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Each year, Harvard rejects four out
of five valedictorians and hundreds of students with perfect SAT scores, leaving
applicants and parents wondering what went wrong. While there is no secret
formula for gaining admission to a top school, there are many ways to ensure
rejection, and the most common by far is taking the admissions essay lightly.
Over one-third of the time an
admissions officer spends on your application is spent evaluating your essay.
Admissions officers use the essay to compare hundreds or even thousands of
applicants with similar grades, activities, and SAT scores. To stand out, your
essay must not only demonstrate your grasp of grammar and ability to write
lucid, structured prose, you must also paint a vivid picture of your personality
and character, one that compels a busy admissions officer to accept you.
Fortunately, unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your
essay, and can be sure that the glimpse you give the admissions committee into
your character, background, and writing ability is the most positive one
As the founder of EssayEdge.com, the
Net’s largest admissions essay prep company, I have seen firsthand the
difference a well-written application essay can make. Through its free online
admissions essay help course and 300 Harvard-educated editors, EssayEdge.com
helps tens of thousands of student each year improve their essays and gain
admission to schools ranging from Harvard to State U.
Having personally edited over 2,000
admissions essays myself for EssayEdge.com, I have written this article to help
you avoid the most common essay flaws. If you remember nothing else about this
article, remember this: Be Interesting. Be Concise.
TOP 10 ESSAY WRITING TIPS
1. Don’t Thesaurusize Your
Essay. Do Use Your Own Voice.
Admissions officers can tell Roget from an 18-year-old high school senior. Big
words, especially when misused, detract from the essay, inappropriately drawing
the reader’s attention and making the essay sound contrived.
Before: Although I
did a plethora of activities in high school, my assiduous efforts enabled me
After: Although I juggled many activities in high school, I succeeded
through persistent work.
2. Don’t Bore the Reader.
Do Be Interesting.
Admissions officers have to read hundreds of essays, and they must
often skim. Abstract rumination has no place in an application essay. Admissions
officers aren’t looking for a new way to view the world; they’re looking for a
new way to view you the applicant. The best way to grip your reader is to begin
the essay with a captivating snapshot. Notice how the slightly jarring scene
depicted in the "after" creates intrigue and keeps the reader’s
Before: The college
admissions and selection process is a very important one, perhaps one that
will have the greatest impact on one’s future. The college that a person will
go to often influences his personality, views, and career.
After: An outside observer would have called the scene ridiculous: a
respectable physician holding the bell of his stethoscope to the chest of a
small stuffed bear.
3. Do Use Personal Detail.
Show, Don’t Tell!
Good essays are concrete and grounded in personal detail. They do not merely
assert "I learned my lesson" or that "these lessons are useful
both on and off the field." They show it through personal detail.
"Show don’t tell," means if you want to relate a personal quality, do
so through your experiences and do not merely assert it.
Before: I developed a
new compassion for the disabled.
After: The next time Mrs. Cooper asked me to help her across the
street, I smiled and immediately took her arm.
The first example is vague and could
have been written by anybody. But the second sentence evokes a vivid image of
something that actually happened, placing the reader in the experience of the
4. Do Be Concise. Don’t Be
Wordiness not only takes up valuable space, but it also can confuse the
important ideas you’re trying to convey. Short sentences are more forceful
because they are direct and to the point. Certain phrases such as "the fact
that" are usually unnecessary. Notice how the revised version focuses on
active verbs rather than forms of "to be" and adverbs and adjectives.
recognition of the fact that the project was finally over was a deeply
satisfying moment that will forever linger in my memory.
After: Completing the project at last gave me an enduring sense of
5. Don’t Use Slang, Yo!
Write an essay, not an email. Slang terms, clichés, contractions, and an
excessively casual tone should be eliminated. Here’s one example of
inappropriately colloquial language.
Well here I am thinking
about what makes me tick. You would be surprised. What really gets my goat is
when kids disrespect the flag. My father was in ‘Nam and I know how important
the military is to this great nation.
6. Do Vary Your Sentences
and Use Transitions.
The best essays contain a variety of sentence lengths mixed within any given
paragraph. Also, remember that transition is not limited to words like nevertheless,
furthermore or consequently. Good transition flows from the
natural thought progression of your argument.
Before: I started
playing piano when I was eight years old. I worked hard to learn difficult
pieces. I began to love music.
After: I started playing the piano at the age of eight. As I learned to
play more difficult pieces, my appreciation for music deepened.
7. Do Use Active Voice
Passive-voice expressions are verb phrases in which the subject receives the
action expressed in the verb. Passive voice employs a form of the verb to be,
such as was or were. Overuse of the passive voice makes prose seem
flat and uninteresting.
Before: The lessons
that prepared me for college were taught to me by my mother.
After: My mother taught me lessons that will prepare me for college.
8. Do Seek Multiple
Ask your friends and family to keep these questions in mind:
Have I answered the question?
