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How To Write A 500 Word College Essay

Katie Miller is a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., who just finished the long process of applying to college and is awaiting her decisions. She was captain of the tennis team, leader of the spoken word poetry club, edited her school literary magazine, likes listening to music and writing — anything but college application essays. Here’s her take on an increasingly stressful rite of passage for college-bound seniors. — Susan Svrluga

[Read a few samples of her essays here.]

Want to share your college essays? Send your favorites to gradepoint@washpost.com.

By Katie Miller   

Katie Miller (Photo courtesy of Katie Miller)

A few days ago, I hit “send” on the last college application I plan to submit. For me, the moment came with an enormous sigh of relief.

Of course I’m anxious to learn where I might go to school next year — but for now, I’m mostly glad that I don’t have to write another essay about myself anytime soon.

By the time I was done, I had written 16 essays, on everything from what sort of research project I’d design if I were given a $4,000 budget, to a description of one of my quirks.

I guess I learned a little bit about myself along the way, and maybe even learned a little bit about how to write something meaningful in 250 or 500 words.

But the process also was grueling, more difficult than taking the SATs twice, more difficult than taking AP exams, more difficult than building my resume over the past few years.

It wasn’t just the volume of work. It was the pressure, the vagueness of some of the questions, the haunting sense that every other applicant had done something amazing.

[Everyone kept telling you to start your essays early. Oops. Save yourself, in four easy steps.]

Every school wanted at least two essays. The most rigorous university I applied to wanted three essays plus five short responses to a series of questions. And even the short questions were difficult: “What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?” (I wrote about the surge in gun violence and the inability of our democratic institutions to address it.)

Essay requirements were all over the place. Some asked for personal reflection, while others expected insights on society and current events.

Personal essays were hard for me in part because I don’t like writing about myself. After writing essays with textual evidence for school for so long, turning the lens back on me seemed weird. How do you strike a balance of not coming across as obnoxious or arrogant while boasting of your accomplishments?

But I also stressed about the stakes and the sensation of never quite being sure who would be reading what I wrote: A middle-aged admissions official? Another student? A whole committee sitting around a table with stacks of papers being sorted into piles of those who would make it and those who wouldn’t?

While writing I tried to fight off a voice inside my head: This could make or break your application. Other applicants are more qualified. They traveled to Africa to build homes for children. What did you do?

I struggled the most with the questions that were open-ended.

This one was brutal: “What matters to you and why?”

I eventually decided to write this one on marriage equality and my experience in San Francisco during pride week. I had always valued equality, and had served as the vice president of my school’s Gay Straight Alliance club for a few years. When I decided on this topic, the memory that stood out for me was the day the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality. I was taking a flash fiction writing course at Berkeley, so every morning I rode the BART under the bay. Something special happened on the train ride that day. Soon after a banner flashed across the top of my screen saying “Marriage Equality Legalized,” I spotted a man wearing a magenta flannel, ripped jeans, and leather boots. Every few seconds he shuffled his feet and tapped his fingers. When he saw from across the car that I too was singing along to my music, he smiled and nodded. I wrote about how this rare moment of connection was when I truly understood what the morning’s news meant.

In the essays with broader topics, it was really difficult to write about an impersonal event and still give insight into my character.

[To thine self be true, but not overly so]

One of the schools on my list prompted me to write about which historical moment or event I wish I could have witnessed. My choice was crucial because it was really supposed to resonate with me personally and say something about who I am. I had to be careful not to choose an event that was too famous, because I wanted to stand out and have my response remembered.

I decided to write about the exploration of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. I wrote: “When Carter found King Tut’s tomb in 1922 it was virtually undisturbed, unlike other chambers that had been plundered. It was as if he had entered a portal to an ancient era.”

As the process wore on, I started looking for opportunities to recycle material from one essay to another.

Fortunately, a few schools used prompts that were similar enough that I could repurpose something I’d already written with minimal changes. Since all of my schools required one main essay, I could recycle the personal statement essay I had already written about my passion for poetry.

Going into all this, I didn’t know how much impact the essays can have on the final decision.

Then I heard that qualifications like straight A’s are so mainstream in many schools’ application pools that the standards for acceptance are rising without much awareness. Also, that admission boards consider essays the only real glimpse of an applicant’s true character, free of test scores and grades. I felt pressure to submit a video or fancy multimedia supplement – or at the very least, to nail the essay.

[Videos replace test scores and essays for some applicants]

I learned that admission boards are interested in essays with vivid imagery and clear personality, something that will put them on the edge of their seat after hours of reading.

No pressure, right?

The hardest question, by far, asked me to reflect on an idea or experience that has influenced my intellectual development.

I had never really considered this before.

I tried to think of a really clever example.

Eventually, I decided to write about meeting President Obama. My aunt was a campaign manager and she had invited my family to attend a speech on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Obama was someone I had only seen on magazine covers and television. He was about to address an audience of 35,000 people and go on to become the nation’s first black president. But in that moment he was also a person, and the distance between us seemed not so vast. As a fourth grader, I wasn’t so moved by the speech itself, which was hard to comprehend. However, I wrote in the essay, “I realized that history is made by people, and that up close they can be both extraordinary and ordinary. It was a liberating concept, one that changed my perspective on figures of politics, science and literature that seemed so distant in textbooks.” The encounter also affected my view of myself. I learned that success is based not only on our ability and determination, but whether we can see ourselves someday in a VIP room.

My favorite question, and the easiest to write, was the one that asked me to write a letter to my future roommate.

When I wrote the other essays, I spent days agonizing over them. With this one, the words came naturally. I liked writing it and I had a clear sense of what to say.

