For most students, the college essay is the first time in high school when they are instructed to write about themselves. High school is full of writing. There are history papers, book reports, science lab summaries, and news items for the school newspaper, but, unless your school offers a creative writing program, there often isn’t a time when you’re handed a blank slate and asked to lay a part of yourself bare. Vulnerability isn’t something you can just switch on, good personal writing doesn’t come automatically, and writing about yourself can be very uncomfortable.
When people are uncomfortable, they tend to go one of two ways. They either clam up, or they start spewing word vomit. We have definitely seen (and helped fix) both, and they are totally understandable.
When someone clams up, they tend to try to write about something other than themselves. They really don’t want to seem like they are bragging, so instead, they try completely changing the subject. Now, you might be able to write a totally killer essay about your grandparents, but writing about your grandparents actually doesn’t serve the purpose of the college essay. Same goes for writing about an inanimate object, like the tree outside your window and the history of birch trees in America. It might be totally fascinating, but that doesn’t mean that it works as a college essay.
On the other side of the spectrum are the spewers. These are the people who are so overwhelmed by the idea of trying to write something about themselves that they proceed to try to tell their entire life story in 650 words. If you are 17 years old, that’s 38 words per year. That’s less than this paragraph so far, by half, per 365 days of your life. You could be the second coming of Hemingway, a king of short sentences, and that would still be an absurd endeavor that leaves the reader with whiplash and without a real understanding of who you are.
Where does this leave us? Somewhere in the middle. The good part of the clammer (ha, that’s ridiculous but we’re going with it) strategy is that they tend to focus in on a singular thing, normally a noun, and really dig into it. The good part of the spewer strategy is that they want to share, they’re just over sharing. So, writing a good college admissions essay about yourself (which is what every college admissions essay should be about) means combining the good parts we just pulled out of each of these impulses.
Zoom in on a particular moment, experience, or thing that means a lot to you or that shaped you into who you are today. This doesn’t need to be some big grandiose moment of ultimate success that taught you what it means to live. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. Maybe you write about how you make the pumpkin pie every year for Thanksgiving using a recipe that was passed from your grandmother to your mom and then to you. You could write a moment when things didn’t work out perfectly, like when you didn’t make the varsity soccer team despite being certain that you would. Or you could write about tennis and the precise ballet that is a successful doubles match. The point is, pick something specific that matters deeply to you and that will show admissions officers a side of you they won’t get to see anywhere else in your application.
Tell a Story
Even with the most compelling topic, you still need to build a narrative. We talk about this incessantly, but we do so because it’s important. Your essay should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it should take the reader along on that journey with you.
Use Your Voice
Writing in high school tends to be centered around sounding as smart as you can. There’s nothing wrong with sounding smart. In fact, we quite like sounding smart ourselves. But a fixation on sounding intelligent can erase a key piece of the essay - that it sounds like you. Finding your voice as a writer can be difficult, especially when you’ve been trained to write academically, so we encourage students to start journaling or free-writing (writing whatever comes to mind without a set topic) for at least a few weeks before they have to write their essay. That way, you can learn how you like to write, and also learn a little bit about yourself in the process.
Remember Who It’s About
If you think small, tell a story, and use your voice, you shouldn’t have too much trouble staying on the topic of you. Still, if you go off topic don’t be afraid to redirect or even start over. Sometimes it takes some doubling back to get to where you should be.