It’s that time of year again: college application essays are due! Before you dash away screaming from such terrifying tasks, you may want to consult the 7 tips listed below; perhaps you’ll be able to see your “monster” writing assignments more in the line of Edward or Jacob and less in the line of Beowulf’s Grendel. Just maybe…
1. Incorporate stories.
First, you should make sure that interesting stories are a part of your essays. Remember, the people who are reading your work have been reading similar writings all day. If your essay is just a simple exposé, they’ll probably just ignore you, or wallow in soul-crushing boredom as they plod through your staid prose. However, if you weave a narrative into your essay, you will be able to more effectively capture the admissions council’s attention and endear them to your application as a whole.
2. Proofread like a fiend!
When writing a college application essay, I can’t stress enough the need to proofread, proofread, PROOFREAD! Colleges are looking for people who are competent and pay sufficient attention to detail. If your essay is rife with grammatical errors and stylistic irregularities, admissions councils will naturally assume that you’re a person who takes a very passive view of life. This is NOT the image you want to convey to people who are deciding the course of your future! In order to prevent such misperceptions, you should read your essay over and over again, looking each time for mistakes you may have missed. You should also have someone else look over your essay for you; they’ll bring with them a fresh set of eyes that may catch mistakes that you missed.
3. Show, don’t tell.
Along the lines of the narrative that we mentioned earlier, if your essay prompt asks you to write about certain character aspects that you possess, please don’t just say “I am hardworking, diligent, and committed.” No, you need to SHOW how you possess the attributes you are talking about. If you want to talk about working hard, tell a story about how you labored 12 hours a day on your uncle’s rutabaga farm during your summer vacations. If you want to show your level of commitment, relate a tale of how you persevered in the face of great obstacles. Telling stories about your positive character attributes will do much more to enhance your favorability in the admissions committee’s eyes than a simple listing of your values.
4. Emphasize your uniqueness.
Next, you want to show that you are unique. Everybody is going to talk about working hard, studying diligently, and overcoming obstacles; you want to illustrate how you will bring an entirely different vibe to your educational institution. Write about aspects of your life that seem to defy conventional stereotypes – talk about being a Mormon Democrat in the middle of Utah, the only pro-choice Catholic in your parish, or a Jew who supports Palestinian statehood. By doing this, not only do you show the admissions committee that you can think for yourself, but you also make your application much more memorable.
5. Vary your vocabulary.
You should also make sure that you vary the language you use. You want to convey the impression that you are an intelligent person who has an extensive vocabulary. If you’re telling a story that contains dialogue, PLEASE don’t use the word “said” over and over again! Find yourself a good thesaurus (there are many credible ones available for free online) and substitute other words in the place of “said.” A snappy reply to a question in a dialogue sounds much better if you characterize it as being a “retort” as opposed to just being a statement. Tell me which of the following sounds better:
“I can’t stand Godiva chocolate,” Jim said. “It makes me break out in hives!”
“I can’t stand Godiva chocolate,” Jim snapped back, huffing angrily. “It makes me break out in hives!”
Obviously, number two is much more engaging and aesthetically pleasing, due to its varied use of language. Write like that!
6. Utilize descriptive words.
Related to the idea of using varied language, you also will want to use descriptive language in your essay. Layer your writing with descriptive adjectives and adverbs, words that will help your reader to visualize what you are talking about. If you can draw your audience into your narratives by creating a “parallel” reality, you’re halfway to winning them over to your side. To illustrate this, let’s look at two different ways of relating our aforementioned rutabaga farming example.
First, the dull, description-less statement of fact: “I worked on my uncle’s rutabaga farm all summer. It was very challenging work.”
At this point, the admissions committee is thinking “Alright, so I know it was challenging – lots of stuff in life is challenging. How does this make you any different from a hundred other applicants?” If you want to avoid such negative thinking on the part of the people who are adjudicating your future, there might be a better way to state this, using descriptive language:
“Sweat, mixed with the dusty gray dirt of northern Idaho, dripped down my nose, splattering on the broad leaves of the verdant green rutabaga plants I was hunched over. As I uprooted yet another of those tenacious tubers from the unforgiving ground, I quickly examined my hands; they were dry, cracked, and bleeding, resembling more the xenoscape of northern Morocco than the appendages of a human being. This was the war of farm work in rural America, and it looked as if I was on the losing side.”
In reading the second account of agricultural enterprise, the admissions council is drawn into the author’s worldview. It can see the expanses of plants, feel the rigors of manual labor, and sympathize with the author’s despondency in the face of his monotonous duties. In light of this, such a use of descriptive language, if employed in your essay, will truly serve to distinguish you from other applicants.
7. Be imaginative!
Your essays are expected to reflect reality, but that doesn’t mean that they need to be absolute mirror images of the truth. Take some liberties with your stories; mix in some events that didn’t happen, put some different words in your characters’ mouths, and inflate your own importance. The admissions council likely doesn’t know you personally, so you can do this with impunity and with the knowledge that it will further enhance your standing in their eyes.
Feeling a little more calm? Are your applications essays starting to look more like Monster High and less like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? If so, go forth and conquer! If not, good luck… you’re going to have many more essays ahead of you in college.