Think of writing your admissions essay like building a house. No matter how quickly you want the house to be ready, or how much you want to be able to show off the finished product to your friends, you would not start building before you prepare a construction plan. Without a proper foundation, the house could fall apart just when you think you are finished, and you will have to restart construction. Similarly, all good writing is built on solid prewriting. Before you start putting words on paper, you must prepare.
Here are three things you must do before you start writing your college essay, scholarship application essay, or graduate school personal statement. By doing them, you’ll spend only as much time writing as you need to, and you’ll be poised to make your essay memorable.
- Understand what is being asked of you.
To do this, you must be aware of the writing prompt. I have had several experiences where applicants with near-final essays had not properly read the given prompt. They thought the prompt was “open-ended,” but it asked a specific question. Usually they (or I) reread the prompt, and they have to write a different essay, or overhaul their existing essay, in a short space of time.
It is also not uncommon for applicants to write an essay that is only a partial answer to what has been asked. Read and make note of all you have been explicitly asked to address in your essay.
A few weeks ago, the College Board tweeted some advice from the MIT dean of admissions and student financial services, Stu Schmill. His number one piece of advice? “Answer the question that’s asked.” To do this, you must understand what is being asked. It seems so simple, but it is so important. Don’t be that applicant who is denied admission because you did not follow instructions.
- Understand what is implicitly being asked of you.
A friend who loves literature once taught me that in order to get the most out of a text, I must read what is written and also what is not written. Similarly, in order to write a memorable admissions essay, you must understand what is asked not just explicitly, but also implicitly. No admissions essay prompt ever asks “Why are you worth admitting to this program?” However, this is the question on the minds of every admissions committee member while reading your essay.
For instance, let’s say you are responding to the college essay prompt “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
This is not an invitation to vent about a bad experience and how it affected you, then add a few lines at the end about what you learned. This question is also asking you how does your response to one particular incident of failure prove that you are a student who is worthy of a college education.
Within your response to this question, you must showcase that you deserve to be admitted to college— you can rebound from unfavorable circumstances (you might face some of those in college), you can creatively solve problems (there will be plenty of problem solving in college), and you use what you learn (don’t all professors dream of students who know how to apply knowledge?) to do better in the future than you have done in the past.
To ensure your essay stands out: Regardless of the prompt, you must show why you are worthy of admission.
- Clarify your main message before you write.
If you are not clear about what you want to say, your reader will be just as confused as you are. Your main message is a concise, clear, and unique response to what has been asked of you directly and indirectly.
Boil down to one to five sentences what you intend to say in your essay. Write it down and read it aloud. Ask yourself: Is this the most important thing for admissions to know about me? Can I develop this message into an essay that says I am a prime pick?
For instance, you’re responding to “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
You might write: In the first semester of 10th grade I got low grades because, in addition to taking two advanced classes, I played football and tennis. I was sad at first, but I soon understood that I could do better in the following semesters if I managed my time better. I stopped playing tennis and devoted that time to studying, and I saw a great improvement in my GPA. I learned that doing what I can manage is essential to doing well.
Do you want admissions to know you as “the applicant who will do what he can manage?” Does this message scream “I am the best prospective student you can find?” No.
A main message that gives you a better shot at admission would explain that you learned that by giving sustained effort to fewer tasks, you could accomplish better results than the ones you see when giving limited attention to many activities. Of course, you can think of all sorts of ways that focused effort and good time management would help you do well in college. It is much better if admissions officers remember you as “the applicant who learned that focus is key to time management.”
Before you start writing your application essay, be clear about what is being asked explicitly as well as implicitly, and clarify the main message you will give in response.
- To test whether your main message will give you the best possible shot at admission, go here.
- I would love to hear from you. Which of these prewriting techniques are you looking forward to using? Comment below.