What’s the best way to approach the admission essay required by most selective colleges? First, directly address the prompt, whatever it may be; second, be yourself.
If you’re a wit, be witty; if you’re artistic, be creative; if you’re a deep thinker, go deep. If you’re serious about environmentalism and the prompt permits such a discussion, by all means share your passion for the subject. Also visualize in your mind’s eye the poor admissions’ counselor sitting at her or his desk with a stack of perhaps 60 applications to read, and imagine yours in the number 57 position. Will your essay capture the attention of this beleaguered soul, or will it lead to a deeper glazing of the eyes?
What you should NOT do is compose an essay in which you tell the college why they would be lucky to have you, or submit an essay that reads like an application for employment, where you reel off accomplishment after accomplishment.
Here is an excerpt from a funny one-time college essay that has acquired iconic status over the years. Enough folks have read it that you shouldn’t remotely consider using it as a model, but it’s good for a chuckle. I found it again recently in the Answer Sheet Blog in the Washington Post. Apparently the author was a fellow named Hugh Gallagher, now a professional writer (naturally!).
ESSAY Prompt: IN ORDER FOR THE ADMISSIONS STAFF OF OUR COLLEGE TO GET TO KNOW YOU, THE APPLICANT, BETTER, WE ASK THAT YOU ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTION: ARE THERE ANY SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD, OR ACCOMPLISHMENTS YOU HAVE REALIZED, THAT HAVE HELPED TO DEFINE YOU AS A PERSON?
“I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.
“I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.
“Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.
“I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.
“I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.
“I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.
“But I have not yet gone to college.”