When you meet someone and hold a conversation with him or her for the first time, what do you pay attention to? Do you focus only on statistical information, like age, height and other calculable data? Or do you focus on what he or she tells you personally about themselves, such as interests? To some extent, we all do both in any sort of introduction, whether we are conscious of it or not, and that even goes for colleges.
No matter how much data you give them, from your transcripts to your standardized test scores, colleges want to know more about you as a person, not just as a collection of numbers. Since college admissions boards can’t meet and interview every single one of their applicants, they instead use your application essay as your personal introduction to them. Because of this, you should look at your essay as a conversation with a person you hope to get to know better, the colleges you hope to attend.
The prompts colleges give for their application essays generally come in three flavors: broad, extremely broad, and frustratingly detailed. They can be as open-ended as asking about your goals in life and how you plan to achieve them, or sometimes they will ask you to draw upon a specific sort of personal experience, like a funny incident, and explain how it affected you. Other times, colleges are absurdly specific, giving you a quote from Aristotle and asking what it means and how you will apply it to your life and your studies. Since the topics you can discuss in an essay range so widely, it’s difficult to give specific advice on how to write such an essay. However, there are some general guidelines that hold true for every application essay you will ever write.
First, since this is your personal introduction to the school, you want to “dress” to impress. If you were going to a face-to-face interview for a job, you would try to look clean, crisp and professional, and you want to do the same for your essay. That means you want to put your best writing forward for this essay, offering your best arguments and your strongest prose. Once you’re done writing, you must also take the time to revise it yourself and have another person look it over, just to ensure no pesky misplaced commas snuck into it.
Next, you always want to be honest in an essay. Although this does not mean confessing to every fault and flaw you have, you should always remember that outright lies have a tendency of catching up to you. So if you need to write an essay on a great hardship in your life, you don’t want to talk about how the death of your grandmother affected you so deeply if she’s still alive and playing golf three times a week. Remember that making up stories about genuine experiences will never have the same ring of truth, and you can always write more strongly and passionately about real personal experiences anyway.
Finally, as always, be yourself. If you’re the tomboy on the fencing team who builds sets for school plays, don’t try to make yourself out to be the cheerleading prom queen if that’s not you. The essay is the only part of your application where you get to showcase who you really are, so don’t try to make it up. That’s not what colleges want.
Remembering these simple guidelines can help you not only with the applications for undergraduate programs, but the myriad other essays you’ll have to write in the coming years for scholarships, grants, internships, and graduate and professional schools. This is a skill you’ll be using for the rest of your life!