Writing your college essay is a lot like climbing a mountain: what looks easy or straightforward from afar is anything but when one gets up close and stares up at a steep, forbidden face that disappears into clouds. Since college essays are short, it is easy to underestimate the amount of time, preparation and work it takes to write a strong one.
And once underestimated, a college essay can become as dangerous as Mount Everest. Having encountered more than a few students struggling and stranded on Mount College Essay over the years, I have developed a handful of guidelines to help anyone considering an ascent of Mt. College Essay reach the summit and not disappear into thin air.
1. Begin Early
If I had a nickel for every time students informed me that they were giving themselves a weekend- or even a week- to write their college essay, I would be a rich man. Many students learn to write fast rather than well in school, which often values quantity over quality. Good writing takes time, so be sure to give yourself enough of it to carefully and methodically craft your essay. Otherwise you will end up rushing and taking short cuts that will compromise not only your essay, but also your chances of getting into the college of your choice. Starting three months from the deadline for the application to write the essay will allow enough time for you and your team (yes, it takes a village) to produce a quality essay. If you have only a month or week left to write your essay, keep reading. The guidelines that follow will still help you- even if you have to condense the process a bit.
2. Assemble Your Team
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to climb Mount College Essay. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since your name is the only one on the essay that other people should not help you write it. Let me be clear, though, that by ‘help’ I do not mean others write it for you. There are plenty of people and businesses out there willing to do just this- or even sell you an essay- but in my experience this often ends up backfiring on students because admissions officers have a sixth sense that allows them to sniff out disingenuous or phony essays a mile away.
The first step in assembling a team is finding a guide, by which I mean the one person you can trust to make decisions about the overall structure and thrust of the essay.
An optimal guide would have experience writing, helping others write and helping students write college essays in particular. Teachers – especially those in the humanities-and guidance counselors often fit this bill. Look for someone that not only has the expertise to provide you with good feedback but also has the time to do so. Ask them if they might be willing to help you, being clear with them that helping will mean reading multiple drafts of your essay over the course of several months.
Help your guide help you write your college essay by setting up meetings and deadlines for drafts and feedback. This signals to them- and you- that you are invested in and serious about this and want them to be serious about it too. Clear expectations and deadlines also hold everyone accountable, which can make all the difference. A former student of mine at Emory, Olivia Murray, taught me the importance of guiding your guide when she was applying to graduate school from Emory University. She sent me her essay early and set up several meetings with me. I read and commented on several drafts of an essay that became so tight and compelling by the end that she had her choice of top doctoral programs. A strong writer, Olivia could have churned out an acceptable essay in a couple of hours. Instead, she began early and guided me to help her produce a stunning essay that did the trick in terms of getting her into the school of her choice.
Once you have a guide you can then assemble your rope team- in this case, others writing their college essay. Writing can be a very daunting process, and I have always benefitted from having a writing group to keep me motivated and moving. Writing by myself is like attempting a solo ascent of a mountain– it is easier to get sidetracked, lost or to just give up when the going gets tough. Assemble a small team- three has always worked for me- and set meetings times and deadlines. Read each other’s work and cheer each other on.
When reading other’s work, keep in mind that your goal is not to find mistakes but rather to help them find their voice. Having been on the receiving end of feedback that felt more like an attack, I cannot stress the importance of starting with the strengths of the essay and then moving to suggest what might make it stronger. Writing takes courage, and your feedback should help the writer imagine a way forward. Be honest, but don’t be harsh. Personal essays are just that- personal – so remember this when you are raring to rip someone’s essay apart. Frame your advice humbly, in the form of suggestions or even questions. Let the writer make the final call. Do as much of this as possible face-to- face so you can see their reaction as you offer feedback. The last thing you want to do is paralyze them, so keep an eye on their face to ensure that they are taking your criticism constructively rather than destructively.
Another thing to keep in mind is to leave the line editing- spelling and punctuation- for the last draft. Focus on the story and ideas first, and clean up the prose later. Focusing too early on spelling and punctuation can lead to flat, yet error-free, essays.
