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    How to Write a Winning College Essay

    Figaro tells how to make admissions officers fall in love with you.

    As someone who writes a lot about persuasion, I frequently get asked by high school juniors and their parents  how to write a successful college essay. My own son, George, sought my advice, and he was glad he did. His essay about a headache (yes, a headache), helped get him into his highly selective first-choice school, Middlebury College. His work was among 10 (out of a class of 850) read in front of the campus at Convocation. “The one they read before mine was by a Palestinian who wrote about shielding his little brother as an Israeli bomb hit their house,” George told me later. “‘Oh, great,’ I thought. ‘Now they’re going to read about my headache.’”

    It did the job, though. George wrote the essay himself, but he followed my advice. Here’s what I told him, and what I tell everyone who asks me.

    1. What’s your hook?

    While the top schools look for good writing, they’re more interested in character. Your Board scores will tell them how smart you are, and your grades let them know you study hard. Admissions officers also look for a student who will add something to the campus. Ask them about the most recent crop of first-year students, and you’ll see what I mean: “Our class includes a published novelist, an Olympic luger, and an artist who made a monumental sculpture out of Gummi Bears.” That’s what I mean by “hook.”

    Don’t stress out if you don’t really have one. (Remember George’s headache?) But it helps. My friend Alex, who’s about to enter her senior year in high school, has a second-degree black belt in judo. She was thinking about doing an essay on her beloved “Calvin & Hobbes.” Can you guess what my advice was? If you have a hook, write about the hook.

    2. Don’t express yourself.

    A college essay is an act of persuasion. Your job is to talk the admissions office into accepting you. So the essay isn’t your opportunity to get feelings off your chest, or amuse yourself, or imitate your favorite writer. Your teachers have spent far too much time telling you to express yourself. To persuade someone, you should express your reader’s thoughts and desires, and show how you embody them. Think: If you were an admissions officer, what would you be looking for in, say, you? Oh, and another thing:

    3. Relieve their boredom.

    Admissions officers read thousands of essays every year. Yours doesn’t have to be the most creative; it just has to be a good read. And how do you write such a marvel? By telling a story.

    4. A winning essay isn’t an essay.

    I probably sound like a Zen master here (The essay must write itself, Grasshopper), but my point is pretty simple: the college essay is mislabeled. It’s really a story. It should have a main character (you, presumably), a setting, some sort of conflict, and suspense.

    George wrote about how he developed Chronic Headache Syndrome at the beginning of seventh grade, when the family moved from New Mexico to an urban high school in Connecticut. The syndrome is triggered by a virus, and in a type-A person it creates a sort of negative feedback loop: the headache causes stress, which makes the headache worse.  George’s mother and I took him from one doctor to another. All of them prescribed drugs that would have turned him into a zombie. Finally, we found a psychiatrist who was an expert in biofeedback techniques. The doctor hooked George up to a machine that measured his brain waves. It had a monitor that showed an array of red bars.

    “If you relax your brain,” the doc said, “you create Alpha waves that will help make your headache go away. If you can turn all the bars green, I’ll give you a prize.”  Being the goal-oriented type, George sits down at the machine and PUSHES his brain. “UUUUGGGGH!” He’ll make those bars turn green.  ((Note how I switched to the present tense. It makes the story seem more immediate.  If you think you can handle this tricky tense, consider using it for your essay.)

    As George stares at the red bars, he thinks about himself—about the 50-something merit badges he earned on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, about his love of competitive Nordic skiing, how he climbed the 48 tallest peak in New Hampshire before he turned 10, about how his whole identity has to do with meeting goals. But he comes to realize that the single-minded pursuit of things doesn’t always get you what you want.

    Still the bars won’t turn green. He realizes he has to do more than just relax: he must allow himself to trust that some things work themselves out on their own. “Is this what faith is?” he asks. And then comes the last line in his essay: “All the bars turn green.”

    That essay had all the elements of a story: a character, a conflict (type-A kid struggling against his type-A’ness in type-A fashion), suspense (will he make his headache go away?), and an epiphany (the nature of faith). He told the story with grace and humor, revealing just the kind of intelligent, maturing soul admissions officers love. (Hey, cut me some slack. I’m his dad.)

    5. It’s all about epiphany.

    Admissions people look for students who learn and grow, so your essay should show you learning and growing. Whether you write about your hook or your headache, don’t just brag or describe. Your essay should have a moment of revelation: what did you learn from your experience? How did it make you the thoughtful, sensitive, brave, strong person you are (or would like an admissions person to think you are) today? Show a process of learning, and a moment of revelation.

    6. Make yourself good and miserable.

    George did more than 30 drafts, spending a summer writing whenever he wasn’t working at his job or hiking outdoors. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, and it made him miserable. In other words, he felt just like a writer! With any luck, he’ll avoid following in his dad’s footsteps (I’m a writer) and go on to earn an honest living. Maybe he’ll advise students on their college essays, grow rich, and support me in my dotage. And to think a college essay started it all.

