The Only Guide to Writing a College Application Essay You'll Ever Need (part three)


The Moment of Truth 

Let’s start with Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell. Who are they you ask? Why, only two of the best writers (in the English language) of the twentieth century.

They had quite a bit of experience polishing their craft – it’s safe to say both authors spent far more time sharpening their pen than the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell has proposed it takes to master any discipline.

From their many years of writing, editing, and revising, they distilled some simple rules to help the rest of us write better. First, let’s take a look at Vonnegut’s recommendations:

1. Find a subject you care about.

2. Do not ramble, though.

3. Keep it simple.

4. Have the guts to cut.

5. Sound like yourself.

6. Say what you mean to say.

7. Pity the readers.

Next, let's look at Orwell's rules for writing, which he first articulated in his essay “Politics and the English Language”:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

With Vonnegut’s and Orwell’s axioms of good writing as our time-tested, weather-beaten guide, let’s review some of the specific things we should be on the lookout for when writing our admissions essay.

The Essay Opening

The opening paragraph of your essay is crucial. Your first paragraph must spark the reader’s interest. When done right, the first paragraph can pull an admissions committee member out of her objective mindset and unlock her curiosity regarding the direction of the rest of your essay.

You can accomplish this in many different ways:

  • Place the reader in the midst of a vivid scene
  • Pose a though-provoking question
  • State an opinion
  • Include an interesting (though not overly used/super famous) quotation that relates to the theme of your essay
  • Share an episode or anecdote from your life
  • Argue against a general misconception about an issue you care or know about

 These are just a few examples; there are no doubt many more strategies you could use for the opening paragraph. Regardless of which strategy you choose, your essay opening must accomplish the following three things:

1) It must stimulate your readers' interest.

2) It must establish the tone that will remain consistent throughout the rest of your essay.

3) It must set the stage for you to develop the main idea of your essay.

What happens when you don’t accomplish these three things? Let’s find out now.

Fumbling the Ball During the Opening Kickoff

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Pardon the (American) football analogy. In the context of the admissions essay, fumbling the ball during the opening kickoff means falling flat within the very first paragraph of the essay.

There are a few ways an applicant can do this. Let’s take a look at a hypothetical (i.e., made up) example.

My name is Jonny J. Princeton the 3rd. I was born on December 7, 1995. It was snowing the day I was born. I have four brothers, three cats, two parents, and a dog. I went to high school in Connecticut. My favorite hobbies are competitive skeet shooting and watching old episodes of The Dave Chappelle Show. My favorite food is farm-to-table cumquat ravioli. The greatest hardship I faced in high school was not being able to find artisan farm-to-table cumquat ravioli in the cafeteria. Now I’m going to explain why I want to attend your school.

Essay introductions that begin flat are generally a bright red flag signaling that the rest of the essay will either read like a grocery list or remain grounded in vague, impersonal generalities. The goal of the very first paragraph should be to spark the reader’s interest and establish the tone of the essay.

Simple, yes, but easier said than done. Let’s take a look at a real example of an opening paragraph that works. This essay was written by a student who was accepted to Harvard (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy).

Some people just aren’t cut out for college Kwan. I don’t think you need to bother taking the SATs. I’m sure we can find you a nice trade school.” Slumped in an old leather couch in her office, I listened to my high school guidance counselor’s advice with silent resignation. Though still physically present, my spirit had already quit school years before.

Admit it: after reading that first paragraph, you want to read more, don’t you? That’s because the writer has successfully sparked your interest as a reader. It may take a few tries, but we are confident you can do it too.

Finding the Right Tone

Once you have decided on the purpose/central theme of your essay and have written a killer opening paragraph that grabs your reader’s attention, you should give some thought to what kind of voice you want to use to tell the rest of your story.

In other words, how do you want your essay to sound? What kind of tone or feelings do you want to convey over the course of your essay? This is what we mean when we talk about finding the right tone for your essay.

In your admissions essay the tone of your writing should generally reflect your personality. How do you want to present yourself to the admissions committee? Do you want your readers to feel that you are bold, positive, wise, intelligent, hardworking, diligent, funny, etc.?

Whichever one you choose, one thing you definitely do not want to do is to try to be somebody that you are not in your admissions essay, a topic which we will explore further in the next section.

