How to Write an Essay

Most every rising senior has heard and read and been coached about them; many are thinking about them, and some (including anyone who’s met with me) have tried their hands at writing them.

In this rant I want to talk more about them.

Now don’t panic, there’s plenty of time. Most colleges’ applications aren’t due till Jan. 1 or later. I suggest that all students be on track to have applications done and submitted by December 1. If you’re looking to go early action or early decision, you’re working with a November 1 deadline.

In whichever scenario you choose, there’s plenty of time.

Still, I suspect many of you are getting headaches over your collegeapplication essays.

"What am I supposed to write about?

"Nothing interesting has ever happened to me!"

"These new common application prompts are stupid!" (they’re not, actually)…

…are some of the regular laments I receive. Well listen up buckos and I'll give you my take on the Great Essay Opportunity.

That's right - opportunity. Instead of thinking of these essays as annoying inconveniences being imposed upon you, think of 'em as one of your best chances to show those bozos in the admissions office at Prestige U. what a huge mistake they'll be making if they have the temerity to overlook you!

If you’re wondering: "What do they want me to write?", you’re asking exactly the WRONG question of yourself.

Instead, ask yourself:  "What do I want them to know about me?" That’s the CORRECT way to think about your essays.

Viewed from this perspective, you have THOUSANDS of great stories and vignettes to relate in essay form. Your entire life is the fodder from where you can choose, and if you get beyond the idea that you have to write
something that will differentiate you from the crowd, and instead realize that this life of yours is what ALREADY HAS DIFFERENTIATED you from the crowd, ideas for what to write about should flow more readily!!

College admission folks are less impressed by great accomplishments than they are by your ability to give them insight in to an aspect of who you are. Be real. Be honest. Be beguiling. Be confessional. Be manipulative. Be clever by realizing that the one and only and ultimate purpose of your essay is to impart what I call a "moral" to the reader, and that moral is designed to cause the reader to conclude one (or more) of the following things:

- you're smart
- you're funny
- you're clever
- you write well
- you're profound
- you're a risk taker
- you're a good person
- you think deep thoughts
- you're ready for college
- you learn from experience
- you are motivated to succeed
- you've overcome obstacles / adversity
- you're someone they would like to meet and get to know
- you're someone who will be a good addition to their college
- you're someone who if given the opportunity will shine at their school,
thereby making them look like geniuses for accepting you!

Get the idea? The sole purpose of every essay is to cause the reader to want to accept you. That's it, fini, end of story.

*** Intermission***
(go get a snack and then come back, cause I’m just getting going...)

*** Resume ***

You’re going to hear and read and be told that your essay is important because it’s your chance to “show the college who you really are!”

That’s pure and utter nonsense. There’s no way you’ll show someone who you are in 650 words. Heck, you couldn’t do that in 65,000 words! Instead, your essay should simply give the admissions folks a peek in to ONE ASPECT of who you are. It’s a tease, a ‘come hither’ invitation for them to pay attention to you.

So make it a good one, those 650 words or less.

And then give them another (with the common application). And then another (in a mid-year follow-up letter).

Wot, is the College Guy Crazy? Three essays? Maybe four? (some selective schools will ask for a second essay in their common app supplement).

Yes, I’m crazy….like a fox.  Assuming you’re able to write essays which are solid, and on different topics, and guaranteed to get their attention, why would you consider stopping at just one????

Let me review/emphasize: I have my students prepare an "arsenal" of THREE or even FOUR essays. Give each college an extra essay with your application (if they ask for one give 'em two, if they want two give 'em three...), and have one left over to send in February with your "follow up" package (I'll talk about this in a future rant).

So where to begin? This year, as many of you know, there’s a “new” Common Application which asks a new set of five essay prompts (of which you’re required to choose one to respond to).

In the past, the last common application essay prompt was always “Topic of Your Choice”.

They’ve done away with that, so here’s your first assignment: go to this web page and choose one of the new prompts and…drop and give me 650 (words, or fewer)!!!

Now listen carefully: you know all those rules about essay writing that you’ve been told (usually by well-meaning English teachers)?

Forget them!

There’s only one rule you need to follow (besides the 650 word limit):

Your essays should follow the "Altoids Rule".

That means they should be "Curiously Strong”!

1. essays should be well-written (that's the "strong" part)

2. essays should be INTERESTING (that's the "curious" part - your essay should be a page turner).

The difference between a good and a great essay is how interesting it is to read. Many essays I see are well written, but they tend toward the tedious and boring. Avoid that. Take to heart what an admissions director from Union College (Schenectady, NY) has written:

"I'd rather read an interesting, revealing essay about a student cleaning out his/her locker at the end of junior year, than read an uninspired piece about someone's experience as a senate page in Washington for a summer".

Tru dat!

Here’s something else: it doesn’t matter what schools you’re applying to. Essays are generic – one size fits all. You need not customize essays for each college (save the rare common app supplement essay, which you’ll be able to see in August).

So after you’ve written your first, common app required essay, don’t stop. I ask students to write additional essays in one or more of the following categories:

a. an ACTIVITY essay - write about something you do regularly and with passion. This can be sports, music, your job, a volunteer gig, babysitting your little brother, playing video games, etc.

b. an EXPERIENCE essay - tell a good story from somewhere within the richness of your life experiences. It could be something that happened this year, or a dozen years ago. One of the best essays I read from two years ago was an experience essay about a seemingly trivial event which happened when the writer was in 4th grade! Of course, the point of the essay was that it wasn't trivial at all, but had a lasting impact to the writer's insight and development.

c. a CAREER essay - what do you want to do when you grow up, and why? If unsure, you can write the "clueless" career essay, wherein you talk about how you have MANY interests and you'll be darned if you're ready to select just one at this time.

Remember that ALL ESSAYS, regardless of topic, are ABOUT YOU, and are intended to yield one or more of the conclusions or ‘morals’ I enumerated above. That said, you are by definition the WORLD EXPERT on the subject matter - YOU!
Are you not?

So what are you waiting for? Go nuts and get writing!

Feel free to send me ideas, drafts, versions, whatever and I'll be glad to give you my two cents worth...honest!

From your crusading correspondent, your narrative nabob, your loquacious lexiconographer (ha ha!), your whole-hearted hack...