I've Got Answers: Essays
November 10, 2012
As promised in this post, I'm collecting your questions and answering them in a series. Ideally, if I can help you write a better application, then I will get to read a better application. And I love good applications. On to the question!
"I know admissions officers/guidance counselors always say that you should write about what you want the admissions officer to know about you or whatever gives most insight to who you are but... as a 17 year old, it's pretty hard to evaluate this sort of thing. Do you have a general theme you're looking for (for common app essay as well as supplements)? What sort of essay do you find most compelling?" -Rebecca, from Maryland.
I actually think "write about what you want the admissions officer to know about you" isn't always good advice. Too often, what you want us to know about you isn't actually that helpful or distinctive.
A friend of mine has a younger brother who is applying to college this year, and for the purposes of this email I'll call him Ferdinand (because, if you're going to use a pseudonym, it might as well be something awesome), and he wrote his first draft using that advice. For this first draft, he wrote a 500 word essay about helping an elderly old man named Louis for a summer. And it was a fine essay, that indeed demonstrated what Ferdinand wanted us to learn about him: he's a nice guy who is willing to help others. But, that's not *really* an interesting thing to learn about Ferdinand, is it? It's a wonderful quality to have, but no one in our applicant pool intentionally will present themselves as someone who isn't a nice guy, or as someone who hates helping others. You want to pique our attention, to get us to be excited about who you are and curious to learn more about you. "Nice" is important; we want nice students. But "Nice" on its own isn't going to get you into schools that get to be choosy about who they admit.
The better questions to ask yourself are questions like: What inspires/excites/angers/kindles me? What is it about myself, or about the world, or about ideas that incites a visceral reaction when I think about it? What matters to me? Where do I see something of significance in myself or in the world? What are my strongly held opinions? Where do those opinions come from? What piece of my life story forces me to think differently even if I don't want it to?
These are, you'll notice, far more dangerous questions than "What do I want someone to know about me?" But the truth is: schools like Tufts want students who can push their peers' thinking and challenge boundaries and advance a conversation. This doesn't mean that every essay needs to be a critique of DOMA or the Affordable Care Act - you can have awesome essays written about truly small things, or about pop-culture - but a good essay (I think) stakes out a claim, it expresses an opinion, and it tells me why something matters.
Here's why Ferdinand's essay about Louis misses the mark: I don't think Ferdinand really cares about Louis. I don't mean that in a flippant way - I'm sure that Louis, as a human being, matters to Ferdinand - but is Louis one of Ferdinand's favorite things in the world? I asked, and Ferdinand said no. Are issues concerning the societal perceptions of the elderly near and dear to Ferdinand's heart? I asked, and Ferdinand said no. Does Louis in any way represent a set of ideas that Ferdinand is excited to wrestle with in college? I asked, and (can you see the pattern?) Ferdinand said no. So, and please pardon the force of my language, why the hell should Ferdinand write an essay about Louis?
What I find compelling is this: what you find compelling. I am compelled by the force of your beliefs and the depth of your sense of self and the intellect you bring to bear on the world. That is amorphous, I know, but trying to create a definition for what is compelling requires amorphousness. Is this helpful at all? I invite you to challenge me on any of this in the comments below. Or, alternatively, if you've got a question you'd like to see turned into a blog post, leave it below.