College Application Essay Writing: Mr. Kreisberg's Article in The Harvard Education Letter
An excellent essay can separate your application from other candidates who are very similar to you. A winning essay that presents you with vitality, originality and focus can bring you to life in the critical but very short time your application is actually being discussed by admissions officers. In close admissions cases, one "winning" asset can tip the balance. That asset can be given substance and voice in the essay.
An excellent essay can focus your entire application: a well prepared application often has a theme-- a central idea to which all the essays and all the other written materials contribute. Such themes are rooted in the facts of your background, upbringing, achievements and personality. An application with a convincing, personal, original and well- documented "theme" can be a tremendous advantage.
An excellent essay will not be a "bad" essay: Certain essay ideas can be harmful to your college admission application. These are not just taboo or tasteless subjects (which should be avoided as well, of course). The more frequent dangerous idea or approach is more subtle. Most often it will have come to you camouflaged as a deadline inspiration which you then write in a burst of misdirected enthusiasm, send off, and never look at again. The resulting essay is often a miscast or opaque satire, a whining or angry personal narrative, or something just plain confused. If you are trying to get into a school which is a reach, an angry, silly, or puzzling essay can be fatal. (By the way, a bad essay can be a good start. It may contain the seed of a valuable idea. Unfortunately, it won't be read that way.)
Help You Initiate Your Essays: we help you develop original and personal ideas tailored to the specific questions of that application.
Help You Write and Rewrite Your Essays: we guide you through the writing and rewriting process, we suggest added documentation, we explore new ideas based on your drafts, and we help you polish your essays into writing that is clear, concise and forceful.
Help You Capture A Personal Voice For Your Essays: a voice that allows your best ideas and feelings to be heard with originality, vivacity and authenticity.
OUR GREATEST BENEFIT: We unfreeze your ideas and demystify the writing process.
1. YOUR ESSAY IS NOT GRADED BY OLYMPIC JUDGES:
College application essays are not graded like Olympics diving or gymnastics matches where you start with a 10 and lose points for every error.
The essays are not read by tyrants with red pencils, they are read by harassed admissions officers who are looking for an impression. That impression is mostly emotional. The reader of your essay is reaching an emotional conclusion about YOU, not an intellectual conclusion about your topic.
And the very best emotional conclusion that reader can reach is: "I really like this kid."
2. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE ONE GREAT IDEA:
This follows from the first point. The reader of your essay is looking through the writing--and reading very fast by the way--to get to the gist of what you have done with the question. If you have repeated any one of the thousand most frequent ideas [wrestling taught me to concentrate; grandma's death taught me to stop and smell the roses; I like to help others in my community, and thus I help myself], you have not aided your cause on iota, no matter how well written, typed, and proofread your essay is. In fact, adding polish to a routine idea often makes it worse and less personal.
3. YOUR GOOD IDEA SHOULD BE A PERSONAL, SMALL IDEA:
Avoid "BIG TOPICS"-- not only the obvious big topics like peace in the Middle East, ecology, civil rights and general human nature--but also the thousand smaller versions of those BIG IDEAS which slip into an essay as a pasted on "moral". Keep your idea personal, contained and original. If you paste on a "moral"--try to make it unexpected, but somehow "right" for you.
LESS SUCCESSFUL IDEA: I was at camp when Uncle Harry died, and finding out about his life from my parents convinced me what a warm and generous man he was.
BETTER VERSION: The first time I confronted my parents in an adult way was when Uncle Harry died. I was at camp, and they didn't tell me about it for two weeks, thinking I would rather stay at camp than go to his funeral.
COMMENT: The better version is about YOU, not Uncle Harry (who isn't applying for admission) and you now have a concrete, limited, and personal story. In telling that story, the details can show the committee who you are: mature, aware and eager to grow. The "real" story of the essay is not about death, Uncle Harry, or even you arguing with your parents. It's about your success in growing up.
4. MYTH # 1: JUST RELAX AND BE YOURSELF:
The application people love to tell you this but the truth is that you have about as much chance of relaxing and being yourself while writing a college application essay as any untrained person would painting a mural or acting in a movie. Painting and acting are things that anyone can "sort of" do but which require practice and training to do well. So is writing. You have to earn relaxation. You'll start to relax when you feel secure. That usually means after you have written several drafts, and someone knowledgeable has guided you through them.
