Last Updated On: October 20th, 2020
When writing college application essays it’s easy to FREAK OUT. So how do you summarize your life for a board of admission? How do you finish your last year on a high note while simultaneously writing 20 supplemental college essays?
Take it from the high school senior who didn’t…don’t miss a deadline for a school. They will not allow extensions. They do not respond to tears.
Start by mapping out your dream schools. What is the best college for you? What are their due dates? How many essays do you need to write? Do they accept the Common Application?
Plan strategically: Schools with the Common App will allow you to save time on the majority of the college application process. The Common App essay will allow you to reduce the workload. You will still have supplemental essay prompts for most schools, but it’s worth it to pick schools that use the Common App.
Make sure to look up each school’s mission statement and core values. They will usually list this on their website. With enough digging you will find words like, “innovation” or “diversity.” These words will immediately clue you into what they’re looking for in the essays. Try to brainstorm topics that you can incorporate these values into. Avoid “on the nose” writing. While it’s not necessary to state the mission statement words explicitly, it’s very important to make reference to them throughout your college application essay.
3. OUTLINE, OUTLINE, OUTLINE
I have tutored many high school students on their way to college. The first thing they say to me their freshman year, “I’m so glad we went over outlining.” I am pretty aggressive about it, I’ll admit, but I’ve only ever had incredible results from students. If you have no vision for where your story will go, how do you expect it to flow out of you? Without some clear plan you leave no room for imagination or deviation from the plan.
4. GET PERSONAL
It’s SO important to get personal on your college essay. The admissions officers don’t know you AT ALL. They know numbers, grades, community service hours, etc etc. Those don’t make a person. Pick essay prompts that allow you to share intimate stories about your life.
Have you ever lost someone? What is your greatest accomplishment? Why do you want to study your chosen field? College essay topics generally read generic so you have the opportunity to take more creative liberty.
Find that special spark that makes you, YOU. Everyone has one, so you can’t play the, “I’m the most boring kid that ever lived” card.
Do you struggle with learning? That’s an overcoming adversity essay. Are you an undecided major? That’s a funny narrative about your indecision at a young age. There are so many directions this essay can take. But I see the most success when students are vulnerable and real.
5. START EARLY
If I could make this text flash red and include a siren noise, I would. These essays will take time and thoughtfulness. There will be many drafts. You will cry. You will shred at least one essay. Give yourself more than enough time to fall in love with your response. The last thing you want is a half-hearted essay meant to impress your dream school.
6. WHAT WORKS?
Many styles work in the essay department, but what seems to land the most are narratives. When you can bring the reader into your world with an engaging story there’s nothing better. The admissions committee is used to reading persuasive formal writing and cookie cutter replies. Why not use narrative story telling to make yourself stand out? Here are a few college essay examples of various styles of narrative writing and why they work.
Here is an excerpt from a Johns Hopkins applicant, Rachel:
My eyes widen. “It’s all Greek to me,” I whisper under my breath. Sure enough, The Apology by Plato is in Greek.
My eyes dart across the page, looking for a word or phrase to grasp onto. Unable to find a familiar word, I take a deep breath. The Greek letters jumble into incoherent words and I am left to the mercy of an incomplete translation. I shake my head, unsure of what to do next. My eyes drag from one word to another, heavy with defeat. Upon the sixth word, however, they stop. My initial scan of the text left me negligent of a simple word meaning “number.” Passion overwhelms my senses. “Number” becomes the most important word of the clause, providing context to the adjacent words. I turn to the lexicon and search for words that fit into a coherent translation. With the last word, I feel satisfaction and pride. The whirlwind of emotions repeats: Confusion, passion, satisfaction. Before the bell rings, I finish translating 20 lines of The Apology.
