Writing Your College Essay
Everyone knows what it feels like to stare at a blank page for hours because you know you have to write something but have no idea what to write about. Such writer's block often happens to students when writing their college essay (some institutions refer to it as the personal statement) because they think that they have to write about something "important" or "dramatic." The truth is that colleges and universities prefer your story to be authentic and supplement the objective information presented in the rest of your application. Everyone has a million wonderful college essays within them, its just a matter of figuring out what they are.
First and foremost, your essay should convey to a college or university that you have the potential to write at the collegiate level. Just as important, you should use your college essay as an oppotunity to reveal your unique and distintive characteristics that wouldn't necessarily be conveyed elsewhere in your application.
SUGGESTIONS AND GUIDLINES
...a standard essay first. Most application essay prompts are generally broad enough so that you may write one essay that can be tweaked and adapted to use repeatedly. Therefore, it is a good idea to have an essay "in stock" for use with several applications. However, in some cases, you may need to write a completely different essay for one or two of your applications. There may even be questions on your application that require short-answer essays. Regardless, make sure all of your essays address the prompt.
...with focus. Make sure your essay hones in on the specific. The best essays are typically those that describe or recount a particular moment or point in your life in which you grew or changed. If you focus on what makes you different and special as a human being, you will have done a good job.
...with your own voice. Your essay will be most effective if you write in a manner similar to how you think. Do not use language you are not comfortable with. If you don't speak in a flowery or dramatic tone, don't write that way either. When writing your college essay, simplicity and concision are best in conveying the most direct message. If you keep it simple, your voice will shine through.
...cliches and popular topics. Stay away from such topics as how you spent your summer vacation, the death of a grandparent (or of a pet), how your experience as a camp counselor made you realize you love working with kids, or how reading The Catcher in Rye, The Great Gatsby, or The Awakening changed your life.
...writing about someone else. It's great if you respect your dad or your grandmother, but don't forget that you are the one applying to college. Therefore, you shouldn't be writing about their accomplishments but rather your own. Think of a moment you spent with your dad or your grandmother, and how that moment inspired or motivated or changed you. Make the essay about you!
...trying to squeeze your whole life into a one-page essay. Your essay should be well written and edited for concision. Pay attention to word limits if one is prescribed. If no length is specified, try to limit your essay to no more than 750 words.
...repetition. There is no need to repeat things that have already been disclosed in elsewhere in your application unless it is essential to the development of your story. Don't make your essay an activites list in narrative form. Use your essay to reveal something new.
...negativity. If you want to write about a setback, be sure to focus on how you overcame your obstacle and not about the obstacle itself.
...too much input. It is important to get feedback on your essay but you don't need to ask everyone you know to review it. If too many people review your essay, your voice may be lost. It is okay to listen to people's suggestions, but if they don't reflect who you are, don't include them. Have a teacher or counselor review a draft of your essay and continue to revise until your voice comes through. The worst essays are written by people who try to write what they think colleges and universities want to hear. If you are true to yourself, your essay will be good no matter what the topic.
...too much creativity. Certainly it is important to strive for originality in your essay, but it is also important to follow the accepted guidelines for essay writing and respond appropriately to the essay prompt. Do not write your essay in poetic form or submit a "video essay."
...your audience. Remember that your essay will be read by an academic professional in the admissions office and, therefore, should be considered an important piece of writing with an insightful perspective. Certainly it is important to express your viewpoint and knowledge, but be careful to do so in a reasoned and introspective manner. Avoid pontificating on social issues and beware of sarcasm or inappropriate language.
...your tone. Try to write as if you were speaking to an acquaintance who you want to get to know you better. Admission officers have already learned a lot about you from the rest of your application, so there is no need to be too formal. But don't be overly familiar, either. The admission commitee is evaluating you, so don't be too chatty or casual. The essay is your chance to complete the picture and let your personality shine through, but remember to do so appropriately.
...your approach. Try to think of specific moments that have touched or changed you and write about those. Ideally, what you write about will reveal many personal details. Don't overlook seemingly small events in your life. Sometimes the most significant moments are the "small" ones. Try not to write about the event itself but rather how the event affected you. Your feelings and emotions are key information. They help the reader know who you are and what you value.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT...
(The following advice came to us from the admissions office at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.)
Think first about the purposes the essay serves. One purpose, obviously, is to give us a sample of your writing. Since liberal arts colleges place a premium on strong writing skills, we look for a mastery of mechanics as well as fluency and originality. A two- or three-page essay gives us a taste of the maturity of your thinking and writing, and of your readiness for a competitive liberal arts program.
A second reason for the essay is for you to share something of yourself that may not be reflected in the rest of your application - something that has shaped your perspective or challenged your beliefs. Or it may show how you see yourself and your place in a community. These qualities are important for us to know about as we decide on applicants. The essay takes us beyond numbers and statistics to your creativity and substance.
There is no formula for a "perfect" essay, but it's one of the most carefully considered, influential and revealing pieces to your application. Choose your topic thoughtfully. Try out a few topics and see which one feels the most natural to you, and closest to your own voice. Don't pick a topic that is too broad or impersonal. Structure your material well and be concise; make a point and get to the point. Write and rewrite!
The essay is the one piece of the application that you have full control over, so use it to your advantage.
USEFUL COLLEGE ESSAY RESOURCES
Advice from Jim Bock, Dean of Admission, Swarthmore College
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
The College Application Essay by Sarah Myers McGinty