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Mit Admissions Essay 2012 Ram

Jul 30, 2012

How To Write A College Essay

Posted in: Miscellaneous

Listen: writing well is hard.

It is hard for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it is hard because you don't know your audience and have to guess. Sometimes it is hard because you have a lot of stories tripping over each other to get onto the page. Sometimes it is hard because, no matter how smoothly you try to form your sentences, they invariably tumble out of you, all stiff and angular like a box of bent pipes.

But being able to write well is important. You will never encounter a situation in which obfuscation is to your advantage. You will frequently encounter situations where crisp, compelling writing can express your feelings, make your case, even save lives: Edward Tufte argues that the Challenger disaster could have been prevented if only the case against launching had been made more clearly.

While (hopefully) no lives are riding on your college application essays, this is a great time to revisit some of the rules of writing well.

George Orwell's Politics and the English Language is my personal guide to thinking about writing. The theoretical foundation he lays in this piece - about the importance of language, including writing, in shaping how we are capable of thinking - he later built upon in 1984.

Read this essay. Read it closely, read it carefully. It will change the way you think about writing. I keep Orwell's rules for writing next to my desk always:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Now, in this essay Orwell took issue primarily with contemporary political propaganda. As he wrote:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.

 

But the same is true for college essays, as Orwell doubtlessly would have realized if he were reanimated and handed him a sheaf of Common Applications. The sad truth is that most college application essays are not very good. When I say they are "not very good", I mean they are either boring, impenetrable, melodramatic, or all of the above.

The single greatest scourge of college application essays is the advice dispensed by books with names like "50 Winning College Essays from Ivy League Students." Everything about these books, from the titles on down, is so suffused with self-congratulation that it should be no surprise the essays themselves stink like bad perfume. Hint: These books exist because people at name-brand schools realized they could sell aspiring applicants drafts of their essays. They do not, as a rule, provide actual good advice. If anything, they simply reproduce the "lifeless, imitative style" of orthodoxy against which Orwell railed.

Orthodoxy runs deep. Last year I was traveling with a colleague from Yale. He had recently spent a week on a reservation helping Native American students navigate the college process, and he had been shocked by the degree to which the cliches and tropes of college essays had penetrated into their world. As he told me, the essays his students - who had lived vastly different lives than most mainstream applicants - were writing were indistinguishable from those written by applicants in southeastern Connecticut. They were composed of billowing clouds of "my global perspective" and "future potential as a leader" and "desire to leverage my education" to bllllllaurhfhasklafsafdghfalkasf.

Do not do this. Do not allow your essays to descend into an impenetrable bulk of buzzwords and banality. You are an interesting person. Your essays should be yours. This is best described in How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose, by Vince Gotera of the University of Northern Iowa, which was my guide to writing my essays when I applied to graduate school.

Consider, for example, Gotera's comparison of two hypothetical introductory paragraphs for a master's program in library science:

I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.

vs.

When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.

 

As Gotera says: each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that. 

So let me save you the trouble of buying any of those books and close by quoting Kurt Vonnegut's seven rules for writing well, which are as applicable to college applications as they are to writing everything else: 

  1. Find a subject you care about.
  2. Do not ramble, though.
  3. Keep it simple.
  4. Have the guts to cut.
  5. Sound like yourself.
  6. Say what you mean to say.
  7. Pity the readers.

Specificity, clarity, and brevity are your keys. Use them to unlock the writer inside you.

MIT Requirements: 2 short essays of 100 words each; 3 longer essays of 200-250 words each.

Supplemental Essay Type(s):Why, Community

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 2017-2018 Application Essay Question Explanations

There’s an old cheesy joke that goes like this: A college student is standing in the “10 items or less” checkout lane at a grocery store in Boston. When she finally gets to the register, it turns out she has 12 items. The cashier rolls her eyes and says, “Okay, so either you’re from Harvard and you can’t count, or you’re from MIT and you can’t read.” (badum-chhh) Sadly, you will be expected to read and write in college – even at MIT! In fact, MIT admissions cares so much about your writing that they’ve concocted their own separate application with five required essays. Don’t worry, though, you’ll also get to show off your counting skills because each essay has a pretty tight word count; even the longest ones top out at 250 words. So the real challenge of this application is crafting tight, incisive essays that tell focused stories about your life. Got it? Okay!

