By the start of their second semester, most high school juniors have begun creating and honing a prospective college list, and scheduling college visits. What most don’t realize is that it’s also the ideal moment to begin working on college applications, especially the often-dreaded college application essay (commonly known as the personal statement). Where to get started? What’s the perfect topic? What are college admission readers looking for? These and other student questions oftentimes result in panic and procrastination: I’ll worry about it this summer! Then suddenly, it’s September….
Relax. While crafting a good college essay takes time, it doesn’t need to be stressful. Our colleague at Wow Writing Workshop, Kim Lifton, recently shared some reassuring tips to make the essay-writing process manageable – and even enjoyable! Her team shares our approach of focusing on the pre-writing stages of the essay before guiding students to a polished final product. While this doesn’t mean that the essay writes itself, it does lead to a solid first draft. Here are a few pointers to make application essay writing efficient and effective:
First, spend time evaluating the prompt and identifying key words (“meaningful” & “you,” for example). Read prompts carefully. Then read them again. The Common Application’s seven essay prompts are unchanged from last year. Which of them rings a bell for you? What ideas surface?
Next, Brainstorming: think about specific moments in your life that align with the prompt’s focus, then jot them down. From among these, identify your theme – what is the “big picture” idea you want to share with your reader?
Now, free write on your chosen story to see what emerges. If you have a lot to say, you’ve found your topic! Expand that first draft. If you run into a block in your thinking, go back to your brainstorming list and choose another idea. With a little persistence, you will find your perfect essay topic.
A few final tips: a good college essay must show reflection. Having an engaging story is wonderful, but it must serve as an opportunity for thoughtful reflection. The admissions reader wants to know that you are a thoughtful, maturing individual who recognizes a few of life’s interesting complexities!
Also, best effort matters. Write the best essay you can, whether you’re applying to an Ivy League college or a state university. Students (and parents) often ask if a topic is “good enough” or is “what they are looking for.” We’ve previously written that what you write about really doesn’t matter, only that the content must be about you. When you focus on yourself, on your interesting background and perspective, and on your growth, a beautiful essay will emerge in your unique voice. The key: give yourself enough time to work through all steps of the writing process to develop an essay that goes beyond the other parts of the college application to reveal more about…you.
Here’s a final thought to keep in mind – and to act upon: You are likely facing this personal-statement essay for the very first time, so the challenge may appear especially daunting. Not for us, though. For decades we’ve been assisting high school and college students as they tackle college and graduate school applications that require essays. At every step of the way, from developing a topic to polishing a final draft, we are there for you, providing as much support as you may need. This recent email (January 2019) sums it up – the writer was just accepted to Cornell Law School: “Thank you…for all of your help throughout this process. I could not have done it without you…!!!”
There are few topics that cannot be expanded into a cogent, effective essay. We share these college application subjects/themes to give you but a small glimpse at the extensive range of topics our successful students have written about. While personal statements generally don’t have titles, the words below express the principal subject of the essays that student have created with our help:
- Solving a Rubik’s cube
- The Joy of Bhangra (an Indian dance form)
- The science in soap making
- The “voice” of the lacrosse stick
- From sports injury to music career
- The exploitation of carriage horses
- Playing the violin for suspicious border guards
- Red moleskin sketchbook
- A hot, crowded bomb shelter
- “Go purify α-Catenin 660-906”
- Prosciutto-producing trees and my skepticism
- Rosalind Franklin and my epiphany
- Bench work: piano and lab
- Defined by two cultures
- Identifying with acorns
- The circles of the garba (a festival dance)
- Taming my curly hair
- Ruining my first lab experiment
- My big feet
- My grandmother’s cat and mortality