The 8 Biggest Essay-Writing Myths, And Why the Reality Is Much Better
What to Write About
The biggest misconception out in College Essay-Writing Land is that college essays are complex, tricky undertakings you can only get through with hours of painful labor. Good news: that's dead wrong.
The truth is that the college essay is simple. It doesn't need to be creative. It doesn't need to be witty. It doesn't require fancy vocabulary. What it does need is to show you'll be SUCCESSFUL in college and beyond. (This blog post walks you through how to make the case you'll succeed by aligning your essay with the 5 traits colleges look for in applicants.) And, it's got to answer all the parts of the prompt. But that's about it.
Myth 1: College Essays Are About Showcasing Excellent Writing Skills
Reality: Essays are about showcasing your ability to succeed in college and beyond. This means content matters: Your growth, what you've learned and why it makes you an ambitious, creative, motivated person with great values.
What doesn't matter is style — with the exception of clarity. Clear writing scores points. "Creative" writing almost always costs points. That includes beautiful metaphors, clever analogies and the rest of the literary arsenal that many students worry about showing off. Time and energy devoted to this extraneous style stuff is leading you astray: Stay focused on clearly illustrating the experiences that prove you'll be successful in college and beyond.
Myth 2: Reading Strong Example Essays Will Set You on the Right Path
Reality: Please don't. Here's what's most likely going to happen — and we say this because we've seen it so many times: You're going to latch on to the flashy parts in the essay that are actually extraneous to what makes it work.
As we said in Myth 1, descriptive language is a distraction. It's the content that matters. But it's really hard not to let a lovely turn of phrase turn your head when reading someone else's words. If you must read a sample essay, put on your Admissions Officer hat, and look for evidence that the student will be successful and exemplify the five traits.
Myth 3: The Personal Essay Is the Place to Tell Your Life Story
Reality: Your family background is rarely the most compelling thing about you. Instead, focus on experiences related to the five traits.
Myth 4: First You Choose Your Prompt, Then You Write Your Essay
Reality: Nope. The first thing you need to do is think through what experiences in your life show you can succeed in college and beyond. Once you've figured out what you want to say, scroll through your prompt choices, and select the one(s) that let you say it. (In fact, even if the college doesn't give you a choice, this is a good method to make sure your answer focuses on what matters.)
Myth 5: Strong Essays Use Formal Writing and Impressive Vocab Words
Reality: Think of a college admissions officer. Think of all the essays they have to read. So many!! Now, give that poor soul a break. Stand out by being that essay that gets straight to the point, and wins their heart in the process. Great essays use a conversational tone, including contractions (ex: "don't," "can't"), everyday words, the first person (I, me, my), and short, easy-to-follow sentences. Even sentence fragments, on occasion. Their focus is on succinctly telling a powerful story. A general rule of thumb – only use a complex or compound sentence once every three sentences (max).
A note on adjectives: As Mark Twain once said, "If you catch an adjective, kill it." Adjectives tend to weaken writing. In any draft, go through and cut every instance of very, great, extremely, amazing and other superlatives. They just don't add value. The only adjectives you should keep are descriptive ones (ex: secretive, blue, box-shaped).
Myth 6: In Something as High-Stakes as a College Essay, Students Always Answer the Prompt in Full
Reality: Admissions officers invariably tell us how often they get essays that leave parts of the prompt unanswered. Colleges don't ask questions they don't want the answers to. Yet smart, motivated students leave critical parts out all the time. Avoid this mistake by carefully outlining your answer to each prompt with clear notes for each part of the question. And, double check that you fully answered each question every time you review a draft.
Myth 7: It's Always a Great Idea to Get Feedback from the Smart, Wise Grown-Ups Who Know You Well
Reality: This is a great way to go on a wild goose chase. Most grownups — like most students — buy into that big misconception we led with in the intro. The one about college essays being complex, and needing beautiful, much-polished language to succeed. If left to their own devices, these adults can lead you down language-y rabbit holes that do you more harm than good.
Instead, choose one or two smart, kind adults, and ask them to focus on whether you've shown you can succeed in college and beyond. How? By having them answer three specific questions:
- What did you learn about me? (e.g. personality traits, values, strengths)
- How could the content be more compelling? (i.e. what didn't you learn that you wanted to?)
- Is the essay well structured? How could it be improved?
Myth 8: College Essays Should Take Forever to Write and Rewrite
Reality: Honing. Crafting. Refining. Yeah, those are great skills. You just don't need them here. As insane (and too-good-to-be-true) as it might sound, the entire process of writing your longest essay — the personal essay — should take about four hours spread across one week. Here's Prompt's process in a nutshell:
- Day 1: Brainstorm content (45 minutes).
- Day 2: Create an outline (30 minutes).
- Day 3: Write the first draft (30 minutes).
- Day 4: Revise, based on feedback (75 minutes).
- Day 6: Get more feedback, and revise again (30 minutes).
- Day 8: Final read-through and polish (30 minutes).