College essay writing is hard. And while sometimes it’s hard because you don’t know what to do, it’s also hard because it’s easy to make mistakes. There are lots of misconceptions about writing college essays, and I’ve seen them in action. My sister is a senior in high school, and she’s gotten some really bad advice. So while I think we often try to be positive and focus on what you SHOULD do, today I want to talk about some of the things you SHOULDN’T do.
- Don’t be formal. The word “essay” is a little misleading in this context. I generally prefer the term “statement.” And that’s because you shouldn’t be writing as you would to an English teacher, but you should be starting a conversation with me about who you are as a student and an applicant, not submitting your paper for academic review. So while my sister was told that she should use “his or her” instead of “their” for a third-person singular pronoun, using “his or her” made her writing sound stiff. It just wasn’t her voice anymore. So while your work should be polished (typos and obvious grammatical errors are not helpful), you can also be conversational and write as you speak. I’ll be able to get to know you better if you imagine yourself speaking to me and telling me about yourself in a way that makes you comfortable.
- Don’t write what you think we want to hear. Just don’t do it. We’re not looking for anything specific in your essays, so if you try get inside our heads to figure out what we’re looking for, you’re guaranteed to write a more boring essay. I don’t care about what you think I want, I care about who you are, what sets you apart, and what sorts of interests, perspectives, and passions you’re going to bring to campus. And I find those things in the essays where you allow yourself to be yourself, to talk about things that matter to you, and to tell your story. When I said this in a presentation, a student once asked me if they should be true to every part of themselves. So the caveat here is to stay true to the best part of yourself. You wouldn’t walk into a job interview wearing what you wear when you binge watch Stranger Things, and you probably shouldn’t write a college essay about binge watching Stranger Things (unless you decide to analyze how the female characters represent different types of strength throughout the series, we’d learn a lot about you from that, future Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies major).
- Don’t feel the need to change your story. This is sort of a subset of the last point, but it’s something I hear often enough that I think it deserves its own number. There’s an episode of Modern Family where one of the daughters (I think Haley? I’m going to go with Haley) complains that her life isn’t hard enough for her to have anything interesting to say in a college essay. So Haley's mom drives her out into the woods and leaves her there. The assumption here is that if you aren’t talking about overcoming major life challenges, you can’t get into college. But the reality is, we read and accept students from all kinds of backgrounds – that’s one of my favorite things about the college experience. This is a place where the child of a CEO can be best friends with someone with refugee status, and both can learn from the experiences of the other. And frankly, essays that talk about overcoming struggle without also helping me understand how that struggle has shaped the perspective and passions of the applicant tend to be unsuccessful. Once more, it’s much more important to think about what I’m learning about you than what your topic is. So if you have a story about struggle that is integral to who you are as an applicant, you should absolutely own it and tell me that story and how it has shaped you. And if you don’t, then don’t. Tell us about something else.
- Don’t write about someone else. This one needs a little clarification. It’s okay to mention someone else, but they should never be the focus of your essay. My “Let Your Life Speak” essay talked about my parents – I discussed how my mom was a teacher and my dad was an artist. My mom gave me a love of learning and reading while my dad gave me a love of analysis and critical thinking. Obviously I’m simplifying, but all you really learned about my parents was what I’ve already said. I think the essay was successful because I focused much more on who I am than on who they are. So if you write an essay and you find that the first three quarters are about someone else while the last quarter is about yourself, you should go back and flip those proportions – dare I say, go into the upside-down - to keep yourself at the center.
Now that you know what NOT to do, you should be able to write! Avoid those pitfalls, and get to work. The best thing you can do right now is just start getting your ideas on the page, even if starting is sometimes the hardest part. So go write your essays!