College Application Essays:
They Are Easier Than You Think!
A friend just told me his daughter was not going to apply to the UC (University of California) schools because she would need to write two college admissions essays.
Instead, she was going to stick to the Cal state schools, which don’t require essays.
What a tragedy, I thought.
These aren’t that hard to write!!
Here’s what I would say to try to change his mind, and tell his daughter:
These college application essays (also known as personal statements) don’t have to be perfect.
Shoot for mediocre if it takes the pressure off. Just find a little story to tell about yourself, something that happened one time, and pound it out.
Stick to the first person; describe what happened.
Then, explain what it meant to you, how you thought about it, what you learned, how it changed you (even if just a little bit.)
Voila! An essay!
Of course, if you can go back, re-read it, take out the boring parts, amp it up with colorful details, cut extra words, carve out a main point, read it out loud, listen to the flow, find a nifty metaphor to life, allude to interesting ideas, fix it up, work on it—you will have an even better essay.
And did I mention all my other informative posts on this blog are designed to help you write a killer essay?
(Look for specific topics in the “Find Help By Topic” listing on the right.)
Check out my super helpful Jumpstart Guide to help get you started on your college application essay or personal statement!
Ok, time is up. Well, almost. As long as you can quickly identify a couple of strong topics for your essays, there’s still time to pound out good ones.
Here’s the best advice I know on writing first drafts, from one of the best writers out there. A quirky woman named Anne Lamott (check out her picture at the bottom!). Ignore the weird hair. She’s THE BEST. Read on:
“For me and most of the writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Anne Lamott, from the best book on writing, called Bird by Bird.
“All good writers write them (shitty first drafts). This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. …” more from A.L. and Bird by Bird.
Okay. Do you love her? Despite the potty language–or because of it–she’s spot on. To move forward, you have to take a good idea, get a simple plan and sit down and write it out. It won’t be great at first. That’s just how it goes. Then all you do is go back, and fix it up.
DO IT!! If you need help getting going, check out my Jumpstart Guide.
Students often want feedback on their college admissions essays, but are not sure where to turn. Here’s my advice:
1.Be very selective who you show it to. Remember, writing is subjective: one person might love your essay and another might hate it. Parents can be great sounding boards, and so can teachers, counselor and friends. Watch out for parents, teachers and counselors who don’t understand that real-life stories make the best essays, and try to take out the best parts (Many mistakenly believe students should only include “impressive” achievements and experiences. This is not true.).
2. Ask for specific feedback. Hand the reader a print-out and red pen and ask them to underline the parts they like and put stars by the parts they find dull or confusing. Don’t ask for anything more. If you agree with their feedback, keep the good stuff and work on the bad—either change it or cut it.
3. Be your own editor. Read it out loud to yourself to spot places where it bogs down. Trust yourself. If you like what you hear, chances are others will, too. If it sounds awkward or too wordy, it probably is—so fix it!
4. Ask your readers specific questions, such as:
1. Does this essay grab your interest at the beginning?
2. Do you get an idea of what I care about and value?
3. Are there any parts that are confusing or don’t make sense?
4. Do I come across as a likeable person? (Are there any specific words or sentences that make me sound unlikeable?)
5. Can you tell what personal quality or characteristic I’m trying to showcase in this essay?
5. Always make sure you proofread one last time. Once you are done with your essay, and want someone to proofread, tell them you only want feedback on errors, not content. Also, you need to proofread it yourself right before you push the button to send it off—often students make last-minute changes and accidentally add errors.
I realized today that I never shared a list of topics that usually result in lame essays. (It feels negative to emphasize this list of no-no’s, but it can save students a lot of time if they know to avoid these early on.) You can make any topic interesting, of course, but if you want to give yourself a break, stay away from these potential losers:
- Listing accomplishments. Don’t even think about just rattling off amazing things you have done, people you have met or places you have visited, etc. Way too broad and BORING!! Bragging is not a good way to make friends!
- Death, divorce, tragedies in general. It’s not so much that these can be downers, but they’re such powerful topics that they can be very challenging to write about. (the “death” topic applies to family, friends and even those beloved pets.) HOWEVER, if you have lost someone dear to you and it has rocked your world–you probably should try to write about it. Just try to make the essay more about your feelings, how it affected you and what you learned than just about the person you lost.
- “The most important thing/person in my life.” Again, this is just too broad and loaded, whether you want to talk about God or your mom or your best friend. Yawn!!
- Sports. The thrill of victory. Agony of defeat. Done. Dull. Avoid if possible.