The question itself gave me an audience easier to relate to than some lofty dean of admissions. I got to use a lighter tone, be more creative, add some humor.

I organized this essay based on some of my quirks and flaws. “I enjoy producing my own music. My favorite singing spot is the shower and if anyone complains about my voice, I blame my tone-deafness on my vocal nodules.” I wrote about my squeamishness, and my tendency to cry over TV finales.

This essay sounded the most like me, I thought, and gave the most honest portrayal of me. My friends and family liked it the most, too.

I sent it off to my top-choice school.

About a month ago, I got an email back with the decision.

“Katie, I am very sorry to let you know that we are unable to offer you admission …  ”

It was the identical computerized response that thousands of others got at the same time.

I was bummed, texted some friends, and went to sleep. But honestly, the school was a reach for me so I wasn’t too surprised.

What I was really upset over was that they had denied not only me, but my best essay, the one that showed who I am.

In the months ahead, I can only hope I’ll be rewarded with my first acceptance letter in the mail, when I’ll know that all the hard work on my other essays helped win over some intimidating admissions committee.

I still have the letter to my future roommate. When I know who she is, I can send it. I hope she’ll laugh, and we’ll both know that this awful process is finally over, and the real challenges and joy of college can begin.

A guest post by Ed Weathers

Your 500 Word College Application Essay should be about the real YOU.

These days, most colleges require that your application essay be no more than 500 words. In that essay, colleges expect you to reveal your writing ability and, just as important, the real You, with a capital Y.

Who are You? What makes You tick? What are Your hopes, expectations, fears, joys, tastes, desires, foibles, sins, and virtues? That’s a lot to expect of a 500 word college application essay.

Of course, you can’t say everything about yourself in 500 words. Forget that list two sentences ago; you can’t fit all that in 500 words. You must narrow the focus of your essay. So what do you write?

Some experts suggest that you start your 500 word college application essay with a brief personal story and then draw a “moral” from it that expresses your values.

There’s nothing wrong with that advice, but if I were a college admissions officer, I’d be sick by now of essays that begin with a touching little tale about a wise grandfather, a handicapped sibling, or a South American orphan the applicant met on a summer good-works trip. I’d prefer hearing about why you still drink only chocolate milk at the age of 17, or how Bonnie Sue McKay broke your heart at the age of twelve (and how you got over it by learning to quilt), or why table tennis is your favorite sport, or how you, with your tin ear, wept the first time you heard Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

If I’m your college admissions officer, forget “touching.” Give me honest and accurate, instead. Give me “tough” before “touching.” Give me clear observations — in your own words, please, not stock phrases. Give me concrete images: a chocolate milk stain on a white hospital gown, a quilting needle stuck in your index finger, a cracked ping-pong ball behind the basement furnace, a scratchy old recording coming out of a friend’s iPod. Give me wit, if you’ve got it, but don’t strain for something that doesn’t come naturally.

Give me honest feeling, not prepackaged, Hallmark-card, tell-’em-what-they-want-to hear mush. If you now hate quilting and prefer rugby to table tennis, fine, write that.

If I’m your college admissions officer, think hard about chocolate milk or Bonnie Sue or table tennis or Schumann, and answer me this question, as accurately and honestly as you can: Why is this important to you?

If you think you know the answer to that question before you start writing, then you don’t know what writing is. Writing — through thinking and brainstorming and free-writing and revising and revising—is a way of searching for the answers to such a question and then writing down those answers as accurately as you can. A good essay would surprise the you you were before you began to write it. 

I’m not a college admissions officer, but if I were, I’d say this: The subject of your essay doesn’t matter. It simply needs to be well written and about something you — you, not everybody else, and certainly not some imaginary admissions officer—honestly do care about. Think of this not as an exercise designed to impress colleges, but as a piece of writing as sincere as a love letter. Even if it’s about chocolate milk.

Hmmm. All this sounds very solemn. Your college application essay does not need to be solemn. It does not need to be profound. It does not need to be heart-warming or tragic or full of marvels. It can be funny or quirky. It can be plain and simple. (I often prefer plain and simple.) It can be about something or someone you like, not necessarily something or someone you love. In other words, it can be about lap blankets or Roger Federer, not necessarily about environmental awareness or your grandfather.

I once was paid good money for a little essay about the contents of my wallet. I believe that essay would have got me admitted to Harvard.

All this means your college application essay can be written only by you. Your mother can’t write it. Your guidance counselor can’t write it. That friend of the family who’s a writing teacher can’t write it. When my son applied to college, I refused to help him with his essay. I’m a professional writer and college writing teacher; I knew I could make his essay better. But I couldn’t make it his.

If colleges wanted to know what he had to say and how he said it, then the work had to be his. Otherwise, he was applying under false pretenses. (Who knows, you may want to write something you don’t want to show your mother or your guidance counselor. Do you really want them to know about your crush on Bonnie Sue or your fear of white milk?)

I know that many college applicants get help—some of them get lots of help—on their application essays. Maybe I shouldn’t judge them. But I do. I think they’re cheating just a bit. Your essay needs to be your essay.

And of course it needs to be no more than 500 words. Why? Because that’s the rule, and even if it’s a narrow and arbitrary rule, you need to prove you can color inside the lines. In my next post to this site, I’ll give you some advice about how to write concisely and make the most of those, or any other, 500 words.

Ed Weathers is a retired magazine writer, editor, and college writing instructor. His writing website is writeyourbest.blogspot.com.

For more college application essay tips, check out:

Tags: 500 Word College Application Essay writing tips, a good essay, college admissions officer, college application essay topics, ed weathers, free-writing

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