The Short Essay: A 200 Word Challenge
Fall 2014 Update: As of this application cycle, we no longer require the short essay as part of your application. Even so, I hope that there are still parts of blogpost that are relevant to the application process. Each piece of your application has value, so spend time thinking about what it is that you are showing us. Your Common App essay and your Oberlin supplemental essay are certainly the places to think deeply about how you are presenting yourself, but I encourage you to reflect on whom among your teachers you want to write for you. If there's something you know you want to have visible in your applications and it isn't going to be highlighted in your essay, is there a teacher who might be able to speak to that activity, skill, or trait? In our holistic review of your file, we hope to get a complete and coherent image of you. Take advantage of every opportunity the Common App gives you.
Blogging about admissions means that I should probably write something about The Essay. It's one of the few parts of the Common Application that is entirely yours to construct and build, sort of the final frontier of your application. By the time you sit down to fill out the Common App, your classes have already been taken, your SATs or ACTs scored, and your teachers already know you. Those things are the givens of your application: at this point, you're not changing or rewriting them.
But the essay itself? That's your playing field. Admissions officers across the US will tell you that the personal essay is your chance to tell us who you are, what you stand for, and what is most important to you. There is no one right way to tell us that, but there is an abundance of ways to approach the personal essay that will help us read you as you want to be read.
There are plenty of thoughtful blog posts about writing a great personal essay, and I'd encourage you to read through some of them. If nothing else, they might spur some ideas or reinforce some of the things you've already been thinking. They might reassure you that you're writing from a solid place, or that the topic you chose isn't so off-the-wall and unreadable after all.
What I want to write about, though, isn't the personal essay. Yes, it's my favorite part of your application. And I absolutely love it when I flip from your personal essay to your Extracurricular Activity essay, and continue to be blown away.
But all too often, I get to this short essay--all 200 words of it--and I am left wanting more.
The thing is, we read your application as a holistic portrait of you. Each piece of your application contributes to the portrait, from the Oberlin-specific essay through your SAT/ACT scores, the recommendation letter from your AP US History teacher, the personal essay, and the Extracurricular Activity essay. Each piece has value.
And it kills me when I get to that answer, and you've wasted it.
Those are valuable 250 words. You want your application to come across as coherent, but also to present us with the fullest portrait of you that you can provide. Use the short answer to highlight something new about you, something you haven't already detailed in your personal essay or Oberlin essay. We want to see as many facets of you as possible in the spaces allotted to you. Show us how unique you are, where you put your energy, what you spend your time on. These are the things that help us get a sense of you as an individual and as a potential member of our larger Oberlin community.
Ideally, the short answer will illuminate something that pops up on your list of extracurriculars. Or maybe you'll use it to highlight an independent project you're undertaking, something that doesn't really fit into any of the boxes the Common App offers you. Maybe it'll be an explanation of why you learned to kickbox, or why knitting caps for preemies is so important to you. I know it's a short block of text, but that doesn't mean you should shortchange it.
Intention is important to me as a reader, and nothing clues me in to that as much as your short answer. It's easy to write it off, so I'm that much more impressed when you take the time to craft a really compelling answer.
Think of your application this way: if it's a portrait, your essay is the face. The transcript, SATs, recommendation letters: those are the pose, the background, the positioning of your arms.
If it's done right, the short extracurricular activity essay becomes the color.
So here's my advice: write a vivid short answer, and compel me to look deep into the heart of your application.