I like titles. But they need to be good. A title should be short and witty. Not cutesy. The tone of the title and essay should match. The best ones don’t give away too much about the essay, and only hint at what’s to come. Do not use questions. And don’t even think about a title that sounds anything like “My College Admissions Essay.”
Now, how do you think of a title, a good title? Brainstorm ideas by playing off words that link to your theme, message or topic.
Example: A student wrote an essay about how he broke his wrist playing football, and how he learned more about the game sitting on the bench that season. Theme: How bad things can result in good things/How you can learn from a new perspective. (This “theme” is also a Universal Truth or “life lesson”. Check out this post on Universal Truths to see if you have one hidden in your essay.)
Make a quick list of words from the essay that you could play around with: break, benched, football, sports, view, injury, hurt, new perspective…Let yourself “free associate,” which means you list key words and sayings that come to mind when you say one of them, such as “break.” Try the word in different tenses, in common phrases, in pop culture phrases (titles of movies, books, songs, etc.) and even clichés can work. Also, skim your essay for catchy phrases that might work. Try mixing up a couple keys words to make your own phrase. You can also use the Internet to brainstorm ideas–just Google your keywords or phrases. Have fun with it.
UPDATE: The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.
This post is now outdated. The information is no longer relevant!!
College Admissions Essays
How to Answer Prompt #1 for the College Application Essay
for the University of California:
“Describe the World You Come From”
Only read this if you are applying to a UC (University of California school, such as UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Irvine, Santa Cruz, etc.).
There are two college essay prompts for their required personal statements for incoming freshmen.
Here is some advice regarding the first one:
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Read this closely. Note that it asks you to describe one thing and then tell about another–so there are two points you need to address in your essay.
When you describe the world you come from, think of this in a figurative sense.
Do not just write about your hometown.
Instead of the word “world,” try substituting it for the word “community” or “background.”
As a “community,” almost anything can be your world (a mini-community of shared activities, people, passions or places), from your yoga class to your bedroom to your job washing dishes to your grandmother’s kitchen making tortilla soup to your two moms.
It’s wide open. Just pick a topic.
Also, the examples they give, “family, community or school” are just that, examples.
Do not write a little about each of these.
And do not just write about “my family” or “my school.” Way too broad.
Write about your uncle’s magic shop in an underprivileged neighborhood, or the Scrabble club you started at your school even though you are the world’s worst speller, or the old movie theater in your town where you first fell in love with cinema and the power of a visual story.
(Check out the link at bottom of this post to my Tumbler blog with images and quotes to spark ideas for what makes your world.)
Quickie World-As-A-Community-Finder: What do you like/love to do? Where do you do it? Who do you do it with? Bingo! You have just landed on one of your worlds!
Another way to think about your world would be to show how your background has been challenging on some level–and how that has shaped and defined who you are.
In a way, your world is your life with its unique set of issues, obstacles or challenges.
Think of the saying: “Welcome to my world.”
If you have one piece of your life that shapes your “world” in a major way—something from your personal, cultural, educational, etc. background—and that colleges would understand you better if they knew what that was like, consider writing about it.
The world of living with two gay dads.
The world of living with an autistic sister.
The world of living with a bi-polar mom.
The world of living with immigrant grandparents.
The world of living on food stamps.
The world of living with perfectionists/slobs/religious nuts/alcoholics/seven siblings/foster home/military parents/home-schooling/white parents and you are asian/constant moving/famous mom, etc.
To write this type of “world” essay, pick a real-life example of a “time” in your life/world when that issue affected you, start your essay describing that specific incident or moment, then go into how dealing with that reality has affected you.
You might be surprised what comes out of you–and how it makes you feel.
I have had students who have written about almost all of these “life” issues.
Their essays have been intense and often soul-searching, but also memorable and meaningful.
Although I think the bulk of your college application essay should focus on this world, and how it has affected you, also address the second part about your dreams and aspirations.
This has the potential to be general and boring, so make sure to talk specifically about how you will apply the lessons (values, skills, ideas, insights, etc.) you have learned in your world to your future.
(Hint: It wouldn’t hurt if you can show how these dreams and aspirations link to your specific college goals. For example, if your “world” is hanging out in your parent’s garage fixing an old truck, mention how the problem-solving skills you learned there will help your aspirations to be some type of engineer one day.)
