College Essay Basics

If you have the grades and the standardized test scores to be in the middle 50% of a college’s admitted students (that is, between the 25th and 75th percentile), then your college essay will be the most important factor in determining whether you get in. Most students struggle with this step, either because they don’t know how to write a college essay or because they procrastinate and leave themselves no time to write a good one. Here are some tips for students just starting the process. In this post, I’ll go over the basics of writing the essay as well as getting the most out of what you write.

1. Start with the Common Application essay. The Common App is a portal that allows you to apply to many colleges from a single location. You’ll be spending a lot of your time on this page, so you might as well start today. Make an account, start looking over potential colleges. While you’re at it, take a look at the essay topics for this year. These topics don’t change very much from year to year, so you can start thinking about your own college essay even if you’re not applying until next year (or further down the line!). The Common App essay will be sent to all Common App schools–which is most of the private colleges in America. Getting that essay done early, and making sure it’s amazing, will take a lot of stress out of the application process.

2. Try out several topics as you brainstorm. Writing your essay is usually a process of discovery. The best topic doesn’t always make itself known to you right away. Take a look at those essay prompts now. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Got them? Okay, notice that one of them asks about a time you “challenged a belief or idea.” Can you think of a time in your own life where you went against a widely accepted idea in your family, school, or community? If you can, great! Does your experience reveal something positive about your character? Does it demonstrate your passion for an idea or cause? Is it something you want to celebrate about your personal history? No? Okay, try another topic. As you brainstorm, consider what your response to each question might reveal about you. The best topic for you allows you to write about an important aspect of your character through a revealing story.

3. Begin with a story you want to tell. The best college essays tend to incorporate or just be stories. It’s no mystery: stories are very powerful. When the admissions office starts reading your college essay, will they be hooked right from the start? Will they understand the conflict? Your main purpose is to answer the question you’ve chosen, but you will make a much more lasting impression if you answer the question with a story from your experience. Make sure you’re the main character of that story. Even if you are writing about someone you admire, or someone you worked for, etc, it should still be a story from your perspective, with your feelings and insights presented throughout.

4. Follow story-telling conventions. A good story has parts: a beginning with some exposition, a rising action, a climax, and a resolution in the end. It has characters that you describe and bring to life. It even has dialogue. There’s an old piece of advice for storytellers that never fails to improve a story: show, don’t tell. In other words, instead of talking about how you are a very caring person, consider including a detail in your essay that shows your caring nature without outright stating it. Reveal your best qualities with details.

5. Start close to the action. Good stories start close to the conflict. Think about the difference between these two openings: (a) “I was born in a small town outside of Detroit.” or (b) “When my father lost his job, we were suddenly very poor and very vulnerable.” These are both direct quotes from first drafts I’ve received, both first lines. Which opening is stronger? Which one are you more likely to continue reading?

6. Keep your language conversational and natural. College essays have a reputation for stinky language. Students tend to use that really formal, weird language of research papers and literary analysis papers. Every sentence is backwards, turned inside out, full of words no one uses in daily life. Here’s one I got recently: “Having seen firsthand what conditions were like in the neighborhood in which Maria inhabited, I felt powerfully compelled to assist her in any way I could imagine.” It’s not a terrible sentence, but wouldn’t it be just as effective to say: “After seeing Maria’s neighborhood, I knew I had to find a way to help her.” Simplicity makes better sentences, and will reduce the grammatical mistakes in your college essay.

7. Be sincere, be humble. This is a big one. A college essay is not the right venue for exaggerating your life, or for pretending that you are a wise genius sharing your life’s knowledge with the world. Life is really complicated. Even if you’ve learned some lessons, it’s highly doubtful that suddenly you’re qualified to be anyone’s life coach. Let’s say you went into an underprivileged neighborhood and helped an after-school class get funding for better materials. Very admirable! Did you solve the riddle of poverty? Did you become an important role model for young children desperate for guidance? Probably not. It’s okay to say, “After my experience, I wasn’t sure if I had made a big impact. I played a small part, and I feel like I benefited as much as the people I helped.” That’s an honest assessment, and it will score bigger points for you than any claim that you changed the world. Definitely avoid condescension toward underprivileged groups, saying things like, “When I looked around the classroom, I felt proud that I had brought help to these children who had so little in their lives.” Definitely no.

8. Answer the question. It’s very important to stay on topic. A good essay, whether it’s your main college essay or a supplemental essay, will start with a story and then follow that story all the way to the end. However, you have to answer the question somewhere in the text. My advice is to lay your answer out early, in the last sentence of your introduction, so there is no doubt in your reader’s mind. Alternatively, you can build up to the answer and express it in the conclusion. It will be among the last things your reader will see, and so will leave a strong impression. Both approaches are valid and work well.

9. Reuse, Recyle. In addition to your Common App essay, you will almost certainly have to write many supplemental essays. Each school will have its own questions, and these questions are designed to be a little different, so you have to put some energy in applying to particular schools. Even so, there’s some overlap between topics, and it’s important to make the most out of your best essay. Keep in mind that you should NOT reuse any part of your main essay for Common App colleges, since they will be receiving that essay as part of your application. Everything in your supplementals is fair game. Make sure you answer each question accurately, but otherwise make the same essays do as much work as possible.

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