What Are They Looking For?
The answer to this perplexing question begins with a thorough study of the directions provided by the college and a complete understanding of the questions or statements presented. Pay particular attention to directions regarding length, style, and format. If the intended readers want to be typed or printed, make sure you type or print. Although there is no ideal length for a college essay, beware of the extremes, i.e., too long or too brief. Give yourself enough time to cover the subject but don’t indulge in overkill. Here’s what Amherst College (MA) has to say: “This is your chance to offer us opinions, feelings, and a sense of style that we may not find elsewhere in your application. We encourage you to be creative with your answers. Allow your unique voice to be clearly expressed, rather than falling prey to the temptation to tell us what you think we want to hear. The length of each essay is up to you; we prefer 300 words or less.”
Who Are You?
I have never seen a college application essay question, no matter how it was worded, that did not ask the same basic thing – who are you, and what makes you different from all those other qualified applicants we must consider? In other words, the essay gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your unique qualities. Three of the most common questions are “Describe a personally satisfying experience,” “What are your most significant academic interests?” and “Explain how you think our college will help you grow.” All of these questions ask you to shed some light on your values, opinions, and talents. They require you to spend some time thinking about what has happened to you personally and why certain subjects have always been your favorites. They offer you the chance to demonstrate why you are someone special.
Colleges expect no single answer. Instead, think of the essay as your chance to introduce yourself to the college. What would you like it to know about you that is not found in transcripts, test scores, or even a personal interview? This is no easy feat since social peer pressure to conform usually causes us to hide our true selves. After spending your whole life avoiding the description “weird,” you must now think about all of the characteristics that differentiate you from your friends, characteristics that make you unique, human. Keep in mind your friends will never read the essay unless you show it to them, and the college application will never become a public document. So you have great freedom to reach deep within yourself and bring out the person you have kept under wraps for so long.
What Are They Looking For?
The typical admission committee reader is looking at your finished product on
Level One – Command
At the lowest level, your words are skimmed to see how well you write. To demonstrate your command of the English language, your spelling, grammar, syntax, and usage must all be perfect; your writing crisp and cliché-free. Vary your sentence structure, avoid the passive voice, and use a proofreader! All of us make mistakes that don’t jump off the page but are quickly apparent to another reader. Even professional writers do not edit their own work. Your high school English teacher might be a good person to read your essay, and don’t forget Mom or Dad, especially if they do a lot of writing in their daily work.
If you are proofing your own work, here are two suggestions.
Use a ruler or a blank sheet of paper to cover the lines beneath the on you are reading. This will keep your eyes more focused.
Read your essay backwards. This will prevent you from skimming the text and force you to look carefully at each individual word.
Level Two – Content
At the second level, the admission committee will consider the content of your answer. Here the reader is concerned with the logic of your argument and your ability to say something of substance in a relatively economical and effective manner. Here is where overly long and redundant essays can seriously penalize the writer. Having something interesting to say makes your task much easier, so make sure you have taken the time to develop sentiments or ideas that are interesting to read. It makes the work go so much easier.
When you think you’re done writing, read it aloud. How does it sound? Does the opening sentence grab your attention? Does it flow well from paragraph to paragraph. Does the conclusion leave a thoughtful impression? Does the work say something about you? If some parts sound awkward, or don’t convey your intended message, it’s time for another re-write.
Level Three – Creativity
At the final and most important level, the reader is hoping to see something creative. What better way to express your individuality than a story, perhaps a brief dialogue, or an attempt at humor? Poetry is appropriate for open-ended questions but extremely difficult to write if the question is specific. Creative work brings an element of risk to your essay. Remember, you don’t know the readers, and they don’t know you. What if they won’t think it’s funny? Or sad? Or if they miss the point? Nevertheless, the willingness to take a risk is particularly important because today’s generation of young people seems so conservative and hesitant to take chances. Most essays I read these days lack the creative element because most students simply don’t take the “river boat gambler” approach to the process. Please understand I am not suggesting you “throw caution to the wind.” But those who take any risk at all will quickly stand out from today’s applicant pool and enhance their candidacy.
The risk one takes should be inversely related to the perceived chances for admission. In other words, the greater your certainty of being accepted, the less risk you need to take with your essays.
When you think about it, you must sell yourself to a college in much the same way a college must sell itself to you. And the whole process is very similar to what goes on in the boardrooms of the nation’s largest corporations every day. Any company that markets a product is continually faced with the problem of positioning itself on a grid with rival companies and their seemingly similar products. The company must find some way to make its product stand out so that the consumer perceives it to be different, unique, better. Likewise, colleges must spend time determining how it is that they differ from other colleges, and then, how to convince you, the consumer, that difference makes them a better place to be. When a college representative tells a group of high school students that his college is unique, he is telling the truth. No two colleges are the same. And each can position itself as a unique institution. College viewbooks and pamphlets herald the unique characteristics of their particular institution, and phrases such as “a special place” are not uncommon, nor are they untrue.
Now you see how it works with you the student. There has never been anyone who is just like you. College admission officers know that, but it is up to you to show them how you are special, and convince them why you are a perfect fit for their school. Reading application essays is great fun because so many applicants put so much effort into their descriptive paragraphs. Writing them should be just as enjoyable. In selective college admission, applicants who fail to understand the importance of the essays and who don’t put forth the necessary effort, seriously jeopardize their chances. They’ve wasted the opportunity to position themselves as unique individuals and enhance their academic credentials in the competition for a limited number of openings.
Think of it this way: Where would your favorite cola or fast food chain be without well-thought out advertising campaigns?