If you are one of those A-type overachievers (hey, it’s OK, these UCs are insanely competitive!) who still feels insecure about understanding the UC prompts, check out this 50-minute video of a counselor guru spelling it all out at a convention for college admissions folks.
Just don’t let her freak you out too much. Definitely good info here, but I say overkill.
MY MOST RECENT WORLD POST! Check out some of the comments from other students trying to figure out a “world” to write about in their UC essay in A Peek into the Many World of Prompt 1, where I share some of the questions students asked me to see if their world was interesting, or would make a great essay. Reading through these comments is a GREAT WAY TO FIND YOUR OWN WORLD TO WRITE ABOUT! (Yes, I was shouting at you!)
See if this video from the UC Admissions Department helps.
I think it might give you an idea of what they want from the two personal statements, but not a lot on how to deliver it. That part is left up to you, as far as I can tell.
(Tips from video: “Be thoughtful, clear, succinct and provide depth.” “Just be honest.” “Focus on a strength.” “Write about what makes you different.” “I wrote from my heart.” All great stuff—the only thing missing is any direction, instruction or support for students on how to do all this in 500 words.)
*Also, if you are still looking for a “world” to write about, there are lots of ideas in the comments. Definitely worth scrolling through to see what others are thinking of writing about. Thanks for sharing all your ideas!
I believe you can write these UC essays on your own. But if you feel like you would like my personal help with them or other college application essays, find details on my Services page.
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!
It feels like a set-up. First, you are supposed to reveal how wonderful you are in 500 words–about the number you can cram onto a postcard in your teensiest handwriting. Second, you must sell yourself to the college of your dreams—setting yourself apart from the thousands of other equally wonderful students–but appear humble and likeable at the same time. Third, no one has ever taught you how to write this type of essay, called a personal narrative. No one. Ever!
I call this impossible challenge the Catch 22 of College Essays, at least the part about saying how great you are and staying meek at the same time. You know, make an impression but don’t dare try to impress anyone!! No wonder you are stressed out!!!
The best way to handle this challenge–and I have detailed how to do this all over my blog–is to stick with a story. And it doesn’t have to be a life-changing, mind-blowing event, either. In a weird way that I don’t quite understand, the less impressive the story—the more basic, simple, everyday, mundane it is—the better it will go over. (Learn more about the power of mundane topics.)
Here’s how it works: When you tell your story, you naturally show the reader about yourself. You can avoid that awkward tone of voice that sounds boastful when you describe yourself: I’m a really creative person. I’m really passionate. I’m really great at solving problems. For some reason, when you hear someone say something like that, your first reaction is to think, with great sarcasm, “Oh, you are, are you? Well, good for you!” Whereas, if you just describe the time you built a ten-foot sculpture out of driftwood, feathers, dryer lint and goat hair, the reader might think, without a hint of sarcasm, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. That girl sounds creative.” See the difference? More on Show, Don’t Tell.)
I know I’ve hammered on this, but find your anecdotes, your examples, interesting moments, and just describe what happened—and then examine what you learned from them. It’s hard to go wrong with a story.
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.
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.
(for this to make sense, you probably need to read the previous post)
Once you get the idea of how this Ladder works, now find some sample college admissions essays that you like. See if the writer shifts back and forth between the specific and the abstract. (Just jot down “show” when they are specific, and “tell” when they get abstract.) In general, the major shifts will occur between paragraphs, but you can vary within sentences as well.
When you go to write your own essay, review your outline and rough draft to make sure you are making the shifts. If you start with a specific incident or describe something, then make sure your next paragraph or so you shift into the abstract to explain it or reflect upon it. Then make sure you shift back to the specifics. And so on. If you start with a broad, general statement or paragraph, make sure you quickly shift into specifics.
In general, the specifics are the juicier writing. Who doesn’t like a good story, or a vivid example or a powerful description? The abstract, however, may take a bit more patience, but that is what gives meaning to your juicy writing.
Sorry, here’s another metaphor: The specifics are like candy, they go down easily and quickly, whereas the abstract is more like ice-cream, yummy but very rich. Too much of either and you can start to feel sick.
It’s really a matter of balance. Too many specifics and you get overwhelmed, buried in the details. Too much abstract discussion and you start to float away in the clouds, and drift off to sleep. The best place is to just keep moving—up and down that ladder.
