(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
-excerpt from George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946.
So once upon a time, I wrote a blog comparing the college essay to froyo. Since then, the application has been revised, and although I still believe in the merits of the first blog in regards to a long college admissions essay (500-1000 words), it definitely doesn't apply completely to the new short-answer system that MIT adopted.
A few months ago, I created a bogus account on my.mit.edu so I can actually catch a glimpse at what the new application looks like (it really doesn't look that different, ha) and I've been thinking about how I would approach these essays. Although nothing here is the product of intense cognition, I thought I'd share some of my views on these small essays.
Essentially, you have 5 "mini-essays" - What You Do For Pleasure ("pleasure" - 100 words), Department at MIT ("department" - 100 words), What You Do That's Creative ("creativity" - 250 words), World You Come From ("world" - 250 words), Significant Challenge ("challenge" - 250 words), and that's it! Less than 1000 words total.
The easy things first - the "Pleasure" and the "Department" prompts are not really "essays," but short answers, so they can be easily answered. My advice is just to go ahead and be honest with them (well, you should be honest in your entire application ;P), especially with the "Pleasure" essay. The admission officers ("adcoms") are not looking for "standard" answers, and you won't get brownie points by putting down "programming," "building robots," or other "MIT-y" answers (although they also definitely won't penalize you if they do happen to be things that you do for fun). Just be honest!
Many people stress out about the "Department" essay, but I can tell you that MIT DOES NOT admit on a quota, and you WILL NOT be penalized by which department you put down on that blank (I don't know how many emails I've gotten on this subject already - seriously, the adcoms are not lying at you, and no - there is no conspiracy either). Therefore, you will not seem more impressive if you put down Philosophy, over, say, Mechanical Engineering. When I applied, I put down Chemical Engineering (oh, such were the days of my innocent youth, when I believed that Chemistry was trivial), but now I'm happily a Biology (and pending History) major. Your interests may shift after you enroll at MIT (and realize how brutal some of the courses here can be), and that's perfectly fine! So don't worry too much.
For the "Creativity" essay, I would encourage you to look at the connotation of "creativity" from a new angle (in a sense, be creative about exploring creativity :P). You can go broader than physical things like creative projects or creative inventions. I would investigate writing about creative ideas, creative ways of looking at things, creative ways of solving problems, for example. I wrote about a concrete research project I did when I applied, but I thought that was quite boring in comparison to the other things that could have written about, so I encourage you to explore this topic a bit further. :)
Ah - ok, now we come to the challenging 250-word essays.
So back in the day, we had a choice between these two essays to write a long essay on, but I guess now they're requiring you write on both of them, but as shorter essays.
Actually, I really enjoyed the "world" essay - and I thought it was the one of the best prompts out of the prompts for the 15 colleges that I applied to (number one was still Stanford's "photograph" prompt - I loved it. Sorry MIT :P). The challenge now, however, is how to condense all the things you want to convey into mere 250 words.
In order for me to see what a 250 word word limit is really like, I wrote a 250 word essay. Not on MIT's prompts, though.
He held up the sheet of wrinkled paper, his eyes in silent protest.
The tattered bill requested 13,800 dollars for a three-day hospital stay.
"Why call the ambulance? Just leave me alone!" the frail old man muttered. Just a week ago, Mr. Vu suffered a stroke that required hospitalization. Because he could not understand English, Mr. Vu had not applied for health insurance, resulting in the exorbitant bill.
An internship at an Asian clinic opened my eyes to the untold story of limited-English proficiency patients, who often struggle to obtain health care in a maze of foreign forms and convoluted policies.
Suffering from a worsening stomachache, Mrs. Wong was neglected in the county hospital for over two hours, unable to flag down a passing nurse for assistance because of the language barrier. Clutching a X-Ray order, Mr. Park searched in vain for Radiology in a blinding flurry of English letters.
Over the summer, these stories became too common - accounts of immigrants fighting for their right to care in a shockingly monolingual health system. After the internship, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter in November. I wanted to change the status quo.
My experiences this summer solidified my conviction of entering into public health, especially immigrant health, as my future course of study. America has long prided itself as a "melting pot" of cultures. Isn't it only fitting that there exists equitable access to health care, regardless of the language spoken?
The word limit is kinda short.
Now, a disclaimer: I want to stay that this is not intended to be a "model essay" (I think the ending can use some more work, among other things), but I thought this would be easier in illustrating a point.
