Writing a Better College Essay

By Laura Simon

Friends with teenagers, do you know what’s approaching?

College.

And in between your child and college is one MAJOR stepping stone: the admissions essay.

I spent eight years of my teaching career in a high school classroom, and one of my roles was mentoring students through the application process. The whole thing is daunting, but nothing causes quite as much consternation as the college admissions essay. Can I get an “Amen”?

It doesn’t help that colleges ask kids to write in response to the most boring – or seemingly pointless – prompts of all time. And they rarely provide a rubric to help writers understand what the college is looking for.

When I was teaching, I spent quite a bit of time on both sides of the admissions process. I had the opportunity to score prospective students’ essays for my alma mater. (And when I say “opportunity”, I mean I learned a lot. It wasn’t exactly pleasant reading). I also edited probably ten thousand of my students’ essays before they sent them out. (And yes, that’s an exaggeration. When you spend a lot of time with teens, you start to become like them.)

Several years ago, I had the chance to do a workshop with a college admissions counselor, and the class grilled him about the admissions essay. What he told us was enlightening – and I think it will help you guide your teen through the process. Since we all know that teens don’t want to hear these things from their parents (because, teenagers), I’ll write the rest directly to them.

Dear Overwhelmed Teenager, who might or might not be curled up in the fetal position, sobbing, because you don’t know where to start,

For starters, keep in mind that colleges are looking for insight into each student’s character and values. That might sound counterintuitive when they just asked for a paragraph about a person who has inspired you, but trust me: they do not give a rip about your Aunt Helen unless she is applying to their school. What they want to know is what qualities you admire in a person because that reflects back on you. They want to know how you’ve changed as a result of your relationship with Aunt Helen. They want to know what her influence looks like in your everyday life. They want to know if you’ll be an asset on their campus, based on what you learned from Aunt Helen.

So if Aunt Helen broke her leg in a biking accident and worked tirelessly to recover from that injury and run a marathon, be sure you mention that her tenacity gave you courage to keep trying when your high school calculus course was kicking your butt and you weren’t sure you could do it. The list of activities and honors that you typed up can only show so much of who you are; find a way to use the essay to reveal your true character.

Also, for the love of everything holy, make the darn thing interesting. Do you know how many people write that their grandma was always there for them and helped them learn to read? So many that I lost count. At a certain point, as a reviewer, your brain turns to a pile of grandma mush. Do you know what gets a reader’s attention? A story. We all love stories. You can even write about your grandma, as long as you tell a story.

In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink writes at length about the importance of good storytelling in the workplace of the future. There’s a reason for that: we’re drawn in, engaged, and motivated by stories. Salesmen, preachers, teachers, and politicians all tell stories to teach, persuade and encourage. Instead of telling us that Aunt Helen broke her leg, describe that moment in the hospital room where she looked at the pin in her leg and said, “How soon before I can run again?” Your reader will be interested. And grateful. Trust me.

When you tell your story, start with a great lead. There are so many ways to open a story, but a few full-proof options are action (jump right in), dialogue (which totally appeals to our love for gossip), and inner monologue (raise your hand if the things that run through your head are hilarious and would probably also land you in jail). Also, don’t be afraid to start in the middle of a story and fill in other details as you go. What does this look like? Well, let’s go back to Aunt Helen.

An ordinary college essay would start like this: I admire my Aunt Helen because she persevered through tremendous difficulty and ran a marathon just a year after breaking her leg severely in a biking accident.

An interesting college essay would try this approach: The evening light was dimming as I approached the hospital bed. Aunt Helen – my fearless, fun-loving aunt, who was riding her bike in the mountains just hours before – seemed feeble in her still hospital gown, with piles of white sheets covering her muscular legs. “The worst part is my knee,” she whispered. “I haven’t been able to look yet. Can you tell me? How bad does it look?”

Tell me, which essay do you want to read?

Of course, stories can quickly get long, and you need to pay attention to word count. This isn’t a full-fledged personal narrative because length doesn’t permit that. Be sure you only include details that are essential to your main idea. Get to your point quickly, but have fun getting there.

Finally, finish that essay early – well before it’s due. Even experienced writers run their work by an editor before publishing it, and you should do the same. Pick the most demanding English teacher you’ve had and ask for their feedback. I know it probably feels like asking a lot, but I was always honored when my students entrusted me with this task. If they happened to attach a chocolate bar…well, even better. Most secondary teachers consider it part of their job to help students succeed at the next level – whether that means proofreading a college essay or writing a letter of recommendation. And a new set of eyes will always find both miniscule errors and opportunities for you to better represent their strengths.

In closing, while the college essay is stressful, continually remind yourself that it’s a valuable opportunity to let colleges see what you have to offer – and you have a lot to offer! This is one opportunity that you don’t want to waste. Use it wisely!


One thought on “Writing a Better College Essay

  1. Anonymous

    This was great! thanks so much for sharing!!!! I have been listening to others talk about this . . . so much harder then just a few years ago!!

    Reply

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