10 College Application Tips: How to Write for Tired Eyes

Be in the spotlight. Avoid long descriptions of others, or lists of heroes. A brief mention is fine, but keep yourself center stage. We are eager to meet you, so don't bring a crowd. We only have enough focus for you.
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Stressed out business woman getting eaten by her work
Stressed out business woman getting eaten by her work


These flourishes of onomatopoeia fly at me as I read several students' college application drafts. Normally, I enjoy a jaunty hook. But such framing devices, including snippets of conversation in media res, which are often accompanied by dreamy, elliptical description, might be more effective on any other audience than me, a jet-lagged college admissions reader, who just returned home from a summer of teaching and traveling abroad.

In fact, my journeyed state very closely resembles the experience of every college admissions reader during high season between December and March every year, when readers may struggle to get through as many as 15,000 essays.

Surely, every teacher reads with tired eyes. A stack of papers daunts even the strongest, most energetic instructor. Yet, admissions readers are a uniquely energy-challenged group. Aside from the very few permanent admissions employees who make the final decisions, most college admissions readers are seasonal workers with other employment. We read your essays after work and on the weekends, when our attention is already spent. We also only have six to eight minutes maximum per file.

When tackling the difficult and potentially embarrassing task of writing a piece of self-promotion like a college app, students sometimes wax impressionistic, artful and indirect. Or, sometimes they opt for raw, real-time, in your-face reality. All of these techniques can work, if trimmed down to scale, e.g. less than half the essay, and given appropriate context. Wholly impressionistic, poetic, or raw essays are more appropriate for other audiences: A creative writing magazine or student writing contest. Tired college application readers need you to cut to the chase and address this question directly and succinctly:

How will you thrive at our university?

Here are 10 tips to help your reader understand your answer to this question:

1. Be direct. Either at the start or by the end of the first paragraph. Offer a simple, helpful sentence that employs some of the keywords from the prompt so your reader knows which essay question you're answering and the context for it. Don't worry about using keywords that seem artless and too obvious. Tired readers are thankful for this kind of help!

For example, Question 1 on the Common App:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This question is especially designed to locate the first-generation student or under-represented minority. If you fit this description, say so unequivocally up front, so your reader doesn't have to strain and head-scratch over your identity. "As a first-generation college applicant...."

2. Be stylish, and differently so. If you wish to deploy one of the snazzy hooks that your high school writing teachers have taught you, including onomatopoeia or conversations in media res, reinvent these common openings by placing them a couple lines in after your first sentences.

3. Be in the spotlight. Avoid long descriptions of others, or lists of heroes. A brief mention is fine, but keep yourself center stage. We are eager to meet you, so don't bring a crowd. We only have enough focus for you.

4. Be concise. The college applications process demands a quick, clear snapshot that shows who you are in your community. Think a Snapchat or Instagram selfie you'd be willing to share with your mom, really, your mom -- most readers are women about your mom's age, though there are an increasing number of younger readers. At private universities these are usually young alums and professionals with other jobs.

5. Be current. Write about an event or experience from your RECENT past, not your distant childhood. Ditch the narrative that reads like real-time, slow-mo video. Since your readers' waning attention and multi-tasking directives need you to get to the point, find a more immediate way to show continuity of character: Rather than "I started my activity when I was four." Start with "On stage, receiving my award, after nearly a dozen years of practice, I...."

6. Be simple. Stick to one topic per essay. Most colleges have multiple essays. You can demonstrate your breadth and merit by elaborating one experience in each. Working in a lab? Also like music? Play a sport? Don't try to say all of these in one essay.

7.Be positive. Even when describing a hardship. Your readers are looking for evidence you will succeed at their university and want to know how you met challenges and moved beyond them. Spend most of your essay on your solutions and outcomes.

8. Be deep, but neither dismal nor dismissive. Present your special personal and cultural insight through your work and experiences. At all costs, avoid attempting to demonstrate your critical thinking by criticizing yourself or others. A college app is not the place for remonstration!

9. Be grateful. Take a few sentences to depict yourself as fortunate to know those who have contributed to your success. Gratitude and humility are especially important if you spend a lot of time in your essay describing your technical or scientific success--universities want to know you're good at what you do as well as nice and considerate of others.

10. Be a joiner. Finish with eagerness to participate in the college community you hope to join.

Good luck and enjoy! After all, the college application is a chance to shine!

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