The process of applying to colleges is an arduous one. Standardized tests, campus visits, alumni interviews, and navigating the complexities of Naviance and SCIOR all add up to hours of work, on top of the time students must spend actually doing their schoolwork. The biggest task, however, is writing the many essays universities require for admission – not just the Common App, but the countless supplemental essays and short answers, each with their own twists on “Why us?” Most students, when faced with the yawning chasm of work and the high stakes of completing it “perfectly,” choose to put off this part of the college admissions process until the fall of their senior year, or the summer before it. This is a mistake. Start your college essays early!
While these essays are meant to persuade the admissions committee to accept a student into their school, they are not driven by argument so much as feeling, tone of voice, and narrative. Students trained in the craft of building a sturdy five-paragraph essay or writing a research paper are not well prepared to do this kind of writing, and they won’t learn it formally in school.
The earlier a student starts the process of ideation, composition, and revision, the better off they will be. Because this writing is both uncharted and high stakes, students need time to experiment, possibly fail, and begin again. Often, ideas that don’t work for a Common App essay can be recycled into supplemental essays. The lesson being that the effort of writing, no matter the result, is rarely wasted.
Some students may object to the idea of writing their college essays before the summer of their senior year, banking on the hope that they will do something really interesting in July and August that will provide them with just the right material for an essay. Others will spin their wheels in an effort to find a dramatic tale of hardship overcome or lives radically altered. None of this is necessary to begin writing. As my colleague, Liz Walters says, the best college essays are “vivid, memorable, and a pleasure to read.”
To arrive at such an essay requires work, beginning with students choosing prompts that interest them from the Common App website. Though the portal doesn’t typically become available for rising seniors until early August, the prompts for 2023-2024 are already confirmed and posted. Year to year, the prompts don’t change much, and the final, open-ended prompt means that if a student has an idea that doesn’t fit into any of the boxes offered, they shouldn’t reject it. Remember that prompts are not assignments; they are springboards meant to help students craft essays that will tell the admissions committee something interesting about this person that isn’t reflected in grades, test scores, recommendation letters, or a CV.
During this initial period, it can be helpful to read examples of past students’ essays, which are usually available on a college or university’s admissions page. They may reveal unconventional approaches to familiar subjects, offer a model of pacing and structure, or show a student that it’s OK to be funny on the page (if that’s their inclination). More importantly, careful reading and analysis will show that these texts did not spring wholly formed from their authors’ minds. Many drafts will be required.
Once a prompt has been selected, students should just start writing. Sometimes a brainstorming session is useful to come up with a list of potential ideas, but don’t let too much time elapse between ideation and composition. It’s best to run with an idea while it’s still fresh. Some students will find they can write through to a completed first draft without help, but others will need prompting after the first or second paragraph. This is where a skillful writing coach can help a student turn a topic into a story, finding ways to dramatize a change that might otherwise seem internal. Always, students should expect to write at least two or three drafts, ideally with some amount of time between rounds to give them a fresh perspective.
Conversely, other students may write a gripping story, but leave out any reflection on what the story means to them or how the event shaped their character or outlook. A common student objection is a fear of sounding “cheesy.” The capacity for self-reflection is a sign of maturity, and simply put, many high school students haven’t had to really examine themselves in a sustained and honest manner. Others may allow that this self-analysis is a necessary ingredient but show a resistance to the idea that they can apply knowledge retrospectively–hinting at things they only knew later.
What is central to all personal college essays is that the author allows themselves to think on the page, thoughts that Columbia professor Phillip Lopate calls “quicksilver and spontaneous” in his book on creative nonfiction To Show and To Tell. “There is nothing more exciting than following a live, candid mind thinking on the page, exploring uncharted waters,” writes Lopate. A great personal essay will exhibit this quality, giving readers insight into not just what the author has done, but how they think about the world and their place in it.
Written by Daniel Penny, an educator and writer with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, a BA in English from Grinnell College, and an AA in liberal arts from Bard High School Early College.