Ah, the college essay. Those 250-650 words on the Common App that try the souls of high school seniors (not to mention their already overwhelmed parental units).

First, a few (okay, many) thoughts on the college admissions process, in general, and the college essay, in particular. 

Did you know that the average time spent by an admissions officer reviewing a college application is but 7 1/2 minutes? That’s the ENTIRE application. NOT just the essays and supplemental writings! [when it comes to the essay and writing supplements, the average time spent drops to a mere 4 1/2 minutes. READ, Four And A Half Minutes.] 

Although parents and students alike spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about -- let alone developing and writing -- the college essay (aside from pondering responses to silly queries such as “The best thing about last Wednesday was...” or “Describe yourself in 140 characters or less”), the essay is but one piece in a much larger puzzle. Most colleges take an holistic approach to admissions, looking at the big picture, the whole student. [This used to be called “well-rounded.” They now refer to the “angular” student. Hmm. Perhaps this is because circles have no edges, and you need an edge (or several) to get in to college these days!] 

That said, the essay is an important and integral part of that puzzle, not so much for its style, or even content, but for the three questions college admissions officers are really looking for students to answer. 

1. Who are you (not in the philosophical sense)? 
2. Who do you hope to become over the next four years? 
3. What will you bring to campus (other than your Donald Duck boxer shorts), and to the community beyond?

Answer these questions (and forgetting about those books on “best” or “winning” college essays - most of which are dummied up and/or professionally written), and you are more than half way there. 

Yes, keep the essay interesting. Figure that the admissions officer will be reading your essay (more likely, giving it an eyeball) at ten minutes to five on a Friday afternoon, on the worst day of his life. Wife threw him out of the house, bags at the curb. Dog bit him and gave him rabies. Had Chinese for lunch at the food court and got ptomaine poisoning. He gets back to his office, turns on the computer, and whose application pops up as a matrix on his screen? You guessed it! 

Keep it relevant. Keep it honest. Keep it about you. Reveal your true character, and let your unique personality shine through. 

Life experiences work best when they provide substance and context, rather than painting on that canvas with a broad stroke. 

What makes a good essay? What differentiates a good essay from a great essay? 

Well, consider the topic. Contrary to popular belief, anything you could think of would make a good essay, depending upon what you say and how you say it. Imagine Jerry Seinfeld’s essay (if he needed one for Queens College), like his long-running sitcom, being about nothing. Or the student who, writing about his parents’ nasty divorce, and the near-comical foibles of every household appliance breaking down (envision water spewing from the television screen ala Niagara Falls), with neither mom nor dad making any effort to fix them, in an essay that began, “I come from a broken home.” 

Simple, everyday experiences often make for the very best essays. The grandiose? Beware the “I climbed Mount Everest” syndrome, often perceived not so much as a personal accomplishment, but rather, as “that poor little rich kid travels the world.” READ, A College Essay Too Far. 

The larger than life, “look what I’ve done,” experiences could make for great college essays (and, most certainly, fantastic parodies, as in a piece that recently appeared in The New Yorker entitled, College-Application Essay), with the appropriate context. Then again, the most compelling college essays often spring from the seemingly mundane and provincial. READ, The Best College Essay Ever! and The College Essay: Striving To Distance Yourself From The Madding Crowd. 

Fact is, you are not writing an essay for the Pulitzer committee, or for the endpiece of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine section (although, you never know). It’s a college essay, for goodness sake, written (hopefully) by a 16 or 17 year old. 

Have fun with it. And remember, it’s only an essay!

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