College Admissions Essays

The college admissions essay: it looms like a mountain amid the little hills of tasks that make up the school application landscape. Part of the reason that the essays feel like such a big deal is that they're really different in spirit from all the other application tasks.


Switching gears

Every other aspect of applying to college is really an organizational project: sending SAT or ACT scores to proper college codes, making sure teachers have recommendation forms, keeping your FAFSA pin number safe. These all use the part of your brain that's made up of lists and check marks. Then comes the essay. All of a sudden you're required to switch gears and contemplate yourself in depth. It can feel intimidating, because the list-and-check mark side of your brain has nothing to offer. If you embrace the switch in mindset, though, it can actually be an oasis in a hectic time.


Who are you? What makes you different from every other applicant?

That's essentially what the college admissions essays are trying to find out. So, stop and think for a while. You know you have special elements that make you different from your friends and classmates. What are those elements? This is an opportunity for you to really dig into yourself and your experiences, and reflect on what sets you apart from everyone else. Talking with others  about what makes you unique can sometimes help you think it through.


New Writing Prompts on the Common Application

The Common Application has recently changed all of its writing prompts, in time for the 2013-2014 application season. The new ones are much more clearly focused on the basic mystery of who you are. You will now have to choose one of the following five topics, and you can write up to 650 words on it:


Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

In previous years, the writing prompts included one free choice topic. This option has disappeared, but the new first question more or less allows you the same freedom.


Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

This is a question you'll encounter again and again in years ahead, since it's a fixture in job interviews. It's a good reminder that in college admissions essays it's not necessary to pretend you're failure-proof.


Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Again, this invites you to express opinions and beliefs. In the admissions essay, you are allowed to be reflective, religious, rebellious, etc.


Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

With these new questions, they are clearly seeking to find out what's below your day-to-day surface layer. These questions are inviting you to express your spiritual side, the part of you which grapples with matters of meaning and morality and self-awareness.


Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In a way, this one is asking about who you are in a larger context: what is the social web you have grown up in, who are the people who have formed your identity? Also, it is asking you to talk about a success and potentially demonstrate leadership.


Why this college in particular?

Finally, many individual college application forms will ask you to tell them why you want to attend their particular college. Even if your real reason for applying is that they cost less, or they're near your favorite beach, don't say that. Do some homework for this question. Do your research on the school and show your enthusiasm and desire to go there. Being too generic won't work, as they'll get a ton of applicants saying the same thing. For example, even if you don't know yet what you want to major in, focus on the subject that interests you the most and dig around on the college's website. Find out what research is going on at the school that seems appealing, and write about how it would excite you to work in that department.

Lastly: do we need to say it? Make your essay grammatically perfect. Run spell-check, but don't stop there. Proof-read and edit the heck out of it, and then ask your counselor and even your English teacher to do a second and third read-through. Check out our article on editing tips and tricks while you're at it. Then, when it's perfect, just trust that you've given the colleges the clearest possible window into who you are — and click "Submit".


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