Apply Your Mind to the College Application Essay

Director of International Admission, DePaul University

It strikes fear in the hearts of thousands. Doting mothers bite their fingernails and fathers threaten “consequences” as their offspring procrastinate. Even the brightest and best aspiring students feel their creative juices run dry as they sit down to write the dreaded college application essay.

Why, after more than a decade of writing in school, does this assignment intimidate so many? The first answer is obvious: the school application really, really matters. It can be a foot in the door of life or a misstep that closes windows of opportunity forever. And that is not even the worst part . . .

No, worse than that is the fact that this essay will be read with the intent to learn more about the author, rather than about the topic. Whatever the essay question or prompt, the applicant is the real subject. After reading it, the reviewers will not only determine whether this is a good or bad piece of writing; they will actually determine whether the applicant is good enough to enter their institution. Yes, your essay had better be good.

It’s the thought that counts

After all those school days and countless writing assignments, few college applicants still know what makes for good writing. Here it is in a nutshell: good writing is strong thinking that is clearly expressed. This means you need to think before you write, to plan carefully before execution, and it is at this point where most applicants stumble. No matter how good you are at stringing words together, your essay will miss the mark—and leave you no better in admission counselors’ eyes—if you do not know what you want to tell the reviewers before you sit down to write it. If you have a wastepaper basket full of failed first drafts, or if you have been procrastinating, it is probably because you have not paid enough attention to the most critical first step of good writing.

Of course, coming up with a brilliant idea isn’t necessarily as easy as taking a long walk and letting your mind wander (but then again, that may work for you). Most people need to give their brains a little encouragement. Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:

  1. Talk about it. Having a conversation with other people about the essay question will help you clarify your thoughts. It will probably spark new ideas and leave you with further questions that you should explore. Be sure to have this conversation with several people, but remember to stay true to your own thoughts and opinions.
  2. Think for and about yourself. Application reviewers are masters at spotting fakes—they do it every day. Do not write what others tell you to write. Talking to other people should spur your own ideas, not replace them. Do not even consider plagiarizing something you got off the Internet or in a book. Colleges use sophisticated software to detect dishonesty.
  3. Let your pen run free. The biggest challenge for most occasional writers is that they start editing their writing before they have all their thoughts down on paper. Your teachers might have taught you to prepare an outline for your essay, planning the key points you want to include before you start writing. That is good advice, but only after you have given your mind the freedom to explore the topic first. Once you have your thoughts on paper, you can sort the good ideas from the bad. Then, and only then, can you start structuring your essay.
  4. Feel it. The most compelling writing is always fueled by passion. If you do not feel strongly, either try to ignite that spark or switch to another topic straight away. To fuel your emotions regarding the university itself, speak to alumni, read whatever you can about the institution, and, if at all possible, spend time on the campus.
  5. Do your research. One of the first rules of writing is only to write about what you know. This is doubly important when you write about the college you are applying to.

Take pride in your ability

Your years in school should have taught you about the technical aspects of writing: how to structure an essay, the rules of grammar and spelling, etc. Your abilities in these regards will be considered a given. In other words, getting it right will not impress anyone. Getting it wrong, however, will reflect very poorly on you as an applicant. Remember, not all reviewers are literature majors, but all of them can and will notice poor grammar, inappropriate language, and spelling. They will interpret them as inadequate language skills. They will also see these mistakes as a sign of disrespect for the institution and a careless attitude. Either of these could certainly jeopardize your application.

Rule number one: your college application essay is not a message to your friends; you must write in full, grammatically correct sentences that consist of real words. Here is the test: if your secondary school counselor does not understand what you have written, your language is probably not appropriate for an institute of higher learning. If you have any doubt about what is appropriate, take another look at the college’s websites and brochures. Let their language be your benchmark for what is acceptable.

Rule two: don’t be too proud to ask for help. Even the best writers acknowledge that they are not the best editors of their own material. Writing tends to blind you for your own grammatical and spelling mistakes. More than that, other editors can point out inconsistencies in your logic. If they cannot follow your arguments, the reviewers will probably lose you as well—exactly what you do not want to happen.

Rule three: keep it simple. Complex sentences are traps, and it’s easy to misuse words automatically suggested by a thesaurus. Do not get intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity either. Reviewers know that big words often hide small ideas.

Rule four: let it age. Do your writing early (i.e., well before any deadlines), leave it alone, and go back to it after a few days. When you do, read it aloud. That will help you spot awkward sentences. If it does not sound right, it does not read right.

Rule five: stick to the topic at hand! If the college asks you to answer a question, then be sure there’s actually an answer in your writing!

Writing is a process that takes time. Allow people you trust to be part of that journey, but remember that writing, ultimately, is a lonely craft. The essay is about you. You need to write it, and if you are successful, you will arrive at your destination by yourself. If that destination is the college of your dreams, the effort you put into writing your application essay will not only be time well spent; it will be a critical step to the future you want for yourself.

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