We are in the midst of the college application process with my daughter. We’ve spent the past six months visiting a bazillion schools, weighed the options with each, and finally narrowed down the list of colleges to a select few. The most difficult part of the application process has got to be the essay. So whether you’re also in process or will be over the next few years, you’re going to want to bookmark this page!
There are so many different approaches your student can take when writing a college essay and you hope and pray that the approach they took, strikes a cord with the admissions representative that will read it. Once your student decides on the story they’ll tell and that approach, the words often flow onto the paper and get to a point where a parent, teacher, or counselor can offer additional suggestions for improving the essay; but it’s the ‘getting started’ that’s the most difficult for students.
Whether it’s the 650-word Common App essay that gets sent to multiple schools or a shorter, additional writing question requested by a school, here are some tips to get your student started writing their best college essay.
1. LOOK INWARD. Throughout middle and high school, students are often trained to write about a book they read, an experience they had, or a person they admire. They reitterate the details of the events. While these topics can play a role in the college essay if they have been influential in the student’s life, admissions representatives want to get to know the student. Who they are, what they feel, and how they react to and view the world are the personal traits that make a student unique, so present these in your essay.
2. SHOW THEN TELL. Don’t just “tell” a story about a person, place, or thing. Instead, “show” how these things made you the person you are. Write detailed descriptions. Decribe them using the five senses. Instead of saying, “My family is important to me”, describe a family picture that you keep on your desk or the smell of your Mom’s cooking that you love so much. Once you give the reader the opportunity to interpret these visuals themself, then proceed to explain what they mean to you.
3. GIVE INSIGHT. Once you’ve set the scene from where you’ve come, then explain how these influencers have shaped you into the person you are today and the person you want to become. Tell the reader how you would like to change the world.
My daughter and I visited one college where their philosphy was one that the student poses a burning question their freshman year and works on the discovery of that question throughout their four years at the college. Students actually develop their own major based on their own interests and this self-discovery process. It was one of the first colleges we visited and my initial reaction was, “How can my daughter possibly come up with a life question when she’s not even sure what area she wants to study?” But as we’ve visited different schools, met different types of students, and faculty, and she wrote her Common App essay, I could see this self-discovery taking place in her. I’ve learned that she loves being near the water, she enjoys a casual, relaxed environment, and that she’s not simply introverted, she’s an observer who quietly processes all of the details around her and then logically responds.
Who we are is not black or white today, it’s a process of development. In your essay, explain how the bits and pieces of your life are coming together and where they are leading you.
4. WRITE LIKE YOU. Compose an essay in a tone similar to your personaility and the way you speak. The reader should feel like they’re sitting down with you and YOU are telling them the story. If you’re quiet and thoughtful, express that in your writing. If you’re a person that loves analytical research, include some. If you’re silly, add a little humor into your writing. This is why it’s so important that students write the essays themselves and editors offer suggestions for improvement and perhaps re-ordering sentences, but they don’t re-write your words. You’re personility is unique so write like you.
5. COMPOSE A POWERFUL OPENING. Your opening paragraph should stop a reader in their tracks and get them wondering where your essay could possibly lead. You’re opening sentence could describe a scenario like you might find in the first line of a fiction book…. “Perhaps it wasn’t wise to chew and swallow a handful of sand the day I was given my first sandbox, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.” (Meagan Spooner: source). Or, it could pose a question… “Do you remember how kindergarten was?” (Sarah Stern: source). Or, it could be a curious statement that makes the reader ask ‘how’, “I know my size will help me to accomplish many positive things.” (Matt Coppo: source).
5. ASK FOR EDITS. Ask one or two people to read through your essay and offer suggestions. As mentioned above, an editor shouldn’t re-write your words, but they can offer suggestions so you can re-word parts of the essay or move sentences around for better flow. Read through your essay in different orders. Does your opening paragraph really make a better closing summary? Or, sometimes your second or final paragraph really makes a better opening statement. And above all else, proofread and correct any and all grammatical errors!
You can find hundreds of examples of great college essays online, but the one essay and analysis I’ve found to be most helpful in getting my daughter started on her college essay was the “scrapbook essay” analyzed by the College Essay Guy. You may find it helpful too. Finally, remember to write from your heart. Ultimately college admissions representatives are trying to get a complete picture of YOU.
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