The author understands the fear and urge to procrastinate. After all, she has helped thousands of students through the college application process, since she began advising students more than 12 years ago.
In addition to writing two books on college admissions (What Colleges Don’t Tell You: and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know
, and also What High Schools Don’t Tell You),
Elizabeth Wissner-Gross has been leading successful Write-Your-Essay-in-One-Day workshops and speaking at public and private schools across the United States. She has appeared on the Today Show
(NBC), The Morning Show with Mike & Juliet
(Fox News), I on NY
(WPXN), and been heard on Martha Stewart
radio (Sirius) and popular radio programs throughout the United States. She is a regular keynote speaker on CollegeWeekLive (online semi-annual college fair that attracts more than 35,000 viewers/participants), and has appeared on panels sponsored by The New York Times, Newsday, The World Journal
and the Columbia/Princeton Club of New York.
In addition, she has been featured in articles in The New York Times, Newsday, USA Today
, The World Journal,
and many other publications throughout the United States.
As a private educational consultant, advocate, and strategist, she has helped her students win admission into the colleges of their dreams–even in these most competitive times–by working with individual students to help them develop their own academic interests and passions, and then having them write about their experiences. She advocates encouraging the individuality of each student and celebrating the gifts, talents, and diverse contributions that she believes every student has to offer.
Elizabeth Wissner-Gross graduated from Barnard College, where she studied Political Science and Education and graduated cum laude in 1975. She went on to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and received her MS in 1976, and then pursued additional graduate study at UCLA. She worked as a writer and editor at the Daily News of Los Angeles, Associated Press
, and Newsday
, taught journalism at New York area colleges and graduate programs, and has had articles published in hundreds of newspapers nationally and internationally including The New York Times, Boston Herald,
and Los Angeles Times
. She resides on Long Island, NY and in Connecticut. She has two sons–both attended MIT undergraduate and Harvard for PhDs.
1 Start with the Guidelines (15 Minutes)
Don't Worry about the Topic Yet- First You Need to Know the Rules
Before you set out to write the essay, you need to know what the competitive colleges are looking for-what to write and what not to write-so you don't waste your time writing essays that will get you instantly rejected or deferred. In this chapter, you'll find most of the major rules. Read through all of them. This is really important, and it will take you only 15 minutes. After reading the rules, you'll find some sample essays-both good examples and bad. This will help you to see what colleges want and don't want. You'll notice that most of the sample essays in this book are shortened to save you time reading (your essay will be longer). You'll also notice that we keep referring to "Dreamschool College." That's the name of our pretend college in this book-the college we're all aiming for. And in case you're wondering, the mini essays used in this book are all based on composites and variations of actual student essay drafts. The following rules are listed in alphabetical order in case you want to refer to them quickly on another day.
NEGATIVE RULES (Or What to Avoid Writing, if You Don't Want to Get Rejected Based on Your Essay)
RULE 1: ADVERSITIES.Do not write about adversities that aren't adverse. If you're going to write an essay about how you have faced a risk or an adversity, make sure it's really a hardship. Not getting a brand new car for your sixteenth birthday is not an adversity. Nor is having parents who won't let you hang out with your friends on a school night, or who insist that you only attend adult-supervised parties.
RULE 2: ARTSY SUBSTITUTIONS.Do not send a poem or drawing or photo in place of an essay. If the college asks you for an essay, they want to see an essay.
RULE 3: BAD-MOUTHING.Don't write mean-spirited things about other people. Don't talk of "hating" this one or that one. Don't write in your application that you're smarter than everyone else at school, or that your principal is irresponsible, or that the guidance counselor is inexperienced, or that your whole town doesn't value education, or that your journalism teacher doesn't understand the First Amendment, or that the literary magazine adviser wouldn't know a good poem if she saw one, or that your science teacher plays favorites. High school politics should stay at high school. Don't expect sympathy from a college admissions committee.
RULE 4: BIAS.Make sure that there is no prejudice or bias in your essays. Colleges are trying hard to achieve diversity and balance among their students and faculty. Claiming or even implying subtly that you don't like this or that group is a sure way to put yourself out of the running. Don't put down others for tattoos, body piercings, sexuality, unusual hair color, race, religion, appearance, disabilities, or nation of origin. Don't refer to other people in your essays as "nerds," "geeks," "dweebs," "twits," "brainiacs," "eggheads"-even if you think you're doing so endearingly, or even if you're referring to yourself or your best friend that way. (For more about diversity and bias, see Chapter 7, The Diversity Essay.)
RULE 5: ESSAY SUBSTITUTIONS.Do not send an essay that you wrote for an English class or history class in place of the essay requested on the college application, even if you received an A on the essay, and even if your English teacher swears that it's the greatest work of literature he/she has ever seen from a high school student. Write a special essay specifically for the college application. (Exception: A very few colleges such as Union College have been known to request a graded high school paper in place of an essay.)
