The application essay is a very important component of the entire application
process. Most of the other information you supply throughout this process:
academic information, counselor recommendations, teacher evaluations, all of
these are the impressions, evaluations, and estimations of yourself, by other
people, some of whom may not even have known you for more than a year. But
the essay is the one opportunity you have to present yourself as you are, with
your own voice, to the admissions officer. And if you happen to manage that task
well, you may very well be on your way to attending the college of your dreams.
But what exactly do college admissions officers want to see when they review
your essay? First of all, they want to know that you can handle college-level
writing. And in case you were wondering, you’re going to get a truckload of
writing to take care of while at college, which can be fun if well managed and
well-prepared for. But that’s another story. Seeing as you’re going to handle
much more writing at college than you currently are (special reference to the
‘tonnes of essays’ you’ve written or have to write), the college admissions officers
want to be assured that you are competent in this regard, and that you can
present your ideas in writing, in a coherent manner.
Secondly, college admissions officers seat behind their desks parsing through
your essays for as long as it takes, in order to piece together, in as much detail
as can be gleaned from these essays, your personality. The admissions officers
are interested in your stories, your passions, your growth experiences, your
struggles, your interests, your favorite songs, your favorite places; everything!
They want to be assured that this ‘person’ take note: not this ‘list of awesome
grades and achievements’, is the kind of person they’d love to have at the
college. Think of the essay as a casual conversation with the admissions officer,
and keep in mind that your goal is to reveal as much about your pleasant
personality as possible, without overselling yourself and coming off as arrogant.
Not a lot of people can bear to hear you blab on about yourself, despite how
much everyone wants to do that, but the college admissions officers are actually
paid to do so! Isn’t that wonderful? You bet it is.
WHERE DO I START?
So how do you actually go about showing these admissions officers who you
are? Don’t you have to figure out who you are in the first place? Of course.
Which is why the first step towards writing a successful application essay is to
not write at all. Indeed you read that right. Before you even read the prompts for
your essays, one of the key things you ought to do is:
1.INTROSPECT: (Feel free to add this to your SAT Vocabulary compendium if
necessary. And while you’re at it look up ‘compendium’ too.)
Yes, just like most other forms of writing, the college application essay requires
you to actually think long and hard before putting pen to paper. Ask yourself
“What exactly is it about my personality that I want to show these people?” And
then ask the same question to your friends, counselors, parents, siblings, and
anyone that cares to listen at all (including, of course your mentor). You will want
to get as many opinions about yourself as possible. And I know how much you
love to hear other people talk about you! And this will probably be the only
opportunity you get to conduct research about yourself, so use it as extensively
A few exercises that will help your introspection include the following:
• Stream of consciousness: By this I mean write about yourself, as you think
about yourself. Don’t pause, don’t even try to spell check or correct your
wording, or make sure that there is any logical sequence in the penning
down of your thoughts. Just write whatever comes to mind. Write like the
wind! Ideas, past experiences, emotions and other thoughts will flow
unchecked and in their purest state, unto paper, as soon as you free your
mind of the impositions of grammatical rules, mechanics, and logic. Try
doing this consistently for a week as you keep brainstorming for your
essays. You will have gleaned so much about yourself from such a simple
• The self-list: This technique requires a bit more thought-processing than the
previous one. Make a list of every single quality that you can possibly
ascribe to yourself, and again, feel free to ask your parents, friends,
counselors, and mentors to join in the fun. Make your list as long and as
exhaustive as possible, and include those things you are passionate
about, your academic interests, the activities (extracurricular and
otherwise) that you devote most of your time to etc. When you’re done
with that, attach to each of the qualities, a personal experience or an
anecdote that gives evidence to the qualities and/or interests you’ve listed.
For example, ‘hardworking’ is on your list? Then recall a time you had to
work your butt off to achieve a particular goal. You’re interested in art? At
what point during your childhood did that become apparent? You’re a
dancer? Did you ever walk into a crowd of strangers, music blaring
somewhere in the background, and dance like crazy for no reason in
particular? What notable story do you have to offer as proof of the
qualities that you have ascribed to yourself?
• Past/Present/Future: This also requires lists. Get a sheet of paper and section
it off in three columns. In the first column, list out all the qualities, interests,
activities, etc. (just like in the first) that you could have ascribed
yourself/were interested in/were committed to etc. in the past, whether or
not that has changed. In the next column list out your current interests and
qualities. And in the third list out your ambitions and the qualities of the
man or woman that you want to see yourself grow into. Make the list in
each column as comprehensive as possible. It might be a bit difficult to
describe or rather decide on who exactly is the ‘past you’, so I encourage
you to choose an arbitrary point in time, preferably somewhere in your
preadolescence. Picture that ‘you’ and make your list. For the ‘future you’,
picture yourself post-college. This will also help you put in perspective
what it is from an education at your college of choice that will actually have
you grow into the person that you desire to become.
