“The Three Things Your Essay Must Do” by Alan Gelb, author of the bestselling book Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps
There is often confusion here in the U.S. about what the college admissions essay should accomplish, so naturally students in China will find this assignment even more difficult to figure out. The 500-word common application admissions essay is not the place for you to present all your achievements, as if you are seeking a job. It is the place to show the kind of person you are, and for those from China, where emotions are not so readily displayed, writing something of a deeply personal nature can be intimidating. I hope I can make it less so by distilling your goals in this assignment down to three:
1. Present the writer as a likable person. Likable doesn’t mean uncomplicated. Likable doesn’t necessarily mean sweet or nice. Likable means that you are a person that other people can relate to – even if you are complicated, even if you express self-doubt, even if you show vulnerability. We all have those complicated aspects to our personalities and lives and we all relate to people who have the courage to write about them.
2. Show some development. There should be some arc in your personal development in the essay. If you start in one place, you should finish – at least psychologically – in another. If you’ve had a disappointment or a frustration or a loss or a setback, you should give some indication as to how you’ve managed to cope with that.
3. Show that you know how to write. You are applying to college and all colleges value good writing. That means solid structure, graceful language, powerful images. Have a look at my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, and you’ll get the idea.
If your essay has done the three things I’ve mentioned above, you’ll be fine. All the students that I’ve worked with who have gone on to Harvard, Stanford, Brown, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, Dartmouth, and so on have done nothing more than the above. Trust me.