Eeeek…It’s the Essay

Admit It! Writing application essays stresses you out.  You would describe them as anything but fun.  Time-consuming; sure.  Frustrating; most definitely.  Nightmare-causing; gosh we hope not but we admit it is a possibility.  Not sure if this makes you feel better or worse but we actually do read your essays.  Does that make you feel better or worse?  And we enjoy doing so.  So no pressure now…right?

So why do we require an essay (and we only require one so that’s no soooo bad)?  There are two primary reasons; the first of which is to get to know you better – more three-dimensionally so to speak.   Think of your essay as a personal statement; that will help ensure that you are the primary subject of your essay.  You may be able to write a wonderfully eloquent essay about your grandfather.  And at the end of reading it, I may want to admit your grandfather.  But I haven’t learned anything new about you; you are the applicant.  What makes you tick?  What makes you unique?  Who are you as a person?  Why would I want to share a classroom or a residence hall with you?

Great, that’s probably not as helpful as you hoped right?  It’s hard to write about yourself; we get it.  But the essays are a great way for us to learn about you from your own perspective.  The essay is the one part of the application where you are using your own words and your own voice to communicate directly with the admission committee. Write about you; you’re what you know.  And you are in fact unique.  There is something about you that isn’t commonplace.  Find that thing and write about it.  If it’s something big like growing up in a foreign country, write about it.  If it’s something small like you always wear socks with stripes for a particular reason, write about it.  If it’s something in between like your life-long hobby of collecting McDonalds Happy Meal toys, write about it.  The key is to find a topic that few others can write about.  There are most definitely fairly generic college essay topics: death of a relative, parents’ divorce, traveling abroad, a service/mission trip, a sports injury, your epic love of Harry Potter books (that one has come on strong in recent years).  It’s not that these experiences/interests aren’t salient or important; they are.  But they are also fairly commonplace for 17-year olds and the ways in which you write about them will be incredibly similar.  This makes an essay generic.  When an essay starts with describing an athletic injury, I can tell you the content of the remaining 1.5 pages without reading it; that demonstrates how many times (and I’d wager in the thousands) that I’ve read that exact same essay during my career.  So as you ponder a topic, think about whether or not any of your friends could write a similar essay.  If a few of them can, multiply that by 100 – at least – and that’s how many essays on that topic we’ll receive.  In other words, pick another topic.

The second reason we require an essay is that it’s a writing sample.  You probably noticed in the standardized test blog from a few weeks ago that we do not focus on the writing standardized test component.  We feel an essay topic that you’ve picked, that you’ve had ample time to write, is the best measure of your writing ability.  Your essay should be polished and proofread, I use the analogy something you’re willing to turn in for a grade.  Do not run spellcheck at 11:59 p.m. when the application is due at midnight and consider your essay proofed.  A few years ago an applicant meant to talk about t-shirts but he left out the letter “r” [insert reader’s pregnant pause here and then a chuckle when he/she gets what happened].  That significantly changes the tone of an essay.  So make sure your essay is not only proofread (and yes you can ask a friend, parent or teacher to proofread your essay), but make sure it uses complex and varied sentence structure, paragraph breaks, strong diction; in other words show us that you are ready to write for college professors.

Let me tell you, an essay can really make an impact on your application.  Yes it’s one part of many just like all the other application components but it’s the part that comes from you.  It’s your heart; it’s your mind; it’s your soul.  Great essays (whether great in topic or great in style or both) can help me remember your application three months after reading it.  As I present it to the committee, I’ll say, yeah this is the person who wrote this essay.  And we’ll actually stop committee to read the essay.  We’ll grow to like you (and that never hurts if you’re looking for a thick envelope in the mail).  Likewise, a bad essay can also be very memorable; but not in a good way.  Something that’s poorly written or makes a questionable value judgment might also stop committee and act as a tip factor in the other direction.

So how do we put essays in context?  We know that most 17-year-olds (in fact most people) are not poet laureates.  We do not expect Pulitzer-Prize winning essays.  That would be unreasonable.  Although when we get them we are super excited and generally run around the office showing it to all of our colleagues (I’m speaking to you author of Skin).  We also know that finding a unique topic is hard, and so even those more generic essays are read and considered because we know that whatever you wrote about is clearly meaningful enough for you to write about it.  We also consider any learning disabilities and language abilities (i.e. if English is not your first language) when reviewing an essay’s style and grammar.

As a side note, don’t write what you think we want to hear.  We have no preconceived ideas about what we want to hear.  Plus it’s painfully obvious when you’ve picked a topic based on what you think we want to hear (I’m talking to the hundreds if not thousands of applicants who write about how great W&M is…I know that; you don’t have to sell me on W&M and that essay generally tells me nothing about you).

Next week, this blog will provide opening lines from good essays and the not-so-good essays and help you distinguish one from the other.  So this is a part deux blog again.  But we know that our applicants are incredibly interested in what we have to say on this subject matter and if helps even one student decide not to write about traveling to Paris but to instead write about their family road trip to the Corn Palace than I have done my job and I’ll be a happier reader for it (and you’ll be a more competitive applicant for it as well).

Wendy Livingston ’03, M.Ed. ‘09
Senior Assistant Dean of Admission

PS: For more blogs on essays, visit our application process web page and click on the second of the two boxes on the right (the Essays Made Easy widget).

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