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Picture this. You are a college admissions officer. (Stop gagging, please; I'm trying to make a point.) You are sitting in your office, a pile of admissions essays in front of you. The eighty-third applicant has just told you that he is hard-working, scholarly and community-minded. You're not entirely sure if he is the person who volunteers at the rest home or if it was the girl three essays ago. And you're wondering why he is bothering to tell you about his straight A's, considering his grades were sent as well. You sip your coffee, trying not to fall asleep, because you are absolutely certain that you've read this essay before.
Now hop back into your own shoes. Do you want to be the writer of that eighty-third essay? No, you do not. So your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to be different. And what's more, you must convince that exhausted admissions officer that you are different. In order to be accepted to your first-choice college, you must be their first-choice applicant. And as we all know, that involves much more than stellar grades and an impressive list of extracurriculars. You must convince them that you stand out from the crowd, and your essay then becomes the best vehicle to accomplish this end. As a famous 80s pop star once urged, Express Yourself!
Make your essay tell the admissions officer who you are. What makes you different? Not your grades. No matter how good they are, someone else has them too. Not a list of all of your commitments, although they are impressive. The admissions department does not need to know how many teams have named you as their captain. What they DO want to know is, what have you learned from being on these teams? Going back to academia, was there a particular science project you did in ninth grade that convinced you to become a botanist/biologist/epidemiologist? Describe it.
You don't even need to stay within the confines of school activity. What have you learned from your family? What childhood experiences have built your character and taught you how to live? Life experiences make great subjects for college admission essays. Anything that is about you - who you are, and who you want to be in the world - will give them a perspective that they do not get from anything else they receive. This is your chance to answer that age-old question: Who do you think you are?
Specific examples are what will communicate to the reader. Don't tell them you are hardworking. Show them. Tell them how you woke up at 4 am every day for a paper route when you were in sixth grade, so you could earn a bit of pocket change and still have time after school to play on the basketball team. Describe it, vividly and with details. Active details. Instead of "I was tired," try "My feet dragged on the floor to the bathroom." And always be sure the reader understands what the essay says about you as a person. ust like the hokey-pokey, "that's what it's all about."
Of course, technique and structure do carry weight as well. You must engage the reader, but you must also sound intelligent. Throw in a few advanced vocabulary words where appropriate. Just make sure you know what the words mean first, lest you sound like you're trying too hard. These changes don't have to bend your brain, in any case; simply replacing "important" with "crucial" will do the trick. And as far as structure goes, just ensure that your essay flows well and that it is understandable. Try having a parent or older sibling read it. Or the mailman. Someone who isn't you, so that you know a stranger will understand it.
And most importantly, don't try to be anyone else. Be you. That's what they want, and that's what will get you in. There's no one out there like you, no one with your experiences and background. Show them that. Show them how your uniqueness enhances your identity, and will in turn enhance their college. That is, after all, why they want to know about you. So tell them... no, wait. Show them.
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