Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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Writing College Essays: Skills for the Real World – One Student’s Story


Applying to College welcomes a guest post from Yue Ren, a freshman at Harvard College. Yue currently works at Argopoint LLC, a Boston-based management consulting firm.

Editor’s Note: When Yue wrote to me he said, “As a regular follower of your blog, I just wanted to reach out to tell you what an excellent job you have been doing…I believe your blog helped me immensely in being accepted at Harvard where I am a current freshman. However, it is only recently that I realized that your advice extends far beyond the scope of just the college applications process. Your nuggets of wisdom actually helped me develop a good ethic for applying to courses, clubs, and jobs...I believe that prospective students would gain much from understanding the value of your advice beyond the scope of just college applications because these skills are absolutely essential in the real world.”

This is Yue’s post:

I have found Sharon’s advice on Applying to College to be insightful in helping prospective college students write great essays. Not only have I found her advice integral to writing great college application essays, but also applications in general for jobs, internships, and more. First, I would like to provide my thoughts on college essays to highlight the importance of these elements in the real world.

When admission officers flip through your application, they see your transcript, GPA, SAT or ACT scores, the quick descriptions of your extracurricular activities, perhaps a few AP scores and even a couple of awards, but all that seems very quantitative. What part of the application defines you? After writing quite literally over a dozen college essays and supplemental essays, I believe I have garnered a couple of observations. Although I do not have all the answers, I believe these tips would have been helpful when I was writing my first college essay as well as subsequent essays for jobs:

  •  Express Yourself with a Story: In my experience, the best way to communicate an idea is to tell a quick, concise anecdote. Think about all those lessons you have learned in your extracurricular activities or throughout your life. What do these stories tell about your talents, aspirations, or character? I also believe the manner in which you tell a story, including your tone, mood, and attitude, reflects on how you react to certain challenges or successes. This provides just as much information to the reader about your character as the actual story you write. Therefore, word choice in your expression is crucial.
  • Be Human: Why is talking to your friend so much more fun than reading an old biography? Construct your stories with feelings and emotions such that the reader can experience the breadth and depth of your happiness, anger, pain, or excitement. If you are ever wondering why your friend refuses to give any hints about his or her essay, it might be because it is personal; it might reflect intense emotions. A journey in a day in the life of you is filled with crescendos and decrescendos that may ultimately shape your outlooks. Do not be afraid to share them with admissions.
  • Write Truthfully: Honestly, lying is hard. No matter how much detail you slap on a lie, there are crucial, significant elements that are still missing. Not only do these missing elements signal a lie, but also they are the parts of the story that provide genuineness and insight into your life. Save yourself the trouble of trying to write about stuff that you have never done, and just pour your heart and mind into those events you have faced. If you participated in a thousand extracurricular activities in high school, now is a perfect chance to talk about a few of those thousand topics.
  • Seek Peer Critique: Although many people choose to not let anyone see their essay, I found that letting your teachers and maybe a close friend see your essay brings new perspective.

Going back to how word choice is crucial: Some words simply rub people the wrong way, and it is probably best not to rub admissions the wrong way. Here is an example:

Original: “Students from Estonia to Chile took the course; we were in this together from all around the world.”
Edit: “From Estonia to Chile, our interdependence garnered an engaging international learning experience.”

In the first example, there is a sense of camaraderie and hints to a sense of mutual benefit from engaging with students all over the world. However, to my teacher, it also sounded rather suspicious and implied that students were in it together to defend against something. In addition, admission officers are only taking so much time to read your essays. Make your expression clear. The edit uses more sophisticated, mature language, which demonstrates a fluency with words. The advantage of the edit is the clear message that learning together with diverse students derived mutual benefit.

You cannot control what your reader thinks or how your reader interprets your essay; you can control how you express your ideas. Therefore, express them wisely and always be conscious of your audience.

To keep the college essay in context, it is just one part of your application, but I would recommend treating it as the part of the application that truly identifies you. It is an opportunity, not another barrier keeping you from clicking that submit button.

Beyond the College Essay: Writing for Jobs, Courses, and Internships

Sharon’s blog is truly awesome. I would check some of the posts like “Stuck? 5 Tips to Jump-Start Your College Essay,” “How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit” series, for advice on college essays. I know I found them abundantly helpful when I was writing my essays. But her advice extends beyond just the scope of college essays. I would like to stress that for courses, jobs, or internships, I found these tips equally as applicable and useful as they are for college essays.

  • When I wrote my cover letter for my internship at Argopoint, I specifically used examples of past experiences and extracurricular activities in form of anecdote compressed in a sentence or two to highlight my skills and abilities. I also sought help from peers who have experience with applying to jobs, and who helped critique my cover letter. Of course being frank and honest is important. Here is an example of a question I had to answer:
  • Question: “Why do you want this position?”

This question is an almost guaranteed question at any place of employment. I responded along the lines of: “Although I am only a freshman at college, I have great vision of what I want to do. (Give a quick idea of what you want to do). To be frank, I may not be fluent in everything provided in the job description, but I am an eager, fast-learner. I once (I would have specified the exact activity here) led a body of over 100 students with no prior leadership experience to great success. I found that the keys to my success were consistency, encouragement, and commitment. I am confident that this combination will allow me to make a contribution to your organization.”

Because I gave a quick example of an activity I led, I clearly communicated to the listener that: This kid wants to learn and can be honest on areas where he needs improvement. He clearly faced a respectable challenge and emerged successful. Even though that may not align perfectly with the work done at the organization, this is the attitude required to succeed. Finally, this freshman seems ready to contribute.

Going through the college applications process, you will discover that the tips garnered from the Applying to College blog and lessons learned from writing great college essays will be crucial in scoring opportunities in your future.