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Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Epiphany asks: How do you write a college admissions essay? I love your writing advice so much I just wanted your opinion on how to go about this.

Since I am sitting here with noted collegeologist Robin “Harvard” Wasserman (who has, in fact, helped several people get into Harvard and is the author of Hacking Harvard, along with other fine books, like Skinned), I thought I could do a kind of point/counterpoint of advice on this subject. So here is Robin’s advice, followed by my replies.

HARVARD SEZ: Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but . . . be aware that basically every essay topic has been written about a million times. Admissions officers have heard it all. Your work in the soup kitchen/trip to South America/amazing grandparents . . . while very important to you . . . aren’t necessarily unique. You have to have done something REALLY exceptional to surprise them. Like perform successful open heart surgery using tools you have crafted yourself. That doesn’t mean that you can’t write about those things, or that your essay won’t be a success. Think of it this way: your application, as a whole, is a story about you. Your passions. Why you would be a good person to have on campus. You need to talk about yourself and your interests in a compelling way. A really excellent essay on your beloved sock collection is actually BETTER than a boring, rote essay about the environment. Honest writing wins.

MJ SEZ: I disagree with the “honest” part, because some people can’t be honest. For example, did you see Twilight? Did you see the part where the Cullens had all those graduation caps on the wall? Do you think Edward wrote a letter like this?

Dear Admissions Committee,

I am a 108 year old vampire, and I’ve been to college about 17 times. I am applying to your school mostly based on the local weather pattern, but don’t take that as a slight. I highly respect your academics. And while I know my 17 previous degrees might be a drawback (“why bother?” you must be thinking), I feel I have more to learn . . . and more to give.

My skills include music, running, baseball, examining slides in biology, and also I can read your mind. I prefer evening classes, and for me, every night is an all-nighter. Need couples housing because girlfriend is v. clingy, clumsy. Actually, need family housing as family is all vampire. (Lots of windows OK. Meal plan unnecessary.)

In conclusion, I ask that you admit me or I’ll eat you and all the members of your family in a blood orgy. (Kidding!)

Edward Cullen

HARVARD SEZ: I probably should have made clear, these rules do not apply to supernatural creatures of the night. Or, really, anyone who sparkles. Admissions officers get very distracted by sparkles.

MJ SEZ: I know they just stuck those graduation caps in for the movie but I think it works. Also, Robert Pattinson has kind of a big, awesome head. He could definitely get into Harvard. But let’s talk about the people who are worried about their writing skill.

HARVARD SEZ: Good point. Plenty of “bad writers” can still write good essay, and lots of them will get into good colleges because they’re good at math or science or football or what have you. Maybe you can’t write an amazing novel, but you can still produce an interesting, honest essay about yourself that tells the admissions staff about who you really are.

MJ SEZ: See previous note about honesty.

HARVARD SEZ: No, seriously. Don’t lie. Aside from all of the obvious concerns, it’s really hard to maintain, and you’ll probably get busted.

Harvard is wrong. But let’s move on. What about guide books?

HARVARD SEZ: Oh yeah. Don’t get all freaked out by reading the sample essays in college books. Many of them suck.

MJ SEZ: Obviously, though, you should follow any models I post here. For example, I remember when I applied to college (not to HARVARD, though), I was QUOTE MANIAC! Based on my own success story, I offer the following example:

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,” said Oscar Wilde. This reminds me of something the poet Yeats said: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Both men were talking about education, and that’s what I look for in a college . . . education.

Of course, as Aristotle reminds us, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” But what fruit? Lemons? Apples? Bananas? Tomatoes (which are technically a fruit). “Yes, we have no bananas,” the song says, but are bananas what we really need?

In my four years of high school (not, as Abraham Lincoln tells us, “four score and seven,” because that’s actually 87 years, which is WAY too long for high school, lol!), I learned many things about myself. “You live, you learn,” Alanis Morissette said, back on her 1995 album, “Jagged Little Pill,” and that’s still true today. I believe that as we go on in life, we change. It was Einstein who told us that “The only source of knowledge is experience.” Change. Experience. Education.

I feel this is all summed up in the words of Miley Cyrus, a.k.a. Hannah Montana:

There’s always going to be another mountain
I’m always going to want to make it move
Always going to be an uphill battle,
Sometimes I'm going to have to lose,
Ain’t about how fast I get there,
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb.

“So wise so young, they say, do never live long,” says Shakespeare. Let us hope for Miley’s sake . . . and for mine . . . that he is wrong.

Feel free to model your essays on that! And now that the INTERNET makes finding quotes so easy (you don’t even have to check them or anything, because everything on the internet is right!), you can pound out one of these babies in about five minutes, like I just did.

HARVARD SEZ: This sounds obvious, but . . . check your essay carefully for typos and spelling mistakes. And if you are using one essay to send to multiple schools, make sure you have the right school name in there! Don’t send Princeton a letter saying how much you want to go to Duke. This happens more than you think.

MJ SEZ: Actually, I think that you SHOULD put in the names of other colleges just to mess with their heads and make them JEALOUS.

HARVARD SEZ: And make sure you get someone else to read you essay—someone who isn’t just a friend. By this, I mean a teacher, a parent, or someone like that.

MJ SEZ: Or a vampire.

HARVARD SEZ: Also, don’t try to be overly clever. If they ask for an essay, send an essay. Don’t send a crayon drawing or a sculpture or a shoe with a note attached that reads, “Just wanted to get a foot in the door!” Admissions officers often keep these things to mock them.

