By the time you get around to writing your college essays, you will already have written all kinds of other things in life: reflections, some graffiti, reports, and essays for your core academic classes – English, Social Science, Science, Foreign Language, even Math (hellooo proofs). You've written Facebook posts, text messages, and tweets. And you might have even experimented with some creative writing. Hopefully something better than “YOU were here.” Lots and lots of words.
Great. Now, it’s time to meet a completely different kind of writing. The college essay. A personal statement about YOU.
The first thing to do is start brainstorming what it is you want to say about yourself.
1. To what question are you responding?
Usually, a college wants to know a specific thing about you. What you want to convey is more or less why they want you. The first thing to do is to read the essay prompt for your target. If there are multiple prompts (like on the Common Application), read each carefully, close your eyes, drum the table 3 times and feel which question resonates most with you. Trust your feelings. (TM, George Lucas).
2. What impression do you want to make?
You have to think about what you want to communicate through your college essay. You are selling your application, not you the applicant. Why does the university – or why should the university want you? Think of a handful of adjectives describing you, things that you most want to communicate about yourself. Which ones might not come across from the other parts of your application – like your transcript, your list of activities, or your teacher evaluations? Try to focus on one or two key qualities that you want to come through loud and clear. Maybe you want to communicate that you're a leader. If you picture an academic essay, this would be your thesis – your main point. Type it out. Step back. As you read, ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?” And then ask, “Is this an application that I’d want if I were a bored admissions officer reading my 4,123rd application?”
3. Show, don't tell.
You've heard this phrase a million times, but, lame as it sounds, it's real. For a college essay, "show, don't tell" means making use of anecdotes (not cures for snake bites). When you write an academic essay, you have to support your thesis or argument with specific evidence, like quotations from The Great Gatsby that prove that Gatsby was indeed upgraded from Good. Here, you should be using evidence in the form of examples/stories/citations to prove or illustrate your main point (that you're a leader, that you're intellectually passionate, that you're hardworking).
If you missed our very fine SAT premium vocabulary word builder section, recall that an anecdote is a little story about yourself. It's not just saying that you are the soccer team captain. It's telling a story about an important moment from a game or practice that illustrates a bigger point. The beauty of an anecdote is that it starts small (one moment from a specific soccer game) and then allows you to get big (say something about your leadership ability in general). That is, “…it was the end of the game; both sides had run 9 miles. We had just 40 seconds left and the ball came loose – a sprint to the end ensued and I found gas in my tank. I had energy in the clutch while everyone else was coughing up a lung. ‘Why?’ I had committed. I ran the 400 extra bleachers after practice every day for 100 days in a row like I promised my grandmother I would at the beginning of the season….” Ok, yeah, it’s corny but you get the idea.
4. Get an outside opinion.
Find somebody you trust and respect and who knows you well. Usually your parents don’t have a clue about how college applications work and lead kids in the wrong direction (i.e. grades matter a lot but they aren’t the whole game – most parents don’t get this concept sadly, and mess up their kids). Don’t let this happen to you. Instead, find an older sibling or someone who was accepted into an elite-ish school from your high school. Get their read. Get someone close to academic admissions like an alum who interviews on behalf of their school.
OK, you’re ready. Review the above. Lather, rinse, repeat.