4 Tips on Nailing Your College Admission Essay
Writing a college essay is tough work. Although it's only one piece of the overall application, many of my students find that writing it takes up nearly as much time as filling out all the other paperwork put together.
Yet, nothing is as scary as a blank computer monitor. You know you need to write your essay, but getting started is probably the hardest part. Here's a few tips that might just get your creative juices flowing and your essay streaming from your fingertips!
1. Start Writing Early
It never hurts to start work on your college essay long before you need to submit your applications. Even if you discover that the schools to which you are applying require radically different essays than the one you wrote, your initial writing can always form the basis for your final work. If your first attempt gets tossed in the trash, don't stress. It will help you figure out what you want to write about in the end.
I strongly suggest that you start writing in the summer before your senior year. While most kids hate the idea of writing an essay during the break, it's the perfect time to get the ball rolling without the pressures of normal school. If you can wrap up your first draft by the beginning of your senior year, you should have roughly three months to revise it to fit the schools you eventually choose.
2. Stop Trying to Find the Perfect Topic
Contrary to popular belief, there is no perfect college essay topic. While the death of a parent or an unexpected teen pregnancy might sell tickets at the movies, colleges are looking for students who write interesting essays, not sob stories that demand sympathy. If you have an event in your life that is weighty and serious, by all means write about it. But don't feel like you have to invent a tragedy just to get into the school of your dreams.
In fact, one of the biggest myths I hear students repeat is that colleges "like" or "dislike" certain topics. This is patently untrue. Colleges like essays that convey the personality of the writer. They don't care if you write about your burning passion for milk, your best friend at summer camp, or your goldfish named Fluffy. As long as you display your personality through your writing, consider your essay a success!
3. Write About You, Not Your Awards
As I noted a few weeks ago, students don't often spend a lot of time writing about themselves. Instead, they spend time in their English classes learning how to write essays that examine literature from a critical perspective. While most students understand that the college essay is their time to showcase their interests and passions, the average student usually ends up writing a boring, scholarly essay that focuses on achievements rather than emotions and thoughts.
Your proudest moment may have been when you won the State Championship in Mock Trial as a Junior, but you need to focus on how the trophy made you feel instead of how you won it. Colleges want to know about your hopes, fears, and dreams. They care little about how other people view your list of awards or what it took to get those awards. If you can focus your essay so that it gives colleges insight into who you are by explaining your emotions, they will value that far more than your descriptions of your own academic excellence.
4. Don't Overwrite
The temptation to spend vast amounts of time working on your college essay is enormous. While you might initially be afraid of starting work on such an important piece of your college application, you will quickly find yourself obsessing over every last word. This can be a detriment to your essay; it's very easy to poke and prod until you've managed to kill any last bit of spontaneity and excitement you initially captured with your first draft.
So once you've chosen a topic, write your essay over the course of a day or two. Then put it away for at least 24 hours. If you have time, leave it alone for a week! Then take out the essay, read it, and rewrite it. Once you are done with the second draft, show it to a few people you trust (parents, friends, your trusty college consultant) and note their responses and advice. Rewrite it, put it away, and then pull it out again to edit it one more time. If you still don't like it at that point, start from scratch. The fifth draft is rarely an improvement over the fourth!
P.S. Although it's only one piece of the overall application, the college essay is a significant investment of time and energy. You can get around writing an essay by applying to online colleges or community colleges, but it is a necessary step if you want to go to traditional college or university.