Yesterday, my son sent in the last of his college applications (just hours before many of the Common App Deadlines, might I add). YEA!!! I’m not sure which of us is more relieved. He is the youngest of my two children (my daughter is a sophomore in college), so this is it for me in terms of a personal role in the college application and essay writing process. Of course, I will continue writing this blog and tutoring college-bound students and parents on how to write powerful admissions essays. But boy does it feel great to be on the other side!
If you are still on the dark side, and have either just started thinking about your college essays or still have a couple to polish and send in for 2011, you, too, will someday be on the bright side with my son and I! The one thing you do not want to feel at the point where we are is regret. No matter how stressful and overwhelming the process, it is worth sticking with it to make sure everything is as good as you can make it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
And when you are done, you can step back and let what happens happen. There’s nothing else you can do at that point. But if you are still cranking on these essays and supplements, take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, remember your goals, know that it will be over soon, and JUST WRITE THEM!
Congratulations to all of you who have all your applications in, and best of luck to those of you still plugging away!
I just went back over college essays my clients wrote over the last several years.
Despite the classic list of what not to write about (see previous post), I would say many wrote about mission trips, volunteering activities and sporting experiences anyway.
Some pulled it off, however, because they focused in on specific incidents and what they learned from those.
Others, however, were pretty flat.
My favorite essays, I noticed, almost always involved something unexpected, whether it was something that happened to the writer or how they reacted and learned from it.
They also included anecdotal leads. For example, here are two topics that resulted in strong essays:
1. One student wrote about how things always went his way, and how he was always top of his class, the star athlete and picked for leading roles in the drama program.
His essay told the story of how he expected to get the star role in his senior play, and was stunned to learn he got a lesser role. (this was the “unexpected”)
In his essay, he developed what he learned from that experience.
In a natural way he was able to highlight his talents, yet come across as humble and likable at the same time.
(He also started his essay with a simple anecdote of the moment a friend shouted out to him that he did not make the lead role. This short, narrative introduction included dialogue and captured with high emotion his huge disappointment. A perfect “grabber” intro!)
2. Another student wrote about how she injured her ankle playing soccer on the varsity team, and was out for the entire season, yet learned more sitting on the bench that season than she would have playing. (also, the “unexpected”)
Her essay focused on how she discovered a new perspective on her team and the game by simply watching.
Again, she showcased her talents, but showed how she was able to turn something negative into a positive.
(she also started her essay with a short narrative anecdote—with strong imagery on the setting, dialogue, etc—focusing on the moment she was injured, which added emotion and drama to his essay.)
What these effective essays had in common:
- They both included something unexpected and how the writer learned something from the experience.
- They both focused on one incident and expanded that into larger lessons learned.
- They both pulled the most intense moment to describe in their introductions, which made their essays full of lively writing (vivid details, descriptive language, colorful dialogue, etc.) highly readable.
What is unexpected about you?
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.
How to Write a Killer Essay
New York Times Upfront , Dec 13, 1999 by Glenn C. Altschuler
An Ivy League dean offers six tips to steer your admission essay in the right direction:
1. Write about your world and your experiences. A 17-year-old inhabits a foreign country, and adults who work in colleges are curious about what it’s like to live within its borders. Essays about a friendship that was forged or one that failed, buying a pair of sneakers, an afternoon working at Dunkin’ Donuts, or getting robbed on the subway can provide glimpses of your ideas, values, and passions.
2. Avoid writing about national and global issues. You’ll sound like a teenager trying to sound like an adult.
3. Describe, don’t characterize. Minimize adjectives and adverbs. “The Coach Who Changed My Life” may be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but these qualities can best be conveyed in a narrative of what he actually said and did. In “Ode to Dad,” a Cornell applicant explained her father’s values by describing his hands, encrusted with dirt from a career as a truck farmer. It worked.
