WHAT IS A COLLEGE ESSAY AND WHY IT IS IMPORTANT?
First, think of it as a “personal statement” or “personal narrative.” It is NOT a typical “essay.”
It gives insight into the student by adding depth and dimension to a student’s application and gives the student an opportunity to become more than a transcript, more than a resume.
It allows the student’s voice to be heard, their personality to show, and for the admissions team to “get to know” the student and to assess how that student will “fit” at their campus. It substitutes for a personal interview at a time when budgets are tight and more students are applying.
The college essay is NOT:
A five paragraph paper or an essay written for an English class
A recap of the activities listed in the application or on a resume, or something the teacher recommendation will say. It is permissible to elaborate and create a theme, but should give new insight and information.
A paper ANYONE ELSE COULD WRITE
The college essay should be focused and personal, and tell a story that only you can tell. It should make the admissions team feel good, want to get to know more about you, and care about you. It needs to be genuine and honest.
EVERY COLLEGE ESSAY SHOULD ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS IN SOME WAY:
WHO AM I?
HOW DID I BECOME WHO I AM? HOW HAVE I BEEN IMPACTED BY MY WORLD?
HOW HAVE I IMPACTED MY WORLD? HOW WILL I CONTRIBUTE TO THE COLLEGE COMMUNITY?
HOW WILL I TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE OPPORTUNITIES THE COLLEGE HAS TO OFFER?
WHAT DO I WANT THE ADMISSIONS TEAM TO KNOW ABOUT ME?
You will demonstrate through your story (stories) the answers to these questions with concrete and compelling examples. You do not want to tell the reader that you were moved by a particular experience—you want the reader to feel it for him/herself through your examples. You probably want to focus on who you are outside the classroom, because you will have two teachers who describe you as a student. What will you be like on the college campus? What will you be like as a roommate? HOW CAN YOU DEMONSTRATE CARING, LOVE OF LEARNING, LEADERSHIP, AND/OR PERSISTENCE OR TENACITY?
First, brainstorm: What are some things in your life—and they can be small, seemingly insignificant details or events—that can illustrate something about you—your character, your sense of humor, your ability to overcome a challenge, your resilience, your ability to persist, etc. College reps have mentioned memorable essays that told stories about such events as watching a sunrise in a kayak, having a conversation with a parent while waiting in the car during a rainstorm, or making pasta with grandma.
Next, look over the five Common App questions. Is there a question that jumps out at you? Is there a question that you could use to show something unique about you? Eliminate any question that you could address elsewhere in your application—the list of activities, your choice of major, etc.
Use the 3-Step writing process:
Start with an outline—structure your essay so that you have a strong sense of where you are going with it.
Write the rough draft—be creative and don’t worry at this point about stylistic or grammatical details—then put it away and don’t look at it for at least a week or longer. Be yourself—they want to hear your voice.
Read the draft over and make sure YOU ANSWERED THE QUESTION! This is the number one reason college admissions reps give for discounting an essay. Remember, your essay is your best chance to help your application—don’t turn it into a negative by not following directions!
Make sure to grab the reader right away and leave them hanging/gasping/wanting more! Remember, a college could receive anywhere from 3000-60,000 applications. If you don’t grab the reader right away you might never get them interested. “If you don’t get me past the first paragraph, I have a hard time getting into the rest of the essay.” (Recently told to me by one of our admissions reps)
Avoid “tying the essay in a pink bow” at the end. This tends to EXTINGUISH the connection you’ve made with the reader.
Be prepared to cull, edit and rewrite. This may be the most important piece of writing you will ever do! Treat it as such.
Remember, this is a rough draft! Don’t ever fall in love with a rough draft! Some of the best essays I have seen—essays that worked—ended up looking nothing like the original. Don’t get so tied to your first idea that you can’t let it go. At this point, you may want to email a copy to someone you trust. I are happy to read them over to make sure you are on the right track.
Finally, read the essay from back to front to check the grammar. Then give your “final” essay to people you trust to read it over for comments or proofing. Do not, however, have anyone significantly “edit” your essay for you. College admissions people recognize the voice of a 40 year old parent or teacher and they want to hear the authentic voice of a high school senior.
HERE IS THE TEXT FROM THE COMMON APP :
The essay demonstrates your ability to WRITE CLEARLY AND CONCISELY on a SELECTED TOPIC and helps you DISTINGUISH YOURSELF in YOUR OWN VOICE.
WHAT DO YOU WANT THE READERS OF YOUR APPLICATION TO KNOW ABOUT YOU APART FROM COURSES, GRADES, AND TEST SCORES?
Choose the option that BEST HELPS YOU ANSWER THAT QUESTION and write an essay of NO MORE THAN 650 words (no less than 250 words), using that prompt to INSPIRE and STRUCTURE YOUR RESPONSE.
- Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
(This doesn’t need to be a life or death or global situation; it can be a small incident that says volumes about you, eg. baking cookies with your grandmother, watching your teacher at a school dance. In the story, the key is to focus on HOW THIS CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR CHARACTER; WHO YOU ARE TODAY. )
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from this experience?
(Focus on DEMONSTRATING what you gained from this experience—and how you are a DIFFERENT/BETTER PERSON TODAY because of it—more resilient, more humble, more of a leader, etc.)
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
(This should be one single incident that you describe in detail. It could be as simple as a school rule. The key is that it was a personal act that took courage—regardless of the outcome.)
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
(Note the phrase “no matter the scale.” Also not that it doesn’t need to be an accomplishment, it could be just a value)
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
(This does not need to be a traditionally formal transition, but could be a small incident that was significant to YOU. How was your life changed?)
In addition to the Common App essay, many colleges have supplements that require you to answer additional questions designed to show that you have done your research and that your are a good “fit” for that particular college. Sometimes they are really creative questions, designed to get you thinking outside of the box (“So where is Waldo, really?”), and some simply ask you to describe why you want to attend that college and what you will contribute. Use the above guidelines in answering these questions—in all cases, the essay is about YOU, who you are and your journey to becoming who you are!
In addition to visiting colleges this summer, you can start looking at college websites for information you can use. This means going beyond the admissions page—read about programs and professors, read their articles. Read about housing and organizations. The more you know the more believable will be your argument about how right you are for each other.
By the end of the summer, colleges will be posting their specific essays. Often they become available after August 1. However, since you may change your mind about where you apply, you might want to primarily focus on the general Common App question at first, and get to each of the others in the order that the applications will be due.
Please know that I have read thousands of college essays and have a pretty good idea of what will be effective. Susannah and Kelly have also helped many young people through their college writing process. Consider using one or all of us as resources!
Patti Bostwick, MA, LPC
Director of College Counseling