Although it’s been a few years since I’ve written my college application essay, I remember it like it was yesterday. The dread of writing an essay that was so important to my future was enough to make me procrastinate even more than usual. I think many students, myself included, put a lot of pressure on finding a story admissions officers want to hear. In reality, it’s not about writing the perfect story or anecdote, but about putting in the effort to write a well thought out essay. Once my application was finished, I can say with confidence that the hardest part of writing it was getting started. Instead of dragging my feet for weeks, I should have just dived in. The steps below are what I wish I would have known before starting my college application essay and hopefully they will help some students out there take the plunge.
Start Planning Your Essay Early
College application essays aren’t a pop quiz or a hidden secret you need to uncover. If you know which schools you are interested in applying to, make sure to look up the application essay as far in advance as possible. You also can give yourself an advantage and apply by the early decision deadline. Whether you apply by the early decision or not, the last thing you want to do when writing your college application essay is throw it together at the last minute.
If you want to apply to several schools, definitely keep track of everything by writing it all down in one place. Many of your hopeful schools might use the Common Application, but if several don’t you can expect to write several application essays. We highly recommend keeping a spreadsheet where you can easily see the deadlines, requirements for each school, and the status of each application.
Utilize Your Summer Wisely
The summer is a great time to focus on your college applications essays. You’ll have extra time to focus on your essay. Look for resources including classes, books or even a teacher or guidance counselor who can help you with your application.
Everybody’s writing process is different. Brainstorming is part of the writing process and how each person does it will be different. Here are a few different ways you can try brainstorming ideas; every approach might not work for you but could definitely be worth a try:
- Brainstorming Session – set aside a designated amount of time – you can even set a timer. Remove all distractions and have your essay topic at hand. Spend time focused only on coming up with essay ideas.
- Outline – Try writing an outline for a few different ideas that might work. This way you can quickly see if any of your topics will work and move on from the ones that don’t.
- Find examples online – although this can be a helpful way to get ideas, be careful that you don’t accidentally copy any other essays. If a particular essay resonates with you it might be a little too easy to accidentally use the storyline. Remember, you are trying to write a unique essay! So only try this approach if you know your story won’t be too influenced by what you read.
- When you are looking for the perfect story to tell it can be easier to notice all the moments around you that could be worthy of your college essay. *If this is your approach, make sure you have a way to write down your thoughts easily, whether it’s a phone or a notebook you carry with you. It can be easy to forget an idea that came to you while on the go.
How to Choose Your College Essay Topic
- Don’t get bogged down on telling a life-altering story. Think about small moments in your life that have had a big impact. Instead of writing about an entire soccer season and how great it is to be on a team, you could focus on just one game or a specific moment in one game which made you realize the importance of teamwork.
- As a mother of three children who have been through the college admissions process Juli Bennet at Back to Basics Learning has some behind-the-scenes guidance for students choosing an essay topic, "I have 3 in college and their essays could not have been more different. What made each essay stand out was its authenticity. One wrote about refusing to compromise his beliefs to get an A in a class. The second wrote about a day in 3rd grade that changed his life forever. The third one wrote about ideas that knocked at the door of his brain constantly when he tried to sleep and how he had to let them out. Colleges today want kids that are real, who have real ideas and thoughts of their own. Don’t be afraid to be authentic."
- Storytelling can make or break your essay. The best stories ever written aren’t necessarily about what happened, they are well written and captivating. Your story isn’t just about what you say, it’s about how you say it.
Focus on Quality Writing in Your Application Essay
This will come more easily for some, but if writing isn’t your strong suit, it does not mean you are less likely to write a quality essay. You might need more revisions or more help, but your results can still be college-worthy. It’s at this point that you can look to some of the following tips on writing. Notice that these tips aren’t specific to a college essay, they are tips for quality writing anywhere:
- Be descriptive. Think about the reader and what would interest them. You want to transport them to the location of your story and captivate them with every small detail you remember. “It was a nice spring morning” can be more vividly imagined as “The yellow and pink tulips began popping up as the sun rose.”
- Revise often. Reading your work out loud can help you hear if the writing is confusing or uninteresting. It’s also a good idea to write your text and then set it aside for a few hours or days. Coming back with a fresh mind can help you see more clearly what needs improvement.
- Ask for help. Having another person read your essay can be hugely beneficial. You can ask a parent or guidance counselor or even look for professional help.
- Be concise. You certainly don’t want to bore the reader with an overly long story. You’ll want to make sure each sentence has a purpose. There is an art to writing and it can be difficult to always find the perfect way to structure a sentence. Eliminate extra words that offer no benefit to the story such as, “that” and “very.”
- Choose your words wisely. You certainly don’t want to sound like an overachieving thesaurus user, but you also want to be thoughtful about the vocabulary you choose.
Follow Each College or University’s Application Directions
And last, but not least, you never want your passionately written essay to go unread because you submitted it in the wrong format or you forgot to turn in all pieces of the application! Make sure to double-check any directions and deadlines.