The most effective way to write a college essay is to be personal, honest, and vulnerable. There are other ways, but this is the most surefire route to creating a bond with readers in the admissions office and making them your allies. For many applicants, particularly those who are the children of immigrants, this kind of self-disclosure, which often entails discussing one’s failures or family difficulties, can seem quite dubious and shameful. In American culture, however, getting real is valued and trusted more than only detailing your accomplishments.
Playing it Safe
The alternative is to play it safe. If you write about something that happened in high school, like falling just short of that A in math, suffering a broken ankle playing a sport, or winning or losing a competition, the essay will be like many, many others. If you write about such a familiar subject, you need to find the emotional resonance. For example, if your father expects you to get straight A’s in the most demanding courses and you fall short, there might be a story there. What do you learn from how he reacts? How does your relationship change? What unexpected emotions or situations arise? What do you realize about what’s at stake for your parents in your academic performance?
Avoiding Bland or Boring Essays
Stories of high school setbacks usually make meh essays. If you make the essay about how you resolved to work harder after your setback and got an A the next semester, that is equivalent to answering an interview question about your greatest weakness by saying that your greatest weakness is that you work too hard. What you really tell the interviewer or admissions committee when you don’t reveal the emotional aspect of your experience is that you have difficulty telling the truth. Own your vulnerabilities. We all have them. If you have difficulty telling the truth in the essay, the admissions committee will probably also think you have difficulty telling the truth to yourself. College admissions officers worry that such students won’t deal well with adversity and critical feedback, and won’t be able to have honest relationships with roommates and classmates.
Showing Your True Self
So many applicants to elite schools have worked extremely hard and have also worked extremely hard to maintain an impressive image. When it comes to the college essay, it’s time to put this image of perfection aside and show your readers that you can talk about the side of yourself that suffers pain, disappointment, envy, resentment, and even embarrassment. The rest of your impressive application shows how remarkable you are; in the essay, the reader wants to know not about your achievements but about you.
Finding the Balance
You might be thinking that spilling your guts in an essay isn’t a good idea. You’re right. John Keats said that the secret to art is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” You want to show the reader that you understand your feelings and have a sense of proportion at the same time. You don’t want to force your reader into an unwanted therapy session. This might seem like a tricky balance, but this is where your trusted reader comes in. Your reader will tell you when you’re going too far.
How do you start? Think about the events in your life that go straight to your emotional core. The brother that got into serious trouble, your parents breaking up, the economic reversal that changed your life and made your parents feel ashamed, the racist jokes directed at you, your medical issue, the cruel remark that still makes you feel guilty. If you feel something when you write, the reader will also feel something.
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