Would it be a good idea to write my college essay in an alternative format like a poem?

Answers

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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I did have a student write her supplemental essay for an honors program in the form of a play scene, and it turned out great! That being said, I would be careful about being too cute. Are you able to answer the question in the form of a poem?

Are you talking about the main essay for the common application? If so, you might want to stick to prose since so many schools will be getting it.

Now, if you are thinking of using a poetic form as a supplement, then I say if you can answer the question asked in poetry, go for it. The admissions counselors might appreciate the risk you are taking with your writing. Consider asking a trusted teacher to read it before you submit to make sure you are on the right track. I wish you the best of luck!

Scarlet Michaelson, English and Writing Teacher

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Unless you're applying to a very outside-the-box type of college that actually asks you to write the essay in an unusual format, then I wouldn't do it. Your main essay is your personal statement in which you distinguish yourself from all the other candidates, but not in an over-the-top kind of way. You may have more leeway with a supplemental essay or an essay that explicitly asks you to display creativity, but otherwise, I would stick with the regular type of college application essay.

Maryann Aita, NYU graduate and Sarah Lawrence College MFA writing candidate

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Your application essay is one of the few things that can set you apart from hundreds of other applicants with similar classes, GPAs, and extracurriculars. While you want it to make an impression, you also want it to be clear, well-written, and really show who you are as a person and a student. Something like a poem may be interesting, but it's unlikely to be clear and simple.

When a college admissions committee is looking at tons of applications, they may pause to read a poem, but they could feel as though you didn't follow the instructions. They might also get frustrated by having to spend more time analyzing it or write it off as a gimmick to make your application more interesting. You definitely don't want your application essay to look like you are just trying to be different.

I'd say the potential drawbacks of something so drastically different in format make it very risky; I'd advise against it. Even for a creative writing program (which is the only time I can think of that it might be worthwhile) you'll want to submit a personal statement and then samples of your work in addition. So it still makes the most sense to keep your essay to straightforward prose. This will also ensure that you're following the guidelines for each school.

Most importantly, just tell your story as clearly as you can. The admissions committee will appreciate your authenticity.

Amy Yvette Garrou, College admissions expert (US and international colleges)

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I have to differ with Ramish Ali: Students should not get others to write their essays for them, whether for high school or for college applications or at any time. Plagiarism (using work written by others, without saying that it was written by someone else) is taken very seriously in the U.S. If you are found to have plagiarized your college-application essays, you will not be admitted. When you apply, you sign a statement saying that the work on your essay is your own work, and that you realize using someone else's work is grounds for being rejected. If you are admitted and they find out afterwards that you didn't write your essays, your admission can be revoked.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher, Author, and Artist

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As one of the above experts stated, if the college is a more alternative-type college, and can truly appreciate the writing in the poetry format, then by all means, go for it! But most colleges will probably be looking a little less outside-the-box, and would likely prefer a more traditional essay. It all depends on how clever you can be with the poem though. Some poetry is absolutely brilliant, and if you have a real talent for it, and if the admissions officer has the brains to be able to interpret it, it might well be the thing that puts you over the top. It can be easy to have poetry backfire on you though, and the clarity and structure of a well-written essay can be equally effective, and perhaps leaves a great deal less mystery to what you are about because as you know, by nature, poetry tends to force people to read between the lines. I'd say it's probably more risky on the whole, but if you are truly feeling inspired, why not? Take a shot at it for at least one application. Probably not all of them, but just one. Good luck from a fellow poet!

Amy Yvette Garrou, College admissions expert (US and international colleges)

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I'll add just a bit, from my own experience. I was an admissions officer at a very selective university for almost eight years. I read thousands of applications and essay responses. I've also worked as a college counselor in three high schools.

Submitting a poem as an essay response is a risk. I wouldn't categorically say it can never work. However, it's a risk because of its genre: a poem evokes emotion. A poem leads the reader to linger. In doing so, it may, or may not, answer the question being asked. The emotions that often inspire someone to create a poem don't always fit the tone of what's asked by the application question. If the question is: "Why do you want to attend our college?", or "Tell us about a person who has been influential in your life?", it's the rare applicant who will be inspired to answer such a question in the form of a poem, because the replies need to contain some specific information, and they need to clearly convey what you, the applicant, want from your education or how you've learned to be a better person from your mentor or hero.

