What Makes Admission Essays Successful?Did you know that one-pass editing services almost never write new material for you? Their services are limited by the material you submit. How can you improve your material so that it is ready to be edited to excellence? This brief guide helps you get it right before you go down the wrong path. For further assistance developing your essay, consider GradeSaver's Deluxe Harvard Editing Service.
How to Use a Writing Guide Wisely
Many writing guides, in print or online, provide fairly good advice about writing admission essays. You do not, however, need to read every page of a guide. The following principles help you find and make wise use of the advice you will find here and elsewhere.
1. Use a writing guide to get into the culture of excellent essay writing. Admissions officers read and discuss thousands of essays with one another. They develop a highly refined sense of taste for what makes an excellent essay. Develop this taste for yourself using these three methods:
a. Experience a lot of sample essays. You can read through a lot of college essay samples in an hour; graduate admission essays will take longer. After internalizing some principles and analyzing particular essays (see below), go back and read some more samples. Make sure that you choose a guide with enough samples. See, for example, GradeSaver's 150+ samples of successful admission essays.
b. Internalize the principles that those essays express. You often can find these principles stated just before each example. Become able to state the principles in your own words.
c. Analyze essays according to the principles. Become able to explain why an essay is so good--specifically, what it does for the reader, what purposes it accomplishes, and what it signals about the writer.
2. Pay particular attention to the section headings within each chapter, as well as the chapter titles. Too many readers only glance at the headings and then jump straight to the text. (High school and college students might consider skimming quickly through Mortimer Adler's instructive How to Read a Book.) Use these headings to focus on the topics that you should be learning. Besides, you often can distinguish the better guides in a bookstore by their use of meaningful section headings.
3. Make contact with other applicants who are reading either the same guide or another guide. You don't need a formal reading group. But it will help you to talk through with others (1) the topics you are learning, (2) your own ideas for essay topics, (3) other people's essay topics (it can be easier to develop the skills of critique and improvement when someone else's essay is on the table), and later on, (4) actual drafts of your essay.
Do You Know What the School Values?
It is essential to persuade admissions officers that you are someone they should admit. You persuade them by demonstrating that you are the kind of person they want in their institution. Even if you are applying to one of the hundreds of colleges that use the Common Application, the following advice is very important: learn what the institution values and show that you either exemplify or can help the institution achieve those values.
At most schools, a primary value is being able to communicate well. You signal proficiency in written communication by writing well-crafted, meaningful, believable essays.
But your essay also instructs the reader about you, both directly and indirectly. Even when your topic is about something else, such as your favorite book or the best way to eat an ice cream cone while blindfolded, you are teaching your reader about yourself: this is what I find interesting or valuable; this is how I solve problems; this is why I would be a great member of your community. Many schools, especially those in the Ivy League and other elite schools, already expect that the essays of most admitted students will be written very well. What they are looking for is a match between your qualities and values and what they value.
In addition to the specific values of each institution, just about every academic community values a lot of the same general qualities. You do not need to signal all or most of these values in your essay(s)--other parts of your application will signal several of them--but you should take care not to seem like the opposite of any of the things that the school values. Note that it normally goes over better to signal them through your narrative rather than to state them directly; avoid statements that merely announce, "I am great; look at me." The following list provides general qualities and values you could choose to express:
1. Strong traits of academic character. These are normally expressed elsewhere in an application, but a successful essay can show more details about (a) your excitement to learn, such as when you describe a particular research interest; (b) your hard work and other kinds of dedication, such as in an experience where you kept working in the face of a setback; (c) your interest in solving problems, such as when you noticed a problem and did something about it; (d) your creativity, such as when you did something unusual; or (e) your honesty, such as when you acknowledged that you had an important lesson to learn. An essay about a particular achievement, if it does not repeat too much material elsewhere in the application, might be ok so long as you use the achievement to show something new about yourself.
2. Traits that show potential for success. Good communication skills are fundamental. Beyond that, you can demonstrate that you will make good use of the resources at an institution to achieve your goals by showing explicitly (a) what your goals are and (b) how the institution's resources will help you achieve your goals. Or you can suggest implicitly that you have (a) ambition, such as when you imagine what your life will be like at some point in the future; (b) excitement about succeeding, such as when you relate how you felt after accomplishing something; or (c) skill in solving problems, such as when you accomplished a complex task for the first time.
