The folks at the Common Application released their long-awaited essay prompts for 2013 – 2014 last week, the arrival of which had long been a cause of trepidation for counselors and high school teachers because it’s the first year that the site has omitted the option for students to select a topic of their choice. It’s also the first time that they’ve strictly limited the word amount to no more than 650 words and disallowed the uploading of Word document essay files (meaning that students must copy and paste their essays directly into the Common Application essay space).
The fears held by guidance counselors, high school teachers, and independent consultants (like myself) about these changes were based mainly in making sure that our students were still able to best express their own individuality and inner selves in order to demonstrate their admissability to enrollment committees. We worried that locking students into a prescribed set of topics would stifle their creativity and that using the application’s essay space would prohibit them from demonstrating essays of unique structure and flow.
Though it’s early in the process and juniors are only just beginning to think about what they will write in their application essays, it seems for the moment that our fears were unfounded.
For equestrian students in particular, I am thrilled about the essay prompts, as each one offers a tremendous opportunity for you to share your unique sport with admission committees – and by sharing your sport, share a large part of yourself as well. Now, I do caution my students not to make your riding careers the sole focus of your applications – colleges are, after all, in search of applicants who add variety to their student bodies, but they also want students with at least a little variety in their own backgrounds to enhance the mixture in the incoming class. But if you’re going to apply using the Common Application (which adds more and more schools to its roster of users with each passing year), you’ll have at least one essay (with the aforementioned maximum of 650 words), as well as one short-answer question that will allow you to share this facet of your life. Depending on the school(s) you are applying to, various school supplements also require one to four additional essays that may or may not be specific to that school. So bear in mind that you will no doubt have a lot of opportunities to share the equestrian side of your life with the committee – and likewise, a lot of opportunities to share the other things that you do that make you a unique (and admissable!) individual.
The key, then, to a really strong admission essay is very simple to say and yet far more difficult to do. I tell all of my students that, at the end of the day, the essay has to be about you as a person. That’s it. It’s not about your grades – the college has your transcript in hand already. It’s not about your family members – even though some essay prompts ask you to name an influential person – the twist is that you need to focus on that person’s influence on you. It isn’t about the sport you play either – if the admission committee wanted to know the rules of show jumping and what constituted a fault, they’d consult the USEF rulebook.
With that in mind, I have listed below the following four mistakes that I most commonly see equestrians make when they write their application essays – and how to avoid them when you write your own:
- You write about your horse rather than about yourself. No one knows better than I do that our horses are often the best reflections of ourselves – but unless the person reading your essay is also a horse person (and the chances of that aren’t high), you can’t accept that idea as a given and you need to dig deeper. Why is your horse the way that he or she is? How did you influence him or her to become that way? And (most importantly!) what affect has this horse had on your character? Introspection is your friend in this case – and if you can effectively lasso those ideas, the essay will work well.
- You get caught up in telling the story and forget to deliver the lesson learned. We’ve all had that awful horse show or clinic or tragedy with our horses that changed our lives. It’s part of playing the game – we must invest ourselves in the sport for better or worse. But when you relay that idea to the admission committee, you must not get so wrapped up in the minutia of the story itself that you forget to share what you learned. Just as unforgivable from a writing standpoint is using three-quarters of the essay to tell the story, then wrapping up too quickly at the end; e.g. “And that’s how I learned X, Y, and Z. The End.” The take away message is the crux of the essay; don’t bury it in every single detail of the event. Paint a picture of what happened, then move on to the important stuff.
- You get too creative and the point of the essay is lost. Riding on horseback is a truly poetic activity – but unless you’re applying for a creative writing scholarship or to a specific BFA program in writing, there’s not a lot of room for flowery material in your application essay. Should you be creative and insightful in your use of language? Absolutely! Should you share your joy in your sport in poetic terms where appropriate? By all means! Just don’t drown the thing in it. Again, it goes back to outlining the sport’s effects on you rather than just waffling about its intrinsic beauty.
- Your essay becomes a sales pitch to the equestrian team coach. Your English teacher has probably been telling you for years that the first thing you must keep in mind when you write is to know your audience. In the case of your admission essay, your audience is an admission committee made up of admission counselors and directors of admission. They may be horse people, but most likely they are not. They may even know and have a working relationship with the equestrian team coach, depending on the way the school handles its equestrian program (e.g. as a major, as a varsity sport, or as a student club). But what they don’t do is make decisions as to who gets a place on the equestrian team, so don’t worry about impressing them with your riding prowess and accolades. If they’re going to admit you, they need to know that you will contribute more to the student body than just points on the scoreboard.
I will observe that some of the easiest students to work with when it comes to crafting a brilliant admission essays are my equestrians. They have a wealth of stories and knowledge and experience to draw from and a unique perspective from which to do so – but they also need a little bit of support in order to make themselves shine through instead of their horses. (Force of habit, I suppose – our trainers are always telling us to make our horses look good and we dwell in a community where famous horses are often more well-known than their human counterparts.) But for one brief and shining moment, each student has an opportunity to stand out in the eyes of the admission committee – and the right essay can make that happen in a truly memorable way.
(Need help crafting your essay? Contact me.)