Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The College Application Essay

It is one of the ironies of college admissions that students who claim to be ready for the academic rigors of college--which includes the ability to manage one's time and pace oneself through long research projects--nearly universally procrastinate on writing their college application essays. But like all big projects that seem daunting at first, the college essay is best tackled in several small steps over a long period of time.

The first step, and the one that causes the most consternation in students, is to figure out what topic to write about. The Common Application, widely used by private colleges throughout the U.S., offers students six topic choices for the long essay, including "#6) Topic of your choice," which is both helpful and not at all helpful at the same time.

The trick is to take the time to reflect on yourself. Many students find this rather uncomfortable, to sit quietly and think back on their own lives and try to tease out where and how, exactly, they came to be the people that they are. But that is exactly what the colleges want to know--who you are outside of the grades and test scores, how you think and what you value.

So try this. Create a timeline of your life, and try to pinpoint any small moment--a conversation, an experience--that, looking back on it, may not have seemed so significant at the time but on reflection somehow changed or more clearly defined who you are and where you are going in life. Remember, it's never too late to have an epiphany, and epiphanies can often be good fodder for application essay topics.

Once you have a few small moments written down, try jam writing about the topic--write as if no one were looking or editing or caring about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Just tell the story of that small moment. If you find one where the memories and thoughts flow rather quickly, you may be on to something in terms of a topic.

The second step is to use the good bits from the jam writing session to launch the actual writing of the essay. Your choice of approach, language, organization, and suspense (or lack thereof) are all fair game for the admissions officer's critical (or complimentary) eye.

A small story always works best when writing an application essay. It makes the topic more interesting for the reader, certainly more interesting than composing an essay that is just a listing of your high school accomplishments. You should plan to write at least two drafts of each essay before you get to a final version. Allow yourself the gift of time to write a decent draft then set it aside for a week. You'll be amazed when you come back to it how quickly you'll see what needs to be strengthened and what needs to be pruned. Work through your second draft, and get input from others you respect, but be mindful that even good advice is no good in this case if it changes the tone of your essay into something that is not "you." Let it sit on a shelf for another week or two, and you'll be ready to read it one last time with fresh eyes and create a final version. Then, and only then, should you do a final proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, each of which must be absolutely, flawlessly perfect in the final essay you submit to the colleges.

As inspiration, I'd like to point you to an article from a recent issue of Stanford Magazine, in which they published the opening sentences of several application essays that helped earn the writers an offer of admission at that uber-selective school:

Good luck!

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