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    7 Tips for a Better Application Essay

    The best essays present a unique perspective without grammatical errors.

    Aaron Basko

    You're working your way through your college application, entering the easy information—name, address, school, activities. All is going well, until you get near the end and see one word: essay. You swallow hard. You want to do your best. You want the application committee to "meet" the real you. But how in the world do you do that in a few hundred words?

    No doubt about it: The college essay has caused more than a few high school seniors to break into a sweat. And it does need to be written well; the essay is no place for careless mistakes and sloppiness. But there is also no need to panic. So take a deep breath, relax a little, and check out these practical and easy-to-follow tips for putting your best foot (and essay) forward.

    Pick the Right Topic

    A few colleges will ask you to answer very specific questions, but most offer you a choice of very broad topics, like "Describe an event which had an impact on you and why" or "Discuss an issue of local or national concern." Many leave the essay topic up to you by giving you this option: "An essay of your choice." You would think this would result in a wide variety of essay topics for admission officers to read. This is not usually the case. In fact, most students choose some variation of the same three or four essays. Although these popular topics are legitimate subjects to write about, they are so overused that they put your essay at a disadvantage. If you can stay away from a few topics, your essay will have a better chance of standing out from the crowd.

    Avoid what I call "The Big Game" essay—some form of story about an important sports event in which you win the championship or learn about the value of teamwork. Also stay clear of "The Person I Most Admire," and the ever popular "What I Learned from My Service/Mission Trip." Again, these are perfectly valid subjects to care about, but the topics are so common that it's very hard to present them in a memorable way.

    The best topics are those that no one else—or very few other students—could write about. Which of your experiences sets you apart from your friends? What is it that makes you unique? Those are the kinds of topics that will most likely grab and keep the attention of your essay reader.

    Many essay questions will ask you to look beyond yourself to issues that are important nationally or internationally. Instead of just reiterating a common argument on a hot political issue, choose something that relates to you personally. If your family emigrated from Europe a few generations back, think about how your life might be different if they had stayed. What type of church would you worship in? Would you have heard the gospel at all? Do you feel any connection when you hear news from that part of the world? The essay should offer a small window into your soul, your values and your outlook on life.

    While many students write about events in their circle of family and friends, and some tackle large national or international issues, very few make a connection with their local community. One of the best essays I ever read was from a student who lived in a tourist town on the coast of Maine. He talked about the benefits tourism had on the local economy, including the fact that it provided his own job. But then he surprised me by contrasting these benefits with the negative aspects tourism brought to the community. He would work there for a summer job, then move on to bigger things in his life, but the community would not move on. It would remain a minimum-wage, one-season town; it gave very little economic stability to its citizens and would eventually run down and maybe even wither away. He wondered how to change his community. He admitted he did not have a developed plan, but was looking for ways to affirm what was still good in his community and to better understand what had gone wrong. His essay was thoughtful and well written, and the local connection suggested an unusual level of engagement with his community and an insightful perspective.

    If you are involved in your community in a meaningful way, consider writing about it. Tell the reader why you chose that activity or organization, what you have learned, and how you hope to be active in this area in the future. Portray your work in the context of a much larger world, with a little humility and maybe with a little appropriate humor, and the reader will thank you for offering a unique and refreshing essay.

    Choose the Correct Tone

    Good writers are purposeful about what emotional reaction they want from a reader. They know what they want the audience to feel. This is called the tone of an essay. Too often, students writing college essays don't realize they are using a tone. Because of this, the words they choose may actually convey an emotional message they don't intend.

    For example, I recently read this introduction to an essay:

    "To imagine being in a country where English is not spoken, food comes only from the ocean, and the morals and values differ was incredibly nerve-wracking. The thought of being without the comforts of home presented a tremendous challenge."

    Notice how the opening sentences convey a sense of drama and tension. The word choice suggests that I, as the reader, should be preparing for a story of significant trial and hardship. The author's tone is expressing sacrifice and asking for me to empathize.

    But instead, what follows is:

    "I traveled with my friend Victoria to the Greek island of Aegina for two weeks during the summer before my senior year. After having spent a couple of days living in a one floor, four-room house, walking everywhere and eating only local food, I realized I could survive on so much less than that to which I was accustomed."

    I was expecting drama and sacrifice, not a summer vacation to what I think of as a beautiful, exotic destination. The emotional tone she set is totally at odds with the circumstances she described. Instead of gaining my sympathy, the writer's tone suggests to me that she is ungrateful and spoiled.

    The problem here is not the topic. She could have written this same essay with a lighter tone, describing her blunders in a foreign culture or the contrast between her stereotypes of Greece and what she actually encountered. The dramatic tone she selected was a mismatch for the events she described.

    To choose the right tone, consider what conclusions you want your audience to draw about you. In the case of the Greek island essay, I would want my reader to think that I appreciated my experience and had learned something from it. I would want the reader to see that this experience would help me contribute to the college community as a thoughtful, mature person.

