College Admission Essays For Dummies®


by Geraldine Woods




About the Author

Geraldine Woods teaches English and directs the independent study program at a high school for gifted students. Throughout her thirty-year teaching career, she has guided a multitude of harried and anxious seniors through the process of writing successful college admission essays. She has written 40 books, give or take a few, including English Grammar For Dummies, and Research Papers For Dummies. She loves bookstores and libraries, minor-league baseball, Chinese food, and the novels of Jane Austen. The mother of a grown son (Tom, a lawyer), she lives in New York City with Harry (her husband of 30 years) and parakeets Alice and Archie.



For T. and K., beginning their adventure; and for H., continuing ours.


Author’s Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Stephen Singer, a college counselor whose encyclopedic knowledge of higher education is exceeded only by the generosity with which he shares his time and wisdom. I am also grateful to Tom Katzenbach and Barbara Tischler for their helpful advice, to Linda Brandon for her diligent editing, to Pam Mourouzis for her insight during the outlining stage of this book, to Turner O’Neal for his useful comments, and to Lisa Queen for her support. I am exceedingly grateful to the applicants who cheered me on and allowed me to include their essays in this book: Kristina Bennard, Ruthie Birger, Jordyn Cosme, Lindsay Danas, Shanah Einzig, Marc Philippe Eskinazi, Leonard Fishman, Danielle Ginach, Robert Gould, Horace Andrew Patterson, Justin Pattner, Mark Sanger, and Wontaek Shin.


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

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Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Linda Brandon

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How to Use This Book

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : Putting Yourself on Paper

Chapter 1: Becoming More Than a Statistic: What the Essay Does for You

Painting a Portrait of You, the Applicant

Understanding Your Audience: The Admissions Officers

Timing Is Everything

Writing Admission Essays While Having a Life

Concentrating on Process, Not Product

Keeping Perspective

Chapter 2: Exploring the Subject of the Essay — Yourself

Mining Your Life

Collecting the Stories of Your Life

Getting Personal with Impersonal Questions

Identifying Themes in Your Autobiography

But Enough about Me: Overcoming the Taboo against Bragging

Chapter 3: Writing for the Tired, the Poor (The Admissions Office)

Meeting Your Readers: The Admissions Committee

Keeping Their Attention When Yours Is the 9000th Essay They’ve Read Today

Avoiding Writing Traits Guaranteed to Annoy the Admissions Committee

Writing What They Do Want to Read

Chapter 4: Keeping It Legal

Buying an Essay on the Internet and Other Things to Avoid

Finding the Right Sort of Help

Dealing with Parental Interference Assistance

Noting a Few Words about Plagiarism

Locating Help When You’re On Your Own

Part II : Getting Your Head Ready for Writing

Chapter 5: Writing as Process, Not Product

Writing with Process, Not Product, in Mind

Separating Your Inner Creator and Editor

Pre-Writing: The First Steps

Drafting: Not Just for the Army Anymore

Taking the Final Steps

Chapter 6: Storming Your Brain: Idea Gathering Techniques

You Can’t Build a Castle Until You Dump the Blocks

Matching Personality and Technique

Gathering Ideas: The Techniques

Reacting to a Specific Question

Chapter 7: Building a Structure to Support Your Ideas

Structuring Your Meaning

Meeting the Major Players in the Structure Game

Structuring the Career Essay

Chapter 8: Putting It All In Order: Creating an Outline

Outlining: The Logical Choice

Putting Your Thoughts in Order

Checking for Gaps

Staying Flexible

Taking the Final, Pre-Write Check

Part III : Writing the Rough Draft

Chapter 9: Showing, Not Telling Your Story

Getting Down to Specifics

Using All Your Senses

Choosing the Best Details and Ignoring the Rest

Selecting Strong Verbs and Nouns

A Little Metaphor Won’t Kill You

Chapter 10: Constructing Good Paragraphs

Punctuating Your Points with Paragraphs

Creating a Strong Topic Sentence

Placing Topic Sentences and Details

Setting Up a Transition

Chapter 11: Leading with Your Best Shot

Taking the Right First Step: What the Lead Does for Your Essay

Capturing the Reader’s Attention

Setting the Right Tone

Orienting the Reader

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

Chapter 12: Going Out with a Bang: The Conclusion

Repeating Yourself and Other Non-Answers to the Conclusion Question

Concluding the Essay with Class

Chapter 13: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Understanding Your Block