4. Resist the temptation to let others speak for you. A quotation from a philosopher, poet, or politician may appear to be the perfect opportunity to parade your erudition. More often than not, however, you will impress no one.
5. Establish distance from your subject. Distance discourages essayists from drawing the cliched moral. Every semester I yearn for the applicant who will declare that organized sports are not a metaphor for life, that the race is not always to the swift. Years ago we admitted a student whose essay, “Riding the Pine,” found that no enduring truths came from sitting on the bench for an entire baseball season. It’s OK to be just a bit confused, to find the meaning of life elusive.
6. Know yourself. Selection committee members are pretty savvy. They have learned to look for authenticity, not profundity. But knowing yourself, on paper, takes imagination, reflection, and time. Start early, let parents and friends read it, and then revise. The voice you find may be your own.
GLENN C. ALTSCHULER is a dean and professor at Cornell University.
College Admissions Essays:
How to Connect with Your Reader
I’ve talked about this already, but here is more scoop about your college application essay “audience,” and it’s a tough crowd: college admissions officers read zillions of these college application essays and most are BORING, and get tossed in the boring pile!!!
If you don’t believe me, here are some quotes from some honest (notice they weren’t quoted by name!) admissions folks gathered by an inspired, veteran English teacher named Jim Burke.
As an English teacher, Burke says he often is asked to help students on their essays, and he understands that many of them are either way too long, do not answer the prompt and/or are just like all the other essays.
He quotes in a Web appendix to his book,The English Teacher’s Companion:
“Another admissions officer I interviewed said: ‘There are three things you don’t ever want to watch being made: one is sausage, one is legislation, and the other is college admissions because the process is sometimes so random, given the number of kids that come across our desks.
I read a thousand applications, each one of which has to have an essay, and I give each application about ten minutes in the first read-through. Anything kids can do to connect with me as the reader, to make them stand out in that essay, which in many cases is the most important piece of the puzzle, helps me.’
‘When we read them, though the scale is 1 to 10, we mostly calibrate it to a 2, 5, and 8: 2 means the essay negatively affects the student’s application; 5 means it does nothing to advance the application; 8 means it moves it forward toward acceptance, though other factors are, of course, considered.’
If you want help bumping up your college application essay or personal statement, read my post on How to Bump Up a Dull Essay. Or, if you are just getting started, use my super helpful Jumpstart Guide.
Parents and College Admissions Essays: In or Out?
In theprevious post, I gave “helpful” parents some pointers on how to help students with their college admissions essays. Now, it’s your turn to help your own parents. Here are some tips:
- First, understand that your parents are on your side. They just want you to have success, and think they can help you. It’s your job, however, to show them how to help.
- The best way to fend off pesky parents is to prove to them that you have it covered. Tell them where you are at in the process, and that you have put together a timeline for yourself. Simply knowing that you have started will relieve anxiety.
- Some parents, however, are certain they can help you write your essay. This is where you need to help them understand how critical it is that this is your essay, in your words and voice alone. Tell them this, nicely.
- Another way to shield yourself from parental intervention is to see if there is a place or specific role where they can help you, but not take over the process. No one knows you or your life like your parent. If you need help with topic ideas, ask them if they would brainstorm with you. Set a time when you both are in a good mood and not tired.
- Once you have a rough draft, and trust they won’t overtake your piece, let them read it and ask for feedback. Again, watch your moods. Ask them to just tell you what they like, and any places that are unclear or might need more work. Finally, it never hurts to have your parents read your final version to help check for punctuation, spelling and other errors.
- Writing is hard, and can make you grumpy. This is usually about the point where your mom or dad will come in your room to “help,” and you want to strangle them. Instead of yelling at them to “Back off!,” try just telling them that you are working on the essay, and will ask them for help when you need it. Say it nicely, and they will magically go away.
- Remember, no one else will care as much about your essay as your parent. If you let them help a little, they might not feel the need to help too much.
Ready to start writing your essays? Try my Jumpstart Guide!