RULE 6: FAMILY SECRETS.Do not write about your family secrets, your friends' secrets, or even your teachers' secrets. College applications should not be treated as your big chance to tattle on the world (e.g., my teacher smokes in the faculty bathroom; my uncle thinks New Mexico is part of Mexico; my cousin deserves to go to prison; my nemesis cheated on the exam; my classmates all got drunk at the party). Tattling on the people around you makes the reader wonder how you choose your friends-and it ends up looking bad for you-even if you describe at length how you're different from your friends. This is not the place to discuss how you don't fit in with your family, or how your parents or siblings embarrass you, or how you yearn to get away from the annoying habits or rules of your household.
RULE 7: FITTING IN.Do not write an essay that presents you as "just like everyone else." Colleges are not looking to admit "everyone else." In fact, the most competitive colleges have been accepting fewer than 10 percent of applicants and rejecting "everyone else" (90 percent of applicants). Each college would prefer to find special students who specially want them for the programs and opportunities that they have to offer. In your essay, never refer to yourself as "a typical teenager" or even "a normal kid." If, for example, you choose to write about how you organized a car wash to raise money for hurricane victims, don't say, "...and we all washed cars, and we all got wet, and we all..." Tell the college, instead, what part you did that makes you stand out from the pack. Don't talk about the other kids in your "crowd" or "clique." Colleges are not necessarily impressed with kids who are confined to a crowd or clique.
RULE 8: FOOLISH RISKS.Do not write about incidents that portray you as foolhardy: taking stupid or dangerous risks that make you look accident-prone (for example, the time I got into a sky-diving accident; when I accidentally set fire to the house; wrestling with a rattlesnake; the lesson I learned from my own driving accident, etc.).
RULE 9: FRIENDS.Avoid writing about your friends and what they did and what they think. Instead, the colleges are interested in finding out more about you in your application. Focus solely on you. No, that won't make you sound self-centered or friendless. It will make you sound independent enough to be able to separate from your friends to attend college.
RULE 10: GIMMICKS.Do not send a gimmick essay (e.g., "My name is M-E-L-I-S-S-A, M is for magnificent, E is for excellent, L is for lively, I is for intelligent, S is for smart, S is for sensible, and A is for academic." Another popular gimmick: "If I were a cookie, this would be my recipe: Lots of sugar, because I'm a very sweet person; a few nuts because I have a nutty sense of humor; a few chocolate chips made of deep chocolate, because I'm a deep thinker...") Gimmick essays sound flaky, clichéd, and unoriginal.
RULE 11: LOSING.Underdogs may win elections sometimes, but nobody is attracted to a total loser. Do not write an essay about losing-even if someone tells you that "losing builds character," or "it's how you lose that counts," or that it "reflects modesty," or demonstrates that you are self-effacing. Yes, everybody loses sometimes, but that doesn't mean you should devote your essay to describing your losses. You don't want the admissions officers to feel sorry for you-they never accept people out of pity. When you are competing against thousands of students who are writing about their accomplishments, the student who writes an essay that reflects self-pity probably won't be the one that admissions officers are most eager to accept. It's okay to describe tough circumstances or a rough setting, but the focus of the essay should then be how you "made good" and overcame those seemingly insurmountable challenges.
RULE 12: LUXURY VACATIONS.Do not discuss luxury resorts, cruises, sleepaway camps, or teen tours in your essays. Luxury vacations tend to be about pampering and passive activity, not character building. They're a big turnoff to admissions officers. One Ivy League admissions officer went as far as to advise students never to even mention luxury family vacations.
"Does that mean we need to hide or disguise any wealth when writing a college application?" a few wealthy students have asked. No, I tell them. You don't need to pretend not to be rich. In difficult economic times, affluent applicants may in fact seem more appealing to colleges. But writing about luxury vacations may be easily viewed as flaunting your wealth-showing off. Possible exception: If you earned your wealth on your own, independent of your parents.
RULE 13: LYING OR CHEATING.Don't copy someone else's essay-not even a sibling's, even if the sibling successfully used the essay to get into the same college you want to get into. Yes, colleges keep records; some admissions officers even remember essays. Also don't make up stories in your essays. Tell true stories about yourself. Always tell the truth; there's no need to embellish or make up anecdotes. Truthfulness is valued by colleges, as is honesty. (But don't even be tempted to write an essay about how you were honest when everyone else cheated, because that necessarily requires you to bad-mouth others, which is bad to do on your college application. See Rule 3.)
RULE 14: OLD NEWS.Do not write about an incident that happened more than four years ago, unless the incident involves you directly and has some national or international angle. For example, if you appeared on national TV to perform in a sitcom five years ago, it's okay to mention. If you made a solo violin debut at Carnegie Hall at the age of 12, it's fine to mention. If you starred in a major Hollywood movie at age 6, won a National Young Inventors Award at the age of 10, won or seriously competed in an Olympic or Junior Olympic sport, were personally invited by the president of the United States to dinner at the White House at age 8, had a nationally known choreographer review your work, or published an article in a major city newspaper at age 9-all of th...