For high school students planning to attend college, senior year brings a combination of high hopes and high anxiety. Starting work on what is arguably the most stressful aspect of the college application, the personal essay, will go a long way toward reducing the latter.
What are colleges looking for in an essay? A positive outlook and the ability to organize thoughts in clear and engaging writing are givens. But a memorable essay is one that makes the reader feel something.
The goal of the college application essay is to weave a narrative that reveals something about the student — ideally something not found elsewhere in their application.
The hunt for ideas and topics may start while running in Brookdale Park, baking cookies, or lying on the sofa.
Some ideas will be well formed from the outset. When one client discovered a photo she’d taken of an old Volkswagen bus, she hit on writing about her family’s spontaneous move from Connecticut to Colorado and how, from that experience, she became more resilient. The essay begins with a colorful description of her photo.
But most ideas are not much more than impressions.
Another client, a self-described “lax bro” from New Jersey, felt a strong desire to embrace his English heritage. After brainstorming, he wrote about forging strong ties with British culture, connecting with family abroad, and cheering for Arsenal soccer.
Virtually all applications provide a choice of writing prompts, but I urge my clients to write the essay they want to write. I’ve yet to coach a student through an essay that didn’t dovetail easily with one of the standard application prompts. And for the last two years, most applications include the convenient create-your-own-prompt prompt.
Meanwhile, the internet is full of prompts that ask more direct questions. I often turn for inspiration to this list compiled by The Learning Network section of The New York Times: https://tinyurl.com/y8jlt6sx
Some examples I like: What role do you play in your family? How much does your neighborhood define who you are? When have you spoken out when you felt something had to change?
After identifying a topic, the next step is to brainstorm and create a bullet-point, stream-of-consciousness list of memories, images, scenes, and reactions related to the topic that have potential to add content, color, and insight to the essay.
In my experience, many high school seniors are uncomfortable with writing in the first person.
Now’s not the time for modesty. It’s also not the time to make someone else—say, a grandparent or—the central figure of your personal essay. This is an opportunity, maybe your only opportunity, to show colleges your readiness and interest in the world. (Note that many colleges require short supplemental essays in addition to the main essay, and there’s often an option to write about someone who’s made a positive difference in your life.)
Structuring the essay is a matter of choice. Given the typical maximum of 650 words, a familiar five-paragraph piece—introduction, example, example, example, and conclusion—will work. But don’t feel bound to a particular framework. Do, however, consider the reader before compiling a single-paragraph essay whose denseness will suggest an absence of breathing room and insight.
Speaking of the reader, cut to the chase, stay on topic, and give context if you find yourself referring to a trending new band or new social media app that a middle-aged application reader may not know about.
To limit the stress on high school seniors, many, though not nearly all, colleges and universities subscribe to one or more application platforms that allow students to fill in one form, write one essay, and send the entire application to multiple schools.
The most established of these is the Common Application (commonapp.org), created in 1975, though not used prominently until much later, which counts approximately 730 colleges and universities among its subscribers.
The competition to attend college can be staggering. More than 1 million high school seniors are expected to use the Common App to apply to college this year, and that’s just one platform. The beauty of the personal essay is that it gives each student a chance to show how they see themselves and their small piece of the world. Writing this way, with honesty and heart, is the best chance they have for making their essay stand out.
A version of this post appeared in my "College Bound” column in Montclair Local.