WHAT’S THE ESSAY GOT TO DO WITH IT?
If you have picked up this book, you are probably in your junior or senior year of high school, which means it is impossible to augment or change what is already on your transcript. But take a deep breath. This guide is meant to show you how to successfully work with what you have. Six hundred and fifty words about (virtually) anything really can
get you into the college of your dreams, as long as you remember my three H’s:
I am going to personally walk you through the confusing, intimidating, and stressful process of drafting the perfect college application essay. Along the way, I will demonstrate the difference between a clever approach, a gimmick, and an application self-destruct button. Then I will give you some more insights I’ve gleaned over the years. Remember, there is no specific right answer, but there are many, many wrong answers.
Still need convincing? Here is the more erudite version:
The essay is the keystone to an application, and as such, it can function as either an asset or a liability. Most essays are predictable, innocuous, and forgettable and do nothing to set you apart from the rest of a talented applicant pool. Bad essays—in which you come across as someone who lacks motivation, perspective, or passion—can severely hurt your chances. On the other hand, an original response to an essay question offers an immeasurable boost to your admission chances. College essays do more than just showcase your writing ability; ideally, they illustrate your priorities, admirable traits, creativity, and academic promise.
Every year, the number of students applying to college increases, and each student applies to a greater number of schools. As a result, colleges and universities can have between ten and fifteen qualified applicants vying for a single spot, and in many cases the students have comparable test scores, grades, and extracurricular interests. College essays are swiftly becoming the most significant part of an application because they often are the only variable in the admissions equation. All schools, particularly the smaller ones, have their own unique personalities, and admissions committees want to know whether you’d be a good fit for the campus environment and current student body. The essay is now the determining factor.
Mastering the college essay is somewhat of a lost art in our sound-bite culture. So often, students are intimidated by the very idea of college and end up writing only what they think admissions committees might want to hear. Whether that means assuming an overly scholarly tone, discussing a backpacking trip as a metaphor for life (ugh), or debating the intricacies of global warming in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth
when nothing else on your application points to an interest in environmentalism, these attempts often fall flat. The best essays are unapologetically you
. They aren’t trying to be the next great American novel; they are simply an account of something personally significant, written in a concise and compelling way.
Although the concept of writing a college essay, in which you articulate fundamental qualities you possess, is often an intimidating challenge, it’s also a fantastic opportunity to tell admissions officers why they should choose you. The prompts are intentionally broad, so you can play up your strengths on your own terms
. Aside from word count, the guidelines dictate little about format, topic, voice, or tone, so you can employ your own style and discuss episodes from your life that address the essay topics with originality and confidence.
There are countless urban legends about successful college essays that made a difference for otherwise ordinary applicants. A favorite among guidance counselors goes like this: Once upon a time, a question on the Harvard application asked students to give a definition of courage based on their personal experiences. One student simply wrote, “This is courage” as his answer and mailed it in. You don’t have to be this gutsy to stand out; all you have to do is be yourself.
For this book, I’ve provided and commented on many real essays that helped students gain admission to some of the country’s top colleges and universities, listed step-by-step processes for getting ideas down on paper, and written detailed student profiles so you can see the writing process in action for the most commonly used essay topics. I’ve even classified responses by student type so you can identify with essay approaches based on your own experiences and background. The student profiles and essays have all been tweaked to protect the students’ privacy—names of high schools, summer programs, and teachers have all been changed or omitted, and the students themselves have been given pseudonyms—but everything else remains authentic.
One more thing to bear in mind: Your essay is not just a laundry list of your accomplishments. Admissions officers have access to your grades and activities. If you’ve won awards, they will know about them, so there’s no need for you to fire them off as if you walk on water in your spare time just for kicks. The only things they don’t know are the type of person you are, how you handle success, and how you relate to others.
Excerpted from Admissions Essay Boot Camp by Ashley Wellington, founder of Mint Tutors. Copyright © 2014 by Ashley Wellington, founder of Mint Tutors. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.