Research Cycle

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Vol 13|No 6|Summer |2017

Writing the Winning
College Essay

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

This is Chapter Nine - "Applying for a school" - from Jamie's new book
Laptop Thinking and Writing.

Because college essays are famously important as a factor in determining acceptance by the most competitive universities in the USA, this book devotes a chapter to strategies to stand out from thousands of other applicants.

For a number of years I conducted alumni interviews for Yale while I was Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Princeton. That experience gave me perspective regarding the application process. Because Yale had at least ten qualified candidates applying for each available slot, based on class rank, SAT scores and other basic academic data, the ones who would win acceptance had to be unusual in character criteria similar those we discussed in earlier chapters.

© iStock -- bpperry

Yale was looking for candidates who would distinguish themselves in their lives — making some kind of dramatic contribution to society. The university sought young people with a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to original thought as well as invention. Beyond these issues, Yale smiled upon applicants who had shown commitment to service and community.

Standing out

Part of writing a great college essay begins at least three years before you apply. One must build a portfolio. You cannot suddenly declare a commitment to community service. You must eventually provide evidence. What have you written? What have you done? What have you invented? Whose lives have you touched?

If you are just now beginning the application process and must rely upon the record already achieved, you will do your best to tailor your application and essay to the criteria published by the university you hope to enter. These criteria are usually stated explicitly on the university’s Web site. Yale is quite clear about its interests:

All incoming Yalies will bring dazzling talents of every kind to this extraordinary community. An applicant’s academic strength is our first consideration.

We review grades, standardized test scores, and evaluations by a counselor and two teachers to determine academic strength. The admissions committee then factors in student qualities such as motivation, curiosity, energy, leadership ability and distinctive talents.

The great majority of students who are admitted stand out from the rest because a lot of little things, when added up, tip the scale in their favor.

In addition to those introductory statements, Yale offers several pages — What Yale Looks For — to explain and elaborate. Turning to the section on Essay Topics, you will learn that they expect answers to a number of short answer questions as well as two essays of no more than 250 words chosen from three possibilities.

© iStock - demaerre

Leading universities often begin with similar statements on their application pages. The University of Washington states:

One distinguishing feature of a premier university like the UW is the diversity of experience, culture, talent, and sheer brainpower represented in the student body. To the Office of Admissions, you aren’t just a GPA and a set of test scores. We’ll take a look at the numbers, but we want to know more: Who are you? What else have you done? Where are you headed? We are excited to learn what you will bring to the UW community. Begin your journey with a look at the factors we use in freshman review.

The University of Washington offers an additional page that expands and elaborates on those opening statements. In addition, there is a page that goes into great detail about the essay requirements.

Write like it matters, not like you’re texting. This is an application for college, not a message to your BFF. Writing i instead of I, cant for cannot, u r for you are: not so kewl.
No matter which university you have chosen, the writing task requires careful attention to the criteria stated and how you can best show that you have demonstrated the characteristics they seek. In almost every case, they will be seeking candidates who are outstanding.

Even though “The University of Washington is one of 121 public and private universities across the U.S. that comprise the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a college planning and application platform,” when applying to any of these universities and responding to writing prompts that are common to all of them, beware of writing the same response for all of them. They may share the prompts while having quite dissimilar criteria in mind. You must customize your essays to match those criteria.

“The UW will accept any of the five Coalition prompts,” but if you wish to stand out from the crowd, you will select the fifth choice:

5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

This strategy dramatically increases the chances of your standing apart from the other applicants, selecting an issue or theme that is unique and very personal. You will create a topic that showcases your writing talent while providing convincing evidence of your “commitment to community service and leadership as well as the significant responsibility you exercised in a family, community, employment, or through activities.”

You will also consider an essay format that differs from the typical. Spend a few hours online reading pages that tell you how to write a high school essay. Most of these will provide formulas that will produce hohumdrum essays like those many applicants will submit. You should be familiar with these so you can be different.

One site offers a “Three Point Essay Formula” — Topic + Opinion + Three Discussion Points. You can do much better than this. Spend another hour or so browsing supposedly outstanding essays. Kwasi Enin wrote an essay that helped him win acceptance from all eight Ivy League universities to which he applied. Do you think it was exceptional? Why or why not? Look for a dozen others that are considered exceptional and consider how these essays differ from the norm. What can you learn from them?

Consider purchasing College Essays that Made a Difference by The Princeton Review, a collection of 123 application essays that proved successful. Remember that we do not know if a person's essay was the deciding factor in their acceptance. If they were musically brilliant and had composed more than one astonishing symphony prior to their senior year, one of which was actually performed at Carnegie Hall, the university might forgive them for submitting an ordinary essay.

While asking which elements and strategies made these successful, bear in mind that you will still want to create an essay that is unusual in form and quite personal in style. What kind of person are you and what have you done that is both noteworthy and directly related to the aspects the university has stressed in its instructions?

If you are applying to Yale, they are clearly looking for candidates with “qualities such as motivation, curiosity, energy, leadership ability and distinctive talents.”

Distinctive talents?

Is playing the guitar a distinctive talent? There are countless high school students who play the guitar. Do you play the guitar and compose your own songs? Do you play those songs as part of a band that performs across your county and has been featured on local television shows? How long has the band existed and who started it?
Did you play a leadership role?

© J. McKenzie
Many outstanding students complete their high school course requirements with high grades but never explore a question in a truly dramatic manner, pursuing truth far past what is required. Have you ever been so curious about something you chased answers like a pit bull? Did you investigate a local issue or problem with passion and persistence? Do you have a dramatic story to tell that will illustrate energy and motivation as well as curiosity? Can you write this story with the grace notes mentioned in Chapter Seven — Telling a story?

© iStock - OSTILL
As you consider the essay you plan to write, you will seek the magic with which Cambers and Briggs reported Ostapenko’s victory at the 2017 French Open. (Mentioned in Chapter Seven.)

But now it is the story of your life. You stand in Centre Court. You will write your own story so as to captivate your readers in the Admissions Office and win acceptance to your university of choice.

The Great Report

  • Creates something new
  • Grapples with a big challenge
  • Explores the unknown
  • Shares insights and understandings that
    are perceptive and original
  • Awakens curiosity
  • Entertains, delights and illuminates

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