The admissions officers reading an essay want it to prove to them two things. First, they want it to show that you can write at a college level, which means that you have a command of the English language and can use it to craft a cogent written statement. They are not interested in your vocabulary skills, though, so give the thesaurus to your mom and have her hide it. You should be able to write your essay without fancy words whose meaning you don’t understand. And it is so painfully obvious to admissions officers when you don’t; they’re almost embarrassed for you.
Admissions officers are interested in seeing that you understand sentence and paragraph structure and can pace a narrative. Oh yes, and that you know what a narrative is in the first place. In case you’re a little unsure, a narrative is simply a story. And unless you’re William Faulkner (who didn’t even graduate from college), the story you tell to the admissions officer through your essay needs to be brief, flow logically from one event to the next, and have a convincing conclusion. People usually act consistently (even if they’re consistently inconsistent), and their pattern of actions more times than not leads to consistent outcomes. You’d have to be a darn clever wordsmith, for example, to convince a reader that a chain smoker could enter the New York City Marathon and win it just because he “had a lot of heart.” Your essay should not require the admissions officer to suspend disbelief. So keep it brief and coherent.
This does not mean that you should edit your essay down to nothing, or let someone else edit it down to nothing. It shouldn’t sound like a marketing piece. It should sound like the way you would talk (when you speak with correct grammar, of course).
Choosing a topic
Time and again admissions officers tell us that they want to see students write their college essay about something they, the students, actually care about. Write about something you do, not something you would do if you were president of the United States (unless specifically asked to do so). They aren’t interested in reading about your plan for eliminating AIDS from the world. They’re interested in hearing how and why you spent every Wednesday afternoon for the last two years teaching an underprivileged kid how to use a computer, even on days when you didn’t want to or didn’t think you had time. They’re even interested in why you’re passionate about Spider-Man comics.
Opinion differs from college to college regarding what are good essay topics and what aren’t. There are a few topics that almost invariably send shudders down admissions officers’ backs. These include sex, drugs (especially your sex life or drug use), or violent events in which you participated. Admissions officers also tire of reading travelogues and stories of how you recovered from a sports injury. Want to make them groan? Rehash the extracurricular activities that you already listed on the section of the application devoted to them, or editorialize on the top news item of the day. Swearing isn’t usually effective, either. They appreciate humor, but if you’re not funny in person, you shouldn’t try to be so on paper. This is why you should have someone else read your essay: if your humor doesn’t elicit the right response from your teacher, it most likely won’t get the reaction you’re looking for in the admissions office.
What do they like to read about? Curiosity, passion, and persistence. These are the sorts of attributes that great college students have. These great students go on to be great alumni. Colleges that have great students and great alumni tend to attract quality applicants, and on the cycle goes. But you shouldn’t tell the admissions office that you are curious, passionate, or persistent; you should show them. Let your narrative do this.
A few more pointers
Grammatical accuracy is key. A thoughtful essay that offers true insight will stand out unmistakably, but if it is riddled with poor grammar and misspelled words, it will not receive serious consideration. It is critical that you avoid all grammatical errors. We just can’t stress this enough. Misspellings, awkward constructions, run-on sentences, and misplaced modifiers all cast doubt on your efforts. Admissions officers will wonder, how much care did you put into the essay’s composition?
Good writing is writing that is easily understood. You want to get your point across, not bury it in words. Don’t talk in circles. Your prose should be clear and direct. If an admissions officer has to struggle to figure out what you are trying to say, you’re in trouble. Also, almost every college requires freshmen to complete a course or two in composition, even if you plan on majoring in a subject that isn’t writing-intensive, like chemistry. If you can demonstrate that you have good writing skills, you’ll have a serious edge in these required courses. Get to the point in three pages. Don’t be long-winded and boring. Admissions officers don’t like long essays. Would you, if you were in their shoes? Be brief. Be focused. And if there is a word limit, abide by it.