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Looking back now, I realize that maybe spending only a few (albeit stressed) hours on my Caltech application was a good decision after all. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that, for the two reach schools that accepted me, I had started both their applications on the day they were due. When I pulled up the essays I submitted to those schools, I noticed something they had in common:
They were all weird. They were all funny.
When you only have two hours to crank out a 200-plus word essay, you pretty much have to run with the first idea that comes to mind. And there’s a good chance that the first idea will be the one you are most excited about. And there’s an even better chance that it will be written, especially if you’re under pressure, with a type of raw sincerity you never thought would sound so good on paper.
Case in point: one of Caltech’s supplemental essays asked me to “please describe an unusual way in which you have fun.”
If I were left to my own devices for a month to ponder this prompt, I might have written something about how fun it is to teach middle school kids Python, which, to be honest, isn’t false — it just doesn’t capture the kind of spontaneous, weird person I really am. Thankfully, I didn’t have the time to think away my weirdness.
What I did think of was the time my best friend and I went to Walmart with a list of dares we found on Twitter. I walked around with a pair of Batman panties on my head, while she verbally abused the patio furniture in front of a bunch of confused customers.
(We got kicked out.)
“How do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals?”
If I had a few weeks, I might have done enough research to namedrop a few professors, rave about the strength of their computer science programs, and come up with a compelling story about all my professional goals. But I didn’t have those few weeks, so I told them the unembellished, wholehearted truth:
I said I have no idea what I want to do in life.
All I knew was that I liked making calculator games and explosions and wanted to participate in the bread-throwing, water-dumping congregations otherwise known as Caltech house dinners.
As it turns out, being yourself actually works. Shocker, I know. Colleges really do want to like you for you.
If the thought of writing college application essays makes you hyperventilate, want to run away, or even cry a little, don't worry. With these simple tips, you'll learn what college admissions are looking for and how to show off your best side. And stick around for the puppy.
1. Don’t restate your resume
Admissions officers have your application and credentials in front of them, so try to stay away from listing your achievements and activities. Besides, there’s a ton of information that’s not readily available on your resume. What my old volleyball coach would call the “intangibles.”
2. Be humble
Courtesy of Wikia
Heck yes, you're obviously the coolest thing since sliced bread. But admissions officers are looking for candidates who aren’t self-obsessed and solely self-promoting. The point of the essay is to make your application more human — to learn about your work ethic, your willingness to take risks, your character, what you can contribute to the community. Give credit to the people who inspire you! Acknowledge that you don’t know everything (yet). The reason you’re going to college is to learn. Why would a college want you if they assume you have it all figured out? These are the things that will make you different from the other candidates.
3. Be yourself
Courtesy of No More Mom Jeans
Some websites will tell you not to be “too funny” or “too creative” in your application essays. To that I say, major eye roll. If you’re a funny person, be funny. This shouldn’t be rocket science. The essay is the admissions team’s opportunity to get to know you. Don’t try to censor your personality, and don’t try to force something you aren’t.
When I sat down to write my college application essay, I had this idea of doing a creative writing piece, but I kept hitting a wall. At the same time, I was writing a research paper on a topic I'm immensely passionate about and the words just flowed. I finally realized that my problem was that I was trying to create something that didn't reflect my interests and personality. I wanted to get accepted to a liberal arts school, so I thought that creativity was the way to go, but I lost my quirky, passionate self in the middle of trying to be someone else.
Be authentic. But honest. Be awesome. Because at the end of the day, you’re #flawless.
4. Your personal story is the answer
Courtesy of Know Your Meme
“South Central is gang territory, addict central, and not a particularly ‘safe’ or ‘comfortable’ place, but it is there — serving and interacting with the homeless — that I feel absolutely content and full of purpose.” This is the opening sentence from my college application essay answering a question that asked me where I felt most comfortable, and why. I knew it was a risk, but I knew it was the story I wanted — or needed — to tell.
So, then, what's your story? What I mean to say is, at the heart of every college application essay prompt is the question, "What makes you tick?" "Who are you?" If you were standing in front of a college admissions counselor, what's the most important thing you’d want them to know? Once you have this story, find a way to phrase it as an answer to one of the questions. If it helps you, put a couple of sentences at the top of your page to remind yourself of what you want to get across: “This experience is meaningful to me because it revealed the importance of education and fueled my passion for education reform.”
5. Use words that express who you really are
Make sure you haven’t just plugged in random words from the thesaurus without knowing what they actually mean. The college application essay is your chance to communicate who you are to the admissions officers. If you’ve used words or phrases that you don’t really understand, how can you possibly convey your authentic self? “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”
6. Proofread, proofread, proofread
Courtesy of Politism
And I don’t just mean Word's spell-check! Check for those awkward moments where you used “their” instead of “there” (yikes!), comma-spliced, forgot capitalization rules, or the spelling of weird last names. Sloppy writing hinders the power of your essay. Have peers, parents, even teachers read through your essay. Ask them how they think it reflects who you are as an individual. Ask them if you’re accurately representing the best version of yourself.
So I promised y’all there’d be a puppy ... and here are BONUS PUPPIES! Enjoy these puppies playing in the snow, just like you will be when you’re done with these applications. Aww!
Courtesy of Reddit
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About the author
Sabrina is an upcoming sophomore at the University of Richmond, majoring in international studies and minoring in education and society, with plans to revolutionize global education standards. She is involved in the Virginia Eta chapter of Pi Beta Phi and the women’s ultimate Frisbee team, loves elephants and pistachio ice cream, and has her own blog.