How to Write a Great College Essay: Be True to Yourself
Students, you are not alone. Every student struggles with
writing the personal essay required by college applications.
"Whether the student has an ACT score of 18 or 36, it's
the scariest part of the process," says Karen Daluga
College Advising in Lombard, Illinois. As an experienced
college advisor, Daluga helps students navigate the complex
college selection and application process. "If a student
is going to get stuck in the application process, it's usually
on the essay," she adds.
There are three purposes for the college essay. "First,
it personalizes the application and differentiates you from
other applicants with similar academic qualifications, such
as test scores and GPA. Second, it helps the reader get to
know you and perhaps gives more detail to something in your
application," says Daluga. "Lastly, it demonstrates
that you can express yourself effectively and persuasively
in writing, and shows your writing style."
The Common Application for colleges offers five essay topics
from which to choose, or students can select their own topic.
In general, each essay topic requires students to identify
something, such as a significant experience, achievement,
person, or concern, and asks students to describe how they
have been influenced by it. This personal reflection is often
very difficult for students. "They've never been asked
to do such deep personal reflection. Introspection does not
come easily to adolescents," observes Daluga. "So
the essay process is a real learning opportunity."
Selective schools may add their own essay and short answer
questions in a supplement to the Common Application. "Students
should take the short answer questions just as seriously as
the essay," according to Daluga. An example of a short
answer question is "Write a note to your roommate that
reveals something about you that will help your roommate -
and us - know you better," in Stanford University's supplement.
On the other hand, when a student has investigated potential
careers and college majors while in high school, and has formulated
realistic goals for college, the question, "Why are you
drawn to this academic field?" asked by Brown University
becomes far easier to answer.
Colleges are looking for students who know themselves well,
have an academic and career direction, and can articulate
it - whether in an essay, or later, in an admissions interview.
Princeton University poses a targeted question to potential
Engineering students: "Please write an essay describing
why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences
in or exposure to engineering you have had, and how you think
the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your
particular interests." They seek the best students for
their program, students who demonstrate a seriousness of purpose.
College admissions officers read every essay. In fact, most
schools have at least two readers per application. What catches
their attention? "They're looking for writing that lets
the personality of the student shine through, and would indicate
that he or she will be a good fit with the culture of the
college," Daluga explains.
Depending on the school, officers may read hundreds of applications
in an admission season. Daluga says, "That's why it's
important to avoid overused topics, such as the winning shot
or touchdown, or intentional "resume builder" experiences
that can be purchased by parents, such as immersion experiences,
adventure vacations, and yes, even mission trips. Admissions
officers have heard it all." Daluga advises, "It's
wiser to write about something "normal" in your
life and its impact on you. Look inside yourself. Tell them
the story of what makes you an interesting and unique person."
Drawing from her breadth of experience, Daluga offers the
following range of suggestions that can help you produce an
essay that truly reflects who you are.
To get started
Take the pressure off. Begin working on your
essays during the summer before your senior year.
What personal qualities do you want to highlight?
Write down, by yourself or with others who know you,
a list of character qualities you would like to convey.
Answer the questions: Who are you? Who are you becoming?
And what have you learned in your short life? Your school
counseling department may have a questionnaire you can
fill out or use to prompt your thinking.
Choose an essay question that grabs you. Read
the essay topics carefully. Choose a topic that would
be fun or interesting to write about. Your approach
can be humorous, if that's your style.
As you write
Be your natural self. Don't try to guess what
admissions officers want to hear. Their goal is to determine
a good fit with the culture of the school and the other
students. They want you to have a positive college experience,
and so do you.
Tell a story. Use the prompt "Did I ever
tell you about the time
" to get started.
It may be easier to tell the story out loud to someone
first, then write it down. This way, your written "voice"
may be more genuine and true.
Focus on one experience or idea, and develop
it in some depth. Admissions officers do not want to
read a "laundry list" essay describing all
the things you're good at.
Grab the reader's attention. Write a compelling
first paragraph that makes them want to continue.
In your writing, show - don't tell. Use details
and verbs in the present tense to make it so vivid and
alive, the reader can imagine being there.
Pay attention to minimum and maximum word limits.
The instructions are a way of testing your ability to
follow directions. Allow only about 5-10% over or under
the word goal.
From first draft to final essay
Read your essay with an objective eye. Set
your draft aside for a few days, and then revise it.
Ask a teacher, counselor, and parent to read it, looking
at content, tone, and flow.
Proofread your essay and short answers carefully.
Do not depend on spell check to catch all errors. Ask
one or two other people to proofread it.
Is the tone positive? Admissions officers don't
want to read an essay full of criticisms, whining or
complaining. If you have had tough life experiences,
focus on what you learned and how you are a different
individual as a result of them.
Don't brag. If you write about an activity or
experience, don't focus on how good you were or what
you have accomplished, but what it means to you.
If the college offers an optional essay, do it!
It's an easy opportunity to sell yourself. Not writing
it may be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm or motivation.
Your essays are a very important component of your application.
Invest the time to present your best and true self, and it
will pay off far more than just a coveted college acceptance.
College Essay Tips: Getting to Know Me
Backwards Planning: A Great Strategy for Those Who Find It Hard to Get Started
How to Make College Pay Off
Surviving the College Admissions Interview
When the Answer Is Maybe: College Wait Lists
Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg
© Copyright 2011, Career Vision. Article may be reprinted