Trying to Be Someone/Something That You Are Not, aka, Admissions Essay Kryptonite

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At some point in our lives, most of us have had to deal with someone that tries too hard to look smarter or more accomplished than they actually are.

As many disgraced memoirists can tell you, the temptation to fictionalize one’s story or stretch one’s credentials becomes all the more tempting when your audience (at least initially) is a humming computer screen.

In the world of admissions essays, applicants face a tremendous amount of pressure. As much as some applicants might be tempted to appear perfect and destined for imminent knighthood, the majority of admissions officers are a savvy bunch who have pretty much seen and heard it all when it comes to admissions essays.

They are not easily fooled and can usually detect when an applicant is trying to be someone they are not.

Adopting an Overly Familiar or Arrogant Tone

 While it doesn’t happen often, occasionally students will write an essay that comes across as incredibly tone deaf or even arrogant. Take this hypothetical example:

Dear awesome admissions officers:

I know your job must not be easy. I’m sure you must read a lot of great applications from a lot of smart kids. But let’s not kid ourselves here, I doubt any of them ever took all AP classes three years in a row and aced every single one of them like I did. Look, I understand the whole formality of answering the essay prompt and so I’m willing to play the game (wink, wink), but I think we both know that not admitting me to your “Ivy League” school would be a regret you carried with you to your grave. So for the sake of my children and yours, just go ahead and bust out your “Admitted” stamp now.

This may be a bit of an exaggeration, sure, but if you were an admissions officer and you read this opening paragraph, how excited would you be to continue reading? For that matter, how excited would you be about admitting this student to your school?

While we know that such cases are fortunately few and far between, let’s learn from others’ mistakes and be sure that we are writing in a way that is honest and true to ourselves. 

 Insider Tip #4

No matter what tone you choose for your essay, be sure to keep the following four general rules in mind at all times:

  • Be sure to choose a tone that is appropriate for the purpose of your admissions essay. For example, if you are writing about how a family member died of leukemia, you would not want to use a sarcastic tone because doing so would likely cause the admissions officers to question your judgement.
  • Be consistent from beginning to end in your admissions essay. Once you’ve chosen the right tone for your essay, stay with it.
  • Though we’ve mentioned it several times already, keep your audience in mind. Admissions officers and other members of the admissions committee are intelligent adults who have read hundreds, if not thousands, of applications essays. Therefore, it is best to avoid extremes in the tone of your essay: don’t be arrogant, all-knowing, overly sarcastic, fawning, sentimental, etc.
  • Be yourself! Trying to be someone you are not in your admissions essay will fail. Period. 

What Are Some Common Mistakes I Can Avoid In My College Application Essay?

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In this section we are going to discuss a few more crucial things to keep in mind when writing your admissions essay/personal statement. Beyond the points we’ve already discussed earlier, these are the most common mistakes/weaknesses we continue to come across.

Keep reading to learn how you can avoid making the same mistakes of the many students/college applicants who came before you.

Mistake to Avoid #1: Lack of details/not specific enough

Consider, for example, the following comparison of two hypothetical introductory paragraphs.

I am honored to apply to UC Berkeley. As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to teach in an inner-city school. Of all the professions, it always struck me as the most noble and the most unappreciated. In fact, by the time I was sixteen, I knew that teaching was my calling in life.

From a line-by-line perspective, there is not much wrong with the above example. However, it suffers from a problem which, for an admissions officer responsible for reading thousands of applications a year, could prove problematic: lack of specificity.

In order to break through the fog admissions officers occasionally find themselves in while pouring over thousands of applications, we should use vivid language that shines a light on the concrete details of our story. Let’s take a look at the same example from above, only this time avoiding generalities and instead conveying specifics.

When I was seventeen, my favorite teacher Mr. Oates passed away one month before my high school graduation. Before he died, however, he left me something that would determine my path through life: his passionate example as a teacher. He showed me the connection between life and letters, helping me understand that learning can be a powerful force for change. Ever since taking Mr. Oates’ AP English class, I have wanted to become a teacher.

In terms of word count, there isn’t much difference between these two examples. However, if these introductory paragraphs are any indication of the paragraphs that follow, it's safe to say that the writer of the first example might have a tough time standing out from the thousands of overqualified applicants reaching for the same limited number of spots at their school of choice.

If, on the other hand, the writer of the second example continues to fulfill the promise of this first paragraph by communicating concrete details that allow her life and story to shine through, chances are that an admissions officer may be more willing to give this student a chance to fight for her dreams at her school of choice.

