Few things intimidate high school seniors more than writing their college essays. Perhaps it's the thought of "summarizing" yourself in 650 words (an impossible task) or the vision of a grumpy, elbow-patched, pipe-smoking admissions officer reading it and wielding a big red REJECT stamp on your work (real life is not this dramatic). Whatever the reason, writing the college essay is a daunting task -- and one that requires time, care and thoughtful consideration. It pays to get started early; be willing to discard drafts that aren't working and to give yourself enough time to share your writing with people who can provide useful feedback. Remember: nothing you ever enjoyed reading was a first draft! So it makes sense that the summer before senior year is a good time to begin the process.
Here are five tips from my new book, B+ Grades, A+ College Application, to help you get your creative juices flowing, discover good ideas, and put them onto paper for a piece of writing that genuinely stands out in a sea of clichés.
1) The essay must add something to your application.
There are only so many things that an admission officer can learn about you from your high school transcript and your official test scores. While these are just numbers, you are most definitely not. The essay is your chance to show the admission committee what makes you a unique individual. While it may be tempting to write your life story, keep in mind you have already had the opportunity to detail your background and activities in your application. So what else can you write about? Some of the best essays are actually about personal observations and experiences that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but exhibit your true character. Still stumped? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you reflect on what makes you a unique and interesting individual:
What single achievement are you most proud of?
Where do you think you will be and what will you be doing ten years from now?
What's the most difficult thing you've had to do in your life?
2) Don't bite off more than you can chew in 650 words.
Even the best's authors can't tell their whole life story in 650 words, so don't even try! The common application word limit may sound confining, but the key is to express an idea or story in a concise and compelling manner. Instead of overwhelming your reader with every detail of your high school experience, focus on something particular that is illustrative of a larger quality.
3) Show, don't tell.
This is an English class cliché for a reason -- good personal essays need details that make the reader feel that she is coming along on a journey with the writer. Anyone can call himself adventurous but only an individual student could describe the sounds, images, thoughts and emotions he experienced when jumping out of an airplane for the first time. These details show the reader that you are adventurous. They make the essay personal and authentic.
4) Grab your reader in your first paragraph.
Most admission officers read upwards of 1,000 applications each year, which is why it is imperative that your essay stands out among the sea of other qualified high school students. I suggest beginning your essay with active language, in the present tense that draws the reader into a specific time and place. Think of your opening paragraph as "setting the stage" for how you're going to tell the rest of your unique story. If you don't hook your reader in the first paragraph, your essay is likely to get skimmed or looked over.
5) Mark your territory.
Simply put: your essay is yours. It should contain unique and personal details that only you could know and describe. Though the importance of this rule may seem obvious, it is actually very difficult for most students who are new to writing essays about themselves. How do you know if you have successfully marked your territory? Ask yourself, "If I dropped this essay on the street and my good friend picked it up, would she be able to tell that I wrote it?" If the answer is yes, then the essay is truly written in your unique voice and there's nothing generic about it.