You Don’t Need Tragedy to Write
a Standout College Admissions Essay!
This is the time of year that the frenzy surrounding college admissions starts to grow.
Early decision deadlines are just weeks away.
Students who put off writing their college application essays are running out of excuses—and time.
Those who finally sat down to figure out the Common Application are shocked at the number of additional supplemental essays they need to pound out.
Compounding the looming sense of doom are some of the myths about these essays.
Help yourself get a grip and keep your sanity and learn what is really expected from you.
It’s not that bad. Take deep breaths. Take a few more. Make a plan.
You got this!
Five Things That Are NOT TRUE About College Application Essays
1. Your whole life is riding on these essays.
No! Of course that’s crazy. But I can understand why you might feel that way.
It’s important that you do everything you can to fend off the pressure you feel right now.
What will define your future, including where you end up going to college, is not just one essay, or one grade or SAT score.
It’s the entire package—your background, your effort, your support systems, your luck and determination at this point.
That said, yes, these essays can play a significant role in where you get accepted or not.
Often, they are the only way to inject your personality into your admissions package and stand out from all the other over-qualified applicants.
And no, even a brilliant essay won’t necessarily make up for inadequate grades or test scores. But it could tip the balance in your favor.
In general, these essays seem to count more if you’re applying to the more competitive, prestige schools.
Just commit to writing the best one you can, and leave it at that.
2. You have to have something super impressive about yourself in order for your essay to be any good.
At this point, I’m always surprised by how many students still believe this.
No, no and no! In fact, I keep repeating myself here: The best essays are usually about mundane topics.
Do not try to impress.
Instead, focus on making an impression.
There’s a big difference.
The best way to do this is to pick an everyday topic and share a real-life story, and go from there to share how you think and what you value.
Small, simple and unexpected moments—and especially those that involved problems—make the most memorable topics.
I know it’s counter intuitive, since your goal is to make your target college want you. But trust me on this—there are way better ways to do this than using SAT words and packing in everything amazing you have ever done.
3. You must be a gifted writer to craft an effective essay.
Nope. Not true.
First, I believe writing is rarely a “gift,” and more of a skill that you practice and get better at.
Actually, when it comes to writing a narrative style essay about a real-life moment or incident from you past, I have found that students who thought they stunk at writing cranked out the best pieces! Time after time.
For some reason, many of the top achieving Language Arts students who got 5s on their AP tests have the hardest time with these. They seem to overthink and stiffen up and become their own worst enemies.
Get loose and sloppy when you write your first draft.
Creativity is messy business.
Banish your inner perfectionist. Just get out your ideas. Then go back later and clean it up.
4. You can’t write a great essay if nothing terrible ever happened to you.
A lot of students believe that in order to write an essay that will help them stand out over their competition they need something dramatic, momentous or heartbreaking to share.
While it can be easier to make an impression on college admissions officers if you connect with them through their hearts, and use pathos and emotion in your essay, you don’t need to be a tragic victim to make a memorable impression.
Often, it’s the most simple, everyday moments and problems that we all have faced that can give an essay that universal appeal.
Look for the little, everyday terrible things (problems) that happened to you, and you can write awesome essays about those experiences.
It’s not what happened to you, but what it meant to you—how you felt, what you did about it and what you learned in the process.
5. You need to spend your entire weekend, or even weeks, working on your essay in order for it be great.
Not even close.
Once you figure out a topic, and jot down a simple writing plan, you could knock out a rough draft in an hour or so.
You do need to spend time reading up on what makes a great essay and how to write one, and then more time brainstorming some topic ideas.
But if you tell yourself writing the essay will take forever, that’s just an excuse for not sitting down and actually doing it.
Set aside a time during a day this week or over the weekend, and tell yourself you will spend one hour writing. Just one lousy hour.
You will be surprised how far you get. Let yourself pound out a crappy first draft. Don’t try to make it perfect on the first go-round.
Once you have a draft, you are almost there!
Then go do something fun, treat yourself somehow, and then just come back to it later and revise it.
Before you know it, you will be done!
Great post, Janine – these are tips that so many students (and parents, for that matter) need to not only read but ingest and commit to part of their being! Thanks for your awesome work, I’ll be sharing this with my students today!
you’re literally saving my sanity right now. thank you so so so so much!!
Sorry it’s literally taken me months to get back to you. But thank you so much for your kind words! They mean a lot to me. Janine