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Seniors' Guide to a Successful Admissions Essay
Orange and yellow leaves twirl and wisp around the air before they slowly begin to fall to the ground. The fresh, outdoor air is crisp and cold with autumn rolling in as summer waves goodbye. Students laugh and saunter around the cramped hallways because, for them, it is their senior year of high school. They are excited for high school assignments and tedious tasks like assemblies to be over with, but there is also dread inside them with college life fast approaching, and with it, the college application and essay. The essay inside the college application is what can make or break their status as a college student at the school of their dreams. Therefore, it is important that high school students know why they must write an essay along with their application, why it should be treated in a serious manner, as well as how to write a good essay so they may be successful on their continued path of learning.
College admission essays are an integral part of the application process, and if a student is lucky enough, they may not be required to write or provide one. Nonetheless, it is still important that high school seniors have a little background information as to why they must write one along with their college application. With students knowing why, they may truly grasp and understand its importance in their lives and their future.
The main reason admission essays are required is that it will allow prospective students’ personalities to shine and show what they could bring to the college or university, whether it be new perspectives, diversity, or a passion for learning. In How to Write Your College Essay, Kenneth Nourse explains that colleges and universities want to see who they are admitting into their school and how well they fit into the school’s environment (1-4). Colleges don’t want just a piece of paper listing a student’s GPA, testing scores, or extracurriculars that they pursued, because they have already been provided with those in the main application (1-4). The admissions essay is a place for students to show who they are through their voice that they carry throughout the paper, their attitude towards certain elements, and overall, who they are off the paper. As Sarah Myers McGinty, a Harvard professor, says in reference to admission essays, “It should be a fully personal piece, unique to the writer in topic and style” (72). If students are completely true to themselves and who they are as writers, colleges and universities will have a better understanding of who the student is and why they want to attend their school. However, seeing a student’s personality and character is not the only reason admission essays are required.
A second reason, equal in importance to the first, for there being an essay with a college application is because the essays are used to show that students are competent and well prepared for what college brings. In “Transitions from High School to College”, Andrea Venezia and Laura Jaeger explain that “The vast majority of high school students aspire to some kind of postsecondary education, yet far too many of them enter college without the basic content knowledge, skills, or habits of mind they need to succeed” (117). Colleges want to make sure they are allowing academically adept students who are well prepared for the next level of learning into their schools, which is why they require an essay. Whatever the prompt of the essay be, it usually requires deep reflection and thought, which are skills that students need before entering college (McGinty 70-72). If a student is able to create a concise essay that reflects who they are, their writing style, and that they are able to perform such tasks, then they have the skills needed throughout college for a student to properly learn and succeed.
As a senior in high school, it may seem confusing and overwhelming when beginning to write an admissions essay as there is so much “wiggle room” with a prompt, and students are so used to pleasing teachers, they may feel confused about what colleges are looking for from their essays. As Gen and Kelly Tanabe tell in 50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays, when writing an admission essay, there is no exact formula that admission officials are looking for, but there are some pointers that can help a student when starting their essay (13-19). By examining a few admission essays, students can learn what to steer towards, what to avoid, and how to make their essay stand out from the crowd.
Looking at an essay titled “Unshakable Worth” by Sarah Langberg, who was accepted to Princeton University; there is much to be learned about the format and style of a successful admission essay. Glancing at the structure of the essay, it can be seen that it is somewhat short at about a page and a half and contains only five paragraphs (57-59). Admission essays are not meant to be long reads like a term paper, as those reading the essays and admitting students have to go through a countless number of essays, which is why what’s inside must be attention-grabbing. Beginning her essay, Langberg starts with “Part of me is missing. It’s an identifiable, yet indescribable absence” (57). Here she uses an interesting hook that grabs the reader’s attention, making them question “What’s missing?”, and continue reading her work. Then Langberg goes on to tell the story of how she yearns for a father and how she felt like that there was a piece missing from inside herself. That is, until her views were shattered after learning the truth of his absence after listening in on a private phone call that he did not want to be her father. She wraps up her essay stating “I know my great worth. I have nothing to prove to anyone, including myself” (59). Here she concludes that she does not need validation from her father or proof that she is worthy of love and care because she knows who she is, and that’s all that matters.
