College Application Essays
I strongly recommend completing most or many of the activities listed below before deciding the topic of your main college essays. These will help you find unexpected topics that will allow your personality and character shine through in your writing.
Even if you are the best writer in the world, college essays require thought and effort over a period of time. This is an opportunity to reflect on the many experiences you have had, and to be able to communicate your growth in an engaging way. It’s tricky, because you want to be genuine and interesting, but not arrogant or preachy.
Many of the ideas I am listing here come directly from the book, On Writing the College Application Essay, by Harry Bauld. This book has recently been updated, but if you buy the 1990 version, ignore the admissions information. While that part is outdated, the essay information remains excellent. There are many activities he suggests that prepare you to find the right topic for you. Other ideas have come from workshops I have attended at college counseling conferences and from years of experience working with teens.
Think of your essay as a very good first date with the college; a date where both parties are interested in a second date. The college wants to know who you are and how well you can communicate. It doesn’t have to be full of earth-shattering revelations or insights. It can be about your daily commute to school or a conversation you had with a friend or an adult. Many times, that is more interesting than your service trip overseas. The essays are the only place in the application where your voice shows up.
Just write. Writer’s block usually only occurs if you think you have to get the perfect topic the first time and that your first draft needs to be close to a finished product. You will find many more interesting ideas if you just allow yourself to write freely about whatever comes to mind.
Use a designated notebook, paper or electronic, to record interesting thoughts, ideas, activities, landscapes, feelings, situations, events and dialogue. (Notice small surprises that are different from previous days). The minute details in an essay make it come alive. Did you hear the person in front of you at Subway say something unusual or unexpected? These notes will be the gold from which you will mine other ideas.
Avoid common topics (pet death, outdoor school, mission trip, athletic triumph) or do something remarkable with them. You don’t want to sound just like everyone else who has had that same experience.
What do you have to say? Don’t write what you think the adults want to hear. Trust me, they don’t want to hear that. Boring.
The college essay is informal; it is unlikely to be like any task you’ve been assigned in class.
Entertain your reader; provoke interest; refuse to bore her.
Many drafts are mandatory for a great essay. At the end of one draft, you may find the idea about which you really want to write.
After you have a number of notes, meet with your counselor or someone experienced in helping students with college application essays. Discuss with her/him the writing you have created to discover the most interesting topic.
Exercises to practice before beginning your essay. Find out where the “juice” is. Remember, these are just for practice, so experiment a bit.
When you get an idea, just write it all down quickly. Editing comes later. Get the ideas out.
Write a letter to an imaginary new cousin. Show them what you are thinking, who you are and how things are with you.
Write a letter to your freshman college roommate letting them know who you are.
Write down everything you want the college to know about who you are.
Write about how you do not conform to the stereotypes others’ might ascribe to you.
What do you think might be unusual about your upbringing?
What are your key personality traits and signature characteristics? Ask your friends how they would describe you..
Tell a true story about an event or series of events. The focus is on YOU!
What is an activity in which you participate and you never look at the time? Time flies by and you feel like you could do this forever.
Describe the world you come from--for example, your family, community or school—and tell us how the world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
What makes you different from every one else?
Think of a time when you truly helped someone. What did you do? How did this impact the other person? How did your actions impact you?
Who do you know that you admire the most? What person in you life has most inspired you? (This should be 25% about the person and 75% about you).
Write all the major events/activities in your life in a random fashion all over a piece of paper. Use different colored markers to connect related events. For example, use a red marker to connect friendships. Do the same with several markers. Some events will be included in multiple categories. This can help you think of a theme for your essay. (This activity can also be used to help find colleges that fit).
Do a personality survey and see if the results give you any ideas for topics. If your school offers Naviance, go to the career tab>personality type. It will offer you a description of you. Does it ring true, does it not reflect who you are at all, or is it somewhere in between. Write about what inspires you after reading this. If your school does not have Naviance, try this free one: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes1.htm. Do not pay for extra reports.
Write from your heart about a specific experience you’ve had.
Ask your friends and family to tell you their favorite story about you. Pick one or two that resonate with you and reflect on your vision of that story.
Write down two sentences every day noting something new you have observed or thought about.
Do a free write and just write about anything and everything until you run out of things to say.
Write about what you would do if you weren’t afraid.
Write a couple of six-word memoirs- about how you are feeling now and how you have been feeling for the last few months. Google ‘6 word memoirs’ to see examples.
List six adjectives that describe you. Tell the story behind each adjective.
If you are applying to Oregon State University, you can answer their insight resume questions. These might give you ideas for a longer essay. http://oregonstate.edu/admissions/sites/default/files/gallerix/insight_resume_worksheet.pdf
Serve yourself, not the college. Write about a piece of your life that you would like to have forever, something that you would be proud to show grandchildren or nieces and nephews, many years from now.
Write about something about which only you can write. What do you know intimately? Humble and ordinary daily experiences with significant details can be very interesting: a window to your soul, as the saying goes. What are you nerdy about? What are you always learning more about? Your friends say, “ Go ask Maria. She knows everything about____”. What do you know ‘everything’ about?
Write for 10 minutes without stopping about the dullest thing you do every day.
A story is much more interesting than a narrative essay. Try starting with “Once upon a time." You can take it out later, but it gets you thinking in story mode. Write a couple of stories from your life.
Tips for honing your essay
After you have completed a number of exercises and have found your topic, it is time to revise.
How will you discover the lead for your essay? Will you find the most interesting sentence in your essay and use that as your first sentence? This is an attention-grabbing sentence that draws the reader in. It makes the reader want to read the rest of the essay. This sentence is commonly found in the third paragraph or even at the end of your essay. Start your essay with the puchline. Or will you begin with an anecdote? Will you start with a lead that causes the reader to ask, “Why?” immediately after the first sentence? There are many interesting ways to begin an essay.
If you write about a challenge or challenges you have experienced, move quickly to how you have grown from that experience. The essay needs to be almost 75% about your growth.
Check your verbs. Active and interesting verbs are much more descriptive than too many adjectives.
Add significant details. Think about all five senses. How can you make your essay more sensory? Can you add more dialogue? Don’t try to make general statements. Specific examples with interesting details make the essay more fun to read. Details are the most important key to writing your best essay.
Avoid using words like: leadership, commitment, responsibility, values and integrity. When you want to show your leadership, tell a detailed story where the reader can see you being a leader. Let the story illustrate your personal characteristics. You can’t just say, “I’m a leader at school” and expect people to believe it. Show the actions that make it true.
Many essays can be changed to present tense, which generally reads more dynamically.
Think of English as having three forms: formal, informal and slang. Informal is most common and usually most appropriate for college essays. Try to mostly keep the same style throughout the essay, unless there is a good reason to change it. Quoting a formal speaker in his own voice or a slang speaker in her voice are examples of when you might change in your essay.
Parents have a tendency to clean up your essay. They might strip it of details and of your voice, making it a generic and unremarkable essay. Don’t let this happen.
Subtle endings that reference the beginning, without repeating anything that has previously been said, are best. Never end with explicitly stating what you learned or delineating the point of the essay. If your point isn’t clear in the essay, edit the essay. Don’t add a weak ending to make up for the lack of clarity.
Read you essay out loud. Does it sound like you? If you dropped it in the hallway at school without your name on it, would everyone know it was your essay? Do you use the same words repeatedly?
Avoid trite sayings or clichés. Again, demonstrate with details and your own metaphors that make sense and are relevant to your life.