Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pinkpau's Guide to US College Applications, Part 2 - The Essay

I blogged about Su Ann's Guide of US Universities Applications here .

And she has just published her 2nd Guide. This one focused on essay. And I fully resonate with her on the stuff she wrote. Do read this thoroughly. Su Ann, really appreciate you spend many hours writing this, despite your busy college life!

To read her article and those questions posted by many, go to here

Full article reproduced is as here.
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Pinkpau’s Guide to US College Applications, Part 2 - THE ESSAY

here’s Part 2 of my guide to college applications, and it’s all about the essay segment.

at first i was really keen to write on this section, because it’s easily the most important part of the college applications.. but after some thought, i started reconsidering if this was a good idea. the application essay, as we all know, is supposed to be something really personal and heartfelt. it’s all about your individual voice and what defines you. therefore, taking advice from another person over what should go in your essay would result in a work that sounds artificial and contrived, and that’s probably the worst thing that could happen to you.

so i gave this a lot of thought, but in the end i decided i would write a section about the essays, but it’s going to be minimal guidance. i’m just going to help you focus on the important things, as well as give you a nudge in the (general) right direction :) so, again, dont look at this walkthrough as something that you must follow down to the very last word, because what worked for me and my friends may not work for you. even more so because this is the essay section, which is the most personal part of your entire application.

1. TYPES OF ESSAYS

if you havent already looked through the essay topics for your schools, here are some umbrella topics that pop up frequently:

A) WHY THIS COLLEGE?
almost all of the schools that i applied to required an additional essay that addressed this question. the idea here is to separate those who would accept the admission offer from those who won’t, and also an alternative way to evaluate what kind of a person you really are. few people really know much about why they want to go to an Ivy League school besides the fact that, well, it’s an Ivy and it’s prestigious. my advice would be firstly, do your research VERY well and after that, reflect and select from your findings what you like best about each school.

how do you research? google and the college’s website are your best friends. asking friends who go to these colleges what they like best about their schools would probably help you narrow down some key points as well, but if you’re going to do this, please read the bottom of my post later :) after the research comes the reflecting. what is it about the school that makes it a good fit for you, and more importantly, why are YOU a good fit for the school? the answers should come naturally to you as you research. some important things to consider; you can mix and match:

- majors offered. half of my ‘Why UPenn’ essay was on the delightful Philosophy-Politics-Economics major that i was really, really interested in.

- student body. if you can place your finger on what you feel a certain school’s student body culture is, and this really attracts you to the school, definitely write about it :)

- renowned faculties of the school. which would tie back to ‘majors offered’. if you’re really interested in political science for instance, research the poli sci faculty of a certain school thoroughly and extract its defining characteristics. do certain professors/authors that you admire lecture there? are the research opportunities in abundance for your field of choice? though i would think it’s also important to balance these hard facts with a softer side of why is it you are so interested in this faculty. dont let your essay be like, “oh i want to do political science in columbia because it’s the most famous faculty you have”. that would be silly :) show that you have done your research and you know what the school is good for, but also show that you have reflected upon it, and that you like a certain faculty in the school because you genuinely want to do pursue it, and not because it’s famous.

- traditions & defining institutions all schools have their traditions, and a quick google search will tell you what they are. these traditions can be really interesting and cute things to write about. defining institutions on the other hand, are a lot more significant and weighty, and it’s always cool to read an applicant’s fresh take on these institutions. examples of defining institutions are Yale’s housing system and Princeton’s eating clubs. if these things intrigue you, write about them, but in a refreshing and witty way, because you can bet everyone else is going to be writing about these things.

- method of learning. the centerpiece of Columbia and UChicago’s undergrad education is a very special thing called The Core. if you’re applying to either school, you must know what it is, and if you think you really like The Core, you should write about it. other schools have their own kinds of curriculum and methods of learning, whether similar or different. UChicago for instance really supports the Socratic method of learning, which is totally awesome and deserves at least one paragraph in your Why Chicago essay.

- diversity. very cliched thing to talk about, but if you can write a beautiful essay out of this, why not.

- clubs, societies, extra curricular activities. a lot of people think that writing about these things are very unnecessary, but i actually think this is the best thing you could write about. my own humble opinion of course :) writing about a very interesting or unique club/activity in the college is so focused and shows that you’ve done your research very well. it also stands out, precisely because it’s focused, as a lot of other applicants will probably make general statements about the student body, faculties, defining institutions etc. be sure to pick a good activity though - either one that’s truly unique to the school, or one that you’re already very established in and would like to contribute to in college.

