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: Five Tips for the Perfect Topic
Still looking for a college application essay topic
that will set you apart from the pack?
Here are my Top Five Tips on finding compelling and memorable topics:
1. Start with a defining quality (curious, self-disciplined, creative), and then look for “times” or examples of when you either demonstrated this quality, had this quality challenged or developed this quality.
Click HERE to find my Jumpstart Guide to help you with that approach.
Don’t know your defining qualities? Click HERE to find them.
2. Try to find something “unexpected” to write about, either something that happened to you that no one would expect to happen to someone like you (you love knot-tying but got stuck in a tree because you used the wrong knot); or something you love or pursue that no one would ever expect of you (a football player who loves to bake cakes.); or some personal trait or characteristic that no one would guess has affected you (you are not even 5-feet-tall but wear a size 9 shoe.)
Click HERE and HERE to read more about that.
3. Troll your past for “mundane” or everyday topics as opposed to ones you think might be impressive. Examples: The Day I Washed Dishes at My Dad’s Restaurant; People Think I’m Mean Because I Weigh 300 Pounds; How I Grew to Love Public Busses; I’m a Formal Guy Even Though I Live in Surf City.
Click HERE for more posts on the power of mundane topics.
4. Read sample essays. If you are stuck, it’s so worth the little bit of time to get your hands on a cheap collection and skim through them. First, you will see the range of topics that other students have used, and chances are it will trigger your own ideas.
Secondly, you will get a feel for the looser, narrative style and structure of these essays, which will help you write yours. Click HERE for books of sample essays. And HERE is a post with online sample essays.
5. Go down memory lane and try to remember “times” when you faced a problem. If you can find a problem, you will find a story. (Problems come in many different shapes and sizes: challenges, change, mistakes, obstacles, phobias, fears, bad luck, physical traits, etc.)
If you have a little story (also called an anecdote), chances are you can write an engaging essay. Click HERE to learn more about how this works.
Are you a visual learner? You might find How to Answer Common Application Prompt 4, a free video tutorial, a huge help!
College Application Essays
Five Places to Start
After helping students discover their own unique topics over the last five or so years, I can spot a great topic the minute a student mentions one.
And I suspect it’s no different for the college admissions people who read zillions of these.
Like most written pieces, you know after the first sentence or two if it’s going to be engaging or a drag (boring, trying to hard to impress, too general).
I can almost hear their conversations as they decide which essay to neatly stack in the “Yes” pile and those to toss over into the growing “No” pile:
“What do you think about the kid who got stuck in the tree?”
“How about the guy who went to Italy and took a class over summer studying architecture.”
“Lucky him. But I didn’t really get any feel about what he’s all about. Pass.”
The college admissions season never really ends. I’m not a big one for starting too early. Parents who start talking colleges with their kids in junior high and even the start of high school kind of bug me. I understand that it’s valuable for students to have goals and understand their potential and opportunities, but to me, too much hype too soon only turns up the pressure, not the results. Believe me, they begin getting pressure early enough from peers, teachers and school administrators.
Okay, enough of what I think. My goal as a writing coach is to help students see how they have great stories to tell for their college admissions essays, and that by using a step-by-step approach they can produce quality pieces. For many, the unnatural stress placed on these essays is their greatest obstacle. They freeze up, put off starting them, and then try too hard to impress their readers. (more…)
College Admissions Essays:
Don’t Try to Impress!
I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about how high school students are seeking out exotic trips, usually to foreign countries, mainly so they will have an intriguing topic for their college application essays.
(Article copied below)
I think these trips can be amazing, and that students learn a lot about other places, cultures and themselves.
But if you are lucky enough to take one of these trips, the last thing I would do is plan it so you can write a snazzy college admissions essay.
I actually believe this approach can backfire.
An instant turn-off to essay readers is a student who is trying to impress them.
To avoid sounding over-privileged, students should look for essay topics that focus on everyday subjects, often called “mundane topics.”
