The application essay is the most crucial piece of writing the student will submit to the colleges, and, if not done impressively, it will also be their last. In most cases, it is the college's first actual exposure to the student, and first impressions have a habit of lasting. A memorable essay contains all the student's Kodak moments interlaced with some less than blissful adventures to create the necessary drama in the writing.
Students must begin by choosing the right topic, meaning the right topic for them, and one that will be well received by the admissions committees. The subject matter chosen and its degree of difficulty say volumes to the school about the character of the author. As the quality of the essay is dependent on the student's ability to respond to the subject matter, making the correct choice is absolutely essential.
Students should select a most thought-provoking and stimulating subject to write about, and it helps greatly to view the task as a "we dare you to compete for the privilege of attending our school" challenge from the college. In other words, if there's a literary masterpiece inside the student crying out to be written and read, this would be a good time to unleash it!
Students writing about their favorite anything should be passionate about it. It's not enough just to say you love something or someone. It must be explained why in no uncertain terms. If writing about how a particular relative was admired by the student above all others, then how that person influenced the student's life, how the student apprenticed that person or fashioned their lives in their light should be factored in.
Students often write about themselves as the subject matter is well known to them and requires no research. However, as this is certainly not the road less traveled, a necessary and serious effort is sorely needed to make the journey stand out amongst all the other students doing the same. Be it overcoming adversity or how the past summer was spent, the writing should be uniquely appealing to the reader and not the same old, same old. However, the essay should not be overwritten.
One of my students wrote about being molested when she was eight years old. She wisely chose not to go into the horror in her accounting of it, but rather focused on how she overcame being victimized. The essay was most compelling and was well received. She is now pursuing a medical career at a very prestigious West Coast university.
Students should avoid writing too vividly about any traumatizing experience. The essay can be gripping but not horrifying. Remember, the object here is to write an essay that captures the reader's imagination and begs to be read in its entirety. Highly controversial subjects such as abortion are best avoided.
One of my honor students wrote a "Pro Life" essay and expressed her views with such intensity that reading it left me with the impression that she might be viewed as a danger to others with strong "pro choice" convictions! At first, when I advised her to rewrite it, she flat out refused. I explained that she was losing site of her goal - to be accepted to the college and not to win points on her take of the anti-abortion issue. She finally realized the wisdom of my words when I reminded her that after she was accepted, she could protest and exercise her freedom of speech in any way she chose, but first, she had to get into the school.
Students must keep their eye on the prize and never lose sight of the main objective - getting an admission ticket!
My all-time favorite essay question is the University of Pennsylvania's, "You've just written your 300 page autobiography. Tell us what's on page 217?" I advise students who choose this essay to go back in time five or six years (about a third of their life), recall where they were and what they were doing in that time period, and then begin writing about it.
A most effective and creative approach is to begin the page in the middle of a sentence, preferably ending the thought by leaving the reader in a quandary, i.e. "...because that's the way it was arranged." Remember that this is page 217 from your autobiography. Open any autobiography, or any book for that matter, to page 217. It probably won't start with a fresh sentence or a new paragraph. It is also important to leave the reader hanging at the end of the page, i.e. "...As he ran into the street, the car continued to..."
I often critique essays for students I counsel, but never write the essay for them. I cannot advise strongly enough against employing the services of a professional essay service or writer! Not only is this first degree cheating, but the risk/reward ratio isn't worth it. The admissions committees and the application readers are neither stupid nor naïve, and they're on to that scam. Students should never take the chance of throwing their futures away for the want of a better paper! If you're qualified to get into college, than you're talented enough to write your own essay.
Some years ago, a wealthy family who chose not to take my advice in this regard, did just that. They apparently felt it would be the sure-fire way for their son to get into an exclusive East Coast school. He had good grades, good SAT I scores and would have otherwise been acceptable, but his writing skills were, at best, slightly below average. So, they hired a professional, and their son was accepted to his college of choice.
After the third week in English Comp, his teacher couldn't believe that someone with his limited writing skills could have ever been accepted. The professor went to the admissions office and reviewed the student's application and essays. His suspicions were confirmed after reading the three much too professionally written essays that were in his file. He concluded that none of them could have been authored by the student.
The young man was summoned to the Dean's office and confronted with the evidence. Left with no choice, he reluctantly confessed that his parents had hired a professional to do his essay writing. Consequently, he was given the option to immediately withdraw from classes - or be expelled for the fraud he had perpetrated on the school.
Students should also avoid the much too popular topics that everyone else usually writes about such as, How the death of a loved one or a pet had a profound affect on their life, or How growing up in an Italian neighborhood was difficult because they were from a different ethnic background. Growing up in the ghetto or in a refugee camp is a far better topic, because if you did, then you actually did overcome a life-challenging situation - and that will make a far more impressive essay.