Writing the College Admissions Essay: The Case for Literary Content

In his book, Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner writes, regarding a woman frying eggs, “She saw them solidify in the pan like golden-hearted, frilly edged flowers.”

The line knocked me out – the visual accuracy, the alliteration (“frilly edged flowers”), the way he artfully captured something so familiar and mundane. And, because I take my job as an essay tutor seriously, I began to think about where this level of writing belongs in the college application essay.

The essay, we know, is not a writing sample per se, and does not have to reach a Pulitzer level of literacy to be effective. Demonstrating a clear, mature perspective on the world, giving the reader an insight into how you think, what’s meaningful to you, and the kind of citizen you might be on campus, are far more important. And yet, if a student has the ability to write such gems, I do believe they can have a positive impact on his or her chances for acceptance.

The members of a college Admissions Committee are diverse yet do have at least one thing in common; they’re literate. They have to be or they wouldn’t be chosen for the job. That’s why, where possible and appropriate, and without a sense of forcing it to show off, it’s to a student’s advantage to toss a little elevated writing into their essay.

This can take the form of an astute analogy, a soaring simile or metaphor, or a vivid description of a person or locale. Word count prohibits doing too much of this, and writing flair cannot replace substance. But if done judiciously, especially if the work is undeniably outstanding, it is definitely worth the extra time and effort. After reading the Stegner line I quoted above, I shook my head in wonder, closed the book and thought about it for a minute or two. Should an Admissions Director do the same, after reading a line in a student’s essay, it is hard to imagine he or she won’t recommend the student for acceptance.

Some caveats: If your transcript indicates that you’re a B-minus English student, it might be jarring for a reader to come across A+ writing. At the same time, if every word of your essay is straight down the middle expository writing (nothing wrong with it if done well), then again, you don’t want to arouse suspicions that the work is not yours. Finally, don’t force it and don’t overdo it. Good writing flows naturally.

For more personal help with the college admissions essay, please contact Craig Heller at craig.essaysolutions.com or 818-30-1276.

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