Well, no. We lied: There is no magic formula for writing the perfect college application essay.
The essays in “Essays That Worked for College Applications” (subtitled “50 Essays that Helped Students Get into the Nation’s Top Colleges”) vary wildly and include “think pieces,” multiple-panel cartoons, poems, and short plays, among others. There is no prototypical essay because there is no prototypical admissions officer: they’re human beings, just like you and I are, and they have differing tastes, just like you and I do.
Still, there are reasons that one of the essays (as shown below) in “Essays That Worked…” was featured in the book’s opening, and we’re absolutely convinced that there are valuable lessons to be learned from that.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
You are an admissions officer at Harvard, Duke, or Stanford. It’s 2:00 A.M. on April 9. Your desk is somewhere beneath a huge stack of papers. Your eyes are tired and red. Mechanically, you open the next application folder, and again you force yourself to read:
I am constantly striving to expose myself to every opportunity to become a person with a deep understanding of my own values and of the environment in which I find myself. I have participated in a broad range of activities, and I have endeavored to become ever more versatile and tolerant while at the same time solidifying my own ideals…
You cannot go on. But you must, because the deadline for notifying applicants is just a few days away. You’re facing yet another long night of reading vague, boring, pompous essays. You slowly bow your head and rest it in your hands, wishing for a different job.
Suddenly, a gust of wind blows through an open window, upsetting the pile of applications. As 400 essays flutter around the room, you notice a page with a recipe for cranberry bread.
A recipe? Cranberry bread?!
Curious, you pick up the essay and start to read, and you smile:
4 c. flour
2 c. sugar
3 t. baking powder
1 pkg. cranberries
…Not only is the following an overview of my personality but also a delicious recipe.
First the flour and the sugar need to be sifted together into a large bowl. Flour reminds me of the powder snow that falls in the West. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, where our snow falls more like sugar; granular and icy, and makes us hardy skiers, unlike those spoiled by Western snow. Cold weather is also conducive to reading…
Finally, a student you would want to meet, someone who dares to express herself creatively rather than simply regurgitate the same old litany of high school achievements and adolescent truisms. Finally, an interesting essay!
As you finish the “recipe” and read through the rest of her application, you start to feel much better. Decent grades, good test scores, solid recommendations – you’ve seen better, but it’s certainly respectable. And then there’s this fantastic essay, evidence of an inventive and independent mind. The essay makes your decision easy. You put her folder into a box marked “Admit,” and you look forward to discussing her with the Admission Committee tomorrow.
The Cranberry Bread essay was written by Barbara Bluestone, and she did these two things that were so affective that her essay bore mention in the book’s opening:
- First, she figuratively reached out, grabbed a tired and disinterested reader by his/her mind, and made him/her want to find out how the writer was possibly going to reconcile the opening with what was supposed to be an application essay. In short, if it’s possible to make somebody “intrigued squared,” that’s what Ms. Bluestone did to the reader with her essay opening.
- Second, because she was willing to take a creative risk in the way she revealed things about herself, she revealed an interesting person, somebody the admissions officer wanted to meet.
And those two things, by themselves, made the admissions officer smile and made it an easy decision to put Ms. Bluestone’s “respectable” – but otherwise unremarkable – application in the “Admit” box.
So, here are the two important lessons to be learned:
- First, hook the readers immediately; make them want to read the rest of the essay. Get them to willingly follow your thoughts from beginning to end rather than drag them along behind you out of their sense of obligation to read your entire essay. If they’re doing it out of a sense of obligation, they might well not do it: Another of the opening sections of “Essays That Worked…” is titled “AN INTERVIEW WITH an ADMISSIONS OFFICER,” from which we excerpt this:
He still had a hundred essays to read before 6:00 P.M., and he was beginning to grow tired…."On a Wednesday in the middle of March this job gets tough. Sometimes it seems that there are only four types of essays: the 'class president' essay, the 'I lost but learned' sports essay, the 'I went to Europe and earned how complex the world is' essay, and the good old 'being yearbook editor sure is hard work' essay. When I read one of those, it takes amazing willpower to get to the third paragraph."
"So sometimes you don't read the whole essay?" I asked.
"No comment," he replied, changing the subject.
- Second, present yourself as an interesting person by taking the risk of revealing yourself in a creative way, because that suggests that you’ve got a very good shot at being a good student.
If you’re inclined to believe that we’ve opened by saying that there’s no a magic formula for writing a perfect college application essay, but then proceeded to give you one, we haven’t: What we’ve done is the equivalent of telling you to give the meal you’re cooking an enticing aroma – one that’s sure to draw diners to the table – and then use interesting combinations of herbs and spices to complement the flavor of the dish. We’ve provided neither a list of ingredients (mainly you) nor directions on how to cook.
Further, there’s nothing necessarily easy about coming up with an effective opening hook or presenting yourself in a creative way, but at least now you know what to shoot for — and if you want help with either or both of those things, we’re master chefs and are exceptionally good at it.