3. Strong social skills. Remember that the institution is an academic community. Admission officers are especially hopeful that you will contribute to the overall life of the institution--in activities, in the dining halls, in the dormitories. A successful essay can demonstrate (a) your appreciation for social interactions, such as good times spent with friends and family, either in one specific incident or over the course of a season; (b) your leadership qualities (not your leadership positions), such as when you pulled people together to solve a common problem; (c) your engagement with interesting people who differ from you in important ways (don't simply discuss "diversity" but be specific), such as on an international trip or a trip to a different part of town or even a trip to your grandparents' house; (d) your commitment to community service, such as when you volunteered in a project to help people out; or (e) your interest in government, such as your involvement in a cause or your work for a political campaign on the basis of ideas about how to improve society.
4. Personal virtues. See below on "Which Personal Qualities Count As Good?"
Furthermore, it is important to understand the specific values of the institution to which you are applying for admission. For example, some schools value applicants who are really quirky but also really smart; others look for strong ethical or religious commitments; still others look for particular academic interests; and still others will admit just about anybody with the right test scores or athletic abilities so long as the essay does not sour the application. As you decide which schools you prefer, you probably will encounter information about each school's values. Many schools include these values in admission materials and on their web sites, such as in a "Mission Statement" or in a "Letter from the President." As you learn about the curriculum, student activities, and other programs, you will find out where the school is putting its energy and what qualities the school is most proud to offer you.
Which Personal Qualities Count As Good?
From the first sentence, your readers should feel that you are a person who is worth getting to know better. Give them every chance to enjoy what is best about you. By the end of the essay, your readers should feel glad that they came across such a wonderful person as yourself--they should want to give you whatever you have applied to get.
When admission officers consider your case, they will focus not only on what you have done and might do in the future, but also on your personal qualities. They might remember you as the person who ate ice cream while blindfolded, or they might remember you as the one who showed tremendous "courage" or "fairness" or "hospitality." Successful essays often demonstrate one or more of the following personal virtues. You can construct an entire essay around one of these virtues:
Prudence. Making good decisions; doing the right thing at the right time, in the right way. For example, perhaps you faced a difficult decision and made a wise choice, or you learned from a mistake and made the right choice on your second try.
Justice. Being fair; being honest about a situation; looking for several sides to an issue; giving people their due. For example, perhaps you committed a small offense and then submitted yourself for punishment, or you changed your mind about a significant moral, political, or religious issue.
Moderation. Being dedicated without overdoing it. For example, perhaps you used to practice a musical instrument for 5 hours a day, but you were really only productive for the first 3 hours, so you cut it down to 3 hours a day and had more time to accomplish some other goal. Moderation often involves self-knowledge about your abilities.
Moral strength. Facing difficulties by taking a stand or without falling apart. For example, perhaps you faced the illness of a family member, poverty, a natural disaster, or racism by writing a blog about your experience and by getting support from your friends.
Courage. Knowing not only when to act in a dangerous situation, but also when to retreat, and following through. For example, perhaps you escaped from a fire at home and chose not to return inside to try to save your pet, or you have just returned from military service where you put your training into action.
Generosity. Giving your time, money, attention, or other resources to others, for their sake. For example, you might engage in community service or cook meals for your friends.
Love/Honor. Enjoying and honoring what is good about yourself and the world, without too much pride or humility, and without too much critique. For example, you might be excited about a research project you completed and be ready to deepen your knowledge, proud of your achievements so far, but acknowledging that you still have a lot to learn. Or you might keep up with the lives of your family members by having dinner together seven days a week.
Self-control. Only getting angry or emotional in the right circumstances, and then acting appropriately. For example, you might have become angry with someone who committed a crime against you, but you called the police instead of picking up a gun to even the score.
Friendliness. Having friends and enjoying yourself; being witty; expressing your thoughts and feelings and paying attention to the thoughts and feelings of others; warming up to others quickly. For example, you may have struck up a conversation with somebody on the bus who turned out to be fascinating, or you go to the same coffee shop every week with your friends and never run out of things to talk about.
Faith. Being true to what you believe in, even while you genuinely engage with others who believe in something else. For example, perhaps you gained new insight into your own moral position on an issue as a result of arguing with someone about it (or you changed your mind!), or you have explained to someone why you engage in a certain religious practice, or you learned something important by carefully reading a sacred text.
Understanding. Really knowing how something works. For instance, you might have worked on a sailboat and can explain why the sails are shaped a certain way, or you could have an insightful interpretation of a work of art or literature.
