Alongside my college counseling work, I've written six novels and taught creative writing to college students and adults for decades. You don't need to write a novel to get into college, but you do need to adopt some of the essentials of writing creatively to make your application essays sing. Since most of the supplements are not yet on line, I'll focus on the Common Application essay for now.
1. Get personal. Find a topic that makes your heart beat a little faster than usual - a topic with some energy and even tension in it: A piece of your personal story that's essential to who you are and not reflected in your activities list, a talent, a hardship, a moment you took a risk and spoke out to defend a position, or a problem you solved, even if it was putting together a trampoline in your backyard. These are personal essays, not academic paper or speeches.
2. Before you start writing, do some free writing on your topic. Scribble down what comes to you without thinking about organization, voice or structure. This is a great way to find your voice and your material. Put your notes aside for a day or two, and when you come back to them, see which passages stand out.
Time - and time away from what you're writing - is a great editor. Every writer I know has the experience that we write something we think is terrific and look at it in the morning and want to cry. The writing that holds up a week later is the good stuff.
3. Speaking of time: Don't save this essay or any of the others for the last minute. Think of the essay as a work-in-progress, and set aside time to do it over a period of weeks.
4. Write informally and write long. Don't stick to the 650-word limit as you begin. Again, you're looking for material, energy, what matters. Once you have that down, you can edit out everything that isn't essential.
5. College admissions officers often report that they want to be entertained and engaged by your essay. I'd say it's more important to go for "engaged" than "entertained," but the message is clear. The first sentence needs to be a grabber. You may end up writing the first terrific sentence once you're done with the third draft. It doesn't need to be acrobatic or pyrotechnic, and it doesn't need to be one for the ages ("Call me Ishmael" - opening of Moby Dick), but a little pizazz goes a long way, at the beginning and throughout.
6. This is essential for every writer I know: Read. Read. Read. Writing is a discipline, and the more you read good writing, the better your own writing will become. Start with a few pieces from The New York Times every day. Notice clarity, detail, and precision, whether it's a news story or an opinion piece about a lost father. I strongly suggest students read The New Yorker magazine. The writing is superlative, sophisticated, and often funny in interesting ways, and the subjects are as vast as those in The Times.
1. Don't write about sex, drugs, or other vices. Don't write about books that hundreds of millions of others have read: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Twilight. If you mention a book in your essay, avoid To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, standard fare for high school students.
2. If you have a strong academic record, I'd suggest not choosing Prompt Two - "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure" - unless your failure has an unusual angle. Perhaps you failed to make a soufflé that rose, which led to all kinds of insights, or failed to revive a wounded animal, leading to your interest in becoming a vet. Though I don't generally proscribe topics, I'd say to avoid "I didn't get into X Club or Y orchestra or Z team, and the lesson I learned is to try harder next time." An important lesson, yes, but not uniquely yours.
3. If your topic is built around an experience you had at a college or university, avoid naming the school if possible, as it will suggest to admissions officers that you are interested in that institution, which may diminish your chances at other schools.
4. Don't feel you need to write about a major accomplishment to produce a good essay. Parents often say to me, "My son hasn't found a cure for cancer, so I'm sure he can't get into an Ivy League university." Your academic record - grades, scores, recommendations, etc. - will convey your potential for performing well in college.
The essay is a personal chat about a subject that thrills you or that you feel is essential to conveying who you are. This past spring, a young woman who wrote about a lifetime of shopping at Costco made news. The headlines - "This Essay Got a High-school Senior into Five Ivies and Stanford" - made it sound as though the essay itself did all the work. No, the entirety of her academic record got her in, and the essay was one piece of it. The five Ivies and Stanford have their own rigorous essays that were part of her applications, which never makes it into these news stories. The newsworthy essay was quirky, colorful, and unusual - and it solidified the rest of her impressive record.
5. Don't assume that a good essay - even a really good essay - will compensate for a poor record at a highly competitive college or university. Admissions officers insist that high school grades are the best predictor of success in college. But admission to the very top colleges and universities now depends on a strong overall record along with an essay that confirms the record. A strong essay can really help a student with a mixed record at school that's outside the highly competitive zone.
6. The essays matter, but making good choices about where to apply is just as important. I sometimes work with students whose list consists of ten reach schools and one safety. My favorite resource, written from the student's eye view, is The Best 380 Colleges, published every summer by Princeton Review. It's got a wealth of useful statistics and relevant descriptions.
Do remember that this is a process that will come to an end. Have some fun along the way.