By Evan Bailyn
Seventeen years old, newly a senior in high school, and faced with the challenge of writing your college admission essay, it is impossible not to feel intimidated. You may be a talented writer. You may have had some interesting experiences that would make great material for your essay. You may have even attended a lecture on how to write an effective college admission essay. But when it comes time to put words on paper, the task is simply too enormous.
The reason why it is so hard to write a college admission essay is because most students have preconceived notions about what a college admission essay is supposed to sound like. Those notions get in the way of your natural thought pattern, blocking the passage of genuine, creative ideas.
In the fall of my senior year of high school, my English teacher handed out a model college admission essay for us to read. I still remember it well: it was about the joy of eating Oreo cookies. Somehow, in the course of 500 words, the writer had managed to demonstrate how a person's method of eating Oreos conveyed their entire personality. The writing was interesting, humorous, and contained multiple SAT words. In short, it was amazing. It was my model of college admission essay perfection. So, when I sat down to write my own essay, all I could think was "How can I be funny, insightful, and wickedly intelligent all at the same time, like that guy did in his Oreo essay?"
What I didn't realize was that in order to write such an amazing essay, the Oreo guy had to have been inspired. He had to have thought a great deal about his favorite cookie. The essay had to have come from within him. As a result, I sat there at my desk with writer's block for four hours.
Getting to the point where you are writing from your heart is the first step to producing an outstanding college admission essay. Naturally, it is exceptionally difficult to do so. Because of the sheer amount of popular culture we digest, our minds are clouded with easy constructs and cliches. However, if you can manage to ignore all of those scripts, those magazine articles, television shows and advertisements, you will instantly be ahead of 90% of the other applicants.
I wrote my own college admission essay at a time when I was depressed about breaking up with my girlfriend. It began by my scribbling down a bunch of thoughts in my journal. I wrote about how upset I was, and how I felt as if I couldn't ever be happy without her. Then I realized that just the act of writing made me feel a little bit better about the whole incident. Writing had a way of preserving the past. It allowed me to add meaning to events that had flown by at the time. To help give me ideas, I dug up some of the poetry I had written during my relationship. Soon enough I had a hybrid prose-poetry admission essay that expressed my feelings better than I ever thought myself capable. In the end, it got me into Columbia.
If you really want to write a good college admission essay, you have to wipe away everything you know and start with a blank slate. Look at everything around you as if you are seeing it for the first time. It is not the people with the most interesting experiences that write the best college admission essays; it is the people with the most original writing. And originality comes easiest to those who aren't trying too hard. The most interesting ideas are the ones you never put into words because they seem to weird or too obvious.
So where are all those quirky thoughts hiding? In order to find them, you have to relax your mind, allowing it to drift anywhere it feels like. From there, just take the first idea that interests you and start writing. Write everything you can think of. Don't go back to edit- that'll come later. Once you have produced a four or five-page stream of consciousness, stop and put it away. Don't read it over if you're the type who will throw it away.
A day or two later, go back and review it. You are now allowed to do anything you want to it except throw it away. Even if you want to delete 90% and keep just one interesting sentence, that's okay. The point is to nurture a seed.
Next, as you begin to give shape to the bunkum of your brain, keep the basic essay format (thesis, body, and conclusion) in mind. This will aid you later on, when you find yourself with good ideas but no structure. A great college admission essay that is poorly organized is like a great book whose chapters are out of order.
When you feel like you've finally produced an essay, put it away again. Do not look at it for four or five days. If you cheat and look at it again after one, you run the risk of overfamiliarizing yourself with the essay. Giving yourself some distance from the essay helps you to see it the way a first-time reader would see it. (Trust me, admission officers are not going to read your admission essay five times.) As you continue to redraft, you will find that your essay gets better and better, up to a certain point. Once you have reached that point, when you are so familiar with the essay that you've almost memorized it, you have nothing more to do.
It is now time to show your admission essay to someone else. There are two types of people who you want feedback from: exceptionally honest people and good writers. The former will critique your ideas and the latter will critique your craft. Both are crucial. Many students also submit their essays to editing services to get a professional's point of view. These services can be very valuable investments, as their editors have often reviewed hundreds, or even thousands, of college admission essays and can easily spot the flaws in an admission essay.
Finally, when choosing the people to whom you will entrust your personal writing, keep in mind that English teachers and guidance counselors are not always the best picks. In my capacity as a college admissions counselor, I've gone against the advice of countless educational professionals and gotten sweetly rewarded for it. These figures often have the same cliched ideas about what a "good" college admission essay should sound like as I mentioned earlier. Accept only grammatical and organizational advice from them. Ultimately, you are the best judge of whether or not you have produced an inspired college admission essay.
Evan Bailyn is a nationally-recognized college admissions expert. His admission essay consulting service has helped students get into the finest schools in the country, including Princeton, Stanford, and Columbia.
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