Confronting Your Application Anxieties

Leaping Over Writing-Related Blocks

Part IV : I’d Like to Finish before Retirement Age: The Final Draft

Chapter 14: Making a List and Checking It Twice: Grammar and Spelling

Getting the Grammar Right the Second Time Around

Spelling It Rihgt Right

Deciding When to Break the Rules

Chapter 15: Smoothing the Rough Edges: Polishing the Essay

Picking the Best Words

Creating Stylish Sentences

Saying It Once and Only Once

Chapter 16: Leaving a Good Impression

Getting Your Point Across

Verifying That You’ve Answered the Question

Sounding Strong and Mature

The Top Ten Reasons Why Lists Are a Bad Idea

Checking the Essay One Last Time

Chapter 17: Final Answers: The Last Word on Format

Reading the Directions

Cutting to Fit and Lengthening to Suit: Hitting the Word Count Target

Dealing with Paper Forms

Applying Online

Faxing, Express-Mailing, and Other Panic Options

Part V : Analyzing Questions from Real Applications

Chapter 18: Composing Essays Starring You

And Then I Took the Oath of Office: Relating a Personal Experience

Explaining Your A+ in Recess and Other Academic Experiences

Envisioning the Future: When I Retire at 20, I Will . . .

Daydreaming Your Way into College

“Desperate” and Other Descriptions

Chapter 19: Describing Significant Strangers and Friends: Essays About Other People

Defining Others’ Influence: You Are Who You Know

Writing about Friends and Relatives

Relating Strangers’ Lives to Your Own

Entering the Fictional Universe

Chapter 20: Responding to Essay Questions in the Subject Areas

We Really Wanted to Teach English: Answering Literature and Writing Questions

We Stare into Space a Lot: Responding to Philosophy and Science Topics

We’re Paint-Stained but Happy: Expounding on Artistic Topics

We Love Timelines: Discussing Historical or Current Events

Chapter 21: Getting the Most Out of Short Answers

Saying a Lot in Little Spaces

Answering the Most Common Short-Answer Questions

Lassoing the Mavericks: Responding to Unusual Short-Answer Questions

Part VI : The Part of Tens

Chapter 22: Ten Myths About the College Essay

Writing Style Doesn’t Matter

Finding the Right Topic Is No Big Deal

Focusing on a Certain Topic Guarantees Admission

Discussing Any Topic Is Okay

Following Instructions Isn’t Important

Talking about Ordinary Lives Is a No-no

Using Scholarly Language Is Impressive

Writing One Essay Is Enough

Seeking Help from Lots of People Is a Good Idea

Formatting Your Essay into the Standard Five Paragraphs Does the Trick

Chapter 23: Ten Great Essays to Inspire You

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Of Studies” by Francis Bacon

“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

“The Search for Marvin Gardens” by John McPhee

“The Solace of Open Spaces” by Gretel Erhlich

“The Lives of a Cell” by Lewis Thomas

“Eastern Middle School” by Thomas Friedman

“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes

“On Lying in Bed” by G.K. Chesterton

“On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion

Chapter 24: Ten Absolute Musts for College Essays

Keeping It Real

Answering the Question

Following Directions

Being Specific

Getting Personal

Expanding the Basics

Holding Their Interest

Meeting the Deadline

Going Easy on the Eyes

Using Good Grammar

Appendix: Personal Inventory

Family Ties

School days


The Future



The No-Category Category


“F irst class?”

“Yes, definitely definitely yes.”

The postal clerk prints a label, stamps the thick envelope, and tosses it into a bin. As the envelope lands on its side, one corner folds back. The customer winces, looks away, and then looks again. “Excuse me, you wrinkled my envelope.”

No, the postal clerk doesn’t describe the many machines the envelope will pass through before it arrives at its destination. Nor does he point out all that can go wrong with this particular letter, including jammed gears and misplaced mailbags. Instead, he glances at the address and smiles sympathetically. “College application?” he asks, gently repositioning the envelope on top of the pile.

When you send that all-important application to a college, grad school, or scholarship committee, you probably won’t ask the post office to deliver your envelope without wrinkles, as one of my students did. But I bet you sympathize with her panic! These days more and more applicants vie for the same number of slots at top schools. Yet much of the application process — from the way the post office delivers the mail to the way the application is viewed — is out of your hands. You can’t, for instance, predict how your qualifications mesh with the needs of your preferred university. If you’re a tuba player and the college orchestra is desperate for bassoonists, you may be out of luck when acceptance letters are sent out. And by the time you’re filling in little blanks on the application form with a list of your courses and activities, you can’t do much to improve your school record.

