How To Start A College Admissions Essay

Jul 30, 2012

How To Write A College Essay

Posted in: Miscellaneous

Listen: writing well is hard.

It is hard for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it is hard because you don't know your audience and have to guess. Sometimes it is hard because you have a lot of stories tripping over each other to get onto the page. Sometimes it is hard because, no matter how smoothly you try to form your sentences, they invariably tumble out of you, all stiff and angular like a box of bent pipes.

But being able to write well is important. You will never encounter a situation in which obfuscation is to your advantage. You will frequently encounter situations where crisp, compelling writing can express your feelings, make your case, even save lives: Edward Tufte argues that the Challenger disaster could have been prevented if only the case against launching had been made more clearly.

While (hopefully) no lives are riding on your college application essays, this is a great time to revisit some of the rules of writing well.

George Orwell's Politics and the English Language is my personal guide to thinking about writing. The theoretical foundation he lays in this piece - about the importance of language, including writing, in shaping how we are capable of thinking - he later built upon in 1984.

Read this essay. Read it closely, read it carefully. It will change the way you think about writing. I keep Orwell's rules for writing next to my desk always:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Now, in this essay Orwell took issue primarily with contemporary political propaganda. As he wrote:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.

 

But the same is true for college essays, as Orwell doubtlessly would have realized if he were reanimated and handed him a sheaf of Common Applications. The sad truth is that most college application essays are not very good. When I say they are "not very good", I mean they are either boring, impenetrable, melodramatic, or all of the above.

The single greatest scourge of college application essays is the advice dispensed by books with names like "50 Winning College Essays from Ivy League Students." Everything about these books, from the titles on down, is so suffused with self-congratulation that it should be no surprise the essays themselves stink like bad perfume. Hint: These books exist because people at name-brand schools realized they could sell aspiring applicants drafts of their essays. They do not, as a rule, provide actual good advice. If anything, they simply reproduce the "lifeless, imitative style" of orthodoxy against which Orwell railed.

Orthodoxy runs deep. Last year I was traveling with a colleague from Yale. He had recently spent a week on a reservation helping Native American students navigate the college process, and he had been shocked by the degree to which the cliches and tropes of college essays had penetrated into their world. As he told me, the essays his students - who had lived vastly different lives than most mainstream applicants - were writing were indistinguishable from those written by applicants in southeastern Connecticut. They were composed of billowing clouds of "my global perspective" and "future potential as a leader" and "desire to leverage my education" to bllllllaurhfhasklafsafdghfalkasf.

Do not do this. Do not allow your essays to descend into an impenetrable bulk of buzzwords and banality. You are an interesting person. Your essays should be yours. This is best described in How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose, by Vince Gotera of the University of Northern Iowa, which was my guide to writing my essays when I applied to graduate school.

Consider, for example, Gotera's comparison of two hypothetical introductory paragraphs for a master's program in library science:

I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.

vs.

When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.

 

As Gotera says: each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that. 

So let me save you the trouble of buying any of those books and close by quoting Kurt Vonnegut's seven rules for writing well, which are as applicable to college applications as they are to writing everything else: 

  1. Find a subject you care about.
  2. Do not ramble, though.
  3. Keep it simple.
  4. Have the guts to cut.
  5. Sound like yourself.
  6. Say what you mean to say.
  7. Pity the readers.

Specificity, clarity, and brevity are your keys. Use them to unlock the writer inside you.

Sample College Admission Essays


This section contains two examples of good college essays.

  1. College Essay One
  2. College Essay Two
  3. College Essay Three

College Essay One

Prompt: Please submit a one-page, single-spaced essay that explains why you have chosen State University and your particular major(s), department(s) or program(s).

State University and I possess a common vision. I, like State University, constantly work to explore the limits of nature by exceeding expectations. Long an amateur scientist, it was this drive that brought me to the University of Texas for its Student Science Training Program in 2013. Up to that point science had been my private past time, one I had yet to explore on anyone else’s terms. My time at UT, however, changed that. Participating for the first time in a full-length research experiment at that level, I felt more alive, more engaged, than I ever had before. Learning the complex dynamics between electromagnetic induction and optics in an attempt to solve one of the holy grails of physics, gravitational-waves, I could not have been more pleased. Thus vindicated, my desire to further formalize my love of science brings me to State University. Thanks to this experience, I know now better than ever that State University is my future, because through it I seek another, permanent, opportunity to follow my passion for science and engineering.

In addition to just science, I am drawn to State University for other reasons. I strive to work with the diverse group of people that State University wholeheartedly accommodates – and who also share my mindset. They, like me, are there because State University respects the value of diversity. I know from personal experience that in order to achieve the trust, honesty, and success that State University values, new people are needed to create a respectful environment for these values. I feel that my background as an American Sikh will provide an innovative perspective in the university’s search for knowledge while helping it to develop a basis for future success. And that, truly, is the greatest success I can imagine.

