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4 Myths About the College Essay

You go to Google and you search. Of course, because it's the internet, you find conflicting opinions. What do you do?

Straight from the mouths of those in the admissions office:

Myth #1 The essay should sound complex and formal.

“We react negatively to anything that sounds 42 and packaged,” said Marcia Landesman, former Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale. In other words, sound like yourself. If you are a smart and word savvy 17-year-old, sound like one. If you are more conversational, use that voice. Voice is reflected in your vocabulary choices, especially verbs, but is also influenced by tone, sentence structure, sentence variety, and punctuation and grammar. No one wants to read your parent's essay or your coach's essay.

Myth #2 Impressive or lofty topics stand out best.

Truth bomb: the topic is ALWAYS the student framed by something else: "It's not just about the topic, but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic," says Jennifer Gayles, director of admission and coordinator of multicultural recruitment at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Landesman: "Your perspective – the lens through which you view your topic – is far more important than the specific topic itself."

Successful topics I have coached: losing the class presidency, commuting home, farming turf, getting lost on the NYC subway, saying "Yes", drinking a milkshake, using a memory palace, being clumsy, building motorized bikes, raking leaves, eating iguana, playing D & D.

Myth #3 Colleges look for a certain number of traits in the essay.

As Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains, “We want students … who pursue their interests with energy and enthusiasm, and who work cooperatively with others, all of which will help them be successful in and after college.” Emory specifically takes into account “intellectual curiosity and the potential to contribute to community life on campus.” ‍The former admissions head at Dartmouth: “It's not enough just to be smart at top schools. Students must also show that they'll be good classmates and community builders."

There's no tally, no ultimate list, but there is interest in reading about your traits and values plural. Not one story that only reveals you are forgiving. One story (or more) that reveals you are forgiving, kind, have integrity, tell the truth, take risks, frequently go down intellectual rabbit holes, and love strawberries.

Myth #4 The essay must be perfect.

Nope. "The truth is that while no essay will make an unqualified student acceptable, a good essay can help a qualified applicant stand out from the competition. A good essay just might be what turns a 'maybe' into a 'yes.'" Martha C. Merrill, Dean of Admissions, Connecticut College, NYT 6/23/09

"Write naturally. Use your voice to show your personality. Be expressive, but your goal shouldn’t be to dazzle us with your word choice (or command of a thesaurus)."

Our admissions officers are looking for something that is authentic and imperfect, and somebody who is thinking differently." Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania, quoted in Time 4/18/16

"The tone does not have to be formal, and the language does not have to be particularly sophisticated. In fact, sometimes those can get in the way of the reader getting a sense of you. You should approach it as if it were a conversation you were having with an adult who is particularly interested in what you have to say. Not as casual as if you were speaking with a friend or classmate, but not as formal as if it were a paper you were writing for an assignment. If you read your essay out loud, and it sounds like something you’d say to an adult sitting across from you listening to you with interest, you’ll be on the right track."

-- Christopher Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Duke University, printed in The News & Observer, 12/1/21


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