I vividly recall dedicating each day of Thanksgiving break during my senior year of high school to writing the supplemental essays for my college applications: one short answer per day. I’ve forgotten what most of those brief essays were about, but I certainly remember sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor developing an intense writing schedule and agonizing over potential essay topics. Almost nine years later, I’ve lost track of the number of application essays I’ve read - as an admissions officer and as a college counselor - but thankfully I have learned a few essay-writing lessons along the way. Whether you’re just beginning the brainstorming phase for your personal statement or you’re polishing drafts of your last few supplemental essays, if you keep these five tips in mind, you’ll be as fabulous as Adele:
1. Start with the purpose: First, take a minute to consider the role of the application essays from an admissions officer’s perspective. Your writing serves to give a human element to your application file, creating a connection between you and the reader who likely hasn’t had the opportunity to meet you in person. Your essays help us understand your voice beyond the academic data and learn about your personality, values, interests, priorities, and background. Essays also help us see your fit for Tufts specifically: does the attitude you showcase in your writing match the “vibe” of our community? That’s our purpose in requiring you to submit all these essays. But you get to have a purpose, too. Each essay you write should have a clear intention behind what you’re communicating, an intention that you can actually identify and articulate. What do we need to know about you to have the fullest picture possible of (a) what you care about and (b) how you will engage academically and socially on our campus? Those ideas and qualities should deliberately align with the essays you send us.
2. Make the most of each essay: By asking you to write two short supplemental essays in addition to your longer personal statement/college essay, we provide you with multiple opportunities to share what matters to you. That means you get multiple chances to showcase the multiple interests and experiences that make you a multifaceted human being. By writing all your essays about a similar theme or overlapping topics, you’ve likely missed out on a chance to share other dimensions of your identity. When a college requires supplemental essays or short answer questions, it can be helpful to think of your writing as a package or a set, the way it will be read by an admissions officer. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the many things that make you interesting, smart, likable, and engaging. Ideally, your personal statement and supplemental essays will come together to reflect a range of qualities that comprise your voice as a whole.
3. Focus on the details: Now, while your essays as a whole set help paint a broad picture of who you are, each individual essay should tell me something very specific. Rather than trying to squeeze your whole life story into a 650-word essay or writing broadly about your interest in science or your passion for public service, try to keep your topics narrow and go deep with them. Describing a single experience/interaction/memory/source of inspiration with vivid detail and deep reflection can often have the most powerful and original impact. A former colleague used to describe this idea as "letting the micro inform the macro.” Small details - in your storytelling and in the interpretations you offer in your writing - can be representative of the macro-level ideas you want to leave the reader pondering.
4. Maintain your voice: Let me assure you, from our perspective, your college application essays should not be approached with the same tone as a research paper or book report. While your writing should be grammatically correct and show evidence of care, the language, style, and spirit of your essays certainly can and should be authentic to how you speak in real life. If your friends, family, and teachers would describe you as goofy, outgoing, or relaxed, you probably shouldn’t submit a collection of essays in a formal, subdued tone. If your real-life personality is more subtle, perceptive, and insightful, that can certainly make for a great college essay, too! Whether your communication style is witty, sarcastic, lyrical, pensive, earnest, animated, or sensible, I encourage you to infuse that flavor into your written language to complement the character qualities found in the content of your writing.
5. Be thoughtful in seeking feedback: I’ve seen plenty of students go overboard in their pursuit of essay feedback and I feel pretty confident that sharing a Google Doc with your 20 closest friends and mentors is the surest way to become overwhelmed with conflicting advice and edit your own voice out of your college essays. There are lots of well-intentioned people whose college essay advice can be a bit misguided. Stick to sharing your drafts with just 2-3 people you trust; a former colleague suggests including one person who’s a particularly strong writer and one person who knows you REALLY well and can gauge the authenticity of your writing. Editing to catch typos and incorrect spellings is essential, but I encourage you not to let the editing phase sanitize the creative expression that should make your essays yours.
Photo credit: Ian Myles via Flickr