Of all the components of the college application, the essay is perhaps the one that causes the most dread – more even than the standardized tests, which at least are over after 4 hours. You keep hearing how important the essay is, and what a difference it can make. You are supposed to come up with a miraculous 650 words that will magically open the gates to your dream school. No wonder you are terrified.
Let's first clarify what a college application can and cannot do for you. No essay, however brilliant, is going to get you into a school if you are not academically qualified to go there. The role of the essay is to differentiate you from candidates with similar academic credentials. What the essay is supposed to do is bring your application to life – show the admissions officer the living, breathing teenager behind those grades and scores and activities.
You have to remember that a college is a residential community. The people reading your application want to know what kind of a person is going to come and live on their campus for four years if they accept you. What will you contribute, and how will you fit in? A good essay will help them to imagine you on their campus. What kind of classmate and roommate will you be? What do you care about? Do you learn from your mistakes? Can you laugh at yourself? What experiences have shaped you, and how do you see the world? One of the great things about going to college is the peers you will meet. What kind of a peer will you be? In short, your grades and scores will tell them if you can do the work. Your essay will help them decide if they like you.
The first thing you have to understand about the college essay is that it is personal and informal. What you need to do is reveal something important about who you are. To do that you have to willing to take a little bit of a risk. Choose a little slice of your life, and allow the reader to enter your world, and see things the way you see them. To do that successfully you have to focus on something specific. How can you tell them the story of your life in 650 words? You can't. Don't try. Instead, think about your most positive attributes. Are you kind, adventurous, logical, calm in a crisis, adaptable, funny, resourceful? Pick one of your best qualities and think of some times that quality was manifested or challenged. Find an anecdote from your life (your recent life is best- something from your high school years.)
The idea is to mine your life for meaningful stories – stories that show something essential about you. Using a story to illustrate something is a powerful tool. Stories help us connect to other people – it is the way we get to know each other. We don't say to somebody we just met and are interested in getting to know "Sports have taught me some important lessons about life." You tell them about the time the bus broke down on the way to a tournament, or the fishing trip you take each year with your Dad and your uncles. Once you have a story you want to tell, focus even more closely. If you decide to write about a community service project, choose a moment within that experience that was pivotal in some way. A moment when your perspective shifted or you learned something about yourself. Don't go for broad generalities; dig deep into the story, and show the reader all the little details. Where were you, who were you with, what did you see and hear and taste and smell. You have heard it before, show, don't tell. If you were on a trip to France, don't talk in generalities about getting to know another culture. Describe a meal with your host family, and the first time you were able to participate in the good natured teasing that went on around their table.
Mundane topics are best here: feeding the cat, washing the car, walking to practice, working a cash register, driving between your mom's house and your dad's house. Don't look for some grand accomplishment to brag about. The rest of your application gives you plenty of opportunity for bragging. An ordinary experience told in enough detail that it becomes your unique story is what you are looking for. Remember, you want them to like you. Did bragging ever make you like anybody?
After the showing, you need to do some telling. You need to make it clear why you are telling this story, and why it matters. Reflect on your experience. A small insight, thoughtfully described is what you are after, not some grand epiphany – just a little nudge that helped you see something you never saw before. Don't overdo it. You are seventeen. Nobody expects you to be a sage. Don't expect the first draft to be good. Allow yourself to write badly at first, just to figure out what you have to say. Then rewrite it until you are happy with it. You need to sound like you are seventeen. Telling your story in your own authentic voice is vitally important; write in your own voice, the way you speak. Imagine you are talking to an adult that you like. Definitely have someone look it over and check it for grammar and spelling errors. Ask them if you got the point across, and if it sounds like you. But don't let a well-meaning adult scrub the voice out of your writing and make it sound adult and polished. If it doesn't sound like you it is not going to work. Read it out loud. Make sure it is you. At the end of the day there are no rules. Just tell your own story in your voice.