On Writing That Darn Essay!


On Writing That Darn Essay!

Emily McDowell
Associate Director of College Counseling
The Williston Northampton School

Why is it so hard to sit down at a computer and write the dreaded college essay?  In a world of social-media-driven culture and 140 word-count-maximum postings, many students are terrified to write a two page essay because it is so daunting in nature.  Here are some tips and tricks that have helped students uncover the ease of telling a 650 word story about themselves.

First, some advice on essay topics with the potential to fall flat or raise “red flags:”

            God/Religion – possibly too sensitive and potentially too divisive
            The Big Game – possibly too cliché
            Uncle/Aunt/Coach/best friend – possibly too biographical about someone else
            Very personal details – possibly TMI
            That ONE thing you do – possibly too repetitive relative to the rest of your application 

Now that we know what to avoid, what should we write about?

Answer: anything!  Any college admissions person will tell you, it’s not what you write about, it’s how you write.  You are to share a story, tell something about yourself that, ideally, the reader won't know or will only know a little about.  

A little imagination is required to begin:  Picture the person who is sitting down to read your application.  Are they 20-something, brand new to the profession and eager to dive into your story with rose-colored glasses?  Or, are they a 20-year seasoned-veteran who can practically read the files in their sleep and have probably read every essay known to man?  Will it be the person who you met at a college fair or who came to visit your school?  Or, is it a complete and utter stranger?  

Now, picture them reading your transcript, maybe looking at your test scores, reading teacher recommendations and your counselor’s recommendation. They read your address, your school, and your list of activities.  So-far, so-good.  But what is it that they are missing?  Do they have a sense of your heart and soul?  Do they know about your terrific commitment to something important to you?  Do they feel your sense of humor? 

The essay is the one component that will reflect the “you of the here-and-now.”  You can uncover what you want to share by going through a few exercises. These are designed to help wrap your head around a place to start.  

1.  Backwards-By-Design

Think of the person reading your file.  When they are finished reading your essay, they write down a few sentences.  “(your name) is ___________, ___________, and ____________.”  What do you want those adjectives to be?  What story can you tell that will help that person land on those descriptors?

2.  Grandma/Mom’s favorite story

If your grandma runs into an old friend in the grocery store and they inquire how you are doing, what is the quintessential story about you that Grandma will inevitably share?  How about Mom or Dad?  What qualities about you do they share with total strangers?

3.  The Little Things…

If you had a great experience (job, internship, trip) don’t tell a beginning-middle-end version of the story - it gets too long and there is often too much to tell.  Instead, hone in on one detail, one day, or one moment, even.  Give the reader a solid example of your writing skills, while telling a tale of a moving time in your life. 

There should be some little ideas swirling around by now.  The next step is to write.  Don’t think too hard, don’t start with the intro, simply type. Ignore the word count and just tell the story!  When you are finished, share it with your parent, a teacher, and, most importantly, your college advisor.  


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