5. MYTH #2: JUST RELAX AND BE YOURSELF:
Who is yourself? We all have several selves. One for our family, one for our friends, one for formal occasions, one for when we are alone. The snapshot taken while fooling around in your basement with a Polaroid is you, and so is the picture of you as the best man in your brother's wedding. Which picture does the admissions committee want to see? It depends. You have to make a strategic decision. You should be a considered and well executed version of one of your better selves. Which self? The self which is best able to get the job done--the self which can present you as unique and passionate about something important.
6. LOVE IS NOT ALL YOU NEED BUT IF YOU GOT IT, GO WITH IT:
Any topic can be handled well, but if all things are equal, choose an upbeat topic. Write about a passion, not a doubt. Teen anxiety and cynicism are pretty tiresome to admissions officers. If you love something, and you can convey that love with detail and conviction, do it. If you are fortunate enough to really love someone in your family, and you can capture that feeling with anecdotes, dialogue, facts, images and stories--write it. If you are rare enough to love a younger sister or brother, and you can explain why, using anecdotes, dialogue, facts, images and stories--and in the same essay tell us something important about you--your chances of getting in anywhere just got a big boost.
7. THE TWO EFFECTIVE AND SIMPLE RHETORICAL DEVICES LEAST USED BY COLLEGE ENTRANCE ESSAY WRITERS:
Weak Version: Mrs. Von Crabbe, my piano teacher, taught me more than just how to play the piano. Her lessons were filled with advice that one could use in life. Even though her English was often just a little off, and her manner seemed odd, she will always be memorable to me.
Better Version: "Alex," Mrs. Von Crabbe would say, "the concert is starting even so before you sit down on the bench." She had told us the first day never to call her Mrs. Von Crabbe Apple "even with my back in the behind." But how could we? We loved and feared her too much.
Comment: Both essays could become weak essays if the only point they made was that Mrs. Von Crabbe was wonderful. The second essay, however, rich in quotation and detailed memory, has the promise of letting the reader "hear" Alex, the writer, and like him. Having the reader like you is probably the best kept secret of college essay writing.
No, you are not expected to be able to write as well as the Better Version, most professors can't do that, but remembering to directly quote the key people in your essay will put you on the right path.
Which one of these sentences is better?
A. I live in a suburb outside a big city where half the property is conservation land, and the other half is large plot houses.
B. I live in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a town 15 miles west of Boston, where half the property is conservation land, and the other half is large plot houses.
Comment: Both sentences are OK, but B is better. Readers are nosy, they want to know the name of the town. Do not say "my father works for a big law firm in a big city" as if you were writing a bad version of the Great American Novel and were fearful that any real details might limit the "timelessness and universality" or your masterpiece. Write: "My father works for Arnold & Porter, a large law firm in Washington, D.C."
Of course, there's always the possibility of too much detail. "Large law firm" in the sentence above could itself be "a 340 member law firm with branches in 12 cities [and you could name the cities]."
There can be too much detail, but that flaw is extremely rare in high school writing.
We realize that the college admission process can be a stressful time for families. We also know that frequently the burden of tracking and overseeing the admissions "assembly line" falls to one parent-- a parent who may also have other full-time responsibilities. And in most cases, the essay will be the last, and the most persistently "nagged" about part of the application. We offer a rational approach to this headache. We set up strict timetables, we offer advice, and we give encouragement-- but we do not write your child's essay. Only your child can do that. In working with us, you are making a choice: a choice that your child will work harder on his or her college applications, and also work smarter. But please remember, the operative word is work. We are coaches and teachers, not surgeons. We encourage your child, we demand homework, we criticize, and we suggest. We do not put your child under anesthesia and perform miracles. Our work often does result in small miracles, but those miracles are performed by your child.
if you are reading this instead of doing your business school app essays, read on to have the last laff.
