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Writing The College Essay

If you're reading this, you've probably read the basic information on the subject. You may have read some of the many magazine articles and books on the subject and know the unbreakable rules. You probably already know not to sound negative, talk about your boyfriend, or discuss your religion. You know not to waste your time with gimmicks like writing your essay in blood or crayon. And you definitely know to have at least two experts check your grammar. Here are a few more rules and suggestions to help you get started.

If it's not true, don't say it.

There is a big difference between finding the significance of an experience and fabricating the significance of an experience. Finding the significance of an experience involves critically analyzing an event to see how it affected your life. You might look back and see how your eighth grade math teacher affected the way you approach your academic life. You might see how travelling in a developing nation at a young age affected your view of Western philosophy several years later. Finding the hidden significance of an experience forms an excellent basis for a strong college essay.

However, this is very different from fabricating the signinificance of an event. It is not uncommon for students to try to write what they think the college admissions staff wants to hear. Thus, rather than searching for an actual significance of an event, they take an actual event and add to it all kinds of significance that it never really had.

For example, say a student had a somewhat uninteresting volunteer job over the summer. Maybe he washed test tubes at the NIH. Maybe he filed papers at his dad's friend's law firm or doctor's office. If one of his friends asked what it was like, he might say, "It was boring and I'm glad it's over." But it seems like it would make a good topic for an essay, so he puts one together filled with lines like "I truly began to see what makes people dedicate their lives to such a cause," and "It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to be a lawyer." Or perhaps a student went on a vacation that was spent between the hotel and restaurants, but the essay says things like "It was incredible to see the differences in our cultures." The student reads the essay over a couple times, and he even starts to believe it.

Unfortunately, the college applications committee won't. They see nothing but essays like that all day, and they know a fake story when they see it. Secondly, that kind of fake writing comes across as hollow and impersonal. It lacks the subtle details that make a story real.

If something in a hospital made you want to change your life, or if something in a country showed you a new perspective, by all means write about it. If an internship really changed your mind about something or showed you a new perspective, describe it vividly in your essay. Use unique and subtle details to make story real. But don't pretend something dramatically changed you when it didn't.

Draw connections

One way to demonstrate your intelligence in an essay is to show unusual connections between different parts of your life, and to analyze them in a surprising way. For example, there are thousands of essays about how learning to work hard in sports led someone to learn to work hard in school. It's an obvious connection that plenty of people can see. There are just as many essays about using the creativity one developed in art in areas like writing, or about how the discipline of dance or music lead to discipline in school.

But there are fewer essays that discuss learning about the ease with which statistics can be manipulated, and how that changed your approached to the study of history. There aren't many essays that talk about how the precision with which you learned to make clay pots helped you better understand physics. Any of the "obvious" examples can form the basis for an excellent essay. But using a more unusual connection can give your essay that extra boost that might make all the difference.

Don't worry if your life is boring

People often have the mistaken notion that if you are writing about a significant event, the event has to be dramatic and profoundly life changing. They incorrectly assume that better events make better essays, and become frustrated as they search their normal and boring life for profound events.

As it turns out, most 17 and 18 year olds haven't experienced any majorly profound events. If you are applying to an Ivy League school, you probably spent most of your time studying, practicing music, and/or training for sports. You probably didn't narrowly escape death or see any shocking miracles.

What matters is not the event itself, but how you talk about it. Whether your event was escaping from lions in Africa or just dining at a restaurant doesn't make much difference. Whether your analysis is insightful and surprising or trite and predictable makes all the difference in the world.

Let's look at it from the college's perspective. Say they have two essays. The first one is about falling off a boat, almost drowning, and then getting saved at the last minute. The student says he realized how fragile life was after that, and began to approach it totally differently.

Essay two's event is the last day of a summer internship at a financial services company. The author reflects on the way in which his education was applied not only to the work, but to thinking about the job and the company in the larger scheme of things. He relates the organization and leadership of the company to ideas from his history and economics classes. At the same time, he vividly (and truthfully) describes his feelings as he leaves the company and returns to school.

Although essay one is exciting, it doesn't show anything interesting about the person or his thinking process. All we learn is that the person is unlucky (or perhaps lacks a sense of balance), and can make obvious connections. Essay two, on the other hand, shows a thoughtful and insightful perspective. Although the event itself is not earth shattering, the essay easily wins.

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