If you look at the essay, I like going narrative -> point -> how it connects to me. In fact, this is what I use for most of my essays :3
Here's the same essay, deliberately made worse (but to illustrate a very common problem in college application essays):
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic in Oakland, California. Over the course of the summer, I realized the plight of immigrants when it comes to obtaining equitable health care. In the modern health industry, immigrants and other residents who possess limited English proficiency are often overlooked because of their inability to communicate their symptoms to the doctor and complete paperwork in English. This problem is exacerbated when they cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant health bills. In a country that claims to be the "melting pot" of cultures, this kind of neglect is no longer acceptable.
Many patients suffer extended waits in the hospital, unable to obtain assistance. It is possible that a worsening stomachache is the initial sign for appendicitis, which needs to be treated expeditiously. Often, hospital signs are also not translated into other languages, making navigation difficult for elderly patients. These scenes are played across hospitals in the nation everyday.
After my experiences this summer, I realized that I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system. It is no longer sufficient for us to stand on the sidelines and watch. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter. I hope I will be able to contribute my efforts to the field of public health, especially immigrant health, in the future. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
Also 250 words, but this essay is riddled with problems, many of which Orwell pointed out in the blurb above.
1. The essay is filled with extraneous and needlessly difficult words. ("I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system")
2. The essay lacks a personal voice - it's very passive ("These scenes are played," "immigrants are often overlooked," "the problem is exacerbated")
3. The essay never "shows" - it only "tells."
Show, don't tell!
I can't emphasize this enough. This essay points out many problems of the health care system, but doesn't offer any examples of the problems. At the end of the day, which essay will readers remember better? An essay that speaks in general terms or Mr. Vu with his bill?
Personally, I think after MIT made the switch from the long essay to short essays, this point is even more pertinent. You just can't afford to waste words speaking in vague terms that doesn't convey much in terms of meaning.
When adcoms read thousands of essays on end, you need to stand out. Ideally, your essay should pack enough punch (that's a cliche :P) so that your readers have a "take-home message" (another cliche :P). Simply put, you need something memorable about your essay. If you feel bored writing your essay, chances are that the person reading your essay will be bored too. Make it vivid - let your story shine.
Finally, the other point I want to convey:
Trim the extra fat!
I narrowed down the first essay from over 400 words to just 250. Chances are, you can do the same too. The second essay is plagued with extraneous words, and actually it can be narrowed down to just this without loss of meaning:
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic, where I realized the struggle of immigrants in obtaining equitable health care because of the language barrier. They often cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant bills. This is not acceptable in America, which claims to be a "melting pot" of cultures.
Many patients suffer long waits in the hospital, unable to get help. A worsening stomachache can lead to appendicitis that requires rapid treatment. Often, signs are only written in English, making navigation difficult for elderly patients.
It is no longer sufficient for me stand on the sidelines - I want to make a difference. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed in Mandarin. Eventually, I hope I can work in the field of public health, especially immigrant health. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
This new essay is only 154 words. Although it definitely sounds stilted and shouldn't be submitted as a complete essay, it still goes to show how much excess fat one can usually trim from a typical essay.
Not to reiterate myself too much from the previous blog that I wrote, but the effective essay, IMO, is the essay that really shows who you are, where you're coming from, and what your loves are - in your own voice. Both the "world" and the "challenges" essay are structured so that it's focused on you and your stories. Use these opportunities to tell a story - to convey who you are. There's no need to repackage your tale in fancy rhetoric or educated vocabulary.
Just as we see in world literature: often the best stories are, really, the simplest stories.
The college essay is an important component of the college application process. Most colleges require at least one essay from applicants, and several schools require two or three. We checked in with Jodi Then, High School Counselor at Boston Green Academy, to ask her advice on crafting the best college essay. Jodi has several years of experience guiding Massachusetts students through the college admissions process, and she offers some wise words (and great ideas) below.
Meredith: When beginning the process of writing the college essay, where should a student start?
Jodi: Students first need to determine what applications they will use in the admissions process, and find out each one’s essay questions and prompts. The Common App is still the most popular, but there’s also now the new Coalition App, and then some schools have their own application. Students should read through the essay topics and see which ones they gravitate toward first. Sometimes students have a particular story in mind that they want to share in the essay, so they’ll need to determine which topic will allow them to do that.
Key tip: Students should not worry about what the admissions committee will like the most. Instead students should figure out what they like writing about, as this will naturally allow them to go into more detail and depth. This will also help the essay to become more memorable, which is beneficial in the admissions process.
Meredith: How should students begin writing?
Jodi: That depends on a student’s writing style and comfort level. Some students are good at free writing. Others aren’t and need some kind of structure like an outline to help the writing process. Students should know that they don’t need to commit to one topic immediately. They can try drafting 1-2 paragraphs for each topic and see which one they enjoy writing about the most.
