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what to say in a college admission essay

What to say in a College Admission Essay

By Harry Bauld

bauld imageWhat are they looking for in the college application essay? is the wrong question.

There’s no magic formula. The application essay is the first published piece of writing for almost all young writers. It goes out into a world of unknown readers who hope to learn something real from it. Unlike the audience of teachers provided by school—who are paid to like you, or at least pretend as if they do, no matter what you fumble out about Hamlet or the Ottoman Empire—the admissions officers who read your essay have no stake whatever in your success.

This piece is also a specific literary form, like an epic or a limerick, and has its own clichés to be avoided, some of which follow. (NB: everything I say you can’t do, you can do. You have to be careful with advice about cure-alls.)

The Trip: “I had to adjust to very different foods, customs, even daily schedules, in my visit to Europe/Israel/Cleveland/fill in the blank. …” Everything in Trip essays is different except the essay itself, which is just like all other Trip essays.

Miss America: This essay—“I think world peace is the most important issue facing us today…”—offers simpleminded solutions for complex problems that you don’t really know the first thing about from personal experience.

“Writing,” said E. B. White,
“is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” It’s not any kind of trick,
in fact. At its best, it’s just you.

The Perspirant: In response to the essay prompt to discuss “a challenge you’ve faced,” student anxiety often leads to “This essay is the greatest challenge I have ever faced… . ” Don’t write about the process of applying (admissions officers sometimes call such applicants “sweaty”).

The Jock: “Through wrestling, I have learned discipline, determination, and how to work with people… .” Written by many types of students, not just neckless mouth-breathers, this isn’t a subject but a formula: Through X, I have learned Noble Value A, High Platitude B, and Great Lesson C. (You know you’ve written this essay if you can substitute “hard work,” “cooking meals at the soup kitchen,” or “my career
as a mugger” for “WRESTLING,” and it still makes sense.) In essays, and in life, attempts to force people into choosing what to think of you don’t work. You just have to be yourself; they get to decide what to think.

Pet Death: “As I watched Button’s life ebb away in the street, I realized all the important things I value in this world… .” If you have pets, feel free to keep them alive as long as possible. If they die, dig a hole, have a lovely ceremony, and then keep quiet about it. (Incidentally, E. B. White wrote one of the great essays of this century, “Death of Pig,” defying in brilliant detail everything I am saying. Try it if you dare.)

My Favorite Things: “Here are a few things I am for: abandoned puppies, moonbeams, fudge brownies. Things I am against: acne, mean people, nuclear holocaust… . ” Writers of MFT are called “fluffballs” in admissions parlance—need I say more?

Tales of My Success: “But finally, when I crossed the finish line and received the congratulations of my teammates, I realized all the hard work had been worth it.” Imagine how often that gets written, and then spare the admissions staffers one more variation on the theme. Let others—teachers, counselors—talk about your successes instead.

My Memoirs: Don’t try to stuff eighteen years into 500 words. It’s not that an autobiography can’t be done in this space; it’s just profoundly difficult. Write about something smaller.

Now for what you should do.

The secrets of the application essay are few, and really not so secret:
  • Write to discover something. If you already know what you want to say, the reader is already snoozing. Invite the reader along, don’t push them around.
  • Read other essays. Familiarity breeds knowledge.
  • Practice. The piece you send to colleges shouldn’t be the first personal essay you’ve ever worked on.
  • Tell a story. Give the details.
  • Find the style that is just informal enough. It’s not an essay for history class. Think hard, write simply.
  • If you think of something funny write it down. If not, don’t.
  • Write something only you could write.

Harry Bauld is author of On Writing the College Application Essay (HarperCollins, 1987), and has been an admissions officer at Brown and Columbia. He is currently chair of the English department at the Putney School in Vermont.

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what to say in a college admission essay

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