MJ SEZ: I’ll tell you what they DO love, though. Emoticons. Pepper your essay with them! They won’t even notice them, and yet, all those smileys will affect their mood. They will remember reading your essay and being happy.

HARVARD SEZ: You have plenty of places on the application to list your achievements, so don’t go over them again and again in the essay. It looks like bragging. Bragging is bad.

MJ SEZ: BRIBING, however, is just smart. It can’t hurt to write, “P.S. I hear someone has a five dollar foot long in their future if they admit me!” Everyone loves a sandwich.

Tomorrow . . . more help for you! Leave your questions!

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Blogger delightfully mediocre said...

This explains so much why I did not get in to Harvard! Thank you, MJ!

Actually, what I did was make up silly information to put on the Harvard "request for application" form that they had when I was applying to colleges (it was basically an application for their application - you needed to list your high school accomplishments, leadership positions, GPA, class rank, favorite sushi roll, shoe size... maybe not those last couple). Evidently telling them that I personally led a zombie revolution did not endear me to them quite enough to actually allow me to apply. Whoops. Do they still require people to do this before sending you an application?

Eh. I went to a state school and I turned out okay, though this comment may not show it. In fact, it's incredibly rambly and awful. Sorry. Sort of.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Patti said...

MJ, I wish I had your advice when I applied to college. I would have had a lot more fun...

8:10 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

and now, if i were only in america to put it to use! lol

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I kind of want to send in your essay to a college I don't actually want to go to and see what they say. :) MJ, you're amazing!

8:48 PM  
Anonymous Katie said...

haha you're essay is fantastic! That is actually what I did for my own admissions essay (possibly a little better/ less sporadic) and they loved it!

10:17 PM  
Blogger The Rays said...

I totally wish my today self could have told my younger self to do something like that. College Schmollege. It would have been worth it and probably would have worked.

11:13 PM  
Anonymous jellybean said...


My four-year-old daughter has recently become obsessed with ABBA. My parents encouraged this by giving her the Reader's Digest 4 CD set and a copy of Mamma Mia. As the expert on all things disco and awesome, how can I help my pre-Ker expand her musical horizons? Because if I have to listen to 'Dancing Queen' one more time, my head might explode.

Many thanks!

11:15 PM  
Blogger Nadia Murti said...

Your essay made you sound very well read, actually. I did that for a paper once, and out of the four pages, 2 and half of them are quotes. I got an amazing grade!

I am going to copy Edward's essay for college. Hope he doesn't mind!

1:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I had read this back in September. I'm not writing college essays anymore, although I bet this advice would work for scholarship essays too. Don't worry, I'll makes sure to leave them a nice bribe at the end. lol

1:12 AM  
Blogger rvn said...

"and make them JEALOUS", hahahah brilliant.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Katie said...

I work for the public relations department at my university. It's a fantastic job (I get to paid to read the newspaper!), but it also means I'm in a place where my coworkers discuss HOT TOPICS going on at the university. Recently, our GLBTQ students have been agitating for some permanent representation on campus, and I've been troubled by the response in my office. The problem isn't the lack of support, although that is a problem; it's the open disdain, the laughter and jokes I've heard at these students' expense. I'm just a student worker. Is there a good way to respond to their pettiness without endangering my job or sticking my nose where it doesn't belong?

3:15 AM  
Anonymous Bookworm said...

Robin's advice was great!
I also wish that I had it when applying for college.
MJ, you are HILARIOUS :)
I laugh every time I read your blog.
When I have a bad day, I just drop on in a have a good laugh.


3:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



4:23 AM  
Blogger elizabethshodges said...

I recently discovered your blog...and I love it. I laugh out loud in my dorm room and make my roomates think that I'm crazy[/ier than they though I was before]. Your posts make my day a little happier every single day...so I guess this is a thank you! This blog is brilliant.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Danielle D. said...

Maureen, I guffawed many times while ready your answers. Thanks for all the lau...I mean, serious advice.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Allison said...

Question: do you believe in coincidences? Because I don't. I believe in conspiracies (also in ABBA, but that's a different story). Anyways, I only ask as you put up your '18 things to do before you're 18 or whenever' post up in April, and tomorrow is my 18th birthday! Now, apart from having an awesome ABBA dance party which is, in itself awesome (I have a mini disco ball keychain that I take out when random dancing occurs) but is something which I tend to do everyday, I have no idea what to do. I feel like I should be having some absurd adventure or getting into some sort of shenanigan (love this word). I thought that, based on our coincidence/ conspiracy/ occurance of ABBA's sheer awesome, you might have some ideas.

So I guess the REAL QUESTION is: what should I do to celebrate my 18th year of being properly afraid of enough things that I didn't contract some rare jellyfish disease??

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you just solved all of my essay writing problems.

Thank you.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous hannah said...

Speaking of school, how do you get over really, really bad tests?

I got three of my marks back today (I'm still in high school) and I wanted to cry. I still kind of do.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Candy said...

Holy crap, MJ, I hope nobody takes you seriously! I like to think all of your readers are intelligent though :)

You are so full of lulz. I love it.

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Suvi said...

Last time I asked about how to find the love of my life before summer. Now, after reading this wonderful advice for college essays, my mind is filled with more down-to-earth kind of things. As getting a summer job.

A month ago I called to a lovely lady at a retired people's café and asked if she would want to hire me for summer. She got very interested when she heard that I can bake. She said she will make the decision at the end of April.

The question is: If the lady at the café does not pick me, what other kind of job would you recommend? And what should I do to make the employers hire me?

5:57 PM  
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