Some students enjoy writing and, therefore, look forward to their college essay. Others cringe at the very thought. Regardless of which camp you fall into, whether you are a strong or weak writer, you have probably never faced an essay like a college essay. But, don’t panic. As the famous saying goes: Keep Calm and Carry On!
A college essay is distinctly different from a typical school essay. Whereas school essays are about analysis and logic, a strong college essay demonstrates self-reflection and insight. School essays turn the lens outward; college essays turn the lens inward. This is the only chance in your application to tell your story in your own words, not in the words of your teachers’ recommendations or the numbers in your transcripts and test scores.
This is the piece of your application package that is most within your control, so run toward it, not away from it.
There are countless websites and books dedicated to the topic of college entrance essays. But, stop! Let me save you some money and time. The purpose of the college application essay is threefold:
- To determine whether or not you can write.
- To get a better understanding of who you are and what makes you tick.
- To determine if you are capable of college-level insight.
Depending on your target college list, you will likely have many choices of essay topics. Your essay could address any number of things such as a passion of yours, an obstacle you overcame, or perhaps an issue that resonates deeply with you. When choosing your topic, first think about what you want the reader to know about you and then choose the question that best allows you to reveal that.
Remember that schools are looking for students who are intellectually curious, passionate, take initiative and who will make an impact. College admissions officers are looking for essays that give them information and insight into who you are.
Regardless of how unique you think your essay topic is, there is a very good chance that many other Common App submissions will have an essay about a similar experience. Remember this: the experience will likely be commonplace but how it impacted you is unique.
Too many students base their essay on first order insight which is the obvious, everyday experiences and cliché learnings that most college applicants will write about. It’s the essay about the football team that was down 6 points with only 30 seconds to go and [you can guess what happens next] they all pull together to get the winning touchdown. Or, it’s the mission trip where the student works with a group of people who lack most of the amenities we think are pretty basic like shoes, soap, and electricity and yet she is struck by how happy these people are. The first order insight is? Money can’t buy happiness, be grateful for what you have. Boring.
To stand out, you need to push beyond the surface for a deeper meaning, a second order insight that makes your essay original, memorable and outstanding. What is second order insight? It is a unique essay direction I developed for The Complete Candidate ™ . Follow my counsel and you will deliver an essay that provides college admissions officers with the information about who you really are.
Let me explain. This writing task will take lots of time, thought and, yes, multiple rounds of editing. Your essay must reveal what that incident, effort or activity has taught you about yourself or how it has contributed to your intellectual or character growth. If you are telling a story, relay the anecdote succinctly, and use the remaining essay to tell how the incident reveals something about you personally.
Most importantly, ask yourself probing questions:
- What were you thinking?
- How did you feel?
- What surprised you?
- Was the outcome what you expected?
People often ask what the biggest essay mistakes are. We can talk about the topics to avoid or what writing styles don’t work particularly well. But, the truth is, the biggest mistake students make is to skip the outline and go straight to the writing. I can hear the groans now!
I know the outline is not the most exciting part of the writing process but it is critical. Just like it’s hard to get into your car and reach your destination without first looking at a map or programming your GPS, it’s difficult to start writing your essay without knowing where you want to go and how you plan to get there. Most essays fall apart on the basic structure and level of insight. Both of these issues can be addressed much easier at the outline stage than at the writing stage.
Your essay joins together all the pieces to complete the college admissions application puzzle. Once it is assembled, your Common App will stand out and place you on top of the stack!