Category Archives: college application essays

Add your voice to your college application essays

Students applying for college are required to write one or more essays.  This is so the colleges can “know” a student, that is, so the admissions committee can differentiate one student from the thousands of other students who apply.

So, most importantly, a good essay must make a student stand out.  How?

Not by good vocabulary or varied sentence structure or clear organization.  That is a given.  Not by expressing passion for a school or a major.  Most students can do that.  No, something else is required.

That something else is what writers call “voice.”  Voice means that when the admissions committee reads an essay, they can picture the real live person who wrote it, a person with a distinct personality which comes through loud and clear.

To write that kind of essay, students need to reveal themselves being vulnerable or using self-deprecating humor or showing a shortcoming as well as a strength.  Here are a few examples.

  • A student through no work of her own earns straight A’s in math. She listens and understands without studying.  She captains a competitive math team.  But she confesses that as easy as math is for her, reading is hard.  She reads some words backwards and guesses at long words.  She depends on other people to read aloud to her.  She writes this in her essay, not bragging about the math or apologizing about the reading.  What will the committee remember?  Her honesty.

 

  • Another student admits he is a skinny, muscle-challenged nerd. He recalls an instance when he felt put on the spot, needing to compete in an athletic contest against a real jock.  The jock went first, accomplishing the challenge easily.  The nerd followed, the eyes of every classmate on his scrawny body.  Slowly, painstakingly, he competed.  Breathless after a couple of minutes, he paused, hearing kids screaming.  “Go!  Go!  Go!”  For him!  He resumed, narrowly beating the jock and collapsing.  But for one brief, shining moment, he knew the thrill of victory, the thrill of girls cheering his name.  What will the committee remember?  His bravery.  His self-deprecating humor.

 

  • Still another student writes that she was asked to be a camp counselor for the summer. Hardly any salary, but swimming in a lake, hiking on mountain trails, and sitting around campfires cooking s’mores.  She yearned to say yes, but her mother needed her to babysit her siblings while school was out.  “One of the hardest things I ever did was to put the letter to the camp director in the mailbox,” she wrote.  What will the committee remember?  Her compassion.

Students, if you are reluctant to reveal yourself, your essay probably isn’t good enough.  You needn’t bare your soul, but you do need to get uncomfortable to let your voice shine through.

Four shapes of stories, according to Kurt Vonnegut

Have you seen the video of Kurt Vonnegut explaining the shape of stories?  It’s short and funny, and I recommend you watch it.  Here is the gist of what he says.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.The most popular story type starts with a happy person.  Think the three little pigs building their homes.  Then the person gets into trouble.  The wolf huffs and puffs and blows two houses down.  At the end of the story, the person gets out of trouble—the big bad wolf dies—and the person is a bit happier than when the story began.  The three pigs live together in a brick house.  The shape of this story is a U with the right side of the U a bit higher than the left side.  (The example is mine.)

Another popular story type starts on an ordinary day.  Something happens to make the person think, wow, this is my lucky day.  Think boy meets girl.  But then something else happens to take the luck away.  Girl rebuffs boy.  The person is unhappier than at the beginning of the story until—serendipity—the person gets luck back.  Girl realizes her mistake and returns to the boy.  The shape of this story is an N.  (The example is mine.)

Still another story starts out with an unhappy person.  Think Cinderella.  But then something happens to make the person gloriously happy—going to the ball, dancing with the prince—until, abruptly, the cause of happiness is taken away—the clocks strikes midnight—and the person’s spirits plummet.  The person stays sad for a while, but then amazingly, something happens—the glass slipper fits—to make the person off-the-charts happy.  The shape of this story is something like an N but with an extended horizontal line leading up to the beginning of the N and another extended horizontal line connecting the downward slope to the final upward slope of the N.  (The example is Vonnegut’s.)

Notice that all three of these popular shapes for stories end with a line moving upward toward happiness.

An unpopular shape for a story is a straight horizontal line.  Think Hamlet, suggests Vonnegut.  A person starts out sad.  Events happen.  The person remains sad.  The person dies.  Not many stories show this pattern, says Vonnegut, because most readers want happy endings and most writers give them what they want—or because writers, like everyone else, don’t recognize true happiness. 

We pretend to know good news, but we cannot be sure, says Vonnegut.  Maybe this is because true happiness is mundane, like sitting under an apple tree with a friend on a sunny day.

It’s a thought-provoking video in the guise of a humorous monolog.  Key words like “Vonnegut” and  “shapes of stories video”, will show you numerous versions of the video, some with translations.

Applying to college? Use this 14-point checklist before submitting your essays

Checklist for college application essays

  • Identify when you need to submit your essay.   Write the due date on a Post-it Note and paste it to each application.  Write the dates on your calendars. 
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to write your essay or to submit it.  Internet service conks out.  You get sick.  Submitting early gives admission people more time to consider your application.  It also shows you are organized and punctual.
  • Understand the prompts.  Read and reread them until you are sure what is required of you.
  • Choose topics or incidents that are personal, that only you can write about.  The admissions people want to learn about you, not some generic high school senior.
  • Use specific verbs.  Your main verbs (not helping verbs) should be vivid.  Avoid these verbs as main verbs:  be, have, do, go, make, take, come, get, and see.  Replace them with specific verbs.
  • Write beginnings, middles and ends.  Treat these short essays as narratives and apply the characteristics of narratives.
  • Use details.  Use direct quotes.  Use colors, smells, sounds and textures.  Use names, dates, and places—not “my friend” but “my friend, Jenny.”
  • Vary your vocabulary, sentence structure, sentence openings.   Check the words you start sentences with.  Vary them.  Check the lengths of your sentences.  Check the kinds of sentences you use.  Vary them.  Check your vocabulary.  If you needlessly repeat words, vary them.
  • Revise, revise, revise.  Okay writing becomes great by rewriting.  Walk away from your essay and then come back an hour later, or better yet, three days later.
  • Read your essay aloud.  You will hear mistakes that you don’t see.
  • If something sounds odd, search for a grammar mistake.  Common grammar mistakes are run-on sentences, unintentional fragments, lack of parallel structure, improper use of pronouns, redundancy, lack of subject-verb agreement, and verb tense problems.
  • Be concise.  Good writing is short writing.  Every word and every sentence should be needed. 
  • Use proper postage and ask the Post Office clerk to stamp the date on the stamps.  If you post online, ask for confirmation.
  • Now move on to the next application. 

The application process can be arduous.  If you feel stressed, then exercise, sleep more and work on a distracting hobby.  Millions of adults have survived their senior years, and you will too.