Rather than asking you to write one long essay, the MIT application consists of several short response questions and essays designed to help us get to know you. Remember that this is not a writing test. These are the places in the application where we look for your voice—who you are, what drives you, what’s important to you, what makes you tick. Be honest, be open, be authentic—this is your opportunity to connect with us.

Alright, now let’s dig in!

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Think of this prompt as a continuation of the introduction. MIT is explicitly asking you to back away from the resume, and forget your structured activities. It’s not about proving what you can do, but revealing what you love to do. Put another way, this prompt is about self-care: What always, without fail, brings a smile to your face? What helps you recharge your batteries? What do you do and where do you go when you’re feeling down? When you start to think of things that feel a little silly or personal, you’re heading in the right direction. The activity you choose should be informal and unique to you.

Although MIT invites you to be honest, we also suggest you balance your honesty with specific details and storytelling. You might want to try to come up with something a little more original than sleep, read, or hang out with friends, but if these are your options, then you have to commit. If you like to spend time with your friends, what sorts of things do you do together? If you like to sleep, have you perfected the art of the power nap? What are your favorite things to read and how do you organize your personal library? Let your personality and tastes shine through! And before you start to say, “But I really do love volunteering at the soup kitchen during my spare time,” don’t worry. There’s a community service essay a little later in this supplement.

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

Believe it or not, this is MIT’s version of a classic Why essay, wrapped in an academic disguise. It’s not really about your academic interests and achievements (which can be gleaned elsewhere on your application); it’s about the kind of student you hope to be. If you can build a bridge between your own interests and the resources available at MIT, you’ll be well on your way to demonstrating your fit. So set aside a few hours and commit to some hardcore research on the MIT website (sorry, there’s no way around this, folks!). Beyond the basic departmental listings, look up information about news and research coming out of your department, the kinds of courses available, and the opportunities that other undergrads have had studying in your area of choice. Even if you have a wide array of interests, consider explaining how two to three departments might complement each other or foster your interest in a larger idea or theme. Your ultimate goal is to show that your interest in MIT (just like your intellectual curiosity) runs deep!

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

We recommend working your way backwards through this prompt because the last sentence really says it all! Your community can be any size or scale, from your family to your town. You likely already have a specific community service experience in mind, but before you dive in, we encourage you to take a moment and brainstorm some smaller, more informal options. You’ll also want to keep in mind how your work relates to “the world’s biggest challenges,” but starting small could lead you to a more unique and thoughtful essay. Think of a moment where you felt like you made a change in your local community. It can be something small; it does not have to be monumental, but it should mean a great deal to you. Maybe you babysit for your mom while she’s at work, and this has led you to think more seriously about the childcare challenges single parents face. Or perhaps, in helping your teacher grade papers, you feel you are taking some pressure off of an already overwhelming workload.

If you choose to write about a more formal experience, here’s another backwards piece of advice: When writing about community service, you should always start with yourself. It’s the only way to avoid platitudes and clichés. You need to ground your writing in the specificity of your life. Don’t start with the action and end with what you learned. Instead, dig into your motivations. If you spend weeks petitioning your school community to raise the hourly wage for custodial staff, what prompted you to act? What assumptions did you have about income inequality and what did you learn about your community in the process? No matter what, make sure you choose a topic that is meaningful to you.

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

If you were torn about what to write in your community service essay, you’re in luck! MIT has gifted you a second chance to sound off about a community that matters to you. But while the earlier prompt asked about your impact on a community, this one is all about your community’s influence on you. The fun thing about community essays like this one is that the word “community” can mean anything. It could be something traditional like your church or extended family, but it could also be any other group you consider yourself a part of. Maybe you found an important group of friends and mentors once you got into breakdancing. Or perhaps there’s an online community of writers that you rely on for honest feedback. If you’re drawing a blank, try to list out a few individual people who have impacted your life for the better. Then try to fit them into a larger community. If you picked your grandpa, think about how your extended family has shaped who you are today. How have your family traditions or fishing trips given you a lens through which to see the world? How can you lead admissions to a new way of understanding the person you are today?

Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

You can check out our guide to Common App Prompt #2 for a full rundown on how to tackle this kind of prompt, but in summary we’ll say this: a question about failure or struggle is really a question about resilience and success! Also, if you chose to write about prompt #2 for your Common App personal statement, we’ve got some extra good news for you: MIT isn’t on the Common App! You’ll need to cut your essay down to size, but other than that, you’re home free on this prompt. Good for you!

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