If you want to write a high school application essay that is worth reading; one that your audience will remember:
Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing an essay.
Okay, I may be being a bit melodramatic. You still need appropriate grammar, syntax, spelling, and formatting.
But as for the generic boring cluster that begins with “In this essay I am going to be discussing ___ by looking at x,y, and z,” throw that out the window because it’s nothing but a one way ticket to Snoozeville not only for you but for anyone tasked with reading it.
The biggest mistake students make when writing an essay is that they forget who their audience is. Your audience, be it a teacher, an administrator, or an admissions committee, has likely read hundreds if not thousands of student’s admissions essays.
This means that you are going to have to do more than throw in a few SAT words to impress them. The key to writing an essay worth reading is writing an essay that has not been written before. It needs to be your own story, not the story you think they want to hear.
One of my favorite things about writing is that there is no right or wrong answer. An essay isn’t a scantron that you have to correctly bubble in or risk some computer incorrectly grading you. You can’t just play eenie miney moe and hope for the best. Writing is personal. It’s written by one individual and read by another.
But all too often students, especially in the application process, forget this. They write the essay they think that the admission committee wants to read when in reality it’s an essay that the committee has probably already read a million times.
What is the root of this cause? The topic.
If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way: when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.
So, how do we accomplish this?
It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read. If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.
Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee want to hear.
“I love to volunteer because it has taught me to be appreciative of what I have,”
Or “I love National Honors Society because it allows me to combine my love of academics with my love of service.”
While both of these are wonderful extracurricular activities, unless you are truly passionate about either and have specific details to intertwine into your narrative, it’s going to come off dry and predictable.
When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”
Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students.
So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.
Don’t believe me?
Consider these two opening paragraphs. You tell me which one you want to keep reading?
1. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ These famous words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, one of the best politicians of all life. John F. Kennedy led America and has become my role model. He encouraged me to get into politics which is why I joined student government. When asked what extracurricular activity has had the largest impact on me as a person, I immediately thought of student government. In this essay I will discuss how student government has impacted me as a person by growing my leadership skills, developing my social connections, and making me take academics more seriously.”
2. “I don’t ride for blue ribbons or Olympic gold, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don’t ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don’t ride because I have anything to prove, although I’ve proven a lot to myself along the way. I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it’s impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn’t easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.”
Okay now you have the framework.
First, remember that you’re writing to a private school admissions audience that has probably seen every high school application essay in the book. So don’t write the one you think they want to read… write the one that you care most about.
Then, choose the essay topic that resonates most with you as a student. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing, and hopefully “wow” the reader enough to convince them they have to have you at their school.