In our recent blog entitled Clearing Up Confusion About the College Application Personal Statement: Part 1, we explained that “It doesn’t matter in the slightest what you write about for your Common and Coalition Application personal statements — as long as it’s about you. What does matter is what you say and how you say it because you should have clear objectives, and we’ll provide you with advice on that matter in future blogs.”
We start by confessing that we lied to you in our title for this blog: We can’t give you the magic formula for writing a perfect college application essay, because there isn’t one.
The essays in the book Essays That Worked for College Applications (50 Essays that Helped Students Get into the Nation’s Top Colleges)* vary wildly and include “think pieces,” multiple-panel cartoons, poems, and short plays, among others. There is no perfect college admission essay that’s going to appeal to all college admissions officers, because they have differing tastes, just like you and our various essay expert staff members do.
Still, there are reasons that one of the essays in Essays That Worked was featured in the book’s opening, and we’re absolutely convinced that there are valuable lessons to be learned from it, so here’s that part of the opening:
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
You are an admissions officer at Harvard, Duke, or Stanford. It’s 2:00 A.M. on April 9. Your desk is somewhere beneath a huge stack of papers. Your eyes are tired and red. Mechanically, you open the next application folder, and again you force yourself to read:
“I am constantly striving to expose myself to every opportunity to become a person with a deep understanding of my own values and of the environment in which I find myself. I have participated in a broad range of activities, and I have endeavored to become ever more versatile and tolerant while at the same time solidifying my own ideals…”
You cannot go on. But you must, because the deadline for notifying applicants is just a few days away. You’re facing yet another long night of reading vague, boring, pompous essays. You slowly bow your head and rest it in your hands, wishing for a different job.
Suddenly, a gust of wind blows through an open window, upsetting the pile of applications. As 400 essays flutter around the room, you notice a page with a recipe for cranberry bread.
A recipe? Cranberry bread?!
Curious, you pick up the essay and start to read, and you smile:
4 c. flour
2 c. sugar
3 t. baking powder
1 pkg. cranberries
…Not only is the following an overview of my personality but also a delicious recipe.
First the flour and the sugar need to be sifted together into a large bowl. Flour reminds me of the powder snow that falls in the West. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, where our snow falls more like sugar; granular and icy, and makes us hardy skiers, unlike those spoiled by Western snow. Cold weather is also conducive to reading…
Finally, a student you would want to meet, someone who dares to express herself creatively rather than simply regurgitate the same old litany of high school achievements and adolescent truisms. Finally, an interesting essay!
As you finish the “recipe” and read through the rest of her application, you start to feel much better. Decent grades, good test scores, solid recommendations – you’ve seen better, but it’s certainly respectable. And then there’s this fantastic essay, evidence of an inventive and independent mind. The essay makes your decision easy. You put her folder into a box marked “Admit,” and you look forward to discussing her with the Admission Committee tomorrow.
The Cranberry Bread essay was written by Barbara Bluestone, and she did these two things so effectively that her essay was part of the Essays the Workedopening:
She figuratively reached out, grabbed a tired and disinterested reader and made him/her want to find out how the writer was possibly going to reconcile her opening with what was supposed to be an application essay.
Because the student was willing to take a creative risk in how she revealed herself, she came across as an interesting person, somebody the admissions officer would want to greet.
And those two things — by themselves — made the admissions officer smile and made it an easy decision to place Ms. Bluestone’s “respectable” – but otherwise unremarkable – application in the “Admit” box.
Here are two important lessons to be learned:
First, a perfect essay hooksthe readers immediately, making them want to read on. It gets them to willingly follow your thoughts from beginning to end instead of getting dragged along out of a sense of obligation to read your entire essay. Even with the obligation, they may well drop it and go on to the next applicant.
Another of the opening sections of Essays That Worked is titled “AN INTERVIEW WITH an ADMISSIONS OFFICER,” in which we find this:
He still had a hundred essays to read before 6:00 P.M., and he was beginning to grow tired…."On a Wednesday in the middle of March this job gets tough. Sometimes it seems that there are only four types of essays: the 'class president' essay, the 'I lost but learned' sports essay, the 'I went to Europe and learned how complex the world is' essay, and the good old 'being yearbook editor sure is hard work' essay. When I read one of those, it takes amazing willpower to get to the third paragraph."
"So sometimes you don't read the whole essay?" I asked.
"No comment," he replied, changing the subject.
And this is from Eva Ostrum, former Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale University (in an interview in 50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays): “The essays that grab me give me some kind of hook in the beginning to reel me in.”
Second, present yourself as an interesting person by taking the risk of revealing yourself in a creative way because that suggests that you’ve got a very good shot at being a good student.
What follows is from Seth Allen, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Grinnell College, while he was answering questions from a TODAY.com producer on February 16, 2011, about what really goes on when admissions officers decide applicants' fates.
What are the things that win you over?
It might be in the essay itself…the students who can, in their own words, paint an effective picture of themselves through demonstrating to us what matters to them, because of the topic they choose to write on and how they choose to write about it and the risks they take in setting up their subject. [emphasis added]
Reading [applications] takes place very early in the morning and well into late at night. So, at some point there's a bit of weariness that sets in reading one good applicant after another. The student who’s able to cut through that, an interesting essay, an unusual topic, someone who makes us laugh, that's someone that stands out for us.
If you’re inclined to believe that we’ve begun here by saying that there’s no a magic formula, but then proceeded to give you one, you’re wrong: What we’ve done is the equivalent of telling you to give the meal you’re cooking an enticing aroma – one that’s sure to draw diners to the table – and then continue to use interesting combinations of herbs and spices to complement the aroma of the dish.
We’ve provided you with neither a precise list of ingredients — which should consist mainly your own unique, personal stories that reveal who you are — nor directions on how to cook (although it’s advisable to add dollops, pinches, and smidgeons of characteristics that admissions officers find delectable in well-prepared applicants).
Further, there’s nothing necessarily easy about coming up with an effective opening hook, presenting oneself in a creative way, or knowing the “what” and “when” of adding those delectable characteristics. However, based upon our decades of successfully assisting students with their essays, we will share some cogent thoughts in future blogs, and, if you’re already working on a personal statement right or are about to begin, and want or need help right now, we’re really good at it, so give us a call and let’s get started.
*by Boykin Curry, Brian Kasbar, and Emily Angel Baer
Note: A version of this blog is appearing in the Fall 2018 Issue of LINK for Counselors magazine, a full color publication whose e-edition is distributed to 20,000 school counselors nationwide.