Now the magic begins! Compare the ‘Past’ list and the ‘Present’ list. What is it
about you that has changed over time? What new interests have you picked up,
and what old ones did you drop? What qualities have you acquired or left
behind? To each of these questions, also attach the questions ‘when’ and ‘how’.
When did these changes occur? Of course change is a gradual process, that
doesn’t just automatically occur. But during the course of this change, is there
any point in time or any event whatsoever that you can single out as a defining
moment, your ‘aha!’ moment? And how did all your past experiences build up to
this one moment? The point is that in between the inconsistencies in your ‘past’
and ‘present’ lists, with every new skill or interest acquired, and for every other
one dropped, there exists fantastic stories about yourself that the admissions
officers would definitely love to read. Repeat this same process with the ‘present’
and the ‘future’ columns, and figure out what new qualities you will have to
acquire, or even those you will have to improve, to help you achieve your life’s
• Talent/Use: Another listing method. Perhaps you’ve noticed the pattern here.
List in one column all the talents/interests you’ve developed, be it public
debate, or a particular way to curve a football round a defensive wall in
football. Let me emphasize that your talent doesn’t have to be over-the-
moon spectacular. List those things that you are uniquely capable of
doing. Trust me, I’ve seen brilliant essays about playing with pens or
taking a shower or even drumming while class is in session (as notorious
as that seems) that would beat three-page long resumes any day. In the
second column list out what you’ve used this talent to achieve. Do you
drum so well in class, that you provide entertainment for your classmates?
Do you write short stories for your little siblings? Have you perfected the
art of sensing danger in the trajectories of your friends’ conversations, and
changing the course of the conversation to avoid it? Put all that on the list!
Apply as many of these techniques as you can, and feel free to research more
techniques that will help you unlock more about yourself to yourself (Google is
your friend). And now we’re ready for the next step.
2. SURVEY: Yes, I know how much you want to jump right into the essays and
get it all over with, but wait just a little longer. The next step is to survey your
essays. The keyword here is essays. One thing you will come to learn, or have
already learnt about the application process is that essays never come
unaccompanied. Sometimes you may have to handle as many as three or more
essays for just one school. That might be a cause for distress if you begin to
imagine the admissions officers as mean judges who want to put you through hell
before they deem you competent enough to be admitted into their ‘prestigious
institutions’ . But, from another perspective, the admissions officers are actually
trying to help you. Think about it. How are you going to compress all of your life,
years and years of making mistakes and learning, of laughing and crying,
dancing, singing, winning, losing: all of that and the whole breadth of your
personality into five hundred words on a computer screen? The admissions
officers, by handing you so many essays to deal with, are only giving you even
more opportunities to express yourself and to reveal and simultaneously discover
the full depth of your own personality.
In addition, according to the Collegeboard website, application essays are
generally of three types. These are:
• The ‘Describe yourself?’: This type of essay is designed to have you directly
spill your guts to the admissions officers. e.g. “What three adjectives
would friends use to describe you?” (adapted from the California Institute
of Technology supplementary essay prompt)
• The ‘Why us?’: This type of essays is designed to determine your academic
and career goals, and how serious you are about attending the college in
the first place e.g. ‘Why did you choose to apply to New York University?’
(adapted from the New York University supplementary essay prompt)
• The creative/discuss an issue question: This essay is intended to have you
demonstrate your creativity and originality in thought, and your ability to
think outside the box. e.g. “Find x” (University of Chicago supplementary
For the sake of convenience, I will refer to all the essays that you have to write
up for each school as an essay set. Survey your essay set by figuring out exactly
what the essay types are i.e. exactly what do the admissions officers want to find
out about you? Then from the lists of qualities, interests, goals, talents, and
anecdotes that you put together in the introspection step, decide all the qualities
about yourself that you want to put across to the college admissions officers. To
each essay in your essay set, delineate a convenient amount of qualities about
yourself that you have decided to put across, ensuring that these conform with
the theme of the essay. Also list out in bullet points, the key points that you will
put across in each essay. This way, you are not tempted to pour out everything
about yourself into one essay (which would make a disorganized, and unfocused
approach), and leave the other essays in your essay set empty, or echo
everything that your first essay has already said. Take advantage of the number
of essays in your essay set to say as much about yourself as possible!
