How important is your college application essay? My favorite comment from an admissions officer in a top college says it all: "A good essay can heal the sick but it can't raise the dead." Translation: It can move a student from the Maybe pile to the Yes pile, but it can't move anyone from No to Yes. In other words, a good essay has the power to make a big difference.
In decades past, applicants were interviewed at the school or elsewhere by alumni. These days, the essay has replaced the interview in a great many colleges. What this means is that it's a stand-in for the real life student - and to succeed, it's got to live and breathe in a very human way.
And there isn't just one essay anymore. On the Common Application, there are two - and there are often additional essays on supplementary applications, which vary greatly from school to school. On the Common App is the all-important one you're familiar with - which can't be longer than 500 words - and a shorter one about a job or an extracurricular activity that should complement the longer one. The many books and articles written about "the college essay" all refer to the 500-worder; in books and articles, there's almost no attention paid to the shorter essay or the supplemental essays.
Depending on how many schools you apply to you, there could be five to ten essays. Some can be quite demanding (University of Chicago is famous for that), while others might ask why you want to attend their school. Those have to very specific, not just: I'd-love-to-be-at-a-small-school-in-a-pretty place. They need to show the admissions folks that you know what's offered and that it fits your ambitions.
For students with strong writing and story-telling skills, these essays might not be daunting. But for many students, even doing the two for the Common App is a challenge. For all students, even the best writers, it's important that they have someone with good language and grammar skills review them. Admissions officers frown on typos, misspellings, and bad grammar.
There are no shortcuts to writing well, but here are 7 ½ tips to approaching this project, especially this early in the process. (November 1 is the deadline for most early-decision/early-action; January 1 for most regular applications, though there are many variations; check each school's website.)
1. Good writing takes time and rewriting. And then more time and more rewriting. Not even professional writers turn out finished products in one, two sittings or even three sittings. It's a real mistake to treat these essays like term-papers that you can crash through if you pull an all-nighter. The stakes are much too high. Start early.
2. As you look at colleges you might be interested in, look on-line at their supplemental applications and see if there are additional essays required. Don't predict what one school will do because of what another does. As your list of colleges emerges, make a chart of the essays required (topic; number of words) so this does not come as a surprise to you once you start applying. In some cases, you can recycle all or parts of your essays for other schools.
3. Take note: not all schools use the Common App. Be sure to differentiate.
4. The first essay to tackle is your 500-word-max Common App essay. You will see the topic choices (including "topic of your choice") on the Common App itself. Your additional essays should not repeat or reiterate what you say in the 500-word piece.
5. Speak plainly and personally. Don't consult the thesaurus and don't "try to sound smart" by using big words and dry, academic language. Schools want to know what kind of person you are in an academic setting. They want to know that you have the intellectual and social skills to make it at their school. They want to know that you're ready for college, and that you'll take advantage of what's available.
6. When you write your essays, write your first and second drafts longer than the required number of words, so you can get in touch with your best material. Then cut it down to the right size.
7. Once you've written a few drafts, show your essays to someone with more writing skills than you have (college counselor, parent, family friend who's a writer). After you have done a draft or two, it could be helpful to look at some successful essays on-line or in books, but don't read these before you do your drafts. They can be intimidating if you read too many or read them too early in the process.
7½: I know these essays are all required, but if you have fun with them - if you look on them as explorations of yourself - they'll be better than if you look on them as sheer drudgery.
As you toil, remember the words of two Irish Nobel prize-winning writers. "All of art and life is about starting out, stopping, and beginning again-" poet Seamus Heaney. A slightly darker version of the same sentiment from Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Translation: be prepared to do many drafts, until you get it right. Rewriting is your friend. Maybe even your best friend.
Elizabeth Benedict coaches college and grad school applicants at Don't Sweat the Essay. She's the author of five novels and several books of nonfiction, and editor of two anthologies. She taught creative writing for more than 20 years at top colleges and universities.