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reflections on the college application essay
“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.
After reading a number of essays, I was quite intrigued by the patterns evident in most of them. Many of the same themes were used by different writers; some essays were brilliantly unique. So here is my attempt to provide a brief categorization of the common types of essays/essay writers that I’ve noticed, addressed to (imaginary) future writers who will attempt the ordeal or the enjoyable experience that is the college application essay.
The Incurably Cliché
Different names, different places, same story. What sort of clichés should you try to avoid talking about (badly)?
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. 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 “my career as a mugger,” “hard work,” or “cooking meals at the soup kitchen,” for “mugger,” 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. [Harry Bauld: What to say in a college admission essay, Reed Magazine]
I’ve come across Miss America, the Perspirant, the Jock (quite popular), Tales of My Success (most frequent), and Memoirs. I would rather read an essay about a blade of grass than about how you mustered that last ounce of strength to pip your opponent in so‐and‐so competition and, collapsing to the ground in weariness, realized that you can do things if only you drive yourself to do it and believe in yourself, and now you can take on any obstacle because you now know what you’re capable of, woohoo! Certainly commendable, and I admire your spirit of perseverance. I don’t mean to belittle your accomplishment either. What I am saying is that such essays rarely reveal something that is unique about you. If I took another person and substituted him or her into the essay, it would probably make sense as well. Most people have great drive and teamwork and [insert quality of your choice], but not many people can write a thoughtful reflection on a blade of grass. And if you can, and if those are your real thoughts, it will be a joy to read because often such essays reveal more about their writer than the My Success essays…
The Avid Accomplisher (falls under incurably cliché)
And the winner is…me! Would you introduce yourself to a total stranger by saying, “Hi there, my name is [name] and I won the 2008 [insert name of competition], beating out [number] other competitors.” or “Nice to meet you. I’m determined and caring. These are all commendable qualities I displayed when I led my team through endless trials and tribulations to emerge victorious in the 2007 [insert name of other competition]”? The Avid Accomplisher would. In every essay, he/she will find ways to put in examples utilizing competitions and awards that he/she participated in or received, without much elaboration. It gets pretty tiring after a while, since it’s obvious all those awards are there for show and not because they played a part in shaping the writer to become the person he/she is. There is a place for accomplishments in the application, but more often than not it is not your essay. You do not necessarily have to use them to put yourself across – you are so much more than the sum of your 2
awards and wins. (This seems to be an unfortunate effect of our results‐oriented education system). And if you won’t take it from me, take it from them:
Admission committees at these top schools aren't looking to hear about your summer vacation to Europe or your plan to end world hunger. In fact, they are much more interested in hearing your observations about the frequency of cars running yellow lights at the intersection near your home or how many years it has taken for that oak sapling outside your front window to push up the sidewalk slabs next to it. You're probably asking yourself why on earth anyone could be more interested in your intersection or oak tree than your great trip or humanitarian ideals. The answer is simple: Because the intersection and that oak tree can tell more about who you are and how you think. [College Confidential: Ivy Applications: Admissions Essays for Ivy League Schools – It’s All About Voice]
Of course you have to impress whoever’s reading your application enough to make them want to admit you, but it doesn’t have to be through endless parading of accomplishments or lofty‐sounding ideals. They are interested in you as a person – in who you are – so don’t let your awards overshadow you. Why not tell them about your thoughts? About what makes you you (certainly not your awards, I hope)? Going down the path of clichéd essays will be safe, at best, but it won’t tell the admissions officers anything different about you than all the other applicants. There’s something else, though. It’s how you write about the topic that makes the difference. So if you can take one of those clichéd topics above, and write it in a wholly beautiful and new way with your own unique perspective, I’ll go so far as to say that you’ll score big points for your essay.
Meet mr. negativity When you write, make sure that whatever you say to the admissions officers, you would be comfortable saying to almost everyone else. If you wouldn’t show your essay to, say, a friend because you knew it would offend him/her, then why would the admissions officers not be possibly offended by that same essay? Sure, you have a right to your opinion, although if you’re going to complain about something in the essay, you’d better sound mature and objective about it. But sometimes you may not realize that what you say (or more often than not, how you say it) may come across as insulting/snobbing, and this is where you need objective friends to help read your writing and point it out to you. An extremely common trend is to hurl criticism after criticism at the local education system and how it stifles students from truly becoming critical‐thinking and creative people, how they rarely had the chance to speak up, how the examination oriented system…you get it. For the record, I’m not a big fan of the system either. I agree with most of the criticisms, and I know how liberating it feels to be able to finally write about this. But it is very hard to write a great essay fueled by only anger and frustration, and I rarely read any which tackle the ‘The System’ theme well. If you must write on this, do more than have a bashfest. Write about your own experiences. Perhaps you found your own way to overcome the 3
difficulties the System posed. Perhaps you realized how experiencing the System changed you (not necessarily for the worse). And be forward‐looking – you don’t want to come across as a person perpetually stuck in the past, using the System as an excuse for your own shortcomings.