Another reason to be glad that you will be dealing with multiple essays is that
you can take risks in one of them. By this, I don’t mean you should take an essay
that asks you to “Write about yourself”, and then turn it into an essay about Adolf
Hitler. No, that’s not an acceptable type of risk anywhere in the universe. Instead,
try being creative in one of your essays, in such a way as to grab attention to
yourself. Some successful applicants have managed to distinguish themselves
from the rest by going against convention. An easy example is this one about
bathrooms. That definitely caught attention, among a pool of essays that were
most likely about grades and generic accomplishments. And that is exactly what
you’d want to do! Imagine the college admissions officer going through
thousands of essays, and he/she comes across yours only to discover that it
sounds almost exactly like the rest. Do you think he/she would be able to recall
your essay? Exactly. With this in mind, challenge yourself to write one risky
essay. Try something weird, funny, and/or entertaining!
Now that you have surveyed your essays and figured out what it is about yourself
that you want to say in each of them, you may proceed to...
3. WRITE: Hold your horses for a little longer, we’re not writing just yet. Here
are a few tips that will help you avoid making your essay just any other random
• Show don’t tell: By this, I mean that you should not just plainly list out your
qualities or achievements or interests in your essay. That makes for a very
generic, and even worse, boring essay. There are thousands and
thousands of application essays of this sort. You will have an edge over
the others, if, instead of ‘telling’ the admissions officer:
‘I like to write and I’ve been fascinated by the power of literature for as long as I
can remember. I also love mathematics and the sciences, and in this respect, I
consider myself intellectually versatile. Yet, I do not believe that the totality of my
personality is encapsulated in the consistency of my results and the extent of my
appreciation for in-class learning. That would make me rather one dimensional.
Instead, I consider my relationships and extracurricular activities an important
aspect of my personal development and I take care to make sure that I am
always in touch with my friends, and that I make out time for my non-academic
you ‘show’ them by trying something like:
My pen weaves an inky breath of life into Eric as he unravels, piece by piece,
flaw by flaw, in the midst of the ever transient maelstrom that is the latest plot of
my newest story. He has lived as many as nine brief lives. Perhaps nine life
cycles instead. I mold him beneath the dimness of my lighted lamp, piecing him
together carefully with words, paragraphs, strike-through’s, and punctuations. I
bunch him up into a round paper ball of frustration that soon metamorphoses into
a miniature basketball for my private practice sessions with the bin as a basket.
Aim. Shoot. Coach Tunde would be proud of that. Eric’s tenth death greets
Coach’s rarely glimpsed smile, and high-fives with my teammates somewhere at
the back of my head.
“Nice shot Mike. Writer’s block?”
Emeka, my teasing new study partner at the national library has snuck close
enough to me without my notice, to whisper quietly. I put on a sad countenance
and make as if to weep. He shakes his head in mock concern and signals
towards the group study rooms with a pleading gesture. I follow after him.
“Ah, Mike! Check this one out!”
Fiyin shoves a Math problem set playfully into my arms, while Fatima points to
question seven with a chewed pen.
“Hmmmn! We may have to flip through the textbook for this one, but I think the
answer is C.” I manage after some thought.
“I TOLD YOU!”
Fiyin leaps about the tiny study room with abandon, and not for the first time, I
consider lending imaginary Eric some of my friend’s carefree nature.
I focus on the question for a moment more, and squint in recollection.
“O wait, its D, its D, I spoke with John about this particular question on Tuesday.”
Fiyin pauses mid-victory dance
“Yes John, the guy that sat across from us last week, the first day we all met?”
Fatima recalls smilingly before sticking out her tongue at Fiyin and then at
Emeka. Perhaps Eric should be Erica.
“It’s a trick question….”, I begin, moving towards the long wooden desk behind
Fiyin that has been mercilessly saddled with a myriad textbooks.”
Both of these excerpts are well written I suppose, but of the two of them, the
latter is more likely to leave an impression on the college admissions officer, yet
without explicitly claiming intellectual versatility, engagement in extracurricular
activities, and a gregarious disposition as qualities, as in the first. These two
excerpts basically put the same points across, but the key difference between
them is that the latter ‘shows’ these qualities with a little subtlety. This will be a
mark of distinction between your essay, and hordes of others like the former.
• Paint a picture: Another good thing going for the second excerpt is that it
presents an easily visualizable setting, within which the college
admissions officer can place the writer, and come to think of the writer as
a living, breathing person, and not, take note again, a list of qualities and
personal achievements. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that anything that
can be visualized can be recalled. Read or hear the words ‘Mona Lisa’
anywhere in the world, and Da Vinci’s famous painting immediately comes
to mind. In the same manner, seeing as you would like your essay to
remain fresh in the memory of the college admissions officer, ‘paint’ a very
visualizable picture in your essays. Thankfully you do not need a
paintbrush and poster color for this. Instead, focus on giving a vivid,
detailed description of things in your essay. This tip also complements the
‘Show, don’t tell’ tip. For instance, one can infer a lot without directly being
told from the following lines:
“I focus on the question for a moment more, and squint in recollection.
