Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thinking about Essays

In the office lately, we seem to have essays on the brain. A couple weeks ago, we posted this year’s essay questions on the blog and that always prompts interesting discussions with students and among our staff about what makes a good essay. There are, of course, varying opinions on the subject, but I’d say we all agree that the best essays help us get to know the applicant as a person. We don’t get to meet all our applicants face-to-face, so I often think of the application as an interview—it allows me to get a glimpse of the walking, talking, breathing person behind the application.

First off, the nuts and bolts of our application essays: We require two essays, one about 500 words and the other about 250 words. We get a lot of questions about essay length—do you penalize for long essays, do you count words, etc. The answer is no, we do not count words, but we do really appreciate it if you’re able to stick close to the recommended word count. We read a lot of essays, and we can tell you that a longer essay is not a better essay. In fact, the best essays are concise, with nary a word to spare.

Now, what advice would we offer to students who are sitting down to write an essay for our application? Our director offered three or four hints for the essay in a post we shared a couple years ago, which is a great place to start.

I’d add the following tips, which comes from the collective wisdom of our counselors, each of whom reads hundreds or even thousands of applications each year.
  • Show us, don’t tell us. For example, rather than just telling us “I am an adventurous person,” why not show us your adventurous spirit by recounting your latest adventure with colorful details and descriptive language. Showing is always more persuasive and interesting than telling.
  • Focus. Don’t try to tell your entire life story (it’s impossible), but instead think about how you can communicate one little slice of life. Can you tell a story that will illustrate one aspect of your personality? Can you zoom in on an idea that you find compelling? Can you incorporate details that will be memorable to your reader?
  • Remember it doesn't have to be all about you. Some of the best essays are about people or ideas outside the writer's own life--these essays can still tell us a lot about the person who did the writing.
  • Be concise. Don’t use 10 words when five will do the trick.
  • Abandon the thesaurus. I read essays where it is very obvious that the student wrote their essay, then replaced half the words with “smarter” words they found in the thesaurus. Let us hear your voice—speak to us as you would normally speak, and don’t use words that you don’t normally use.
  • Don’t feel tied to the essay prompts. Use them as jumping off places, and feel free to let your creativity and instinct take you where it may. We work hard to come up with essay prompts that will inspire students to craft an interesting essay. But if your muse leads you elsewhere, go for it.
  • Instead of trying to figure out what we want to hear, ask yourself how you can portray your unique voice and personality. This is your opportunity to show us who you are, and make us want to get to know you better.
Do you have any good advice for essays? Please feel free to share your opinions, and let us know if you have questions.