How to Find the
in College Application Essays
I received an email from a student named Hannah who told me she was homeschooled, and that she had been advised to write about that for her college application essay.
Hannah said she was having “trouble thinking of anything unique or super meaningful” from her homeschooling experience.
I gave this some thought, and here’s what I would advise:
Homeschooling is something unique and special in itself.
And that’s a good thing.
But as an essay topic, it’s way too broad and most likely written about by a lot by other homeschooled students, so it risks being overdone already. (More than 3 percent of school age kids are home-schools; more than 1.5 million.) (more…)
The University of California
CHANGED its prompts
for transfer students
this year (2106)!
Read Strategies for the New University of California
Transfer Essays for the updated information on the new prompts.
CLICK HERE FOR UPDATED POST
ON NEW UC TRANSFER ESSAYS!
(OUTDATED!!) Why You Chose Your Major: A Love Story
If you want to transfer into any of the University of California schools (UCLA, Berkeley, UCI, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, etc.), you need to write two college application essays. One is the same prompt that all students are required to write—which basically asks for a personal statement style essay. It’s known as Prompt 2, and I wrote “Personal Quality, Talent, Achievement…” as a guide on how to write this essay in a narrative style.
Now I want to offer some ideas on how to answer the second prompt required for transfer students:
Transfer Student Prompt 1: What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement. (more…)
If you are a Letterman fan, you know that I am supposed to list these college application essay tips backwards, and end with No. 1. But I prefer chronological order. You can watch the YouTube video, where he has the young man, Kwasi Enin, who was accepted to all eight ivies this year, count them down on his show. Some media have tried to pin Kwasi’s success on his essay—but that is pure conjecture (Kwasi is amazing on many levels). Anyway, if you are college bound, you might get a kick out of watching the whole thing.
If you are shy on time, I wrote out Letterman’s list here. And then I wrote my own list below. His may be funny; but mine works!
David Letterman’s Top 10 Ways to Make Your College Application Essay Stand Out
1. In the part where it says, “Office Use Only,” write: “Accept.”
2. Personally give to dean at home in the middle of the night.
3. If you’ve been to space, mention that you’ve been to space. (more…)
If your essay starts by relating something that happened, the reader is going to dive right into it and not stop until they are satisfied–until they know what happened.
A student who I will call Ryan arrived for his tutoring session yesterday, and showed me what he had written for his English class.
His essay started with how he worked with Habit for Humanity and a trip he took to work with Native Americans.
Not the old mission trip essay.
Way too overdone. Usually dull as dirt.
So I suggested we start fresh.
Example of One of My Tutoring Sessions
I asked Ryan to jot down some of his defining qualities.
He wrote down conscientious, reliable, consistent and relaxed.
I noticed that several of his qualities overlapped, so I asked him about his sense of responsibility—fishing for his interesting stories, moments or small experiences that could “show” how or why he is “a responsible guy” in his essay. (more…)
Everyone is looking for that magic topic for their college application essay that will help them jump out from the essay pile, and shout, “Yes, that’s me!”
I’ve written a lot about how you can go about landing on that unique topic.
Here’s one way to see if you have found it or not.
In my mind, you want to be the student who writes an essay that captures something original, unexpected or poignant about yourself, which an admissions officer would then use to dub you with a related phrase.
What does that mean? (more…)
College Application Essays
A Mini-Lesson from a Storytelling Pro
I found this brilliant little example of how to understand what makes up a good story today in a column written by the talented sportswriter and journalist named Tommy Tomlinson. If you are writing your college application essay, and want to use the narrative style to tell a “slice of life” story or use an anecdote, this mini-lesson can help you a lot. Tomlinson wrote: “First, I’m gonna draw three objects. (more…)
I just read a memoir where the author shared a piece of writing advice that Toby Wolff gave her. Wolff wrote “This Boy’s Life,” one of the best memoirs out there. Anyway, memoirs are books written about yourself. In a way, college essays are like mini-memoirs. They could easily be a chapter in your own memoir, especially if you share a story in your essay.
All that said, here’s the little nugget of advice Toby Wolff gave the author, Mary Karr. (He sure looks believable to me!) It’s almost too simple to appreciate, until you try writing about yourself:
Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.
(A quote from Toby Wolff in the memoir entitled, “lit,” by Mary Karr.)
To me, the little secret in this advice is to just tell your story in a straightforward, honest way and a lot of your message or meaning or lesson will be naturally revealed. In other words, don’t try too hard to teach or preach your message.
Hope that’s not too heady. Like a lot of simple-sounding advice, it’s harder to do than you think. But worth trying.
I just found this link to a wonderful blog on college admissions sponsored by the New York Times, called “The Choice.” Here’s a post from another writer talking about how these essays are really like memoirs!
click on this link to read a great little piece
of valuable advice on landing the college of your dreams…
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.