    Figaro is the author of the popular rhetoric blog, Figarospeech, and author of the bestselling Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. He worked at Dartmouth College for ten years as an administrator—not in the admissions office, but he saw the process up close.


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    Reader Comments (21)

    Hi Jay,
    Once again, you and I are of one brain. The seniors I teach bristle when I throw their weak lists of accomplishments back at them and tell them, "What have you learned?" They're baffled. They also bristle when I reject their mssion trip stories because they all end with "I really learned to appreciate what I have." No. Wrong lesson. I am going to forward your page to all of my college bound seniors in September; it will be a great way to start them off this year.

    thanks again,
    July 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen
    You got a true winner -- I of course mean your son, Jay.

    You recall H. L. Mencken's quip: "The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache."

    Only "a chosen few" know how to say as much!
    July 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStyles
    Please do forward the essay, Kathleen. And that goes for the rest of you Figarists--spread it around if you think it'll do any good. And you're right about my son, Styleman, though at times, like any good offspring, he WAS a headache.

    July 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Thanks for your valuable contribution!
    July 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSue
    You're welcome, Sue. Let everyone know about it; my (not so) hidden agenda is to show how sympathetic persuasion works for everyone.

    July 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    My apologies to the email list for failing to get the punctuation right. As many, many Figarists have pointed out, Figaro screwed up the html . A sloppy person like him would never get in today.
    July 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    For Heaven's Sake, you are too hard on yourself!! We love you.
    July 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine
    Well, NOW I feel better!

    Beware of rhetoricians who apologize over-profusely, though. It's a technique Figaro calls "setting a backfire," causing the audience to sympathize more than one deserves.

    July 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Shame shame shame.
    July 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJane
    I have enjoyed reading through your points on line and would also love to hear from others that use your advice from it. Thanks
    July 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTerri
    Figaro is just gloating that one of his offspring follows his instructions. Don't let it go to his head!
    July 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDjr
    With wise-ass daughters like his, Figaro will let nothing go to his head. Thanks for setting me straight, D Jr.

    July 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Dear Fig,
    Thanks for the great book and the essay pointers! I, however, have a different problem. I'm looking for internships and some of them want writing samples that aren't essays or works from classes. What would you suggest I write for these "writing samples"?

    July 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
    Your best bet, Matt, is to cobble up something that reflect what the publication wants (assuming you're talking about a publication).Write a piece that would actually fit in the magazine or newspaper you most want; send it to all of your prospective employers.

    As a magazine recruiter myself, though, I usually look at what the applicants already have, even if that means academic papers. Then I assign a piece as a test.

    Maybe I can help you with an internship, if it's magazines you're after. Email me.

    July 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Very insightful. I'll definitely be using your tips for my very own applications. Thank you for relieving part of OUR headache!

    September 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLimited1
    Figaro (or should I say Jay)-

    I am starting my apps and I would really love your advice on one of my essays. Here is the prompt:

    -Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. What would you want your future roommate to know about you? Tell us something about you that will help your future roommate -- and us -- know you better.

    I want to talk about my swimming. I have swam since I was 5, and I want to swim for the school (although that is a stretch). But, instead of just writing about swimming I want to talk about how I have started coaching and I am seeing the sport in a radically different way.

    There is so many things I could write about, but, I am having trouble thinking of creative and compelling ones and I was wondering if you had any ideas (this being said knowing you do not know anything about except for these crappy 300 word I am writing). Here are my ideas.

    1. When I was younger, one of my favorite meets was far-westerms. A competitive, summer meet... During this past year, I have started coaching a group of younger swimmers on my team and I have had the pleasure of showing them the pleasures of meets. The only thing I don't like about this is that it doesn't have a good "epiphany" except for me learning that swim meets arn't as fun as a coach.

    2. When I was younger, I went to practice everyday out of habit. My mom drove me to the pool, and I did my practice. I never though anything of it until now that I am a coach. I have realized that the swimmers who are coming on a daily basis in my group are maturing faster then the other swimmers. They are learning that hard work pays off, but also commitment, dedication, and most of them are doing very well in school since they want to come to practice and are doing their homework before practice. A reflection of how swimming shaped me into the person that I am today and how the qualities I learned are making me a better coach.

    3. I want to major in communications or rhetoric in college. The reason I got interested in the subject is that I have seen the importance of communication/rhetoric from swimming first-hand. Dealing with parents, teaching the swimmers technique in a way that doesn't confuse them...

    I do not know what to write about. None of these topics reach out towards me. Also, I was thinking that number 3 would be better for another prompt,

    "Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging."

    But, I don't think that would be a great topic for that prompt either. And 2 swimming essays would waste one of the essays since I want to show something different about myself in each essay.

    Hot damn. I am so sorry, this is a horrible question. I am stressed out and can't think straight and am a mess right now thinking of this. I'm sorry.
    August 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRory
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