Technical skill. Being able to do something well. For example, maybe you can pick 25 pints of blueberries in an hour without letting any bad ones in, or you can speak for 30 minutes on any topic someone suggests.
Discernment. Being able to see general principles or trends in the details of life; being able to "see the forest for the trees." For example, perhaps something in everyday life strikes you as an example of a larger pattern in society.
Knowledge. Knowing truth from falsehood; knowing facts rather than just having opinions; having clear and distinct ideas; being able to think something through and get the details right. For instance, you might have learned the Pythagorean theorem in algebra class, but now you can prove it, and something really clicks in your brain every time you go through the proof.
Wisdom. Being able to go back and forth seamlessly between general principles that you have internalized and specific facts that you know. If you are applying to an institution of higher learning, you can suggest that wisdom is your aspiration and your hope rather than a quality you have already achieved.
How to Be Remembered
It is very helpful to be remembered by admissions officers--and to be remembered as favorably as possible. What are your strongest memories of other people? What are your strongest memories of characters on television or in a book? In many cases, these are the kinds of things that admission officers will remember about you. Keep in mind, however, that experiences of a person in real life involve data that can be hard to express in a short essay. Seeing a characteristic smile is different from reading about it. And yet an experience is gone in a moment, while an essay can be read again and again. Choose a topic that might lock something good into your readers' minds, and then write about it with the goal of locking it in.
You are more likely to be remembered favorably when something good stands out in your essay. This usually means writing about something (1) specific, (2) unusual or startling, and (3) personally meaningful.
1. To be specific, choose a subject that can be treated in a short essay. Don't write, for instance, about the role of religion in the public schools, if you can write about a particular issue that serves as an example of your larger point, such as what you think about the "moment of silence" that begins the school day in many schools. Frame a scene using illustrative nouns and verbs: don't use "is" or "has" when you can use "stands out" or "features." In other words, make the characters in your narrative perform meaningful actions or think meaningful thoughts. Once you have constructed a strong set of subjects and verbs in your sentences, carefully and sparingly add or adjust the adjectives and adverbs. Consider adding dialogue at key points.
2. To make your essay unusual or startling, think about experiences that startled you or drew your attention to such a degree that you still remember them. These experiences can be good candidates for essay topics. Don't overdo the narrative, however, with melodrama or other kinds of exaggeration. It is enough to evoke the scene and provoke some emotion. For example, see if you remember this story a week from now:
"We were riding on a crowded minibus in Turkey about a week after another minibus was blown up in a neighboring city. A man ran up carrying a large object with protruding wires and tubes; it was labeled 'air compressor.' He put it on the bus right next to us, said something to the driver, and scurried away. We looked at one another: 'Should we get off the bus?' 'Why is the label in English?' None of the Turkish passengers seemed worried, however, and the bus driver accepted whatever the man had said, so we figured that this kind of event was not unusual. We traveled to the bus station with the 'air compressor' without incident, but with another travel story to tell when we arrived home."
An admissions officer might remember this essayist as "the one who rode on the Turkish minibus with the air compressor"--but encoded in that memory will be the observation that the applicant is an international traveler who has demonstrated appropriate courage and intercultural understanding.
Also, if you are good at writing humorously--that means being truly humorous--people actually laugh out loud at what you write, not just when they're being nice--a really funny essay can do wonders.
3. Essays that are personally meaningful are much easier to write successfully than essays about subjects that hardly move you. Something that stands out to you is likely to stand out to someone else. After you choose such a topic, the next task is to determine which details make your experience or your idea so meaningful. Here is where free writing--recording all of your thoughts about the experience or the idea you have--can be especially useful. You might type 1,000 words or more before you hit on the central detail that is the essence of the subject. Another method for getting to the most meaningful details is to spend time in conversation with someone about the topic. The pressure of coming up with things to say, combined with the need to answer questions about your topic, will help you focus on the most important points.
Writing the Essay: The First Sentence
For an introduction to writing the first sentence of an essay, see "The First Sentence" under Academic Essays. For an introduction to the different kinds of paths your essay might follow, see "Take Your Reader on a Trip" on the same page.
The first draft of your first sentence should be just enough to get you started as you begin to write. Later, after you have a good command of your topic and have a good sense of the overall tone of your essay--this may not be until after you have written several drafts--you can spend time focusing on the first sentence. This point in your writing is a good time to go back to sample essays to see what they accomplish in the first sentence. Does one of them provide a model for a sentence that would work well in your essay?
