|This is how you write a college essay.|
Simple. Think of your college essay like a movie.
Your essay is not a resume, nor is it a personal manifesto. It is a story that should tell the reader who you are and/or how you've grown and/or what matters to you and why.
Let's solidify that comparison and give you some tips on essay writing that will be made crystal clear by comparing it to a good (or a bad) movie.
A good essay does not need to be about the most exciting or tragic thing ever. A lot of people get bogged down by the fact that they're not nationally ranked in tennis or didn't even make it to the district science fair. "I've never even had a death in the family!" they bemoan as they scrape for something exciting enough to be a part of their essays. Other people seem to have had much more amazing life events to talk about whereas you lived a quiet, successful life. Or a life that was entirely mediocre. What are you to do?
Luckily a good essay does not necessarily need the most mind-blowing topic or story. Most of the times what it takes is good story-telling and a solid meaning. Take for example, Finding Nemo. If I told you I was going to make an Oscar-winning movie about a fish who goes on a mission to retrieve his son after he's kidnapped by a dentist... you probably would not believe me. Well you might believe I was going to do it, but the Oscar part you'd probably laugh at. Yet that's what happened. It's not all about having the most kickass one-sentence summary. It's about telling a story and bringing the goods-- something meaningful and something well done. True story: I wrote my college essay about how much I love mail, and I got into my first choice school, which weighs essays pretty heavily.
You can brag in your essay-- but not too much. Some people are loathe to promote themselves because it seems too forward and selfish and boastful. Others take their essay as a chance to convince readers why they absolutely, positively are the most awesome student ever and should be begging to have them at their school. Think of bragging in your college essay like an explosion in a movie. You can have one, maybe two well-placed explosions in a movie that are there by necessity and are important to the plot of your essay. (Even Finding Nemo had that epic underwater mine blowing up scene.) That is totally fine and yes, it's a little pizzazz in your essay. However, you do NOT want to be the Michael Bay of college essays. Too many explosions in a movie cheapens and obfuscates the plot, and too often film makers rely on cool explosions and effects to carry along a poorly thought out story line (Armageddon was TERRIBLE). Not only does bragging become a crutch for poor writing-- it makes you looks stupid, even if you are bragging all about your academic awards. You look stupid because you show that you don't know how to write an essay, nor do you understand how to be real and humble yourself. Essay readers are looking for people they want to be part of their community-- and no one's going to want to say "I want to bring in that kid who writes like a self-important douche!"
Proof-read! When you make your movie (and by that I mean essay) you want your audience to be swallowed up by your story. When you don't fix typos and errors, it's like putting in another audience member with a really loud cough. It's not that the reader can't understand your story-- it's that you're ruining the experience of reading it. You're distracting them and pulling them out of the story. This is true not only for typos but for grammatical mistakes and unwieldy wording. Check for these things and make sure they work for you. You don't have to take out your voice, but recognize that som ethings just don't make sense if it's not spoken out loud with the correct inflection and pacing.
It is all about the characters. Good movies are not compelling just because the premise is cool (which we learned in my first point) but because the characters are awesome. You should be one of the main characters in your story, because it should be from your point of view. Don't downplay yourself to the point of becoming boring. It's not all about premise, it's all about you and your growth or what is important to you. Your story, even if it is about the time you went to see the Olympics or the first time you saw Yo-Yo Ma, is not about what happened-- it's about how it affected you. Make sure you have strong voice in your writing. It should sound like you on your best, most coherent, and well-thought-out day. Readers want to get inside your head a little and learn about who you are. Don't make it about the event, make it about how you experienced it.
Dump the extraneous. Let's take a look at a hilariously terrible movie: Spiderman 3. Spiderman/Peter Parker was possessed by Venom, so we need to have that "funny," "quirky" scene, right? We'll make him dance in it! And we need to have three villains on the mainstage in this movie right? Yeah! Best movie ever!
I wasn't joking about the dance scene.
Keep your audience in mind. Getting a physicist to think that Armageddon is a good movie is going to be a really hard sell. There are too many things that they just won't buy. One glaring example is the fact in order to simulate zero-gravity they "remove the oxygen from the room." Yeah. Someone actually cleared that for a sci-fi disaster movie. That said, don't write an essay that is not easily accessible. Don't write about how the first time you heard the Glee mash-up of Adele, your life changed. It's really specific and if your reader hasn't seen that episode of Glee (or the show period) you're going to be worse for the wear. That's not to say that you can only write about classic books and movies that everyone has heard of-- it means that you're going to have to take extra care (and words) to make sure that you and your reader are on the same page. If that's worth it to you, then go for it. If not, pick something else. It's better to write about something else than to send readers the message that you have no idea how to write appropriately for your given audience. It shows a lack of critical thinking and versatility on your part.
That said, you are not writing this for you. Some people take the opportunity not to tell a story, but to outline their major beliefs and causes. This is when a college essay stops being an essay and becomes a manifesto on why I have religion and I'm right or why I don't have religion and I'm right or why I believe in veganism and I'm right. See how the first part sounds like a decent essay topic, but then the "and I'm right" ruins it? Essays like this seem less like stories and more like an attempt at indoctrinating the reader. Fact: You can write something people disagree with. Second fact: If you do, it's important that you understand that people disagree with it-- and not because they're stupid or immoral or selfish. Write something about you, not something about how everyone else should agree with you.
An example of this is just about any Michael Moore documentary. I'm politically liberal (some say very liberal) and I have a bone to pick with his movies. Shocking? Not really. Michael Moore takes completely valid arguments and then mixes them in with extremist or "I'm right and anyone who disagrees is wrong and stupid"ist arguments, and then crams them down your throat while mocking instead of just addressing the opposing argument. He's like that kid who pipes up in a facebook debate and agrees with you but is such an ass about it that you look worse. Just goes to show that even if your reader agrees with you (which is a gamble on your part), writing this essay will not score you any brownie points. It reflects poorly on your character.
Admissions officers want someone who is open minded and good to the different people on their campus-- they don't want someone who will aggressively attack someone else's beliefs or impose their beliefs on others. Your essay should be about you and it should tell a story. It is not your soapbox. You can talk about how you found religion and why it's important to you-- that's a solid story. You can't talk about why everyone needs to find religion so that the world can be perfect and how people without religion are immoral. You can talk about your vegetarianism and how that has affected your life and why you made that choice. You can't talk about how vegetarianism is the only way and how non-vegetarians are inferior because they lack self control and are monsters. You can talk about how you came to be an atheist. You can't talk about why religion is ruining the world and that all religious people are stupid or close minded. (You would in fact, be proving the opposite.) Personal manifestos are best for your journal.
I hope that put essay-writing for college admissions into more understandable terms for you guys. Make your essay work like a good movie.