Important Essays

The Importance of the Essay in Gaining Admission to a Highly Selective College

Bev Taylor

May 6, 2015

Each year as more students are applying to colleges, they are submitting more applications than ever before, resulting in colleges receiving record numbers of applications. As a result, the volume of applications to highly selective colleges has reached new heights. Considering that admissions counselors have only a few minutes to read through each application, students need to view their essays as an opportunity to showcase their talents and interests, and to tell their story.

This past year Duke University, a highly selective non-ivy, received 23,750 applications for a targeted freshman class of 1,667, of which 547 students were accepted early decision. (View this year’s admissions statistics to the Ivy League Colleges here.)

With this vast number of applications, it was quite surprising when in February an admissions counselor from Duke University wrote in an acceptance letter to one of Ivy Coach’s students (two months earlier than expected) that she was very impressed about how the young man combined his passion for music with his dedication to community service. In four separate essays, without being too boastful or too shy, the student wrote about different aspects of his life, exhibiting his true passions. In a tightly woven fabric, by taking threads from each of his essays, he gave Duke’s admissions counselors a glimpse into his life and submitted an exceptional application, one that proved to be memorable.

While grades, courses and standardized test scores are always going to be the most significant factors in the admissions process, the other parts of the application, and especially the essays, can sometimes make all the difference between an acceptance and a denial.

It is important for the student to view the essays not as an obstacle to fear, but rather as an opportunity to speak directly with the admissions committee. Your grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation are already part of your application, so there is no point in discussing any of this, for it would only be redundant. You need to view your essay as a means of selling yourself to the admissions committee. This is a time to flaunt your talents and your accomplishments, but be very careful not to do so in a self-serving, pompous way. The essay portion is the only part of the application where you have complete control, so take advantage of it and express your individuality.

While some colleges ask you to write very general personal statements, often the choice of a topic is not entirely up to you since many applications have specific essay questions for you to answer.

So what are these essays? There’s always the personal statement, and usually the significant activity essay. Then some colleges ask for one about academic interests, or the intellectual experience. In addition, there could be an essay about your reaction to an honor code; the “tell us when you gained respect for diversity”; the person of significant influence; the song you would choose to sing in a talent show; the story of a street, real or imagined or metaphorical; the world you come from; the one issue that you would raise if you had an hour to meet with a government official; the values that you believe are important in fostering a cohesive, successful, and supportive campus community; a daily routine or tradition of yours that may seem ordinary to others but holds special meaning for you; the one accomplishment that you achieved in an unlikely way; or the letter to a future roommate. Then after writing three or four different essays, there’s yet another—there’s the my space essay, something you find fun and humorous, anything else you want to tell us, p. 217 of your 300-page autobiography, or the optional statement. All of these essays take considerable time and sometimes an extraordinary degree of imagination, creativity, and out-of-the-cube thinking.

Oh, but wait…there’s just one more. This essay takes not only time and ingenuity, but also requires some careful study and research. The “Why-I-Want-to-Go-to-Whichever-College-That-I’m-Applying-to” is an essay that needs to focus on the student’s interests and aspirations, but it specifically needs to address why the college to which the applicant is applying is a great match. Most importantly, it has to be realistic, plausible, and convincing. When the applicant writes about his or her academic interests and extracurricular involvements, those interests and activities need to match the academic disciplines and extracurricular activities that are offered at the college. Here the student has to make it fundamentally clear that he or she has some very specific reasons for wanting to attend that particular college. There is no room for error here. For example, if a student writes about how he or she intends to study business, but the college does not offer business courses, this statement alone could adversely affect the applicant’s chances of admission. Similarly, if the student writes that he or she intends to join the fencing team, but the college doesn’t have a fencing team, this too can have a negative impact on an admissions decision.

The best way to write the “Why College Essay” is to first take a campus tour, attend an information session, and sit in on a class. For some applicants the campus visit is not always possible, and so the next best place to learn about a college is from the school’s website and from the college’s literature or course catalogue. Again, this requires a great deal of time and some additional study and creativity. The answers aren’t going to just pop out, but once the applicant knows what to look for, he or she can write a credible and meaningful essay.

It is essential that a “Why College Essay” is not in any way generic. Since most colleges only want to admit applicants who will ultimately enroll, if an applicant writes an essay in which it becomes apparent that the college is not a top choice, that applicant may very well not be admitted based upon a sheer lack of interest. Probably one of the most common sentences students tend to write in this type of essay is “from my campus visit I knew that this college is the perfect fit for me.” There is nothing specific here in this statement, and there is no reason for an admissions counselor to believe that the student would enroll if accepted. Generic sentences, and worse, a generic essay, can negate all the positive work that a student has accomplished and result in a rejection.

While specificity is the key in the “Why-I-Want-to-Go-to-This-Particular-College” essay, it’s perfectly fine to recycle this statement for another college that has the same or a similar question. In doing so, however, the student needs to make sure that any particular reasons that he or she has for attending another college, any programs, courses of study, or extracurricular activities, are substituted accurately. In using a template of this essay for another college, it is of paramount importance that the name of the college be changed whenever it’s mentioned. So when writing the essay, “Why I Want to go to Georgetown University,” the University of Pennsylvania’s name cannot be even mistakenly included.

Whatever it is that you decide to write about, keep in mind that the best essays tell a story about the applicant. Admissions counselors want to feel that by reading your essays they have managed to get a glimpse into your life. Your ultimate goal should be for this essay to be your best written work. So think about your daily life, what you like to do and what’s important to you. Sometimes an inconsequential item or happening such as a rubber band ball, a fond memory, or a debate that happened in French class can turn into an excellent personal statement.

Writing powerful essays won’t happen overnight. Just coming up with an idea for a personal statement may take some time. You might even have to write several different essays until you finally hit on something that you feel will work, and once you do, you may have to write several revisions. A powerful essay will grab the admissions counselors’ attention and help them understand exactly who you are. A powerful essay could make your readers feel that they just had lunch with you. A powerful essay could be the one part of the application that gets you noticed, and as a result, gets you in.

Let Ivy Coach take the mystery and frustration out of the college admissions process and assist you every step of the way.

Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.

Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.

To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)

“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.

Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)

An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?

Read the essay here.

Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)

Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.

Read the essay here.

John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)

“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).

Read the essay here (subscription required).

Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West, 1979)

Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).

Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)

In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.

Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)

This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.

Read the essay here.

Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)

“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.

Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)

A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).

Read the essay here.

David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)

They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).

Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)

I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).

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