If you are having trouble structuring your essay, one good strategy is to look through everything you have written for the one best or most moving line. Try putting that sentence at the start and forming the rest of the essay around that primary idea. Note that this line might be the last point chronologically in your narrative--putting it first would give the whole essay an interesting "flashback" structure.
Here are some sample openings that might fit your essay.
1. Dialogue. Dialogue usually gets a reader's attention. This is because dialogue gives a sense of present action. Even one sentence in quotation marks can be enough. Example: "'I don't know where you get those ideas!' my mother said. I was drawing and explaining my latest, perhaps my craziest, back-of-the-placemat 'invention'..." This opening shows that the writer is thoughtful yet aware of the limitations of his ideas, friendly with his mom, and perhaps just the kind of person who can learn to focus his ideas with a good college education.
2. A short, striking sentence. Readers often appreciate writers who can pack a punch and then mellow out. You can be dramatic without being melodramatic. Example: "I held my gun firmly. The paintball field was covered in blue, yellow, and red splotches..."
3. A leisurely introduction. If the essay isn't action-packed but instead paints a beautiful picture for the reader, let the opening suggest a pleasant experience. Example: "Rowing out to the island on Lake Bled, dwarfed by the Slovenian Alps to the north and by an ancient castle high on the eastern hill, I was enjoying the best day of my summer vacation." Take the reader with you through this wonderful experience, using extra phrases and clauses beyond the simple subject and verb of the sentence.
4. A challenge. You can draw the reader into your argument if you advertise that you have learned something that goes against common knowledge. Perhaps you figured out that cats actually love to be petted the "wrong" way, back to front. Example: "Although my parents had warned me never to pet a cat from back to front, I recently discovered that Stitches can't get enough of my 'backward' attentions." This sentence suggests that the writer is willing to challenge cultural norms, which a lot of colleges want to see their students learn to do. Note that this kind of opening frequently starts out with the common knowledge but adds a challenging word such as although, but, while, or even though somewhere in the first clause, and then suggests the content of the challenge in the second clause.
5. A warning. A reader will pay attention when there is something to be concerned about. Examples: "I wish someone had told me two years ago that sometimes a pool of water on the road is really a mirage!" "When I worked for Representative Smith's political campaign last summer, I learned that pollution from factories in our state is far less of a danger to public health than runoff from farms." The second example shows that the writer knows something that readers should be aware of, that the writer did some interesting work, and that the writer learned something valuable from the experience.
The First Paragraph
The goals of your first paragraph should be (1) to communicate the thesis to the reader, and (2) to lead your reader to say, at the least, "this essay is a contender."
1. The thesis. Unlike an academic essay, sometimes the thesis of an admission essay does not assert an argumentative or aesthetic point. In many cases, it is a one-sentence summary of the overall topic of the essay. Moreover, the first sentence often can serve as the thesis.
Take, for example, the line above about rowing on Lake Bled. If the point of the essay is to describe the joys of the best day of your summer vacation, the words "I was enjoying the best day of my summer vacation" explicitly give the message of the essay. On the one hand, this message would fall short in an academic essay, because all you're doing is telling a story. True, you will be presenting evidence to support the thesis, but what's academically interesting about your great day? On the other hand, providing a message about what you value is just the kind of action that admission officers want you to perform.
But you could just as well take the admission essay in an interesting, more academic direction. Maybe the greatness of the day is just a backdrop for your real point: Lake Bled is so great because it hasn't been commercialized into a "tourist attraction." Your thesis could be something like, "The best part of my experience was the solitude, the feeling that I could enjoy the whole day without the presence of car horns, ice cream vendors, or tourists wearing 'Lake Bled' T-shirts." Or you could use that sentence to lead into an explicit thesis on the same topic: "I felt fortunate that Lake Bled is so much unlike 'tourist attractions' back home."
2. Becoming a Contender. In addition to choosing a meaningful topic and constructing a terrific first sentence, developing a crisp opening paragraph can impress your readers. This requires some ruthless cutting and perceptive editing.
