The College Application Essay: Part I – Myth or Fact?

common-appWhether you are a high school senior in the agonizing throes of the college application process, or a sophomore simply curious about what has been called “the most stressful fall of your entire life” (disclaimer: it’s not!), it’s time to debunk some myths. Once you have the facts, you will certainly be one step ahead of many out there!

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Myth: You can use the same application essay for different colleges.

While The Common Application can be sent to several different colleges at once, many colleges have specific applications or additional requests. This often includes another essay with a more specific topic, the option to upload creative portfolios, or any other documentation the college requires. While it is okay to send the same Common Application essay to every college you apply to, make sure you also spend time editing any special, additional essays; and do not recycle these special essays. They are specific to that school for a reason.

Myth: You can go over the word limit in the essay.

There is an art and a grace to writing a 500-word essay, just like there is an art and a grace to writing a 5-page rather than an 8-page paper for English class. College application reviewers will be playing close attention to style, grammar, and idea, certainly; but they will above all be scrutinizing concision. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit. If you have 501 words, cut an extra word! It’s that important.

Fact: The application essay is the greatest opportunity for you to express yourself in your application.

I cannot emphasize this enough. You most likely have already heard this. The application essay is not the place to sound like a puffed-up politician, citing your extensive achievements and sparkling transcripts until you hit the word limit. The essay is your chance to be you, to create a living, breathing, likeable person apart from the hard facts of your paper application. Talk about something different. Start the essay in a different way. Show how you are human. Prove how being both human and being different will be an asset to the college’s undergraduate pool. You have 500 words to paint a portrait without using test scores and extra-curriculars. What a fantastic opportunity for self-expression!

Myth: Because it’s for something as important as a college application, you shouldn’t seek editing advice apart from your own revisions; this could be considered plagiarism.

It is not plagiarism to ask your teacher for advice in writing your application essay, as long as you are the one doing the active revision. In other words, you have to write it; but you can use as many resources as possible in doing so. Ask your mom for advice about an idea over breakfast. Better yet, ask your closest friends to give you some insight about yourself. “What are my strongest qualities?” “What are my weaknesses?” “What do you think makes me special?” This can be enlightening. Just always ensure that you are the author of every word in the end.

Fact: Be unique.

This bookends a previous point. College application reviewers will become very tired very quickly of the standard essay by John Smith, which begins “The reason I want to go to [blank] is because [blank]” (especially if the last ‘blank’ is filled with “I am generally quite awesome”). Instead of talking about your strengths, talk about your weaknesses—and how you overcame them. (Example: I wrote about my habit of fainting in biology class whenever we talked about human anatomy.) Think about the times when you have made a mistake, made an inappropriate judgment, didn’t get what you want; how did you react? Write about it. Is your family situation different than others’? Your community? Your general way of life? Celebrate your quirks and differences. Demonstrate  how your uniqueness will add to the incredible diversity of a college campus.

Fact: The college application process can be enjoyable.

Perhaps it will be difficult to convince you entirely of this now, but the college application process should feel like one of the most important processes of your academic career, for good reason. That does not mean you cannot enjoy it! The moment you begin to look past hard numbers (SAT scores, GPAs, financial costs) and requirements (resume, recommendation letters, the essay) and realize the exciting opportunity ahead of you, the process will suddenly become much, much easier. You are compiling, in one massive electronic paper stack, all of the best parts of you. That can certainly be stressful (especially if you get into the wrong mindset and think (wrongly) that all of those best parts aren’t “good enough”), but it is also incredibly special: how often do you get to talk about yourself like you’re the next best thing since sliced bread?

If you find that you simply cannot enjoy the process, then here’s one more secret: you will end up where you are meant to be. And you know what? That’s the entire point!

Check out the other posts in this series about the college application essay:

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare’s tragedies and early modern epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.

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