ASK MJ: HOW TO WRITE A COLLEGE ESSAY
Epiphany asks: How do you write a college admissions essay? I love your writing advice so much I just wanted your opinion on how to go about this.
Since I am sitting here with noted collegeologist Robin “Harvard” Wasserman (who has, in fact, helped several people get into Harvard and is the author of Hacking Harvard, along with other fine books, like Skinned), I thought I could do a kind of point/counterpoint of advice on this subject. So here is Robin’s advice, followed by my replies.
HARVARD SEZ: Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but . . . be aware that basically every essay topic has been written about a million times. Admissions officers have heard it all. Your work in the soup kitchen/trip to South America/amazing grandparents . . . while very important to you . . . aren’t necessarily unique. You have to have done something REALLY exceptional to surprise them. Like perform successful open heart surgery using tools you have crafted yourself. That doesn’t mean that you can’t write about those things, or that your essay won’t be a success. Think of it this way: your application, as a whole, is a story about you. Your passions. Why you would be a good person to have on campus. You need to talk about yourself and your interests in a compelling way. A really excellent essay on your beloved sock collection is actually BETTER than a boring, rote essay about the environment. Honest writing wins.
MJ SEZ: I disagree with the “honest” part, because some people can’t be honest. For example, did you see Twilight? Did you see the part where the Cullens had all those graduation caps on the wall? Do you think Edward wrote a letter like this?
Dear Admissions Committee,
I am a 108 year old vampire, and I’ve been to college about 17 times. I am applying to your school mostly based on the local weather pattern, but don’t take that as a slight. I highly respect your academics. And while I know my 17 previous degrees might be a drawback (“why bother?” you must be thinking), I feel I have more to learn . . . and more to give.
My skills include music, running, baseball, examining slides in biology, and also I can read your mind. I prefer evening classes, and for me, every night is an all-nighter. Need couples housing because girlfriend is v. clingy, clumsy. Actually, need family housing as family is all vampire. (Lots of windows OK. Meal plan unnecessary.)
In conclusion, I ask that you admit me or I’ll eat you and all the members of your family in a blood orgy. (Kidding!)
HARVARD SEZ: I probably should have made clear, these rules do not apply to supernatural creatures of the night. Or, really, anyone who sparkles. Admissions officers get very distracted by sparkles.
MJ SEZ: I know they just stuck those graduation caps in for the movie but I think it works. Also, Robert Pattinson has kind of a big, awesome head. He could definitely get into Harvard. But let’s talk about the people who are worried about their writing skill.
HARVARD SEZ: Good point. Plenty of “bad writers” can still write good essay, and lots of them will get into good colleges because they’re good at math or science or football or what have you. Maybe you can’t write an amazing novel, but you can still produce an interesting, honest essay about yourself that tells the admissions staff about who you really are.
MJ SEZ: See previous note about honesty.
HARVARD SEZ: No, seriously. Don’t lie. Aside from all of the obvious concerns, it’s really hard to maintain, and you’ll probably get busted.
MJ SEZ: Harvard is wrong. But let’s move on. What about guide books?
HARVARD SEZ: Oh yeah. Don’t get all freaked out by reading the sample essays in college books. Many of them suck.
MJ SEZ: Obviously, though, you should follow any models I post here. For example, I remember when I applied to college (not to HARVARD, though), I was QUOTE MANIAC! Based on my own success story, I offer the following example:
“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,” said Oscar Wilde. This reminds me of something the poet Yeats said: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Both men were talking about education, and that’s what I look for in a college . . . education.
Of course, as Aristotle reminds us, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” But what fruit? Lemons? Apples? Bananas? Tomatoes (which are technically a fruit). “Yes, we have no bananas,” the song says, but are bananas what we really need?
In my four years of high school (not, as Abraham Lincoln tells us, “four score and seven,” because that’s actually 87 years, which is WAY too long for high school, lol!), I learned many things about myself. “You live, you learn,” Alanis Morissette said, back on her 1995 album, “Jagged Little Pill,” and that’s still true today. I believe that as we go on in life, we change. It was Einstein who told us that “The only source of knowledge is experience.” Change. Experience. Education.
I feel this is all summed up in the words of Miley Cyrus, a.k.a. Hannah Montana:
There’s always going to be another mountain
I’m always going to want to make it move
Always going to be an uphill battle,
Sometimes I’m going to have to lose,
Ain’t about how fast I get there,
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb.
“So wise so young, they say, do never live long,” says Shakespeare. Let us hope for Miley’s sake . . . and for mine . . . that he is wrong.
Feel free to model your essays on that! And now that the INTERNET makes finding quotes so easy (you don’t even have to check them or anything, because everything on the internet is right!), you can pound out one of these babies in about five minutes, like I just did.
HARVARD SEZ: This sounds obvious, but . . . check your essay carefully for typos and spelling mistakes. And if you are using one essay to send to multiple schools, make sure you have the right school name in there! Don’t send Princeton a letter saying how much you want to go to Duke. This happens more than you think.
MJ SEZ: Actually, I think that you SHOULD put in the names of other colleges just to mess with their heads and make them JEALOUS.
HARVARD SEZ: And make sure you get someone else to read you essay—someone who isn’t just a friend. By this, I mean a teacher, a parent, or someone like that.
MJ SEZ: Or a vampire.
HARVARD SEZ: Also, don’t try to be overly clever. If they ask for an essay, send an essay. Don’t send a crayon drawing or a sculpture or a shoe with a note attached that reads, “Just wanted to get a foot in the door!” Admissions officers often keep these things to mock them.
MJ SEZ: I’ll tell you what they DO love, though. Emoticons. Pepper your essay with them! They won’t even notice them, and yet, all those smileys will affect their mood. They will remember reading your essay and being happy.
HARVARD SEZ: You have plenty of places on the application to list your achievements, so don’t go over them again and again in the essay. It looks like bragging. Bragging is bad.
MJ SEZ: BRIBING, however, is just smart. It can’t hurt to write, “P.S. I hear someone has a five dollar foot long in their future if they admit me!” Everyone loves a sandwich.
Tomorrow . . . more help for you! Leave your questions!
Posted: Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 @ 3:40 pm
Categories: advice, ask mj, college, contributions to society.
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