Every time, the essay about a summer job where a student flipped pancakes at IHOP or washed dishes or sold shoes turned out so much better than the one where they went to Africa and lived in mud huts or helped farmers in Guatemala pull weeds.
For some reason, the more basic topics feel more authentic and are naturally more interesting.
And the writer comes across more humble, and likable, even.
That’s not to say that you can’t write a fine essay about a cool trip abroad.
My advice is that in your search for a topic, don’t consider the trip itself the topic. Instead, focus on one thing that happened on that trip.
Focus your essay on a specific experience, and just let the trip to the cool place be the background.
That way, the college folks see how adventuresome you are, but you can focus your essay on something more specific and meaningful. College admissions folks want to learn about how you think and what you value.
So it’s not so much where you were or did something, but what happened, how you handled it and what you learned in the process. That’s why scooping gelato, parking cars or walking dogs can make more interesting topics than your travels around Timbuktu.
Read my Jumpstart Guide to get started on your college admissions essay!
I haven’t posted anything in recent weeks. My role as a college essay tutor wraps up in January and February.
But if you are still working on an essay or personal statement, I would read through this blog for ideas and inspiration!
This spring, I have also been in the thick of the college admissions craze because my son is a high school senior. And boy what a ride it has been.
One of the hardest parts is the waiting–and I know some of you are STILL waiting to hear from prospective colleges and universities. Hang in there!!
And then there are the rejections. My son certainly had his share, and it didn’t help that they were the first schools to report. And one was his top pick. But he cast a wide net, and now has three great options to pick from, which is the next challenge. So, it all works out! And it will work out for you, too!
We went through this with my daughter, too, two years ago, and she landed in a fabulous little liberal arts college in the south and loves it. (She’s going to study in India next semester for her study abroad!)
I’m not a college counselor, but I can share with you a couple tips that I wish I had known, or paid closer attention to, for my own kids’ college quest. I can’t say we have regrets, but we certainly learned some things as we went along. In case they resonate with you, here they are (in no particular order of importance.):
- Try as hard as you can to tune out others students and parents who talk up certain schools, especially the “prestigious” ones, and focus on what will be the best fit for you. Remember, you are the one who will go there, not them!
- Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with all you have to do. Just keep up with the various steps, and it all works out. None of it is really that difficult. Stay open to learning about the different schools, and when you are in the area of a college or university (even if you don’t necessarily want to go there) your sophomore or junior year, drop by and check it out! Your opinions about colleges will change a lot in just a year or so.
College Admissions Essays:
How To Fine Edit Your College Application Essay
You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:
- Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
- Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
- Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
- When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!
Image Via The Graphics Fairy
College Application Essays
Write Like You Talk
The voice and tone of narrative essays usually is “looser” or more “casual” than the typical academic essay. To do that, however, you often have to break the rules. Bend them gently and stay consistent. But if it sounds right, go for it!
The best tip for striking a more familiar tone with your college application essay: Write like you talk!
Harry Bauld, who wrote what I think is the best book on how to write college application essays–On Writing the College Application Essay–advises students to stick with an informal voice. He likens this voice to “a sweater, comfortable shoes. The voice is direct and unadorned.” Stay away, he says, from language that is too formal, which he dubs, “tuxedo talk.”
This stiff type of writing is used by people who want to sound smart and important; most popular among scholars (including English teachers!), lawyers and other professionals who want to sound like they know their stuff even when they don’t. It’s a dead giveaway that you are trying to impress–something you don’t want to reveal in these essays, even if that’s one of your goals.
Bauld said: “Work toward the informal. It is the most flexible voice, one that can be serious or light. On top of that bass line, you can play variations–just as you do with rhythm.”
When you write informally, you often need to break some of the rules of formal English. Here are some that are okay to break, but don’t overdo it!
- Use phrases or sentence fragments. Do this mainly for emphasis. Example: “I was shocked. Stunned. I couldn’t even talk. Not a word.”
- End a sentence with a preposition. Again, stick with what would sound normal in conversation. “What do you want to talk about.” Instead of, “About what do you want to talk?”
