No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”
If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.
Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.
Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.
(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.) (more…)
College Admissions Essays
It’s Official: Get Creative!
Colleges tell students that they want their essays to show them what sets them apart from the pack and what makes them unique. Yet most of the college application essay prompts do a poor job of helping students find topics that help them reveal their true personalities and character. The Los Angeles Times just wrote an article about how some colleges are finally crafting prompts that do a better job of encouraging students to feel comfortable taking a risk and showing their idiosyncrasies and quirks, rather than showcasing only their accomplishments and hardships. The main point of the article: Get creative!
This is an exciting trend, in my opinion, one I’ve encouraged for years now. My advice is to try to write about these more creative topics even when answering prompts that still aren’t creative. (Such as the list of Common App prompts, especially now that there will not be the Topic of Choice option.) I have lots of tips and advice all over my blog on how to find these types of topics. The point is that college admissions folks are starting to change their prompts because they are sick of reading about the same topics where students recount mission trips and sports victories. Take a risk. Get creative. Tell a story. Write about something mundane, rather than impressive. (more…)
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.
College Admissions Essays:
Finding topics in unlikely places
I would never have believed that writing about the Twilight series could be a super essay topic–not in a million years. But below, I’m going to share how one of my brightest students landed on Edward Cullen as the perfect topic during one of my recent “Jumpstart” tutoring sessions. And how it’s going to be a brilliant essay!
As a little background, this particular student is fierce. She’s a top student, loves chemistry and also is an accomplished dancer. Her first college admissions essay (she needs to write 2 for the University of California app.) is going to show how she is a problem solver. But what about that second essay? I believe if you are writing more than one essay for an application,they should complement each other–that is, balance each other out.
This is when I really push for the idea of a “mundane” topic, one that is everyday, and often would be the last topic in the world you would even consider writing about.
EXAMPLES: The kid who realized he had leadership skills the night he had to wash dishes at his dad’s restaurant. The girl who starred in her school musicals but wrote about her passion for karaoke. The tiny dancer who came to terms with her size 9 feet. The football tackle who loved to bake cakes for his teammates. Notice that on the surface, none of these topics sounds “impressive.” But trust me, they end up as the most interesting and memorable essays–exactly what you want! The other quality all these topics share is they have an “unexpected” quality–you wouldn’t expect a football player to love baking, or a dancer to have big feet or to find a leader behind a stack of dirty dishes. (What’s something about you that no one would believe?)
Here’s how our conversation went as we brainstormed a mundane–and unexpected–college essay topic:
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.”
College Admissions Essays
How to Write an Anecdote
For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays
If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.
But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.
It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.
Usually they are very short.
If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.
In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.
Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.
So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.
During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.
“What’s that?” my little sister asked.
“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.
(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)
College Admissions Essays
How to Find “The Unexpected” in Your College Application Essay or Personal Narrative
One way to add snap, crackle and pop to your college application essay is to give it a little twist.
What’s a twist?
It can be many things, but usually it offers some sort of surprise, an irony or something unexpected.
When writing about yourself, be on the lookout for your own personal life twists.
In simple terms, a twist can be anything that isn’t what you would think or expect.
Why do these work so beautifully in college application essays?
Because they a. are delightful to read because they break away from the predictable b. they often involve a problem, which needs solving and provokes personal change, and c. they show how you respond, adjust and learn.
All rich essay compost!
One client wrote a personal statement about how she was always at the top of her game, whether it was in her classes, sports or her favorite extracurricular activity, drama.
She told about the time she was certain she landed the lead role in the school musical, and her shock when someone told her someone else got the part.
Her essay focused on how she learned that supporting roles in plays, as well as in life, can be as valuable as being the leading lady. What was the twist?
In this case, she didn’t get what she expected.
It was a surprise for her not to be the star. (more…)
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:
How to Start Your Core College Application Essay
If you are writing a college admissions essay that responds to a prompt that asks you to tell about yourself, or about “a time,” or describe a quality, background, interest, identity, talent, characteristic, experience or accomplishment (such as The Common App prompts or Prompt #2 for the UC app.), then your essay is also known as a personal statement.
The most effective personal statements are written as narrative essays, meaning they relate an experience using a story-telling style.
To share an incident or moment from your past, you only need two components to make a story: a character and a conflict.
So one magic way to create a personal narrative is to search your recent past for a conflict. (You are the “character.”)
Thinking back to English class, remember that conflicts can come from many different places—from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something happened to you.)
To put it simply, a conflict is a problem.
Problems come in all shapes and sizes.
They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too.
(HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)
Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc.
Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…
Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!
Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:
1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem.
(Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact! Include the 5Ws—who, what, when, where and why! Stick to one or two paragraphs.)
These mini-stories are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
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.