The importance of the essay

If you are at a party where 9 out of 10 people are very smart but also very full of themselves, would you rather hang out with the arrogant smart person or would you rather hang out with the ten percent of partygoers who are nice and approachable?

I raise this hypothetical because this question is one that admissions officers encounter. Many schools get inundated with applicants who have incredible test scores and GPAs. However, the admissions office is not about simply admitting individuals who have a large prefrontal cortex. Rather admissions officers are often just as concerned about the potential and personality of the applicant. Numerous studies have shown that emotional intelligence can be a better predictor of success than simply raw intelligence.

The admissions essay is the one chance the applicant has to describe themselves and show how the person behind the uniform. The letters of recommendation allows admissions officers to view the applicant from the outside in whereas the essays enable the admissions office to understand the applicant and to view how the individual thinks and feels. The personal essays form the basis of the applicant’s software that the admissions office plays on their hardware. This piece of software enables the reviewer to experience and understand the program and to see whether the software is entertaining, driven, or smart.

Every aspect of the application is important: letters of recommendation, resume, standardized test score, past academic performance, and essays. Schools use the resume, standardized test score, and past academic performance to gauge ability. The resume and transcript describe you quantitatively (GPA and SAT/GMAT/GRE/LSAT test score) whereas the essay allows the applicant to describe themselves qualitatively: to discuss past experiences, goals, and who they are as a person. For military applicants, the essay is extremely important because it provides the applicant a chance to shatter stereotypes that people associate with those in the military. Moreover, a good essay helps an applicant to show that they are more than just an “egghead” and that they are an interesting person who one would like to talk to at a party, hangout with, employ, and want as a leader. It enables the military applicant to display his or her intangibles or soft skills.

Tips to writing a good essay

Content:

We feel foolish for mentioning this but we nonetheless feel compelled to remind applicant’s that when writing their essays, they need to remember to answer the prompt (i.e. get to the point or BLUF). If the prompt says what are your short and long term goals, then your first few sentences should probably start with: “My short term goal is . . . My long term goal is . . .”

Occasionally you will be asked a question that asks you to discuss a setback. Again, it is important that one describe a setback but when faced with this type of question it is also important to address how one dealt with the setback. Always first answer the question, and then seek to answer any second or third order issues that the prompt addresses.

Tell an honest and truthful story. Two parts to this advice, the first is obvious-do not embellish your story. Yes, as veterans we have ridiculously-crazy but true stories to tell. Don’t be afraid to relate these crazy but true stories. The second part of the advice is to tell a good story. Your essay should not be a restatement of your resume. It is a chance to describe yourself beyond your past accomplishments and test scores. Provide a history of who you are and tell this personal story by providing a narrative. Avoid having your essays read like encyclopedia entries. Try to have your essays read like a classic short story: a combination of intrigue, humor, suspense, and thoughtful reflection. People like to read narratives/stories as opposed to reports.

Describe rather than state. For example, instead of writing that you are a “hard worker” you should describe how you spent countless hours patrolling with your soldiers and how you often staying up late to check up on your soldiers who were pulling guard in the middle of the night.

The best essays are those that work together to provide a comprehensive overview of who you are as a person. Select certain events that highlight pivotal moments in your life and discuss how these incidents impacted you. Think about the essays before you start writing. Generate 2-3 responses for each prompt. Outline your responses, and generate 2-3 responses for each prompt/question. Then select the response that provides the most interesting or gripping life narrative.

Try to ensure that not only do your essays embody who you are as a person but also that the essays are synchronized with your resume and applicant background. We highly recommend that applicants have their essays augment (i.e. provide greater details to points in) their resume.

Grammar:

Your writing should be succinct, fast paced, and easy to read. Avoid passive sentences unless you deliberately intend to use a passive sentence for stylistic reasons. Proofread your essays for misspellings, grammatical errors, and for redundancy.

The best way to avoid having grammatical errors is to conduct several edits. We profess that we are not the best editors of our own work. That is why when we write, we often write the first draft, sleep, and then review the draft. This process lets us be refreshed and open minded when reviewing our first draft. After editing our own drafts several times we let friends and family review the drafts because they bring in a fresh set of eyes and perspective to the tone and content of our essays. After they have given some feedback, we incorporate their advice, and then review the essays a few more times before submitting the final draft.

The writing process is time consuming. Start early, outline, and continuously seek feedback on how you can improve your essays.

Style:

Use powerful openers. At a party one is likely to not engage someone in a conversation if it takes the person ten minutes to finally talk about something interesting. Similarly, in an essay, a powerful opener can really capture the attention of the reader.

While writing about your military career can be interesting, sometimes the best essays are those that shatter people’s stereotypes. Thus, a good essay can be more than just about a deployment. Instead, a military applicant might want to consider writing about hobbies or interests that are unrelated to being in the military. Discussing these hobbies and how they might intersect with a future career or occupation can result in a powerful essay.

Everyone has a unique writing style. However, seek to have your writing be accessible. The best essays are those that have a clear voice, structure, and have an overall theme. Avoid having long sentences and paragraphs. Long sentences can be visually unappealing and also difficult to comprehend.