I look forward to reading the essays of the four finalists each year when The New York Times publishes their favorite college essays having to do with social class and work. (One year, a student we worked with was a finalist!). This year I was particularly enamored. What gorgeous writing! What insights! What inspiration! The entire article, including the essays, can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/your-money/standout-college-application-essays.html?_r=0
Here are my thoughts:
- These students are clearly gifted writers who know their way around literary devices. However, unlike some other essays that I read, where the metaphor is overly forced, these students present with great honesty.
- Our essay litmus test includes the ideas that students should: be memorable, likable, and self reflective; give the reader context to their lives; and able to showcase writing talents. (See below.) But I would like to add one more item from the article: “I wanted to have a conversation with her about it,” Ms. Fondiller said. “And I love leaving an essay like that, where you want to say, ‘Let’s keep talking.’”
This is a great point! The purpose of the college essay, after all, is to showcase something that the reader does not get from reading other parts of the application, and it’s also to be an intriguing candidate.
- The topic of the essay is less important than the writing. These students all had great stories, but the narrative is not what makes these essays great. Rather, the reader can see the student’s intellectual capability through their subtle observations and connections.
- These students all showed a growth mindset-they are adaptable, humble, and insightful.
Our Litmus Test:
- Did the student develop an idea, tell a story, or analyze a situation well?
The content of the essay is more important than the number of SAT words it contains. This is not a formal English essay, so it doesn’t have to begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion. Although the grammar and syntax should be correct, the most brilliant writers often have the most informal writing styles and can even make an error for effect. Remember that the essay should be easy to read and that simpler is better. Just relax and write from the heart — show the admission officers who you really are and what makes you tick!
- Does the reader like the student after reading the essay?
These essays are a way for the admission committee to get to know the real you, not a place to portray an idealized version of you. Reiterating the accomplishments already noted in your resume will make you sound self-promoting rather than likable. If you try to tell them why you are so great, you will just end up sounding phony. The essay topic that most frequently fails this part of the litmus test is one in which a student describes his or her experiences with those less fortunate (in a developing country or through a soup kitchen, etc.) and writes about the experience in a way that establishes an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. This topic can work, but only when you bring freshness to the essay by showing your personal growth, without contrasting your life with those of the people you helped.
- Why is the student telling me about this topic, issue, story, etc.?
Can it be said in one sentence? Did the reader get to know you better? After reading an essay at Ivy Ed, we always ask ourselves if we learned about the student beyond the resume, transcript, and letters of recommendation. If you write about something that could have been said in one sentence, the writing might be wonderful but it may not have any depth to it. Also, while it is fine to take a risk and write about a topic that is emotional for you, you should make sure that you have a good reason for sharing the information with the admissions committee (e.g. it explains a drop in your grades).
- Is the essay memorable?
It’s 2:00 AM and the admission counselor is tired, or worse yet; s/he has been reading clichés for hours when s/he gets to YOUR essay, which may be less conventional, but is also more memorable. In the world of competitive college admissions, you want your essay to stand out, so think out of the box and avoid clichés. Above all else, don’t simply tell the admissions people what you think they want to hear. You will end up sounding just like all of the other students who decided to do the same thing. Instead, be genuine, be passionate, be specific, and be unique!
- Can the student relate his/her experiences to a broader perspective?
Colleges are looking for students who can make connections between their experiences and those of a broader world. Showing that you can analyze ideas behind stories about yourself or about other people will demonstrate your ability to think deeply. For example, did you take a vacation somewhere (i.e. Europe, South America) and were you able to draw connections to another experience, i.e. being in a new college atmosphere? Or have you read a specific book for pleasure that reflects your academic interests and possible long-term professional pursuits? Even better, have you read a book by a member of the college’s faculty with whom you might want to take a course or get involved in extracurricular activities, again reflecting your broader world view?
- Is the student-writer interesting?
The New York Times selects four essay finalists for a yearly piece, and one enrollment officer said of a successful essay, “I wanted to have a conversation with her about it….And I love leaving an essay like that, where you want to say, ‘Let’s keep talking.’” Does the reader want to continue the conversation with the author after reading the essay? Imagine you were sitting next to somebody on a long six-hour flight. What would you talk to the person sitting next to you about? Or flip it around: would you want to continue to talk with them if they told you this story?