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!
A new client, who I will call Sarah, met with me for the first time to talk about topic ideas.
When I pressed her about her interests, her hobbies, her passions, she kept insisting that she was a well-rounded, strong student, but didn’t have any one thing that stood out about her.
It’s a common obstacle in writing these essays.
Students think they need to have climbed Mt. Everest or invented a better paperclip to justify a strong topic.
These students just need to slow down long enough to see what is right in front of them: the often mundane (ordinary; everyday), yet fascinating qualities, habits, goals or characteristics that make them unique.
I gave Sarah a few examples of this idea: the student who wrote about her wild red hair; the girl who liked riding the public bus system and used that to “show” her sense of adventure and openess to all types of people; the student who wrote a tribute to his TI-83+ calculator; the girl who wrote about her prowess as a karaoke queen.
After listening to these ideas, Sarah kept insisting she really didn’t have anything special to write about herself.
She thought for a few more minutes and then said quietly, “I smile a lot.”
I had only spent about ten minutes with Sarah, and I had noticed she easily broke into a wide, beautiful smile.
Sarah even smiled when she talked.
It was as though she couldn’t stop herself.
“My mom says I’m always smiling,” she added, smiling.
What a perfect topic for an essay.
Sarah’s constant smiling obviously was a big part of who she is, and all she had to do was explore what this meant to her, how it affected her relationships and experiences with others, maybe develop some metaphors to her smiling and life, and she had a makings of an engaging essay.
As with Sarah, sometimes the best essay topics are so close you don’t even see them. Just keep looking!
If you still don’t believe me about the power of writing about everyday topics for college admissions essays over those you think might impress your college(s) of choice, read this comment from a veteran college admissions counselor (this was posted in the comments section in response to an article called A Few Essays That Worked in the TheNew York Times‘ blog on college admissions called The Choice):
“I am often asked how to compose memorable application essays out of “ordinary” teenage lives. High school seniors who haven’t won international awards or lived on houseboats or in homeless shelters can feel as if their essays have little to offer. They’re terrified that they will make the same “mistakes” that are highlighted here in “The Choice” (and no wonder … even I–an admissions professional for three decades–had a tough time differentiating between the “good” and “bad” ones!).
I always reply that, during my 15 years of reading application essays at Smith College, many of the most memorable submissions were on mundane topics. One of my all-time favorites was about a laundry mishap at a summer school. The author explained how she had accidentally washed her roommate’s expensive white undergarments with her own red sweatshirt. Of course, the essay wasn’t really just about laundry … it was more about the boundaries of friendship. Other wonderful essays I recall include a hilarious one on playing in a truly terrible school band and another called “Why I Shop at Wal-Mart.”
While there are lots of books out there that serve up samples of “successful” essays, there are two that I especially like that offer helpful suggestions on how to craft your own. “On Writing The College Application Essay: Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer,” by Harry Bauld (which I’ve recommended for eons) and a newcomer called, “Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays,” by Robert Cronk, both lead students through the composition process and never lose sight of the fact that 17-year-olds can rarely report triumphs—or traumas—that might help their essays stand out in a crowd.
Admission officials really DO want to read about their applicants’ experiences, no matter how “typical,” and they are eager to view them through the writers’ eyes. Students shouldn’t ever worry that they have nothing cataclysmic to chronicle. After all, what could be more “ordinary” than laundry?”
— Sally Rubenstone, Senior Advisor, College Confidential
Here’s a little book of essays written by graduates of Berkeley High School, which has a truly diverse student population and moves through about 700 seniors every year. (“As you will see from these stories, some live on their own, while others come from well-off families,” states the foreword.) And they all found compelling stories to tell about themselves. The essays, which targeted mostly California state schools, UCs and select private colleges across the country, were collected for this book by a savvy college counselor there named Ilene Abrams.
The book includes the name of the authors of each essay, along with what year they graduated and where they ended up going to college. It’s clear that these students were well-counseled in the process, since almost all the essays met the goal of their advisors: to tell a story “only you can tell.” The stories are rich in details, as diverse in topic, style and tone as their writers, and most tell some type of story. The best thing is that I believe they can help students see that they could write a similar essay!
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
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