The 10 Best College Essay Tips Ever!

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporationDo you know what “YOLO” means? If you’re applying to Tufts University, you’d better. As reported on The Huffington Post, the prestigious Boston-area college has this year included the following question as one of the choices in the essay section of its application:

“The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase ‘Carpe diem.’ Jonathan Larson proclaimed ‘No day but today!’ and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?”

During the past semester I twice had to ask my students what YOLO meant; clearly, I’ve never been Tufts material! The article continues to highlight some of the more unusual college application essay questions in history, though they did not include my favorite, from New York University: “Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you.” These unusual topics are a far cry from the old standbys such as “write about a person you admire”! But there’s a reason for them. They more accurately represent the kinds of creative and critical thinking you will be expected to do in college As the University of Chicago explains on its admissions webpage,

“The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.”

Given the great diversity in application essay topics these days, and the stress of writing an essay to begin with, are there any common practices that can help your essay stand out from the others and impress the admissions departments? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter what the topic of the essay is-these tips should be printed out and taped above your computer, because they are always relevant. Follow them to craft engaging and successful essays that admissions officers will appreciate.

  1. Stay on topic. It’s very common to get so caught up in the writing process that you veer down some tangent and end up in the land of irrelevance. At the end of every paragraph, ask yourself, “does this paragraph directly refer to the question?” and “does this paragraph clearly relate to the previous one?” If you answer either question with “no,” then you have gone off topic.
  2. It’s not all about you. This may seem like counter-intuitive advice, because colleges really want to get some insight into your character and your values. But your essay shouldn’t completely focus on you, because then you will come off as self-centered. When my own cousin applied to college, he asked me to read his essay, and I had to tell him that reading it was like reading a page out of the greatest egoist’s diary. It was all “me, me, me” and “I, I, I.” I advised him to temper his language by avoiding as many personal pronouns as possible. You can talk about what you’ve experienced and what you believe without constant self-references such as “I think” and “I believe.” Here’s an example, answering Tuft’s YOLO question: “YOLO is all about making the best of your circumstances. For example, Anne Frank had the ability to see past her immediate, dangerous life circumstances while hiding from Nazi persecution. She made the most of her intellect, her feelings, and her imagination in circumstances that would have destroyed those with more life experience, perhaps because more than most, she understood-painfully and tragically-that you only live once. When I think about my own life, this role model shows why it’s important to embrace all of the opportunities that come my way, including admission to Tufts University.” Can you see how this reveals an individual analysis and perspective without constant self-reference? One “I” in a paragraph is more than enough-after all, your readers already know that you’re the author of the essay.
  3. If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it. I read student papers every semester that don’t make any sense, because the writers misguidedly think that a big word is better than an accurate word. Many students have a bad habit of turning to the thesaurus, not realizing that not all synonyms are appropriate substitutions. I’m even thinking of getting a stamp that says “Do you know what this word means?” because the problem is so common. When you choose a word that isn’t exactly what you mean, you not only twist the meaning of your essay, you also reveal a certain level of intellectual laziness. It means you didn’t stop to really think about your word choices.
  4. Avoid clichés and trite sayings. No one wants to read 2000 essays that include such boring statements as “every cloud has a silver lining.” Avoid this kind of literary extravagance by following the sage advice of Ernest “Papa” Hemingway: “No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have, if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism.”
  5. Embrace your flaws. Self-awareness is a hallmark of maturity. If you write about how perfect you are, you will be writing a boring essay that is not true. Instead, show how your weaknesses can be used as strengths, or how you have overcome those weaknesses. Be careful, though, about following bad advice such as that offered by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on The Huffington Post, who wrote that students should, “write about anything that is counterintuitive about yourself, e.g., you are a football player who is totally into poetry, a young woman who is a computer or physics geek, a macho guy who wants to be an elementary school teacher.” But who says there’s anything counter-intuitive about women who are into computers, or football players who like poetry? If you say that by writing something like “I am unlike most dumb jocks who can’t read, because I like poetry,” (which is essentially what Shaevitz insinuated above), you’re admitting to some pretty narrow-minded views on human complexity. Instead, embrace that difference, and write something like, “I like poetry because the deliberate structure of football plays, the graceful arc of the pigskin as it takes flight down the green field, and the epic struggle of young men reaching out to grasp victory remind me of the deliberate structure of poetry, with its graceful arcs of meaning and narrative, and its ability to capture the essence of human passion in mere seconds of reading.” In this example, you reveal your critical thinking skills by showing that you recognize continuity across disparate areas of endeavor.
  6. Talk about the university’s program(s). A college wants to know why you think their school is a good “fit” for you, and this involves more than just what you can get personally out of admission to their programs. The college also wants to know what you can bring to the table as a student. Are you interested in college service, in student government, for example? Tell the school how you plan to continue the school’s reputation for excellence, so that you look like an asset rather than someone simply out to get a degree.
  7. Get help. There have been so many changes in high school curriculum that it’s possible that some students have never been asked to write an essay before they start applying to colleges. My own students have told me that the emphasis on standardized testing means that their teachers never assigned research or essays. If you are one of these students, there are many organizations and websites that can help you craft an original essay appropriately and ethically. For example, College Summit offers weekend workshops (“boot camps”) for high school seniors, where volunteer Writing and College coaches help with college applications.
  8. Follow the directions and stay within the word limit. This is a no-brainer, but so many students interpret instructions as “suggestions” rather than rules. You need to ruthlessly self-edit (maybe get rid of a few of those “I think” and “I feel” phrases!) and make sure you stay within the prescribed parameters. Many admissions representatives may simply stop reading your essay if they think you haven’t respected the rules of the game-and they won’t want to enroll someone like that in their college. Ted Lind, an academic advisor at the University of Michigan, Flint, told me that students really need to stay focused and “answer the question. Too often we see lists of accomplishments & awards, etc. but never answer the question that was asked.”
  9. Edit and proofread. Another no-brainer, but again, many students dismiss these last steps as unnecessary. They couldn’t be more wrong. Get someone to read your essay for flaws, sit down with a copy of your essay and see if you can identify the topic sentence of each paragraph, and read it out loud, preferably in front of a mirror, to see if it flows naturally as a narrative. If it doesn’t do these things, you need to fix it.
  10. Don’t lie or exaggerate your assets.  Just don’t. Trust me.

And now, following up on my favorite admissions essay question, here’s a haiku for all you hopeful applicants, warily facing your computers to write your college applications:

The blank screen yawns now
Pick me! Pick me! Panic screams
My future awaits.

Follow Dr. Rooney on Twitter and Google+ for more higher education news and commentary–or to order a custom haiku (restrictions apply).

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog