<p>The basic rules:
[<em>] Create a story with you as the main character
[</em>] Show, dont tell that story
[<em>] Make sure the essay is in "your voice
[</em>] Create a unique essay
[<em>] Follow the "Alan Gelb Rule:" Never Explain, Complain, or Brag
[</em>] Most importantly: Display a character that makes a college want you.
<p>The topics to avoid:
[<em>] The cliché essay: I (traveled/went on a mission trip) (that made me see that all of us are the same/that changed my life).
[</em>] The TMI essay: My experiences with (drugs/sex/times I got in trouble with the law).
[<em>] The hero essay: How I came through in the (big race/big game).
[</em>] The survivor essay: How climbing a mountain/crawling in the mud) tested me, but I pushed myself and emerged triumphant.
[<em>] The pity essay: As I watched Fido slip into the grips of death, I learned the true meaning of life.
[</em>] The clever essay: I may have done many things, but I have not yet gone to college.
[<em>] The explanation essay: Here is why my grades were not good in 10th grade.
[</em>] The humorous essay: My buddies and I laughed our butts off at the prank we pulled one night.
[<em>] The introspective essay: As I look around my room, I notice so much blue - the walls, the bed covers, many of my clothes. My room reflects my inner being.
[</em>] The working-on-it essay: I have come a long way in overcoming my (intense shyness/Asbergers/depression).
This was a couple of years ago, but needs to be brought to light again.
I don’t agree with trying to write a unique essay. The ones I have helped with try too hard to be unique. Aim for ordinary, and it will come out much better.
One more basic rule: do NOT wait until the last minute!!!
The Common App opens in August. Your unofficial deadline should be well before Halloween. If you wait until Christmas, you can assume that anyone you want to ask for help will be busy.
Both of my kids wrote essays using your “topics to avoid” and both got into their top choice schools.
I don’t think the topic of the essay is of overriding importance – what is important is for each applicant to tell his or her story in a personal, compelling, and meaningful way. I’d advise applicants not to use and not to avoid any particular essay topics in an attempt to be unique – write about something that resonates personally and let that come across and help you to stand out.
I agree wholeheartedly happy1. Also, my kids finished their essays in late December and did fine with admissions (and stress levels). They didn’t have any help though they ran their topics by me, as I remember.
Both of mine wrote on topics to avoid- romance and being vegetarian. But obviously, they got the point of the personal statement and these topics were just the vehicle. Kids need to understand what attributes the adcoms want to see.
I’d add here is that “survivor” is fine, IF you can show how this evolved you, activated you in the ways adcoms do like. Not just tell that you’re now superior, the end, and expect them to take you at your word. And that humor is fine, IF it will appeal to adults (which isn’t about childish pranks.)
I did one that would fall into the “no” categories. Didn’t hurt me.
Actually, I wrote an admission essay in the “no” category for my PhD apps as well lol.
IMO, it’s not about the type of essay per se. It’s about how you use it to tell your story.
I think I’ve talked about this before-the director of admissions at one of the colleges we toured told us that his most favorite essay read was from a young lady who wrote something like this: “My grades are not the best because sometimes I have to miss school to take care of my younger siblings. My SAT scores are not the best because I didn’t have time to take a prep course, or the money to pay for one. Sometimes I was tired in school because I was awake all night waiting for my mother to come home from partying. I will need a lot of aid because I don’t have very much money and my mother can’t pay for me. But in caring for my siblings and running the household, I have been running a non-profit program for a deserving group of kids. I promise you that if I am admitted, I will be the kind of student you’re looking for.”
I think that hits about 3 or 4 “don’ts” list above, but she WAS admitted, and did get the financial aid she needed, and was in fact, an excellent student. So YMMV as to the “do’s and don’ts” in the OP.
The one specific type of essay that I heard an admissions person warn of is the “sports” essay. This was as part of opening remarks at a Junior Visit Day at our state flagship. I’ve forgotten the exact statistics about just how many sports related essays they read (it was in the thousands), although I’ve mentioned them here at least once. Essentially she said that, “A lot of you play sports, and a lot of you have won or lost a state championship. Unless you have something extraoridinarily compelling to say about your experience in sports, chose something else to write about.”
I agree with many of the sentiments expressed by others here, and I think that the third rule listed—make sure the essay is in your voice—overrides almost every topic to avoid.
9 ... incredibly heart wrenching; incredibly heart warming
Waiting, it IS. I’ve often wondered how her little brothers and sisters did after she left for college. But I think that story is part of what put the college at the tops of D’s list. Everyone we talked to spoke about looking beyond the stats at the whole person, and we couldn’t walk 10 feet without someone recognizing our tour guide and asking how she was, how her visit home had been, etc. It reminded her of her HS, which treats kids much the same way.
How about essays that take political stances?
The vast majority of essays for this year’s application round should have been done and out of the gate by now!
I emphasized the first three “rules” when D was figuring out her essay, but I would say she wrote a variant on the “survivor” essay. D did fine. I think it’s how you write more than what you write. Trying to be unique and/or original often backfires on the typical 17,18 year old and probably creates painful reading for the admissions folk.
^^^^^ Is there any way I can change my “like” to “LOVE!!!”?
It’s Christmas Eve!!! The Common App opened on August 1st!!! You’ve had almost 5 full months to write those essays!!
If they’re not done yet, please sit down on Saturday morning in a quiet room with no electronics, and GET THEM DONE. It’s too late to strive for perfection- -that would have happened in August and September. For now, you’re trying for “good enough.”
I think it would have been useful if @digmedia had given some reasons his opinions on the “rules” of college essays, including topics to avoid (TTA), carry any weight. Of course he is free to post them even if he had never seen a college essay in his life, which he obviously has. Just saying, especially in light of the comments that cite successful essays that broke these “rules”, and to which I could add at least a dozen this year alone that have been successful ED/EA essays (or at not unsuccessful, in that the kids got in and so the essays at least were not deal breakers).
I am not trying to be antagonistic, but I am skeptical as to several of these “rules/TTA”.
From what I’ve learned from adcoms, these rules work if they’re employed to have the following outcomes: make the adcom believe you as a college student will not be impaired by mental illness, substance abuse, anti-social behavior or deficit, or abusive attitudes towards others including those who are not “like you,” and will not earn grades lower than Bs in college. Those are the tests for your essays.
One of the common adage is to try to stay away from three D’s (which sometimes is 4 D’s). " death, divorce, disease (or disability). That said, a very powerful or compelling essay on any of these topics can still be fine. Sometimes students use their personal statement to explain a blip in their grades. Any essay that has been done in some format a million times over and is trite and snooze-worthy will not help the applicant. Picture the reader in bed, with 12 empty coffee cups or a few cans of 5 HR energy drink and a huge pile of essays Make sure yours will make the reader want to keep reading- not want to go to sleep.
I chatted with some adcomms at a breakfast meeting not too long ago. They all commented n how glad they were that the common app removed one of the prompts this year, as they were soooo tired of reading the prompt with the same 2 themes, they were ready to put a stick in their eye.