough to be able to separate from your friends to attend college.
RULE 10: GIMMICKS.Do not send a gimmick essay (e.g., "My name is M-E-L-I-S-S-A, M is for magnificent, E is for excellent, L is for lively, I is for intelligent, S is for smart, S is for sensible, and A is for academic." Another popular gimmick: "If I were a cookie, this would be my recipe: Lots of sugar, because I'm a very sweet person; a few nuts because I have a nutty sense of humor; a few chocolate chips made of deep chocolate, because I'm a deep thinker...") Gimmick essays sound flaky, clichéd, and unoriginal.
RULE 11: LOSING.Underdogs may win elections sometimes, but nobody is attracted to a total loser. Do not write an essay about losing-even if someone tells you that "losing builds character," or "it's how you lose that counts," or that it "reflects modesty," or demonstrates that you are self-effacing. Yes, everybody loses sometimes, but that doesn't mean you should devote your essay to describing your losses. You don't want the admissions officers to feel sorry for you-they never accept people out of pity. When you are competing against thousands of students who are writing about their accomplishments, the student who writes an essay that reflects self-pity probably won't be the one that admissions officers are most eager to accept. It's okay to describe tough circumstances or a rough setting, but the focus of the essay should then be how you "made good" and overcame those seemingly insurmountable challenges.
RULE 12: LUXURY VACATIONS.Do not discuss luxury resorts, cruises, sleepaway camps, or teen tours in your essays. Luxury vacations tend to be about pampering and passive activity, not character building. They're a big turnoff to admissions officers. One Ivy League admissions officer went as far as to advise students never to even mention luxury family vacations.
"Does that mean we need to hide or disguise any wealth when writing a college application?" a few wealthy students have asked. No, I tell them. You don't need to pretend not to be rich. In difficult economic times, affluent applicants may in fact seem more appealing to colleges. But writing about luxury vacations may be easily viewed as flaunting your wealth-showing off. Possible exception: If you earned your wealth on your own, independent of your parents.
RULE 13: LYING OR CHEATING.Don't copy someone else's essay-not even a sibling's, even if the sibling successfully used the essay to get into the same college you want to get into. Yes, colleges keep records; some admissions officers even remember essays. Also don't make up stories in your essays. Tell true stories about yourself. Always tell the truth; there's no need to embellish or make up anecdotes. Truthfulness is valued by colleges, as is honesty. (But don't even be tempted to write an essay about how you were honest when everyone else cheated, because that necessarily requires you to bad-mouth others, which is bad to do on your college application. See Rule 3.)
RULE 14: OLD NEWS.Do not write about an incident that happened more than four years ago, unless the incident involves you directly and has some national or international angle. For example, if you appeared on national TV to perform in a sitcom five years ago, it's okay to mention. If you made a solo violin debut at Carnegie Hall at the age of 12, it's fine to mention. If you starred in a major Hollywood movie at age 6, won a National Young Inventors Award at the age of 10, won or seriously competed in an Olympic or Junior Olympic sport, were personally invited by the president of the United States to dinner at the White House at age 8, had a nationally known choreographer review your work, or published an article in a major city newspaper at age 9-all of these are fine to mention. You get the point. No stories about learning to ride a bike, drive, ice-skate, the day the Tooth Fairy came, learning to read before kindergarten, being elected "most popular" in sixth grade, etc.
RULE 15: POLITICS.Do not discuss politics on your application. Don't try to persuade the admissions officers that you're right about politics. Don't presume that because a college has a liberal reputation or conservative reputation that the person reading your application is liberal or conservative. Admissions committees are composed of people of different ages, religions, ethnic backgrounds, physical conditions, interests, tastes, and political loyalties. An admissions officer reading your application should not be able to guess your political party affiliation by the end of the essay. And you should avoid labeling yourself as "liberal," "conservative," "right-wing," "left-wing," "libertarian," etc. A thinking person may consider him/herself conservative on one issue and liberal on another (for example, conservative about opposing underage drinking and liberal about protecting baby seals). Even if the essay prompt asks you to discuss an "issue," resist the temptation to characterize yourself with a simplistic one-word label.
RULE 16: PRANKS OR TRICKS.Do not tell stories about how you fooled, tricked, or hurt someone. Do not write essays that make you look like a bad person, even if at the end you learn your lesson and sound like a reformed person. Remember that your essay is the one opportunity you have to tell the admissions officers in your own words who you are. Don't waste that opportunity by telling them about some of the bad or worst things you've done in life. Instead, focus on the best-most compassionate, most productive, most artistic, most helpful, or most intelligent-deeds you've done and how you've already proven to be an asset to humanity.
RULE 17: RELIGION.Do not write about your religion. Do not try to proselytize or write anything that might even sound like you're trying to convert other people. If you even hint that you think your religion is better than everyone else's, you're out. You may write an essay about how you organized your youth group to feed or shelter earthquake victims. In such an essay, the bulk would focus on how you raised the money, where you collected the food, how you arranged the transportation, and how you rounded up other kids to help out. In such an essay, it's reasonable to mention the name of your church/temple/mosque/meeting house. But avoid discussing religion. In addition, you may write about how your church youth choir performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington or how you set up an after-school math tutoring program at your mosque or how you organized your peers from your temple to visit sick children in the hospital. In these essays, the bulk of the essay would focus on the nitty-gritty of how you led the community service-not how you helped spread your religion. There are two exceptions: 1) If you are applying to a religious college, and 2) You may also write about your interest in religion in general-not promoting your religion in particular-if you are applying to be a Religion major. (Example: "I have always been fascinated by the beginnings of the Church of England and its relationship to Catholicism, and am hoping to study both History and Religion in college.")
RULE 18: SEX AND DRUGS.Do not write essays about sex or drugs. Occasionally, a student will ask, "Wouldn't an essay on a taboo topic make the application memorable?" Answer: Yes, it might make the application memorable, but not in a positive way.
RULE 19: TRAVEL ESSAYS.It's okay to write about an adventure that occurred while traveling, but never list your travels in an essay. You may focus on one captivating experience that happened in a far-off place-that's fine. But never list your itinerary or the places you've visited in an essay. Although you might think it sounds very impressive to say, "In France, I went to the beaches of Normandy and visited chateaux in the Loire country, and saw Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, then went on to Germany to see the Rhine and to Italy to see the Coliseum," all this comes across as a laundry list, and it doesn't give the reader a sense of who you are. Anybody can copy a list of places out of a tour brochure-without really traveling at all. If you want to write about one incident while traveling, that makes a much better essay and a more engaging story (for example, hiking during an avalanche, when pirates tried to take over my cruise ship, why it took me four hours to fully absorb the Rembrandt exhibit, performing with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, when a bear wandered into my tent at Yellowstone, meeting my pen pal in person for the first time, lost in a foreign city, presenting my poster at the Taiwan International Science Fair, volunteering at an orphanage in India, etc.).
RULE 20: TOPIC SENTENCE.Your main application essay should not start with a topic sentence. Topic sentences are for English papers and history papers. The college application essay uses a completely different style. (Exceptions: The short Most Meaningful Activity essay described in Chapter 8 may start with a topic sentence. And the same is true for the Why Do You Want to Come Here? essay, described in Chapter 7.)
Excerpted from Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross. Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.