Evan Forster on a common admissions essay pitfall, and how to avoid it.

Late into another Friday night college-bound session at Chess-in-the-Schools--the non-profit organization that helps New York inner-city kids get into college--Carter asked me to help edit his mentee’s college personal statement. Carter, a mentor with the program, was so confused by the details of the student’s essay that he couldn’t get past the first paragraph. In my capacity as College Advisor, I grabbed a hold of Katie, my assistant, who is also a CIS mentor, to get her help as well. We all sat down to read Ziploq’s essay.

Ziploq’s opening paragraph included the following: “I spent the summer helping Ramapo with chess.”“Is Ramapo an Indian tribe?” Carter asked. “I think it’s a college in New Jersey,” Katie said.

Ziploq had had enough. “Ramapo is a sleepaway camp that helps students master chess—among many, many other things,” he said, rolling his eyes as if Carter and Katie were both idiots. “Um, how would I know that unless you include that detail in the essay?” Carter asked Ziploq.

I found Carter’s retort to be hilarious: Just a week earlier, Carter had looked at me like I was an idiot when I didn’t know what the word “quals” meant when he used it in an HBS leadership essay draft (for the record, “quals” has something to do with marketing materials produced by an investment bank to establish its qualifications for a banking gig).

Whether you’re applying to college or graduate school, always remember: admissions officers don’t work in the same office as you, they don’t live with you, and they certainly don’t read minds (at least not any I have ever met). They’re smart, and some—though certainly not all—may have worked in finance or even been counselors at Camp Ramapo. But do you really want to take that chance? Is potentially impressing your admissions officer with “inside knowledge” worth the much bigger chance you’ll alienate or confuse them?

How to avoid confusing admissions officers:

  1. Whether you’re writing a college, law, clinical psych, or MBA essay, make sure you use signposts: This means helping the reader figure out when and where everything happened. For example, “In the summer of 2008, I…,” “Three weeks later, the four of us…” “At 17, I … and by 26, I…” While all of these little dates and signifiers may seem obvious to you, such simple markers will keep the reader on track instead of scratching her head.
  2. He, she, it, they? Relying exclusively on pronouns and titles like “Managing Director” is confusing when referring to people in your essays. Always use a first name when you introduce the character, and continue dropping in that name occasionally: “My friend Laquan”; “His mother Ruchi”; “My supervisor Gretchen.” This is particularly important in any kind of leadership essay or group events essay, in which you’re writing about a group of two or more people. Just because you know who “he” or “she” is, doesn’t mean the reader is going to.
  3. Lingo, Jargon, Acronyms. “LBOs,” “quals” and “MSAs,” oh my! To some of you, it might be obvious that an MSA is a Metropolitan Statistical Area, but to my student Farzana, it’s the Muslim Students Association. When using acronyms or jargon, it is very important that you spell it out first (this is called “attributing”). For example, “While working on Morgan Stanley’s quals—external marketing materials used to sell a company’s services to clients—I had a great idea…”

So, if you’re “making my workspace green,” make sure we know you’re talking about the paint color for the tool shed by actually using words like “tool shed” and “paint” during your “vacation.” Unless you are talking about your office, in which case you need to talk about getting rid of plastic and use words like ”recycling” and “my coworkers” during “my lunch break.”

Just remember, Ramapo is not always an Indian tribe in upstate New York.