Sometimes the word “essay” conjures up images of a five-sentence, five-paragraph response to a straightforward question. Instead, think of this part of the application as a story you tell about yourself that A) shows the College how well you write, and B) gives the College insight into your character beyond what the rest of the application indicates about you. The essay prompts, then, are not “gotcha” questions, but an opportunity to reveal parts of your character and identity that we can’t see anywhere else.
Here are some ideas to consider as you select your story and begin writing:
Don’t use a thesaurus. This is not the vocabulary section of a standardized test; you do not need to impress us with your word bank. Stuffy, ten-dollar words often cover up the real identity behind the essay writer. Besides, if you don’t use that kind of vocabulary in your regular speech, adding words that you don’t normally use just to impress the College will make you sound incredibly inauthentic.
Shock and awe alone won’t sell your story. Essays that recap all the awesome stuff on your list of extracurricular activities don’t show the College how awesome you are. Essays that reveal a significant tragic life experience may make your application reader feel incredibly empathetic toward you, but that doesn’t necessarily tell that reader who you are.
Avoid generalized statements/lessons/definitions. “Webster’s dictionary defines ____ as…” is a common beginning for application essays. It’s been done before, it’s not particularly interesting, and it’s not as helpful as you might think. “Some/many people experience (general experience),” etc. is not only a weak, inaccurate, and offensive way to start an essay, it begins your story with the focus on abstract general society, when the focus should be on you.
Your identity makes a story interesting. Let’s assume you want to write about being an athlete. Do you live in a small town where the entire community knows your name and comes out to see you play? Did you have to convince your parents that the sport you play matters? Does your team always make it to state championship so there’s a lot of pressure on you to perform well, or do you never make it to playoffs, so your team is an underdog in your region? What about your racial identity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, economic status? Does that impact what it’s like to be an athlete at your school? There is no one-sentence answer to any of these questions; you have to tell a story that answers these questions.
Proofread, and get someone else to read your writing. The College definitely values story over grammar, but a poorly written essay suggests that you didn’t put a lot of time into writing. Write your draft early, and get it into the hands of someone who can give you honest feedback. Do they understand what the story is? Do you come across as an honest writer? Do they see spelling errors?
Best of luck to you in your essay writing, and in your college search!
Marcus Johnson, Assistant Director of Admission