“O wait, its D, its D, I spoke with John about this particular question on Tuesday.”
Fiyin pauses mid-victory dance
“Yes John, the guy that sat across from us last week, the first day we all met?”
Fatima recalls smilingly before sticking out her tongue at Fiyin and then at
Emeka. Perhaps Eric should be Erica.”
A few ideas you can infer are:
1.The persona thinks carefully about his decisions because he corrected his
initial guess. He ‘pauses a moment more’ is the piece of detail here that
unlocks this quality for the reader.
2.The persona makes friends easily. “Yes John, the guy that sat across from us
last week, the first day we all met?” is the piece that unlocks this quality.
He’s only known these guys for a week and their comfortable enough to
approach him with their questions and to dance unashamed in his
3.The persona is intelligent. The fact that his friends trust his answer is enough
4.The persona is humble, willing to learn, and gives credit where it is due. He
admits to John helping him.
5.This might be a stretch, but going by the “birds of the same feather” maxim, the
persona is quite likely as playful, good-natured, and humorous as his
friends. They, ‘stick their tongues out’, perform ‘victory dances’ and shove
things in his face. That’s about as cheerful as you can get, and everyone
including admissions officers, loves good cheer.
While adjectives and adverbs indeed are useful for the purpose of illuminating
your essay, well placed and well-chosen descriptive verbs can equally achieve
the same task. Writing ‘I trudged along in the direction of the hill’ will pass across
more information than ‘I walked in the direction of the hill’.
• Let your introduction snatch attention: Truth be told, your entire essay should
grab attention, but in the case of the introduction, a little more so. First
impressions count, and this part of the essay will largely influence a
reader’s reception of the rest of it. So don’t let your essays start without a
bang. Write something that immediately draws your reader in, and already
has him/her asking questions. Here are a few examples for inspiration
◦ Unlike many mathematicians, I live in an irrational world; I feel that my
life is defined by a certain amount of irrationalities that bloom too
frequently, such as my brief foray in front of 400 people without my
◦ Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Bhimanagar slum dwelling in
Bangalore, I ran my fingers across a fresh cut on my forehead.
◦ I almost didn't live through September 11th, 2001.
◦ When I was 8 years old, I shocked my family and a local archaeologist
by discovering artifacts dating back almost 3,500 years.
◦ When I was in eighth grade I couldn't read.
◦ While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled
upon a hidden pocket of the universe?
◦ The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it,
the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily
◦ I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.
◦ I have old hands.
◦ Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious
chemicals in the garage.
◦ I was paralyzed from the waist down. I would try to move my leg or even
shift an ankle but I never got a response. This was the first time
thoughts of death ever crossed my mind.
◦ As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.
◦ On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat
and furry boots.
◦ I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
• Avoid clichés and be original: Why should you avoid clichés? Because
everyone else uses them, and you’re trying to distinguish yourself from the
rest of the applicant pool. Platitudes like “A bird in the hand is worth two in
the bush” or, “...this taught me to make hay while the sun shines”, just
don’t cut it. Describe things your own way, without recourse to those types
of phrases that probably every living thing has used by now.
• Be concise: If your essay prompt requires five hundred words, try as much as
possible to stick to that word limit. Admissions officers have loads and
loads of essays to look through, and if the length of your essay is getting
in the way of other work, he/she may very well be cross with you. That’s
never a good thing. Technically, you can get away with going just a little
overboard (I speak from experience here), but don’t overdo it. One way to
avoid unnecessary verbosity in your essays is to cut down ‘flimsy’
adjectives and adverbs. By these I mean words like ‘very’ as in ‘very
tired’. Instead, the use of strong verbs that convey the same idea and
indicate that you have a broad range of vocabulary, like ‘exhausted’ or
‘fatigued’, will save you useful word space.
• Don’t be arrogant: Moderation is key. You may tout your own horn in your
application essays in fact, because that’s the only way the admissions
officers will be interested in your application anyway. But do not do so to
an extent that you come off as arrogant and unteachable. The reason
you’re applying to college in the first place is because you want to expand
your knowledge, and painting yourself as a know-all will not convince the
admissions officers that you’re interested in learning. A pinch of self-
deprecating humor in your essays could help make you seem more
‘human’. But don’t undersell yourself either, or use self-deprecating humor
to the extent that it becomes damaging.
