by Geoffrey Cook, Founder EssayEdge.com
Each year, Harvard rejects four out of five valedictorians and hundreds of students with perfect SAT scores, leaving applicants and parents wondering what went wrong. While there is no secret formula for gaining admission to a top school, there are many ways to ensure rejection, and the most common by far is taking the admissions essay lightly.
Over one-third of the time an admissions officer spends on your application is spent evaluating your essay. Admissions officers use the essay to compare hundreds or even thousands of applicants with similar grades, activities, and SAT scores. To stand out, your essay must not only demonstrate your grasp of grammar and ability to write lucid, structured prose, you must also paint a vivid picture of your personality and character, one that compels a busy admissions officer to accept you.
Fortunately, unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay, and can be sure that the glimpse you give the admissions committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the most positive one possible.
As the founder of EssayEdge.com, the Net’s largest admissions essay prep company, I have seen firsthand the difference a well-written application essay can make. Through its free online admissions essay help course and 300 Harvard-educated editors, EssayEdge.com helps tens of thousands of student each year improve their essays and gain admission to schools ranging from Harvard to State U.
Having personally edited over 2,000 admissions essays myself for EssayEdge.com, I have written this article to help you avoid the most common essay flaws. If you remember nothing else about this article, remember this: Be Interesting. Be Concise.
TOP 10 ESSAY WRITING TIPS
1. Don’t Thesaurusize Your Essay. Do Use Your Own Voice.
Admissions officers can tell Roget from an 18-year-old high school senior. Big words, especially when misused, detract from the essay, inappropriately drawing the reader’s attention and making the essay sound contrived.
Before: Although I did a plethora of activities in high school, my assiduous efforts enabled me to succeed.
After: Although I juggled many activities in high school, I succeeded through persistent work.
2. Don’t Bore the Reader. Do Be Interesting.
Admissions officers have to read hundreds of essays, and they must often skim. Abstract rumination has no place in an application essay. Admissions officers aren’t looking for a new way to view the world; they’re looking for a new way to view you the applicant. The best way to grip your reader is to begin the essay with a captivating snapshot. Notice how the slightly jarring scene depicted in the “after” creates intrigue and keeps the reader’s interest.
Before: The college admissions and selection process is a very important one, perhaps one that will have the greatest impact on one’s future. The college that a person will go to often influences his personality, views, and career.
After: An outside observer would have called the scene ridiculous: a respectable physician holding the bell of his stethoscope to the chest of a small stuffed bear.
3. Do Use Personal Detail. Show, Don’t Tell!
Good essays are concrete and grounded in personal detail. They do not merely assert “I learned my lesson” or that “these lessons are useful both on and off the field.” They show it through personal detail. “Show don’t tell,” means if you want to relate a personal quality, do so through your experiences and do not merely assert it.
Before: I developed a new compassion for the disabled.
After: The next time Mrs. Cooper asked me to help her across the street, I smiled and immediately took her arm.
The first example is vague and could have been written by anybody. But the second sentence evokes a vivid image of something that actually happened, placing the reader in the experience of the applicant.
4. Do Be Concise. Don’t Be Wordy.
Wordiness not only takes up valuable space, but it also can confuse the important ideas you’re trying to convey. Short sentences are more forceful because they are direct and to the point. Certain phrases such as “the fact that” are usually unnecessary. Notice how the revised version focuses on active verbs rather than forms of “to be” and adverbs and adjectives.
Before: My recognition of the fact that the project was finally over was a deeply satisfying moment that will forever linger in my memory.
After: Completing the project at last gave me an enduring sense of fulfillment.
5. Don’t Use Slang Yo’!
Write an essay, not an email. Slang terms, cliches, contractions, and an excessively casual tone should be eliminated. Here’s one example of inappropriately colloquial language.
Well here I am thinking about what makes me tick. You would be surprised. What really gets my goat is when kids disrespect the flag. My father was in ‘Nam and I know how important the military is to this great nation.
7. Do Use Active Voice Verbs
Passive-voice expressions are verb phrases in which the subject receives the action expressed in the verb. Passive voice employs a form of the word to be, such as was or were. Overuse of the passive voice makes prose seem flat and uninteresting.
Before: The lessons that prepared me for college were taught to me by my mother.
After: My mother taught me lessons that will prepare me for college.
8. Do Seek Multiple Opinions.
Ask your friends and family to keep these questions in mind:
* Have I answered the question?
* Does my introduction engage the reader? Does my conclusion provide closure?
* Do my introduction and conclusion avoid summary?
* Do I use concrete experiences as supporting details?
* Have I used active-voice verbs wherever possible?
