(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
-excerpt from George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946.
So once upon a time, I wrote a blog comparing the college essay to froyo. Since then, the application has been revised, and although I still believe in the merits of the first blog in regards to a long college admissions essay (500-1000 words), it definitely doesn't apply completely to the new short-answer system that MIT adopted.
A few months ago, I created a bogus account on my.mit.edu so I can actually catch a glimpse at what the new application looks like (it really doesn't look that different, ha) and I've been thinking about how I would approach these essays. Although nothing here is the product of intense cognition, I thought I'd share some of my views on these small essays.
Essentially, you have 5 "mini-essays" - What You Do For Pleasure ("pleasure" - 100 words), Department at MIT ("department" - 100 words), What You Do That's Creative ("creativity" - 250 words), World You Come From ("world" - 250 words), Significant Challenge ("challenge" - 250 words), and that's it! Less than 1000 words total.
The easy things first - the "Pleasure" and the "Department" prompts are not really "essays," but short answers, so they can be easily answered. My advice is just to go ahead and be honest with them (well, you should be honest in your entire application ;P), especially with the "Pleasure" essay. The admission officers ("adcoms") are not looking for "standard" answers, and you won't get brownie points by putting down "programming," "building robots," or other "MIT-y" answers (although they also definitely won't penalize you if they do happen to be things that you do for fun). Just be honest!
Many people stress out about the "Department" essay, but I can tell you that MIT DOES NOT admit on a quota, and you WILL NOT be penalized by which department you put down on that blank (I don't know how many emails I've gotten on this subject already - seriously, the adcoms are not lying at you, and no - there is no conspiracy either). Therefore, you will not seem more impressive if you put down Philosophy, over, say, Mechanical Engineering. When I applied, I put down Chemical Engineering (oh, such were the days of my innocent youth, when I believed that Chemistry was trivial), but now I'm happily a Biology (and pending History) major. Your interests may shift after you enroll at MIT (and realize how brutal some of the courses here can be), and that's perfectly fine! So don't worry too much.
For the "Creativity" essay, I would encourage you to look at the connotation of "creativity" from a new angle (in a sense, be creative about exploring creativity :P). You can go broader than physical things like creative projects or creative inventions. I would investigate writing about creative ideas, creative ways of looking at things, creative ways of solving problems, for example. I wrote about a concrete research project I did when I applied, but I thought that was quite boring in comparison to the other things that could have written about, so I encourage you to explore this topic a bit further. :)
Ah - ok, now we come to the challenging 250-word essays.
So back in the day, we had a choice between these two essays to write a long essay on, but I guess now they're requiring you write on both of them, but as shorter essays.
Actually, I really enjoyed the "world" essay - and I thought it was the one of the best prompts out of the prompts for the 15 colleges that I applied to (number one was still Stanford's "photograph" prompt - I loved it. Sorry MIT :P). The challenge now, however, is how to condense all the things you want to convey into mere 250 words.
In order for me to see what a 250 word word limit is really like, I wrote a 250 word essay. Not on MIT's prompts, though.
He held up the sheet of wrinkled paper, his eyes in silent protest.
The tattered bill requested 13,800 dollars for a three-day hospital stay.
"Why call the ambulance? Just leave me alone!" the frail old man muttered. Just a week ago, Mr. Vu suffered a stroke that required hospitalization. Because he could not understand English, Mr. Vu had not applied for health insurance, resulting in the exorbitant bill.
An internship at an Asian clinic opened my eyes to the untold story of limited-English proficiency patients, who often struggle to obtain health care in a maze of foreign forms and convoluted policies.
Suffering from a worsening stomachache, Mrs. Wong was neglected in the county hospital for over two hours, unable to flag down a passing nurse for assistance because of the language barrier. Clutching a X-Ray order, Mr. Park searched in vain for Radiology in a blinding flurry of English letters.
Over the summer, these stories became too common - accounts of immigrants fighting for their right to care in a shockingly monolingual health system. After the internship, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter in November. I wanted to change the status quo.