Fortunately, one huge element of the admission process is completely under your control. Most colleges and graduate schools give you the opportunity or even require you to write a “personal statement,” an essay about yourself. Still others ask for several essays on topics ranging from “Why do you want to attend the University of Wherever?” to “Describe a significant failure in your life.” Even more fortunately, the college admission essay is open to improvement right up until the filing deadline. Best of all, the essay provides opportunities that no other section of the application allows. Apart from the personal interview, the essay is the only moment in the admission process when your true self shines through, when you become more than a set of statistics.

However, the essay also comes equipped with “sand traps” — phoniness, bad grammar, and vagueness, to name only three — that can sabotage your application. College Admission Essays For Dummies gives you a road map around those sand traps. This book helps you decide what to write and then guides you through the process of creating essays that present your best self to the admissions committee. Because many scholarships require personal statements, this book may also pay off in cold, hard cash. Moreover, you’ll find College Admission Essays For Dummies useful even after you plunk down your last tuition payment. Chances are a few employment-related essays are in your future, especially if you’re applying for internships or jobs on the professional level.

How to Use This Book

Twenty-five hours in a day. That’s what you need, right? If you’re applying for admission or scholarship money, you know that just typing your social security number eight zillion times takes up a month of your life. You don’t need another chore, but you do need help. Never fear. College Admission Essays For Dummies demystifies the process of writing an application essay — from topic search through final draft, without wasting your time. Of course, I like to imagine you glued to these pages, devouring every syllable I wrote. But I’m a realist. I know you throw this volume into a corner every time your instant messaging beeps or your history professor assigns a paper. No problem. Just gallop through the table of contents to see what’s where. Also check out the section in this Introduction entitled “How This Book Is Organized.” Then turn to the chapters that deal with the part of the process currently tying your stomach into a knot: getting started (Chapters 2 and 6), creating an outline (Chapter 8), polishing (Chapter 15), and so forth. After you’ve grasped what you need to do, plop yourself in front of the computer and get to work. Keep a copy of the book nearby, so the next time you’re stuck, you can turn to College Admission Essays for more assistance.

Two special features of College Admission Essays For Dummies ease the writing process. The appendix contains a questionnaire — a personal inventory — that helps you discover the best topics for your essays. Also, throughout the book, I’ve scattered real admission essays from students who were very happy when the colleges of their choice mailed out decision letters. These essays will help you see what you’re aiming for. I’ve also included excerpts from some fictional clunkers, written by yours truly, so you’ll know what to avoid.

Foolish Assumptions

I’ve got an Imaginary Reader, whom I affectionately call I.R., perched on the edge of my desk. I consult I.R. often when I’m writing. In my fantasy, I.R. is up to the eyeballs in viewbooks and financial aid forms, thinking hard about the future. I assume that my Imaginary Reader is serious about the application process, wanting to choose — and be chosen for — the best possible university, the one that will provide a great educational and life experience. I also see my Imaginary Reader as someone who is a little insecure about writing, maybe not the usual English-report sort of paper, but certainly the “let-me-tell-you-about-myself” type of essay. And who isn’t insecure about such a task? After all, summing up a life experience, at the age of 18 or the age of 81, is daunting. I.R. may even be a bit fearful, assuming that one sentence will make or break the entire application. Everything in College Admission Essays For Dummies is aimed at this Imaginary Reader — who I assume resembles you, the real reader. I wrote College Admission Essays For Dummies to calm your anxieties, improve your writing skills, and help you complete your application essays on time and on target. I also wrote College Admission Essays For Dummies to demystify the Authority Figures who will judge your work — the College Admissions Office.

How This Book Is Organized

Part I of College Admission Essays For Dummies explains the basics: what you’re writing, why, when, and for whom. Part II walks you through the preliminary steps of writing, providing proven techniques for jump-starting your creative process. Part III handles the nuts and bolts of good writing and Part IV shows you how to put the finishing touches on a final draft. Part V concentrates on specifics, alerting you to the best approaches to real, lifted-from-actual-application essay questions. Check out Part VI — the famous Dummies Part of Tens — to puncture your myths about the essay, to learn what you must include in yours, and to find great sources of inspiration. The appendix is a questionnaire designed to help you explore your own brain for possible essay topics. Now read on for more detail about College Admission Essays For Dummies.

