Writing the College Application Essay: No Salespeople Allowed

When writing their college application essays, students will sometimes feel compelled to spell out exactly what they are thinking, which is often some variation of, “I’ve got great test scores, a 4.2 GPA, and I served Thanksgiving dinners at the local shelter every year. How can you not accept me?” While this feeling may be justified, and your qualifications may be truly outstanding, you need to take a step back from that approach.

One of the key tricks of the essay is to convince an Admissions Director that you should be admitted to a college, without letting the Admissions Director realize you are doing it. Ideally, you want the AD to come to that conclusion on his or her own, through the reading of the essay. That’s why it’s important to avoid any “salesmanship” whatsoever.

Salesmanship, of course, is a direct appeal for your acceptance to the college. Bad salesmanship might read, “Due to my time spent living in Italy, I know that I will be an outstanding art history student at (your college here).” Worse salesmanship would read, “Lots of kids my age say they have an understanding of Renaissance Art, but I truly have it.” Horrendous salesmanship would be, “I doubt that any other student applying this year has the background in Art History that I possess.”

The major risk of this approach is backlash. Even if what you’re writing is true, the AD’s, or anyone’s, natural tendency would be to pull away from this “bang them over the head” style of writing. In fact, it practically begs the reader (the AD) to take an adversarial position such as, “Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll be the judge of that.” Once that happens, whatever benefits you might have gained from your essay, could be lost.

An analogy of this situation is two young man vying for the attention of a young woman. One of them is doing back flips and somersaults, constantly shouting “Wasn’t that incredible? I should definitely be your boyfriend!” The other remains quietly confident then does a series of amazing tumbling runs, turns toward the girl and waits, allowing his actions to speak for him. Of course, this is all by design. The second young man has carefully led the young woman to a place where she can make the decision he wants her to make. Undoubtedly, she will choose him.

In writing your college application essay, try to be that second young man, the one with the quiet confidence, the one who describes his achievements, activities or significant life experiences (in whatever context these might occur), then allows Admission Directors to draw their own conclusions. Most likely, with all else being equal, that conclusion will be, “This student belongs in our incoming freshman class.”

For more personal help with the college application essay, call Craig Heller directly at 818-340-1276.

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