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Some thoughts and tips on the college essay

So, junior year is behind you. AP tests are over and you’ve had at least one go at the redesigned SAT. There is nothing more that you could possibly be doing to get ready for the college application season, right? Um, no. That’s not right at all. How about working on your college essay? Yes, that’s a fantastic idea and a great way to stay engaged in the whole college process over the summer.

About the essay-what do you need to know? Since the majority of my clients use the common application I will start there. There are five prompts for the common app and you can find them here. You should read through all of the questions to see what jumps out at you as a possible topic. You only need to pick one topic from this list. The common app recently came out and reported that 47% of students submit topic #1. This is something that you’d like colleges to know about you. You know, what makes you unique. Basically, you can make many ideas fit into this topic.

So now that you’ve seen the questions how about some tips?

  • Words. I have 2 things to say about words:
  1. You have between 250-650 words. Plan on writing between 600-625 words-it’s harder than you might think to be this concise and your essay will be chopped off at 650 words if you exceed the limit. Don’t leave your readers (aka admission officers) hanging by ignoring this detail. I advise going a bit short of 650-just in case.
  2. Choose your words carefully. Not only is it hard to craft a memorable essay in 650 words or less-this means that every word counts-it’s also important to choose words that aren’t strange, scary or sound too much like you went to the Thesaurus. Believe it or not, many years ago I read an essay with the word nihilistic in it 3 times. I can’t think of an essay that I want to see that has this word once, but 3 times. Like, what’s your point, dude? And yes, I did have to look it up to make sure that I knew the definition because, frankly, it’s not a word I use every day and it wasn’t clear in context…any of the 3 times. I’m not making this up!
  • First person. I know that you don’t write in first person in school, like, ever, but you need to figure it out for your college essay. That’s all. You just need to figure it out.
  • Go deep. This tip is tied in with first person. You don’t want to write a bunch of sentences like, I did this and I did that and aren’t I great. You will need to do some reflection and examine what you did, why you did it, and what you learned from it. It all depends on your essay which questions you will address (preferably all 3) and how you will address them. Just make sure to spend some time reflecting. This is a big part of what I do when I work with students. We spend a lot of time trying to draw the good stuff out. It’s also better to go deep on 1 thing rather than trying to cover every detail in your 17 years.
  • A moment in time. This relates to going deep. A great college essay doesn’t start with the day you were born or the day you started Kindergarten and declared that you would someday be a doctor. Sometimes a great essay can be just a moment in time. It’s how you describe and relate to this moment that will make the essay memorable.
  • Set the scene. I’m really loving essays that start by setting the scene-just be careful to not spend too much time (or too many words) leading up to what you really want your readers to take away from your essay.

I could go on and on because college essays are a very geeky kind of fun for me, but I’m over 650 words and my goal was to keep it in that realm as an example.

OK-you’ve got this. Sit down, read the questions, bounce some ideas off your parents and get cracking. Wouldn’t it be great to have the essay behind you before you walk into pre-calc in late August?

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