Oberlin Blogs

College Essay Advice

December 12, 2008

If you're a responsible student, you've probably already finished your college application and submitted it to your schools, all of which you visited and then divided neatly into safeties, targets, and reaches. If you're like me, then December 12 means that you've still got two whole weeks in which to write your college essay, for whichever schools you selected, sight-unseen, at the behest of your high school guidance counselor. To you poor, unfortunate fools in this latter category, I offer my amateur advice for writing a college essay, based solely on my experience (three years ago, now) doing the same.

My main essay wasn't an essay at all, really, but a somewhat humorous, largely useless list. It was terrible, written at the 11th hour, and devoid of honest, useful information about yours truly. I should mention that I hated, hated, hated, hated applying to college. I was resentful of the application process, shocked by how large of a time commitment it was when I had so much other stuff on my plate in high school, and felt that it brought out a mean-spirited competitiveness in a lot of my peers whom I otherwise respected. I wanted nothing to do with it, and had it not been for the well-meaning but forceful and scream-y prodding of my parents I have no idea where I'd be right now. Unfortunately, my disdain for the application process meant that when I finally did sit down to write an essay, I did it in a terrible mindset with the sole intention of being finished with it as quickly as possible. Thus, the list was born.

Writing that 500-word essay is really awful in part because there's so much literature circling around in books or on the internet about tips and tricks for writing an essay. (I am hesitant to even add my voice to that bloated list, but I haven't got too much else to write about at the moment.) Here's what CollegeBoard.com, the racket to end all rackets, has to say: "A great application essay will present a vivid, personal, and compelling view of you to the admissions staff. It will round out the rest of your application and help you stand out from the other applicants."

They continue with Do's and Don'ts:

DO:
Keep Your Focus Narrow and Personal. Your essay must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to find your main idea and follow it from beginning to end.
Prove It. Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
Be Specific. Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.

DON'T:
Don't Tell Them What You Think They Want to Hear. Most admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor.
Don't Write a Resume. Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn.
(Hey, I worked hard on that laundry list!)

So, I will try to be clear: this list is useless. These are tips for writing any essay, ever; the thing that makes the college essay so hard, at least for students applying to schools like Oberlin, is finding a viable topic, not writing about that topic once it exists. And because the one point hammered on consistently by all these websites is that Admissions officers are going to read about eight million essays, the seeds of doubt root themselves firmly and produce insurmountable writers block. Almost everyone has done an outward bound program, and everyone learned the same life lessons from it. Same goes for a tough job, difficult musical performance, big game, etc. What can I, Will Mason, from a tiny town on the coast of Maine, possibly have to say about these life events that will provide insight not found in the thousands of other near-identical essays? The answer that I believe to be true in my Grinchy heart is: "Nothing." I don't think there's anything anyone can write about those situations that will invest those trite scenarios with new meaning.

Cynical? Yes. But it's what I believe; the admissions counselors who read this site will no doubt chime in to further flesh this post out, and I hope that they do. After all, other than a dozen proof-reading jobs the only essay I've ever looked at was my own.

The question remains: what do I write about? I can only answer this by saying what I wished I'd written about. I wish I'd written about music. Anything about it, really: why I love Gyorgi Ligeti (and you should too); my definition of music (which is: sound) and how it's different from more traditional definitions (which are amalgams of: sound, created with the intent of making music, organized along a temporal plane, for the entertainment of others, and it should sound good as dictated by these 16th-century harmonic rules, and...); how elements of avant-garde and experimental music have infiltrated the mainstream; etc.

I wished I'd written about these because they're things that I can talk about and write about at great length and with great ease. They interest me. I think I would have been the only applicant at most of my schools to write about any of those topics (though at Oberlin that may in fact not be so true); I think I would have produced an essay of passable quality (certainly a lot better than my "Laundry list. Yawn!"); and--most important--I think that choosing to write about one of those topics would have illustrated more about my character and about my voice as a writer than if I'd written about my outdoors experiences or tough jobs or whatever.

I'm not saying you should just pick a topic that interests you and write an English class essay about it. I'm just saying that's an option, and one that might in the long run be better than what you'd have come up with otherwise. In short, it can, paradoxically, be more illustrative of your personality if you write about something other than your personality.

I hope that's been helpful (remember: this is just my perspective), and I hope I didn't make a bunch of new enemies in the admissions department. Don't hesitate to ask any questions or chime in, and feel free to use the comments section as a "venting" outlet. Overworked high school seniors, cast your bad vibes onto this, our eager doorstep.

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Responses to this Entry

When I worked in admissions at MIT, I wrote the following, which I think is a fairly accurate summary of what admissions officers are looking for:

"Your application is full of grades and test scores and teachers writing things about you and interviewers writing things about you and things inferred from your participation in clubs and sports and whatever else you do... the essay is the one place where you get to say 'hey, I'm a human being, let me connect with you on that level, here is my voice, here is who I am.' That's all we're really looking for."

The rest of it is here.

Posted by: Ben on December 12, 2008 2:06 PM

I think as an addendum I'll share another anecdote. As I said, I proofread some essays in high school. My favorite was written by a friend of mine; It was about having to poop at night while camping in the woods in the middle of winter. Do you hold it in, or leave the comfort of your tent? How far away do you walk so as to be courteous to your fellow campers but also not get too cold?

She went more places than that with it (I believe she referred to the dilemma as "Machiavellian" at one point), but it was funny and unique and illustrative and all that other good stuff.

But someone find me the college guidebook that recommends writing an essay about pooping in the woods!

Posted by: Will on December 15, 2008 11:38 AM

I think that guide book is written by Jerry Seinfeld.

Posted by: Jesse Hernandez on December 19, 2008 10:06 AM

My common app essay is about my cat escaping into a "proverbial dark and stormy night." That's all done, moving on to the Obie essay...

Two thoughts are within my head:
Charles Finney
and my little sister

hmmmmmmmmm..... decisions, decisions

Posted by: Mark on December 21, 2008 10:56 PM

Thanks for your insights. I have a teenager who's finding it challenging to write the essay because she's not one to boast. These are good tips that just might get her going.

I especially like your comment: "...The question remains: what do I write about? I can only answer this by saying what I wished I'd written about. I wish I'd written about music. Anything about it, really..." and you go on to say, "I wished I'd written about these because they're things that I can talk about and write about at great length and with great ease."

How's your music going, BTW?

Posted by: marsha on January 14, 2010 11:54 AM

I'm glad it was helpful, rather than discouraging or flippant which is how I usually view this post when I go back and re-read it...suffice it to say that I was and am pretty disdainful of the college applications process and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Best of luck to your daughter.

Music is going well! I am in a recording studio for all of winter term, which I plan to blog about at some point in the near future. And I am working on the music for my junior recital this April, which will be an adventure to be sure. Tours in February, March, and June, plus some more fun stuff in the works...

Posted by: Will on January 16, 2010 6:55 PM

Dude. This was extreeeemely helpful. I'm still lost, but not as lost as before. Thanks :D

Posted by: Huda on February 3, 2010 1:40 PM

I found this while googling essay samples. It's a nervous habit by this point, but I think I've just been cured... Thanks for the help :)

Posted by: Fuchsia on November 29, 2010 8:31 PM

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