How to Write the Perfect College Essay

It doesn't run much longer than 500 words, shorter than most high-school English assignments. Yet for so many students the essay remains the most daunting part of the college-application process, perhaps because it is the only part over which they can exert almost total control. As a result, they procrastinate, assuring that the anxiety will ratchet up to fever pitch.

So how best to approach the essay? I sought advice from experts with, collectively, more than a century of experience in the admissions game: Susan Case, former director of college counseling at the elite, private Milton Academy outside Boston; Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University; Karen Kuskin-Smith, retired head of college counseling at Brookline High School in suburban Boston; Jim Miller, dean of admission at Brown University; and Nanette Tarbouni, who just retired as director of undergraduate admissions at Washington University in St. Louis.

There is no such thing as a perfect essay: OK, maybe Mark Twain or John Updike wrote one. But you don't want to use those (or anyone else's, for that matter). If your essay is a masterpiece, you'd better have the credentials to back it up. Mostly, admissions folks want to see that you can forge a beginning and an end—and between the two carry coherent thoughts through several paragraphs.

Start early.
You have plenty of time to think during the spring, when you are traveling to 25 different campuses, or the summer, while you are performing some brain-dead job. The weight of the essay grows exponentially the longer you wait. Coming up with the essay topic is one place where parents may actually be useful, helping you recall experiences and reflecting on your special qualities. Tarbouni suggests writing a few sentences for several prospective essays. Let them percolate for a few weeks; then whichever makes you want to read the next sentence is the winner. Or, as Miller says: "Pick something you know, trust your instincts, write about it, and get on with your life."

Avoid the clichéd.
Some experiences that are important to you may be all too familiar to the admissions folks. Avoid the big trip where you learn it's a small world after all, or the big game where you learn it doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. Even a death or divorce, as tragic or sad as it may be, can come across as emotionally stale if all it reveals is how you persevered. Avoid big issues—"Too many people save the world," says Kuskin-Smith—unless you really are on the verge of a solution to global warming.

Consider a smaller canvas.
It doesn't require a big event to generate a compelling essay. One student wrote about why an Iron Maiden poster graces his bedroom wall. A young woman wrote about how she got to know her patrons serving them breakfast on her weekend job. A young man wrote about witnessing a man and woman arguing and how it made him reflect on gender imbalances. If you insist on harking back to one of your major life experiences, take a small piece of it. One young man wrote an essay about his morning walk past an alluring pastry shop in Lisbon. A young woman wrote of her summer on a Lakota Sioux reservation where she became obsessed with outlasting the men in the swelter of the ceremonial sweat lodge.

The essay should never be essentially a recitation of the résumé. The admissions officers are less interested in what you did than how it made you feel and what you took away from the experience. Emotional honesty tends to shine through. Baring one's soul may be an intimidating prospect, but Deacon says most essays suffer from excessive caution. They reflect what students think the college wants rather than what they want to reveal about themselves.

A little humility can be useful.
Most applicants opt for self-aggrandizement over self-effacement. "Too many kids are perfectly willing to tell you how wonderful they are," says Miller. "Teenagers don't tend to examine their faults under the microscope." Be careful, though, when using humor. Miller warns, "If you think you are funny, make sure somebody else thinks you're funny, too."

Answer the question.
Using the same essay for multiple applications is expected. But if a college presents a unique essay question, produce a new essay or at least recast the old one to address it.

Spelling and grammar do count.
With so many tools at their disposal, students shouldn't expect spelling and grammar mistakes to be tolerated. These errors, above all, convey laziness. The admissions world has its own lore: the young woman who loved her work as a "candy stripper"; the young man who, at 18, was already a master of "marital arts."

"Too Many Cooks Spoil … "
Editing help from an adult is fine; turning it over to someone for a rewrite is not. Admissions officers covet authenticity and swear they can recognize a pro's hand in the process. While it's valuable to show your essay to someone you trust, it's a mistake to have too many people vet it, likely generating conflicting viewpoints. Parents too often lack objectivity about their child, and thus may not be the best choice for counsel at the end stages. "The question the student should be asking," says Case, "is not 'Do you like it?' but 'Does it represent me?' "

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