This emphasis on diversity can also be found in the variety of specialized departments found at State University. On top of its growing cultural and ethnic diversity, State University is becoming a master at creating a niche for every student. However, this does not isolate students by forcing them to work with only those individuals who follow their specific discipline. Instead, it is the seamless interaction between facilities that allows each department, from engineering to programming, to create a real learning environment that profoundly mimics the real world. Thus, State University is not just the perfect place for me, it is the only place for me. Indeed, having the intellectual keenness to absorb every ounce of knowledge presented through my time in the IB program, I know that I can contribute to State University as it continues to cultivate a scholarly climate that encourages intellectual curiosity.

At the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at State University, I will be able to do just that. In a department where education and research are intermixed, I can continue to follow the path that towards scientific excellence. Long-mesmerized by hobbies like my work with the FIRST Robotics team, I believe State University would be the best choice to continue to nurture my love for electrical and computer engineering. I have only scratched the surface in this ever evolving field but know that the technological potential is limitless. Likewise, I feel that my time at State University would make my potential similarly limitless.

This is a picture-perfect response to a university-specific essay prompt. What makes it particularly effective is not just its cohesive structure and elegant style but also the level of details the author uses in the response. By directly identifying the specific aspects of the university that are attractive to the writer, the writer is able to clearly and effectively show not only his commitment to his studies but – perhaps more importantly – the level of thought he put into his decision to apply. Review committees know what generic responses look like so specificity sells.

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College Essay Two

Prompt: What motivates you?

For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of science. Where others see the engineering, experimentation, and presentation of science as a chore, I only see excitement. Even as a child I constantly sought it out, first on television with Bill Nye and The Mythbusters, then later in person in every museum exhibit I could find. Science in all its forms fascinated me, but science projects in particular were a category all to themselves. To me, science projects were a special joy that only grew with time. In fact, it was this continued fascination for hands-on science that brought me years later to the sauna that is the University of Alabama in mid-June. Participating in the Student Science Training Program and working in their lab made me feel like a kid in a candy store. Just the thought of participating in a project at this level of scientific rigor made me forget that this was supposed to be my summer break and I spent the first day eagerly examining every piece of equipment.

Even at first, when the whole research group sat there doing rote calculations and others felt like they were staring down the barrel of defeated purpose, I remained enthusiastic. Time and time again I reminded myself of that famous phrase "great effort leads to great rewards," and sure enough, soon my aspirations began to be met. This shift in attitude also coincided with a shift in location: from the computer desk to the laser lab. It was finally time to get my hands dirty.

Now things began to get really interesting. During the experimentation phase of the project, I spent the majority of my waking hours in the lab – and I enjoyed every minute of it. From debriefing with my coordinator in the morning to checking and rechecking results well into the afternoon, I was on cloud nine all day, every day. I even loved the electric feeling of anxiety as I waited for the results. Most of all, though, I loved the pursuit of science itself. Before I knew it, I was well into the seventh week and had completed my first long-term research experiment.

In the end, although the days were long and hard, my work that summer filled me with pride. That pride has confirmed and reinvigorated my love for science. I felt more alive, more engaged, in that lab than I have anywhere else, and I am committed to returning. I have always dreamed of science but since that summer, since my experiment, I have dreamed only of the future. To me, medical science is the future and through it I seek another, permanent, opportunity to follow my passion. After all, to follow your passion is, literally, a dream come true.

In addition to its use of clear, demonstrative language, there is one thing that makes this an effective essay: focus. Indeed, notice that, although the question is broad, the answer is narrow. This is crucial. It can be easy to wax poetic on a topic and, in the process, take on too much. Instead, by highlighting one specific aspect of his personality, the author is able to give the reader a taste of his who he is without overwhelming him or simply reproducing his résumé. This emphasis gives the reader the opportunity to learn who the writer is on his terms and makes it a truly compelling application essay.

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College Essay Three

The winter of my seventh grade year, my alcoholic mother entered a psychiatric unit for an attempted suicide. Mom survived, but I would never forget visiting her at the ward or the complete confusion I felt about her attempt to end her life. Today I realize that this experience greatly influenced my professional ambition as well as my personal identity. While early on my professional ambitions were aimed towards the mental health field, later experiences have redirected me towards a career in academia.

I come from a small, economically depressed town in Northern Wisconson. Many people in this former mining town do not graduate high school and for them college is an idealistic concept, not a reality. Neither of my parents attended college. Feelings of being trapped in a stagnant environment permeated my mind, and yet I knew I had to graduate high school; I had to get out. Although most of my friends and family did not understand my ambitions, I knew I wanted to make a difference and used their doubt as motivation to press through. Four days after I graduated high school, I joined the U.S. Army.