The genre of poetry, in other words, isn't easily suited to the intent of the application question.

If, however, a student thinks in images and sensory language, and feels he can best express his answers via a poem, it's crucial to remember the reader.

As a former English teacher, I saw that most students reacted with some nervousness to poems in the curriculum. Having studied plenty of poetry myself, I can say that one needs practice in reading them in order to feel comfortable with their ambiguity.

What I'm saying is that, in my experience, admission officers--like all of us-- may fall into several camps: those who enjoy a poem but don't have the time to linger over it; those who don't particularly like poetry or are a bit nervous that they won't "get" it, or--perhaps most concerning for the applicant-- those who may be poetry lovers, or even poets, themselves. If that's the case, they can't help thinking about how "good" an applicant's poem is.

So if you are absolutely drawn to answer an application question with a poem, it is imperative that you solicit the advice and feedback of someone who knows poetry--preferably a college counselor or a teacher who's worked in admission or has some pretty deep experience with college essays--before you submit a poem. Don't submit a poem without having someone who knows poetry, and knows college admission, read it. And find out as much as you can (which I hope you would do anyway) about the college's emphasis and atmosphere and what it values.

I'm glad you feel an impulse to write poetry! And I'm glad you asked the question of this forum. Best wishes with your applications.

Nadin Broun, Help with editing the essays

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As I know the committee expects to see the sample of student's essay writing, not poetry, song lyrics or rap. But, on the other hand, the number one piece of advice from admission officers is - be yourself. That is why you can add to your essay some lines of your poetry (if you are strong humanities or published poet). But the main structure and format of your essay should fit the college requests. Also, the most important part of your essay and submission to college in total is your statement of purpose. You can read more about sop for scholarship here.

Dave Nguyen, Education Consultant, College Lecturer, PhD

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For the main essays of an application, no, poems should not be used. Poems are effective for expressing your creativity, which is appropriate for some short supplemental essays on the application. These short essays include ones that ask you to write a letter to your roommate or future self. Poems can be difficult to interpret, which will require more effort from the reader to find the information that they are looking for about you.

Pamela Petrease Felder, College Applications

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I would not recommend doing this. I think it's fine to quote lines from a poem to discuss how they relate to the essay. It's important for your essay to speak to your work and potential as a student (and the ways you can contribute to the institution). You would be taking a risk in doing this. You might want to speak to an admissions representative at the school about this before you make a final decision.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Great points here. As at least two have mentioned, private liberal arts schools might be more amenable to this idea than others... but I say if you have the guts to entertain this option, go ahead and write it. Not many would take the risk, and if you think you can give it a go, do so!

But then give it to a trusted teacher (or two) and ask him/her for an honest opinion. After writing something so original, you'll find it easier to tackle the same topic in a more expected style.

John Dodig, Editor at Noodle

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Thanks to all of you for getting engaged with this question! I think you've given some really thoughtful advice here.

I'd be remiss not to point out that Noodle has an article on something similar by another Expert — Parke Muth: 5 Unusual College Applications and Why They Didn’t (or Did) Work. Parke doesn't talk about writing your essay as a poem, but he provides some examples of atypical applications, some of which were well-received by college admissions officers. (One of these is actually in the form of a song.)

Thanks again to Vielka, Colleen, Maryann, and Scarlet for taking the time to write these great answers, and I hope to see even more responses in the coming days.

Vielka Cecilia Hoy, Founder/Director at Vielka Hoy Consulting, Teacher, and Parent

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No! I've seen that somewhat work in the main essay once in all my years of college admissions work. I did recently read something that said the more selective schools like when students take a few risks with their essay, but I have a hard time believing that would be a full poem. I've read interesting supplemental essays that are written as short stories and songs, and even then, be cautious. But definitely not for your main essay.

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Olesia Lintvar, College Applications

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Not write something cryptic or poetic that the admission reader will get lost or confused.
Do not be weird or controversial - basically do not go to the highs or lows of creativity. You are expected to communicate clearly, effectively and professionally (I would recomend check out this helpful article https://essmart.org/informative-essay/) . You have to be you and not a robot. Do not lie. Ever. Know the school that you are applying to and what they expect from your application. If the school really touts the importance of the essay - you will need to give it careful consideration and time. If the application has 1 bland generic essay prompt - do your best and maybe they just want to see your list of grades, scores, activities

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