- Humor. Although a story you convey in one of your essays may be funny, do not try to be funny—there is a difference. Keep your deliver straight.
- “I’m so lucky.” Many college-bound students are privileged to live in beautiful, affluent towns and cities, and that’s great, lucky you!, but talking about this is plain boring.
- Do-good experiences. These can range from mission trips to Costa Rica to volunteering tutoring through the local schools. Although essays can certainly involve these experiences, the topic needs to be on a specific experience within that broader trip or program. There is a huge difference. Essays that basically describe trips or volunteering are boring. Specific, unexpected things that happen during them, however, can be great topics!
- Sensitive topics. Since you are writing for an audience who you want to want you, it’s important to use your common sense in terms of topics that have a high tendency to make people angry or upset because they do not agree with your opinion. Politics and religion are particularly provocative. No matter what, don’t preach about any topic!
- The un-essay. Many students, often some of the brightest, have a fundamental reaction to these essays and the assignment to reveal yourself in 500 words, so they want to get creative and in-your-face since that feels more genuine to them. They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, etc. I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays: to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college.
- Illicit behavior. Drug use. Sexual activities. Arrests or jail time. Even if you stopped doing these illegal or unethical things, it’s still not the best idea to bring them up here. You can write about life missteps as long as it’s clear you have regained your footing! If nothing else, the admissions folks might just wonder about your judgment in general for not steering clear of these topics.
Now that you know what not
to write about, you can learn more about how to find great topics
. In general, don’t try to impress your reader–it usually backfires. Instead, focus on something that happened, how it affected you and what you learned. Those stories are naturally interesting and impressive.
If you want more help getting started writing, check out my Jumpstart Guide for writing college application essays.
Also, my new ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!, will walk you through 10 fast and easy steps for finding a unique topic and writing a narrative essay.
As promised in my last post, I will share how I start the search for essay topic ideas for my son, who is a junior in high school. The idea is to get some general ideas on our college essay radar. Just jot down areas of interests, activities, experiences, idiosyncrasies, etc. When he’s in a receptive mood (ahem!), I will suggest that he start his own list.
My list so far, written in about five minutes:
Band: French horn
Jazz band: Trumpet
Boy Scouts: camp, backpacking, community service projects
Volleyball: switched from tennis: JV team.
His blog on unusual/ethnic restaurants
Summers in New Hampshire
Costa Rica/Panama/Mexico/Europe family trips
From our lists, my son can start to think about the more specific experiences he has had within these areas as he gets closer to actually writing his essays (probably this summer). What we are looking for, however, are not stories of his general achievement (The Time I Climbed Mt. Whitney or How My Science Invention Won First Place or My Mission Trip to Costa Rica), rather we want to find the smaller, simpler stories (within those events) where he was challenged in some way, and learned and grew from that experience. You will be looking for those memorable moments: “Remember the time you…?”
Meanwhile, just keep your list within reach and add things when they come to mind. Again, relax. There are great stories and essay topics hidden within this list, and they will be in yours, too!
From article in the New York Times:
June 23, 2009, 12:22 PM
As an inaugural post, Martha C. Merrill, the dean of admission and financial aid of Connecticut College, and a graduate of the class of 1984, encourages incoming high school seniors (with her Top Ten tips):
- Write about yourself. A great history paper on the Civil War might be very well written, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the writer. Regardless of the topic, make sure you shine through your essay.
- Use your own voice. I can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior.
- Focus on one aspect of yourself. If you try to cover too many topics in your essay, you’ll end up with a resume of activities and attributes that doesn’t tell me as much about you as an in-depth look at one project or passion.
- Be genuine. Don’t try to impress me, because I’ve heard it all. Just tell me what is important to you.
- Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.
- Don’t rely on “how to” books. Use them to get your creative juices flowing, but don’t adhere too rigidly to their formulas, and definitely don’t use their example topics. While there are always exceptions, the “what my room says about me” essay is way overdone.
- Share your opinions, but avoid anything too risky or controversial. Your essay will be read by a diverse group of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, so try to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
- Tell a good story. Show me why you are compassionate; don’t tell me you are. Show me that you have overcome great difficulty; don’t start your essay with “I have overcome great difficulties.”
- Don’t repeat what is already in your application. If you go to a performing arts school and all of your extracurricular activities and awards relate to dance, don’t write about how much you love dancing. Tell me something I couldn’t know just from reading the other parts of your application.
- Finally, don’t forget about the supplements. The supplement questions are very important – you should plan to spend as much time on them as you do on your essay. A well-written essay won’t help if your supplement answers are sloppy and uninformative.