Students may shrug and protest, but the summer before senior year is the perfect time to start writing essays for college applications. Writing college application essays is so different from the type of writing students are used to doing for high school classes. These essays are meant to be personal and introspective, not reports and factual, which students may be used to doing. Here are some tips to keep the sanity, while gently pushing rising seniors to get started. These are not rules, but general guidelines, ways of thinking about what lies ahead.
1. Note the Bad News and the Good News
Sorry to tell you this: The essays are a slog, and if you’re applying to schools with many supplements or several schools not on the Common Application, they can add up to a lot of work. The good news is that doing the work can be a terrific way to focus your experience, your perceptions, your goals, and your sense of yourself as a soon-to-be college student. Finding your voice and your story will help you make that transition. Writing the essays can help you learn how to present yourself, talk about your interests, talents and accomplishments – without sounding as though you’re bragging.
2. Get Personal
I advise students applying to Common Application colleges and universities or to a majority of them to do the Common App essay first. And when you do, find a topic that makes your heart beat a little faster than usual – a topic with some energy and even tension: A piece of your personal story that’s essential to who you are and not reflected in your activities list, a talent, a hardship, a moment you took a risk and spoke out to defend a position, or a problem you solved, even if it was putting together a trampoline in your backyard. Students have not been encouraged to write from a personal perspective for much of high school, and having to do that suddenly for the Common App essay and for many of the supplements can be a real challenge. These are personal essays, not academic papers or speeches.
3. There are no right answers
Students often ask me: What does the school want me to write? It is often a surprise for them to hear that the school wants to know what you think and what your experience is. The essay is a kind of interview. Reveal yourself. Make sure your essays tell what it is you want colleges to know about you: Your passions, your talents, your ambitions, the qualities that make you who you are. No right answers – but do remember to answer the questions/prompts you are asked, whether it’s the Common App prompts or the other possibilities.
4. Make a Master List
Once you are done with your Common App essay, make a master list of what supplementary essays are required for each college: 1. The topic. 2. The length. 3. The due dates. See where you can recycle material. Have a sense in advance how many essays you might have to do – whether it’s 3 or 15 or even 20. Some colleges have 2, 3, 4, or even more essays. Though the essays may only be 100, 250 or 500 words, they must be written with well-considered words. Some of the essays are creative (“What makes you happy?” “What’s the sweetest sound you’ve ever heard?”), others are more straightforward (why this college/why your major).
5. Note the Non-Common App Universities
Many outstanding universities are not members of the Common Application organization, and their essays have nothing to do with the Common App. Make sure you know which institutions are not Common App, among them MIT, Georgetown, Wake Forest, University of California, University of Texas, many universities in Florida.
6. Write Informally and Long and Then Edit
As you tackle the Common App essay, write informally and write long in order to find your material. As you begin, don’t stick to the 650-word limit. Again, you’re looking for material, energy, what matters. Once you have that down, you can edit out everything that isn’t essential. This is where you might need help from other readers.
7. Yes, Engage and Entertain
College admissions officers often report that they want to be entertained and engaged by your essay. I’d say it’s more important to go for “engaged” than “entertained,” but the message is clear. The first sentence needs to be a grabber. You may end up writing the first terrific sentence once you’ve done the third draft. It doesn’t need to be acrobatic or pyrotechnic, and it doesn’t need to be one for the ages (“Call me Ishmael” – opening of Moby Dick), but a little pizazz goes a long way, at the beginning and throughout.
8. Getting Down To It
There are dozens of websites that give advice about the nitty gritty of writing the essays. There are also many sites that publish college essays. Consider taking a look at these sites with these caveats: There is an infinite variety in college application essays, and some are more appropriate for individuals than others, based on their records and where they are applying. You don’t need to read other essays to write your own essay. In fact, sometimes reading others’ essays can be less productive – it may be hard to get their tone or words out or your head to hear your own voice to write from.
9. The Writing and Language, In A Nutshell
Much of the advice comes down to: write in your own voice, as though you are talking more than writing an academic paper. The tone should be more informal than the stiff, academic language you would use when writing a history paper. It’s sometimes helpful to write the essay as though you’re writing a letter to someone – a friend or mentor.
SS language, word choices and other writing tips:
The essay is not a place to show off your SAT vocabulary or your penchant for writing poetry. Use SS language: Simple and Straightforward. But though it’s SS, it must be precise, detailed, and specific. For instance: “My parents are in the military and we moved a lot. “ vs: “My parents are medics in the Army, and we’ve lived in five countries since I was born, including Poland, Germany, and Botswana.” Specific details are always more memorable, and forcing yourself to focus on details focuses your brain and your powers of perception.
10. Use Active Examples
It’s often great to start an essay with an active example of what you’ll be writing about. Put us in the middle of the action and then step back and explain how you got there and how it relates to the essay prompt.
“The conductor pointed his baton to the string section, and we began the fugue that ends the second movement of Brahms’ Requiem. My fingers responded to the building excitement of the rapid tempo, and I was enveloped by the sweep of sound.
“I fell in love with the violin when I was six, and music has been the center of my life since then. I felt joy every Saturday morning when I began my weekly lesson with Mrs. Jones and later that day when I played in our town’s youth orchestra….”
OR: A very different sort of story:
“The policeman grabbed me by the arm and demanded I show him my ID. I had no idea what I had done wrong, and I didn’t have my wallet with me. I was just riding my bike in San Diego. I didn’t think it was a crime to ride on the sidewalk.”
“This was my first experience of discrimination in the United States, where we moved from Algeria when I was ten years. It would be the first of many times that I would encounter….”
Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling author, former Ivy League writing professor, and founder/owner of Don’t Sweat the Essay. She works with students throughout the world via Skype and Facetime. Liz@DontSweatTheEssay.com 1-855-99-ESSAY. You can see more of her blog posts at Don’t Sweat The Essay.