Huh, what's wrong with 5 and 8? Do I need the CAMBRIDGE ESSAY SERVICE
I want to be a pediatric (baby) marine biologist because I like the ocean, small things, and animals. :-)
Every summer my family and I go to our summer house for July and August and it is near the ocean. This is in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where there is even a marine biologist museum, and the people inside the museum have cool clothes and they always have shoes that you can't get anywhere else. I call them Marine Biologist shoes. :-)
By the way, I was looking in your course catalog for the marine biologist courses and those courses seem to involve working with fish or things like fish. :-(
I'm not really all that interested in fish, I mean I'll take the required fish courses, but what I am really interested in is animals that live in or near the water, except fish. :-(
I like seals, especially baby seals, :-) and whales :-) (Free Willy was so cool, except for part II), and even wet kittens and other small things, like baby dolphins :-)(are they fish? :-\). That's why I want to specialize in being a pediatric marine biologist, because animals are cuter when they are little, and probably easier to study. :-)
Call me Rachel,
A college student writes: Is Rachel real. Can you send me her e-mail. I'd like to date Rachel (she's got a big summer house and dumb, gushy girls like that sometimes are 'fast' and also good looking when not talking) and by the way, I do not understand why this touching and sincere essay needs the CAMBRIDGE ESSAY SERVICE
I want to attend your university because of its outstanding health benefits. As you can probably tell from other parts of my application, I have had a number of mental break downs.
No I'm not, just kidding, but it helps to vent.
Anyway, when I took your tour last summer I wound up in the infirmary because I was really stressed and it was hot and the guide was OK but she was talking really fast and I couldn't keep up, so I just fainted--and there I was in the infirmary.
Great infirmary by the way, say HI! to Dr. Babcock (thanks for the I-V Xanax, whoo!, I was chillin'), and when we got the bill and saw what a great health plan you had, my father was really impressed.
I think you should put your infirmary in your View Book, it's so sterile and clean. I broke down on a couple of tours, so like I've checked out the competition. Cornell has a great infirmary, but they're a BIG University (Man, would I would be stressed there), and their benefits are only so-so.
OK, reject me, it's not that I'll kill myself. Well, I won't kill myself, I will come to your campus and try to kill myself, and then I will wind up in your wonderful infirmary and take extension courses.
I have to stop now.
A senior at Antioch (4th-year student, senior is hegemonic!!!)writes: Making fun of sick people! Not funny!!!! How do I come to your house and beat you up? CAMBRIDGE ESSAY SERVICE
We're the NJ POSSE--six white guys livin' near Short Hills and we're applying to your school as a take it or leave it proposition: the whole posse or nothing.And we're diverse too, two of the guys are Irish and two are Italian, and two are just white guys. Here's a picture of
us taken for a line up.
I choose to put into the box in which you asked me to put anything that I want to put my poem to Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana and killed by his own hand and that of society in the year of our lord and savior sometime in the early 90s:
Oh, sing his songs with a sore throat,
And now the pitcher hurls the ball,
The guy who wrote this poem graduated from Yale in 1996 and then started Poesy.org an Internet metric consulting organization.
For a fee of $600 per essay we will help you complete the personal statement requirement of any school's application. We will do as many edits on each essay as is necessary, that is part of the fee.
Since there is usually an overlap in the types of questions asked by all schools, we most often only help you complete just one application (most frequently the so-called "common" application, which is used in generic form or with slight variations by many schools).
WHEN YOU CONTACT US:
We first determine which application you want us to help you with and we have a general discussion, usually by phone, of the actual questions you will be answering for that application. We then sketch out possible "first draft" approaches to the question, and give you a deadline, often three to five days, to complete the first drafts. Students seem surprised by that, but they are only first drafts, and the idea is to get started.
Sometimes we ask you to gather information, do library research, or talk to people who are central to your essay. For example, many essay questions ask you to discuss a teacher or relative who was influential in your development. We often suggest talking to that person and asking specific questions. You'd be surprised how many students fail to do this, as obvious as it would seem.
We then review the first draft, typicaly by e-mail/fax or phone and come up with a plan for the second draft. Very often, the critical phase is between the first and second draft. Sometimes we are able, in reviewing the first draft, to detect the germ of a genuinely impressive idea and use that as a springboard for the final essay. Once the original and personal idea is uncovered, the writing, organization, tone, and content fall into place with relative ease--relative ease compared to the pain and frustration of attempting to write something that you do not really believe in or care about.
After the first drafts, polishing your essay, adding details, and shaping it to the required length is easier and more fun. This typically takes one to three more drafts.
If you are "ultra" dedicated and can also demonstrate financial hardship, we will help you for free. Send us a 500 word letter, fax or e-mail outlining your aspirations and family background, and include the name of a high school counselor we can contact.