Essays. Required by almost every college. This fall I suspect many of you will be getting headaches over your college application essays. Some of you may be struggling with choosing where you're going to apply before you start thinking about writing. That's a mistake, because essays tend to be generic - very broad topics which you can use for multiple applications.
Do you know what the most common essay prompt
is? Go on, guess. Bet most of you said something like: "Tell us about an
experience which shaped you" or
" Discuss a person who was influential in your development".
Those are ones you'll see, but they're not the most common one, which OVER 90% of colleges ask.
Guess again, then scroll down for the answer...
It's: "Subject of your choice"! Go ahead - check on the common application's essay prompts - see #6?
my strong suggestion to you is: GET STARTED WRITING, and don't wait for
someone to tell you the topic or for your list of schools to coalesce
(which is a different topic, and email, entirely. Those of you who need
some coaching about getting a list of schools finalized should - you're
feel free to get in touch with me!)
Every year I get comments and complaints from students suffering from writer's bloc which include:
"What am I supposed to write about?" "Nothing interesting has ever happened to me!"
"This is stupid!"
Well listen up buckos and I'll give you my take on the Great Essay Opportunity.
right - Opportunity. Instead of thinking of these essays as annoying
inconveniences being imposed on you, think of 'em as one of your best
chances to show those bozos in the admissions offices what a huge
mistake they'll be making if they have the temerity to overlook you!
Wondering "What do they want me to write?" is exactly the WRONG question to ask yourself.
Asking "What do I want them to know about me?" is the CORRECT way to think about your essays.
from this perspective, you have THOUSANDS of great stories and
vignettes to relate in essay form. Your entire life is the fodder from
where you can choose, and if you get beyond the idea that you have to
write something that will differentiate you from the crowd, and instead
realize that that life of yours HAS ALREADY HAS DIFFERENTIATED YOU FROM
THE CROWD, ideas for what to write about should flow more readily!!
admission folks are less impressed by great accomplishments than they
are by your ability to allow them insight in to who you are. Be real. Be
honest. Be beguiling. Be confessional. Be manipulative. Be clever by
realizing that the one and only and ultimate purpose of your essay is to
impart what I call a "moral" to the reader, and that moral is to cause
the reader to conclude one (or more) of the following things after they
read your essay:
- you're smart - you're funny - you're clever - you
write well - you're profound - you're a risk taker - you're a good
person - you think deep thoughts - you're ready for college - you learn
from experience - you are motivated to succeed - you've overcome
obstacles / adversity - you're someone they would like to meet and get
to know - you're someone who will be a good addition to their college -
you're someone who if given the opportunity will shine at their school,
thereby making them look like geniuses for accepting you!
Get the idea? The sole purpose of every essay is to predispose the reader to accept you. That's it, fini, end of story.
like students to prepare an "arsenal" of THREE or even FOUR essays.
Give the colleges an extra essay with your application (if they ask for
one give 'em two, if they want two give 'em three...), and have one left
over to send in February with your "follow up" package (I'll remind you
Note when you check out the "writing"
page on the Common Application (which by now you're all signed up for -
if you're not, reread my last rant), you'll see an "Additional
Information" section right under the main essay. It says: "Please upload
a document here if you wish to provide details of circumstances or
qualifications not reflected in the application.." Think
you want to leave that puppy blank? Think again! Opportunity! For another great essay!
now let's get going! Far as I'm concerned it doesn't matter where
you're applying, or to how many schools. I suggest you have 3 or 4 great
All you need to know to get started are a few simple rules:
#1: Length Essays should be 500 to 750 words. It's hard to keep 'em
short (500 words) so don't worry about going a bit longer UNLESS the
college's instructions EXPLICITLY SAY "no more than 500 words". This is
rare, but if they do, you've got to do some slicing and dicing.
Rule #2: Make your essay like an Altoids. By this I mean your essay should be "Curiously Strong", which means:
essays should be WELL-WRITTEN (that's the "strong" part) b. essays
should be INTERESTING (that's the "curious" part - your essay should be a
The difference between a good and a great essay is how
interesting it is to read. Many folks' essays, though well written,
tend toward the tedious and banal. Avoid that. Take to heart what an
admissions director (from Union College in New York) has written:
rather read an interesting, revealing essay about a student cleaning
out his/her locker at the end of junior year, than read an uninspired
piece about someone's experience as a senate page in Washington for a
So what should you write about? Lotsa choices. You can begin
working on one of the essay prompts on the common application, which
requires you to answer ONE of them (note bene that some colleges assign a
second essay through their SUPPLEMENT to the common app):
1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative
work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you,
and explain that influence.
5. A range of academic interests,
personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational
mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that
illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college
community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity
6. Topic of your choice.
Want more ideas? Here are the
four broad topics I suggest that you write about (remember that Option
#6, "Your Choice", means just that!):
a. an ACTIVITY essay - write
about something you do regularly and with passion. This can be sports,
music, your job, a volunteer gig, babysitting your little brother,
playing video games, etc.
b. an EXPERIENCE essay - tell a good story
from somewhere within the richness of your life experiences. It could be
something that happened this year, or a dozen years ago. One of the
best essays I've read from a few years ago was an experience essay about
a seemingly trivial thing which happened when the writer was in 4th
grade! Of course, the point of the essay was that it wasn't trivial at
all, but had a lasting impact to the writer's
insight and development.
a CAREER essay - what do you want to do when you grow up, and why? If
unsure, you can write the "clueless" career essay, wherein you talk
about how you have MANY interests and you'll be darned if you're ready
to select just one at this time.
d. a "WILD CARD" essay: what haven't you told them about, and what do you want them to know about you?
that ALL ESSAYS, regardless of topic, are ABOUT YOU, and are intended
to yield one or more of the conclusions or morals I enumerated above.
That said, you are by definition the WORLD EXPERT on the subject matter:
which is YOU!
Are you not? So what are you waiting for? Go nuts!
Feel free to send me ideas, drafts, versions, whatever and I'll be glad to give you my two cents worth...
From your corresponding corporal, your narrative nabob, your loquacious lexiconographer (ha ha!), your wonked-out wordsmith...
If any readers are unfamiliar about the for-pay portion of my services
please ask me and I'll fill you in. And by all means, pass on these
rants, my name and email and phone, to any and all Class of '12 students
(and parents) you know who may appreciate them.
P.P.S. If you'd rather not get these occasional missives, kindly let me know...and you won't.
-- Gary L. Canter College Placement Services 210 St. John Street Portland, Maine 04102 (207) 772-9711
Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection,
application and financial aid process.