How to Write a College Application Essay

June 26, 2013 § 10 Comments

Among the essay forms we don’t spend enough time examining here on the Brevity blog is the college application essay.  There is a good reason for that — they tend to be horrible. But they are an essay form all the same, perhaps the most often written essay form, and we’re lucky to have essay tutor Lisa K. Buchanan offering some perspective and helpful tips:

Twenty-One Favors I Beg of College Applicants Writing Personal Essays

By Lisa K. Buchanan

college_3021241. You may have built a robot salamander as a model for computerized prostheses, sung a solo at your uncle’s funeral and gained some unexpected political enlightenment by volunteering in an election campaign. However, please do not mention them all in a single essay; better to write deeply about just one significant experience.

2. Please don’t assume that fact equals truth. The story is not that you moved from a spacious suburb to a crowded city, but that you built your own bike from scratch and learned how to navigate more than one kind of new territory.

3. Please demonstrate rather than explain.

Explanation: Perseverance is an essential part of my personality.
Demonstration: After failing at soccer, softball, and tennis, I finally found my sport on a sticky mat in a heated room.

Explanation: Honesty is important to me.
Demonstration: I kept the secret for three lip-shredding months. And then I told.

4. Please don’t structure your college-application essay like a five-paragraph argument with a thesis and conclusion. Rather, reflect on a significant personal experience using language that is sophisticated and conversational. Use contractions. Use “I.” Avoid “Thus, we can conclude.”

5. Empathy is laudable, but please do not tell your college admissions reader that you are the go-to pal for friends with  addictions and anger-management problems. Your essay is a verbal photograph—don’t make it a mug shot.

6. The implicated self can be a wry and endearing narrator, but please do not laud sleep, procrastination, or indecision as your special talent.

7. If you write about your fabulous teacher/coach/parent, please do so with the aforementioned characterization. “Influential Person” essays can become hallowed tributes to angelic beings—causing mortal readers to dislike them.

8. Please ignore the standard advice to write only about yourself. Your vivid introduction of another person can strengthen your essay. For inspiration, meet Mr. Foster in Huxley’s Brave New World or Claud in “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor.

9. Please feed your veins with essay-writing nutrients by reading masterful literature.

10. Please give yourself some ear training: Read aloud a short, powerful passage from said masterful literature and figure out how it works sonically. Alliteration? Parallel construction? Varied sentence length? Then read your own work aloud for same.

11. Please use your thesaurus for the best purpose—to find the word that most precisely conveys your meaning.

12. Please don’t “aspire” in your application essays. George Orwell used the word with mockery  (“…some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”); Elie Wiesel, with heightened diction (“Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”). Unless your college essay gently mocks your own heightened diction, I suggest omitting.

13. Still looking for that bold, gorgeous opening line? Try exhuming it from the middle of your second paragraph. Stuck for an ending? Consider the final line of your current penultimate paragraph. Read your own writing aloud.

14. With regard to your relative who died last year: If you don’t know much about her life, please don’t claim to be transformed by her death.

15. Please don’t write about the noble strength and enlightened joy of the people in [insert name of impoverished community] where you volunteered. Please do reflect on the lackluster summer job or other mundane responsibility that yielded a quiet, but unexpected benefit.

16. Please do not try to impress your reader with the standing ovation you received for your winning lacrosse point or knockout violin performance. Honor the reader instead with a personal story that exceeds casual chat and admits some vulnerability.

17. Please refrain from: “[insert noun] has helped me become the [insert adjective] individual I am today.” These words probably appear in 16,938 other essays and could, therefore, cause your reader to run through a plate-glass window in despair. This result would not increase your chances of admission.

18. Did I mention reading your work aloud for voice, authenticity, rhythm, and error detection? Again, I beg.

19. Please accept at least one of these suggestions.

20. Please reject at least one of these suggestions.

21. Please have a sense of humor about yourself. And please, oh please, have one about me.

Writings by Lisa K. Buchanan have appeared in (and/or won awards from) Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Narrative, New Letters, Ploughshares, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and The Rumpus. She lives in San Francisco and tutors college applicants in essay writing.

Modern Love, Walks Beside Me

February 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

From the hippie culture to the AIDS epidemic to the Internet revolution, love has gone from “free” to fraught to Facebook. What is love now, in this age of 24/7 communication, blurred gender roles and new attitudes about sex and dating?

The NYT invites college students nationwide to submit a personal essay of between 1,500 and 2,000 words that illustrates the current state of love and relationships. The winning author will receive $1,000 and his or her essay will be published in a special “Modern Love” column on May 4, 2008 and on

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