- sports/music/art opportunities.if you play a certain sport or musical instrument competitively and want to continue playing in school, it’s definitely a good thing to talk about :) Ivy Leagues like their musicians, sportsmen and sportswomen very, very much indeedy.

these are just some things to think about. while researching, keep your mind open and be attentive to both the big things and little things about each school that interests you. another important thing to remember is that it’s not just about how good the school is for you, but how good YOU are for the school. it’s a relationship that should work both ways. i always think it’s crucial for ‘Why This College’ kind of essays that we relate everything back to ourselves. it could potentially sound a little self-absorbed, sure, but not if you write it in the right way. balance praise for the school with a little bit on how you relate to these things you’re writing about, whether it’s through your talents/abilities, aspects of your personality that these niches complement, how you can contribute, etc. it shows that you’ve thought about these things and are not just blindly copying and pasting from the school’s website :)

remember, you’re not supposed to impress the adcom with how much you know about their school, but rather, how well you’ve thought about the potential relationship between you and the school.

B) SPECIFIC TOPICS
the above “Why This College” essay is most of the time kinda supplementary to the more personal essay where you get more freedom to write about yourself, which is either a specified topic or an open one. the specified topics are like: ‘What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?’, ‘Who is your role model?’, ‘What is your most significant hobby and why?’, ‘What does diversity mean to you?’.

if you are given options, it can be quite difficult to choose what to write about. some people take a few months to decide. obviously i cant tell you which would be the best topic for you to write about, because only you would know that, but i think a good rule of thumb is to choose whichever topic gives you the best and most memorable story. more on this later.

another thing i usually recommend is to skip the topics that require you to talk about people other than yourself. these are topics like, ‘Who is your role model?’ or ‘Tell us about a person who has impacted your life the most’ or ‘Tell us about your best friend’. let’s face it, with a limit of 500 words, we dont have enough space to write about ourselves, let alone this whole other new person! also, we sometimes run the risk of talking too much about the other person in our attempt to explain just why s/he is so significant in our lives. the essay then becomes all about this person, and not about us at all. which totally defeats the purpose of a personal statement.

C) OPEN TOPICS
go for this one whenever you can :) just channel what you feel is THE MOST important part of you, and write away.

2. IMPORTANT QUALITIES TO SHOW (ACCORDING TO ME)

okay this part is going to be totally subjective, and was the part that i considered omitting from this post. these were the qualities i felt were important for me to display in my essays, but it doesnt have to be the same for yours. my list could be a good guidance or point of departure though, so i thought i’d write about this anyway. and if anyone is unclear, when i say qualities, i mean underlying tones of the essay, and not the entire subject of it.

A) UNIQUENESS- i think it’s safe to say that it’s super important to stand out among the 20,000 or so other applicants. just about everyone else applying will have good grades, leadership skills, ex-co positions in clubs and societies, represented school for this and that activity… so there is no better way to TRULY stand out than in your essay. be introspective for a couple of days and think about what aspect of you or what experience you’ve had is so unique that the adcom will remember you for it when they’re having their discussions.

B) PURPOSE & AMBITION - an essay with purpose and ambition is confident and intelligent, and will show that you are a person with big plans for whom the offer of admission would yield great results. if you are a naturally ambitious person, this quality will always shine through in your essay no matter what you choose to write about. writing about teaching english in orphanages shows purpose, even if you’re talking about volunteering. so does writing about how your passion in life is badminton. as does writing about the experience of being in the BERSIH rally… which is what i wrote about in one of my essays :)

C) MATURITY - for the Ivy League and top schools, you’re going to be competing against some of the smartest, most individualistic and mature teenagers all across the world. some people may disagree with me on this, but i think it’s really important to have a clear, discerning and mature voice in your essays. i would opt not to talk about frilly and frivolous stuff that has little to no significance in the grander scheme of things. an example would be an essay i wrote for the topic of diversity (which you will find is something that american colleges love to talk about). this was the very first essay i’d attempted, and i wrote about how i used to wear my school uniform skirt a lot shorter than it was really supposed to be, and how this was a symbol of individuality and diversity despite the conflicts with my diversity-hatin’ teachers; that just because i chose to wear short skirts didn’t mean i wasn’t smart blablabla. after i started getting into the zone of writing personal statements, i realized that this was such an immature and self-indulgent topic that really did not address the very core values of unity in diversity, and at the end of the day, it was centered around a freaking skirt that was 3 inches too short. it would have stood out, sure, but it was frivolous. so i canned the essay, and whipped up a new one about the rojak from a stall near my house :) infinitely better.

