Seth Allen is vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College in California, a liberal arts college. He was previously dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College in Iowa. This is the second post in a regular series on India Ink providing advice to prospective Indian applicants to American colleges and universities.
The essay just may be the most important aspect of your application to a United States college or university.
While your standardized test scores and grades can assure you are a competitive applicant, they won’t make you stand out in a strong applicant pool. Extracurricular activities and recommendations help inform admission committees what you do in and out of class, but rarely serve to significantly differentiate applicants unless they speak to unusual talents or characteristics.
The essay is often a deciding factor, conveying information to the admissions committee about your personality, values, creativity or other intangible qualities sought after in students.
It’s also the one component of your application where you have full control over the outcome (if you had full control over the other aspects you would have a 2400 SAT score, straight A+ grades and exams, and been to the moon and back by the time you were 12). While a great essay won’t make up for poor academic preparation or other deficiencies in an application, it can mean the difference between admission and rejection.
That said, here are seven suggestions to help you write a compelling essay:
- Let your credentials speak for themselves. There’s no need to write an essay conveying how serious an academic you are. Your transcript and recommendations will do that. Similarly, your extracurricular activities will speak volumes about how engaged you are.
- This is all about you. Decide there’s something interesting or original about you that you want to convey instead of writing about a piece of history or a book you recently read. Even if the essay prompt asks you to write about someone else or an important event, remember the underlying aim is for the admissions committee to learn about you.
- Demonstrate, don’t tell. Your actions and behavior can do the talking for you. Claiming that “after participating in Model United Nations I have a much greater appreciation for other cultures” is not as compelling as writing “defending the position of other countries has convinced me that there is no single correct approach to international policy. I now make it a point to take in world news everyday so that I am better informed about why other countries pursue policies, even if I don’t agree with those policies.”
- Be memorable. The answer to the question of “what’s the shortest distance between two points?” may be “a straight line,” but that doesn’t make it an interesting answer. Surprise the reader in some way. Perhaps acknowledge that you fit a certain profile (studious student or accomplished cricket player), but you also lead a secret life as an acrobat. Or give the reader the pleasure of discovering something completely new about you that may not have fit neatly in your extracurricular pursuits but offers an exciting glimpse into who you are or what motivates you. I once knew a student who had amassed the single largest private antique bottle collection in his home state and lent the collection to local museums.
- Don’t make more of something than is warranted. Even if it’s true, it may not be credible, and you should avoid turning seemingly trivial events into profound insights or action. Such as realizing the true value of education after failing a quiz or resolving to work towards world equality after participating in community service for one afternoon.
- The admissions committee wants to hear from you. It may be tempting to think there’s a right way to write the essay and rely heavily on feedback from teachers, peers or parents to “improve” your essay. It’s fine to gauge what others think of your approach but you’d be wrong to assume that others know more about crafting the perfect essay about you than you! Using too much feedback to write your essay runs the risk of muddying your own voice – that distinctive perspective and personality which admissions committees are eager to get to know. It’s O.K. if it’s not what an adult would write. After all, you are just 17 years old and if you were already perfect, there would be no need for you to go to college.
- Think how you can leverage your native culture, traditions and experiences in your essay. When applying to schools in the United States, don’t try to “Americanize” your application by focusing on your trip to the United States or even your participation in out of class activities prevalent in the United States. It won’t help differentiate you and may make your candidacy less appealing. A more general mistake in essays is for the writer to try to fit into the mainstream at the school. Writing about how interested you are in pursuing political science at a college renowned for its political science program doesn’t differentiate you from others.
What do prospective applicants make of Mr. Allen’s suggestions here? Is his take on the essay — from the perspective of someone who has read thousands of such submissions — different than you expected? Please use the comment box below to let us know. You can also tell us other topics you’d like us to explore in this series.
Meanwhile, there is another perspective on the college essay — this post written for an American audience on The Choice. Here, the college essay is compared with “a first date.” — Jacques Steinberg, Senior Editor, The Choice
The Choice on India Ink
Guidance on American college applications for readers in India from The Times’s admissions blog
My Country :
The land of Shiva and Krishna, the dream of the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, the nursery of temple and mosques is inside my country. She is first and foremost in my thoughts. I love India, my motherland.
India, the biggest democracy and one of the oldest civilsations of the world is the second most populous country into the world, after chain. Indians are courteous people. My country has produced warrior like Puru, Ran Pratap and Shivaji and leasers like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel and freedom fighters like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Bagat Singh and Lala Lajpet Ray.
In the fields of literature and science my country has produced eminent person like Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand, Sara Chandra, C.V. Raman, Jagadish Chandra Bose and Dr Abdul Kalama. Such great names make me proud of my country.
My country is a land of villages and fields laden with corps. I am proud of her village’s from where the Indians civilization has blossomed forth. Most of the great leaders of our country came from the villages. Our fields are fed by the mighty rivers like the Ganges, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Narmada, Krishna and Kavery. The Gangetic Valley is the most fertile regions of our land.
The oceans that wash her coasts on three sides and the mighty Himalayas that stand on the north have given my country natural frontiers from sides. Again, the lure of the mountains has attracted many adventures to this land of rich culture.
Ours is a secular state. In her lap breathe the happy followers of the various religions of the world. We have a unique culture which has devolved through the centuries. There is much diversity among our people. We speak many languages, worship many gods and yet we have the same spirit, the spirit of India, running through all parts of our country binding us together. We have great unity in diversity.
My country, because of the many beautiful locations, is the craze of tourists. The Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, The Qutb and The Red Fort are few for the many wonders which attract human curiosity. Kashmir has been described as a paradise on earth. My country, the country of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes is a fit abode for the gods, Ooty, Niligiris and the temples of south India, as Kajuraho, Ajanta, and Ellora caves are the places we can boost of.