Essay ≠ List

When asked to write essays on topics related to growth / achievement, students are usually tempted to write a list of their achievements, high exams scores and academic competition awards usually topping the list.

You should truly realize that an essay is NOT a list. You’ll be asked to list your achievements on the pages of your application form, so you don’t need to offer the same information in your essay. Don’t worry, college admissions officers will see all your grades, scores and awards; some of your teachers will probably elaborate on the most significant ones in their reference letters. To discuss these again in the essay will be labouring the point. Besides, it ill show colleges that you’re not more than a file of statistics, and what they are really interested in is accepting persons, not numbers.

An essay might be your only real chance to stand out as a person and be remembered.

Don’t you need to fit in, to match the profile of the average Dream College student? Well there’s no such a clear-cut thing as “the average College X student”, but that’s what we should discuss later. And then … I cannot emphasize enough how much you have to stand out.

I know it’s hard to get used to the concept after having lived for 18 years in our country and studied at our schools, which do their best to make you fit in, and if you don’t, you’re in trouble, man!

If you’re deeply interested in success, you could research topics like branding (especially personal branding). Now I’ll focus only on college context.

Imagine a college admissions officer. For 2-3 months he is busy reading applications – from dawn to dusk. He has a huge pile for the day, and he has to sift through it, so that he keeps and submits just a few applications to the next committee.

He will surely keep the few applications that have impressed him. Can you impress anyone by being so much like everyone else?

People have limited memories, so they can remember just a couple of items at a time (a couple of students a day), and what they remember best is the extraordinary.

If you list too many items in your essay, chances are none (or probably not the most important) will be remembered, so what you have to do is focus and paint a memorable picture, focusing on a single episode or trait.

An application essay should be like a haiku poem – telling little, and thus showing a whole unique universe. To get the metaphor, do try reading a bit of haiku, and you’ll feel that every little (three-line) poem places you in a wildly different universe.

If you write a list of 15 awards from math competitions, an admissions officer will know that you’re good at math, and as you’ll probably have good math grades and SAT Math scores, and a recommendation from your math teacher, he’ll be sick and tired of math.

Well, if you can show him your special relationship with math through a fascinating story, he’ll be impressed, and he’ll remember you, and, hopefully, pass your file on to the next committee. You cannot possibly write a fascinating story about math? Well, why not try some other topic for a change?


One response to this post.

  1. Exactly. Another way of putting it is that an essay is often most successful when it is a “slice of life,” a narrative about a single event–not a long list of all such events–that demonstrates who you are, what’s important to you, or how you see the world.

    Eva Holtz


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