Over the years I’ve worked closely with a lot of high school students on their college admissions essays. These kids are bright, hard-working, ambitious, and intelligent young adults. Yet, when it comes to writing the college admissions essay, they completely freeze and lose all confidence in their abilities. What gives? And more importantly, how can students overcome their admissions essay anxiety and write something that’s authentic, interesting, and that will ultimately get them that acceptance letter?
It’s important to keep in mind what the goals of the admissions essays are. Admissions officers are interested in a few things when reading the essays:
Can you write? Being able to write a cohesive text of any sort is indicative of whether or not you will be successful at the college level.
Do you have any interests or skills that are not apparent from reading the rest of your application that would be an asset to the school.
What kind of person are you, and would they like to have you on campus?
I’ve surveyed over 100 students and asked them what was the most challenging part of writing their essays. Here are the top 3 answers and my suggestions on how to power through those hurdles.
Problem #1: Not being able to decide on the right topic and story to write about.
My response: This is by far the most difficult thing for students to figure out. For better or worse, many admissions essay prompts are open-ended enough where students can write about nearly anything. The trick of course, is to choose an interesting topic that won’t put the admissions committee to sleep.
When I tell students that they need to write something that will showcase their personalities, talents, or assets, I generally get the same response: “But I’m not interesting. There’s nothing special about me.”
This is simply not true. The key is to reflect on your life and acknowledge some of the unique circumstances that you experience daily that that you take for granted.
Ok, and how do you do that? When I can’t work directly with clients, I give them a personal questionnaire to complete and share with a family member, teacher, or friend. The questions are designed to force you to think about your everyday life in order to highlight some things are are actually pretty interesting and special about you and the way you live.
However, since we aren't working together, let me give you some questions that you can give your family and friends to answer about you. Getting an outside perspective of how other people see you can be very helpful in coming up with something to write about.
1. What are 3 of my most interesting personality traits?
2. What sort of quirks to do you associate with me?
3. Have you had any fun or memorable experiences with me?
4. What do you think I'm good at?
5. What can you always count on me for?
6. What is something that you'd ask me to help you out with?
7. If you were meeting me for the first time, what is something that you'd immediately notice about my personality?
The truth is, successful college essays don’t have to be about how you want to climb Mount Everest, or how you are an Olympic-level skating champ. Some of the best essays are about the small things - trips to Costco with your family, hunting trips with your grandfather, why you enjoy babysitting, or what goes into choosing a profile picture for your social media accounts.
Once you identify that one thing in your life that sets you apart, you’re good to go!
Problem #2: Not knowing how to start the essay. Specifically, having a difficult time coming up with a strong hook and opening paragraph.
My Solution: Not to add any more pressure, but it’s crucial to start the essay of right. The admissions officers are reading 100s of essays, and if you don’t grab their attention in the first 10 seconds or so, you’re going to lose their attention (and potentially that acceptance letter).
Once you’ve become crystal clear about what you’re going to write about, it’s time to come up with the “hook.” A hook is anything that grabs your reader’s attention so that they stick around and read the rest of your story. There are a lot of way to write a hook, from telling a funny story to defining an unexpected word. Here is a list of hook types that will help you start your essay off strong.
1.A short anecdote or personal experience
2.Describing a setting
5.Humor (very hard to do, btw)
6.A bold statement
*Note: While using a quote or definition are viable options for starting your essay, I find that they can come off as sounding a bit elementary. If you’re going to use a quote, make sure that it has a clear connection to you and your story, and that it preferably isn’t a quote that has been used a million times before. And if you’re going to use a definition, please DO NOT start off with the words, “Webster's Dictionary defines grit as…... “ That is how a 5th grader would start a college admissions essay! Try and think out of the box when using words and quotes.
Need some stellar examples of opening college admission essay paragraphs? Check out this article: “Let Me Introduce Myself: First lines from Stanford application essays“
Problem #3: Organizing all their thoughts into a coherent story.
My Solution: When sitting down to write an essay of any kind, most people start with a sheet of paper (or a blank screen), and just start writing. They start at the beginning of their story, move to the middle, and eventually figure out a way to close it out. Seems reasonable, right?
As straightforward as this sounds, it’s usually a recipe for disaster.
When you don’t take the time to become crystal clear on what you want to write and how you’re going to structure your essay, the story gets lost and the admissions officers reading your work aren’t going to be able to discern whether or not you’d be a good candidate for their incoming class.
Before sitting down to write your essay, the most important thing you can do after deciding on a topic is creating an outline of what you’re going to write.
Most students are used to the 5 paragraph essay structure because teachers have been drilling this into your heads since 6th grade. Unfortunately, writing a formulaic 5 paragraph essay for college isn’t going to help you much.
So how many paragraphs should your essay have? As many as it needs.
Admissions officers aren’t counting your paragraphs and sentences. They are, however, looking for a logical progression of thoughts and a complete story that thoroughly addresses the prompt.
If you start rambling or going on a tangent in the middle of your essay and then throw together 2-3 sentences to conclude, things aren’t going to go well for you.
And so here’s my solution:
Become very clear about what you’re going to write about.
Do a “brain dump” session to get all the thoughts out on paper without trying to edit them. (This is usually referred to as brain storming).
ORGANIZE your thoughts into a basic Beginning - Middle - End sections.
Write your outline.
If you can get a clear understanding of the progression of your story BEFORE you write it, then writing your actual essay will be so much easier.
Need help organizing your thoughts so that you can write an admissions essay worthy of an acceptance letter? Click here to get my Admissions Essay Outline Cheat Sheet