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More Application Essay Tips

Here’s another installment in our ongoing series of tips for application essays. Before, I discussed four crucial aspects of the essay-writing process; now we have a couple of things not to do. You need to be on your guard; sometimes bad results stem from good intentions. Here’s a couple of cases in point.

Don’t Write What You Think They Want to Read

This is a delicate point to make, but you cannot write a good personal statement or any kind of application essay if you’re just trying to write what you think will please your reader. It’s a delicate point to make because you do need to consider your audience. The problem is that you can’t know everything, or even much, about the person whom your essay will finally reach. This blind spot is why it’s safer to be gentle with your humor, avoid controversial topics, and write a relatable story.

The one thing you can predict about your reader, however, is that they’ve read a lot of these essays, and that’s why you want to avoid the most common cliches at all costs. The cliches of personal statements—“I want to make the world a better place”; “I realized all of a sudden…”; “I’ve always wanted to be a part of the Biomedical Engineering program at Harvard”*—result when you try to imagine what a school wants to hear out of you. You forget to ask yourself what you think is a good answer, and so you have nothing to work with; if you don’t really think about these questions, you’ll never find a unique answer to the prompt. Listen to yourself and forget about your audience: there’s not much to go on anyway, and you can turn yourself into a panderer if you’re not careful.

Don’t Write a List of Your Accomplishments

The worst offenders in this category can be identified by a preponderance of capitalized noun phrases—the names of various awards, titles, and organizations the author wants to advertise. The urge to impress is always present, but you have to restrain it from turning your essay into a list of your accomplishments. The simplest reason for this is space. You don’t have enough space to fully describe even one of your accomplishments or experiences, let alone all of them. The solution is simple as well: pick one scene or experience, and focus on that. It’s okay if you mention other parts of your life, because if you come up with a great uniting theme and a corresponding physical scene, this will keep your essay from devolving into lists.

*Biomedical Engineering is a new concentration at Harvard as of 2010.

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