The SAT and ACT are taken, scores received. The transcripts bundled with a plethora of application pages.  The FAFSA and other financial information finally finished after hours of telephone calls, online services, old receipts and bank statements gathered. Yes, one of the most exciting and stressful elements of senior year is  the college application process.  It is a daunting but exhilarating task. One of the most important parts of the application, however, is often forgotten until the last minute because students often rely on their GPAs and tests scores to represent them in the admissions process;  they quickly scribble together 5 paragraphs of  incoherent clichéd self blabber and call it their college essay.

As a high school Literature teacher who has also served in the admissions process at the university level I cannot stress enough the importance of a well-written creative and thoughtful college essay(s). The college essay is the one specific area of the application containing the student’s voice. Why is this important? Because it allows the student to become distinct. The rest of the application process is statistical. Think about it.  Test scores- statistics, transcripts-statistics, FAFSA- statistics, accolades-statistics, extra-curricular activities- statistics. I understand that the accolades, accomplishments, awards, and extra-curricular activities  are all very important to the student. Yes, I admit they look great on an application, but  there are still thousands of applicants with perfect attendance, played basketball, acted in theatre, went to another country with AFS while maintaining a 3.5 on their weighted GPA vying  for college acceptance letters.

So how does a student make themselves distinct in their college essay? Though there is no perfect formula, a writing strategy helps. Over the last 6 or 7 years I’ve read a variety of resources and developed a strategy for my students. I also give them a set of guidelines to help their writing process. During that time period I’ve noticed and documented an increase of my students being admitted to the 1st college of their choice and a growth in the persistence of students writing extra essays for financial scholarships and winning them. It is one of the best rewards as a teacher to see students apply and be accepted to distinguished state universities and Ivy League schools.

Whether you are a teacher, student, or parent, I hope the college essay guidelines and strategies that follow are helpful.  I also hope it encourages creative thinking and the realization that everything we write is artistic and a representation (even if miniscule) of who we are and our understanding of life.

The Basic Strategy of the College Essay:

1.) Begin the summer of senior year. I know its past summer and you may have no essays to show for it.   Don’t worry, the point is get it done soon.  I actually incorporate college essays into the summer assignment.  All 12th graders must have their rough drafts essays ready to turn in the first day of school.  My lesson plans for the first two weeks of school focus entirely on college essays.  The 12th graders must send their college application through the school by the end of September. This helps students focus on their 12th grade curriculum and their “acceptance anxiety” as well.

2.) The college essay can make a difference in acceptance or rejection. I know it sounds simple but students must understand their ability or inability to show  and articulate their message and voice can  be a make or break situation.

3.) Be the needle in the haystack.  Though I’ll write more about a paper’s originality  later it is very important to start it as a strategy. From the beginning students must realize their goal is to stand out.  They want to be the memorable essay the admissions reader thinks about after work. I want my students’ essays to become needles in the haystack the readers are proud to find.

4.) Don’t write about statistics. I know it sounds obvious, but as a former reader at least two-thirds of students mentioned information found in their application packet for a paragraph or more in their college essay.  It doesn’t matter if the student is using this information to explain, or use it as a segue way- they should not write about anything found elsewhere in their application.  When readers comes across  statistics in the essays, the student becomes less of a person and more of a number to the reader. Even if a student has the highest GPA with a genius IQ and incredible test scores for their SAT, colleges want unique individuals that communicate and articulate themselves.

5.) Optional essays aren’t optional.  The third essay is has an optional label at the end of the essay in parentheses. Students show me this all the time. My reply is simple, ” Do you want to go to this university? Yes?  Then it isn’t optional. Don’t do the minimum, go to great strides to show you are a needle in a haystack.” (optional: refer to number 3. again )

6.) It isn’t only what you say, it is how you say it. One of the most important ideas in literature and composition is thematic ideas. In my Literature classes, however,  it is essential for students to enjoy the process of understanding how the author communicated their message. I want students to realize the way they communicate is as important as the content of their communication. Both must be strong.

Let’s Add a Few Basic Guidelines:

Once the strategy is understood I give a handout to my students with a few basic guidelines. The first is a list of topics to avoid because they have become cliché and overused.

Cliché Topics

— The Game: Don’t talk about the winning shot at the buzzer, a hard defeat, learning life like a game. Most males will write some form of this essay. Even if well written this type of essay is still placed along the other ordinary non-creative versions.

— Vacation Themes: Readers don’t care how much “cultural experience” you gained from your trip to Fiji at a five star resort.  Guess what. It isn’t as much as you think.

— Influential Reports: One of the most common questions for the college essay is writing about something or someone that greatly influenced the applicant’s life. It is vital to remember the essay is still about you, don’t write a summative report that sounds textbook

— The Pity Party: This is a hard topic to avoid writing about because it works so well in normal life. We’ve all had catastrophes. Perhaps a parent or grandparent has died, maybe the family experienced something horrible like racial or gender discrimination, or maybe you became sick and conquered the sickness. I know these can be moving stories that evoke empathy, but don’t try to get into college based on pity. So many students use this type of essay the reader’s emotions are exhausted and the essay won’t evoke the emotion desired. Second, you are suggesting the most important part of your identity you’ve decided to share is conflictive, tense, and defining.

— Life Story: If it is possible to share your life story in 500 words then you shouldn’t write about it because you haven’t lived. Don’t write a summation of your existence.

Last, students need to know a few structural and stylistic guidelines. These don’t only pertain to  the college essay but are particularly important to remember in the college essay format.

— 1st Person Narrative: Just because you can say “I” doesn’t mean you should. Don’t overload an essay with the use of 1st person. Whenever, you write “I” in a sentence ask if there is a better way to write the sentence without it. Taking a few minutes to do this will help sentence variation and type.

— Exaggeration or fiction: False information in a personal essay is easy to detect.

— Over under: Don’t be more than 25 words short of the essay limit and no more than 50 words over. Time is a precious commodity and so is following instructions.

— Humor is king: If you can right humorously do it! Humor is so memorable and will entertain the reader. Imagine being an essay reader and reading between 200-300 essays a day; a humor-filled essay is a needle in the haystack. Don’t force humor, however, because bad humor is the worst.

— Multiple Essay Topics: Most colleges desire 2-3 essays. Each essay must have a fresh topic. It is another chance to show your dynamics as a person.

— Show don’t Tell: Any rubric for my students’ writing will have “show don’t tell”  added to it. It is  the catalyst of all interesting writing. Burrowed brows and frowns are much more interesting than stating emotion (“I was mad”).

Though there is no perfect formula I find students that strive to follow a purposeful strategy and desire to write something authentic and thoughtful without resorting to clichés are accepted more often and quickly. Some essays were so powerful I can still remember them. I remember the student who wrote about herself as a piece of gum on people shoes. I laugh at the student who used “Calvin and Hobbes” and  wrote about Calvin being the single greatest character in American Literature. These are the essays that exemplify the author, that are creative and authentic, that are art.


Resources for Writing College Essays I Recommend and Use:

The New Rules of College Admissions by Stephen Kramer & Michael London 2006

College Essays That Made a Difference Edited by Erica Magrey (Princeton Review) 2003

The College Application Essay by Sarah Myers McGinty (CollegeBoard) 2004.

What Colleges Don’t Tell You by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross 2006

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