The College Admission Essay: How to Successfully Write One Without Having a Mental Breakdown
This post will focus with one of the most important features of a college application: the essay. I was fortunate enough to have guidance from my high school English teacher, but even then, it was one of the most stressful papers I had ever had to write. Perhaps I wanted more structure than was given. I was afraid of saying the wrong things and not doing the right things.
Now that I have been in college for almost 5 semesters, I have had a little more experience with what is required for college writing. I also just recently applied to and was accepted to Semester at Sea, a relatively challenging program to get into. And finally, I did an exclusive interview with Keuka College’s own, John Cokefair, Assistant Director of Admissions Counseling.
Here, I will show you examples of a desirable essay and a poor essay. I will share what I have learned, and I will outline the advice that John gave me. So for all of you stressing over that admission essay, this is the post for you!
First of all, I think it is important to address what the overall purpose of an admission essay is: to show your admissions counselor that you are a good fit for the school as a person and academically. In other words, your essay not only has to show how your personality and goals will benefit and be benefited by the college you are applying to, but it also, as John Cokefair told me, has to show that you are capable of writing well enough to succeed in a college environment.
With that in mind, we are going to talk about what not to do, what to do, and what Keuka is specifically looking for.
What Not to Do:
The following extract is by no means the worst admission essay ever written; however, it does provide good examples of things to avoid. This older essay, provided to me by John Cokefair, is from Keuka’s rejected admissions files; it has been slightly modified to protect the identity of the writer. I have included the first half of it:
Sample Essay One:
“I would design a Field Period where I could work in a hospital. I am hoping to be accepted into medical school and working in a hospital would give me great experience. Having a Field Period there would teach me the ins and outs of the hospital world. I wish to become a surgeon so I would most likely work with the surgeons at the hospital. I could learn many things from them. Since they have already completed the program I wish to be a part of, they could give me incite into the medical school experience. They could tell me what I needed to do in order to be prepared for medical school and the surgeons could also tell me about their day-to-day lives in the office. It takes many years to be a surgeon. If I met a female surgeon, she could tell me how she coped with the extensive years of schooling and how she balanced that with marriage and starting a family. Female surgeons do have families, but it must be very challenging. I have already witnessed two different types of surgery and loved watching both of them.”
Discussion: After I first read this, I could easily connect typical admission essay flaws that Mr. Cokefair pointed out to specific examples in this essay. Here, I outline the most important problems to pay attention to:
- Rambling and Weak Organization: This entire essay is only one paragraph. This is problematic because any structured or organized essay will include paragraphs; paragraphs organize specific points within an essay. This paper creates a big guessing game for the reader. What will be said next? The best way to deal with this problem is to outline two or three strong points that support what you want to say, and then stick to them. The writer included different points in the essay, but these points were more or less strung arbitrarily together without any cohesive organization; at one point, three separate points follow, one after the other, without any attempt at a smooth transition. It is almost like riding a really bumpy road without being able to see the bumps ahead.
- Poor Grammar: Again, an admission essay has to prove that you are academically ready to engage in a challenging, higher education course. That means that your admission essay should be some of your best writing. Poor grammar does not easily slide by with college professors. Furthermore, as Mr. Cokefair also pointed out, if you don’t take the time to read through your paper and fix simple errors, then you do not seem to care as much about a college education as someone who has edited his or her paper. If a college education is important to you, then your paper should show that. Two major grammatical errors I found here were the incorrect use of “incite” (insight was the correct word), and a lot of run-on sentences. This could have been easily corrected if the writer knew what compound sentences were: Instead of “I wish to become a surgeon so I would most likely work with the surgeons at the hospital,” I wish to become a surgeon, so I would most likely work with the surgeons at the hospital.
- Slang: An admission essay is a formal piece of writing. That means that contractions and slang are to be avoided. This writer used “day-to-day,” and “ins and outs.” If you are having trouble, use a thesaurus or ask a teacher; however, do not use words yo do not normally use. People can tell when you are not speaking in your own voice. Therefore, strong, and properly used, vocabulary is strongly encouraged.