The 4 years I spent in the Army cultivated a deep-seated passion for serving society. While in the Army, I had the great honor to serve with several men and women who, like me, fought to make a difference in the world. During my tour of duty, I witnessed several shipmates suffer from various mental aliments. Driven by a commitment to serve and a desire to understand the foundations of psychological illness, I decided to return to school to study psychology.

In order to pay for school and continue being active in the community, I enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard as a Medic. Due to the increased deployment schedule and demands placed on all branches of the military after September 11, my attendance in school has necessarily come second to my commitment to the military. There are various semesters where, due to this demand, I attended school less than full time. Despite taking a long time and the difficulty in carving separate time for school with such occupational requirements, I remained persistent aiming towards attending school as my schedule would allow. My military commitment ends this July and will no longer complicate my academic pursuits.

In college, as I became more politically engaged, my interest began to gravitate more towards political science. The interest in serving and understanding people has never changed, yet I realized I could make a greater difference doing something for which I have a deeper passion, political science. Pursuing dual degrees in both Psychology and Political Science, I was provided an opportunity to complete a thesis in Psychology with Dr. Sheryl Carol a Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Texas (UT) This fall I will complete an additional thesis as a McNair Scholar with Dr. Ken Chambers, Associate Professor in Latin American studies in the UT Political Science Department.

As an undergraduate, I was privileged to gain extensive research experience working in a research lab with Dr. Carol. During the three years I worked in her lab, I aided in designing a study, writing an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application, running participants through both pilot and regular studies, coding data, and analyzing said data, with these experiences culminating in my honors thesis. This thesis, entitled Self-Esteem and Need-to-Belong as predictors of implicit stereotypic explanatory bias, focuses on the relationship between levels (high and low) of self-esteem and an individual’s need to belong in a group, and how they predict whether an individual will tend to explain stereotype-inconsistent behavior. Participating in such a large study from start to finish has validated my interest in academic research as a profession.

This fall I will embark on writing an additional honors thesis in political science. While the precise topic of my thesis is undecided, I am particularly interested in Mexico and its development towards a more democratic government. Minoring in Spanish, I have read various pieces of literature from Mexico and have come to respect Mexico and Latin American culture and society. I look forward to conducting this research as it will have a more qualitative tilt than my thesis in psychology, therefore granting an additional understanding of research methodology.

My present decision to switch from social psychology to political science is further related to a study abroad course sponsored by the European Union with Dr. Samuel Mitchell, an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at UT. Professor Mitchell obtained a grant to take a class of students to Belgium in order to study the EU. This course revealed a direct correlation between what I had studied in the classroom with the real world. After spending several weeks studying the EU, its history and present movement towards integration, the class flew to Brussels where we met with officials and proceeded to learn firsthand how the EU functioned.

My interest in attending the University of Rochester in particular, relates to my first semester at OU and the opportunity to take an introductory course in statistics with the now retired Dr. Larry Miller. Through the combination of a genuine appreciation and knack for statistics and with his encouragement, I proceeded to take his advanced statistics class as well as the first graduate level statistics course at OU. I continued my statistical training by completing the second graduate statistics course on model comparisons with Dr. Roger Johnson, a Professor in the Psychology Department. The model comparison course was not only the most challenging course I have taken as an undergraduate, but the most important. As the sole undergraduate in the course and only college algebra under my belt, I felt quite intimidated. Yet, the rigors of the class compelled me to expand my thinking and learn to overcome any insecurities and deficits in my education. The effort paid off as I earned not only an ‘A’ in the course, but also won the T.O.P.S. (Top Outstanding Psychology Student) award in statistics. This award is given to the top undergraduate student with a demonstrated history of success in statistics.

My statistical training in psychology orientates me toward a more quantitative graduate experience. Due to the University of Rochester’s reputation for an extensive use of statistics in political science research, I would make a good addition to your fall class. While attending the University of Rochester, I would like to study international relations or comparative politics while in graduate school. I find the research of Dr.’s Hein Goemans and Gretchen Helmke intriguing and would like the opportunity to learn more about it through the Graduate Visitation program.

Participation in the University of Rochester’s Graduate School Visitation Program would allow me to learn more about the Department of Political Science to further see if my interests align with those in the department. Additionally, my attendance would allow the Political Science department to make a more accurate determination on how well I would fit in to the program than from solely my graduate school application. Attending the University of Rochester with its focus on quantitative training, would not only allow me to utilize the skills and knowledge I gained as an undergraduate, but also would expand this foundation to better prepare me to conduct research in a manner I find fascinating.

From attending S.E.R.E. (Survival/POW training) in the military and making it through a model comparisons course as an undergraduate, I have rarely shied away from a challenge. I thrive on difficult tasks as I enjoy systematically developing solutions to problems. Attending the University of Rochester would more than likely prove a challenge, but there is no doubt in my mind that I would not only succeed but enable me to offer a unique set of experiences to fellow members of the incoming graduate class.

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Sample Essays

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