My experiences this summer solidified my conviction of entering into public health, especially immigrant health, as my future course of study. America has long prided itself as a "melting pot" of cultures. Isn't it only fitting that there exists equitable access to health care, regardless of the language spoken?
The word limit is kinda short.
Now, a disclaimer: I want to stay that this is not intended to be a "model essay" (I think the ending can use some more work, among other things), but I thought this would be easier in illustrating a point.
If you look at the essay, I like going narrative -> point -> how it connects to me. In fact, this is what I use for most of my essays :3
Here's the same essay, deliberately made worse (but to illustrate a very common problem in college application essays):
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic in Oakland, California. Over the course of the summer, I realized the plight of immigrants when it comes to obtaining equitable health care. In the modern health industry, immigrants and other residents who possess limited English proficiency are often overlooked because of their inability to communicate their symptoms to the doctor and complete paperwork in English. This problem is exacerbated when they cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant health bills. In a country that claims to be the "melting pot" of cultures, this kind of neglect is no longer acceptable.
Many patients suffer extended waits in the hospital, unable to obtain assistance. It is possible that a worsening stomachache is the initial sign for appendicitis, which needs to be treated expeditiously. Often, hospital signs are also not translated into other languages, making navigation difficult for elderly patients. These scenes are played across hospitals in the nation everyday.
After my experiences this summer, I realized that I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system. It is no longer sufficient for us to stand on the sidelines and watch. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter. I hope I will be able to contribute my efforts to the field of public health, especially immigrant health, in the future. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
Also 250 words, but this essay is riddled with problems, many of which Orwell pointed out in the blurb above.
1. The essay is filled with extraneous and needlessly difficult words. ("I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system")
2. The essay lacks a personal voice - it's very passive ("These scenes are played," "immigrants are often overlooked," "the problem is exacerbated")
3. The essay never "shows" - it only "tells."
Show, don't tell!
I can't emphasize this enough. This essay points out many problems of the health care system, but doesn't offer any examples of the problems. At the end of the day, which essay will readers remember better? An essay that speaks in general terms or Mr. Vu with his bill?
Personally, I think after MIT made the switch from the long essay to short essays, this point is even more pertinent. You just can't afford to waste words speaking in vague terms that doesn't convey much in terms of meaning.
When adcoms read thousands of essays on end, you need to stand out. Ideally, your essay should pack enough punch (that's a cliche :P) so that your readers have a "take-home message" (another cliche :P). Simply put, you need something memorable about your essay. If you feel bored writing your essay, chances are that the person reading your essay will be bored too. Make it vivid - let your story shine.
Finally, the other point I want to convey:
Trim the extra fat!
I narrowed down the first essay from over 400 words to just 250. Chances are, you can do the same too. The second essay is plagued with extraneous words, and actually it can be narrowed down to just this without loss of meaning:
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic, where I realized the struggle of immigrants in obtaining equitable health care because of the language barrier. They often cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant bills. This is not acceptable in America, which claims to be a "melting pot" of cultures.
Many patients suffer long waits in the hospital, unable to get help. A worsening stomachache can lead to appendicitis that requires rapid treatment. Often, signs are only written in English, making navigation difficult for elderly patients.
It is no longer sufficient for me stand on the sidelines - I want to make a difference. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed in Mandarin. Eventually, I hope I can work in the field of public health, especially immigrant health. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
This new essay is only 154 words. Although it definitely sounds stilted and shouldn't be submitted as a complete essay, it still goes to show how much excess fat one can usually trim from a typical essay.
Not to reiterate myself too much from the previous blog that I wrote, but the effective essay, IMO, is the essay that really shows who you are, where you're coming from, and what your loves are - in your own voice. Both the "world" and the "challenges" essay are structured so that it's focused on you and your stories. Use these opportunities to tell a story - to convey who you are. There's no need to repackage your tale in fancy rhetoric or educated vocabulary.
Just as we see in world literature: often the best stories are, really, the simplest stories.
