It is the time of year when smart rising seniors are beginning to work on their personal statements/essays for college applications. They know that the senior year gets busy and that crowded schedules will keep them from performing their best in the ultra-competitive college game. Thus, my clients and I spend the summer talking about topics, thinking through approaches, and fine-tuning the words that will ultimately make their case to a busy college official.
Let’s start by looking at what college essay is not.
1. It is not a resume in prose. Most parents and other unknowing adults will push a student to use the essay as the place to explain all their accomplishments. These obnoxious accounts are as boring as they are common. We have other places to explain activities in the application so don’t waste this precious opportunity.
2. It is not a chance to do a sell job. It is very irritating to read an essay when a student is trying to convince the reader that they are the very, very, very best person for the college. It drives readers crazy to see statements like: “Obviously,” “This is a great example of why I am a good fit your school,” or “This demonstrates my impressive leadership abilities.” That kind of posturing talks down to your audience and, quite honestly, frames the writer as an unlikable and clueless person.
3. It is not a book report. Even if the prompt asks about your favorite book, this is not looking for facts about literature.
4. It is not an academic paper. This isn’t the place to impress colleges with minutia or facts about specific research or degree fields. In fact, essays are not the place to list a series of facts about any topic.
5. It is not a standard 5-paragraph essay telling you what you are going to tell them, telling them, then telling them what you told them. Those may work fine for English class but defeat the purpose of a gripping college essay.
The reason colleges ask for an essay is to provide a way to get to know the student. It is the one chance a teen has to let the college see life through their eyes, to invite the reader (who really does like kids) into their world for a bit.
It might help to view the essay as a work of creative nonfiction. Students need to find a tiny slice of life, an interesting incident that they’ve contemplated deeply, or an event that changed or shaped them. They should think through the topic and determine what the point of the experience was for them personally, then figure out how to structure the narrative arc of the story. Because, at the end of the day, the most successful essays are true stories, handled like great literature.
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