The process of applying to college is overwhelming to many students and their parents. There are forms, academic requirements, examinations, and a whole list of things that you should be doing to increase your chances. I’m sure you have to-do lists, practice tests for the subjects that don’t come easily, and people offering advice right and left. You have your TOEFL score and your SAT prep course and high marks, a certain percentage of extracurricular activities, maybe even a job or internship to demonstrate responsibility.
Hooray! Except that’s not it, not even close.
There is NO formula for a great application essay – and that’s the point. The purpose of the personal statement in your college application essay is to show the admissions counselors something more personal, more central to who you are, than scores, grades, and clubs. This is place where you show what’s important to you, who you consider yourself to be, some heart and soul. Your purpose with this essay – beyond conveying some component of your essence – is to write an essay that the admissions board will find engaging, thoughtful, interesting.
There is no formula for this. So often students come to me with no idea what to write. They feel like nothing exciting or impressive has happened yet. This (exciting/impressive) isn’t the purpose. The college application essay is supposed to show who you are, show something personal, something central to who you are. It is not a place to explain your most impressive extracurricular, not a place to explain how driven you are, not a place to be strategic. It is a place to tell your story, or some small part of it. A place to be honest, genuine, and even vulnerable. A place to reflect on who you are so far in your life, and who you want to become.
For families focused intently on getting into the best possible college with the best possible admissions offer, this is often hard to accept. I promise you this is what they want.
If you think about it, there probably isn’t another essay with as much potential to change the course of your life as the essay you submit with your application to college. I think this is what makes so many students nervous – how do you show who you are and what you care about while writing something “unique” and doing all of this in 650 words or less? Your purpose with this essay – beyond conveying some component of your essence – is to write an essay that the admissions board will find engaging, thoughtful, interesting. Really you’re trying to connect to a reader on the other side of the world, a reader who sees 10-20 of these every day. Tough assignment!
Except that it isn’t, really. Regardless of who the reader is, at it’s simplest form you’re just trying to connect to another person. We all have fears and anxieties, moments we’re particularly proud of, and people who have deeply affected our lives. It doesn’t matter that the readers are from another culture and likely from another generation, they’re people. We respond to honesty, to emotions that seem genuine. Because of this, your job is not to predict what might be a likable or impressive essay topic, but to be open and honest in how you write about your topic, whatever it is. Much like films, creative writing that feel genuine connects the audience to the topic, the characters, the story line. This is what you want, that connection. And the best thing is that you are most likely to get it by being you.
Choosing a Topic
The best way to select a strong essay topic is to follow several leads and then reflect on what works and what doesn’t. If you have a few ideas, jot each down in a sentence or two. If you are already stumped and unsure, read the 2013 Common App essay prompts, and come up with a topic for at least three.
Next you free-write. Some high school classes utilize this writing technique, others do not. For those, free-writing is essentially where you sit down with a prompt and write for a pre- determined period of time without any structure or constraints. If your mind goes off on a tangent, follow it. If you end up writing a bullet-point list of experiences that relate, no problem. The freedom allows you to make connections and flush out the topic in a way that is often difficult when you’re busy thinking of paragraph length and word choice. Do this for each topic, ideally during separate writing sessions so your mind isn’t still making connections to the previous topic. Really. Take a break between these. It makes a difference.
Once you’re done, reflect on which topic felt the best while you were writing. Did one come more naturally and smoothly than the others? Sometimes a topic that seems promising at first hits a dead-end after a paragraph, or comes across as self-aggrandizing once in writing. Think about the impression each topic gives of you. What impression do you want the admissions board to have? If you’re writing an article about a difficult decision you made, and want “mature and thoughtful” to be the impression taken from your writing – does the story convey that?
Take the most promising lead, and get down to business. I usually recommend making a brief outline of what you’re going to say, what examples you’d like to use and what you want the conclusion or thesis to be. This makes it less likely that you’ll get sidetracked in narrative and end up without a strong point. Ultimately, however, you just need to write. You need a first draft – however rough – so you can later decide which areas to expand, which things are tangential and can be cropped out, which examples are the strongest. Get down to work. Don’t stress out too much about word count, things can be cut and trimmed later. Just write.
Levels of Writing
In each essay there should be several types of writing, all working together. After you’ve written a first draft, take a break (ideally 24 hrs+). When you come back to the essay, read it straight through before you begin editing. I like to read it aloud, as it makes me slow down and think about how the words go together, but it’s up to you. Think about whether your essay has these three levels. This might be the first place to start editing.
Descriptive: This is the most like reporting. Call it background story, narrative, or anything else, this type involves giving the reader details, facts, and information. What happened, when it happened, what you did, what your grandmother eats for breakfast, details.
Emotive: This is where you convey emotion, something that should be shown instead of told. If you’re talking about the first time you participated in debate, saying “I was really nervous” doesn’t convey the same emotion as “My heart beat fast, my hands shook, and I thought I might faint”. Emotions feel a particular way, and the more you can explain the feeling, the more the reader will feel it with you.
Theoretical/big-picture: This writing is where you connect your story to the big picture. Did you learn a lesson? Realize something about how people work? Even deeply personal stories have a connection to others, to the big picture. A story that makes that connection explicit seems bigger than one that is just about you.
Tell your reader what you’re looking for – this is the best way to get the kind of feedback you want. There’s nothing more disheartening and frustrating than getting a page marked up with grammatical/word choice edits when you are still concentrating on paragraph transitions and argument flow. Integrate the comments or suggestions you like, and ignore the rest. If you’re going to have that person read it again – explain (diplomatically) that you’ve taken their advice when you agreed with it. This process of editing drafts isn’t fun, but it is crucial. I have never seen an essay completed in less than three drafts, even if the changes made towards the end are superficial.
It’s also important to have your reader be someone who understands what you’re trying to convey. If it’s a parent, explain what you know about what makes a good essay. Quite often well-meaning relatives suggest that your topic is too small, too mundane – when in fact it can be the simplest stories that have the most honesty, the most insight, and the most impact.
In the push to write an essay that will be well received, many students lose sight of the purpose of the college application essay. In an application full of numbers and standardized means of comparison, the personal statement is the place for individuality, honesty, personality. Are you passionate about something? This is where you show it. Is there a person who has really deeply affected your life? This is the space. When students focus on trying to be unique, it seems contrived. When your goal is to express something that defines you, to share something personal, vulnerable, or honest…it ends up being unique. Funny how that works.