D) AWARENESS - this is a little bit like maturity, but with a slight difference. showing awareness means showing that you THINK, showing that you’re aware of yourself and what goes on in your heart and mind, and that you’re aware of your surroundings. an essay that shows awareness always arrests the subject at hand with clear language and sharp perspective, and manifests itself in a keen sensitivity to emotions, people and events. you’d be able to take one emotion, or one event, and extrapolate it to something bigger, and be able to give meaning to it. in my BERSIH essay for instance, a good portion of my 600-word piece was about the moment before i actually boarded the train to the rally venue. that was the awareness-of-self part. the awareness of the event came in the later half of the essay. while i was writing the essay, i didnt think about it in such technical terms - all i wanted to do was answer the question before the deadline! but now that i look back on it, i think that essay got me into UPenn chiefly because it displayed awareness, among other qualities, because it’s so important to show that one is a thinker and a feeler.

3. WHAT MAKES A GOOD ESSAY

keeping in mind the above (very few) qualities that i talked about up there, you now have to choose a subject to write about. so many things to talk about, so little space. what should we do?

A) BE FOCUSED
if this is an open topic, i would say, take ONE aspect of you and write about it. dont try to write about three different things in three different paragraphs; it’s going to make your essay cluttered and very diluted. so take the most important part of you and put it on paper. it’s tough figuring out at first what this most important part is, but you’ll figure it out :)

B) THE SOFTER SIDE OF YOUR TALENT/ABILITY
if you’re choosing to expand on a significant ability, talent or hobby that is already obvious from the other parts of your application because you feel that you want the adcom to know more about this part of you, i think it’s very important to tell a story with the soft side of your ability rather than just stating cold hard facts of this and that achievement. it’s all about zooming in on the secret story of this talent / achievement that isn’t apparent in the rest of your application. think isi tersirat, not tersurat !

so let’s say that you really want to write about ballet, because you spent your whole life doing it and you feel that is the most important part of you. i urge you not to write about how you go for ballet lessons 5 times a week and all the different recitals you performed for, all the high distinctions you’ve won, your journey through the development of your art etc etc. rather, think about how ballet has shaped you into the very person that you are. let ballet be the point of departure for a poetic essay about YOU, not the other way around. so if you were a ballerina - and i’m extracting these examples from real-life stories - you could write about how ballet has caused a lifelong battle with an eating disorder. or how ballet and the exhilaration of dancing onstage gives you purpose and helps you deal with a hardship in your life. or maybe even a witty anecdote on the fierce competition between ballerinas, a culture that has shaped and driven you over the years. this way, you address both your talent and many, many other individual qualities all at once.

and please use real anecdotes ya :) i know it’s very obvious but i’ve actually met some people who thought that they could write fictional accounts for their personal statements.

C) WHAT DEFINES YOU
again, this may seem very obvious, but it can be quite hard to decide what exactly defines you and what is important to you. i know lots of people who have an extremely developed hobby or talent but find that it doesnt define them or that they have no attachment to this talent. so, reflect. ponder. think. some questions that you should ask yourself: when people think about you, what do they immediately associate you to? what do you feel most alive doing? what do you love? what do you hate? what is one aspect of your background / history that would surprise people? what do you aspire to be? what is the most difficult thing that you ever had to go through?

with awareness and introspection, even a small thing about yourself can be extrapolated to become an amazing essay :)

D) UNCONVENTIONAL TOPICS
i think these essays, if written rightly, can sometimes be the best. i decided to do this when i wrote my essay for UChicago - i basically wrote about all of my flaws instead of my strengths. this was SUCH A HUGE RISK and i agonized about it all the way up till the day of admissions results, but i guess the agony was worth it in the end because i was admitted :) though i really wouldnt recommend writing about flaws to anyone else (to this day i still think that it was a waste of space and that i was very, very lucky to have been accepted by Chicago), the point i’m trying to make is that an unconventional essay is what speaks of an unconventional individual. dont confine yourself to what’s ’safe’, because safe isnt always the most exciting thing. as for writing about politics and religion, if that’s what you feel strongly about, why not? i wrote about politics for half of the schools i applied to, and i got into all of them. plus when you get here, you’ll find that political and religious diversity and outspokenness are very much celebrated.. so no, i dont actually think it would work against you to write about politics and religion if you really wanted to!

