If you want to write a high school application essay that is worth reading; one that your audience will remember:
Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing an essay.
Okay, I may be being a bit melodramatic. You still need appropriate grammar, syntax, spelling, and formatting.
But as for the generic boring cluster that begins with “In this essay I am going to be discussing ___ by looking at x,y, and z,” throw that out the window because it’s nothing but a one way ticket to Snoozeville not only for you but for anyone tasked with reading it.
Remember Your Private High School Application Essay Audience
The biggest mistake students make when writing an essay is that they forget who their audience is. Your audience, be it a teacher, an administrator, or an admissions committee, has likely read hundreds if not thousands of student’s admissions essays.
This means that you are going to have to do more than throw in a few SAT words to impress them. The key to writing an essay worth reading is writing an essay that has not been written before. It needs to be your own story, not the story you think they want to hear.
One of my favorite things about writing is that there is no right or wrong answer. An essay isn’t a scantron that you have to correctly bubble in or risk some computer incorrectly grading you. You can’t just play eenie miney moe and hope for the best. Writing is personal. It’s written by one individual and read by another.
But all too often students, especially in the application process, forget this. They write the essay they think that the admission committee wants to read when in reality it’s an essay that the committee has probably already read a million times.
The Importance of the Essay Topic
What is the root of this cause? The topic.
If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way: when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.
So, how do we accomplish this?
It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read. If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.
Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee want to hear.
“I love to volunteer because it has taught me to be appreciative of what I have,”
Or “I love National Honors Society because it allows me to combine my love of academics with my love of service.”
While both of these are wonderful extracurricular activities, unless you are truly passionate about either and have specific details to intertwine into your narrative, it’s going to come off dry and predictable.
What Your Topic Should Be Instead
When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”
Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students.
So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.
The Essay’s Opening Paragraph
Don’t believe me?
Consider these two opening paragraphs. You tell me which one you want to keep reading?
1. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ These famous words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, one of the best politicians of all life. John F. Kennedy led America and has become my role model. He encouraged me to get into politics which is why I joined student government. When asked what extracurricular activity has had the largest impact on me as a person, I immediately thought of student government. In this essay I will discuss how student government has impacted me as a person by growing my leadership skills, developing my social connections, and making me take academics more seriously.”
2. “I don’t ride for blue ribbons or Olympic gold, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don’t ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don’t ride because I have anything to prove, although I’ve proven a lot to myself along the way. I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it’s impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn’t easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.”
Next Steps: Your Perfect Admissions Essay
Okay now you have the framework.
First, remember that you’re writing to a private school admissions audience that has probably seen every high school application essay in the book. So don’t write the one you think they want to read… write the one that you care most about.
Then, choose the essay topic that resonates most with you as a student. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing, and hopefully “wow” the reader enough to convince them they have to have you at their school.
Good luck! And let us know what you think in the comments below.
I last taught high school in 2005. I've been tutoring and advising individual students extensively since then, and my biggest regret about my classroom teaching has become achingly clear: I didn't spend enough time helping students improve their writing.
The Trouble With School
Personal writing -- encompassing, generally, anything that derives directly the author's own thoughts, feelings and personal history -- hardly fits into the typical high school curriculum. It is intensely personal and unfathomably vague. Instruction in writing requires constant practice and feedback. A single paragraph can be a universe unto itself, warranting feedback many times its own length.
Many teachers would love to give due time and attention to the craft of writing, as did I. But then come novels and dramas and names and dates, and all of a sudden summer vacation arrives. Before long, graduation does too.
Collectively, application essays constitute a genre unto themselves. They offer freedom. They invite creativity. They demand introspection. They let students express what they think and feel about themselves and the world. Some college essays read like letters to a best friend; others are like corporate memos -- either approach can be okay. Though students may write academic essays expertly, most students face application essays with nothing but instinct as their guide.
Graduates and Applicants
This blog is directed primarily at two groups: Seniors who are eager to learn from the writing process that they have recently completed, and juniors who will soon be applying. With the November 1 early application deadline months away, high school juniors have plenty of time to develop their approach to writing. Seniors now understand how much they -- like every other living writer, from cub reporter to Pulitzer Prize winner -- can improve.
That 650-word essay that today's 11th graders will write next September must begin with reading. It must begin with books, articles and essays. They might be ten, one-hundred, or five-hundred times as long as that essay will be, and they can be on any and all topics that strike students' fancy. Of those, books on writing can play a small, but essential, role.
Reading About Writing
Writing is not like coding a computer program or sequencing the human genome. It does not require expertise or special knowledge. Writers need only a few age-old principles, healthy doses of self-criticism, and as much practice as they can manage. Fortunately, most of those principles are close at hand.
I've listed below five great books, one essential essay, and one compilation, that will hold all writers in good stead. Appropriately, these pieces are clear, original, powerful and often delightful -- just like the writing, they are meant to inspire. With that said, they will not instantly result in eloquence. Even the most earnest readers might absorb only a thimbleful of new ideas. But that's okay. They'll come away with oceans of inspiration.
"Politics and the English Language," George Orwell
Sloppy writers deceive even themselves.
Unscrupulous ones take advantage of everyone else.
Tyrants rise, justice withers, innocents die.
(An exaggeration? Then what of Mein Kampf?)
Orwell doesn't just tell us how to write well. He tells us why we must write well.
Read it first. Read it now.
The Elements of Style, William Strunk & E.B. White
A short, ubiquitous read, full of tips and genuine concern for students and the language. Beloved, but not uncontroversial.
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
Zinsser presents essential rules for good writing, with explanations to quiet skeptical minds.
No one else reveals the logic of style, organization, and the relationship between words as meaning as well as Zinsser does.
Write to Learn, William Zinsser
Zinsser, again. Thinking may not always be writing, but writing is always thinking.
He connects the two.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott: prolific author, celebrated stylist, award-winner. She shares every one of your anxieties about writing. She also knows the value of moral support. She offers it generously.
A Few Short Sentences on Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg
In Lives of the Cell, biologist Lewis Thomas argued that every cell -- the foundational element of all organisms -- contains within it an entire universe.
Klinkenborg argues much the same for sentences.
Sometimes, like an amoeba, a great sentence can exist on its own. (This was not one of them.)
Sometimes, merely adequate sentences join forces with each other to form monuments of intellect.
Klinkenborg's book is idiosyncratic, brilliant, largely devoid of structure, and full of subtle wisdom.
It is worth reading and re-reading.
One of his most memorable tips: edit by putting each sentence on a line of its own.
The Best American Essays of the 20th Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates:
If you're going to read examples of great essays -- and you should -- why not go big? Start with these classics.
To the Bookstore
College applicants will write, and submit, their applications electronically. Do not resort to such conveniences here.
Get your books in hard copy. Ideally, try to buy them from an independent bookstore, the type of place run by people who care about writing. A library will do the trick too. (Here are a few reasons why.) Reading an entire, real book offers a vastly richer experience than does reading anything electronically (go ahead and add The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, to your list).
When you read them, make notes and underline whatever you like. Fold down pages. Absorb whatever makes sense to you and don't worry about whatever does not. Then file them on a bookshelf where you can see them and be reminded of what you've read. Seek their counsel before you apply to college and celebrate when you send off essays of which you're proud. Read them when you get to college, and read them many times thereafter.
The lessons of high school, whether they address any of this or not, last only moments. Fortunately, Orwell, Zinsser, Lamott and all the rest demonstrate that high school doesn't necessarily matter. The process of learning to write never ends.
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