Updated: Nov 13
Writing an Effective College Admissions Essay: Honesty is the Best Policy
Anne Elrod Whitney, Ph.D.
My advice to be bravely honest isn’t just about style; it’s also about the content. Portray yourself clearly, showing readers who you are claiming to be rather than just making the claim. Let them know what it would be like to work together on something or to walk together on a journey. Let them see you. Tell a story to show your commitment to a value rather than simply saying “I value this.” Don’t pad the content; there’s no need to exaggerate. You as you are is enough.
Make them want you. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself. Put your best foot forward.
I read and hear advice like this in so many resources for seniors applying to college—and also in resources for job seeking, for applying to graduate school, for grantwriting…
This is not bad advice overall. Of course you want to do your best with your college admissions essays; presumably you’d like the readers to accept you to their institution. However, sometimes this charge to “knock ‘em dead” can add stress to an already challenging writing assignment.
After all, is anyone writing these actually not trying to write well? Or trying not to impress the reader? Of course not. It may be good life advice, but as advice on writing an effective college essay, it’s both incomplete and misleading.
What makes something “effective?” Most of the time, we define effectiveness as “resulting in the desired outcome.” Your detergent is effective if it gets your clothes clean, ineffective if it leaves stains. Your recipe is effective if it ends in a delicious cake, ineffective if it ends in a dry brick. Your study plan is effective if it gets you the grade you want, ineffective if it gets you something less.
It follows that a college admissions essay is effective if its readers admit you to the college. Right?
So many factors go into whether a particular essay writer/applicant is accepted into the college where it was submitted. Only some—very few—of these have anything to do with the essay or what your readers thought of it. Budgets, building capacities, whims, luck, inequities all could be in play. This essay will influence whether you get what you want or not—but it will only influence, not control. Whether you get into a particular college is simply not up to you.
All of our writing is ultimately also not fully under our control. Only part of the meaning of a piece of writing is yours; the rest is up to the reader.
Writing, by its nature, involves intentions and impressions on the part of the writer AND on the reader’s part. Whatever your essay says is not just something you are saying on your own. Its meaning is actually co-constructed by both parties. So, as writers, we’re trying to influence readers to make the meaning we want them to make. We’re trying to state our intended meaning so specifically that the reader has no choice but to hear it the way we meant it. Still, there’s always room for them to see something different than what we meant for them to see, or to see what we meant but also to infer other things that we didn’t mean. Readers read our words the way they read them, based on what we have provided. We don’t read the essay for them.
We only influence; we do not control.
Where does this leave the authors of these essays?
I suggest we change how we define “effective.” Our change still will not ensure that what we write will get us into a particular college. That’s impossible. However, if we redefine “effective” to mean something more like authentic, your luck will get a lot better, and the colleges you do get in to are more likely to be ones where you will have a good experience. Not the “right” essay for acceptance to a “good college,” but an authentic essay for acceptance to a college that is good for you.
Don’t strive for the “right” essay to make yourself attractive to readers to get into a particular college. Instead, strive for the most authentic essay, where effective means conveying who you actually are.
Nothing good can come of pretending. Even if it works, and you’re admitted, once you’re actually enrolled your success will backfire. Now you’re at a college where someone like that person you portrayed in the essay would really be a great fit. A person like that would do really well at that school.
But you are not that person! No matter what you present in your essay, you will eventually attend college as you.
Resist the urge to pose as anyone other than yourself. Be honest in your style and voice. The writing should sound like you. My own favorite teacher, Sheridan Blau, has often put it this way: “Don’t try to sound smarter than you are. Just sound as dumb as you are. If you try to sound smarter than you are, you’ll sound dumber than you actually are, but if you just sound as dumb as you are, you’ll sound smart, because you’re not that dumb, you’re actually smart.” It always gets a mix of laughs and confused looks, but it’s great advice. If you edit with a thesaurus, choosing the most impressive vocabulary, you’ll sound… like someone editing with a thesaurus. If you just try to be clear, with the most specific vocabulary, you’ll sound… like someone who can write clearly. Just try to sound like you.
My advice to be bravely honest isn’t just about style; it’s also about the content. Portray yourself clearly, showing readers who you are claiming to be rather than just making the claim. Let them know what it would be like to work together on something or to walk together on a journey. Let them see you. Tell a story to show your commitment to a value rather than simply saying “I value this.” Don’t pad the content; there’s no need to exaggerate. You as you are is enough. No need to list your accomplishments; all that does is move the focus away from what a reader really wants to learn from this writing, which is not really what you have done (they can read that in the application) but what you have made of what you have done. You’re not on an audition for a role where the task is to fit a pre-cut character in a play; you’re trying to get the chance to be yourself, at that college.
You are already completely qualified to be you.
After all, you are the world’s foremost expert on the topic of you. Your authority on this matter is beyond question! This means that you can stand confidently as the author of this writing, knowing that you alone can write it as well as you will write it. Write an essay about what you’re like and how you got that way. You’re already who you need to be for the colleges that are best for you.
Honesty is the best policy.
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