I was fifteen when I successfully translated The Apology, and soon after, I fell in love with translation. Through translation, I learned the value of perseverance and hard work; it even helped me convey ideas in different mediums such as figure skating. To read Rachel’s full essay check out Johns Hopkins Admissions
Rachel does a fantastic job with her narrative. She tells her story in present tense and takes us on the journey. She doesn’t reveal the ending aka “the lesson” first, which adds a fascinating suspense to her words. She uses imagery, rich language, and her own unique interests to completely engage the reader in a small moment within her life. It isn’t a big story about coming to America or losing a loved one, it’s a minute story that is both compelling and authentic to Rachel’s life. However, it’s told in such a way that we feel we’re riding a rollercoaster. EFFECTIVE.
Here is another example from a UC applicant:
Freshman year, I fell in love with the smell of formaldehyde for its promise of an especially exciting day in Biology. Although my school’s STEM education excelled in theory and concepts, career-focused hands-on experience was lacking and I grew nostalgic for dissections. By junior year, I still had almost no idea what I would do in the future. When asked, I’d mumble a response about biochemistry or technology without daring to specify a job.
Then, I discovered MIT’s Women’s Technology Program and its mission to allow high school girls with little experience in engineering and CS to explore the fields. Naturally, I applied in a blink, and somehow even got accepted.
When I started the program, I never expected to become so enamored with computer science. Every day, I took pages of notes during the class lecture, then enthusiastically attacked the homework problems during the evening. In fact, most nights I stayed late in the computer lab trying to finish just one more (optional) challenge problem or add more features to already completed programs. To read this student’s full essay check out College Essay Guy
Wow, what a start. My jaw drops the first time the writer speaks. Having a strong opening to your essay is so important. The admission board reads thousands of essays. You need to stand out and make your voice heard. Additionally, this student does a wonderful job acknowledging their indecision. That is very common among high school seniors and it’s powerful when you share this vulnerability. This student uses her doubts as a method to propel the essay, then contrasts this as she finds grounding in her extracurricular activities. This student seamlessly adds in her accomplishments with her newfound passion. IDEAL.
Here is another example from an applicant of Stanford University (He got in!):
In most conventional classrooms, we are taught to memorize material. We study information to regurgitate it on a test and forget it the following day. I thought this was learning. But this past summer, I realized I was wrong.
I attended the SPK Program, a five-week enrichment program with New Jersey’s best and brightest students. I lived on a college campus with 200 students and studied a topic. I selected Physical Science. On the first day of class, our teacher set a box on the table and poured water into the top, and nothing came out. Then, he poured more water in, and everything slowly came out. We were told to figure out what had happened with no phones or textbooks, just our brains. We worked together to discover in the box was a siphon, similar to what is used to pump gas. We spent the next weeks building solar ovens, studying the dynamic of paper planes, diving into the content of the speed of light and space vacuums, among other things. We did this with no textbooks, flashcards, or information to memorize.
During those five weeks, we were not taught impressive terminology or how to ace the AP Physics exam. We were taught how to think. More importantly, we were taught how to think together. Learning is not memorization or a competition. Learning is working together to solve the problems around us and better our community. To me, learning is the means to a better future, and that’s exciting. This essay is from Shemmassian Consulting
I really like this essay because the student immediately starts by attacking old school ways of learning. It is a bold statement and immediately puts the spotlight on him. He acknowledges his innate desire to conform to that old system and how his thinking was shifted. That is another great lesson to be shared. Schools like Stanford look for forward thinking individuals like this. He’s targeting their school values. GENIUS! Here is Stanford’s mission statement, “to extend the frontiers of knowledge, stimulate creativity, and solve real-world problems, prepare students to think broadly, deeply and critically, and to contribute to the world, and deploy Stanford’s strengths to benefit our region, country, and world.” Does he not touch on these values exclusively? He found a great topic to showcase his creativity, openness to new styles of learning, and his ability to solve problems in a team. This student really nailed the research component before writing.
For more help and guidance on college essay writing, check out our interview with college admissions essay expert, Stephanie Klein Wassink and our blog with a college essay expert, Ethan Sawyer.