Part I: Putting Yourself on Paper

Can’t staple a living, breathing, 100-something-pound human onto an application form? Write an essay instead. This part tells you how to capture the crucial stories that reveal who you are. It also explains why “putting yourself on paper” promotes your chances of receiving that fat, lovely acceptance letter. Part I gets you started on self-discovery, guides you in the creation of a writing timetable, and shows you how to seek help without violating any university, school, parental, or personal code of honesty.

Part II: Getting Your Head Ready for Writing

I’m in the mood for . . . for what? If you answered, “Anything but writing,” this part is for you. If you answered, “Writing my college admission essay,” this part is also for you. Part II explains how to place yourself in the mental state most suitable for good writing. Part II also shows you how to gather ideas, focus on a topic, and choose the best structure for your essay.

Part III: Writing the Rough Draft

Fire up those electrons. Time to put words on the page (er, screen). This part demystifies the rough draft, explaining why you should “show,” not “tell,” your story. It gives you the lowdown on topic sentences, use of detail, and strong introductions and conclusions. For those who find themselves alphabetizing the sock drawer when they’re supposed to be writing, Part III also explains how to overcome writer’s block.

Part IV: I’d Like to Finish before Retirement Age: The Final Draft

This part tackles (gulp) grammar and spelling, but without all those horrible terms that we English teachers love so much. Part IV offers style pointers too — how to choose the best tone, create transitions, and avoid wordiness and repetition. Finally, this part tells you everything you always wanted to know about format, including such exciting topics as fonts and margins.

Part V: Analyzing Questions from Real Applications

Most admission essay questions ask you to write about yourself or about people who have influenced your life. A few resemble school assignments: analysis of a quotation or a current event, for example. Some schools specialize in zingers — really off-the-wall questions that test your creativity. Part V tips you off to the best strategies for the most common questions and provides sample essays. Part V also shows you how to write successful “short answers” — those 200-or-so word queries about your favorite extracurricular activity, career plan, and the like.

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Need inspiration? Check out the list of ten great essays. This part also punctures ten myths about the admission essay and tells you what you absolutely must do to write a good one.

The appendix contains a questionnaire to help you take stock of all sorts of personal details. After you complete the inventory, you’ll have enough material for all the essays you’ll ever need.

Icons Used in This Book

Throughout the book are little signs located in the margins to guide you toward important information. Here’s what each sign means:


The material accompanying this icon is more valuable than a message from a jockey about the favorite’s chances to win the sixth race. The Tip icon alerts you to shortcuts, ways to improve writing style, and other helpful hints for writing a successful college admission essay.


The Warning icon is like the sturdy fence at the edge of a cliff. This icon tells you how to sidestep the most common errors of admission essays and prevent some seriously nasty falls.


The Winning Strategy icon reveals a series of steps that make the process of writing an admission essay easier, more efficient, and more successful. Think of the Winning Strategy icon as the blueprint for an award-winning building.


“This above all; to thine own self be true,” wrote Shakespeare. Good advice! But you can’t be true to yourself without truly knowing yourself. This icon accompanies hints on exploring the subject of your essay, you.


Already have a bachelor’s degree? Planning to attend law, medical, or business school? This icon’s for you. It accompanies material of special interest to those who are applying to graduate or professional school.

Where to Go from Here

If you’ve got the applications, thumb through them and make a list of essay questions and deadlines. If you haven’t yet received the applications, turn to Chapter 1 for a quick overview of the types of questions often asked. Whether or not you have the applications, begin to fill out the “Personal Inventory” in the appendix of this book and spend a few moments thinking about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Dip into the sections of College Admission Essays For Dummies that address the parts of the writing process most likely to be hard for you. (Don’t know what the writing process is? Check out Chapter 5.) And take heart: You will write the essay and you will survive the application era of your life.

Part I

Putting Yourself on Paper

In this part . . .

What is it, why do they want it, who reads it, and how can I possibly write it and still have time for my favorite activities, sleeping and eating? This part answers all those questions about the college admission essay and a few more besides. For definitions, timetables, and tips on questions, check out Chapter 1. Chapter 2 explains how to gather information about the subject of your essay (you) and Chapter 3 describes the people you’re writing for (the admissions committee). Chapter 4 tells you how to stay on the right side of the (academic) law and how to keep your parents out of your hair while you write.