Writing the College Application Essay



So you’re about to take the big plunge and begin composing your essay for college, eh?  Here are some suggestions cobbled together from twelve years of reading application essays at Swarthmore College, along with eighteen years advising high school students as a school counselor…


n      write your own essay: This is not a plea to avoid plagiarism—you know better than to copy someone else’s work—but one to encourage you to find and utilize your own voice.  The best essay you can write is your essay, even if you aren’t the greatest writer in the universe.  Ya know those books that provide for you “fifty of the best college essays ever written?”  Don’t buy them—those essays worked for other people, not for you.  Besides, if you put too much stock in such volumes, you will not sound authentic—it will not be your voice behind the words


n      answer the question/follow the prompt: If Villanova wants you to compose an essay addressing a quote by Saint Augustine, do not submit a theme on how you saved your younger sister from the clutches of a deadly cobra.  The latter is a very compelling topic—but it’s not what you were asked to write.  Many schools—indeed, all that employ the Common Application—provide multiple choices from which one can choose an essay topic.  Be smart—don’t select a topic about which you cannot write with grace, skill and insight.  Heck, the Common Application has six prompts from which to select—the sixth of which is topic of your choice!!


n      don’t write an English paper: You are not being asked to defend a thesis or support an argument in a college application essay (unless, of course, you select topic of your choice and decide to write about writing an English paper…).  There is no need to construct the sort of “standard,” formulaic essay that wins you points on the SAT Reasoning Test or ACT Writing section.  You are free to jump right into your work without a formal introduction and to take risks in your writing.  Be clever (don’t be cute—college hate cute); be creative; be original.  Many times college admissions officers read well-crafted, sophisticated essays with clearly deep thinking behind them—and many times these works are void of emotion, empty exercises.  While these demonstrate strong writing skills, these are hardly personal essays.  If an admissions reader wants to know how well you write English papers, s/he will examine your transcript and verbal test scores


n      respect limits: a good rule of thumb is not to exceed the stated word boundary by more than 20% (600 words for a 500 word essay is OK—no more!).  This is not simply about following rules—it is about courtesy to others and one’s ability to communicate succinctly.  Put yourself in the position of an admissions officer at a highly selective college who must read 50-75 essays a day at the height of application season.  You have been asked to limit yourself to 500 words, but instead you enclose a five-page response.  How much affection is that admissions counselor likely to have for you? 


n      avoid trite and overused topics: But don’t steer away from topics that are “controversial” if you can submit a moving, authentic essay.  Works that cover camp experiences, trips abroad, sports victories and losses run the risk of being judged as too common—so if you do intend to write on any of these themes, be sure you turn out an especially singular essay!


n      don’t make assumptions about your admissions reader: don’t think that you must write in a stilted, formal fashion because your admissions counselor is older than your parents.  Don’t insult the intelligence of your reader by being too obvious; but be sure that you avoid slang and vernacular that would not be evident to someone who is older than you


n      never let Bill Gates be your only editor: Spell Check ® will not catch everything.  I’m not talking about just the form versus from mistakes; there are any number of constructions in English that are perfectly logical/acceptable to your computer editing program which will make no sense whatsoever—and which may cause serious embarrassment—in real language.  My best example: a woman applying to Swarthmore wrote her essay about knitting and quilting.  The three times she wanted to use the word crocheted, she spelled it “crotched.”  Spell Check ® didn’t catch that; and I didn’t go near a bedspread for a month after reading it.  Be sure, then, that human eyes get to scan your work—not only will friends/parents/teachers/ counselors catch potentially damaging errors, they will be able to tell you whether the essay comes across as the “real you”