The College Application Essay – it’s the single-most most important thing that can make or break a good application. We, at cforcollege, know your senior year at high school (aka 12th grade/ 12th standard) gets real busy and most of you just don’t have the time for it. You may think that it is what you do that matters, not so much how your present it. But because man hasn’t invented a reverse time machine yet, you can’t go back and change that Physics exam’s grade B to an A or claim you’ve been horse-riding since you were eight when you’ve barely begun last week. What you can do, however, is shape what you write in your essay. By no means warp the truth, merely use it cleverly.
This section guides you through the basic process of writing an essay – and is far from the best treatise written on Communication skills, but what’s different about it is that the advice comes from various students who have been through the same process you will undergo. This is your chance to hear it from the horse’s mouth – and if you have specific questions, feel free to email us and we’ll try to answer them or post them up here – then you have a chance to control what the horse says, what it affirms to and neighs (nays). Apologies, poor joke. Also, I’m not quite sure why I seem to be in love with horse-references.
So here’s how we feel you can get *insert your dream school’s name here* Admissions Office to know you, and to feel that YOU’RE the one they want. Remember: Universities need students to teach, as much as students need universities to learn.
OK, I already knew this, but how do I actually go about writing the essay? In the sense of getting the starting ideas?
Time yourself for five minutes and just jot down whatever comes to your mind when you think about yourself and the activities you like. And then analyze, even if you haven’t written much, what comes to your mind first. It’s most likely going to be what you consider your most significant achievement or what interests you the most. Talk to related people – and you may just have the beginning ideas of a brilliant essay.
Also practice describing, in a line or two, the extra-curriculars and activities you’re involved in (a lot of applications including the CommonApp ask you to do that anyway). From experience, it’s way harder to write 50 words about something that impassions you rather than 500 words about it.
Ok now I know what to write about – how do I start writing about it?
Most people get stuck here for so long, and it’s easy to procrastinate at this point. Here’s a strategy that a lot of writers employ to overcome the proverbial ‘writer’s block’. Write down the topic of the essay – so for example if the topic is ‘Describe the world you come from and how it has shaped your activities and interests as an individual’, start by writing ‘When I think of the world I come from and how it has shaped my activities and interests as an individual….’ and continuously keep writing furiously for three minutes, without taking your pen off the paper. You may write absolute rubbish, even include ‘blah blah I don’t know what to write here’, but eventually at this level of pressure your subconscious will take over and will automatically guide you through what you need to write next.
What should I keep in mind while writing the essay?
Allow yourself time to ideate.
ñ Unless you’re Archimedes (or high on weed), the best ideas will not appear in Eureka! moments, as much as they will through sustained incubation of a tiny thought. (If you’ve got time, listen to this TED talk titled Where Good Ideas Come From)
ñ Carry a tiny notebook around to jot down immediate thoughts and interesting insights.
ñ Discuss random, crazy stuff with people sometimes. It’s amazing how talking to people can open up fresh, previously unexplored perspectives. This isn’t likely to happen if you start your essay the night before it’s due. You may be a brilliant writer, yes, but you are guaranteed to lack I.D.E.A.S.
ñ And for God’s sake please don’t bore the already over-burdened Admission Committee with hackneyed writing. If you want to be noticed, be original. Interesting. Specific.
ñ BONUS tip: By virtue of being an international student, you have the advantage of a unique cultural perspective, especially for common questions like ‘Describe the world you come from and how it has shaped your activities and interests as an individual’ – don’t be afraid of using highly topical cultural references (as long as you explain them). Fascinate the Admissions Officer by offering them insight into the exoticism of an Indian lifestyle.
Make sure that your essay is technically superior, and avoids the common errors below (which, by no means, is an exhaustive list of the fallacies of human writing):
ñ Incorrect punctuation
ñ Tense and pronoun inconsistencies
ñ Inappropriate diction (use Standard English)
In addition, pay special attention to:
ñ Prose Morphology (paragraphing, indentation, varied line length)
ñ Structural organization of contents
ñ Use of clever rhetoric and literary devices
ñ Get reviews from a few, selected trustworthy sources. While you want a range of opinions that give you a balanced feedback, you don’t want to get confused hearing a million irreconcilable points of view. Be picky as to who to accept advice from – even if they’re your parents or school teachers, they are not infallible. And at the risk of sounding cliché, we’d recommend you to go with what your heart says.
ñ Sometimes universities have questions like ‘Describe yourself in five words’. Ask not just your best friends, but also people who don’t know you too well – they may be totally inaccurate, but at least you will know what first impressions people have of you.
ñ BONUS tip: Go through your earlier scrapbooks or ‘slam books’, birthday cards, whatever material you have wherein people have spoken about you – and you are bound to find some good personality traits about yourself.
Be a good story-teller.
ADD EXAMPLE FROM MY CREATIVITY ESSAY
Weave a story, tell a tale. Paint the reader a vivid picture with sufficient detail, but don’t get too lost within the prose. Know how to be concise, this maintains the energy and momentum in your writing. Write only that which makes absolute sense.
Wait until the very end (just a reiteration of ‘Start Early’, above) But we’ve added it again just to reiterate its importance.
Use heavy jargon just to impress.
In true Three Idiots sense, don’t use …………….. when ‘notebook’ will do, unless this is naturally the way you write (if that’s so, then that’s really weird – you should just directly apply to law school!)
Pump “air” or “fluff” into it to make it longer.
Admissions Committee restricts you to a certain word/character limit for a reason. Please respect that in the interest of fairness and equality between all applicants. Everyone has a lot to say about their lives, why should you alone get the extra space?
Use the essay to explain low test or exam scores.
If there is a genuine reason, let your school counsellor know, and they will include the same in their comments.
Try to be cute.
Smileys, hearts, and all those attempts at pictorial representations of the human expression that we term emoticons are an absolute NO-NO. Exclamations, in moderation for dramatic effect, may be just about on the threshold of acceptability.
Repeat information found elsewhere.
It may be tempting to highlight a particularly intense passion of yours, but genuinely, it’s boring to read the same thing paraphrased twice.
CHANGE Submit extra materials like A/V clips, artwork, research reports unless specifically asked for.
If you are allowed to do it, include only that you feel will make you really stand out. Always check with the University – On the CommonApp for Stanford for Fall 2010 applicants, it was clearly stated that ‘Do not submit supplementary materials, they will be thrown away.’
One of the most important aspects of the essay is simply to be genuine – this is the first time you are applying but admissions committees have been looking at thousands of essays for decades of years – and they can tell when you’re faking it.