Every piece of advice you have ever received on the purpose of the college essay is wrong. I can prove it with five guiding questions.
Question 1: What is the college essay?
The college essay is a page-long assignment given to you by a school, to be completed by a certain date.
You are familiar with this construct, work to do at given to you by a school, due by a certain date, otherwise known as homework.
Question 2: Why do we typically do homework?
Because we have to. Homework is mandatory.
Question 3: Mandatory for what?
Homework is not where you begin the rebellion. You figure out what your teacher wants from you and then you give it to them. You do homework to get a good grade.
Question 4: The college essay doesn’t get you a grade. So why is it mandatory?
You need to write the essay in order to get into college..
Question 5: So, what is the purpose of the college essay?
The purpose of the college essay is to get into college.
If you ask just about anyone what the purpose of the college essay is, they will say — with glazed eyes — “to let the admissions office get to know you.”
But instead, you should write something that you think will make someone be measurably more likely to admit you to college. Otherwise, what you are doing is the logical equivalent of handing in a watercolor for your math homework. The key is to write for a purpose beyond self-expression, much like how you do all of your homework with the objective of getting a good grade.
Let’s figure out what helps you get in instead. What will get you into college is writing an essay that will be distinguished from the rest. To do that, avoid these four mistakes.
MISTAKE 1: THINKING THE COLLEGE ESSAY IS THE ONLY CHANCE YOU HAVE TO BE KNOWN IN THIS PROCESS
By the time someone is considering your essay, they have reviewed your grades, your scores, two teacher recommendations and a guidance report, and your activity list. They know you in most ways that are relevant to admit you to a school.
For the essay, say something new. Don’t restate something in your resume and then just add “and everyone thanked me” at the end. Consider what your teachers will say about you. Don’t repeat any of it. Think outside of the box and say something different.
MISTAKE 2: NOT READING THE PROMPT
Over 70 percent of students choose just three of the seven Common Application prompts (overcoming obstacles, discuss an accomplishment, topic of your choice). That is because three of them work well if you write your essay first and pick the prompt second. They are lazy choices.
Don’t pick those three prompts. Choose one that focuses on a specific anecdote rather than the three asking for your whole life story. It makes it easier for your essay to make an impact on your admissions if you carefully pick a prompt, unlike the majority of applicants.
MISTAKE 3: PLOT?
Your essay should have a specific anecdote. It’s in every usable prompt: “recount,” “discuss,” “describe.”
To do this, you need four types of words: descriptive adjectives, action verbs, quotations, proper nouns. Jargon also helps you establish authority, so don’t dumb your essay down.
Write a story with a setting, a beginning, a middle and an end. In drafting your essay, focus on the content of the narrative. Do not “write” seven paragraphs of conclusion and your thoughts; content is writer’s craft. Introductions and conclusions are editor’s craft. When I am helping a student with an essay, there is little purpose in developing witty turns-of-phrase or glassy segues if you cannot tell what the student is trying to communicate in the essay through its content.
MISTAKE 4: PICKING THE WRONG ANECDOTE
I have discussed this all over at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Wesleyan, Vassar, Emory, UCLA, UC-Berkeley, the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, the NYU Center for Family Life, Merrill Lynch, Ernst & Young, the Young Presidents Organization, often right in front of admission officers. Many of them just nod, bored by the common sense of it all.
Your topic should generally fall into one of two categories:
Intellectual Statement: this essay is meant to show what you are interested in pursuing in terms of your college major, and the moment (do not flashback more than two years) that you were sparked by it. You should pick this option if you think that admissions will already get a heap about your personality (read: extracurriculars) from your teachers and activity list, but not enough about why you love learning (i.e., your grades and scores should have been better).
Personality Statement: this essay is about anything but what you want to study. It is usually easier to write. It is a story, usually not derived from your extracurriculars (unless you have no other choice, which is not ideal, because they already know your activities), of a moment or experience that reflects who you are. Favorites often work well: your favorite read/friend/place/theory/possession.
Ultimately, no matter what else you hear in the admissions process, ask yourself the simple questions:
- What will admissions officers know about me prior to my essay from my teachers, counselors, activities and grades,
- What is it about me that they would need to know to be more apt to want me there.
Believe it or not, you will be one of the only applicants to do so!
About the Author: Keith Berman, Ed.M., M.S.Ed.
Keith Berman is the President of Options for College (www.optionsforcollege.com), which he founded in Harvard Square right after working in the Harvard Admissions Office. He has appeared on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, PBS, Fox Business and Lifetime. He has spoken at Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, the Davidson Institute, Johns Hopkins CTY, Merrill Lynch, Ernst & Young and others to discuss college admissions, especially of high-achieving students.
Berman earned his B.A. as a double major (music, linguistics) at Yale University, his M.S.Ed. from Bank Street and his M.Ed. from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has also run the guidance programs at two New York high schools, worked as a NYC public school teacher, developed national tests at a Washington Think Tank and worked in the Yale and Harvard Undergraduate Admissions Offices as an interview, always with an eye towards telling the story of how applicants can help themselves.
This blog post is condensed from Berman’s short book, The College Essay, which is available on the Kindle store and in paperback on Amazon as part of his The Way There series he is releasing this summer. See http://bit.ly/thewaythereessay to order.
The Crimson's news and opinion teams—including writers, editors, photographers, and designers—were not involved in the production of this article.