Most students are used to writing essays about big, impersonal topics: what factors led to World War I, the symbolism in a Jane Austen novel, the role of the Krebs cycle. Good admissions essays, by contrast, are usually about small topics and they are always about personal topics. “I try to encourage students to sort of hone in maybe on one experience, one extracurricular,” says an Assistant Admissions Director at Yale, “and use that as a lens through which we can get to see the way that you think, the way that your world operates, and also who you might be on our campus.”
These specific situations help draw the reader in because they are memorable, and they bring your theme to life, avoiding what could be dry abstractions. You should narrate at least one specific moment or event. One of my students told about a monologue he performed for his classmates weeks after moving to a new school in a new country, and how it helped him to see that in a sense he is always playing a role—and now tries to let people get to know the real him. Another student of mine described her meticulous cultivation of succulent plants, as a way of reflecting about her parents cultivated her development, and how she now cultivates her own.
Whether you tell one anecdote or several, make sure it should star you, not someone else! Describing a student’s otherwise excellent essay about his grandfather, a Brown admissions officer says that “by the end of the essay, I wanted to admit the student’s grandfather, because it was all about him.”
Imagine yourself as a US college admissions officer. It’s late on a bleak winter afternoon, and as you open the 47th application you’ve read that day, you stifle a yawn. You’re running on the fumes of your third cup of coffee. You got into admissions because you love getting to know young people through their applications, but by the end of a long day, you sometimes find yourself having to re-read parts of an application because you were daydreaming about the next episode of The Great British Baking Show.
This is why, as an applicant, your essay should engage the reader. You don’t need a gimmick (don’t format your essay in a cute shape, for example!). But you do need an attention-grabbing first sentence. The key is to intrigue your reader by starting with something that makes her want to learn more. As Anna Wulick of PrepScholar puts it, “Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion.”
The most common and straightforward way to do this in an admissions essay is to insert the reader directly into a story. Here are three good examples from publicly available essays that worked:
But if you don’t want to start with an anecdote, that’s fine—there are other ways to engage your reader. A second technique is to start by revealing something distinctive and/or surprising about yourself. This approach has the benefit of immediately conveying something of significance about you to the reader. Here are three good examples of this approach:
A third approach, to be used with caution is, to begin with a famous quotation. Examples include:
Be careful with this approach, however. Starting with a quotation means that the reader’s attention is focused on someone else’s words, not your own lived experience. The essay needs to be about you! So shift the spotlight back to yourself soon—ideally in the second sentence.
The most common pitfall first sentences fall into is what we’ll call the General Pronouncement. One student sent me a first draft that began: “I’ve never seen poverty as horrific as in India.” This doesn’t tell us anything new (we know India has abject poverty), nor does it tell us anything about her experience (because it is so general). I encouraged her to start with an anecdote she had placed toward the end, and to bring the scene to life with key details. She then wrote: “In the dim light of the house, Mrs. Thongkoi crouched on a small, woven stool placed on the mud floor.” Much better!
For those of you who are gluttons for punishment, here are 22 more first sentences from students admitted to Stanford (they are from 2008 but are still on point).
 Alexander Nyren, in 100 Successful College Application Essays (New York: New American Library, 2013), 218.
Much of the conventional wisdom about US college admissions essays splits into two camps, both equally unhelpful.
The first we’ll call Camp Banal: advice so obvious and general that it provides little concrete guidance. A classic example is to be yourself. CollegeBoard, the organization that administers the SAT exam, tells us that “The number one piece of advice from admission officers about your essay is 'Be yourself.'” Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel advises that “it’s actually best to present yourself as you are to a college.” Got it? Don’t make up a story about winning a basketball championship if you haven’t, well, won a basketball championship. Another favorite in Camp Banal is to advise students to talk about what makes them special, “to show an admission committee what makes them stand out from other applicants.” But the obvious way to do this is to list accomplishments, which are already set out in the rest of your application. Advice from Camp Banal is too vague to be actionable.
The second camp we’ll call Camp Impossible: advice implying that your essay needs to paint a comprehensive picture of who you are. Janet Morrissey writes in the New York Times that your essay “needs to tell a story with passion, using personal entertaining anecdotes that showcase your character, your interests, your values, your life experiences, your views of the world, your ambitions and even your sense of humor.” One is tempted to ask sarcastically: is that all it has to do? The truth is that it would take a full-length autobiography (not a 650-word essay) to showcase your character, interests, values, experiences and views of the world. Advice from Camp Impossible is so intimidating that students can lose heart.
Most applicants know that their essays are often hugely consequential , especially at the most selective colleges. Camps Banal and Impossible also make the task seem ill-defined and devilishly difficult. It’s little wonder that college applicants, and especially international students, fear essays more than any other part of the application.
What’s needed is that most glorious of tools: a checklist! Something to tell us what to include in a good admissions essay (and what to omit); a list of do’s and don’ts. Of course, no precise checklist can be given. The denizens of Camp Banal are right in telling you to “be yourself”, and that means that your essay must follow your own formula. But my experience reading hundreds of student essays—and dozens of articles about how to write a good one—has led me to conclude that most good essays do in fact share some identifiable virtues, made possible by a number of concrete writing techniques.
In a series of coming posts, I'll explore what many good essays have in common.
The most selective universities -- the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT and the like in the US; Oxford and Cambridge in the UK -- are NOT right for everyone. By definition, most applicants won't get in. But it's more than just that: many students actually have a better experience (and comparable career outcomes) elsewhere, at colleges and universities that better fit them and their learning style.
Nonetheless, and for some good reasons, loads of students dream of these famous institutions. And conventional wisdom would have it that the competition for a place at a top university has gotten much fiercer. Among my friends (all about twenty years out of college) everyone "knows" that they wouldn't possibly be admitted today to the colleges they were admitted to back in the last century. Is it really true? Have today's high school students gotten smarter and more accomplished?
Admissions rates at highly ranked colleges have indeed plunged. Every Ivy League college admitted a smaller percentage of applicants for the Class of 2020 than it did for the Class of 2010. Stanford, now the country’s most selective university, saw a drop from almost 11% to under 5%. Admissions rates are falling in the UK as well: 25 years ago Oxford admitted about one in three applicants, and today the figure is down to one in six.
An influx of strong international candidates for US and UK university places is part of the explanation. But falling admission rates in the US also reflect the fact that top students today apply to more colleges than they used to: often 10 or more, double the typical number twenty years ago. As a result, top students are now more likely to get rejected by a number of the colleges to which they apply.
So is the outlook gloomy for today's applicants? Only for those with their heart set on one or a few colleges. The fact is that most strong students get into at least one terrific school. One study found that 80% of students who score above 1300 on the SAT get into at least one of 113 “highly selective” US universities. Students with their hearts set on a single school may be disappointed, but it’s not where you don’t get in that matters—it’s where you do get in.