• Don’t repeat information that is recorded anywhere else in the application: If
you’re sending in your transcript, then there’s no need talking about your
grades in the essay. Let them speak for themselves. The same goes for
other personal information and/or achievements that can be listed
anywhere in your application. You have very limited space within which to
reveal as much about yourself as possible. Don’t waste it with
redundancy. Worse still, repeating such information, your grades for
example, may lead the admissions officer to believe that your life revolves
around your grades. That wouldn’t really present you as a well-rounded
character, would it?
• Be Honest: College admissions officers want to find out about you. Why give
them an erroneous impression of yourself? And suppose you’re admitted
into the college based on the false information you supply, isn’t it likely
that you may find out that you do not ‘fit in’ at the college? Aside from the
obvious fact that college admissions officers have supernatural powers
and can spot lies even when they’re in far off Jupiter, it’s unethical and just
plain disappointing to include false information about yourself in the essay.
BUT, feel free to create fictional characters and replace names in your
essay for any reason at all provided this does not pass along the false
impression about your personality.
• Seek other opinions: A valuable lesson you will learn during the course of the
application process is that another pair of eyes is more adept at singling
out faults in your work than yours. Or perhaps you’ve already learnt that.
Not a lot of people I know like criticism, but if you really want to get into
that dream college, you will have to welcome it, and embrace it. Have your
friends, family members, teachers, and obviously, your mentor, look
through your essays and give helpful feedback. Do not however, allow any
of these persons to help you with actually penning down, in whole or part,
any one of your essays. The essay is supposed to reflect your personal
voice, and if it seems that your essay does not do so, then it does not fulfill
its purpose and must be altered accordingly. In addition a day after they
each review your essay, ask the readers what they remember about it.
This will show you how memorable your essay really is.
• Proofread, proofread, proofread: And then proofread some more. Go through
your essays over and over again to make sure that there are no
grammatical errors, no missing commas, no misspellings that don’t show
up on the spellcheck radar, or embarrassing mistakes of any sort. Those
definitely do not play to your advantage as a college applicant. Always
start your essays early so that you have ample time to review them before
hitting the submit button.
And now we’re ready…
This is it. The final bit. How do you actually write the essay? That’s easy on the
surface. You sit down, put pen to paper, and then do what you’ve been doing at
school your whole life. Write. I mean, how hard could that possibly be?
Rather difficult as it turns out. Sometimes, you may not feel ‘inspired’ enough
to churn out five hundred words that are guaranteed to wow your reader.
Sometimes, you start a sentence and scratch it off because it doesn’t seem eye-
catching enough. But don’t be worried. One simple recommendation is that as
soon as you get your essay planned out, just begin to write, paying close
attention to those ideas that you’ve decided to put across. This will be the first
draft of your essay. Do not think about the placement of your words or the
grammatical accuracy of your sentences. Just focus on putting all your ideas out
on paper in a simple form. Don’t even think about the word limit at all.
When you’ve created this first draft, go back to it and review it from to time.
There will be a lot of errors no doubt, and some of the phrases that you use in
the essay will sound bland and uninspiring. As a result the bulk of your work at
the second sitting and thereon will deal with the mechanics, and rephrasing of
your essay. But as time goes by, your essay will begin to take shape in the most
wonderful way! If you can spare the time, stay away from your essay for a few
days, and then come back to it to re-evaluate. This will no doubt give you new
insight into the essay, and increase your chances of picking out errors in your
work, which your eyes would have previously run over. It also helps to read your
essay out loud to yourself, to actually hear what it sounds like coming from your
The entire college application process, and in particular, handling the application
essays requires a lot of introspection. Although getting all the work done in so
short a period of time may seem more like a punishment than a challenge, it
helps to remember that the entire process will actually prove beneficial to your
personal development, and perhaps even help you come to a greater
understanding of your worth, your life’s goals and your aspirations. Take full
advantage of this opportunity, and don’t hesitate to dive headlong into periods of
contemplation about who you really are, and what exactly it is that you want from
a college education. You are at a critical point in time in your life, just on the
verge of adulthood, and indeed much greater self-knowledge and a recognition of
your aspirations, will put you in prime position to hop on the maturity train with
ease. BUT, do not forget to have fun during the course of this entire process.
Smile, laugh, chuckle, snort, roll on the floor with every opportunity you get. Hang
out with your friends from time to time, play your favorite sports, and do anything
and everything you love. Because in the end, life is much bigger and much more
beautiful than a single application essay.(But hey, the essays are still important!)