Ask a Teacher: Admissions Essays
Q: I am a high school freshman, applying to the Columbia University Science Honors Program. It's a highly selective, math and science program that meets weekly in the city if I get in.
The problem? There is an essay that I have no idea what I am doing with. This is literally the first time I have ever written an essay of this type. Could I get some help?
The Essay Question is: Please describe your interests and background in science and mathematics (maximum of 250 words).
A: The admissions essay (otherwise known as a personal statement) is a very difficult genre, because while there are definite generic requirements, or things that you have to do, there is also the expectation that your essay be original, or at least not blatantly derivative. Essentially, the trick here is to tell admissions personnel exactly what they want and expect to hear, but in such a way that it seems as though they haven’t heard it before, even thought they have, many times over.
I can offer some general advice on writing these essays, which basically boils down to being as specific as possible. There is no getting around the fact that you will have to write these things several times in your life, and for pretty important occasions (even beyond school admissions—cover letters are close cousins), and while high schools are different from colleges and graduate schools are different from corporations, the admissions essay genre is relatively stable, on the whole. While people often think they need to offer some dramatic emotional appeal or incredible personal story to convey the unimaginable depth of their feeling for the sciences, the truth is that these kinds of ‘lead-in’ anecdotes usually read as incredibly forced, and end up just occupying space. Better to just state the facts, ma’am, about what you like, why you like it, and what you are going to do about it.
- Know your subject. Be as specific as possible when discussing the discipline in question. For example, students often write that they want to continue literary studies because they love reading books. Well, yeah. Every applicant loves reading books. It’s a tautology. In this case, the equivalent would be: I am interested in science, because I like science. These vague answers suggest confusion or indecision on the part of the applicant. It makes them seem like fair-weather fans, or dilettantes, when they want to project the image of a committed enthusiast. Why are you interested in science? What kind of science are you interested in? Why are you interested in that particular branch of science? Keep winnowing down the scope of your interests until you can convey a very definite idea to the reader about what you mean when you say you are interested in ‘science.’
- Be as specific as possible when discussing the program in question. You should know exactly why are you are applying for a given program, and quickly demonstrate this knowledge to the reviewer. This knowledge shows organization, commitment, and motivation on your part. And in any event, you should know what these programs are and why you are applying for them—right? Why are you applying for this school or program, as opposed to its alternatives? Are there specific teachers or researchers associated with this program whose work you follow? Are there resources in the program (say, lab equipment) or surrounding area that would be useful to your work?
- Be as specific as possible when discussing how this program fits into your broader goals. What are you going to do after the program terminates? You want to give them the sense that you are on a definite path, with clear goals, and that you will make good use of the time and resources of the program. In a way, every admissions decision is an investment in the applicant, and you want to make your readers feel like they are putting down on a long-term, risk-free investment that will eventually bring back profit on their principal.
I have much more to say on this genre from a personal standpoint (I find it to be the most terrifying and difficult kind of writing on the planet), but perhaps that is best saved for another post. For the time being, just remember that the admissions essay is one genre among many, and in this particular genre, specificity is the key to making clichés palatable.
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.
Any other admission essay advice?