Everyone and your brother will offer you advice about how to write a great college essay -- me included. Below are five common-sense/no-nonsense/you-can't-go-wrong tips to make sure your essay is the best reflection of who you are. Follow this advice and you may just find yourself with lots of choices when it comes to deciding which college or university you are going to wind up attending.
1) Don't think too long or too hard about which prompt to answer. The list of prompts for the 2013-14 Common Application Essay is fairly comprehensive. But there is a topic for everyone! When applicants come to me to work on their essays they've been looking at those prompts until they're dizzy. I know that at least one of those prompts applies. The hard part for them is choosing which one. But maybe it isn't really all that hard.
I have them start out by process of elimination. There is always one prompt which doesn't "speak to the student" at all. They don't really love it, they have no story to tell to satisfy it, and we can now reduce that list of five by one. Another prompt could work but the student isn't crazy about. So I ask them, "If you did this one, what story would you tell?" The applicant then tells me stories they think would work. Some of those stories are good, but not great. Remember, whatever you write about has to be compelling for 650 words. Usually, the applicant comes to the conclusion that this prompt won't work either. And then there were three! Invariably one or two of the three are so vague no one could find themselves excited about it. And that leaves one. And nine out of 10 times that last prompt standing is the one for them. This is where we start to talk about stories which is where your time should be spent rather than ruminating over topic choices.
2) Think small. Often times applicants who I work with are excited about the stories they bring into our brainstorming sessions. These stories are usually a big trip overseas they took with their family which: "changed my life." Or they donated their time one previous summer to a group of underprivileged kids and that experience: "changed their life." See what I mean? All applicants have big stories about exciting things they did either alone or with their family. And while these are great tales to tell, trust me when I tell you, you're not the only one with a story like this. Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions counselor who sits and read these stories one after another? Sometimes the best stories, the kind with the most power, the ones which are most reflective of you are, are small in nature. Sometimes, small is not just good, but small is great. A vast majority of the time it's not what you write, but how you write it.
3) Think less. Thinking through how you are going to write an essay is good. Thinking too long and too hard that you don't really know how to start your essay is not. Many of the applicants I work with say the same thing over and over again: "I don't know how to start." So when you're sitting in front of your computer staring at a blank screen, just start writing. Don't worry what that first draft will look like because it most certainly will not be perfect. Writing is -- more than a few writers have pointed out -- just re-writing.
4) Don't look at the rewrite process as a chore. I liken it to standing in front of your closet trying on lots of different clothes to see what you look best in. And when you go through your essay and change this or change that, remember to read it all the way through. Look at the essay in its entirety because that is how it will be judged. Yes, it's part of the entire package you are presenting. But that essay should stand alone. Rewriting it should be fun as you see it evolve. If you truly enjoy the process, you will be so much happier with the results.
5) Everyone -- friends, parents, teachers -- is going to want to read your essay. They will be curious how it turned out. And while they want what you want -- a great essay -- letting everyone take a look could be trouble. Differing opinions are commonplace. Think of it like this: You go to see a movie with four friends. Afterwards, when discussing how good it was or how good is was not, is there ever really a consensus? So if you let everyone take a look at your essay you risk the opinions being so diverse you won't know which changes to make. So when it comes time to "put it out there," choose one person you trust -- a friend, a teacher -- and take only one or two opinions to read it and offer guidance. Your parents are going to want to read your essay and that's not a bad thing. But you might be faced with having to defend it to them and therein is the trouble. Opinions are great as long as there aren't too many of them.
Your Common Application essay really is your best shot to show the admissions committee who you are. Own it. Make it yours. And follow your instincts. If you do this, you are pretty much guaranteed a terrific essay.
Follow Robert S. Schwartz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RSSinBrooklyn
In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:
John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…
John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …
Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:
I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.
It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.
I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.
I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.
‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.
I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…
Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.
‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.
I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.
What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.
I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:
I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?
Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…
To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.