E) YOUR CULTURE
being an international applicant, your culture and your background can be one of the most interesting things to write about. but of course, you have to write about it in a captivating way that shows you really think about what goes on in your culture. i’ve read a few essays where people purposely talk about their culture and exoticize it because they know that’s what adcoms like to read from international students, but the international applicant pool is WAY more competitive than you think. there are applicants, particularly the ones from Africa, who live and breathe their culture and have so many exciting, inspiring and REAL things to write about. there is no way a fake-sounding essay on muhibbah can compete with that. personally, i hate the idea of exoticization (not a real word, but you know what i mean) because i feel that it misrepresents the country you come from, as well as your own background.. but if you can come up with something genuine, something real, something powerful about your relationship with Malaysia.. then yes. write about it. 100 percent. :)

F) BE YOURSELF
this speaks for itself :) let your personality jump off the page, and your individuality shine through in your words. if you’re emo, write emo. if you’re funny, write funny. you will find that the best essays are written when you write them as yourself and no one else :) so.. when you first sit down to write an essay, forget about what ‘US College Application Tips’ you’ve heard or read. forget about what people say you should be. just channel yourself, think about what’s most important to you, and write about it, in your own voice and no one else’s.

4. PROOFREADING

when you’re done writing your essay, believe me, you’re not quite done :P be prepared to rewrite all of your essays at least twice, and if you’re anything like me, be prepared to can some essays on the deadline itself and submit a spanking new one only minutes before midnight, simply because a new idea hit you or you got some excellent critique on one of your essays.

seriously though, letting my essays be proofread was the best thing i did for myself during my applications to college. i’m the sort of person who never lets anyone read my personal writing (yes, weird i know, coming from someone who blogs publicly), even if it’s for important things like essay writing competitions or college admissions. but when i wrote my first essay (the skirt one) and sent it to some of my very closest friends, i got such amazing critique that made my essay SO much better after i applied them. then i thought, hmm, maybe there’s something to this proofreading thing after all! so i started sending out my essays to people to read. and i’m not exaggerating when i said that this is the best thing i did for myself. other people can contribute fresh perspectives that you’ve never even thought of, and also give you good suggestions on how to make your piece better. reading/proofreading someone else’s work and doing the same to your own are two very different things :)

there are four kinds of people you should send your work to:

A) PEOPLE WHO KNOW YOU WELL
show your essay to your best friends, your friends and your family. their views are always valuable because they know you best, and sometimes they can remind you about a part of yourself that would fit in perfectly with your essay and enrich it even further. if your essay isnt doing you any justice, these are the people who would tell you so. also there are things about us that some of our best friends or siblings see and envy, and oftentimes these are the life accomplishments or characteristics that we should be writing about :)

B) PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW YOU AT ALL
i gave my essays to my best friends and asked them if they would show it to their parents or their other friends. this yielded some of the BEST CRITIQUE EVER. remember that the people on the adcom who will be reading your essays are people who are complete strangers to you, and your essays are the first impression of you that they will get. therefore, having your essay proofread by people who dont know you will give you an accurate idea of what a complete stranger thinks of you after reading your essay. ask your friends what kind of a person their friends thought you were after reading your essay. ask them to hazard a guess on what kind of person you are beyond what is obvious from the essay. is this the right impression you are trying to portray? if it’s not, then you got some work to do :)

C) ADULTS
simply cos they have mature and refreshing views :) you know the saying about more salt than you’ve eaten rice. good candidates are english teachers!

D) GOOD WRITERS
good writers know how to structure ideas well and also where emphasis should be placed, among other technical abilities like grammar and vocabulary, so it’s always good to get them to read your essays and give you critique. Martian is actually a really good writer (but dont tell him i said that), so i always sent my essays to him for advice on structure and flow. he would tell me that i needed to shift my ideas around, or that the sequence of certain paragraphs made him feel uncomfortable, and then i would realize that what he said is true.

i also found that sending my essays to bitchy (but good) writers helped a lot :P okay lah maybe the word to use is ‘discerning’. you know.. sometimes people can be a bit lazy to proofread your essays.. but the ‘discerning’ writers are always the ones who thrive on tearing apart other people’s work :P they give you critique down to the very last full stop, and although demoralizing, it really pushes you to think about what makes a good essay and just how you can improve it.

however, remember that critique should only be heeded so much. dont accept and apply critique to the point where your original voice is lost.

and with that, i end Part 2 of my guide to the essay section of US college applications :)

The author of this walkthrough was accepted for the class of 2012 at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, University of Chicago, New York University and University of Michigan. She is now a freshman at Columbia University in New York, and doesn’t know yet what she wants to major in, but she’s pretty sure it’s not going to be math. Su Ann is also known as Pinkpau and likes ice cream.




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