If you are anything like most upperclassmen, you’ve spent a good many hours staring at a blank Word document with the words “COLLEGE ESSAY” racing through your brain. What do they want? How do I relay my accomplishments without bragging? Was I in enough clubs? Should I have played a varsity sport? Volunteered more? How do I write the right thing?!
Relax. First, remember that your stress is actually an indicator of you caring a lot about this, and wanting to show people your best side. The best essays are those that let the admissions officer get a peek into your true self; the facets of your personality or events in your life or elements of your character that aren’t readily seen in the rest of your application. Your transcript reveals your academic history; your resume shows your hobbies, interests, work experience, sports, and volunteer work . . . this is your golden opportunity to drop a cherry on top of the fabulous ice cream sundae that is you. Give them a taste of who you really are.
So many students fret over what they see as their “plain old vanilla” lives–they fear that because nothing cataclysmic has happened to them so far, they won’t have anything to write about. Not so. College essays are a chance for you to have a little fun and let loose. You’ve got a strong GPA, good SAT scores; Princeton can tell already that you’re a good student. Now show them that you’ve got a human side, too. Remember, schools want to award places in their freshman classes to students who will bring a little something to the learning community. What have you got to offer? Colleges are made of people and you’ll be one of them. Show them your vibrant personality, what makes you you. They know you’re in the orchestra; do they know you’re a Glenn Miller fan? They know you volunteer at an animal shelter; do they know your dream job is to be the vet in a one-horse town? They know you were the valedictorian; do they know you live for karaoke night? Tell them. You are a lot less vanilla than you think.
Here’s the thing: the admissions officer reading your college essay is most likely reading more than twenty thousand of them.
In about four months. That’s nearly 200 every day. She’s holed up in her office for hours at a time, reading and reading and reading. Don’t get me wrong, she loves what she does and she’s rooting for you, but your essay is just one in the Brobdingnagian pile on her desk. You don’t have to have interned for the President or cured cancer last summer for her to notice your essay. You just need to give her something to notice.
You don’t have to show that you had a lightning-bolt-to-your-life moment that changed your soul–just show them how this event illustrates your passion for something cool.
So how do you pick a topic? Colleges are deciding if you’re a good investment; they don’t just want you to enroll, they want you to finish and take their name out into the world as a successful alumna. You must show them that you’re worth their time and that your presence will add something to their campus. How do you show that? Passion. About anything. Take a little stroll down the memory lane of your social media photos to remind yourself of what events (large or small) that were big in your life (or even just in your day). The time you caught a fish at Pike Place Market. The day you bought your hermit crab. The Homecoming game where you lost your voice cheering. You don’t have to show that you had a lightning-bolt-to-your-life moment that changed your soul–just show them how this event illustrates your passion for something cool. Show that you’re an interesting, real person with a lively mind and don’t forget the ultimate guideline: BE YOURSELF. Readers have a BS detector that will pick up a fake tone easily, and that gets your essay booted off the desk PDQ.
Once you’ve got your essay drafted, choose a trusted, intelligent editor to help you perfect it.
Don’t ask more than one or two people–you’ll end up with conflicting advice and too many variations in recommended tone, word choice, or topic (it’s like a bride taking ten women dress shopping with her. Chaos). One of your best resources may be your current or previous English teachers (they are most likely to be familiar with the process and have crackerjack grammar skills) but remember that they’re busy people, so ask politely and give them plenty of time. Once you’ve got your content perfected, triple-check that spelling and grammar, choose a basic font (Times New Roman or similar), and send it off with a blast of positive energy. You’ve tooted your own horn; now get ready to join the band.