Mistake to Avoid #2: Ignoring the question posed by the essay prompt

This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Take the following example. Imagine that the essay prompt question is “Share an experience you had in the past four years that has prepared you for life at college.”

In response, the applicant writes the following paragraph:

Seeing Gandalf’s beard in The Lord of the Rings convinced me to fly to New Zealand during the summer of my junior year and, when it became apparent that I was not going to meet anyone in New Zealand capable of wearing a beard with the same skill, well, I returned home and realized how proud I was to be an American. Oh, and if you admit me to your school, I will definitely be starting a Middle Earth Club.

Right…where were we? Ah, yes, following the essay prompt.

While this example certainly recounts an experience, the author makes no attempt to answer the question of how this experience prepared him for life at college. Always make sure you have done your best to address the essay prompt.

Mistake to Avoid #3: Writing a lot without actually revealing anything about yourself

This point is closely related to Mistake to Avoid #1 (lack of details/not specific enough). Admissions officers read each essay with a keen desire to know what makes an applicant tick.

As a first impression (beyond transcripts), the essay should generally reflect your mind, imagination, values, attitudes toward life, and personal enthusiasms, among other things. And while of course not every essay can simultaneously convey all of these things, an impersonal essay that fails to convey any of them will likely have trouble convincing admissions officers to give you a spot at their school.

Mistake to Avoid #4: A weak essay closing, aka, fumbling the ball on the one-yard line

This will be the last (American) football analogy…we promise.

Concluding your essay in a memorable way is just as important as beginning it with an introductory paragraph that is sincere, interesting, clear, and concise. Sounds obvious, right?

However, as any writer worth his or her salt knows, writing the ending can be extremely difficult. While there are as many ways to craft a memorable ending as there are fingers tapping keyboards in our digital age, let’s take a look at what not to do.

The following approaches to the admissions essay ending are what we would consider “fumbling the ball on the one yard line”:

  1. Ending the admissions essay with an impersonal, overly formal list of key points: “And so, to conclude, here are the five key points that I have explored in this essay.”
  2. Confusing the reader by taking the final paragraph in a totally new and unexpected direction that has little or nothing to do with the rest of the essay. While this approach might (or might not) work in M. Night Shyamalan’s films, it most certainly will not be appreciated by an admissions officer shuffling through a thousand and one application essays.
  3. Flooding the reader with a deluge of new details in the last paragraph. Doing so could confuse the reader and cloud the potentially favorable impression she had formed of the applicant.
  4. Adopting an overly apologetic approach: I am really sorry. I know that, as a result of the word limit, I was unable to fully answer the essay prompt. However, I truly hope that you will look past this failing of mine and see that I would be a great addition to your university. Again, I’m sorry, and thank you for your time.

In conclusion, ending your admissions essay poorly could result in diminishing the overall effectiveness of the essay. The challenge then is to make a lasting impression on the reader, to burn one last idea, image, or statement in the reader’s mind, thus reconfirming the essay’s excellence.

Mistake to Avoid #5: Lack of organization

Your admissions essay must communicate efficiently in a relatively small amount of space. The ideas conveyed in the essay must flow logically, exhibiting clear and rational relationships.

If you are reading this guide, that most likely means you are serious about going to college. If you are serious about going to college, chances are you did pretty well in high school and learned a thing or two about how to organize your writing.

Therefore, you probably already have an intuitive sense for the importance of clear and logical organization in a piece of writing.

Use that intuition, young Skywalker: after you’ve written your first draft and have spent some time away from your essay, pinpoint those parts of your writing that suffer from weak or illogical organization. If you are unsure how to do this, ask an older friend or teacher to read your essay and get a second opinion.

Mistake to Avoid #6: Trying to include too many points/ideas

It is easy to understand why an applicant might try to include too many points in his/her admissions essay. After all, every person who applies to college has a lot riding on this essay.

 As many writers will tell you, writing a 500-word essay is usually more difficult than writing a 5,000-word essay. One common impulse when writing an admissions essay is to try to stuff as many points/ideas as the meager word count will allow.

However, nine times out of ten, this approach will leave the reader feeling rushed, confused, and unsure about the essay’s central point/idea. Be sure not to include too many extraneous points that detract from the central theme/topic/point in your application essay.