3. Scout the Mountain
The college essay is a strange and particular form of writing, so understanding what it is- and is not- will enable you and your team to chart a course towards the summit. There are mountains of books, articles, and blogs on the anatomy of a strong college essay and a quick search will turn up tons of resources. Poke around on the web, and find a few sources that seem particularly helpful. I have found college sites like this one at Johns Hopkins explaining why certain essays worked particularly helpful for students because they offer actual examples of successful essays and concise tips for writing a strong essay. If you are writing an essay for the Common Application, be sure to find examples and have a clear sense of the length of the essay. Have each member of your writing group identify a strong essay and dissect it to see how sentences and paragraphs make it work. What is the author doing with each sentence? What is the point of a particular paragraph in terms of what it says about the writer as a potential student? I like the Johns Hopkins page because admissions officers comment on what they liked about particular essays. As you will notice as you read the admissions officer’s comments, they do more than read the essays; they read into the essays to get a sense of you.
4. Scout Yourself
The best college essays are compelling, unique and genuine. You are too, but capturing you in three pages can be daunting. I have witnessed very strong writers retreat to rather formulaic college essays that do not do any justice to them as writers or as people. Trying to look brilliant, original or smart, they resort to dragging out big words and laying down long, convoluted sentences. What oftentimes goes missing in these showy essays is precisely what makes the writer interesting- and memorable. Your transcript will give admissions officers a good sense of your head, so use your essay to show them your heart. Figure out what one event or experience can best give them a sense of who you are as a living, breathing person. Colleges are increasingly interested in admitting whole and real people rather than brains, so use your essay to show them that you are indeed much more than a GPA.
Many students tend to overlook the most compelling or unique aspects of their lives and instead write what they think an admission officer wants to hear. Worried that their lives are not unique or interesting enough, they tend to play it safe and write flat, formulaic essays that are as tedious to read. Search inside of yourself for the story, passion or perspective that a complete stranger just has to know to grasp the essence of you. You will know you have found it when you feel great energy behind it…and that committing it to paper makes you feel a bit vulnerable. If writing about it feels a bit risky, then you are most likely on the right track. At the same time, don’t wade into political, religious or moral waters that might put off a reader who has different beliefs.
5. Write Your Embarrassing Emergency Essay
One of the biggest obstacles to finishing a college essay is…finishing a college essay. As silly and circular as this sounds, I have found in my own writing that completing a draft of an article, essay or even book brings a huge sense of relief. The pressure off, my mind relaxes and is able to refocus on the task at hand. As a writer, I have found that pressure can be a double-edged sword. While in some situations it can bring out the best in me, it can also cause me to leave the best out of my writing.
Worried more about whether or not I will meet a deadline, I seem to forget to write what is most unique and compelling. Finishing a draft frees me to focus on process rather than the product.
So with this in mind, I often recommend that students write an embarrassing, emergency first draft in one sitting. Most students are used to working under pressure and having timed writing assignments, so I task them with churning out a personal essay in two hours. Sometimes I even let them sit in my office and write it, as the added structure helps them to not chicken out. I have them turn off spelling and grammar check so as to not have anything that will slow them down in terms of producing a draft. I also have them turn off their phones. I ask them to work and write forward, by which I mean not going back to delete or revise their work until they have completed the entire draft.
Some students prefer to use paper to prevent them from the easy deleting that computers make possible. The point is to write fast and with feeling, and not worry about the words behind you. Trust the process, and keep putting one word after another until you are done. It is not easy, but finishing a draft brings with it a huge sense of accomplishment and relief.
Before writing their emergency essay, I ask students to have given some thought about what they want to lead with in terms of the narrative, as well as having a good sense of what makes for a strong essay. Don’t worry about word count, because the point is not to produce the essay that will get you into college but rather an essay that will have the seeds of a strong essay in it and take enough pressure off so one can write it.
Following these five tips should set you up to craft a compelling college essay. While there is no precise formula for a strong college essay, there is a formula for putting yourself in the position to write one. Giving yourself adequate time, assembling a team, scouting the essay and yourself and doing a practice run will increase your chances of successfully summiting Mount College Essay. I wish you good luck in your ascent. Keep in mind, though, that much like in mountaineering the point is to put in the work beforehand to minimize your reliance on luck.