On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition
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On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition

Harry Bauld

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eBook - ePub

On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition

Harry Bauld

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One of the most stressful aspects of the college application process is the essay. Most students worry about what an admissions officer looks for in a writing sample. But that's the wrong way to approach this vital component, says former Ivy League college admissions officer Harry Bauld. At Brown and Columbia, he saw what prospective students often did wrong—and now tells you how to do it right.

In this fully revised and updated edition of the classic guide to writing the best essay of your life, Bauld has written an insider's guide to writing an essay that will stand out from the pack. He advises you on how to find your authentic voice, gives you tools and ideas that will spark your imagination, and shows you how to approach themes with originality and panache to make even the most tired topics fresh. He'll tell you straight out what admissions officers aren't looking for: another platitudinous variation on one of the following themes (if you see your initial idea reflected in this list, think again):

  • The trip ("I had to adjust to a whole new way of life.")
  • My favorite things (puppy dogs, freedom, and chocolate chip cookies)
  • The pageant contestant ("I think World Peace is the most important issue facing us today.")
  • The jock ("Through wrestling I have learned to set goals and to work with people.")
  • The autobiography ("Hello, my name is... ")
  • Tales of my success ("But, finally, when I crossed the finish line... ")
  • Pet death ("As I watched Buttons's life ebb away, I came to value... ")

Getting into the college of your dreams is tough. The competition is fierce. For more than twenty-five years, On Writing the College Application Essay has helped thousands of students improve their chances. Now, let it work for you.

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(or, Everything I Say You Can’t Do, You Can Do)

Consider the following opening of an essay, a blast from the past that might seem dated—but its value as an example is immortal. It seems at first to be a typical “Hello” autobiography.
I was born on October 22, 1960. There is nothing remarkable about this except that I spent the Sixties in a state of semiconsciousness and missed out on the Beatles. These days, though, a beginning like that seems somehow depressing, and I am not consoled by the fact that there were probably millions of others who had the misfortune to be born at the tail end of the baby boom. I don’t think I can ever forgive my parents for not acting sooner.
There is authority and humor here, and awareness. He realizes that his opening is ordinary, and he plays on it surprisingly in the second line by showing that he knows it’s banal; at the same time he begins to see some meaning in something as simple as his birthdate. We realize, in fact, that he was setting us up with that first line. We’re having fun, suddenly. It’s as if we are hiking through a wilderness with an expert outdoorsman; none of us is quite sure where the next step will be, but we have confidence the journey will be worthwhile. The sound is fresh. The turns of thought are surprising. We are hearing a voice. The joke at the end brings more than a smile—it steers a reader to the point of the essay: why being born in 1960 was such a big deal. Let’s listen to the answer.
Most of my generation (at least this is what US News and World Report tells me) lament that by the time we became pubescent we were merely stranded in the wake of something big that had happened. None of us, certainly not I, knew at first what we had missed, but the realization that our generation would be only a few lines in The American Pageant while our older brothers and sisters would be appended and multi-footnoted hit me like the first blast of winter. It seemed, when this moment of consciousness came, that there was nothing left to do in a worn-out world. Everything that should have been done or tried had been done or tried. A large portion of it had failed, which only decreased the probability that it would be attempted again in my time. All that the real children of the Sixties could do was play records made by people and organizations no longer in the papers. When my world view came of its own (that is, when I was allowed to cross a two-way street by myself) I saw behind me a decade that couldn’t be matched and ahead of me a generation that wasn’t about to try. Knowing that my life was effectively doomed to dullness somewhat lessened the impact of the axiom that each day should be a new learning experience. What was so new? All I had to do to find out anything important was ask a twenty-one-year-old or read old copies of Life. I could, of course, wait for the next revolution. Ideally, I could start another, but the disease which I so readily diagnosed in others applied to me just as well. I didn’t really care; it was much easier to fantasize. The idea that the Sagging Seventies were made to be played out with every part prewritten in the style of As The World Turns, with neither interest nor importance of action, had solidified in my mind, and in the words of Arlo Guthrie, “There was a-nothing I could do about it.”
But also I knew there must be something more than the fact of late arrival, something within my peers and me which put us in our state. As I look around at the classes of ’78, I can see little or nothing of passionate commitment. I perceive no idealism, no hate, no guilt, and no audacity. All I can see is thousands of would-be doctors and lawyers who want nothing more than to live in Garden City. For me, their goal leads to erosion of the soul and higher property taxes. I mean, I know I’m seventeen and think that I’m going to live forever and I really should plan for the year 1989, but the idea that my generation will become the Era of Public Accountancy is frightening. I don’t want my friends to clean up after the last mess; I want us to make our own.
In my analysis of what everything would be like should the UN suddenly decide to make me king of the world, I don’t want riots in the streets or pillaging. I want intelligence of purpose rather than a prefabricated existence. The Seventies are not over yet, and where people are concerned—even where I am concerned—there is always hope. Wherever I go to college, I want least of all to see and be part of the continuation of the Null Generation. I want us to be just as much a part of history as our older brothers and sisters.
Maybe finishing out the decade won’t be so bad after all. I mean, I can always go to see Beatlemania.


