In the space below, I will talk about a few dos and don’ts of college essay writing, but these will not be the standard, immediately executable dictates that so often circulate in admissions consulting—e.g., don’t hand in an essay with spelling errors, tailor your language to the specific school, etc. Instead, my tips are more abstract, perhaps even metaphysical pieces of advice to help guide you through the admissions process and beyond.
1. Treat your essay like a first conversation.
Try not to make the admissions committee do this.
Imagine that you are attending a party being thrown by the coolest people you kinda-sorta know. You’re not friends with them yet but a sense of mutual recognition exists among you. After months of trying to get some hangout time with this crowd, they’ve extended you this invitation, and you know that the stakes are high—this is your moment to win friendship, make connections, have fun and meet new, interesting people. So you show up wearing your fanciest clothes, and immediately engage a member of the in-crowd in conversation. “Potential friend,” you declare, “Here are five reasons why you should like me.” And with that, you produce a sheath of paper on which you have scrawled a series of arguments proving your coolness and general excellence. …Awkward…
Most people would never dream of pulling this in a social setting, and yet this is exactly what far too many admissions essays end up sounding like. It is essential to recognize that an admissions essay shouldn’t be a series of explicit arguments, even if it is providing evidence and establishing a claim.
An admissions essay is not an opening statement in a debate tournament, nor is it a litany of personal accomplishments.
Both of these things have their rightful place in an admissions dossier—the first, in the letters of recommendation provided by guidance/college counselors and teachers and mentors acting as designated recommenders, and the second, in the nuts-and-bolts of the Common App and the transcript. The essay, by contrast, is a space for first impressions, for personal anecdotes, for the personality of the applicant to shine through the technical elements that elsewhere pervade the application. To reduce this space to mere data points, or sheer self-promotion, is, honestly, to blow it big time, akin to reading off the “why I’m cool” list to the bewildered party-thrower.
The best way to approach the admissions essay is to see it as a first conversation. To make a great impression, what would you talk about? What about yourself would you be willing to share honestly? What topics spark your interests, your passions? What kind of language are you most comfortable using? And most importantly, what do you want to know about your interlocutor? Where can there be space in the conversation not only for your own curiosity, but also for the curiosity of the other speaker? Framing your essay around this setup will help you make a strong first impression, and one that is organic, personal, and authentic.
2. Don’t just write about what you’re comfortable with, but don’t take a risk that might swallow the essay whole.
This is what happens when you cram too much into one essay.
Everyone seeking admission to college has probably heard the apocryphal tale about the kid applying to Harvard who chooses the essay prompt “What has been your biggest risk in life?” and then secures his spot at the Ivy by writing “This is.” as a response. There’s a long way and a short way to expound on the story. The short version first: Don’t do that. It’s dumb. And now the long version. We know that colleges want smart, motivated, articulate kids in the classroom, and we acknowledge, thankfully, that all of these attributes contain many opportunities for diversity—there’s not one kind of intelligence, motivation, eloquence… But colleges also want risk-takers among their student bodies, and this point is often less obvious to parents and college applicants alike. We know that there are also different kinds of risk-takers, because there are different kinds of risks, and indeed, the concept of a risk itself is relative. Colleges evidently want risk-takers who fit a certain profile: intellectual daring and principled disobedience are positives, wanton disregard for law, life, and property…not so much.
One way to signal to colleges that you are a strong candidate for the rigorous ways of thinking, learning, and living that the schools can provide is to show just what kind of a risk-taker you are. This does not mean that you must explicitly write about risks, or that you should go out of your way during the admissions process to take risks just so that you can write about them later — no one, to my knowledge, clinches their Princeton scholarship with an essay on “How I cooked a batch of meth in my basement.” Rather, the idea is to find a space in your application where you can naturally reveal this element of your character.
Writing for an audience is, itself, a kind of risk, and our choice of topic, language, medium, style, and structure all amount to a calculated set of choices that expose us, as writers and as people. If your college application essay does not explicitly engage with a narration about a risk you took—standing up for what you believe in, or challenging authority in a complex way, or an act of courage, etc.—it doesn’t mean that you’ve missed the boat. Your essay itself is a risk, and your composition of it involves a feat of considerable bravado. After all, you’re writing to share a part of yourself with complete strangers who are going to judge you based on what you’ve said and how you’ve said it—that’s not small potatoes. For this reason, you should be willing, in your writing, to explore the nature of writing as risk. This might mean challenging yourself stylistically, using new and different kinds of language, pushing yourself to refine your narrative voice, perhaps even talking about a subject that is hard for you to share, or articulate, or even consider. All of these elements are risky, to some degree, but they are also safe, because you can control them—you are the writer of your story, and so you are the arbiter of its content: you decide where the limits should be.
Good admissions essays take risks, but ones that remain in the control of their authors. A perceptive admissions counselor can always sense when something is bold, and when something is just plain reckless, or worse, made up. This is why a two-word essay is a poor choice, much like an essay on genuinely dangerous or illegal conduct. But humans take risks every day, and finding a space to reveal your own risk-taking, in your own words, will keep your application impactful and honest.
3. Be a storyteller.
But maybe not this kind of storyteller.
There is an important distinction between telling a story and being a storyteller. Anyone can tell a story, but only a true storyteller can pull a captivating narrative out of the most mundane parts of life. Giving writers the advice to “just tell a story” is about as useful as saying “just write words down” or “just use language to communicate.” But the idea of being a storyteller is more involved, and less tautological. A storyteller is equal parts collector and sharer, observer and raconteur. A storyteller absorbs the sensations and the happenings of life, and then shapes them into narrative objects of various sizes—here a tall-tale, there a parable, here a quip and there an epic. A storyteller sizes up an audience and bends her/his story to the attentions of those present. A storyteller never tells the same story the same way. Or better yet, a storyteller never tells the same story.
Students approaching the admissions process often panic at the essay stage because, they decide, they have nothing dramatic or exciting or relevant to talk about. Without a cancer cure or an Olympic gold or a pebble from the top of Mount Everest on their mantel, college applicants throw up their hands and lament, “I’m doomed! I don’t have any good stories to tell!” Here’s where the dictum “tell a story” breaks down, and the directive “be a storyteller” kicks in. Being a storyteller is a state of mind—it is an intellectual position that assumes that anything can be interesting if presented in the right way. Being a storyteller is also a physical commitment—it is a pact made between self and audience that asserts that the work of narration is not accomplished until everyone is listening.
Being a storyteller is, essentially, combining the two pieces of advice that I’ve already shared above—treating writing like a conversation, and being willing to take risks. But to achieve truly formidable prose, these elements have to be combined with force: think atoms smashing together in a particle accelerator, instead of the assembly of two halves of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Being a storyteller is achieving this fusion of authentic conversation and oh-my-god-am-I-really-doing-this exposure. It takes practice and it demands failure. It is uncomfortable and it is difficult. But we’ve all heard great stories and we know how they stay with us. We remember not only what they are about but also how they were told. So when you sit down to brainstorm essay topics, or start in on draft one, or draft eleven, remember: anyone can tell a story, but only a storyteller can make it stick.
Stay tuned for more advice on writing, editing, test-taking and more in the weeks ahead. Good luck with the return to school, and as always, enjoy!