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Starting Great College Application Essays

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jun 24, 2013 9:58:00 AM

Summer is here and, if you are a rising senior, it’s time to get started on your application essays. I recently led a panel at the New York State Association of College Admissions Counselors (NYSACAC) annual conference at Canisius College. Over and over the admissions officers who read your college applications said,

“Most students just don’t spend enough time on their essays.”

You can always tell when it’s rushed at the last minute; there are just stupid mistakes that could have been avoided.”

“Often the essays are just not that interesting.”

Think about it: the essays are the one place where people pay attention to you and your dreams. If the reader notices something--maybe just a quirky detail or unusual turn of phrase--they slow down and take time to read more. They look back at other parts of your application and imagine what you are like as a person and who you will be on their campus.

The best essay in the world is unlikely to get you admitted to a place where you are not academically qualified, but there are hundreds of cases every day of the admissions cycle when--from a sea of candidates who are all highly qualified, who all have strong grades, standardized test scores and extracurricular leadership--the person with the most compelling essay is selected for admission.   

If great essays are so important--and you know they are; everyone has told you this again and again--why do students put them off until the last minute? It’s not so easy to write about yourself in a way that is honest and vulnerable, but still sounds balanced and inviting to many different types of readers.

Here are 5 tips to light a fire under your application essays today, so when the fall application season arrives you will be all set:

1. Knowledge is power: Go to the Common App web site and read the new Common App essay prompts. The questions and format are new; get more info in our Guide to the Common Application.  

2. Don’t do it alone: Since the role of the essays is to reveal your character, you are not competing with your friends. Pull a small group of friends together for motivation and encourage each other!

3. You define the task: If you tell yourself “This is hard, this is awful, I just want to get this done,” your essays are likely to be dull and generic. So instead why don’t you try, “Here’s a chance to learn new things about myself. Game on!”

4. Try all of them: It’s hard to know which of the 5 new Common App Essay prompts is best for you until you’ve tried them. How about one a day and in a week you’ll have 5 drafts under your belt?

5. Take pictures: You want your essays to be brimming with specific details. Get your storytelling engines going by taking pictures and writing down, very specifically, what you see.

Ready to get started? To download the FREE Guide to the Common App.

Topics:college admission