Before you submit your college essay, translate it

A lot of the college essays admissions officers read really need to be translated.  They're technically written in English, but it's a different kind of English than most seventeen year-olds (and most adults, too) would ever use when trying to communicate with someone other than a college admissions officer.   

Here's a sample sentence, some version of which appears in thousands of college essays every fall. 

"My trip to Paris broadened my cultural horizons."

What does that actually mean?  Seriously, can you explain it?  What if the writer just wrote an honest, descriptive and punchy sentence like,

"Before my trip to Paris last summer, I wasn't exactly what you'd call a 'world traveler.'  I'd never been anywhere unless you count visiting my grandmother every summer in Bakersfield."

Now we know exactly what you're trying to say.  The translation cleared it up. 

Here's another example of a phrase admissions officers see all the time.

"I've played in the marching band for the last three years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment."

Sure, it's technically English.  But what is this student trying to say?  That he learned hard work and commitment are important?  Did he really not know that before?  

Here's a translation:

"It's not easy to stand in the sun for three hours while holding a tuba and wearing a polyester uniform.  But that's what I've been doing after school for the last three years."

Now I get it.  And better yet, I'm interested.

I can't tell you how many times I've read a sentence like,

"In that moment, I found myself truly appreciating what it took to be a leader." 

Again, it's not that I don't understand the individual words; I just have no idea what the student means by them. 

A translation might be something like,

"About a month into my time as Senior Class President, a lot of people were mad at me. Even though I was trying my best and just wanted to make everyone happy, I learned my first leadership lesson fast–if you want the glory and fun of being in charge, you have to take the criticism when things don't go well.  It's part of the job.  It took a long time for me to get good at that part." 

Don't write a college essay that has to be translated.  Instead, translate it for your readers before you ever send it.  Here's how.

1)  Don't write like you're trying to impress someone.  This is one of those times when trying too hard is a bad thing.  If your friends would mock you for what you wrote, you might be trying too hard.  

2)  When you're revising your essay, read every sentence and ask yourself if this is something you would actually say out loud.  Imagine you were sharing your story in front of a group of adults you respected and were comfortable with.  As you read each sentence, ask yourself if you would express each thought in that way in front of the group.  If so, is what you wrote how you would say it?

3) Try to be as specific as possible.  At Collegewise, we call this "Owning your story."  To own your story means that you've written a college essay that nobody else could write.  And one of the ways you do that is to inject as much detail into your experience as you can.  Nobody can argue with the details of your story–they're yours, and as long as you follow tips #1 and #2 above, your details won't need to be translated.