- Vague/Not Personal Enough: Finally, this writer failed to say enough about who she was. She talked about several things, but she loosely connected them to herself. She did provide some information on two specific types of surgery she saw, but she did not extrapolate any further. I think that the most problematic part of her paper was her discussion of women: “If I met a female surgeon, she could tell me how she coped with the extensive years of schooling and how she balanced that with marriage and starting a family. Female surgeons do have families, but it must be very challenging.” This point is more of an assumption, and it is not extrapolated upon further. While the writer is a woman, she does not include in her essay any personal reference to herself. She also fails to ignore that men have families too; she is acting upon traditionalist assumptions about the role of women in the home. She might have had specific reasons for including this, but she does not make this clear.
The following essay is my own admission essay that I wrote for the academically rigorous Semester at Sea study abroad program. I was admitted, so I feel that this is an adequate example of a successful admission essay.
Sample Essay Two:
Erica Ruscio: SAS Admission Essay
‘How will your Semester at Sea voyage create (or enhance) your personal global perspective? Highlight your discussion by referencing at least one country on your itinerary and by explaining how your time there will further develop your awareness.’
“Before sharing how I believe Semester at Sea will enhance my global perspective, I think it is important to define it; I understand a global perspective to be an informed acceptance of the wide variety of peoples and cultures in the world, and the application of that world view to daily life for the protection of basic human rights in a shared and global community. Already, my global lens has been shaped by indirect experiences in college; however, through Semester at Sea, it will become more focused by directly establishing new, global friendships in many countries around the world. In this way, my experiences will allow me to personally expand and develop my global lens through direct and immediate encounters instead of merely through secondary means.
First of all, connecting with people from different world cultures and immersing myself in those cultures will serve as the primary foundation for the development of my informed global perspective. While I have taken pertinent college classes such as Modern World History and British Literatures I and II, my awareness of the historical developments of poverty in the world, as well as the development of the English language, has stemmed more from philosophical than experiential roots. I can say that I have read about these things, but I cannot say that I have seen them. I feel that the best way to trace the global spread of poverty and the influence of the English language is to go to the history, instead of having it come to me. In South Africa, I could explore the first independent African country to create a successful democracy and see the modern effects of apartheid, as well as study its implications for poverty. In Ireland, I can walk the streets that James Joyce walked and wrote about. I can live the culture; I can live what I learn, instead of taking in knowledge and experiences translated through another person’s words.
Furthermore, with this experience, I can much more authentically share stories that help others to expand their worldview. For example, during my summer internship with the Youth Services department at Penn Yan Public Library, I organized a World Folktales readers’ theater for the summer reading theme, which was “One World, Many Stories.” The children loved it, but I wish I had had more direct experience to pull from, instead of just utilizing books of African or Celtic folktales. Semester at Sea will equip me to more profoundly impact young people’s global perspectives as an aspiring children’s librarian.
Therefore, the opportunity to delve into cultures from around the world will take me beyond my flat world understanding, composed mainly from words and pictures, and allow me to not only enhance my global perspective with sights, sounds, and memories, but to apply it to its fullest potential so that I can live and work as a global citizen. For this reason, I believe that Semester at Sea is the best opportunity to help me realize this dream.”
Discussion: This paper is not the end all to be all of papers; however, I think several lessons can be learned from it.
- Organization: Not only have I organized my essay into paragraphs, and provided a clear focus or thesis (“In this way, my experiences will allow me to personally expand and develop my global lens through direct and immediate encounters instead of merely through secondary means”), but I have also defined what I am talking about. The question asked how I feel the experience will shape my global perspective, and I defined it in my introduction so that I could more specifically tie back each point to that definition: “I understand a global perspective to be an informed acceptance of the wide variety of peoples and cultures in the world, and the application of that world view to daily life for the protection of basic human rights in a shared and global community.” In this way, I was dealing with the question at hand, and I was also being specific. I was not assuming. This provided excellent framework for me to more easily organize my essay. I also (after checking that this was OK) answered the online application essay question. To clarify, I quoted it before I began my essay.