    Different topics and audiences may demand different tones. When you write about certain topics, you may use the authoritative tone of an expert, or a pleading tone to rally someone to a cause, or a joyful tone to describe the beauty of nature. Before you begin writing, ask yourself: "Who is my audience, and how do I want them to feel about me and about this subject?"

    You may want your reader to laugh. A little bit of humor can make a great connection with your audience, especially if it is at your own expense. We've all had moments that weren't funny at the time, but are eventually worth a good laugh. If you can share a bumbling moment or a surprising event in a graceful way, you can gain the reader's sympathy and trust. Humor does present some danger, however, since what is funny to you might just sound embarrassing, awkward or insensitive. If you choose to use humor, have a few other people read your essay first to make sure the humor translates. Also avoid wacky topics (like, "If I were a piece of fruit …"), sarcasm, and humor at the expense of others.

    Remember Your Reader

    The admissions person reviewing your essay will read several hundred, possibly even a thousand or more, essays a year. Depending on when you send your application and where it ends up in the stack, you may be number 3 or you may be number 333. This means that even essay readers with the best intentions may be tired or may have to skim essays just to get through them all. You want to make sure you do everything you can to make your piece easy to read.

    Don't write your essay in one sitting. You may be annoyed with your English instructor for forcing you to complete an outline, but he or she is correct. If you create a framework for your essay, it will help it hold together, even if a reviewer is reading quickly.

    Put your very best effort into your introduction and conclusion. These paragraphs are the most likely to be read. A rushed reader will check the introduction for two reasons: 1) to get a feel for your command of the language; 2) to find your thesis sentence. If both of these materialize, he or she may skip to the concluding paragraph to make sure you stayed on topic and finished strong. Even better, if your writing is good and the topic or thesis intriguing, the reader may read on for pleasure. If that happens, you can bet you've increased your chances of getting that acceptance letter. But if the introductory paragraph doesn't convey your command of language or contain a thesis sentence, readers will often read on with a critical eye, looking to confirm a bad first impression.

    Give Your Best Work

    Imagine you are going to the prom or some type of formal event. How would your date feel if you showed up in jeans and a T-shirt? The college essay is the prom of high school writing. Admissions people will assume that your essay is the best writing you are capable of, and that the amount of care in the details reflects your interest in the college. While your writing doesn't have to be formal in tone or stuffed with oversized words, it should demonstrate that you can use the English language in a correct, mature way. Stay away from the kind of irregular capitalization and punctuation you might use in e-mail. Avoid slang and popular catch phrases unless you are quoting someone.

    Another common complaint I have heard from essay readers: poor use of paragraphs. Some students use them awkwardly; others simply do not use them. Every year admission offices receive two-page essays with only one or two paragraphs. Most paragraphs should be three to five sentences. If yours go much longer, check to see if there is a place you should finish one idea and make a new point.

    When in doubt, consult a style manual or talk with an English teacher. In fact, always treat an essay as if it's being graded by the toughest English teacher you've ever had.

    Be Succinct

    Will colleges hold you to a strict word count on your essays? Sometimes, but in most cases there is a little bit of flexibility. Most essay readers don't have the time to count, and they are more concerned with content. Still, they will appreciate essays that don't exceed the word limit by much. They also appreciate writers who get to the "action" quickly.

    While a strong introductory paragraph is crucial, don't spend two or three paragraphs setting the scene. Think about some of the best stories you have read or the opening scenes of your favorite action movies. They typically begin with an opening action scene, then back up to give the context once the audience is engaged. This pattern also makes a strong college essay. Place your reader in the middle of an important event as it happens, then back up to give the context that led up to it, followed by your analysis of its importance.

    The best advice I ever received from an English professor is to re-read an essay to eliminate any unnecessary words or phrases. We often use extra descriptive words and more complex verb tenses than are required. Eliminating ornamental or flowery words makes your writing crisp and efficient. Or to put it another way: Don't overuse adjectives and adverbs, but use plenty of action verbs.

    Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

    Typos and grammar mistakes can ruin an otherwise strong essay. You can spend hours on topic development and tone, only to deflate an essay with misspelled words, or by forgetting to remove another college's name. Spell check is not enough. Your essay needs several sets of eyes to look at it critically.

    Proofreading is the perfect place for parents to help. Ask a teacher to look over your essay as well. Other proofreaders will notice things you will not see. This is also a good way to get initial feedback on your topic and tone. Be sure to give your proofreaders time to read carefully.

    Reflect the Best of "You"

    Your essay is a window into who you are. While the rest of your application is dominated by numbers, lists and checkboxes, your essay shows the human side of what you will bring to a college community. If you follow these tips you will demonstrate that you are intelligent, insightful, thorough, and have something to offer others. You have a unique set of gifts and experiences. Colleges seek students who are ready both to share their gifts with others and to learn about and appreciate the world beyond themselves. If you can demonstrate this in a style that reflects you, you'll grab and keep your reader's attention—and be one very big step closer to an acceptance letter.

    Aaron Basko is an educator and director of Educational Advising Ministries, which provides college and career advising to Christian students and seminars for churches, schools and homeschooling groups. You may contact Aaron at aaron.basko@fandm.edu.