Up Close and Personal — Writing the College Essay

Although your transcript and standardized test scores let the admissions committee see your academic achievements, the college essay gives them the opportunity to get a better sense of who you are beyond your role as a student. Because of this personal component, the college essay should have three essential elements. First, it should convey who you are as a person – your insights, your values, and your sense of humor. So if you love to draw, bring the reader of your essay into the drawing class with you and provide a glimpse of yourself hard at work. Here is an excerpt of an essay by a 2009 graduate:

Every Wednesday night I carried my pencil, my paper, and most importantly, my eraser to my class at the Museum of Fine Arts. Slowly, I began to understand the concepts of depth and lighting. One cannot simply draw two eyes, a nose, and a mouth and call it a face. The mouth, for instance, has a tiny shadow under the lower lip as well as faint vertical creases.

From this short passage, we learn about the writer’s love for art and her willingness to put in the hard work needed to develop her craft – even if she is not a natural talent. We also see her sense of humor when she points out the importance of bringing her eraser to class. These few sentences give the admissions officer a much better understanding of the kind of person the student is than her transcript could ever provide.

In addition to showcasing your character, the college admissions essay should be interesting and engaging. Remember that these admissions officers read hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of essays each year. Any essay that leads with a sentence such as, “I spent the last four years running cross country and I really enjoyed it” will not grab anyone’s attention. Here is the lead of an essay that a dancer wrote about practicing an important audition routine:

Beads of sweat slowly move down my full-body tights as I extend my right leg back, up, and to the side, all from the push up position. This is just the beginning of a long night in the dance studio.

She could have simply said, “One night I worked really hard on my dance routine for an important audition.” Instead she helps the reader visualize her motions because she is showing the process through her writing. It is almost as if we are in the dance studio with her.

Finally, the essay serves as a writing sample and allows the admissions committee to see your writing ability. Consequently, it should present your thoughts in an organized way and be grammatically correct with no spelling errors or typos. Although the essay should be your own work, we suggest asking someone to review it for grammar and spelling. However, you should make the corrections yourself so that you understand the concepts behind the corrections.

For Further Reading

A Writer’s Reference with Help for Writing in the Disciplines by Diana Hacker. This excellent resource book is one that students can take with them to college and graduate school. It not only provides easy-to-understand explanations for grammar, usage, and sentence structure, but also offers detailed explanations for writing research papers and organizing references and citations across academic disciplines.

Writing the Essay: Sound Advice From an Expert – Written by the University of Virginia Office of Undergraduate Admissions

Discovering Voice: Essays that Matter ’10 – Samples of essays that worked, Tufts University Undergraduate Admissions.

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