By Deb Coco
The lazy, hazy days of summer are slipping by quickly. At The College of Advisor of New York, one of our goals for our rising seniors is to complete their main college essay by Labor Day. By Labor Day you say? Your friends aren’t even thinking about college applications yet!
There is a method to our organizational madness, and it has your best interests at heart. Although buckling down to write in July may not be on par with a trip to the lake, you’ll see the payback once fall rolls around and you aren’t (like all of your friends) trying to brainstorm a top-notch essay while also going to class, playing a sport and taking your final SAT.
Here are some pointers for how to brainstorm and craft an essay to get you noticed:
First, let’s address what this 650 word essay is not. It is not intended to summarize your high school activities or accomplishments; the Common Application devotes specific sections to academic performance and awards, sports achievements and extracurricular activities. Parents and students can rest assured that this essay should not be a regurgitation of those facts. The goal of the main essay is to illustrate (and we use that word deliberately) who you are outside of the facts. What makes you tick? What brings you joy? What have you learned about yourself? What do we NOT know about you? Your application is chock-full of facts about every slice of your life in school and your activities, but this essay is looking for something deeper. Most students will never participate in a college interview, so this makes the essay the primary opportunity for colleges to learn something more personal about you.
Many students find this introspective process to be the most challenging part of their college application. Although you may have done extensive writing in high school, most of you have not been required to share something so personal. However, the college essay does NOT need to be complex. In our work with students, we’ve found that the simplest subjects often reveal the deepest truths.
In our many combined years of coaching experience, there is no topic that is off-limits, with a few minor exceptions. This is not a forum for discussing a romantic relationship, nor is it the best place to highlight your athletic prowess. Dig deep and let the admissions reader get to know another side of you.
The main essay can be intimidating because most students have never done this type of writing, and the first few words are the most difficult. You’ve written research papers, persuasive essays, and book reports and answered SAT essays, but the main essay is much different – it’s personal – and that can be the most difficult part of the process. We brainstorm with our students to find just the right topic — and as a coach I’ve seen literally hundreds of different ideas.
After you find a topic, don’t put off until tomorrow what you can write today! JUST DO IT. Your first draft won’t (and shouldn’t) be your last, but once you begin you may be surprised how quickly the words flow. I know when my students have found the right topic because the piece reads authentically. And the word authentic is important. Admission readers are PROS at seeing through phony essays. Don’t try to wow them with tales of trips you’ve not taken or knock off someone else’s idea – they’ve seen it all and are on the look-out for students who plagiarize or make up stories. I cannot stress enough that you need to be your most genuine self. You don’t need to have climbed Mt. Everest or done original research to produce a stellar and engaging essay. In fact, even if you’ve done those things, we suggest you write about something else.
Ask yourself what you want the admissions counselor to know about you that they did not learn from your application and search out an example that demonstrates this. That is the simplest way to move forward and begin to get words on paper (or a screen). Read it aloud when you’re done (you’ll be surprised how many needless words you find!) and cut, cut, cut – the best advice I’ve ever received in a writing class.
By following this simple road map, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of your friends and can breathe a sigh of relief when you head back to school. And while it’s not nearly as fun as water skiing, it will put you ahead of your competition!