The shortest opening paragraph could be just one line of dialogue. In a narrative essay, occasionally a one-sentence opening paragraph can be effective. The shortest standard opening, however, is no shorter than three fairly short sentences. Beyond that, you could go up to eight sentences if you have, say, a two-page personal statement to write. But most uninspiring essays are top-heavy: they are too bulky in the first paragraph, so the reader has to wade through too much material before getting to the point. Here are two ways to keep your opening crisp:
a. Classify the information in the first paragraph into either "explanatory" or "introductory" material, and then move all the explanatory material elsewhere in the essay. The introduction is for introducing, not explaining.
b. Commit, at least for now, to cutting the paragraph by half. It won't be enough just to improve the style and "tighten up" each sentence; some sentences will have to go. Identify the weakest sentence, and cut it. Then cut the next weakest sentence. Maybe you can save a phrase by incorporating it elsewhere in the paragraph, but the rest of the sentence can go. Keep going until it really would feel quite painful to cut further. As you cut, think about what each sentence actually accomplishes for you and for the essay, and if it doesn't pull enough weight, wave it goodbye.
Since there are so many different kinds of successful essays, no guide can tell you specifically what material to include. You are the master of the details in your experience; you are the master of ceremonies as you present your words to the reader. Even so, the usual guidelines about essay writing apply: see "One Point Per Paragraph," "Don't Forget the Point," "What Counts As Evidence," "Transitions," and so on under Academic Essays.
Even so, an admission essay is often much shorter than an academic essay. Try cutting every paragraph by half, just as in the introduction. Make sure you know what each paragraph is accomplishing, and be able to explain how each sentence contributes to the goals of the paragraph. For example, a lot of description of the scene is great when the point is to evoke the scene, but very questionable when the point is to do something else.
Don't Get Caught In a Lie
You might be surprised at how often admission officers spot exaggeration and outright lies in admission essays. An essay with such a flaw can quickly sink an application.
The best way to avoid getting caught in a lie is not to lie.
Don't discuss your friend's eye transplant (there is no such thing). Don't even change a sunny day to a rainy day in an attempt to heighten the drama; you may leave another detail unchanged that depends on the day having been sunny. Don't say that it was pitch black outside and then name something that you saw. Don't describe how amazing it was on a certain night, with the stars shining, if you were in a major city where you can never see the stars. The lesson here is that you or your editor must be a very strict fact checker, or a good detective. All the details of your narrative must be consistent and believable, both within the essay and given the rest of your application.
This does not mean that you shouldn't creatively interpret an experience. Remember that you can shape your readers' experience of your essay by drawing their attention to some details and not others. If you don't quite remember what people actually said and did, record what they probably would have said or done, on the basis of what you know about them--and that will be a genuine interpretation of what probably happened.
This advice also applies to what you have said and done. If you did a good thing, for instance, you can frame your action as a sign of a particular moral quality. The person on the Turkish minibus above, for instance, may have been a lot more afraid and a lot less courageous than the paragraph expresses. On the sentence level, note that most adverbs are the writer's own interpretations of an action, and adverbs sometimes can reinterpret events just enough to make your point without stretching the truth.
The Last ParagraphIn a short essay, the last paragraph often can do a lot more than sum up the essay. In an academic essay the body paragraphs tend to lead the reader to a kind of plateau, followed by a "conclusion" with a markedly different feel: the reader knows the essay is ending. But a short essay like an admission essay often has a more organic structure: the reader can carry along in memory pretty much the whole essay at the same time. You can save the feel of a conclusion for the last one or two sentences.
It is possible to write a strong essay without having read any writing guides and without getting any help from others. But this is inadvisable.
1. At the very least, get the reactions of one student or peer reader and one reader above that level (a teacher, parent, boss, or professor). Try to engage them in conversation about the essay's strengths and weaknesses.
2. At the very least, read your essay out loud to catch typos and, more importantly, to hear the tone and flow of the essay. Try to read it in the presence of a peer and/or a superior, and have that person read it back out loud to you. Remember that the reader of your essay will read as the essay looks on the page, not the way you imagine it sounding in your head.
3. At the very least, put the essay aside for a minimum of 24 hours after it is "finished," don't even think about it, and then return to the essay with a renewed mind and a fresh eye. To make the most of that time, give others the essay so that they can suggest some editing improvements for you to consider. GradeSaver has extensive experience providing such advice; let GradeSaver give you specific directions for editing your essay to excellence.
Additional Writing Resources
- What's a Good Essay?
- Academic Essays
- Scholarship Essays
- Essay Writing: First-Person and Third-Person Points of View
- Elements of a Successful Research Paper
- Removing Redundancy: Writing Clearly and Concisely
- Avoiding Commonly Misused Words
- Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
- Choosing an Effective Essay Topic
- An Overview of Literary Genres
- What Makes Classic Literature Classic?
- Determining Your Writing Style
- APA vs. MLA: What Style Guide Do I Use?