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.