Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The College Essay

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

When completing a college application, students freak out the most at the college essay, or personal statement—and it’s easy to see why. Every other part of the application is basically a done deal. Your grades aren’t likely to change all that much; you aren’t going to join 10 activities now, and if you do, you just gave the colleges one more reason to say No; and your teachers think of you what they think of you, so don’t bother with the Lamborghini.

That leaves the essay, where you get to show them who you are, behind the lists, facts, and figures. I’ve already offered some strong essay advice on this in a blog that’s worth looking at again. Read that, and think about these additional comments as you get ready to write the Mother of All Stories:

It’s Not an Essay. Essays are for book reports, History papers, and What I Did Over Summer Vacation. This isn’t that—it’s your part of a conversation. Colleges really want you to visit them in person and spend a couple of hours with you, hearing your life’s story. They can’t do that; instead, they want you to write down part of that conversation and send it to them. As you write, stop and read what you’re writing out loud. Does it sound conversational? That’s the goal.

It’s Not a Speech. Students see this as a big deal, so they think it’s worthy of big-deal treatment—like they’re giving a speech, or accepting an award. This is a different kind of big deal—it’s the chance to tell some caring, interested adults about who you are and what matters to you. That’s not the kind of stuff that goes into speeches, but it really belongs here. So don’t worry if you don’t quote Aristotle, or think George Washington is the figure who inspired you most—once you get to the “why” part, you’ll see you’re out of gas with those ideas anyway. You’re not trying to inspire them; you’re trying to bring them closer to you as you say “Hey, let me tell you about this. I think you’re gonna like this.”

No Lists, Franz. This also isn’t the time to recycle your list of awards, the classes you took, or any kind of brag sheet. Those things are somewhere else, and while they’re important, they’re about breadth. Here, you want depth—a rich look at one, maybe two ideas you walk around with. Think of the friends, relatives, or celebrities you’d spend hours listening to. They’re not yelling; they’re drawing you closer to them with words and ideas that light your imagination and connect with you. Lists don’t do that, so out they stay.

Name Dropping? No. It is really more than OK if you had this truly amazing conversation or evening with Lin-Manuel Miranda that got you thinking about life differently, and write about it. Unless, of course, it was more like he was leaving the theater, he looked at you while he kept walking, and you snapped a picture. Otherwise, don’t think mentioning him gets you closer to any school (even Wesleyan), or including quotes from leading thinkers will wow anyone. If a small quote brings home the point of your story—and you’re writing a true story—use it. Otherwise, save the dog and pony show for another occasion.

A great college admissions officer once said the true test of a great “essay” is if they look up when they’re done reading it, and they are surprised, because you aren’t in the room. Stories transcend the time-space continuum. Write a college story.

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