Admissions Essays Applying to College

Help Getting Started on the College Essay

Written by CB Experts

To many, the very thought of writing the college admissions essay seems daunting. It’s a crucial part of your college application, so the pressure is on. Don’t worry! We have a few pointers that will help get you started on writing an exciting and noteworthy admissions essay.

Start Early

These words can not be said enough or emphasized enough. An essay should grow; it needs time to form in your mind. You need to practice using words to get what’s in your head on paper. You will want to let the words cool on the paper and then revisit them, and you will want to edit and revise the essay. All of that takes time, and we’re talking about only one essay.

Yes, you may have to write more than one essay. Some colleges have supplemental essays, and you may not even notice that right away. You should set aside time to deal with anything unexpected like an additional essay or a change in ideas or a desire to apply to that last college you just reconsidered going to. Writing college application essays is a tiring, but still rather serious, task. You must make sure everything is perfect. But if you find it too difficult a task, you could always ask for some help from writing experts.

Also you do not have the luxury of devoting your life to applying to colleges. Before you know it, school has begun and extracurricular demands are upon you. Then there is the social pull of exciting things that are going on during your senior year. Before you know it, you don’t have the time you thought you would have or need.

Plan to start writing essays in August BEFORE your senior year

Don’t start too early though; schools update their applications for August. Early decision applications need to be done by the end of September, and although some applications don’t have to be in until January, why not set a goal to be done BEFORE Christmas vacation so you can enjoy your vacation!

Be confident; you have something to say

The hardest part about writing the college essay is feeling confident about what you are about to write. The uncertainty about what is acceptable, what “they” want, is a cause for writer’s block. You have to first understand the essay is only a piece of you, another trait, and that you have a lot more to say than you think.

Consolidate essays; write only what you need to.

Begin by reading all the essay questions on the applications you will fill out. Write them all down and match common themes and topics. Whenever one required topic could meet the needs of a second essay, you should feel comfortable writing only the one essay. Remember, too, that essay prompts are necessarily vague, which means they are open to interpretation. So, even if prompts are somewhat alike, you can fashion one essay that can be used for both by interpreting the prompts to be alike.

Here is an example of two prompts.

  • From Brown: “In reading your application we want to get to know you as well as we can. We ask that you use this opportunity to tell us something more about yourself that will help us toward a sense of what you are, how you think, and what issues and ideas interest you most.”
  • After checking out their Honor Code Haverford asks you to write to one of three prompts. Here is one: “Given the dynamic nature of the Honor Code and the opportunity you will have to shape and change the Code if you come to Haverford, what issues and ideas do you think are essential for an Honor Code to focus on, and how should an Honor Code address them?”

You can see both prompts are alike in the area of issues and ideas that interest you. Now interpret each to so that you can write one essay, let’s say “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, which might explore why respect is an issue that has significance for you and how respect should and could be shaped by family and school codes This essay will work for both essay prompts. It is much better to spend time working and reworking one essay until it is honed than spending the same time writing two different essays, and the admission’s officer at Brown will never know the admissions officer at Haverford is reading the same essay!

The Common Application is a good way to consolidate so that you are not writing several essays because you are applying to several colleges/universities. The Common Application offers you five choices of an essay to write.  Check to see if talking about an accomplishment for one college could also fit the Common Application prompt about an accomplishment that helped you transition from childhood to adulthood.  You might only have to write one more concluding paragarph to make both essays work. When one essay can work, don’t write two!

And, there is no problem adapting a prompt to your own interests and voice. If you have something to say about Key Club, then you should write about it, and you can still meet the intent of two or three prompts. For example, prompts #1 and #2 on the Common Application are “Some students have a background story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it.  If this sounds like you , then please share your story.” and “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you and what lessons did you learn?” You might write about a problem you had in Key Club: interpersonally, as a leader, or in organizing.  The problem could be a “failed” experience that taught you something about yourself or for life succes, and/or it could represent an action/reaction you had because of your background and how your background defines you and motivates you in life.  Essay ppormpts do not limit you if you define them broadly and find a way to relate the story you want to tell to the prompt.

Answer the prompt

As much as you can interpret and adapt prompts to your interests, you must still be sure you have read the prompt thoroughly and that you answer the prompt. In fact, sometimes prompts are long and have several sections, not only to give writers options but also to make sure writers read closely and address all parts of the essay prompt.

Let us look again at a prompt from the Common Application:

  • “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you and what lessons did you learn?”

