At our local public high school in Laguna Beach, the English teachers assign juniors to write college application essays at the end of the year.
It’s a great idea.
For many students, this may be the only time they get any guidance on how to write these essays. (more…)
College Application Essays
“Meant to Inspire”
All Students Showed an “Appetite for Risk”
Earlier this year, a business writer for The New York Times invited students to share their college admissions essays on the topic of money, class, working and the economy.
Today, reporter Ron Lieber published his follow-up article, where he shared his reaction and thoughts on the effectiveness of those essays.
He also had Harry Bauld, who wrote the classic guide on how to write these essays (On Writing the College Application Essay), read them and give his opinions as well.
I hope you take the time to read this article all the way through. Lieber said he and Bauld “meant to inspire” students shooting for college in 2014 by sharing their four favorite essays.
Here are the main points they liked about them:
- “They took brave and counterintuitive positions” on their topics
- They all “talking openly” about issues that are “emotionally complex and often outright taboo.”
- They had “an appetite for risk” (one student wrote about the application process itself, a topic that is usually discouraged.)
- They were bold (with their ideas, language and opinions)
- They kept their edges (meaning, they didn’t allow parents or counselors or editors to over-edit their pieces and retained their unique, though sometimes rough, teenage voices.)
Click HERE to read all four essays. (more…)
College Admissions Essays and Personal Statements:
How to Make Your Topic Fly
The New York Times sponsors a blog exclusively for college-bound students. It’s called The Choice. Just last month, a student shared the topic she chose for her Common Application essay, and why she stuck with it even when friends and family didn’t share her enthusiasm. The student, named Sush Krishnamoorthy, is hoping her essay will get her into Stanford. Her topic: a 24-hour plane flight she took by herself. Sush didn’t share many other details about her topic (or essay), but I think it’s a good one. Here are five reasons why I love her idea:
1. Her topic is “mundane.” In her post, Sush said she felt pressure to find an “offbeat” topic for her CommonApp essay. Often, students believe they need to write about topics or experiences that would impress their readers. The opposite, however, is true. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but writing about “mundane” or everyday topics almost always results in more engaging and memorable essays. Learn more about how to find everyday topics and why they are so powerful in my post, The Power of Mundane Topics. (more…)
College Admissions Essays:
How to make sure you come across as likable
“Think of something you might boast about and turn it into an entertaining flaw.”
College expert and blogger Jay Matthews on self-deprecation
In the typical list of hot tips from college counselors for crafting a winning college application essay, “Be likeable” is usually near the top.
This advice is usually followed up with “Don’t impress.”
But it’s a fine line when you are basically writing a marketing piece trying to sell yourself to the college of your dreams.
You feel the need to impress your colleges by describing your best achievements, qualities and talents, but one wrong word or phrase and you instantly sound like a braggart.
No one likes a braggart, and even a whiff of entitlement or unchecked ego can send your essay into the “No” pile.
The best way to avoid sounding like a braggart is to focus on what you did, how you did it and why, and not just on the fact that you did it.
The trick is to highlight the quality behind your accomplishment, and then relay a specific example of how you developed that quality or furthered it somehow.
My Jumpstart Guide and other posts on finding topics can help you with that approach.
College Admissions Essays: Samples
Samples of College Admissions Essays and Personal Statements–
and Why They Can Help You Write Yours!!
I always tell my students that one of the best ways to find great topic ideas is to read the essays of other students.
One great idea often triggers another! Reading other student’s essays also can give you an idea of the narrative style or voice of these essays, which is looser and more conversational than your typical academic essay.
I recommend several book collections of sample essays in this post, but if you can’t get your hands on those, here are a few I found online:
- My favorite online collection is on John Hopkins’ web site. Most use a narrative style and write in a direct, natural voice. And they even have a short analysis from the admissions folks about what they liked and why. This is invaluable info for you guys! Click HERE to read them.
- Click Here to see some that Connecticut College shares on their web site, describing them as “Essays That Worked.” Some are a bit stiff, in my opinion. Trust your own reaction. If you like an essay, borrow ideas from that one. (At the top of the page is a drop down menu with all the essays, titled “Choose an Essay.”)
- Click HERE and HERE to read some of the inspiring narrative sample essays from my collection, Heavenly Essays.
Most of you will write one or two “core” essays for your college applications.
These essays will focus on revealing who you are and why you are unique.
But you will also write numerous supplemental (shorter) essays.
The good news is that many of these “supps” ask similar questions. So if you are smart, you will find ways to re-use parts of your answers and streamline the process.
At the same time, you also will hone, sharpen and improve your answers.
Here are some examples of typical sup questions that are looking for similar answers:
- Why do you want to go to OUR UNIVERSITY?
- Why are you a “good match” for OUR UNIVERSITY?
- What is it that you like the best about OUR UNIVERSITY?
- How will you contribute to OUR UNIVERSITY?
Basically, there are two parts to these prompts. One: Why YOU? Two: Why COLLEGE X? Your job is show how and why they fit together. Here is a short guide on how to do this:
ONE: State your main goal for your education at your target schools. To be an engineer? To get a liberal arts education? To play waterpolo? To become a filmmaker? To earn a pre-med degree? To figure out what you want to do in the future?
My students have discovered some of their best topic ideas for their college application essays from their job experiences.
I’m not sure why they make great fodder for college essays, but I believe that simply working for others naturally reveals a complimentary set of qualities, skills and values—humility, determination, perseverance, responsibility, people skills, industriousness, dependability, and the good old work ethic.
It’s no coincidence that these are the same qualities and skills that you need to succeed in college—and what college admissions folks are looking for!
I also think work experiences often fall under the category of “mundane” or everyday topics—which is a good thing!
Former students have written lively essays out working at places like Circuit City, a shoe store, ushering at a playhouse, serving gelato, washing dishes at fancy restaurant, bagging groceries at Ralph’s, working at Dunkin Donuts, etc.
Most work places lack glamour, and that naturally makes them feel “real,” authentic and interesting.
And although we have all worked in our lives, it’s always fun to learn about what it’s like at those places we never worked, no matter how pedestrian they seem (so the essays are naturally interesting to read).
When you think of past jobs, explore them for those other features that make great essays:
- Something happened. (Look for a little story or moment or example to tell)
- There was a problem. (Something went wrong; you messed up; you couldn’t do it correctly; you were scared; someone was in your way; etc.)
- The event or context was “mundane,” meaning simple and common in nature. (in this case, your job or the related problem: cleaning houses, serving burgers, etc.)
- You learned a lesson. (How you turned something negative into a positive.)
- There was something “unexpected” about what happened or what you learned. (A twist/surprise)
- Need more help getting started? My Jumpstart Guide can give you a boost!
This article is still highly relevant, even several years since I wrote it. Check out this article (June 2016) on why Teens Should Have Summer Jobs.