How Do I Polish and Perfect My Final Draft?

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Congratulations if you’ve completed all the steps outlined in the previous section. This means that you should now have a first (or second or third) draft.

And since that’s the case, it’s time to edit your own work, polishing it until you’ve produced a final draft that you can submit together with the rest of your application package.

As you read through your draft, highlight any phrases, sentences, or even paragraphs that seem confusing, long-winded, or that are not directly relevant to the main themes and points you tried to convey in your essay.

Pay attention to the final word count limit for each specific essay prompt. Although we already included them in a previous section, we think it will help to review George Orwell’s rules for writing since they also serve as excellent guideposts for editing.

1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. 

2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 

6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In addition to following Orwell’s rules for good writing, we’ve include a few key points below to help you as you work on editing and shaping your final draft. As you reread your draft for the second, third, and fourth time, try to follow these rules as you try to decide what to cut and what to keep.

Edit/revise for consistency in your tone/voice

Ensure that the tone matches the purpose and themes of the essay. For example, if you are writing about the death of your best friend, using a tone that is overly ironic or too casual would be off-putting. 

Vary the length of your sentences

For example, if you’ve written three long sentences that follow each other back to back, try to revise the second sentence so that it is much shorter than those that come before and after. Although this is a writing skill that takes time and effort to acquire, including a good variation of sentence lengths throughout your application essay will help improve your audience’s reading experience. 

Edit/revise so that you use strong action verbs

Examples of such action verbs include studied, led, organized, and demonstrated.

Edit/revise so that you eliminate flabby strings of short words

Consider the following example: “It was then at that very moment when I finally realized that I…” This long- winded phrase can be rewritten as follows: “I realized that…”

Don’t try too hard to sound intellectual

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In the same essay Orwell wrote about the English language, he gave the following example of how trying to sound too intellectual in your writing can actually do more harm than good by obscuring your intended meaning:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Here it is in modern (by which Orwell means poorly written and overly intellectual) English:

“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Try not to use too many adverbs (words that end with –ly) and adjectives

Here is an example of a sentence that abuses adverbs: “It was undoubtedly, spectacularly, and finally one of the most amazingly profound moments in my life.” This sentence could be dramatically improved by using just one adverb instead of four.

Edit/revise to ensure that your essay exhibits a logical and consistent chronology

As interesting as the non-linear structure of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento might have been, it is safe to say that the events you are describing in your essay will usually be better understood when presented in the actual order in which they occurred. 

Edit/revise instances of the passive voice and passive constructions

For example, “I was able to travel to…” should be revised as “I traveled to…”, while “Reading is something I love to do a lot,” should be changed to “I love reading.”

 

Insider Tip #5

Here is one final checklist to use when reading and editing your admissions essay:

  • Have you followed the word count guidelines? We strongly recommend that you do not, under any circumstances, exceed the word count guidelines. Doing so can leave the impression that you are incapable of following simple directions or that you somehow think you are special and are above the guidelines that other applicants work hard to follow.
  • Does the introduction grabber the reader’s attention?
  • Does the introduction do one of the following?
  1. Place the reader in the midst of a vivid scene
  2. Pose a though-provoking question
  3. State an opinion
  4. Include an interesting (though not super famous) quotation that relates to the theme of your essay
  5. Share an episode or anecdote from your life
  6. Argue against a general misconception about an issue you care or know about
  • Do you include a quote that everyone knows or a list of boring generalities at the beginning of your essay? If so, delete them!
  • Does your introduction (the first one or two paragraphs) allow you to set the stage for the rest of your admissions essay? In other words, is there a logical conclusion between what you’ve written in your introduction and the rest of your admissions essay?
  • Does the tone of your admissions essay remain consistent?
  • If you described facing a problem or hardship, do you focus on how you learned from this problem or how you resolved it rather than on how much it made you suffer?
  • Have you tried to be someone other than yourself at any point in your essay? If so, delete those parts and revise!
  • Have you included many extraneous points that detract from the central theme/topic/point in your admissions essay? If so, delete them!

You made it to the end! Congratulations! You made it to the end of Montevideo's definitive guide to writing a college application essay. If you feel the need to go back and review Part One or Part Two, just click here to return to Part One and click here to return to Part Two.

As hard as writing your college application essay/statement of purpose might be, just keep in mind goo old Shia Labeouf's words of encouragement.  

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