How To Write a College Admission Essay

I know that the pressure on you right now is enormous.  The best possible thing you can do in terms of writing a good college admission essay is to alleviate some of the stress.  No, this does not mean procrastinating!   It means keeping your perspective, finding healthy ways to vent, and allowing yourself enough time to write an essay that accurately reflects who you are.  All writing improves with the perspective given us by some time away, so if you do nothing else for yourself, begin your college admission essays early.

  1. Write practice essays.  You're going to think I'm joking but I'm absolutely not.  The way that you get good at something is by practicing it.  Even before you receive your college application packets, write some practice college admission essays.  Go online to find some sample questions or have a friend make some up for you.  There are three categories of questions--why you want to attend the particular college, why you are a good candidate for the college and "the oddball questions" which are invented by someone in an ivory tower somewhere with the intention of completely stumping you. 

    You won't be able to predict or prepare for "the oddball questions" but you can easily practice for the others.  You'll get a feel for writing about yourself and the schools you are applying to before the pressure amps up.  It's similar to an athlete's practice before competition-you're doing a dry run now before the intensity of a looming deadline.  And as for the oddball college admission essay question, you never know.  Maybe it will be an easy one like "Why?"  And you can take all of fifteen seconds for your answer:  "Why not?"

  2. Prime the pump.  Part of the point of your practice writing is to clarify your thinking.  Many of your best ideas occur when you've given yourself some time and distance from whatever it is you're working on.  During that off time, a clarification of an idea will often just pop into your mind spontaneously.  So by starting to think and write about some likely college admission essay themes early, your subconscious mind will have a chance to cogitate.  This is my favorite kind of writing-the kind when my mind does the work while I sleep!  You may possibly wake up one morning with an essay almost fully formed.  Or not.  At the very least, you'll be priming your writing pump.  You may even be able to lift a few key themes from your practice essays when it comes time for the real thing. 
  3. Be honest.  Think of your college admission essay as you would a date.  You want to be yourself at your best...but yourself.  If you're asked to describe yourself and your activities, do not fake anything.  If you're trying to be something other than who you really are, by say, feigning interest in social service activities when what really jazzes you is snowboarding, it won't work in your favor.  Of course you'll get bonus points if you started a snowboarding program for the underprivileged, but the point is that unless you have real enthusiasm for something, don't pretend that you do.
  4. Speak in your own voice.  If you try too hard to say the right thing, you'll probably just end up stifling yourself.  Allow yourself to brainstorm and write freely, and then later edit your work.  Don't try to do both simultaneously as you'll only end up second-guessing everything that you write.  As much as you can, allow your natural voice to show through.  Remember that the essay assayers read so many college admission essays that they all begin to blend together.  If yours has a vibrancy to it-a sense of who you are and what makes you tick-they will take notice. 

  5. Make up for your deficits.  If you have any inconsistencies that need to be explained, the essay provides you a chance to do so.  Did you have a semester where your grades plummeted?  Perhaps there is a very legitimate reason why; the essay affords you an opportunity to explain yourself.  Don't be shy about admitting to personal hardship or challenges-owning up to these and overcoming them is a big part of what builds character, and you won't be faulted for an early start.  You don't want to draw attention to issues that the reader wouldn't be aware of otherwise nor do you want to dwell on anything morbid, but if there are any holes in your application, this is a good opportunity to cover them.
  6. Ask not what your school can do for you-ask what you can do for your school.  Without telegraphing "This is the part where I say x because I really, really, really want to get in," you do want to give the school a sense of how their campus will benefit from your presence.  It really is not just about how the school will benefit you, but how you will benefit the school community.  What unique characteristics will you contribute?  Remember that no one wants to be the school that turned down the next Nobel Laureate, so don't by shy about showing your true potential.
  7. Edit.  This is the last step of writing your essay and the most important.  Turn in nothing less than an essay that is grammatically perfect.  Since you began writing your college admission essay early, you'll have enough time to research any grammatical issues that need resolution.  You'll also have time to put the essay down and come back to it fresh.  Read the essay out loud.  Read it out loud again with a foreign accent.  At any of the places that you stumble, rewrite.  While you may choose to get feedback from others, ultimately it is you who needs to feel satisfied with your finished essay.

We all know that where you end up going to college will have a significant impact on the rest of your life.  On the other hand, remember that cream rises to the top; even if you don't get into the college of your dreams, you can always get an honorary degree from the school after you become famous!  What I'm really trying to say here is that as much as you can, try to take the pressure off and keep things in perspective.  While you do want to write the best possible college admission essay that you can, at some point, you're going to need to call it done, send it off, and let the universe (or university) decide the rest.  And remember that there are plenty of accomplished people who went to mediocre schools or even dropped out of school altogether, so don't overload the importance of your college admission essay to the point of losing perspective. 


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