The Thesaurus Treasurer
Resolution of the insuperable problem being confronted needs extraordinary… Thankfully I have not come across many of these yet, but since I did read some which were pretty disastrous, I thought I would mention this phenomenon. The Thesaurus Treasurer loves his/her thesaurus so badly that he/she keeps it by his/her side when writing essays, checking it every five seconds to see if there’s a better sounding word (usually, a more complicated one) to be substituted for the one he/she just wrote. He/she also overuses adjectives. What results is a stilted, painfully formally and distant essay. Please write as you think, or speak, in a natural way. Imagine yourself reading out your essay to the admissions officer. And if you must use the thesaurus, ensure that the words you put in suit the context in your essay. If you think that your command of the language is not sufficient, get others to help proofread for grammar and structure. Do not attempt to compensate by squeezing in bombastic words. This is not SPM.
The Question Evader / Bulldozer
Favourite book? My love for erudition makes me a great match for your schoolSome people attempt to use every opportunity, every bit of blank space, to write about their achievements/how they would be a great match for the school/how they want to contribute to the school/any other topic that they fail to answer that specific essay question. As usual, I am referring to the cases where this is taken too far; it’s always good to remind the school why they are your [first] choice, but not in an in‐your‐face way. The schools also know that they are good, so no need to praise them every chance you get. Do read the questions properly and ensure that you devote a suitable amount of the word count to answering those questions. If they ask for an academic experience, write about that, not about an extracurricular activity that you try to justify as ‘academic’ when it’s clearly not, and because you simply have to write about it in your app and hey, this space right here seems like a darn good place to do it! On the other hand, you may have answered the questions e.g. gave reasons for so‐and‐so, but not done so explicitly enough, especially if it’s a whole paragraph of reasons with no mention of you or the school inside it. A little phrase or a few extra words that links those reasons to you will help clear things up. 4
The Diversity Player
In multicultural malaysia, relations between the different races are harmonio… Frankly, I am not a fan of essays which clearly use a Malaysian object/culture just for the sake of being able to talk about diversity later in the essay, and not because the writer really feels for/thought about aforementioned object/culture well. Two words: it shows. When they say they are looking for ‘diversity’ in a class, it means more than just cultural and racial diversity. Diversity of thought, of perspectives, of political stands, of learning styles, of talents – all these and more are looked for. Yes, cultural diversity is important. Culture plays a huge role in shaping one’s personality. But who cares if you eat laksa and chapatti when you don’t seem to be able to generate any original thoughts about why eating them is so special to you? Who cares if you write two pages worth of sentences about “muhibbah” when you don’t demonstrate how you have taken that concept to heart, or struggled with it, or thought about it, or witnessed it in daily life? I’m happy to hear that there is racial harmony in Malaysia, if you say so, but will that mere fact demonstrate your much‐vaunted diversity? No. If you’re going to push the diversity card, do it in a unique way.
The Wonderfully Written
Need I say more? After reading one of these, I feel as though I’ve been given a window into the writer’s life, as if I’ve just gone on a fulfilling trip with him/her that I don’t want to end. It’s why I read essays – in the hopes of getting to read an often elusive wonderfully written essay and to know its writer. They talk about mundane objects or topics in an entirely refreshing way. They stare back at themselves in mirrors and evaluate their lives with astonishing honesty. They share their dreams, dreams which were accomplished, dreams which wait for their turn to be realized, dreams which lie discarded. They display an acute awareness of the world around them, and great sensitivity for the feelings of the people they encounter. They are funny. They are thought‐provoking. Rarely do they brag; they are modest. They award the journey as much weight as the destination. They aren’t afraid of having an opinion. Most importantly, they convince me that they are people with whom it would be great to go to college with, and that they are human. Write these.
Note: All of the above should be read with a pinch of sodium chloride. Maybe two. And when you write your essay, forget everything I ever said here and just be yourself.