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5 Tips For Writing About Thinking in Your College Essay

by Story2 Guest Author, on Sep 8, 2016 4:50:04 PM


I had been a college instructor for all of one week when a student turned in a paper copied straight off the internet. I still remember Googling her first sentence, late at night at my desk in my little grad-student apartment, and finding an exact match on a government website. My stomach flipped, my face grew hot…If I reported her, the punishment for plagiarism was expulsion. Was I ready to expose Jessie, the funky girl with piercings and jet-black hair whose saucy class contributions I had grown to love in just a few short days?  

The next day, I called her over after class.

 “Did you write this?” I asked, handing her paper to her.

I expected her to become apologetic and beg for my forgiveness. Instead, she glared at me. “I guess I’m not going to stand here and tell you I did.”

We locked eyes—mine puffy from a night of worrying, hers defiant and lined thickly in sparkly black--and I considered my choice. How should I weigh my promise to uphold the university’s rules against one girl’s future? Did it matter that she wasn’t apologizing, or did that just show she needed my help even more? Was it even right for a university to have a zero-tolerance policy, when freshmen came to college with such varied experience and preparation for the heavy workload? If I disagreed with the rule, did that make me more justified in breaking it? How could I do “the right thing” when I wasn’t sure what “the right thing” was?  

What’s important about this story is not necessarily the decision I ultimately made, but how I reached it: The thinking and questioning that led me to take the action I did.

College admissions readers want to see the defining moments that shape and reveal who you are. They want to be drawn into your life with vivid, action-based scenes. They also hope to get a glimpse into your intellectual perspective: How you think, process, weigh, and grapple with big ideas and difficult decisions.

Writing about thinking presents a special challenge in the college essay. How do you capture thought in a way that keeps the reader in the moment with you? How do you write a process that is invisible, one that takes place in your head? How do you display thought authentically and honestly, avoiding cliché and easy solutions?

This is one of the most common hurdles students face in their college essays. Here are five tips for approaching the challenge:   

  • Make sure the thoughts you capture connect to action. We should be able to see the results of your thinking “out in the world.” Readers want to know that you do more than think--you make a difference. Share how you applied your thinking into real action.
  • Resist the temptation to simplify a situation. Embrace uncertainty. Show that you possess genuine humility about yourself in relation to all that you don't know. The thoughts you explore may still be unresolved, uncomfortable, and in flux--that’s not just okay, it’s interesting. 
  • Consider the power of questions versus statements. You don’t need to come to a definite conclusion in your essay. How you think is much more important than what you think.  Similar to our advice for the Common App prompt #2, no tidy morals are needed to make the human connection with your audience.
  • Avoid cliché phrases like “I thought,” “I wondered,” and “I believed.” It’s your story, so readers know you’re the one doing the thinking. Instead, dive right into the thoughts directly.

I did end up giving Jessie another chance on that day, many years ago now. And honestly, I’m still not sure if I did the right thing. But I hope that the way I thought through this decision reveals my values, my compassion, and my desire, no matter how complicated the situation, to make the best choices I can.


Written by Alexis Schaitkin

Alexis Schaitkin is an Admissions Consultant for Story2. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Southern Review, and numerous other publications.

Topics:college admission