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The Trick to Crushing College Essays

Hello fellow parents, and welcome!

With the school year winding down, rising seniors (and their loving parents) have summer college essay writing on the brain. Cue anxiety. The following is one of my responses during a Quora Expert Session that I hope will help. 

Tips for Crushing Your College Essay

If I could give you one overriding tip it would be this: Say what you want to say instead of what you think colleges want to hear.

I’ve heard a lot of “don’ts” batted around when people advise students about college personal essays—don’t write about service trips or sports or anything boring. This is so not helpful. When evaluating applications, I’ve read game-changing essays about the sport a student lives and breathes for, and the key to those essays’ success is that those students wrote genuinely, from the depths of their soul, about a topic that makes them tick.

It’s the approach to the topic, not the topic itself that will make an essay flat and generic or make it pop into three-dimensions and stand out. Let’s stick with sports, since we’re on that topic. I’ve read hundreds of essays about “the big game” and they usually go like this: It was the big game, and everyone worked really hard all season to get there, and we either won or lost, but I learned that the outcome didn’t matter because it was all about teamwork. Can you see how anyone playing any sport can write this essay?

One of my students actually wrote an essay that had a hockey “big game” setting, but he shrunk the topic down to the three seconds before the big game. He was standing behind the door that the team would momentarily burst through onto the ice for his first game as a Varsity starter, and he went through the thoughts spiraling in his head—dreams, ambitions, vulnerabilities, fears—I’ll let him tell you in his words.

“I will never forget what I am about to do because I’ll only get my first start once. I remember publishing my first article in the school newspaper, my first race that I ever ran, and the first girl I ever kissed. I am hoping this will go a little bit better than all three of those firsts.”

His descriptions were so fresh and personal and sometimes funny. He didn’t brag about being editor of the school newspaper or being a state-level track star (which I learned from the Activities section on his application) or being a Casanova. He just naturally threw in details that were most important to him and why, I understood him better after reading his thoughts in his own voice, and I found him endearing and real. So did the application evaluators at his first-choice college where he studies now.

I know you’re looking for specific tips you can put into action right away, so here are a few.

1. If you are just getting started, keep in mind that no one ever has to see a word of your first draft if you don’t want to share it. This diminishes the stakes and will help you through all the doubts and fears you might have while getting those first words onto the page.

2. The writing should sound like you sound. It should be conversational. A big mistake students make is to write formally to try to sell themselves, which comes across like a “cover letter” and arrogant, which I’m sure you are not.

3. If the essay reads like an engaging story, it will keep the reader who has already evaluated twenty-five applications that evening awake—that’s a good thing if you want to stand out and be remembered.

4. There should be no typos. This essay should show a snippet of your personality (the point of the whole exercise is for the reader to learn more about the human being beneath all the numbers and letters bandied about on the application) but let your work ethic shine while you’re at it by proofreading carefully.

Encourage your child to take advantage of the counselor and any additional support the school has to offer for all aspects of the college admissions process before the final bell this year. And since so many have asked…I offer consultation calls as well as essay/application reviews any time; just contact me here for more info. As for summer essay coaching, I’m at capacity for June but can still accommodate a couple more students later in the summer. 

On the topic of quelling anxiety, here’s a link to a bonus sanity saver Learner Lab podcast, The Science of Being Better When You’re Nervous. Enjoy the advent of summer!

Warmly,

Jill

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