What colleges look for in an essay

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What colleges look for in an essay:
A. Sophisticated, grammatically correct writing

B. Clear, coherent communication

C. Passion; spirit; commitment

D. Substantive content

E. An answer to the question!
Landmines - Things to Avoid!

A. The "I" essay

B. Lots of contractions: it's; we’re; they’re; I’ll; I’ve; we’ll

C. Trite or pompous phrases or words: myriad, plethora, broaden your

horizons, etc.

D. Using $50 words that are not appropriate just to try to impress

Topics/Styles That Can Be Risky

1. Profanity

2. Drugs

3. Describing inappropriate behavior

4. Boyfriend/girlfriend

5. Shock value

6. Sympathy

7. Travel/community service ("Oh, those poor people . . .") - not a warning to

avoid writing about these trips, just be careful about tone.

8. Humor (if you're not naturally funny, don't try to start now!; some humor

good but too much can be bad)

9. Writing about depression or other sensitive mental health issues

10. Writing about religion

11. Poetry

Recipe for the College Essay
A. Think, plan, outline before you actually start writing.

B. Write about something you care about, know about (demonstrate passion

and intellectual curiosity).

C. Be focused and provide detail rather than choosing too broad a topic and

not getting specific enough (trying to solve the problems of the world in 500


D. Proofread your essays carefully. Don’t rely solely on spellcheck and

grammar check programs.

E. Keep in mind your audience - 23 - 65 years olds with diverse backgrounds F. Read your essay out loud.

  1. Keep it short and to the point, usually no more than 500 words. Most essays are about one page in 10-12 point type. Admissions officers have much reading to do. They are not fond of multiple page essays.

  1. Be sure you absolutely answer the question when responding to a specific query.

  1. In most instances avoid politics, religion and tired topics. (See list of “tired” topics.) You don want to write an essay that one of a thousand other applicants could write because they probably will. If you think the Admissions Committee might receive many other essays like yours, then choose another topic. You want to be memorable and unique, not one of so many. Examples of this mistake include four essays on the junior hiking trip, six on Anytown, three on Outward Bound, three on planning the prom, etc.

  1. Write from your heart. Tell the truth. Don’t try to present yourself as something you are not.

  1. Don’t be afraid to tell about your passions. Readers want to know what you genuinely care about, what is meaningful and important to you.

  1. Write in “natural, ordinary, everyday” prose. Avoid those $50 SAT words you rarely use, those that are not in your usual vocabulary. Avoid long, convoluted sentences and lots of semicolons. Avoid slang. Don’t try to be clever and end up being cute or silly. Get rid of the cliches.

  1. In your beginning, try to be a bit creative and get the reader’s attention. You want to aim for a “hook” that will make him want to keep reading. Sometimes you can accomplish this by being a bit mysterious. Another idea that can sometimes work is the trivial observation that anyone can relate to but might not think to mention in a college essay. Jerry Seinfeld built a career on this skill. Remember some of his killer opening lines? Never ever begin your essay with “My name is . . .” or “I am a senior at Greensboro Day School, and I really want to go to NC State.”

  1. Avoid being too general or jumping from on topic to another, better to focus on one meaningful episode or experience in your life, not a complete history or bio. Think small. Strive for depth, not breadth. Don’t try to accomplish too much. In college essays, less is more.

  1. Edit, spellcheck and proofread carefully. Then do it again. Have several people read your essays. Let it sit for a while and go back to it for a second impression. Sometimes you still think it’s great. Sometimes, not. Remember good writing us usually “rewriting.”

  1. Use details, illustrations, and anecdotes. Use strong words, analogies, similes and metaphors. Instead of “I ran up the stairs;” “I dashed breathlessly up the 64 steps.” Instead of saying, “I like to follow my dreams,” tell them what the dream is and how you plan to make it come true. Don’t say you are an inquisitive person. Tell them a story that demonstrates that quality.

“I am the sum of my experiences.”
“Words are the building blocks of both written and oral communication.”
“The reality of the world outside my own life is sometimes a disappointing experience.”
“Art created with emotions is boundless.”
“In my life there have been an incredible number of influences.”
“Out of class interests have been an important aspect of my life.”
“Since I was very young, I have always been very competitive and career-oriented.”
“The biggest influence on my character has been the presence of my father in my life.”
“The title Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper entitles the bearer with much power and control.”
“A phrase becomes significant when it takes on a meaning beyond its literal level.”
“At the time, I was in tears. . .”
“The topless beach is the first thing I remember.”
“By far the most popular activity in Wichita Falls is to put on your boots and go to the Stardust Club.”

“The Amazing Transparent Man, Stolen House, Countdown, Lady in a Cage, and Hey, Let’s twist are just a few of the movies I’ve seen at the Kamas Star Theater since 1999.”

“I was three when my sister waddled into the playground of my life on padded baby legs, interrupting my blissful solitude.”
“For the past four years, every Friday night I can be found in a church being degraded and harassed. “No, no, no!” Mr. Montoni roars. His sour coffee breath hitting me full in the face. “Shift to fifth position! Use your head for more than growing hair! Listening to this overused and by now not terribly funny expression of his, I am filled with an all-consuming desire to whack him over the head with my violin.”
“As I pushed open the wooden door, the bell attached to it rattled and stirred the silence. Mr. Kim, the shopkeeper, slid back the curtains and slowly approached the counter. He had a Santa-like face, complete with beard, wild hair and eyebrows that were fluffy and white.”
‘Personally, I would never bury a time capsule. My fifth grade class buried one, and it seemed useless.”

All quoted statements are from Edward Fiske

Honesty. Write in your own voice.
First person use. This is not an academic essay, it is a “personal” essay.
Insight into your personality. Reveal something meaningful—something real about yourself.
Any subject. The key is your unique perspective on it, your analysis of it.
Writing that need not be Pulitzer Prize winning, but is:

Coherent Thoughtful

Carefully organized Concise (Remember the KISS rule: Keep it short and simple!)

Imaginative Mechanically sound (PROOFREAD ! ! !)

Spark, vitality; signs of a lively mind.
Perhaps some humor (But be careful not to be flippant); maybe some modest self-deprecation
A compelling opener. Think about how many essays these guys read.
An answer to the question they pose. Don’t “substitute an answer to one college’s question for that of another unless the two are exactly the same.”
Stiff, artificial writing; ostentation or pretension.
Slick essays that sound like something “paid for” (barrels of outside help, maybe a hired consultant).
Essays that “tell” rather than “show. Such writing is often tedious and unconvincing, filled with trite sayings. Be specific; it is the details from which all larger themes take shape.
The “social-problem-of-the-year” bandwagon essay. After the horrors of 9/11, many students (whose hearts and emotions were yet raw) tried to write about this act of terrorism. Many said the same thing; even the well-written essays did not offer a meaningful glimpse at the uniqueness of the writer.
Cynicism. “Colleges want bright, active people—not negative, whiney, wet blankets. A positive approach . . . will score points.”
Overly self-centered essays. One admissions dean remembers, “I hated it when an applicant wrote that he had learned from a trip to the ghetto how fortunate he is to live in a nice house.”

There’s a fine line between legitimate consultation and illegitimate misrepresentation. . . . Many admissions officers have finely honed radar to detect ghost-written essays.”
Don’t have 4 or 5 people read your work; if you incorporate everyone’s ideas, the writing will sound like the work of a committee—it will no longer capture YOU.

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