Oberlin Blogs

You're in Control -- The College Essay

December 15, 2021

Josh Levy ’94, Office of Admissions

Way back in 1986 (yes, I’m dating myself with this reference), Janet Jackson released her hit song “Control.” It’s the perfect word as you think about writing your college essay because it’s the only part of the application you can control at this point in time. You can’t change your grades, you can’t tell your teachers what to say in their recommendations, you can’t magically create new extra-curricular activities.  But you can control what you choose to write about and share with the Admissions Committee.

What should you do with your essay? Here’s 18 years’ worth of advice for you.

Make the essay about you. You are the applicant so we want to learn something more about you. Don’t submit an essay that talks about your grandfather walking to school, in the snow, uphill both ways, carrying a hot potato to keep his hands warm. If you write about a relative or a situation, make sure that it relates back to you in some way. What did you learn from that relative? Have you been in a situation where that experience changed how you acted? That shows growth and maturation.

Proofread, proofread, proofread. We once read an essay about Julie Taymor (Oberlin, Class of 1974) and her work in creating The Lion King on Broadway. Unfortunately, the student didn’t catch the spelling mistake she made: The Loin King. Some misspellings are words – you want to find them before we do. How can you do this?  Have someone read it over for you. Teacher, friend, parent -- it doesn't matter. Someone who hasn't spent hours looking at the same words will find typos for you.

Don't pretend the thesaurus is your best friend. The essay should be your writing. The words should be your words. Don't use fancy words to impress the Admissions Committee. Here's an actual opening sentence I once read: "The intrepidly tranquil and adamantly benevolent summer breeze blew betwixt dimensions of splendor and perfection as its sweet, saccharine, scent crippled any rational desire to ignore its inexorable allure." Huh?

Write an essay, not a paragraph. These essays should be just that – an essay. One paragraph does not an essay make. Your Personal Statement should be well constructed, with some sort of main point (call it a thesis statement, if you’d like) and supporting evidence and a conclusion. We don’t just use this essay to learn about you; we also use it as a writing sample, to help us see if you’re decently prepared for college-level writing. The essays are sent to academic advisors to help them guide you in your first semester – do you really want to start out that relationship with a poorly written, five-sentence paragraph?

A great opening line never hurts. Conservatively, I’ve read 10,000 college essays. Some opening lines stand out:

  • When I was in Third Grade, I tried to outsmart Santa.
  • I really hate getting hit hard in the face.
  • When I was in Fourth Grade, I sacrificed my dad to Mayan gods.
  • Jessica, Henry’s eating poop again.
  • I have a confession to make: when I saw Jaws for the first time, I gleefully rooted for the shark.
  • I first encountered cocaine in kindergarten.
  • I am the cheese ninja of my family.
  • I’ve been kicked in the face by a cow at least four times in my life.
  • It’s not every day that you’re under investigation for murder.
  • My mother has probably already written to you, spreading her lies.
  • You cannot technically be expelled from Pre-School.
  • And there I am, alone in the hotel room in my underwear, nervously ransacking the room in search of my clothes.

These are fun. They grab you and pull you in. Henry is a turtle. Encountering cocaine was part of a self-directed spelling project. Outsmarting Santa was a science experiment. Getting hit in the face is part of kung fu. These lines make you want to read more. They make you laugh. They make you say, "What a great writer" or "That was a great topic."

So there you go -- advice from 18 years of reading Personal Statements distilled into 750 words. I look forward to reading your essays and adding them to my growing collection of favorites.

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