The Struggle of College Essays


Many view senior year as the pinnacle of one’s high school career. It’s the end of a long and difficult journey, and it’s marked by the memories made through the last band concerts, football and basketball games, and musicals. It’s letting go of the last 4 years and embracing the future. With that in mind, it is important to plan out the next steps of your life. For the ones planning to attend college, essays will present a challenge unlike any other. How do universities expect you to fit a self-examination in 500 words? Why do universities ask “Why us?” when you wouldn’t be applying if you hadn’t wanted to go in the first place? These questions and responses will feel tiresome, but they are all a part of showcasing yourself to the selection committee of whichever university you are applying to. I’m by no means an expert in writing, but, because this is a common challenge, I’d like to impart some of the best advice I’ve received in writing my college essays and writing in general:
Unless the prompt states otherwise, the writing is not an argumentative research paper or a synthesis essay. It is about you.
For some people, crafting papers with an argument or through synthesizing sources is all we’ve known. The last time we wrote an introspective piece was in eighth grade. We’ve been taught to cease any first-person discussion in our essays; yet, we are now expected to write about ourselves. We’ve been taught to have an introductory paragraph and thesis statement, body paragraphs with supporting evidence, and a conclusion that reiterates our essay; in college writings, however, this format will not suffice. Where logic and argumentation once dominated our thinking, now our inner creativity is best. There is no idyllic college essay formula. Your essay doesn’t need a thesis statement, as it is no longer an academic paper. It is your paper. No argument. No synthesis. Just you. Keep in mind the grammar functions our teachers ingrained in us, yes, but don’t be stringent. But because it is your paper, I need to mention…
It’s okay to talk about your flaws but remember to illustrate your growth.
Talking about yourself is not as easy as most people think — being candid about yourself in an essay that plays a role in determining your school for the next four years? You would be compelled to portray yourself as the archetype of a high school scholar with exemplary academic achievements and a variety of extracurricular involvements. Nobody’s perfect. Be honest about who you are — if you acknowledge your flaws, then show how you have grown from the experience; for example, if Joseph tries to balance himself in talking about a time where he wasn’t able to deliver on a promise, he should explain how the experience has changed him for the better. Don’t leave your reader thinking, “hmmm… it doesn’t seem like they gained anything from this.” To balance yourself well, discuss how you have improved yourself when mentioning your flaws — how has X made you a better individual, and how do you apply your experiences from Y to continue your growth?
Eliminate adverbs.
Adverbs act as modifiers for adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. Common examples end in “-ly,” such as “quickly,” “loudly,” or “boldly.” In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King includes his perspective on adverbs: “With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.” Adverbs take up precious space, and they weaken your message. Rather than say “I angrily spoke with them,” say “I yelled at them!” The sentence is succinct and specific. It is clear. In eliminating adverbs, you can show off your skill more and stay concise. Show your emotions through precise wording, not adverbs.
Concise is nice. As aforementioned, do your best to communicate yourself in the space allotted. I’m guilty of being verbose, and conciseness has proven a difficult task for me to accomplish. However, word limits are set for a reason. Expressing yourself in 500 words is a good measurement of your ability in a shortened length. Think of it as a movie — movies that can ensnare your attention in an hour and twenty minutes, like Stand By Me, will leave a better impression on you than dull movies like King Kong, which is almost two hours longer in runtime. A captivating and short movie is better than a long movie about a boring adventure. The word limit also galvanizes you into saying what you need to say — in an essay, you can add context and fluff up your writing, but in a writing with a word-limit of 350 words or less, you must get straight to the point. Don’t bore whoever is reading it with background on an exciting story — dive right in.
Avoid cliches.
You need to remember that whoever is reading your essay has read numerous essays on the same topic. More likely than not, they have heard a few students repeat a cliche or sound similar, albeit unintended. Write the essay that will stick out well. Do this by eliminating any cliches in your writing, such as “The time of my life” or “Fueled by passion, I…” When discussing the school, in particular, do not write something along the lines of “I want to attend X and take advantage of its immense resources.” Instead of saying “Building Legos as a child was what inspired me to pursue my dreams of becoming an engineer…,” say “A pivotal factor in my choice to major in engineering was my ambition to invent, which stemmed from my imaginative adolescence.” Don’t use stereotypical writing cliches. Be as authentic as possible, which leads us to…
Be you.
Don’t let the prompts constrain you. Everyone has a distinct writing style. Be dynamic. Don’t be scared to throw in a few jokes here and there. You need to demonstrate your complexity in one essay, so be as true to yourself as possible. Think of this as a message to a friend or an email to a special teacher. You will accomplish more when you put yourself in the right mindset, and from there, your writing will be as expressive as can be. Your writing style is yours, and though words like “fastidious,” “veracity,” and “insipid” sound fancy and impressive, if they are not in your usual writing repertoire, don’t use them. I cannot stress how imperative it is that you display your individuality in your usual manner because, in the end, this essay is an extension of you. Your high school grades and your entrance exam scores will show them your intelligence, so use the essays to show them who you are. This is not easy, but college decisions and scholarship awards are based on how you present yourself on paper. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t discuss your accomplishments if you intend to, but conveying your personality is equally relevant.
After you finish your essays, ask someone to read them, preferably an English teacher! If the essay is good enough for any of the ELA teachers here, then you should be in top shape! Good luck!