Key tip: There’s a big misconception that the essay needs to be about something life-changing or incredibly significant. The best essays can be about something seemingly insignificant but show well the character of the student.
Meredith: What are some general tips for writing the essay?
Jodi: A few things:
- Students don’t need to stick to the 5-paragraph model that they’ve used so often in school. You can have a good essay that has 2 or 10 paragraphs, or includes a good amount of dialogue.
- Don’t use words that aren’t consistent with the overall language and tone of the essay. Don’t use a thesaurus to find other words that you wouldn’t normally use. On the whole the admissions committee wants to hear your voice. Don’t write in a way that you don’t speak.
- However, do be careful with slang, colloquialism, and inappropriate language. You need to remember that you have no idea who will be reading your essay – it could be an admissions counselor in her early 20s, or a part-time admissions reader in his mid-70s.
Meredith: What about word count?
Jodi: The Common App does have a minimum word count of 250 and a maximum word count of 650. Most other applications will have a minimum and maximum word count as well. If you’re closer to the minimum word count, you’ll want to read your essay and make sure it conveys enough of your character. As you’re writing, don’t be afraid to initially exceed the word count. Your English teacher can help you rework some of your sentences so that you lose words but you don’t lose content or your message. You do need to pay attention to the word count in your final submission, as online applications will cut you off if you try to go over.
Meredith: Are there certain essay subjects that a student should avoid?
Jodi: Admissions counselors will see the same narratives over and over. Your goal is to stand out and make them remember you. With that said, try to avoid common topics like winning the big game. Sensitive subjects like personal experience with abuse, poverty, or war should be written about based on your own discretion and comfort level. But remember to focus not on the event but on the impact that the event had on you and how you’ve risen above it. That’s so important.
Key tip: Make sure that the topic addresses the question! If the essay is off topic, you’re conveying to the admissions committee that you can’t follow directions. You might write a great essay, but if it’s irrelevant to the topic or question, you’ll raise a red flag.
Meredith: What are some good things to write about?
Jodi: Students should write about whatever is going to be the most interesting, fun, and meaningful subject for them to share with another person. If students are trying to decide on a particular subject, they can sit down with a teacher, friend, sibling, or guidance counselor, talk about different ideas, and receive feedback on which one sounds the most interesting to the listener. I counseled a student who works with both young children and the elderly – a rare activity for high school students. She wrote an essay comparing the two and reflecting on her own journey from youth into adulthood. It made for a great narrative, and she only decided on it because we had a long discussion about her ideas for different essays, and that one sounded really intriguing to me
Meredith: Any other general essay tips?
Jodi: Students shouldn’t be afraid to write about something small, as long as it can convey a part of their character. I had a student who needed to write about overcoming an obstacle, and she wrote all about her feet. She’s a dancer, and dancing had destroyed her feet, making her embarrassed about how they looked. But dance had helped her manage her anxiety, and therefore overcome some obstacles to improve her mental health. So she wrote about how she accepted her ugly feet because of what they had given her in return. This was a unique spin. Who writes a college essay about feet? But this one worked well – the student answered the question and shared a lot about herself and her character.
Meredith: Who should help proofread the essay?
Jodi: There’s such a thing as too many chefs when reviewing a college essay. Don’t have more than three people read it, as you’ll get too many opinions otherwise, and you’ll lose your voice. The last person to read it should be your English teacher for grammar and tense changes. In addition to that, have a close friend or a trusted adult read it to give feedback on the general message.
Meredith: Any final tips?
Jodi: Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to use humor if you’re funny. Don’t be afraid to go deep into your personality. Be appropriate (that goes for all aspects of the application!). Avoid anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. If you think something will reflect on you negatively, don’t include it. You need to make sure your essay makes sense and evokes some kind of emotion. If it does that, you’ve done well.
Jodi Then, High School Counselor at Boston Green Academy, has an extensive background in college access and financial aid. In her previous role as Senior Education Advisor and Communications Coordinator at American Student Assistance (ASA), she counseled students and families on college admissions, financial aid, and student loans, and also oversaw the development and implementation of training programs for both internal and external constituents, including high schools and non-profit organizations. She is a consultant for the Boston Public Schools District and the Department of College Counseling, creating curriculum to help students transition from high school to college, and has collaborated with district leaders on college access and financial aid initiatives. She holds a Master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from Boston University and a Master’s degree from Bridgewater State College in School Counseling. She is a licensed guidance counselor for grades 5-12.
Tagged with: Admissions