You want the admissions officer who reads your essay to go home and say wow, I read 75 essays today. I’m sick of high school students, of their summer trips and grandparents and their views on the Civil War and Romeo and Juliet. But there was this one whose essay I brought home for you to read…
You want to be that one person.
Let’s start with what a great essay isn’t:
- It isn’t an academic paper. A lot of students have only learned to write well-reasoned essays with a thesis paragraph, evidence paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. Academic essays are important, but they don’t make for compelling personal essays.
- It isn’t a sales pitch touting your fantastic features. Proclaiming, “I’m a hard worker, conscientious, funny and tall” isn’t believable. Anyone can say that. Let your recommendations do the job of explicitly saying what a great/talented/funny/thoughtful person you are.
- It isn’t about anyone or anything other than you. Franklin Roosevelt is not applying to college, and no matter how much you admire him, he can’t help you. The same with France.
A great essay shows you for who you are. It tells a story that illuminates some of your personality or strengths. The most powerful ones show learning, growth and self-awareness.
Sometimes, the hard work is in understanding yourself. It’s not a skill taught in schools, or in most of our families. But if you can look inside to see how an event or idea changed you, challenged you, helped you grow and learn, or affected your life, then you’re 80% there.
Of course, you need to get it on paper in a memorable way. You can bring that poor, bored-to-tears, over-caffeinated admissions officer right into your life and world for 500 words. Help them experience what you’ve experienced, learn what you’ve learned. Maybe read some short stories or articles to get a sense of how this kind of writing is different from academic writing. Find a mentor, editor or teacher who can help guide you through the process of writing something memorable.
You have a great essay in you. Everyone does. It may take some time to find it, and it will take more time to write. But when you’re done, it will be something you’ll be proud of and something that can help get you into college.