In Sarah Langberg’s essay, there is an interesting hook that captures the reader’s attention, a story from her life that affected who she is as a person, and what she learned that she still carries with herself. This essay format can be seen throughout 50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and is what is usually followed by students when creating an application essay, but it does not need to be strictly followed. While the actual writing and creation of the essay is important, what happens prior and post will also affect the outcome. Before writing the essay, Kelly Mae Ross, Devon Haynie, and Josh Moody say that students should create a time for themselves to just brainstorm and reflect on their lives so they may choose an appropriate topic that would create a thought-provoking essay. Once the essay has been written to the student's liking, they should have someone proofread their paper to provide feedback, whether it be family, friends, or teachers. By having their paper proofread, grammatical errors, style issues, and any inconsistencies can be found and promptly fixed before sending it off (Ross, Haynie, and Moody). Kenneth Nourse says to students “If you fail to check spelling and grammar, you will create the impression that you don’t care, that you are normally inattentive to detail, that you are less than enthusiastic about what you are doing, and, generally that you have little pride in your work” (12). Overall, when students are making their application essays, they should put in just as much effort into prewriting and revision as they do to the actual writing of the essay if they wish to have a successful and impactful essay.
Along with knowing what to include when crafting an excellent essay, high school students should know what to avoid when writing. Using an essay titled “Why I Want to Be a Pediatric (Baby) Marine Biologist :-)” by Rachel, some examples of what to not do can be seen. Looking at the format from afar before diving into the essay itself, the essay can be seen to be very short at only half a page long, but it still has about five paragraphs, each containing only two to three sentences (1-2). The title is very lackluster and self-explanatory and includes a smile made from a colon, dash, and closing parenthesis, which is not as formal as the title should be. Rachel begins her essay with “Hi! :-). I want to be a pediatric (baby) marine biologist because I like the ocean, small things, and animals. :-)” (1). Compared to the previous essay mentioned, this is not an interesting hook that draws readers in or sets up a story from the writer, but rather just a simple statement. She then goes on to provide random reasons for why she wants to be a pediatric marine biologist and what she thought of the college’s course catalog for which she is applying to. She continuously uses smiles, and even frowns, in each paragraph and almost every sentence. Rachel ends her essay rather abruptly in a style similar to the closing and signature of a letter with “Call me Rachel, the Future Pediatric Marine Biologist :-) :-) :-) :-) :-)” (2). Compared to Sarah Langberg’s essay, Rachel’s completely misses the mark by not providing any unique thoughts or ideas from a story and has no information about who she is, but instead what she wants to be. There is no evidence of deep reflection about herself because she only states why she wants to be a marine biologist with surface-level reasons such as “I like seals, especially baby seals, :-) and whales :-)” (2). Students should at all times avoid writing like Rachel, even if they find themselves with writer’s block, as the whole purpose of an application essay is defeated with her writing style and topic choice.
While Rachel’s essay is a great template of what not to do when writing an admission essay, there are a few more “don’ts” to remember and take into consideration. Firstly, students should not procrastinate or push off the essay as if it were a simple task that will only require five minutes of their time to complete. As Kenneth Nourse says to students reading his book, “You need to be aware that this may be a major pitfall for you”, which is why students should begin planning, pre-writing and drafting much before the application deadline (34). Along with time management, students should not go too far into their thoughts, with existential or too personal topics that should not be shared. Most importantly Carol Barash, who once worked in admissions at Rutgers University, explains that students should never over edit their essay after receiving feedback. Overanalyzing and critiquing can cause what once had been a good essay to change into a mess of words that don’t have the same tone as the student’s actual voice (Barash).
