By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Should your main essay for college be along the lines of a dialogue-filled short story, a cryptic poem, or a lengthy stream of consciousness? In a word, no.
While there are always exceptions, in general, admissions officers are reading college essays at light speed–speed reading, really–and creative writing is not conducive to skimming and scanning to follow a plot line.
Let me here differentiate between creative writing and writing creatively. By all means, all of you should endeavor to add some creativity in your essays. Everyone appreciates a nice turn of phrase, or the occasional literary device, deftly employed. Juxtaposition and simile can be your friends. Descriptive adjectives and active verbs are always the right choices. But I want to caution you against engaging in purely “creative writing” for your main essay, for two reasons: it’s difficult to write and it’s difficult to read.
Creative writing, when well done, takes great skill to produce. Your margin for success is very slim; your chances for failure, great. As this is an important essay, this is not the time to take wild chances and branch out on your mission to be understood. Once I sat on a scholarship selection committee, and after the initial numerical cuts were made, and the resumes and achievements were duly evaluated, when the committee actually got into reading the essays, one of the applicants took a real risk and wrote a creative story. It stood out from all the other essays–which were all very well written. This one stood out in a bad way because we all had to read it slowly to figure out what was going on. Everyone had to focus and then discuss the person’s intentions. As we were under a tight deadline, no one was pleased. The person was not selected.
When someone is flying through your file trying to get a sense of you in the fastest and clearest way possible, you want to help them, in every way. Be clear. Be concise. Be entertaining, and be smart. But don’t be obscure or tricky or complicated. That sort of brilliance has its place, but the time for double meanings and extended metaphors is not now.
We’ve all heard about the kid who wrote the epic poem for his college essay, or the girl who composed the musical score for hers, but the vast, vast majority of students tell a compelling story from their life with one clear theme and some memorable examples. I would encourage you to write well and to ask several people to give you their honest opinion. If even one of them “doesn’t get what you’re up to,” then seriously consider a revision of your approach.
I am all for taking risks with your writing and your craft as an artist, and there are plenty of forums and opportunities for you to do that, but always recall that one of the basic tenets of good writing is to craft your piece for your specific, intended audience and purpose.
In college admissions, your audience consists of overwhelmed speed readers pulling really late nights with the aid of large boxes of Milk Duds and copious cups of coffee–all in an effort to survive their own grueling version of Tax Season. You want to keep that in mind and make your essay memorable for all of the right reasons. You may very well be the next Virgil, but maybe save “Arms and the man, I sing” for college.
For more help with college essay writing check out our blogs, How To Write The “Why Our College” Essay and College Essays Topics That (Almost) Everyone Has To Answer.