Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story
Proofreading your college admissions essays is an important often undervalued step in the college application process. Whether you are wrapping up the last details for your Early Admissions application, or prepping for a Regular Decision submission, performing one last thorough scour of what you have down on the page is a crucial step before pressing that submit button. While we are confident you have all been toiling away by the light of your computers, debating the use of different adjectives, and scanning your essays for errant commas, we have a few last tips to help ensure you catch any tiny mistakes and submit the most polished essay possible.
- Employ spelling and grammar checks. Use the tools that are available to you, dear students. We hope that your drafting process has taken place, not within the Common Application’s unreliable text box, but rather within a trusty document on a word processing program like Microsoft Word. If not, transfer that puppy over right now and take advantage of the inherent spelling and grammar check tools. While these mechanisms are not foolproof, they will help you get a cursory survey of unrecognized grammar errors. Let your smartypants computer lead the way.
- When in doubt, look up the rule. So you don’t know which one is grammatically correct: “doctor’s office” or “doctors’ office.” Luckily for you, you live in the age of the Internet, where grammar snobs and language obsessives spend their free time expounding upon just this kind of minutiae for the benefit of the lost grammatical souls of the world. If you are unsure about the spelling or usage of even a single word, it is always best to double-check it on the World Wide Web. However, do keep in mind, this is the Internet we’re consulting. Be sure to confirm grammar rules via multiple, reliable sources before you implement any suggestions from friendly wordsmithing “experts.”
- Let mom and dad take a peek. We know for some of you, your parents have been involved in the essay process all along. You folks can skip this step. For others who requested that their parents remain more distanced from the process, showing parents a final draft can be a little tricky. It is your college application, not your parents’, after all; and no one has more to say than a parent scanning his/her beloved child’s attempt to synthesize a crucial life moment or lifelong aspiration in 650 words. Still, no one in the world knows you better than your mom and pops, and no one will be more invested in your overall success than the people who raised you. Show parents your essay with confidence. Let them find any random mistakes that escaped your gaze. Listen to what they have to say, take helpful advice, and ultimately, stick to your guns and submit the essay you believe in.
- Do not show ninety of your closest friends your final draft. Also refrain from showing your (admittedly, very smart) Aunt Suzy, your next-door neighbor who fancies herself an editor, and the family dog, who once ate your homework and now thinks he can read. The old adage of “ask a million people and you will get a million opinions” is absolutely true. Also true is that a million opinions swirling around in your noggin two days before your application is due will drive you absolutely insane. Instead, channel the opinion that is most important: Your own. Read over your essay. Love it. Believe in it. Trust yourself.
- Put it to bed. Once you have run through your final review checklist, save your document. Copy and paste the final essay into the Common App text box, and adjust spacing as necessary. Make sure there are returned spaces between your paragraphs. Take the application all the way through to the “Print Preview” step so you can check to make sure all proper formatting is reflected, save your application and go to sleep. Tomorrow morning, wake up and read the essay once more with a fresh brain. Don’t. Change. A. Thing. Revel in the glory of your hard work. Press send, and get yourself a cookie. You are on your way.