- It is personal: I refer to several specific experiences and interests that make me an individual. OK, I want to get this experience, but why? So it will allow to to do what I love better and more profoundly. I tied the experience in to who I am as a person: “For example, during my summer internship with the Youth Services department at Penn Yan Public Library, I organized a World Folktales readers’ theater for the summer reading theme, which was “One World, Many Stories.” The children loved it, but I wish I had had more direct experience to pull from, instead of just utilizing books of African or Celtic folktales. Semester at Sea will equip me to more profoundly impact young people’s global perspectives as an aspiring children’s librarian.”
- I am showing what I know: They do ask for essays to refer to at least one location on the itinerary; however, showing that you have done your research proves that you care and you are informed; you know what you are getting yourself into. It also allows you to be more specific. I showed that I had specific reasons to want to visit certain countries on the trip’s itinerary, and I was able to tie them into my purpose and my definition of a global perspective: “In South Africa, I could explore the first independent African country to create a successful democracy and see the modern effects of apartheid, as well as study its implications for poverty. In Ireland, I can walk the streets that James Joyce walked and wrote about. I can live the culture; I can live what I learn, instead of taking in knowledge and experiences translated through another person’s words.” This is directly related to my interest in learning more about poverty and English as a global language.
- It is specific: Again, I cannot stress this enough. The other essay did mention two specific types of surgery that she got to see (not shown), but she did not say why it was specifically significant. She did say she loved watching them, but that was not specific. On the other hand, I did not just say that it would be good to expand my global perspective, but I said specifically why it would be good: “Therefore, the opportunity to delve into cultures from around the world will take me beyond my flat world understanding, composed mainly from words and pictures, and allow me to not only enhance my global perspective with sights, sounds, and memories, but to apply it to its fullest potential so that I can live and work as a global citizen. For this reason, I believe that Semester at Sea is the best opportunity to help me realize this dream.”
- Revision and attention to SPAG: I took this to my boss, the director of the Academic Support at Keuka office and asked her to look it over (after I had already done so several times). I am a writing tutor, but that by no means makes me a perfect writer. Have other people read you admission essay after you revise it. They probably will have feedback that had not occurred to you.
What Is Keuka Looking For?
Keuka College’s application, like all college applications, provides specific directions for application essays; however, as John Cokefair told me, “There is not a set format because we don’t want to stifle creativity… [But] appearance matters.” Counselors want to see what students are capable of. While some specific guidelines are given (answer on of the questions, tell us about yourself, one to two pages, and double spaced) it is the ultimately the applicant’s discretion that determines how the overall essay will be structured and presented.
“One of the best features of Keuka College is the way our students, professors and advisers get to know each other by working closely together. We hope this application will also help us get to know you better. Please tell us more about the kind of person you are by typing a short essay of one-to-two pages, double-spaced, about one of the following three choices:
- Field Period is the heart and soul of Keuka’s commitment to experiential, hands-on learning. It gives students a chance to match what they learn in the classroom to the “real world.” during Field Period, students spend 140 hours each year learning what it takes to be successful after college. In your essay, imagine you are designing a Field Period to complete before your first day at Keuka College. Tell us: What kind of organization would you seek to join during this Field Period internship? What would you study? What would you hope to learn?
- What events in your life (for example, things that have happened to you in your home, school, work, family, or neighborhood) prepared you to become a valuable member of the Keuka College community?
- First generation scholarship applicants: if you are the first generation in your family to go to college, you should submit your First generation (see page 7) scholarship essay as your admissions essay for consideration for this scholarship.
When you answer one of these questions, don’t try to talk about too much. Try to narrow it down and be specific; also make sure to answer the question in a way that shows (not just tells) who you are. If you have already had experience working with kids, you might mention that and discuss specifically how different field period experiences will build off of your experience.
Also make sure to choose normal font and include some sort of heading. Make it look nice, as well as sound nice.
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