December 10, 2008

Risky College Essays

You have consulted everyone, right? You have asked your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, classmates, teachers, siblings, coaches and confidants, not to mention the amount of time you have spent racking your own brain about what you can do to make your college application essay(s) stand out. You don't know where to start, how to narrow your options, whether you should try to make it funny or academic-- or both. First of all, stop talking to everybody else. They will only plant seeds in your mind that will become the impetus for your eventual writer's block. I see it every year. This is a personal essay. It's you. The essay is the most important aspect of any application. You must execute it well. You may regret writing an essay that's too cute and has you sacrificing the grammar and structure. I have had students write poems, songs, dialogue, portraits. Everything under the sun I have seen. These are about creative freedom. But, if there are a few basic pointers that I can teach to any senior it would be:

1. More...Give yourself something to start off with. Invent a first line and it can be as boring as, "The paint on the wall hadn't been redone since I moved into this room . . ." or something more forceful, "I found myself in the middle of this party, alcohol was all around me and I had an interesting decision to make . . .". You can even start with a quote (although I would advise against using something a bit too cliche (i.e. no Robert Frost, Dr. Seuss, Benjamin Franklin, etc . . .). Just get started with something and see where that can take you. You may end up getting a great essay out of it and then scrapping the opening line in the final edits. Or, you may keep it. Who knows? Give it a shot.

2. Remember who is reading these essays. These are men and women who, more often than not, read application essays for a living. They are closer to your age than they are to your parent's. They are getting a little tired of reading the same old story about a broken leg teaching you patience or building a house in Costa Rica teaching you charity or a family member's death bringing you to the verge of crisis. Certainly these are all possible and they could work, but if that's your basic premise, you're in trouble. Although these events are certainly significant, many have broken a bone. Many, also, have volunteered. Too many have experienced tragedy. Strike them with something shocking, interesting, innovative, or even just a good story.

3. But to do any of this, you have to write it well. If they don't get your humor, sarcasm, dialogue or metaphors, you're likely to be in for a disappointing piece of mail. You must write it well. Try short sentences. Use your own vocabulary. Express yourself-- and do it clearly. I always tell students that I don't care if they write about staring at a goldfish swimming around in a bowl, just as long as they transport me with their words and ideas to help me imagine that I am staring there with them or am inside of their head at a critical moment or, perhaps, that I am the goldfish looking back.

4. Write formally. Do not write like you speak. Don't use "I feel" when you really mean, "I believe" or "I think".

5. Embrace the creative freedom that you are being given. Even on supplemental essays for some schools where they only allow you a very minimal amount of space, you can still create something entertaining and compelling. Don't slack just because you might think that the school might want something specific from you.

6. Which brings me here, if you try to write an essay for the person reading it, you're going to be just another one of the masses. Remember, your job is to explain why you're different from all those other applicants out there who share similar GPA and SAT/ACT scores. If you're writing to please someone else, that's going to be very obvious. This comes back to my first recommendation. When you're letting others read your essay and hear your thoughts, don't let them deter you with comments like, "are you sure you should write that?" or "Do you think they'll like that idea" or, my favorite, "that seems a little risky". Ahh, RISK! This is what the whole process is about: taking risks. Right? Now if somebody remarks that your grammar is poor or they are having trouble understanding what point you're trying to make, then you should reassess. But if risk comes through to those who read it, I think you're on the right track.

7. Get someone who has some relatively recent experience and who may not feel so personal to you to read your essays and help you brainstorm if you need it. You can always write or call me. Visit my blog,, if you're looking for some experienced, honest feedback!