The criteria for how to construct a good essay may seem restrictive to some, but students can also take risks in their writing to show who they really are and how they think. Written by Lauren Saunders, who was accepted to Duke University, “Crime Scene Report” is unique and is a great example of how students can create a memorable and creative essay. The structure is set up with three distinct sections: a crime scene report, case details, and notes throughout the essay (111-112). It also has about ten paragraphs, making it about a page and a half. Saunders begins her essay with a crime scene report (111).:
CRIME SCENE REPORT
Crime: Missing Person
Location: Duke University, 2138 Campus Drive, Box 90586, Durham, North Carolina 27708-0586
Time: October 2, 2008, 11:00 A.M.
Investigated by: Admissions Officers of Duke University
Here Saunders shows that a generic introduction is not needed to entice readers to continue reading, as the report makes readers wonder what the rest of the essay will entail. She then continues her essay in a normal paragraph form, stating that the missing person is actually her future self and that research being conducted to find her shows that her hobbies, talents, and beliefs match Duke University’s ideals, so it is very plausible that she can be found near there. Saunders ends her crime scene report with “On the morning of October 2, 2009, at precisely 7:04 A.M., the admissions officers found Miss Lauren Saunders’ future self at Duke University” (112). Here she makes the bold claim that she knows she will be accepted to Duke because of how well she fits into the environment and how she could genuinely see herself there every day. Saunders shows that it is ok for students to do what may seem “wild”, or even impossible, for an essay, and like Saunders they may be rewarded by being accepted to the school.
College application essays are important when applying to a college or university as they show a student’s character and abilities, while also preparing and proving that they are ready for college life. By looking at three distinctly different essays, students should have a better understanding of how their essay should be. However, with so much information on what to do and what not to do, not only should seniors in high school begin to prepare themselves for the essay, but juniors as well because practice makes perfect.
No matter what, students should not stress over being perfect while going through the application process because they have their whole lives ahead of them, and life is a journey with twists and turns. Things may not go to plan and their dream college may not accept them, but everything will settle and work itself out, maybe even taking them on a path they never expected but enjoy nonetheless.
Barash, Carol. “Never Do These 10 Things in Your College Application Essays.” “Story2. 16 July 2020. story2.com/blog/10-things-never-do-in-college-application-essays.
Langberg, Sarah. “Unshakable Worth.” In 50 Successful Ivy League Applications. SuperCollege LLC, 2009, pp. 57-59. qianmu.org/u/lystu/school/file/0hme5mn180002vc/0hmlotdce00040a.pdf.
McGinty, Sarah Myers. “In the Space Provided: The College Application Essay.” The English Journal, vol. 84, no. 3, 1995, pp. 70–72. www.jstor.org/stable/820077.
Nourse, Kenneth A. How to Write Your College Application Essay. 2nd ed., VGM Career Books, 2001. EBSCOhost, DOI: 10.1036/0071394664.
Rachel. “Why I Want to be a Pediatric (Baby) Marine Biologist.” The Very Worst College Application Essays, pp. 1-2. dansolit.weebly.com/uploads/8/9/6/0/8960127/the_very_worst_college_application_essays.pdf. Accessed 3 December 2020.
Ross, Kelly Mae, Devon Haynie, and Josh Moody. “How to Write a College Essay.” U.S. News. 28 February 2020. usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-to-write-a-college-essay.
Saunders, Lauren. “Crime Scene Report.” In 50 Successful Ivy League Applications. SuperCollege LLC, 2009, pp. 111-112. qianmu.org/u/lystu/school/file/0hme5mn180002vc/0hmlotdce00040a.pdf.
Tanabe, Gen, and Kelly Tanabe. 50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays. SuperCollege LLC, 2009. qianmu.org/u/lystu/school/file/0hme5mn180002vc/0hmlotdce00040a.pdf.
Venezia, Andrea, and Laura Jaeger. “Transitions from High School to College.” The Future of Children, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 117-136, 2013. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/23409491.