Our friend Ethan Sawyer knows a thing or two about college essays. After all, he is "The College Essay Guy." Stanford University asks students to write letters to their future roommates, and Sawyer has some excellent advice for crafting the perfect roommate essay. Best of all, his tips can also be applied to all of the personal essays you may have to write throughout the college application process.
Okay, this is not the only way to write your Stanford (or Harvard) roommate essay, but it is a good way, and it’s based on an essay that I think is great. First, read the example essay, then we’ll talk about why it’s great and how she did it.
"Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better."
Everybody has peculiarities that most people don’t know about. For example, I have a habit of pinching ear lobes. I also pour milk into my cereal, only to drain it out after soaking the cereal for a bit. Is that strange? Well, there’s more:
I have -2.75 vision but I hate wearing glasses because I feel confined and limited in my freedom to think. So you’ll see me squint quite often, trying to overcome my astigmatism—it’s not a death glare, I promise.
I’m also extremely tactile. I like to run my fingers over laser printing because I am amazed by my fingers’ ability to detect subtle impressions. This is why I hate wearing socks on carpet: my feet lose sensitivity. So I hope you don’t mind bare feet.
I have a fetish for things that smell nice, so I like to bury myself under fresh laundry just wheeled back from laundry room 8 (the one closest to our unit). I also alternate between three different shampoos just for the smell of it. So don’t be surprised if I ask to share our toiletry items; I’m just looking for variety.
Driving calms my nerves. Sometimes, my family and I go on midnight highway cruises during which we discuss weighty issues such as the reason people in our society can so adamantly advertise items like Snuggies. So I apologize if I keep you up late at night asking you to ponder the complex mysteries of our world.
Also, in my home, we have an open door policy—literally. Every door, excluding those of an occupied bathroom and the fridge, is always open. I hope you and I will be comfortable enough with each other—and with those around us—that we feel no need to hide behind bedroom doors.
Finally, I love shelves. They organize many different items under a unified structure and I find value in this kind of integrated diversity. And I love them as a metaphor: there is a place for everything, including even the quirkiest of our traits. That’s why no one should feel left out no matter how strange or odd they might think they are.
So, what are you like?
Why I like this essay
I learn so much about the writer. I learn (in order, by paragraph) that she:
- Is confident enough to admit she’s a little weird
- Values her freedom to think
- Is observant and sensitive to life’s small details
- Is great with wordplay
- Is ironic and self-deprecating even while pondering life’s mysteries
- Is willing to be emotionally open
- Values making order from chaos (and she’s smart enough to write an essay that actually creates order out of chaos—so her form matches her content)
How she wrote this essay
- She began with chaos. She brainstormed a list of 21 random details about herself using this exercise.
- Then she created order. She organized the details into paragraphs by theme. She found, in other words, a way to connect the random facts—to put them on different “shelves” (each “shelf” = one paragraph).
- Once she understood what she was doing, she cut some of the details that were less-revealing or extraneous and replaced them with better details that were more synecdochic. What’s a synecdoche? When a small part represents the whole. Kinda’ like an essence object. Look it up.
Remember: I ain’t saying this is the only way to write your roommate essay, but it’s a pretty good way. And, if you want to get into Stanford, your roommate essay—like your main Common App essay—should demonstrate these three things:
- Are you an interesting and intelligent person?
- Will you bring something of value to the campus?
- Can you write?
This student showed all three of those things and she got into Stanford.
(That, along with her 2300 SAT and perfect grades. Plus she was first-generation. #BTW.)
Stay tuned next week for Part II, in which Sawyer will discuss how to improve an existing draft of your essay.