College Application Essays


Grayson McDowell, Editor-in-Chief

The most crucial part of the college application, the essay, often is the only prohibitively daunting requirement. American universities uniquely consider (in principal) the personality of the applicant as well as his or her achievements. As the piles of college applications grows from year to year in every university admissions office across the nation, the question arises of how to stand out from the multitude of competitors.
As a recently innocent senior, I first thought that I would write with my most academic style; however, I have come to learn over the course of dozens of short-answer questions, short essays, one-to-two-page essays, and one-line answers that a more genuine and expressive style better shows the office of undergraduate admissions the personality of the applicant. So here are some one-line pieces of advice:

1. Even if the prompt is boring, make sure your essay is not, but still be sure to answer the prompt.
Is there really an objectively boring prompt? Yes. The more essays I write, I become more and more of the opinion that some essay prompts are simply to test the applicant’s writing skill. The lucidity and complexity with which you, as an applicant, answer the prompt makes all the difference.
Consider the advice of novelists: if what you write bores you at any point in the essay, then omit it and insert something that excites you to write. No matter how driven by willpower, the average person cannot focus on an arduous assignment without lulling him or her into a state of daydreaming. If you find your essay a drudgery by the end of the first paragraph, you won’t finish it. An effective essay is an effective story. Show the reader—don’t tell. Dialogue, for example, hooks the reader into the essay by allowing you to present a controversial opinion from a perspective.

For a scholarship essay once, I began the essay with “’College is a scam,’ XY Person said to me.” After that I explained the context of the quote, my relationship with ‘XY,’ my dissection of the belief, and finally tied it specifically to the scholarship and the prompt. However you slice it, an essay should probably begin with dessert first, and then force your audience to digest the meat and potatoes that follow. In other words, professional essayists first and foremost connect with the readers through a common image, idea, or event– or even one that jars them slightly. Don’t be afraid to make the admissions officers shift uncomfortably in their seats at first because the momentum for the rest of the essay may rely on a precipitous beginning.
Here’s the most common example of a boring essay prompt: “why this school/program/scholarship?” You will certainly encounter this troglodyte of a prompt even with the most timid venture out into the wilderness of college essays. In fact, it is so common that some prefer to write a single “why [insert here]?” essay and just change the name of the institution or program from application to application. This results in an unsavory, milk-toast style. As a litmus test of the effectiveness of your essay, if you could replace the institution’s name with “The South Carolina Clown College” in your essay and it still have the same vigor and flavor, your essay is too generic, and it will ultimately not stand out. Consider the audience of your intended school that the essay addresses. For example, if you write an essay to a Bible college, then quote the Good Book for Heaven’s sake. If you were actually writing to a clown college, try an extended metaphor that compares trapeze artists to scholars.
If, at this point, you can’t think of anything tangible or specific about the subject school or program—not only to mention—but to expound in your essay as it relates to the prompt, then catch up with your old friend Google.

2. Stop ignoring the existence of punctuation marks, cave man.
there is a long and heralded tradition of not using punctuation before the fifth century bc however as you can tell it makes things much harder to read so join the rest of us in the twentyfirst century so dont shy away from commas hyphens semicolons and colons try to use punctuation to imitate the pauses of natural speech if you have any further questions on specific usages and conventions consult your friendly local english teacher

3. The shorter the essay, the more important the vocabulary
If you don’t have it already this far along in your scholastic career, download the app on your phone. One of the functions of that app that I fully employ when I write almost anything is the thesaurus search. Here’s a rule of thumb: more obscure, jargon-y words are more effective in a shorter essay, and conversely, a longer essay needs plainer English.
For example, if I were writing an essay on personal motivation, in a shorter essay with a more restrictive word count, I would refer to my motivational strategy as “maintaining an internal locus of control.” This exemplifies a form of jargon (namely psychology jargon) that compacts and distills the meaning in itself. When I continue along in that essay and continue to refer back to that jargon, the meaning becomes clear in context. Compacting information serves to cut down on the number of words used in a length-restricted essay.
In longer essays, say one to two pages, the admissions officers might expect me to explain my psychological gobbledygook. Especially with verbs in a longer essay, I need to use as many synonyms as possible in order to approach the same concept or conclusions at different angles. Continually repeating jargon without explanation becomes tiresome to the reader in a longer essay. As a side note, understanding the audience is still key. If you are writing to that Bible college again, then you don’t have to explain what an “apostle” is so long as you understand the denotative and connotative meaning yourself.

4. And finally, just be yourself.
Consider the entirety of your application as an argument to the program or office directors as to why you deserve to participate in or benefit from it. Your essay is but one part of the application, the pathos, the emotional appeal. The other two integral considerations are the logos, or the numbers (SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and class rank), and the ethos, or the credibility provided by letters of recommendation. An essay can’t compensate for a lackluster high school performance, nor could it severely discount a prolific upbringing. Your essay is the only part of the application provided to show your personality (unless you get an interview, in which case, the essay is the only part of the application to show off your writing skills and critical thinking).
Dear senior, here comes the didactic portion of the advice column where I cannot provide you with much help: you have to have your own writing style and point of view. And that takes practice, so don’t be afraid of a bad first draft.