Friday, June 27, 2014

College App Advice, pt. 3: Essays

In April, I published two posts on the college app process, one on pre-work and the other on peripheral work.

This, the third (and probably last) post in the series, is the BIG ONE. College apps for US colleges are, unlike the evil-sounding gaokao in China, based on your performance over the past four years. The application's resume-like section covers this, of course, but the essays are your chance to show the colleges who you are in your own words.

Since this is a big topic, I've divided it into a few sections: procedures, content, and getting help.


But first, read these:

Both are from the wonderful MIT admissions blogs and helped me a lot. This post will still be here when you're done.


(See? Still here.)


Most people write their essays in fall semester senior year. Some super sharp people (not me) got theirs done during the summer. I ended up writing my Common App essay on events that happened at the end of the summer, but even I would recommend: start earlier rather than later. At least start thinking about your content a month before your first deadline.

I have friends who got into very good schools who wrote their essays the day they were due. That may work for you, but I prefer to left-justify on long assignments. And I still submitted some applications very close to the deadline.

What my procedure looked like: I worked with a college counselor, and the first thing she did was have me write freely about all the stuff I did in high school--all the meaningful classes, organizations, experiences, etc. My personal projects. My goals. That kind of stuff. So my first step with any essay was to go over the open-ended material I produced and copy-paste it into a fresh document.

Then the iteration started. Look at the prompt but don't refer to it slavishly. Synthesize the stuff you have while adding new material and connections as needed. Build a structure. Realize that it sucks. Break it apart and keep going. Get feedback at various points in the loop. Ignore word count.

When you have an essay with a good, clear structure, which says what you want it to, from which your personality shines, then it's time to pull out the scalpel and cut it down to the required length. Compression is difficult: look for redundancies and get rid of them. At some point, if, like me, you overwrite a lot, you'll have to cut out awesome substantial content and it will hurt. But most of the time it's more likely that what you're cutting is fluff.

For later essays, you'll find that because many prompts are similar, that you can take bits and pieces from earlier essays and include those in your bucket of raw materials. This doesn't significantly change the process. On very lucky occasions, you can use a whole old essay for a new prompt, or you can slap two essays together, fix up the transition, and call it a day.

But those are variations on the theme of: get a mass of raw material, agonizingly get out a first draft, rearrange and rewrite as needed, get a decent iteration, distill/compress, polish.

Some essays I didn't do like this. Some, I approached the word count from the bottom, struggling to get out enough words. These were, I am sorry to say, the "why do you want to come to *this* school" essays for my lower targets/safeties. For these, I developed a template:

  • intro: my strengths/intellectual DNA
  • body: the specific opportunities at the school that I'd use
  • conclusion: my career aspirations--what I'd use my education to do

But above all, do what works for you. You'll find out, as you go through the process, which procedures work and which don't.

Some specific things that helped me during any given writing session:

  • embrace the SFD principle
  • change your font color to white to defy the urge to edit as you go
  • write phrases, even if they're ugly, and underline them so you know you have to fix them later
  • write different versions of the same sentence one after another
  • during compression: periodically copypaste into an empty document, strip of all formatting, and do a word count
  • change to a different font when rereading

Remember to run a spell-check and grammar-check at the very end.

How important is it to be a "good writing"? Writing well aids communication and is rarely a bad thing, but I would guess that, above a certain baseline of competence, strength of content matters more than being "a good writer."



What are you going to write about? Content, like procedure, is an individual thing. People will tell you not to write about a certain topic because it's "overdone." My college counselor advised me to keep a positive focus: if you're talking about problems, focus more on the overcoming, the learning from, than the wallowing.

In my case, the positive light did improve the essay. But I won't tell anyone that an entire subject is "off-limits" just because it seems cliche. An experience happened to you. If it meant anything to you, then you can write a strong, individual essay about it.

The point of the college essay, as I see it, is to introduce the university to you. Who are you? The denotative content--the topic of your essay--is important; the approach you take to your subject matter also signals something about who you are.

As I mentioned above, it helps the writing process if you already have a large written pool of reflection on your experiences. What did you do the past four years? Your school activities, your extracurrics, your side projects?

The only metric I found useful for selecting which things to write about was this: how much did this matter to me? In practical terms, what can I write about for a whole essay?

Thus, my longest essay (Common App) was about band. I also devoted essays to the BC league, to volunteering, etc. Some line items on the "resume" part of the application remained there.

My guess is that passion and dedication (and leadership, if applicable) to any pursuit is attractive to universities. This doesn't mean pretend to be interested in things that don't interest you. This means write about the things that do interest you so you actually have stuff to say.

On the "what major" essay: colleges know that people don't necessarily know in high school what they want to do, so if you don't have a clue then there is nothing wrong with that. I happen to have an idea, so I just answered the question.

Side note: I've heard, whether rightly or wrongly, that private colleges care more about the essays than public universities do.


Getting Help

Should you get a college counselor? I used a college counselor, and she was incredibly helpful. I'm still debating the morals of that move: on one hand, I am a piece of trash for upholding class divisions and maybe I don't deserve to go to Stanford because without my college counselor my essays wouldn't have been as good. On the other hand, the system is broken anyway and I'm a human who would prefer not to think of herself as a piece of trash.

Leaving aside questions of morality: If your family can afford it, a private college counselor may have a high ROI. Different counselors will click more or less with different students, but based on my observations, the most effective counselors are the ones with whom you'll get one on one time to workshop your essays.

If you can't or don't want to get a counselor, then I recommend enlisting a current or past English or history teacher to help you look over your work. Teachers are busy, but if you have established a good rapport then most will be willing to work with you once in a while during lunch or a free period.

I did not share my essays with friends. Not because I'm afraid that my friends would have stolen my ideas--how could they have? Our experiences are individual. Your essays are your representative to universities, and your friends' interpretations of prompts could influence you to be derivative. But this, again, is an individual choice.


If you're reading this post as someone who has gone through the college app process, I would appreciate if you added your advice. Did I leave something out? Make an error?

If you're reading this post as someone for whom college apps are in the present or future, good luck, and let me know if you have questions. Having been through the whole ordeal, I'd like to help those who come after me to make it suck less.

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