Music students preparing for college know that the essay portion of the application is crucial. If you’ve been reading the news lately, you know that one high school senior, Kwasi Enin, was recently accepted to every school he applied, including eight Ivy League schools. Granted, he scored 2250 on his SAT and was in the top 2% of his class, but his essay (which you can read here) is being touted as a major influence. In fact, many admissions board members say that your application essay has the power to solidify your approval or scuttle your chances.
So, knowing what to write and how to write your student essay is very important. These tips can get you started by providing some clear guidelines about what and what not to do when you’re writing your application essay.
Content—What (and What Not) to Write
The topic of your essay should be original. Generic writing with unsupported generalizations are tedious and unexciting to read. Your student essay is the one shot you have for giving the approval committee a glimpse of your character, the kind of person you are today, and what you want to bring to the academic community at that school. You can do that by:
- Brainstorming—Jot down ideas about your strengths, personality traits, ambitions, and topics that will answer the essay question or prompt ideas.
- Writing without restraint—during your first draft, let your writing flow. Don’t stop to worry about grammar or structure, you can edit later.
- Be Honest—Don’t fabricate or exaggerate your experiences. Don’t develop your essay around what you think the approval board will want to hear. Write your essay using personal stories that come from the heart.
- Be Creative—Your opening line, like all good writing, should be intriguing. The acceptance board is most likely wading through hundreds of essays and you want yours to stand out. A snappy opening line should grab their attention and whet their appetite for more.
- Choosing the right topic—Avoid political, sensitive, or controversial subjects. Experts suggest leaving out things like your opinion of the last election or how you overcame a mental illness or other health problems. Also, shy away from the same old hackneyed ideas. Your student essay isn’t a way to glorify your goodness or make yourself a victim, it’s an opportunity for the school of your choice to understand who you are.
Your school application essay should convey a sense of perspective (yours) and self-awareness that’s compelling to others. It should be authentic and show your quality of thinking. Be humble, but not modest. You’re writing about the best of your abilities and passions, so don’t short change yourself.
Form—How to Write
Yes, form is a very important part of your essay. Although you don’t want to create a “cookie cutter” essay that bores the board, it should still follow the basic structure of introduction paragraph, body (3-4 paragraphs), and conclusion paragraph. Plus, your paragraphs should follow the rules of composition, topic sentences should introduce the content, statements should be backed up by details and examples, and you should employ an appropriate amount of transitions.
In fact, all of the rules of good writing apply, including:
- Proofread/Corrections—Make sure that there are no grammatical errors by reading your essay out loud and having other people read it, looking for errors. Reading out loud is an old writer’s trick because it illuminates mistakes that are ignored when you read silently.
- Follow the Instructions—Each school will have different aspects they want to examine, so make sure that you cover the points requested in the essay.
- Remember, it’s not a resume—Your school application essay isn’t another form of your activity resume, so don’t approach it like one.
- Know your audience—Although it’s tempting to use the thesaurus to sound smarter, don’t do it. The school wants to know about you. You should avoid slang, but definitely use your own voice. Be concise and use active voice.
- Let character attributes shine through—Whatever experiences you decide to express, make sure that the examples reflect the attributes you want to showcase.
- Get feedback—Ask teachers, parents, and friends to read and critique your essay. The people who know you best may be able to offer great insights into your character, so don’t be afraid to ask them.
Writing a great application essay doesn’t have to be a struggle. Remember to start early so you won’t feel rushed. If you’re unsure about the grammar, the Purdue Online writing Lab (OWL) is an excellent source of information for style guides, grammar, and mechanics. Music students who take their time developing their music school essay improve their chances of being accepted by the school of their choice and eventually landing their chosen music careers.
In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:
John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…
John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …
Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:
I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.
It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.
I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.
I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.
‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.
I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…
Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.
‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.
I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.
What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.
I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:
I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?
Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…
To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.