Speed Dating Your Essay

To view an introductory video by Sarah M. McGinty, please click here.

Dear Writer,

Remember to be yourself in your essay.

Deadlines are approaching. So here we offer a word or two of advice about that essay you are about to submit. Please do embrace this opportunity to enrich your application. Yes, it’s an artificial exercise: there isn’t (I am hopeful) an irrevocably defining moment in your life yet—but you’re being asked to pitch one. So as you approach the finish line, look back not to your answer (or pile of possible answers…or in a few cases that blank document) but to the instruction: “What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores?” 

Student thinking at computer

Students should focus on who they are rather than only what they do.

Look in. Be sure you’ve chosen what you want the college to know about you, what personal characteristic will enhance their incoming class, why they should “pick you.” This thinking really should precede your choice of a question. Note that the instructions direct you toward who you are, not what you’ve done. So think of the topic you’ve written about as an adjective (curious, creative, tenacious,) rather than as an event…sort of a long treatment of this sentence: “I’m a very _______ person and if you could have seen how I handled_______, you’d know I’m not kidding.” The story you narrate serves as a lens on your curiosity or creativity or tenacity, in action. Admissions doesn’t care that your grandmother sacrificed everything to get you to where you are today (your grandmother isn’t applying). But the conversations you’ve had with her, and the way you’ve applied her ethic to your own struggles in Honors Math…ok, that might show a stubborn, resilient, “make it work” kid that any college would want. 

So with your focus in order, check to be sure that you’ve told the story in simple conversational language: “I entered this terrestrial sphere on a vernal evening in….” Nonsense.  “I was born in April of 2003” does the job (and BTW they probably already know that). Be specific, so the reader can visualize your story (“on several occasions” might sound impressive but “the first, third, and final weekend in April” is more believable). Don’t listen to your Dad (if he’s trying to cram your resume into your essay). Do listen to your Mom (if she has some ideas about the kind of kid you are). Consider a touch of humor or a bit of dialogue. But mostly, show your personal characteristic, that thing they need to know about you, in action. And proofread (“…and from that day, Daniel was my best fried”). Then dare them not to like you.

Here if you need us,

Your friends at Educational Advocates

Sarah M. McGinty worked in admission at Sarah Lawrence College and is a retired University Supervisor from the Harvard Graduate School of Education; she is the author of seven books about the college application process, including The College Application Essay (College Board, 2015).

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