Essay Lab: Word Counts and Krispy Kremes, Some Advice

We're going to send you off into the Thanksgiving holiday with the following excellent advice about college application essays from Alice Kleeman, a contributor to College Admission and the college advisor at Silicon Valley's Menlo-Atherton High School. Ms. Kleeman knows her way around the personal statement and short answers of the application. She estimates she has read the essays of several hundred students each year for the last eighteen years. The two best?  "There was one about Krispy Kreme donuts and one about a student's job in a hardware store. I like that contrast!" says Kleeman. "Most important thing: The essay is all about you."

Her advice:

•             Respond to the prompt! And if it's a two-part prompt, be sure to respond to both parts.   Example: "Tell us about your world; what impact does your world have on your hopes and dreams?"

•             Don’t hesitate, if you’re working on the Common App 500-word-max essay, to choose “Topic of Your Choice” as your prompt.  That choice may help you respond more naturally and feel less confined to canned topics.

•             This is not a creative-writing assignment.  Your essay can and should be well-written and vivid, but it should not be flowery or dominated by too much narrative. A problem I see is that students want to tell a big long story. "The sun rose and I walked over the aged wooden dock." That's not what a college essay is supposed to be. It needs to be more straightforward. The essay is a brief opportunity because of the sheer volume of applications admission offices have to read.

•             Respect word and character limits—always. Not only is it entirely possible to write an excellent personal statement in 500 words, but when you flout the guidelines you're saying something about yourself -- that rules are for other people, not you. And if I'm a college admission person, I'm not so interested in students who believe that rules are for other people,not you. There is a reason word and character limits are assigned,whether technology keeps up with that or not. If your essay is 518 words, that's not a big deal. But it's truly unfortunate when adults—teachers,   counselors, and parents—encourage students not to follow directions. If an application says "maximum 500 words," respect it.

•             Remember that the essay must be about YOU.  Even when an essay prompt asks you to write about someone else (someone who influenced you, for example, or someone you would like to meet), the admission officer must learn more about you than that someone.

•             Everything you say in an essay must be 100% true—but that doesn't mean that you need to tell about everything in your life that is 100% true!  (Focus on your strengths!)

•             Avoid being overly formal in your language.  If you don't use words like "plethora" and "myriad" and expressions such as “be it” or “be they” in real life, don't use them in your essay.

•             Essay readers are tired of clichés and gimmicks.  They do not want to read about sweat running down your brow (sweat has run down far too many brows in the past), nor do they want your essay to begin with “Brrrrrrrring!  The alarm clock went off at 5:30 …”  That, too, has happened before.

•             If you are a brilliant writer who can avoid clichés, you might be able to turn out a stellar essay about your athletic team (without saying “winning isn’t everything” or “teamwork means more than individual effort”) or your community service trip to Central America (without saying “we learned more from these simple people than they learned from us” or “I came to appreciate hot, running water”).  Otherwise, you might want to avoid those subjects, as they have been worked over by others for so many years. Also, no complaints, excuses, term papers or stories about first love.

•             Read your essay out loud. You'll be able to tell if it carries your voice, plus it will help you catch punctuation errors.

•             Show your essay to at least two people: one who knows you well and one who does not. The person who knows you well can tell you if it sounds like you, and the person who doesn’t know you well can tell you whether she learned enough about you. But don't let anyone tamper with your voice.



Thank you Mrs. Kleeman,
This gives me more direction for my essay. Reading my essay out loud to myself is one of my favorite parts. It’s fun to re-read the parts I like, and extremely helpful in catching awkward sentences.

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