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Applied Knowledge Part Six: The College Essay

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Applied Knowledge Part Six: The College Essay

When we last left off, I went over the procedure for requesting a Letter of Recommendation from a teacher. Now it's time for the part that everyone seems to dread: the college essay.

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The College Essay

For someone like me, who writes often and has experience with word limits, the mechanics of the essay are not so difficult. But if you are having trouble with the nitty-gritty aspects of writing, here are a few tips:

  • Brush up on grammar and usage. I humbly suggest William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White's immortal classic of the written word The Elements of Style. When in doubt, ask an English teacher; it is their job to help you become syntactically sound. Top skills to keep in mind include: parallelism among list items, concordance of subject, verb, and modifier, and varying of sentence structure.
  • Try writing what you feel is 100 words (without looking at a word count). Then, see what the actual amount is. If they are within 10 words, you understand how much can fit in your essay. If not, then work on realizing how little a word limit can be.
  • Read good writing. It will improve your vocabulary and help you recognize grammatical devices.
  • Write early and often. It doesn't matter if it's an actual essay or just a silly re-telling of Hansel and Gretel - just get words on the page and practice revising.

Now that the basics are down, it's time to focus on what exactly should be written, and this is where even the best writer needs to do some serious thinking. Especially with college essays, it can be tempting to simply spit out a laundry list of your accomplishments and activities, but this is often pretentious and superbly bland from a college admissions officer's standpoint. They probably get this type of essay every day, and you want yours to stand out (for good reasons!). Instead, focus on one or two connected events, with extra explanation of the underlying lesson or idea connecting them all.

How to Stand Out

First, you should seriously consider which essay prompt you would like to respond to, whether it be one of the CommonApp questions or another. Once you decide on a question, think about events in your high school life you think fit the question. You can also reverse this process, beginning with an experience you would really like to tell a college about.

For instance, I wrote about volunteering on the trolley at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts as I do each summer. I felt I could use this experience I have as a canvas for the concept of teaching while learning at the park, in high school, and beyond. You can use an experience you've had to bring in a theme as well.

Remember: a college essay is still an essay. It can be a narrative, it can make a point, it can even be educational. What's important is that it relates to you and what you can do at your reader's institution. What it can't be is a list, or a resume, or a brag. Make sure your essay is interesting, compelling, and well-written.

Revise

For the very best essay possible, I have one very specific piece of advice: REVISE. I went through at least ten drafts of my main CommonApp essay before it was submitted, some slight modifications for word count or quality, others complete rewrites.

And while revision may seem difficult - not only a great obstacle due to sheer work but due to the trying nature of the introspection that revision represents. Keep in mind, I'm not talking about proofreading or editing; this is heavy, heavy stuff.

I hate to be blunt and cliche, but the essay can be the determining factor between two similar applications, the final straw on a lack-luster one, or the propelling force behind a so-called diamond in the rough. Take it seriously, and take the time to revise and refine your point as much as possible.

Read it yourself, have your parents read the later draft, and maybe even invite your counselor or English teacher to comment on what you have. This type of help is invaluable when it comes to such a key part of your college application.

I put so much work into my essay, I didn't even want to see a keyboard for a week, but it was worthwhile when it was finished and what I saw my work. Believe me, it's worthwhile to give it all you've got.

The mantra from Ratatouille comes to mind, with slight alterations: not "Anyone can cook," but, "With enough time, hard work and perseverance, anyone can write."

(For the time reason, you may want to begin essay writing before the 1.5 month mark; I wrote mine over the summer.)

college essay

Put The Pieces Together

Now that the essay, arguably the most difficult part of the college application, is done, it's time to put all the pieces together. Hopefully, you've already sent your scores, transcript, and letters of recommendation. Now, input the essay to the application and get ready to hit submit. Before getting here, it's time to decide how you would like to apply to various colleges and universities.

Here's how it broke down for me:

  • ROLLING ADMISSIONS: College D, which I was interested in as a probable to very likely school, offers rolling admissions, which was how I wanted to apply. This means that you can submit your application at almost any time and receive a decision as soon as it's processed.
  • EARLY DECISION: I am a noncommittal person by nature (my mother will tell you I usually say 'no' on the first pass at a question, only to reconsider), so I didn't feel E.D., which is binding, was right for me. Even if I did have a clear dream school (which I didn't by that point, although there were favorites), I probably would have shied away from E.D. for my own reasons. If you are considering Early Decision, be CAREFUL. Do not apply E.D. on a whim, or with the assumption you'll be denied. Only do so if this is your absolute top school - and you know you're within the ballpark of affording it. Sometimes, a school might offer two periods of Early Decision. If so, maybe take advantage of one which allows you to be more sure of the decision.
  • EARLY ACTION: Let me be the first to say that Early Action is the best thing to happen to college admissions since sliced bread. It allows you to be ahead of the game (which feels and looks responsible) without committing to a school outright. Additionally, which was a big plus for me, applicants receive their decisions much sooner than their Regular Decision comrades. Some schools call E.A. "Priority" or some such name, but what it means is possible admission before Christmas and the New Year - a wonderful gift! I applied E.A. (or its equivalent) to Colleges A, B, and C.
  • REGULAR DECISION: Regular decision is your standard college applications time, the tried and true, and still the backbone of college admissions. However, I must confess that I did not apply R.D. to any schools. You see, I set a rule for myself. If I got in to my Rolling Admissions school (from which I would hear in early December), I would not apply R.D. anywhere. Luckily (although I promised myself I wouldn't say so until next part), I got in, and did not have to send in more applications. If I had to, I would've applied to Colleges E and F R.D.

So, now that this is all said and done, it's time to click submit. All you need is a mouse, some confidence, and a credit card. It's a pivotal moment in your life, even if it doesn't feel like it, as it’s the first true step on the road to leaving home.

Good luck! In the next installment, I'll talk about Accepted Student activities.

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Evan  Berkowitz-profile-picture

Evan Berkowitz is a freshman at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is a graduate of Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, where he was Managing Editor of the student newspaper, The Forum. He is a regular blogger at TeenLife and contributed to the now-defunct Boston Globe GreenBlog. He is also a staff reporter for the University of Maryland Writers' Bloc, a literary and arts-focused news website.

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