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College Essay: Telling Your Story

As the junior year of high school comes to an end, college application season begins. The components of a strong application consist of grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and teacher recommendations.

And then, there are the essays. The main essay is typically the Common Application (CA) essay with seven prompts to choose from and a 650-word limit - note that they are prompts, not questions to answer: Common App Essay Prompts.

The essays are your opportunity to share your voice and personalize your application, making the whole package a compelling story of YOU. Having had several years to perfect the art of an academic essay, you may find it challenging to face the demands from colleges that your essays are personal, unique, and interesting. Rarely do young people have the time for self-reflection that such an essay requires – they are so busy – but this self-reflection is important to free up the ideas that will ultimately become your best essays.

Take the time to sit quietly and think about what makes you uniquely “you.” What are your passions, life experiences, activities, and interests? What do you want the admissions officers to know about you that isn’t already in your application? Make lists; consider your life as a movie and write down the highlights and outcomes. Chat with family and friends about what they think makes you special. The essay doesn’t need to be about anything traumatic;

rather, it can be about a slice of your life.

By early summer, focus on some free writing – write for at least five minutes every day- don’t stop, just write, and you’ll soon see some themes emerging. Keep refining your ideas and start building some specific outlines. Don’t worry about the prompts; if you have a variety of ideas, connect to 1 or 2 of them later.

On August 1, the CA is officially available and you can jump in and start completing all the informational sections and review the final and official prompts. If you have been working hard on self-reflection, free writing, and outlines, you will find it much easier to create solid drafts of your essay and complete your final version before the end of August. Aim to have your CA essay completed by September 1.

Share your polished essay with friends and family and ask them to give you a few words that summarize what they have learned about you. Is that what you want to say? If not, rework your essay. Show it to someone who doesn’t know your writing and see how they respond. But don’t allow others to rewrite your essay – admission officers are acutely aware of how the tone of an essay can change when a parent has been allowed to work on a rewrite!

As with all good writing, never forget your reader. In this case, it’s probably a tired, overworked, young admission officer who may well be a recent graduate of that institution – make him or her sit up and take notice when your essay appears on their monitor. As you brainstorm ideas, find ways of incorporating your personal growth and your readiness for a bigger future, and make a connection between your past, present, and future. You want your reader to see you as a mature and valuable asset to their campus community.

Remember that your best essay will be a polished and authentic story of who you are and what makes you tick. Admission officers are not looking for Pulitzer Prize-winning essays; they just want to learn as much as possible about you, and how you might strengthen their institution. Finally, if you can be vulnerable, take some risks, and share your personal story you will get to know yourself better too and that  is always a great thing.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by The College Advisor, and prepared for our clients and their families.


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