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The college essay process — Embracing your awesome

College Application Essay How to Write College Essay

Helping you get past one of the major hurdles of writing a college application essay: Figuring out what is Awesome about you. 

When I began the process of writing this, I had planned to write something basic like “How to write a college essay” or “How to write a personal statement”, outlining the common pitfalls of college application essay writing. . But if you Google “College Essay Mistakes,” you get over 51 million results. And it seems that almost all of them are titled something along the lines of “(number between 3 and 21) Common College Application Essay Mistakes to Avoid.” And a lot of them are pretty good. But like a college applicant, I had to figure out what I could write about college application essays that would set me apart.  When it comes to the question “How to write a college essay” (or, alternately “How to write a personal statement”), the most important thing to do is Make Yourself Stand Out.

Between 3.5 and 4 million students will apply to and enroll in college this year and most of them will write between 1 and 4 college application essays.But consider the plight of the admissions officers reading these college essays (also called personal statements). In most cases, the college application essay is the one part of the college application where a student gets to show the reader who they truly are. Most of the application is simply a bundle of data – numbers and words that give information about the person outside of the context of who the person is. Even the list of extracurriculars don’t reveal much – how much does the phrase “Chess Club 2, 3, 4” really say about you? It is in college application essay that the applicant gets the chance to showcase themselves as a real human being. In larger colleges, those folks may read literally thousands of college application essays. Because of this, the question of” how to write a college application essay becomes how to write a college application essay that stands out from the crowd?”.

The first step the applicant must take in writing their college essay is to honestly inventory their achievements.  A fascinating thing I’ve learned while coaching students through the essay process is that they often have a difficult time zeroing in on what’s cool about themselves. To write a successful college application essay, the applicant has to think about 1) All the positive things about themselves, 2) Any great challenges they may have faced and overcome, and 3) Any volunteering/public service they may have done. As I say to the kids I coach in writing college essays and personal statements; make a list of what makes you Awesome. To all the parents and counselors out there, you can be a big in the college essay process. Point out your student’s good deeds, their hobbies, all the kinds of things that might not make it into the college application essay but still make them Awesome.

The next step is to choose what essay prompt(s) they want to address for their college application essay. In both the Common App and the UC Application, there are a variety of essay prompts that vary from fairly specific, such as “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” ( Common App 2018-2019 essay prompt 2) to the really broad, such as “Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admission to the University of California?”(UC Application 2018-2019 essay prompt 8). Fortunately, the essay prompts have enough variety and are broad enough that an applicant should be able to choose several easily. If a student has done a good job taking inventory of their Awesome, their essay prompt choices should fairly leap off the page and they’re on their way to a stand-out college application essay.

If the college-bound scholar honestly cannot choose(or has to narrow their choices down) which essay prompt to answer for their college application essay, I suggest this: For each essay prompt, set a timer for 5 minutes and just respond to it with no concern for anything except getting the information out.  After writing on each essay prompt for 5 minutes and comparing what they’ve written, the student should have a clear idea of which essay prompts are promising. This process can still be quite difficult though. One student, stuck for a topic for their college essay lamented, “All I really do besides school is build models and play video games!” So we had to go digging for a college essay topic. One thing we came up with is how he was almost had to go to summer school because of poor grades in junior high. This wouldn’t be a great college essay topic. We dug further – what would be so bad about summer school? The answer was that summer school would keep him from spending the summer with his father. BINGO! Now we are working on a topic for his college essay about how he realized he had a problem, came up with a solution, and executed it, and how he can carry that lesson forward.  That was an example of finding his Awesome and applying it to an essay prompt to create a great college essay. Another student had to answer an essay prompt about what she would change in her community. She had a short list of about 5 things she would change. We chose one topic for her college essay based on 1) Her passion for it and 2) She was able to list specific policies that addressed the issue. She was able to take that college application essay from  “this is bad” to  “this is what we can do.”

Whether choosing essay prompts was easy or not, we advise all the applicants we coach to choose the most open-ended question for one of their topics. For the UC Insight Question, that is prompt 8: “Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?” On the Common App, that is essay prompt 7: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

There are two reasons we always recommend these essay prompts. First, it gives the applicant the chance to write a college essay that says pretty much whatever they want about themselves that doesn’t fit the other essay prompts. Second, it gives the opportunity to tie their other college essays together. For example, the UC Application requires 4 essays. In that 4th open-ended essay, the UC applicant can bring the first three essays together to create a theme and a narrative of sorts. This is ambitious, but it can really serve to make the applicant a real person in the eyes of the admissions officers. With 5,000 or so colleges receiving at least 3.5 million applications with at least 7 million college application essays, this is of crucial importance. The competition is fierce and your college application essay must stand out. To put it another way, you want that bleary-eyed, third-cup-of-coffee admissions officer to read those college essays and say, “Wow, this kid is Awesome.”

— Luis L.

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