By Adela Penagos, PhD, President
We all are familiar with the adage that “actions speak louder than words.” In my experience, this has proven true when I am trying to figure out how committed people are to a relationship with me or to their job. However, when it comes to your college essays, your choice of words, the way you narrate your story and engage the reader will trump all the actions or ideas you are describing. As someone who has previously served on various admissions selection committees, I consider both the general and supplemental essays the most powerful tools in your application. They show your introspection; your writing abilities; your potential for inquiry; and your interest in the discovery of new concepts.
How can you choose your words wisely to make sure that the reader does not stop reading after the first sentence in your essay?
1) You are the central character in the essay:
As you probably have heard throughout all the informational sessions you attended during your college visits, this is a great opportunity to tell the admissions committee something that is not evident elsewhere in your application. Does this mean that you need to become JK Rowling? No, it means that the story you are telling has impacted you directly and has transformed you into the person you are today. Ultimately, the person reading your essay has to be persuaded to believe that you will enrich his/her university academically and socially. Thus, you want to convince him/her that you must be part of the incoming class.
2) You need to answer the selected prompt:
The courses I teach at a highly selective university have several writing assignments. As my students embark on completing some compositions that will impact their grade and learning outcomes significantly, I remind them that they have full control over their assignments, provided that they answer the question. However, every time I read the responses, I am surprised by how many of them decide to engage in a writing frenzy. I wonder if they read the prompt carefully. Even the most wonderful ideas presented without specific examples that clearly illustrate arguments and without smooth transitions will become convoluted. This approach casts doubt on your story and weakens your application.
3) Your story and the reader must connect:
The most effective writers are those who transport us into the world or incident they are narrating. As a result, you want to ensure that the person reading your essay can relate to your story and examples, can experience the setting where your story unfolds, and regardless of the outcome of your application will never forget your essay.
Your college essays give you the power to decide how much more of yourself you are willing to share with those who will make a decision that will affect the next four years of your life. They get you out of your comfort zone in writing about others’ opinions and ideas to focus on your own. While the supplemental essays are also an opportunity for you to show how well you have done your research on a given university, the general techniques that differentiate good writing from average writing are the same in all essays. At the end, you want to take your reader by the hand so that they not only continue reading beyond the first line but also vividly partake in your story.