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Writing Effective Essays for Academic Admission

"In 500 words or less, where would you like to see yourself, professionally, five years from now?" the application asked.

I attacked the assignment with relish. Getting into this prestigious university's summer fellowship program was extremely important to me, and I wrote draft after draft, trying desperately to give the admissions committee exactly what it was looking for in this all-important essay. Finally, I sat down and took a good, long, critical look at each and every attempt, throwing my hands up in relative anguish. Oh, they all sounded perfectly acceptable. Some even sounded relatively eloquent. But, to me, not a one sounded…right.

I began to wonder just what it was that the admissions committee was actually looking for in this essay, and I began to worry that maybe I really wasn't summer fellow material. But then, one of the high school seniors on my debate team happened to glance over my shoulder as he reached for a book I'd told him he could borrow. "Is that your application essay?" he asked. "Can I read it?"

What could I lose?

"Hey," he challenged, narrowing his left eye. "How about just practicing what you preach?"

Suddenly, it was clear. I had not trusted the advice that I had been giving to high school and college students for nearly twenty years. I had written an essay that could have been written by any one of a hundred other perfectly qualified applicants. I had tried to play it "safe" and write something "professional" and "intellectual" instead of really taking on the challenge of examining myself to determine just what it was that I wanted out of that academic experience. As a result, none of my attempts to engage in professionally "correct" writing had resulted in anything that provided a reader with a picture of me.

A few days later, I gave that young man another draft to read, knowing full well that it was the one that would be included in my application packet, despite the fact that it consisted of 632 words on where I did not want to see myself, professionally, five years hence. Even though I knew I hadn't followed the instructions to the letter, I knew I had embodied their spirit. I wrote honestly about who I was at that point in my life, a tired and even somewhat frustrated teacher. I wrote simply and directly about what I really did want out of that summer program—a jumpstart. And I was accepted. The lesson? Ah, yes: "To thine ownself be true."

We've all been given similar advice about things like blind dates and interviews. "Be yourself," we've been told by everyone from Mom to Ann Landers to ex-General Motors CEO, Lee Iacocca. And that advice holds true when it comes to writing essays for admission to academic programs.

The sheer volume of material that admissions committee members must sift through on a daily basis today is staggering. When the bulk of what they are reading is carefully scripted to sound "correct," it becomes extremely difficult for committee members to distinguish one candidate from another as they attempt to narrow five thousand equally qualified applicants down to a pool of five hundred.

So, how can you make your essay stand out in that crowd of five thousand? Instead of trying to say something that you think committee members might want to hear, give them the information that they need in order to make clear choices. Most of the essay topics provided on applications these days ask writers to address, in one form or another, these two basic questions:

  1. "Who are you?"
  2. "Why is this the right program for you?"

So, tell them who you are. Tell them what you want out of your next academic experience. Tell them why. Be honest. Be direct. Give details, scenes, moments from your own experience. And most of all, be yourself.

Remember your Shakespeare: This above all, to thine ownself be true.

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