Does my introduction engage the
reader? Does my conclusion provide closure?
Do my introduction and
conclusion avoid summary?
Do I use concrete experiences as
Have I used active-voice verbs
Is my sentence structure varied,
or do I use all long or short sentences?
Are there any clichés such as
cutting edge or learned my lesson?
Do I use transitions
What about the essay is
What’s the worst part of the
What parts of the essay need
elaboration or are unclear?
What parts of the essay do not
support my main argument?
Is every single sentence crucial
to the essay? This must be the case.
What does the essay reveal about
9. Do Answer the Question.
Many students try to turn a 500-word essay into a complete autobiography. Not
surprisingly, they fail to answer the question and risk their chances of
attending college. Make sure that every sentence in your essay exists solely
to answer the question.
10. Do Revise, Revise, Revise.
The first step in an improving any essay is to cut, cut, and cut some more.
EssayEdge.com’s free admissions essay help course and Harvard-educated editors
will be invaluable as you polish your essay to perfection. The EssayEdge.com
free help course guides you through the entire essay-writing process, from
brainstorming worksheets and question-specific strategies for the twelve most
common essay topics to a description of ten introduction types and editing
The sun sleeps as the desolate city
streets await the morning rush hour. Driven by an inexplicable compulsion, I
enter the building along with ten other swimmers, inching my way toward the
cold, dark locker room of the Esplanada Park Pool. One by one, we slip into our
still-damp drag suits and make a mad dash through the chill of the morning air,
stopping only to grab pull-buoys and kickboards on our way to the pool.
Nighttime temperatures in coastal California dip into the high forties, but our
pool is artificially warmed to seventy-nine degrees; the temperature
differential propels an eerie column of steam up from the water’s surface,
producing the spooky ambience of a werewolf movie. Next comes the shock.
Headfirst immersion into the tepid water sends our hearts racing, and we respond
with a quick set of warm-up laps. As we finish, our coach emerges from the fog.
He offers no friendly accolades, just a rigid regimen of sets, intervals, and
Thus starts another workout. 4,500
yards to go, then a quick shower and a five-minute drive to school. Then it’s
back to the pool; the afternoon training schedule features an additional 5,500
yards. Tomorrow, we start over again. The objective is to cut our times by
another tenth of a second. The end goal is to achieve that tiny, unexplainable
difference at the end of a race that separates success from failure, greatness
from mediocrity. Somehow we accept the pitch–otherwise, we’d still be deep in
our mattresses, slumbering beneath our blankets. In this sport, the antagonist
is time. Coaches spend hours in specialized clinics, analyze the latest research
on training technique, and experiment with workout schedules in an attempt to
defeat time. Yet there are no shortcuts to winning, and workouts are agonizing.
I took part in my first swimming
race when I was ten years old. My parents, fearing injury, directed my athletic
interests away from ice hockey and into the pool. Three weeks into my new
swimming endeavor, I somehow persuaded my coach to let me enter the annual age
group meet. To his surprise (and mine), I pulled out an "A" time. I
furthered my achievements by winning "Top 16" awards for various age
groups, setting club records, and being named National First Team All-American
in the 100-Butterfly and Second Team All-American in the 200-Medley. I have
since been elevated to the Senior Championship level, which means the
competition now includes world-class swimmers. I am aware that making finals
will not be easy from here–at this level, success is measured by mere tenths of
a second. In addition, each new level brings extra requirements such as elevated
weight training, longer weekend training sessions, and more travel from home.
Time with friends is increasingly spent in the pursuit of the next swimming
Sometimes, in the solitude of the
laps, my thoughts transition to events in my personal life. This year, my
grandmother suffered a reoccurrence of cancer, which has spread to her lungs.
She had always been driven by good spirits and independence, but suddenly my
family had to accept the fact that she now faces a limited timeline. A few weeks
later, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, my grandfather–who lives in
Japan–learned he had stomach cancer. He has since undergone successful surgery,
but we are aware that a full recovery is not guaranteed. When I first learned
that they were both struck with cancer, I felt as if my own objective, to cut my
times by fractions of a second, seemed irrelevant, even ironic, given the
urgency of their mutual goals: to prolong life itself. Yet we have learned to
draw on each other’s strengths for support–their fortitude helps me overcome my
struggles while my swimming achievements provide them with a vicarious sense of
victory. When I share my latest award or triumph story, they smile with pride,
as if they themselves had stood on the award stand. I have the impression that I
would have to be a grandparent to understand what my medals mean to them.
My grandparents’ strength has also
shored up my determination to succeed. I have learned that, as in swimming,
life’s successes often come in small increments. Sometimes even the act of
showing up at a workout when your body and psyche are worn out separates a great
result from a failure. The difference between success and failure is defined by
the ability to overcome strong internal resistance. I know that, by consistently
working towards my goals–however small they may seem–I can accomplish what I
set for myself, both in and beyond the swimming pool.
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