Notice the word or in the prompt. They are telling you you do not have to limit yourself to one experience but you can look at a whole period in your life, perhaps a summer or a time when you felt like the world outside you didn’t exist. Think about the word failure. Does it have to be  negative or about not getting exactly what you wanted, or could it be about a mistake you made or about a misperception you had?  Make sure, too, that you address the whole prompt. The last part of the prompt asks you to show how it affected you, and what lessons it taught you.  Be careful not to describe the three weeks you and your family took to drive cross-country and tell about how wonderful it was without looking at what that trip did to you. Were you changed? Did you learn something about your limitations? Were you moved to take the initiative to write, to choose a career path, to learn about Native Americans? If you think about it, the emphasis is on what happened to you more than it is on what happened. Many applicants will spend too much time describing the experience and not enough time explaining how the experience affected them.

Remember most prompts are looking for you to reveal yourself and show that you are a person who will contribute to the school’s learning and social environment.

Take stock of yourself; you are more than a number or piece of paper!

Prompts can be intimidating. Don’t be intimidated! What may seem sophisticated, too-too serious, or too intellectual is more likely the product of a bad prompt writer than of an application designed to scare away candidates.

Do not believe you have nothing of significance to say! Most college applicants do far more than they are aware, have experiences that are more interesting than what an adult in the daily grind faces, and have a fresh, new approach to what happens in their lives.

The best way to find out about yourself and your values is to ask.

  • Ask your friends to describe you, recount funny incidents, and talk with you about your favorite things.
  • Ask your parents to talk about family history, family adventures, and family values.
  • Ask teachers how they will remember you, how they think of you, what they think your strengths and weaknesses are.
  • Ask yourself. Pretend you are an interviewer and rehearse an interview of you. Take note of where questions might lead you, to places you had forgotten or activities you had dismissed. Also take note of areas that bring out enthusiastic responses from you.If it is too hard for you to do a virtual interview of yourself, ask a trusted friend, a parent, a teacher to interview you and takes notes. You will be surprised by what can be revealed about yourself and about you from others when you take the time to discover through conversation!

Soon you’ll be remembering that you have done a lot, had some odd experiences, looked at things differently from just anyone else in this country, known some unusual people, suffered some uniquely embarrassing things, participated in out-of-the ordinary or maybe too-ordinary family rituals, watched movies with weird twists that remind you of home, displayed some extraordinary-if-strange talents, etc.

Choose a good topic

The school to which you apply is trying to put a face to your numbers, and you are trying to distinguish yourself from other applicants to this school. The college essay helps you do these things in the easiest way. Really! Now choose the topic that will both allow you to showcase yourself as yourself and will set you apart.

Imagine the commonality and meritocracy out there. Don’t we all have a Main Street, USA? Don’t we see the same sitcoms with the same clothes and houses and conversation which standardize the norms for Americans? Enough of that! If you’ve read Stephen King, you know that he sees our normalcy, but he also sees that each and every town or individual or family have their own set of details that can astound. You want to choose a topic that will keep you on planet earth but will also show you can get along with aliens.

Don’t do what-happened-on-my-summer-vacation essays. You need to take a different angle that makes you you.

Key Club doesn’t have to be what has impacted you, nor football, nor a special teacher.

  • But, what about seeing a beautiful pink and red package given by Key Club members sitting on a dirty floor in an unkempt apartment? Could it impact you as a set of contrast that leads you to think about the meaning of Christmas?
  • What about a loss of a fumble in football? Could it teach you something about needing help from others to succeed, or could it illuminate that failure doesn’t give a rush like winning, which defines a human condition that will impact you for the rest of your years?
  • What about looking at the quirks of a special teacher and showing how that pimpled nose doesn’t register after he has led you down paths of mysteries you’d never thought about before in physics?

Let’s look at experiences that aren’t big and important

  • Could learning to eat and like lima beans, a most-detested vegetable, impact you?
  • Could discovering a hair in your soup raise you hair up about something?
  • Could it be that a rain shower might have put you in a contemplative place you have never been before, but would like to return to?

Do you need to look at the surface issues (abortion, taxes, affirmative action), or could you look at the way students are treated by others students in your school?

Do you need to look at national issues and global issues when you might have something very representative happening under you nose?

What about exploring the other side of an issue or the other point of view?

  • What would your grandmother think of Haverford’s Honor Code?
  • What if the rhetoric resulting from 9/11 had been about healing those environments producing such terrorists instead of rhetoric about revenge? How would that have played differently?
  • In other words, think outside the box. Big things can come in small packages. You can get to a positive through a negative. You can use a small sliver of life to illustrate a larger truism.

Now it’s time to write!

About the author

CB Experts

Content created by retired College Admissions consultants.