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May 26
2015

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Writing the College “Essay”

Dear Juniors:

Thank you to all who attended our Essay Writing Workshop! If you missed it, there are handouts in College Counseling. Here is a summary of 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 substitutes for a personal interview at a time when budgets are tight and more students are applying

It 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

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

An answer to a question that is asked elsewhere in the application (eg. Why this college? Why this major?)

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?

WHAT DO I WANT THE ADMISSIONS TEAM TO KNOW ABOUT ME?

HOW DO I CONTRIBUTE TO THE GREATER COMMUNITY?

HOW WILL I CONTRIBUTE TO THE COLLEGE COMMUNITY?

HOW WILL I TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE OPPORTUNITIES THE COLLEGE HAS TO OFFER?

You will demonstrate through your story (stories) the answers to these questions; you will illustrate 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?

THE PROCESS—start right after school gets out or sooner!

First, think about the answers to the last three questions. 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.

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.

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!

Use paragraphing and look for contractions and weak or inflated vocabulary.

Consider cutting off the first and last paragraphs! The best advice I’ve heard about effective college personal statements is to 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.

And “tying the essay in a pink bow” at the end 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.

Actually, you might want to write more than one essay, following the same process, and set them all aside. Next fall, you might have a different perspective, or even a different inspiration. Rewrite as appropriate, and remember to let it “rest” for at least a few days.

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— Susannah, Kelly and I are happy to read them over.

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 vs. a 17 year old!

Check: is your essay between 250-650 words?

Are there useless words you can eliminate (the 10 banned words—very, many, etc. —almost all adverbs!)? Remember, admissions officers may be reading hundreds of essays—you need to be succinct, compelling and interesting from the very first sentence to the last!

HERE IS THE TEXT RIGHT FROM THE COMMON APP (EMPHASIS MINE):

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.”)

5)      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 assess your “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 in demonstrating how you are a good “fit” for them. 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 are not available until after August 1, but some may be as soon as July 1 or even earlier. 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

 

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