With high school seniors preparing to apply to college in the next several months, I've been getting many requests to read over essays from students and parents. Some of these essays are beautifully written, giving its readers a sense that the writer fully grasps the concept of writing well. Others, however, aren't so good. After having reviewed hundreds of these kinds of essays and having given seminars on admissions and essay writing over the years, I'd like to share some insights.
Generally, college admission essays seek to learn something about a prospective candidate that an admissions officer would normally not be able to tell from just looking at grades, test scores, and a resume filled with extracurricular activities. Yet, the most common mistake I've seen in admissions essay is the regurgitation of a student's activities and all the accolades the students has amassed over her four years of high school. While writing about an extracurricular activity may be appropriate for some students, oftentimes, students tend to only provide descriptions of what they did, instead of showing reflection.
There are only really three types of college admissions essays.
1. Creative Type
The creative essay is one that uses flowery language to demonstrate one's grasp of literary prose. It is one that attempts to show, instead of tell. These essays generally paint a picture of a story, event, or experience as though they were excerpted from a piece of literature. The imagery and literary techniques (metaphors, allusions, etc.) make this essay impressive. The main idea, or the point of the essay, is generally not explicitly stated, but an effective creative piece will lead its readers to the implied message. Oftentimes, the message should show something about a candidate whether it be her background, personality, or thoughts.
2. Non-Creative Type
The non-creative essay, or what I call the 'straightforward essay,' usually answers a prompt in a direct way. Topics such as "why do you want to study engineering at our school?" are fairly straightforward, and generally warrant a response that is clear and concise. It would be very hard to write such an answer in a literary way. For these types of questions, the trick is to write in a clear and compelling way that shows the reader that your writing is professional and mature. This does not imply that your writing should become impersonal, only more straightforward. It's inevitable that there will be more telling than showing in these types of essay (unlike the creative one), but telling should not necessarily be equated to a bad thing (as many people think). Instead, rely on telling in a way that shows knowledge and purpose. For instance, you can tell the college that you would like to attend the institution because of A, B, and C, which are very specific reasons based on your own research of the school. These essays, written clearly, can be very compelling.
3. Mixed Type
The final type of admissions essay is a mix between the creative and non-creative. Generally, these are essays in which the writer wants to convey a very straightforward and clear message, while setting the tone with a creative prose. Generally, the essay would follow the chronology or the logic of the creative piece, but somewhere in the essay, there will be a moments where the writer explicitly states what she means or what she wants the reader to understand explicitly. The mixed type, if executed correctly, can be very powerful, but because its a mixture of two different styles, the difficulty is not sounding awkward when changing from one style to the other. This unnatural transition generally deters most applicants from writing this way.
Be sure to look out for more tips and information on college admissions in the near future.