* Is my sentence structure varied, or do I use all long or short sentences?
* Are there any cliches such as “cutting edge” or “learned my lesson?”
* Do I use transitions appropriately?
* What about the essay is memorable?
* What’s the worst part of the essay?
* What parts of the essay need elaboration or are unclear?
* What parts of the essay do not support my main argument?
* Is every single sentence crucial to the essay? This must be the case.
* What does the essay reveal about my personality?
9. Do Answer the Question.
* Many students try to turn a 500-word essay into a complete autobiography. Not surprisingly, they fail to answer the question and risk their chances of attending college. Make sure that every sentence in your essay exists solely to answer the question.
10. Do Revise, Revise, Revise.
* The first step in an improving any essay is to cut, cut, and cut some more. EssayEdge.com’s free admissions essay help course and Harvard-educated editors will be invaluable as you polish your essay to perfection. The EssayEdge.com free help course guides you through the entire essay-writing process, from brainstorming worksheets and question-specific strategies for the twelve most common essay topics to a description of ten introduction types and editing checklists.
The sun sleeps as the desolate city streets await the morning rush hour. Driven by an inexplicable compulsion, I enter the building along with ten other swimmers, inching my way toward the cold, dark locker room of the Esplanada Park Pool. One by one, we slip into our still-damp drag suits and make a mad dash through the chill of the morning air, stopping only to grab pull-buoys and kickboards on our way to the pool. Nighttime temperatures in coastal California dip into the high forties, but our pool is artificially warmed to seventy-nine degrees; the temperature differential propels an eerie column of steam up from the water’s surface, producing the spooky ambience of a werewolf movie. Next comes the shock. Headfirst immersion into the tepid water sends our hearts racing, and we respond with a quick set of warm-up laps. As we finish, our coach emerges from the fog. He offers no friendly accolades, just a rigid regimen of sets, intervals, and exhortations.
Thus starts another workout. 4,500 yards to go, then a quick shower and a five-minute drive to school. Then it’s back to the pool; the afternoon training schedule features an additional 5,500 yards. Tomorrow, we start over again. The objective is to cut our times by another tenth of a second. The end goal is to achieve that tiny, unexplainable difference at the end of a race that separates success from failure, greatness from mediocrity. Somehow we accept the pitch–otherwise, we’d still be deep in our mattresses, slumbering beneath our blankets. In this sport, the antagonist is time. Coaches spend hours in specialized clinics, analyze the latest research on training technique, and experiment with workout schedules in an attempt to defeat time. Yet there are no shortcuts to winning, and workouts are agonizing.
I took part in my first swimming race when I was ten years old. My parents, fearing injury, directed my athletic interests away from ice hockey and into the pool. Three weeks into my new swimming endeavor, I somehow persuaded my coach to let me enter the annual age group meet. To his surprise (and mine), I pulled out an “A” time. I furthered my achievements by winning “Top 16” awards for various age groups, setting club records, and being named National First Team All-American in the 100-Butterfly and Second Team All-American in the 200-Medley. I have since been elevated to the Senior Championship level, which means the competition now includes world-class swimmers. I am aware that making finals will not be easy from here–at this level, success is measured by mere tenths of a second. In addition, each new level brings extra requirements such as elevated weight training, longer weekend training sessions, and more travel from home. Time with friends is increasingly spent in the pursuit of the next swimming objective.
Sometimes, in the solitude of the laps, my thoughts transition to events in my personal life. This year, my grandmother suffered a reoccurrence of cancer, which has spread to her lungs. She had always been driven by good spirits and independence, but suddenly my family had to accept the fact that she now faces a limited timeline. A few weeks later, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, my grandfather–who lives in Japan–learned he had stomach cancer. He has since undergone successful surgery, but we are aware that a full recovery is not guaranteed. When I first learned that they were both struck with cancer, I felt as if my own objective, to cut my times by fractions of a second, seemed irrelevant, even ironic, given the urgency of their mutual goals: to prolong life itself. Yet we have learned to draw on each other’s strengths for support–their fortitude helps me overcome my struggles while my swimming achievements provide them with a vicarious sense of victory. When I share my latest award or triumph story, they smile with pride, as if they themselves had stood on the award stand. I have the impression that I would have to be a grandparent to understand what my medals mean to them.
My grandparents’ strength has also shored up my determination to succeed. I have learned that, as in swimming, life’s successes often come in small increments. Sometimes even the act of showing up at a workout when your body and psyche are worn out separates a great result from a failure. The difference between success and failure is defined by the ability to overcome strong internal resistance. I know that, by consistently working towards my goals–however small they may seem–I can accomplish what I set for myself, both in and beyond the swimming pool.