From Strategy to Authenticity: Writing Your Perfect Essay

Here’s one way to think about the college admissions essay. The task of the essay is to sway admissions officers. Writing a good essay is like marketing a product. It requires that you appeal to the preferences of admissions officers (whatever those are) and that you present a crafted and manicured version of your self – one that gives you the best chance of getting in.

I call this the strategic approach. This admissions essay writing philosophy is based on two core premises:

  1. It is relatively easy to get inside the heads of admissions officers and figure out what they want to hear.
  2. By telling admissions officers what they want to hear, you increase your chance of getting in.

The strategic approach has a seductive quality and is becoming more and more popular among high-achieving students and their parents. In a culture that values prestige and success, this approach offers what appears to be a sure-fire way of getting in to top institutions.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually work. It’s self-defeating because both of its core premises are false.

Take premise 1. Many savvy consultants and parents think they know what admissions officers want. But the reality is that each admissions officer has a unique set of preferences. Guessing what an admissions committee wants to hear is like guessing the right number on a roulette wheel. Sure, you might get lucky, but the odds are stacked against you.

Now consider premise 2. Talk to any admissions officer and they will tell you that they abhor overly crafted applications. They’re not interested in hearing from self-branded students. They’re much more interested in those who speak candidly about meaningful decisions, ideas, or experiences.

As Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Admissions at Yale, puts it:

“What concerns me…are the number of high achieving students whose lives are governed by what they, or perhaps more often their parents, imagine is going to improve in some slight way their chances of admission. Exploration and growth serve a student best for the long run, both in education and life, not the construction of a perfect resume. We try as best we can to distinguish the one from the other.”

Brenzel helps illuminate the self-defeating nature of the strategic approach. Admissions officers have a kind of sixth sense for students who craft their essays and, in many cases their lives, to maximize their chances of getting in. As he notes, this kind of admissions spin actually diminishes, rather than enhances, your chance of getting in.

There’s a better way to think about the admissions essay. I call it the inspired approach. Writing an inspired essay requires that you forget about pandering to the admissions committee. It requires that you take a look within – that you use the essay as an opportunity to write about an idea or experience that has shaped you.

There is no formula for writing an inspired essay. There is no one “right” way.

There are, however, a few basic guidelines that might be helpful in creating an essay that gives colleges a window into who you are:

  1. Be You – This is your opportunity to give the admissions committee a sense of who you are. It is the one place in the application where you come alive and become something more than numbers on a transcript. If you are creative, let it shine. If you are witty, let it come through. If you are passionate about an activity, tell us why. If you have faced a challenging situation, show us how it changed you. The key is to make sure that YOUR personality jumps off the page.
  2. Provide a “Slice-of-Life” – It’s tempting to try to pack your entire resume into the essay and to distill the entirety of who you are into 500 words. Resist the temptation. The best essays don’t tell, they show. The best essays focus on a small slice-of-life – a moment, an event, or an experience that offers a window into who you are. By painting the picture of a single moment with imagery, dialogue, and details, you don’t need to tell the admissions officer anything. Your story will show them who you are and who you might become.
  3. Have a Killer Hook – To draw in the reader, your essay must have a catchy hook. Remember this isn’t an analytic paper. You don’t need a formal introduction. It’s much more effective to skip the intro and start with the imagery and emotion of a concrete experience. You can hook the reader in many ways. Your first few lines could be funny, shocking, unexpected, or even surprisingly mundane. The key is to create a sense of tension and intrigue – to leave the reader thinking, “wow, I wonder what this essay is about!”
  4. Go Beyond the Obvious – To combat your ordinary urge toward the obvious do the following thought experiment: come up with the most obvious, banal, and clichéd version of the essay you are planning to write. Go all out here. Make sure that it is as boring as possible. Now use this as a road map for what not to do in your actual essay!

As we enter the peak of the admissions season, remember – your task in writing the admissions essay isn’t strategic. It’s not like playing chess or battleship. It’s not about marketing yourself to the admissions committee.

The most compelling essays arise from a different source. They come from inspired students – from students who write about what matters to them in a raw, authentic, and honest way.

Nate Klemp, PhD is the founder of Inspired Admissions. Klemp is a former professor of political philosophy at Pepperdine University and holds a BA in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in political philosophy from Princeton University.

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