How Not to Write a College Admissions Essay (Part 1)

Whatever you do, don’t be predictable.

The best advice is to seek as little advice as possible. Disregard sections of the bookstore labeled “College Prep” or “Writing Tools.” These texts are most likely written by people who didn’t get into the college of their choice and who’s creative toolboxes are virtually empty. Avoid asking others for their college essays. This will surely lead to amateur plagiarism, uninspired prose, and possible jail time. Ignore people who tell you to follow a template. Templates are for people who see the world in spreadsheets. Also ignore those who tell you to highlight your achievements. To put it delicately, no one cares about your achievements. Whatever you’ve achieved has been achieved before, better, and faster.

A college essay is a funny thing, often full of contradiction. They are ostensibly designed to exploit your creative potential while asking unimaginative questions like, “In 650 words or less, reflect on a time when you questioned a long-held belief.” It would seem that there are only two possible net-effects of such logic: (A) you carelessly type-out a half-baked text which parodies itself in cliché, ultimately wasting the time of hundreds of people or (B) through pouring your heart and soul into your prose you discover an untapped gift in which you realize there is no need for college afterall. Approach the college essay with little-to-no regard for rules or guidelines. Good writing is good writing.

And when it comes to good writing, only one thing matters—the story, of course. But if you’re still hung up on achievements consider this: one in ten college admission officers dies every year of sheer boredom. They are usually found slumped over a desk, face-deep in a pile of trite compositions that begin with quotes from Shakespeare or the phrase, “Ever since I was a young child…” Take note, your essay could save a life. The fact of the matter is, keeping your reader conscious is the greatest achievement of all.

Like all good stories, yours should follow the traditional three-act narrative. If you believe me, please refer to the paragraph regarding, “People who use templates.” In reality, there are no hard and fast rules to great storytelling. It’s why Hemingway owned a shotgun and why David Foster Wallace went insane. Good storytelling is a torturous endeavor, which is always grueling and often unsatisfying. If the college essay writing process is an easy one, you’re most definitely doing it wrong.

To add insult to injury, you’ll never truly know if what you’ve written is any good. One sign that you’re on the right track is if you’ve committed all 1,500 words to memory. This means you’ve read-it-over enough times to pick up on spelling errors and ponder the use of a semicolon. Another positive indication is if reading your essay induces severe cringing. Good writers will hardly ever be pleased with anything that spills from their pen (e.g. James Patterson believes his novels are awesome). The caveat of course is that tremendously bad writing will induce a similar feeling of embarrassment. Determining whether what you’ve created is great or god-awful will ultimately come down to instinct.

Regardless of the final product, take a moment to appreciate the history of the craft. A process which began on stone and wood, a hallmark of our civilization, unique to our species alone, has now been gifted to you for the purpose of amassing insurmountable debt in the form of college tuition. Ultimately, writing is nothing more than organizing symbols to create sound in a way that conveys meaning between you and another human being. There’s something magical (perhaps even telepathic) about that.

Whatever you do, just don’t ——.


Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

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