- Start a sentence with “And” or “But.” Again, use this for emphasis. Don’t over do it! “He ate the hamburger. And then he devoured three more.”
- Throw in onomatopoeia. Remember those words that sound like what they are? Bang. Whack. Whoosh. Zip. Boom.
- Use dialect or slang. Only use these if they are true to the speaker you are quoting. If you are quoting a surfer, it sounds appropriate if they say, “The waves were so awesome!” If they are from the Deep South, they can say, “Ya’ll.”
- Contractions are fine. Again, trust whether it sounds OK within the larger context of your essay. “I didn’t want to go there.” Instead of, “I did not want to go there.”
- Split those infinitives. It’s just not a big deal. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Remember, these are only rules to break if they help create your voice, tone or make a point. Above all, writing casually does not mean you forget about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all the way you make your writing clean and accurate. You can only bend rule when you know the rules and stick to the important ones.
Also, after you write your rough draft, go back and read it again. Ask yourself: Would I really say that or am I trying to sound smart? If it sounds formal and pretentious at all, try to say it in a more direct and casual way.
For help finding a unique topic and crafting a narrative essay, check out my short, handy new book, Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Standout College Application Essays.
Best Advice On How to
Write a College Application Essay That Rocks!
“The Ladder of Abstraction” is one of my favorite writing tools, especially for writing narrative pieces such as college admissions essays. It is a wonderful way to give structure to an essay without imposing one of those five-paragraph essay formats.
“The Ladder” is a lot simpler than it sounds: Basically, it is making sure you vary your writing to go back and forth between the specific and the abstract.
The “Ladder” image means you go down the ladder into the specifics (the gritty details), and up the ladder into the abstract (the ephemeral clouds). To write well, you need to go up and down constantly.
The shifting between the specifics and the abstract makes your writing engaging and dynamic.
See if this makes more sense:
To be specific, you use details (Remember those “concrete details?”) you describe, you tell stories/anecdotes, you give examples, you use dialogue/quotes, statistics, you use descriptive language to create images, feelings, you use the Who, What, When, Where and Hows, etc.
To be abstract, you explain, you reflect, you interpret, you address the metaphorical or figurative (comparisons, similes, etc.), you are more general, broader, you explore the Why.
The specifics help you make sense of the abstract. The abstract helps you understand the significance of the specifics. To communicate effectively, you need both. To write well, go back and forth between them, zoom in and zoom out, over and over. (There is no strict rule of when you shift in writing, but in general you will see it from paragraph to paragraph.)
Here’s another way to think about the Ladder of Abstraction:
When you are specific, you SHOW the reader what you mean.
When you are abstract, you TELL the reader what you mean.
Going up and down the ladder in writing means you Show in a paragraph, then you Tell in the next paragraph, then you shift back to Showing, then again to Telling, etc. You can start an essay by either Showing or Telling, but make sure to shift right away. In essays, I prefer Showing in the introduction because that’s usually more compelling “grabber” writing.
To throw in yet another metaphor: This process is like using a camera. When you get specific, you zoom in close to your subject so you can “show” the reader all the little details. When you get abstract, you zoom out and take in the larger picture so that you can “tell” the reader what these details mean and why they are important in that broader context.
More later…if you can’t tell, I love this approach! If you want to learn more on your own about how to use the ladder of abstraction in your writing, check out this powerful list of Writing Tools by Author Roy Peter Clark, which includes my favorite writing tips from his amazing writing guide, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.
Ready to write? Start with my Jumpstart Guide!
Some college counselors advise students to think of their life as a book and write down some chapter titles. Then pick one you like and expand upon it. This naturally directs the essay into a narrative (story-telling) delivery.
I thought of a few from my own background as examples:
“Chasing grizzlies in Wyoming”
“Playing cribbage with my new blind friend”
“Burning crepes at the Magic Pan”
“Working the graveyard shift at White Castle”
“How I became student body president–by accident”
“The day I spent in the New York bus station”
See what you come up with. You might be surprised that you have a bestseller! Click HERE for other posts to help you find the magic topic!