Each year, there are headlines of remarkable, original, and truly unique college admissions essays.
However, for every single essay that stands out, there are thousands that fail to compel admissions reviewers at top programs to move an applicant forward to an offer. Talk about pressure.
With so many students vying for competitive spots, the admissions essay or written assessments can be one of the most daunting, stressful, and time-consuming parts of the admissions process.
What makes an admissions essay good or bad? What makes an applicant’s story generic versus original?
Rachel Toor, author of Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay, has observed the struggle of millions of college applicants who are wracking their brains each year to come up with unique admissions essays. Having worked in admissions for Duke University prior to becoming a creative writing professor, she has firsthand knowledge of what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to college admissions writing.
Toor believes the best essays are ones that are well-written, honest, and stay “small and close” to personal stories that are meaningful to the applicant. She shared her recommendations, observations, and tips, with us in the Q&A below:
Q: What types of characteristics are schools typically looking for in an admissions essay?
Rachel Toor: Admissions officers are mostly overworked and exhausted. They, like all readers, long to be entertained, informed, and enlightened. Most of all, they want to be engaged by and interested in the person behind the prose. The purpose of an application essay is to say, This is who I am. This is what I care about.
Q: How can applicants make their essay stand out?
RT: By writing well and honestly. By staying small and close—telling personal stories about things that matter to them—instead of declaiming about how things are in society today. By exploring conflicting emotions instead of trying to present a tidy package.
Q: What are common mistakes you’ve seen applicants make?
RT: Oh, so many. That’s why I wrote the book. I have chapters on the different kinds of mistakes applicants make, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Writing about a past event in the present tense
- Starting an essay by either repeating the prompt or writing
- “According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of ———is.”
And of course, at the end I go over common grammar mistakes.
Q: What are some common clichés or tropes you see in college essays? What are the dangers for applicants if they follow those too closely?
RT: The problem is generally not the topic, but the approach.
Let’s take the old baseball = life essay. Bragging about what a great hitter you are will make for a bad essay. But writing about the time you lost the championship game by fouling out with the bases loaded—and how you dealt with that—could be great.
Q: Do you have any exercises you can recommend to applicants struggling to identify a starting point or a topic?
RT: I have plenty.
- Write out a list of 20 possible topics. To do that, make a list of all the pages you’ve liked on Facebook, or the people you follow on social media, or the photos you post on Instagram. Websites you’ve bookmarked. TV shows you love. Look around your room. What do you have a lot of?
- List 5 things you love (what would someone else not like about these?)
- List 5 things that make you angry (why would someone else love these?)
- Swap with a friend and make a list of 20 things about each other.
Then, once you have the topic, you have to figure out what your essay will be about. By that I mean, if you decide to write about baseball, your essay has to be about something other than baseball. Maybe it’s about dealing with failure. Or how the team came together to prop you up after you fouled out—the importance of friendship. Maybe it’s about not wanting to disappoint your father. A good essay is often not about what it’s ostensibly about—it goes deeper to touch on something universal. I call that the “aboutness.”
Here’s an exercise from the book:
Write out the prompt [An obstacle I encountered was]
What happened was [tell the story]
Originally I thought this was about [the perspective from your former self]
What I realized is [insight]
Then go back and get rid of the clunky scaffolding. Just tell the story and figure out where should it start and what’s missing.
Q: Proofreading one’s own work can be particularly challenging. If you don’t have access to a second opinion to review your paper before hitting submit, what do you recommend applicants look out for in their writing?
RT: Read the essay out loud. I mean, loud enough so that your dog can hear it. That’s a great way to catch linguistic hitches. Even better is to have someone else read it while you follow along. You’ll see where they “autocorrect” stuff you’ve gotten wrong. You’ll also hear them struggle with sentences that don’t flow well.
Q: Besides ‘Write Your Way In’, are there any books you recommend applicants pick up as they prepare for admissions season?
RT: I think students should read good personal essays, which they can find every week in magazines like The New Yorker and in annual anthologies like Best American Essays or Dave Egger’s Best American Non-Required Reading, which is selected by high school students. Please don’t read books with “application essays that worked.” You don’t know if those students got in because of or despite the essay.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
RT: Think of the essay as if you’re writing to a person you rarely see but who you know likes you. You don’t have to strain to impress her, and you can be honest and vulnerable, two of the most important ingredients in good writing.
I teach in slogans, and they’re all over my book. But a couple of important ones are to write like the best smartest version of yourself (conversationally, and using only words you’ve actually said aloud) and that failure is gold. We learn more from when we mess up than when we succeed.
Most of all, realize that writing a personal essay is an opportunity to figure out some things about yourself. While it can be painful to do the necessary emotional archeology, it can also be a lot of fun.
You can read Rachel Toor’s latest column “How to Conquer the Admissions Essay” in The New York Times. Want to order a copy of Rachel Toor’s book Write Your Way In? Check it out on Amazon.