But, you say, that essay falls right into the forbidden modes—it could be either the Autobiography or the Big Issue. Relax. Contradiction Number One: Everything I say you can’t do, you can do. There are no good or bad topics for college essays, only good or bad essays. John Updike said, “There is a great deal to be said about almost anything. Everything can be as interesting as every other thing.” Sometimes good writing is just the result of reinvigorating what has become a cliché. In your essay, you don’t have to say something startling and new, or strain to be “different.” The writer above doesn’t make any contributions to the store of human knowledge. He just says what he knows in a fresh way that allows us to see for ourselves who he is.
This doesn’t diminish the danger in all the deadly essays in chapter three, but now that you know the traps of the Terrible Ten, you are ready to understand that most of them—Big Issue, Trip, Autobiography, even Pet Death—can be lively and revealing. Even the old second-grade standby, My Summer Vacation, can lead to excellent writing (see chapter twelve, “Summer Beyond Wish”).
You can make a college essay out of anything; the materials are everywhere. You just have to pay attention and teach yourself to care.


Approach is everything. Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you begin.
1. If you ask what “they” are looking for, you are already on the wrong track. What do you have to say? That’s what they want to hear. The Common App topics are all reducible to “anything you want.” Take them at their word. If the thing that intrigues you most lately is that your seven-year-old sister is the one person in the house who can text with one hand without looking, write about that, not World Peace; you have the beginnings of a good Big Issue essay.
2. Find a reader, or readers. Friends, brothers or sisters, pen pals, maybe a teacher you know and trust; someone who will respond to your writing in the right spirit. I can’t emphasize this enough. You are writing for readers now, and you need to train yourself to say something worth reading. They should simply be people who like good writing and can read your work without preconceived notions about what it should say. They have to be honest, and they have to care about you. It is often mutually inspiring to have your reader(s) also applying to college. You can swap ideas and frustrations. One warning about parents, though. They may want you to “sell yourself,” an approach that is dead wrong.
Parents have their uses, but reading your college essay isn’t usually one of them. They care too much, and often don’t know quite enough, or they have suspect sources of information and want to “fix” everything.
3. Write something only you could write. It should have a sound as distinctive as your speaking voice. The problem with most essays is that they could have been written by anyone. In one sense, your writing “voice” is simply a polished version of your speech; but remember how that speech changes when you’re talking to different audiences, like teachers or friends. It’s the same you, but your word choice, tone, sentence rhythms, and even the sound of your voice change. Just as you speak in a different “voice” to parents and friends, so you must find the one that’s right for this purpose. The voice you should be aiming at is one you’d use toward an acquaintance you wanted to be better friends with. (Remember, admissions officers already know you when they read your essay.) Though it’s not the voice you’d use with your best friend, it’s not formal, either. Don’t write to impress an adult, in what you imagine is an “educated” voice. You have two or three different voices of your own, and you should explore and use them. A good essay is like an interesting letter from someone you once met.
4. Know what you write about. This is a slight twist on the common writing advice, “Write about what you know.” The professional writers in chapter twelve know a lot—everything from history and foreign languages to the design of playing cards. That’s part of the reason their writing is good. But be comforted. Writing is discovery—writers often don’t realize what they know about something until they try to discuss it in print. If you find you don’t know anything well enough to write about it thoughtfully or entertainingly, you’ve learned something disturbing but not irreversible. And you’re wrong—you know more than enough. Think of yourself as a reporter working on a story, the subject of which happens to be your own life and interests. Your memory is your file drawer, and in that file are your research materials. You’re looking for significant details. These appear in the humblest and most ordinary things you do every day, usually in a more interesting way than they do in the Big Moments (being elected student body president, or scoring the winning water polo goal), events in which so many college essayists try unsuccessfully to Find Meaning. Instead, how about paying attention to that pigeon on your windowsill and what you eat for lunch—and why. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s certainly not worth writing about.
5. A college essay is an informal, or familiar, piece. All the questions, even the Big Issues, are really asking for some kind of personal statement. Don’t even think of it as school-related writing. It is not a history or English paper. Loosen up. You are after the most natural tone and style possible—a kind of inspired conversation, scrubbed clean of all its hesitations, repetitions, and vagueness. It is as personal as a phone call.
6. Entertain. I don’t mean you have to do stand-up where laughs must arrive every fifteen seconds. But all writing entertains at some level. “Entertainment” has gotten a bad name over the years, a reputation as a lightweight; people say, “It isn’t a very thought-provoking movie; it’s pure entertainment.” As if only things that turn your mind into fruit punch are entertaining! To truly entertain doesn’t mean to open with a few lame jokes or to sink everything to the level of TV sitcom; it means to sustain a voice worth listening to. You can be as serious or as frivolous as you like, whatever suits you. But when you write, write to give pleasure to your audience. You’ll write a mo...