Not Rocket Science: Writing the College Essay


The college essay’s importance is suggested by the fact that some high school composition instructors spend weeks teaching it. That’s for two pages of writing that requires no research and doesn’t need to be a literary masterpiece. Without trying to fool themselves into thinking that writing the college essay is easy, high school seniors can offload some stress by remembering those last two points.

The college essay requires no research because it should be about the writer. Vanderbilt’s Undergraduate Admissions blogger says “we don’t really care that much what you write about, as long as you’re writing about you” (Link).

This doesn’t mean that the college essay should be self-centered to the point of making the world disappear. But whether you go local or global—whether you explain why Mom or Dad is your hero, or why world hunger matters more than global warming—admissions committees want to hear about the effects on you and your life choices.

Don’t shoot for a literary masterpiece because unless—miraculously, at age seventeen—you’re a literary master, the result will bore or irritate admissions committees. MIT’s Admissions blogger advises sticking with the rules for honest writing laid out by 1984 and Animal Farm author George Orwell (Link). These include:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

And add to the preceding recommendations this encouragement to make your life simpler: don’t read too much about how to write the college essay. It’s challenging, but not rocket science, and a couple of sensible pieces pulled from the Internet (like those from Vanderbilt and MIT) will tell you everything you need to know.