When you’re applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you’re agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We’ll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.
How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.
Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren’t sure which you’ll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.
Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don’t advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:
Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won’t affect your chances of admission, it is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.
Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you’ll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.
Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, you should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.
Now I’ll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format whether you're copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way:
Plus, online submission doesn't require any stamps!
If You'll Be Copy-and-Pasting Into a Text Box:The main thing when you copy and paste into a text box is to double- and triple-check that everything transferred over correctly.
First, check that your whole essay transferred over and wasn’t cut off!
Word counts can get messed up by wonky formatting or be counted differently in the text box, so be aware that you may need to make slight adjustments there.
When you copy and paste, you may lose formatting like bold or italics. Sometimes bold and italics also just won’t work in the text box, so you may be better off just not using them.
Your paragraph spacing may get messed up when you copy and paste your essay over. So make sure that all of your paragraphs are clearly delineated, either through tabs or through a skipped line if tabbing doesn’t work.
Font will probably be standardized, but if it’s not, choose a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial (you’ll probably have limited options anyways) and a normal size (12 pt).
If You're Attaching a Document:If you’re attaching a document, you have to be more concerned with the overall college essay format. Things like margins and spacing become more important.
Use one-inch margins all around. This is standard and easy to read.
While single-spaced essays are usually acceptable, your essay will be easier to read if it’s 1.5 or double-spaced.
Clearly delineate your paragraphs. A single tab at the beginning is fine.
Use a font that’s easy to read, like Times, Arial, Calibri, Cambria, etc. Avoid fonts like Papyrus and Curlz. And use 12 pt font.
You may want to include a college essay heading with a page number and your application ID. Don’t include your name unless it’s specifically requested.
Oftentimes, you’ll need to submit your college essay in a specific file format. The application may only accept certain versions of Word files (i.e. only .doc and not .docx), .rtf or .pdf files. So just be sure that you are saving your file in an accepted format before you upload it! I recommend .pdf files whenever possible, because they are uneditable and always look the same.
Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:
Unless it’s specifically requested, you don’t need a title. It will just eat into your word count.
Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or ~unnecessary symbols~ or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.
Keep these out of your essay!
How To Structure Your College Essay
Maybe you’re less concerned with the micro-level college essay format, like fonts, and more concerned with the macro-level format, like how to structure your college admissions essay. Is there’s some secret paragraph formula that will make writing easy and clearly express all of your strengths to an awestruck admissions committee?
Sadly, no. However, the good news is that a college essay is actually a good opportunity to play with structure a little bit and break free from the five-paragraph essay. (You’re certainly not disallowed from writing a five-paragraph essay, but it’s by no means guaranteed to be the best college essay structure.)
A good college essay is like a sandwich, where the intro and conclusion are the pieces of bread and whatever comes between them is the sandwich toppings. A sandwich without bread is a bad sandwich, but a good sandwich could have any number of things between the bread pieces.
So you need a clear introduction that gives a pretty clear idea of where you will be going in the essay and a conclusion that wraps everything up and makes your main point clear.
However, how you approach the middle part is up to you. You could structure your essay more like a narrative, relating an important experience from your life. You could use an extended analogy, where each paragraph is a part of the analogy. You want to adhere broadly to the wisdom that each paragraph should have an identifiable main idea, but a college essay is definitely a great chance to break free from the five-paragraph essay.
For more in-depth advice on how to structure your essay, check out our expert step-by-step guide on tackling the essay.
Mmm, delicious essay...I mean sandwich.
Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea
You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It’s much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.
You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don’t advise closely patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.
College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways
There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).
Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:
- Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you’ll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
- If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn’t cut off.
- If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
- There’s no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.
Tips for the macro levelof your college application essay format:
- There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
- In terms of structure, it’s most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you’re going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
- I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.
Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos?
Still feeling lost? Check out our total guide to the personal statement, or see our step-by-step guide to writing the perfect essay.
If you're not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays!
And be sure to avoid these 10 college essay mistakes.
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