The most difficult, most important, and most time consuming portion of the application is the essay – or essays, since many colleges ask you for more than one. Many selective colleges put the essay third in importance after your grades and test scores so it is important that you carefully consider your essay.
This is your opportunity to speak to the admissions committee in an honest and straightforward manner. Consider it an invitation to talk face to face with the committee. Colleges ask these essay questions for two reasons: To learn more about you. Who is the real person behind these credentials? To evaluate your skills as a writer. Every essay should be guided by these two factors. This is your chance to distinguish yourself to the college admissions officers.
The summer before senior year is a great time to begin. Make a list of traits and experiences that set you apart from others. Make a chronological list of important things you have done in and out of school. Finally, reduce the list to a few items that have meant the most to you. When your applications arrive in the fall review all of the questions. Make sure you answer the question or questions that the college asks. If you have a choice on what topic to write about choose a topic that is close to your heart. Let your personality shine through. Tell them what you want them to know, not what you think they want to hear. Never underestimate the power of your own written words. Make one experience come alive. Reinforce something positive in your application.
Writing the Essay
Once you have decided on your topic find a quiet place, sit down and write from the heart. Put down whatever comes into your mind and edit it later. Find your own voice; don’t twist yourself into someone else. With practice you can find that voice. The college admissions people expect you to write the way a 17-year-old writes, not the way a parent writes. Use Hemingway’s sentiment, “Show don’t tell!” How long should your essay be? “As short as you have time to make it,” writes one admissions officer.
Lead into the essay clearly and quickly. Avoid slang and being flippant or cute. Avoid gimmicks, long words and humor (unless you are truly funny and have a truly funny story to tell).
Use transition sentences between paragraphs to retain continuity. The first draft will be very rough. Leave it for a few days, then read it again with fresh objective eyes. Rewrite. Ask a person whose writing you respect to read it and make suggestions. Ask her if your personality shows through in the essay. Take criticism gracefully. Re-read your essay, being aware of grammar, spelling, and correct organization around the theme. Consider having one of your English teachers review the essay for their suggestions. Remember to be concise; the reader allows approximately 2-3 minutes per essay.
Finally, college admission officers are savvy to essays that have been over-edited by parents or purchased on the Internet. Please do not download any part of your essay from the internet.
For tips on writing the college essay from a selective college, see this page from Carleton College. If you want even more information, the best book I have found on writing the college essay is “On Writing the College Application Essay” by Harry Bauld. Although this book is now almost 20 years old, it still provides the best advice I have found on dealing with this important part of the college application.