The life of an admissions officer can be a fascinating one. I spend a lot of time traveling to faraway places to meet students from around the world, voting in committee to help determine each next college class, but I am perhaps most privileged to have a unique glimpse into the personal lives of hundreds of 17 year olds each year via my absolute favorite art form: the college essay. After 5 years I have read thousands of these 650-word windows into the minds of high school students, and can assure you that the college essay comes in many flavors: good, bad, eloquent, conversational, sarcastic, insightful, deep, shallow, hilarious, painful, delightful, disturbing, and so on.
For any high school senior working on their college applications, the essay can seem like a daunting task. For Yale, you’ll even have to write more than one. I hope you see this not as a burden or a hoop you must jump through, but an opportunity: to reflect on your past few years and look ahead to college. The skills of reflection, self-expression, and cogent writing are all ones that will serve you well in college (in fact, they will be critical), so consider this practice. You do not have to be the world’s most eloquent wordsmith to write a successful college essay; the best essays we read are those where the genuine voice of a high school student (that’s you!) comes through loud and clear and we really get a sense of who you are.
When I talk to prospective Yalies about the application process, I am often asked what my favorite essay topic is. I assure you there is no such thing. The quality of a college essay has little to do with topic, and everything to do with reflection and voice. I truly believe I could read 100 essays about the same topic, each of them completely unique and in their own ways excellent and entrancing (or not). There are certainly amusing trends that emerge over time: in the past few years, I’ve seen an uptick in essays reflecting on life lessons learned from Uber drivers. I’m told that 10 years ago, essays explaining what Hogwarts House one belongs in were abundant. I wouldn’t dare say that there are any essay topics you should shy away from, because I’m certain that a great college essay could be written about nearly anything. And it doesn’t matter if we’ve read about it before – only you can write about you.
I do have favorite essays that I can remember, but they have no particular topic in common. Instead, they are the ones where at the end I have a grasp on what it might be like to have a conversation with the writer, to be in the same room as them. This is what we mean when we talk about voice. Revise and edit, but be sure not to lose the sense of individuality that only you can put into words. Have someone proofread, but don’t get too much help. My colleagues and I can tell when an essay is written more by a parent or, dare I even say it, a college consultant than by a student – and I can promise you that those pieces are not very good.
While your grades and test scores will speak for themselves and your teachers and counselor will write on your behalf, the essays are your opportunity to really take control of your application. Every required bit of writing should be considered precious real estate on your applications; think about what you want us to know about you, and do your best to work that information into the space allotted. It is through these essays that your admissions officer revels in your successes, shares in your disappointments, gets to know – forgive the cliché – the real you. So get writing. We can’t wait to hear from you.
"... [S]tudents here have passion. Passion for public service and education policy and painting and engineering and entrepreneurialism," Keegan wrote. "Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn't find a single student aspiring to be a banker—but at commencement this May, there's a 50 percent chance I'll be sitting next to one. This strikes me as incredibly sad."
Six months later, Keegan died in a car accident when her boyfriend lost control of the car he was driving. She had graduated magna cum laude from Yale days before and was preparing to move for a job at The New Yorker.
According to Keegan's grieving parents, the world has lost an ambitious and idealistic writer. "By taking her hand and putting her pen to paper, or her fingertips to the computer, she would take things that wouldn't make sense to her, or that she felt needed attention, and use her beautiful, amazing intellect toward trying to make a difference in the few short years she was here," Keegan's mother told The New York Daily News.
Despite her death, Keegan's inspiring writings will still be able to reach a broader audience. Scribner is publishing a book of her essays and stories, called "The Opposite of Loneliness," which will be released on Amazon Tuesday, April 8.
Keegan originally wrote the book's fiction and nonfiction content for writing classes and student publications. The book's title essay originally appeared in a special edition of Yale Daily News that was distributed after her death.
In that essay, Keegan emphasized that it is never too late for her peers to do the things they love, even if it means starting over to do it. "The notion that it's too late to do anything is comical. It's hilarious," she wrote. "We're graduating college. We're so young. We can't, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it's all we have."
In the introduction to "The Opposite of Loneliness," Yale English professor Anne Fadiman wrote that unlike many students Keegan embraced her youthfulness.
"Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty-one: a brainy twenty-one, a twenty-one who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful," Fadiman wrote. "When she read her work aloud around our seminar table, it would make us snort with laughter, and then it would turn on a dime and break our hearts."