Writing those college application essays is by far the most daunting aspect of the college admissions process. Because most of the other work is already done and can’t be changed, such as your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, the essays end up being an area in which you can spend a large amount of time. It’s also one of the most important subjective aspects of the application, giving the admissions officers a glimpse of you as a person rather than as a list of awards, positions, and accomplishments.
We hope that this advice will get you thinking about your essays and planning ahead for them! Remember that you can always reach out to your mentors about the process – we’ve all been through it.
Kavya & Varun
The Daunting Task
#1: Keep a running document of all the ideas that pop into your head
I would have a document titled “Random Ideas” almost always open on my desktop. Whenever I come up with an idea, no matter how strange it is, I start writing until I can’t write anymore. I never delete content from the Random Ideas document; rather, when I decide I like an idea enough to use it for an essay, I copy paste it into a new document and start writing and refining. The best part of the document is sometimes a topic that doesn’t seem to really fit anywhere can be molded into a new essay for a different prompt.
Varun Look at your application and decide which qualities you value most about yourself that haven’t come out yet. Think of adjectives such as compassionate, determined, etc. Then look back at defining events and moments and your life, and see if those, in any way, shows you as the image you want to portray. It sometimes may help to keep a sort of weekly journal of experiences and thoughts that you can look back on when brainstorming essay topics. For me at least, it was easier to come up with the topics of essays, and then look forward to all the prompts and try to fit the topic to the prompt. This is probably not the case for everyone though.
#2: Do not procrastinate. Use time during the summer when you aren’t stressed out about school to start brainstorming
I started thinking about my essays towards the beginning of summer and began writing them as the ideas came to me. The great thing about working on your essays during summer is that you don’t have five million other commitments going on, so you can spend some time reflecting. Some people I know chose to force themselves to write down at least one idea every night. See if that works for you; if not, try to spend your mornings doing some college application related work so that you are getting into the mindset.
Varun Can’t really say much because I started writing my college apps on December 19th (2 days after Winter Formal) and it became a mad rush to finish. I brainstormed before, but did not seriously get into the writing phase, which was definitely a mistake. From what I remember, 2 apps were due on New Year’s Eve and the rest were due on the night of January 1. I also remember frantically trying to finish during our New Year’s Party and I ended up finishing at 8:46 PM Pacific Time and just mass submitting all my apps. Do yourself a favor and DO NOT do what I did. It’s not that it can’t be done - it’s that you owe more to yourself than trying to cram your life story into 10 days.
#3: Don’t repeat an activity or topic in your essays that is emphasized elsewhere
I was really, really involved with FBLA with most of my application showcasing my accomplishments in the organization and my recommendations highlighting my passion for the activity. Thus, I didn’t write any of my college application essays on FBLA because I knew that the admissions officers already knew that it was a big part of my high school career.
Varun While applying, take a look at your entire application and analyze what character you have built. There is absolutely no way that that picture can be complete without an essay, and thus you should use your essay as a chance to fill in the qualities about you that your activities cannot. In regards to the recommendations, guide the writer of the recommendation by saying what kinds of things you would like them to focus on. Not only does this make it easier for them to boil you entire life down into a couple pages, but also does it mean that you can center your focus for your essay on other aspects of your life.
#4: Focus on subjective components of yourself, because these aren’t as easily captured through your application
Rather than writing my essays about an activity, class, or experience, I chose to showcase different aspects of my personality through my essays -- quirky, nerdy, passionate, and hard working. The admissions officers want to learn more about the person you are behind the awards, positions, and accomplishments. They want to learn that you are the kind of person who will take advantage of all the opportunities presented at college, the kind of person who is intellectually curious, self-motivated, and hungry to learn more.
Varun The goal of an essay is to show something about you that cannot be found anywhere else, and cannot be conveyed through facts/stats. What most colleges want when they see your essay is something that makes you multidimensional. These days, there are way too many over-qualified kids with high GPAs, SATs, many extracurriculars. But in the end, a college wants a human being - not a robot. Someone once said (MIT Admissions? I forget) an essay is probably the best apart about applying to college because you discover so much about yourself during the process. When I first read this, I thought it was completely ridiculous; after all, everyone dreads the essay. Funnily enough though, I found it to be totally true. For this reason, the only thing you can do wrong on an essay is not be honest to yourself. Put another way, you’ll find it way easier to write passionately about something if it’s something that you are truly passionate about.
#5: Before you write your essay, think about what purpose or message you are trying to send the admissions officers, and then after writing the essay, check to make sure that you conveyed the message
I would always re-read my essays from the perspective of a third person party and ask myself what I learned about the author of the essay. I would also ask other people (friends, family members) to read my essays and then explain to me what they learned about me through it. It’s even best to ask people who don’t know you too well to do the same.
In the end, it’s about telling a compelling story. Someone told me that those who tell compelling stories, win, and I think that if you remember only one thing from this module, it’s that.
Varun I actually didn’t have anyone read my essays except a teacher, a coach, and my mom :). I figured the more other people commented on it and tried to change things, the less “me” the essay would be. Also, I’m an inherently stubborn person as well as a perfectionist, so I felt like a lot of the criticism I could generate myself instead of having other people do it for me. If you do want to self-edit like I did, really scrutinize each sentence and word one by one. If you think about it, you’re trying to tell your life story and autobiography in 2 pages or less, which seems like a totally ridiculous task (and probably is). Thus every word you write should have a reason for being there. A lot of people say that in the English language, there is no perfect word for each situation; however, I think that when writing a college essay, there actually is. This is what makes college essay writing so stressful in my opinion, but if you just put that little bit of work into it (and don’t procrastinate!), you will end up with a product that you are truly happy with and proud of. A few useful tools that I would use is Word’s “Track Changes” feature (ask me about if you can’t figure out how to use it!) which made editing a hundred times easier for me and a Thesaurus. Using a thesaurus doesn’t mean just throwing in big words for the sake of looking good (please don’t do this, you can always tell when someone is trying too hard), but like I said above, means finding that perfect word for each situation. There is ALWAYS a way to get your essay to be shorter and more concise (<-- right there for example, redundancy) and thus more poignant to read. For example, on my Stanford essays I thought 1800 characters meant without spaces for whatever reason, so I finished 3 essays which each had between 2500-3000 characters. It was extremely frustrating at first, and I thought that there was no possible way to recover the essays without tossing out the gist of them. I did, however, manage to do it after just working at it for a few days, so there definitely is hope for you if, like me, you just ramble on and on about your life.
In conclusion, while it may seem complicated and scary to get started, in the end, you need to stop worrying and get working. The more time you spend on your essays, the more thought you put into them, and the more you make sure your message is clear, the better you can communicate with admissions officers.