College applications are daunting on many fronts, but no part of the process causes more stress than the application essay. You could be the next Salman Rushdie and yet be stumped by the word limit and the pressure of selling yourself on paper. The good news is, there are ways to “hack” the process and make it a more comfortable experience.
Tell me why
It’s a lot easier to approach the essay when you know why you’re writing it. Colleges and universities basically want you to demonstrate two things: why you fit in, and why you stand out. Sounds like two opposite things? Sure, but now that you know, you know what to pluck out of your resume and highlight in order to kill the two birds. For example, if you’re going for a liberal arts college that’s known for its creative expression, you can talk about how you killed it at that Jatra Biroti open mic, or bagged an honourable mention at a Cartoon People comic contest. You get the idea.
Pick and stick
A lot of the application forms will give you more than one essay prompt. Select the one you’ll be able to answer in detail, and then stay on point. For example, one of the Common Application 2017-2018 prompts is “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” This is a good one for an international student to pick, and if you do, you want to create the context of your identity, and really amp that up (while remembering to tailor it so that you fit with the intended college’s “brand”).
The right fit
There are really two types of college essays: the narrative essay, in which you tell a story or an anecdote to illustrate your answer, such as the time you helped your maid write a letter, and how this sparked off an interest in adult education for the underprivileged, or an expository format where you state a position and then defend it with examples, such as your thoughts about feminism. Remember to read your essay prompt very carefully to determine which style the essay is really asking for.
The ebb and flow
Now that you’ve determined your objective, your theme and your format, the next step is to create the content for the essay. This is where a lot of people get stumped by the word limit. Before you write down the essay, consider interviewing yourself. Ask yourself twenty questions related to the topic, and write out the answers in full. Next, review the questions and answers, and whittle it down to the five most important questions and answers. Finally, change the order so that your essay has a clear beginning, middle and end, and it flows naturally from one to the other.
Proof and share
Before you send off the application, do not forget to re-read and proof-read your piece, and let a few trusted friends and well-wishers have a gander so that you can furnish the institution with the most polished and error-free version of your statement. The importance of this step cannot be overstated, as all it takes is a single typo to put the reviewer off. So get some feedback before you mail it off, and you’ll sleep much better.